Review by Cavan Gilbey
The final Big Finish release of 2022 is upon us; the latest entry in the Paul Spragg memorial competition. This yearly event has gifted us with some genuinely fantastic talent, each and every story does feel genuinely fresh and new so it’s great to see that tradition is being upheld by The World Tree from Nick Slawicz. This story has a lot of DNA in common with stories like Landbound or The Last Day at Work where the primary story is all about how a single person has their life shifted by a meeting with the Doctor. The Doctor in question is Eleven, who I think Big Finish have done excellent work with this year as Geronimo was a real highlight. The World Tree further shows how Big Finish really want to push the limits of the stories you can tell with this Doctor, and Slawicz story is successful at demonstrating the depths of Eleven’s character.
A tree grows at the bottom of Nora’s garden, it wasn’t there last time she checked. Soon a mysterious Doctor is asking for a house call, he seems to know her but Nora has never met this man in her life. Surely she’d remember a visitor as odd as the Doctor, especially when he’s claiming the tree is from another planet and that she is trapped inside of a time loop.
From the get go I knew something tragic was going to come of Nora, but what Slawicz has written is a really heart wrenching human tragedy. A tragedy where there is no cure, no way of knowing what’s going to happen next. The story deals with the subject of Alzheimer’s and dementia, which for many will be a hard topic to hear stories about so those who are sensitive to these subjects should be aware of that going in. Slawicz’s sensitivity towards Nora and her state of mind is exceptionally written, the final moments of the story in particular have poignant twinge as there this is acceptance that maybe things won’t get better, that they won’t improve and her memory will keep slipping. The mention of her husband Ernie throughout the story helps reinforce how much Nora has to lose from the disease but also how she bravely keeps trying to fight it to get better, it shows that even with age people won’t give up on what they love.
The use of the time-loop mechanic also plays into this recurring theme of memory. Nora doesn’t remember the Doctor from the thousands of time’s he’s visited before, which is why the tree has failed to have been moved to a collection where it can be looked after. Nora develops an interesting motherly relationship with it, refusing to leave it alone because nothing and no-one should have to suffer alone. Hearing her stand up to the Doctor is really rousing moment because you get the sense that this is Nora at her best and that she feels like a whole again, finally having a cause to stand for and fight for. It’s a brief moment of really bright optimism in a story that is otherwise somewhat bleak with its thematic material.
Narrator Lisa Bowerman does a brilliant job here. She’s a veteran at voice acting at this point so its probably easier to list the very few things she can’t do as a performer. Her voice for Eleven really captures his youthfulness, the bright intelligence that Matt Smith brought to the role is right there and Bowerman also manages to bring in that gentle and very caring tone Smith used in stories like this. But that more aged persona, which came out especially during Series 7, is also present and allows Bowerman to capture the maturity of Eleven when he has to face issues of mortality. Her performance as Nora is also brilliant, getting the feeling of age and fatigue down perfectly as well as the defiance against all odds mentality Nora adopts in the later moments.
Its very hard to not call The World Tree my favourite of the competition submissions, as much as I have loved the thematic and emotional cores of the other entries I don’t think they have quite hit me as hard as Slawicz’s script has. A mature and measured study of how people live with something as terrifying as a memory disease but always finds a moment to celebrate the defiance and strength that the people who suffer from them have. This could have cost a hundred quid and It would have been worth it, luckily its free so please go and give this a listen as soon as possible.
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