This is the last in a series on Dr Who, the previous was about watching the black & white era
In the previous post I referred to a rewatch of the classic 1963-89 series roughly over 2013-2020, so in lockdown in 2020 I was near the end of it (a few had to wait until I was going back into the city again to visit Galactic Video). I find myself wishing there was more classic Dr Who, and at some point realised that there was. I can’t really remember how I came across Big Finish audios, I definitely had seen the common notion that Colin Baker’s doctor was much better realised in audio than TV, and was aware that Paul McGann had done more stuff but I feel like I wasn’t really aware of that much of it, I probably had the impression that there’d been a few series here and there, it was just something I’d completely missed. So, casting around for some more Dr Who I ended up looking at what was out there, and I think it was really The Times Scales where I got the full idea of just how much there was. I was shocked at the shear amount of material they’d produced, but also the wide range, all of the classic doctors, most of their companions, plus various doctors and other companions from the new series. All easily available by download (so very lockdown friendly). So I started investigating.
I quickly found that I really liked it. At times they did a fantastic job of recreating various eras of the original series, the type of story, the tone, the music etc, but then at other times they pushed in new directions. They somehow negotiate the complicated continuity of a 50 year old show with respect but without getting bogged down in it. They add new dimensions to old characters in ways that complement their original appearances. The audio format has its limitations – for example people have to describe the monsters which is not always an entirely natural fit into the dialogue, but they are also freed up from TV budgets and the constraints of visual depiction. The actors can play their younger selves, but also they have provided many opportunities for them to play their characters at older ages as well. The companions weren’t always given good material to work with on TV, but have been treated excellently in audio.
I’ve watched over 100 stories, but still have only just touched on the vast amount of work they have produced in just over 20 years, I’ve taken a fairly random route through it, sampling various series. There are lots of recommendations out there, like “before you watch Z you have to watch A,B,C, …” and these can be sensible and useful, but can also go to far. Do you really need to see a companion’s introduction before seeing any of their episodes? Sometimes it can be fun to go back and see where they met the Doctor for the first time when you are already familiar with them, that’s what it used to be like watching TV before you could see things on demand, though on the other hand, there are certainly threads that benefit from an order, and I’ve got a few of them wrong in my viewing. Anyway, from my relatively small sample here is a selection of favourites. Definitely not an all time top ten because I’m still yet to see many highly rated stories.
- Spare Parts (Monthly Adventures) – An early entry in the monthly range, this one with the 5th doctor, and one which makes regular appearances in “Best of Big Finish” lists. A short description might be like Genesis of the Daleks but for Cybermen. It relates very closely to the first Cybermen appearance on TV, The Tenth Planet from 1966. I’ve always found that story to be a bit mixed, they brought on board Dr Kit Pedler as science advisor, yet I find most of the ideas around the planet Mondas to be a bit rubbish, on the other hand the concept of the Cybermen is excellent, and the body horror aspects of the early Cybermen get a bit lost in the original series as both in design and behaviour they come to more closely resemble robots. In exploring their origins, this story brings back what was strong about them in the start but also deals with the whole Mondas issue in a way that I find works – often Big Finish do this, take an aspect of the original series I’m not too keen on and make it work (I’ve yet to listen to the Gallifrey series but I am curious to see what they can salvage from the whole “Leela stays on Gallifrey to marry Andred” debacle). Spare Parts is not just a nice complement to the Tenth Planet though, it is a very well told and interesting story with great material for both Peter Davison’s Doctor and his companion Nyssa. Would be a top starting point for entry into Big Finish.
- The Fearmonger (Monthly Adventures)– An even earlier monthly range one with the seventh doctor and Ace. Whilst some write off the late 80’s for some of us who were watching at the end the show was heading in a good direction, the last couple of series has plenty of great stuff and it was a shame that the adventures of the seventh doctor and Ace ended so abruptly, so it’s a pleasure to hear them resume again here. This one really stands out as something that could be written quite recently rather than 20 years ago, with the sort of timeless appeal that great sci fi can have, set in a paranoid Britain with society fracturing and the populist right on the rise.
- The Girl Who Never Was / The Condemned (Monthly Adventures)– These are the latest episodes I’ve listened to, they are from the Monthly Range just after it passed 100 stories, so it was well established and they decided to do something rather interesting. The Girl Who Never Was is the final story for the 8th doctor with companion Charley Pollard, who was I believe the first Big Finish original companion to be introduced back with the first 8th doctor story. It is also the last regular monthly range story with McGann as he went on to a separate series, transitioning from the 4 episode format of the classic series to 1 hour stories like the new one. The story gets off to a flying start with lots of mystery and making good use of time travel, with lots of call backs to Storm Warning, where the doctor and Charley first met (it is the only real prerequisite for this, though hearing more of the doctor and Charley together would help). I found the whole story to be quite gripping right through the 4 episodes, with the return of some old enemies half way through (which you know if you look at the cover image!) On the down side there is an over the top Australian accent which is a bit trying (and a bit of mystery to that character which wasn’t very satisfactorily resolved) but overall very enjoyable, and make sure to listen for the extra scene after the end music! The Condemned continues the Charley story with her travelling with the 6th doctor played by Colin Baker. It is a fascinating idea, and well executed for a companion to end up with an earlier doctor with lots of mystery to be resolved in my upcoming listening. On first metting the dynamic between the two of them, each standoffish and wary of the other is a lot of fun, but apart from that, it also was a good tale of the doctor getting caught up in a murder investigation and teaming up with a police officer to solve the mystery in a well paced story. There were some serious issues with the characterisation of the sixth doctor on TV, and this is something that Big Finish and Colin Baker have done a great job of fixing – he certainly is still the same doctor from TV, but with the character just tweaked in the right places to really make an improvement (he’s even got a more sensible coat now too!).
- Alien Heart / Dalek Soul (Monthly Adventures)– I’ve not listened yet to much of the later monthly series but this is one I picked up on special which I really liked. It is the second part which really stands out, but I like the first as well. Dalek Soul is a really interesting and different story with some great material for Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton, in particular I think that Nyssa often wasn’t well utilised as a character in the TV series, they just didn’t really seem to know what to do with her, so it’s good to get some good writing for her character in Big Finish. I won’t say any more because there’s some big twists I don’t want to spoil.
- Justice Of The Jalxar (Fourth Doctor Adventures) – One of my first listens to test the waters of Big Finish, and one that helped get me hooked. For a start, it was immediately just brilliant hearing Tom Baker as the doctor and Mary Tamm as Romana together again. Tamm can be a little overlooked amongst companions as she only did one season on TV, but I’ve always thought she was excellent. It gets even better with the return of Jago & Litefoot from 1977’s The Talons of Weng Chiang. Pretty much universally regarded as some of the absolute best guest characters of the whole original series, it is such a pleasure to hear Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin back in the roles and reuniting with Tom Baker’s doctor, they are just so much fun together. I’ve just recently started on the Jago & Litefoot spinoff series too and it’s great.
- The Rocket Men (Companion Chronicles) – this is from the Companion Chronicles series, which is a bit closer to an audiobook in style than a full cast drama, typically there is one main character narrating as well as doing lines for their own character, the doctor and other companions, as well as one or two guest characters. This one is narrated by William Russell as Ian Chesterton, who was one of the original cast from 1963-65. As well as being fantastic to hear him playing Ian again, it is a masterfully written story which is told in a very clever out of order sequence that gradually reveals various twists and turns, as well as providing further depth to the character of Ian and his relationship with Barbara.
- The Sontarans (Early Adventures)– Part of the Early Adventures series, which has the actors who played companions in the black and white era of the show narrating stories in similar style to the companion chronicles. This one features both Peter Purves as Steven and Jean Marsh as Sara Kingdom, and is set in the time period in the middle of the epic TV serial The Dalek’s Masterplan where is it implied that the doctor travels for some time with Steven and Sara in untelevised adventures. The idea to meet the Sontarans is a good one, when they first turn up in the TV series the doctor is already familiar with them so he must have met them sometime. This is done very much in the style of the era (note the title The Sontarans is a very plausible one for a 60’s story introducing them, much like The Daleks) and is a really fun and imaginative adventure. It was my first exposure to the narrated style, and initially Purves doing the doctor’s voice was a little weird to me, but I found that I very rapidly got used to it.
- UNIT Dating (Stranded)– The Stranded series is the current 8th doctor series and is one of a string of 4 box set collections. It’s currently half way through and I’ve really enjoyed all of it. It does follow directly from the previous one, Ravenous, which itself followed from earlier ones but actually I just jumped in with Ravenous and got through it without too much confusion, I think the same could be done with Stranded. It’s very interesting in that unlike some series where they very successfully match certain eras of the classic show, this ones really does something quite new and different. In having the doctor stranded in contemporary Earth it does have some echoes of the early 70’s UNIT era, but whereas there the doctor slotted straight in to work for UNIT and got on with thwarting alien invasions, here there is much more consideration given to the difficulties of the Dr and his companions – one a Londoner but from the 1960’s and the other a human from an Earth colony in the distant future – in dealing with life stranded in modern day London. Plus there is a great extended supporting cast of characters who have been developing in all sorts of fascinating ways across the stories in the set. It has a very different, modern feel, but still very much being Dr Who. Plus Tom Baker turns up as the Curator, something which in advance I wouldn’t have thought a good idea – his appearance in Day of the Doctor was perfect and I thought it best for the Curator to remain an enigma, but as soon as he turns up in Stranded I immediately changed my mind and was happy for more of him! As I say, I’ve very much enjoyed all of it, but one of the last ones so far was UNIT Dating which was a real standout in delving into some of the characters’ past connections with the doctor and an appearance by the Brigadier and some very strong emotional moments.
- The Good Master (The War Master)– I first encountered Derek Jacobi’s War Master in audio in the brilliant Day of the Master in the 8th doctor Ravenous set (which has another good example of Big Finish taking something I’m not that keen on in the original series – Eric Roberts as the Master, and making it something I enjoy), and followed up with the first set of the spinoff series The War Master. This is the first episode but the whole set is great. I particular like his introduction here, whereas too often the Master is turned into too much of a cartoonish supervillain, here he much more subtle, the parallels with the doctor are made explicit, there’s times where it almost could be an incarnation of the doctor until key moments where the evil of the master is revealed. Of course Jacobi is brilliant in the role as well.
- Toos and Poul (The Robots) – This is from the second series of The Robots, a spinoff set on Kaldor, where the robots from the 1977 story Robots of Death come from. The protagonist is Liv Chenka, companion of the 8th doctor, who takes a year out from the Tardis in the midst of the Ravenous boxset, but I think that you could easily just jump into The Robots without anything else in advance. It’s interesting to see how they go in a series without the Doctor (of which there are quite a few) and they do an excellent job at a standalone sci-fi series that gradually develops and explores issues around robotics and AI. Also as 70’s Dr Who fans will recall, the robots in Robots of Death were awesome, and they still are in audio. This episode Toos and Poul sees the return of Toos (Pamela Salem) and Poul (David Collings) from Robots of Death (which I think isn’t too much of a spoiler since it’s in the episode name) and I was genuinely surprised at how exciting it was to have these one off characters from 1977 turn up again, I was already a fan of The Robots but this took it up a gear for me. I look forward to getting on to series three soon.