Hi there. This is an article for those of you who haven’t really explored Big Finish or Doctor Who on audio before and want to know what treasures are to be found when you eventually give it a go. Remember this is all purely subjective but hopefully this will give you an idea of what I found when I began on my Big Finish adventure and if you half as much fun it will be worthwhile.
Where to listen?
I’ve heard a lot people say that they have had trouble listening to audio dramas because there isn’t a visual hook and whilst that is a valid argument there are so many instances when sticking on a Big Finish CD can pass the time very agreeably. I have listened to stories on monotonous car journeys, long walks, long flights on a plane, stuck a family occasion (although you have to be sneaky not to be noticed…), whilst I’m exercising (in fact Big Finish helped me to shed three and half stone since Christmas so thanks for that!) and that time before I’m asleep and I’m tucked up in bed thinking ‘what now?’ Now don’t get me wrong I thoroughly enjoy listening to Big Finish audios and have no trouble visualising the adventures myself but these examples are just a few when audio drama is in fact a far more malleable form entertainment than the television because you simply cannot lug the TV around with you like you can and IPod! Audio drama may not be for you and that’s fair enough but I would at least suggest you give the top polling stories a chance (head over the The Time Scales, an excellent Big Finish polling site for the stats) because they are some of best Doctor Who stories around.
Innovating the television characters
The Fifth Doctor –Given a new lease of life on audio, Peter Davison is finally freed from the shackles of Eric Saward’s script editing and given a chance to breathe with a companion who actually likes him! Peter Davison barely bothers to inject that youthful naiveté into his Doctor anymore and instead plays him at the age he perhaps originally should, as a slightly crabby but gentle and unassuming old man who is enjoying his time roaming around the universe. He develops a particularly strong relationship with Nyssa (to a point where you might actually question that there are romantic feelings there) and enjoys a riotous domestic life with his two young ‘daughters’ Peri and Erimem. Squeezing so many stories into that gap between Planet of Fire and Caves of Androzani might not be possible but it does confirm that the wise old Doctor and the youthful American student would have made a great pairing for a longer period. His best stories see him at his heroic best (Loups-Garoux, The Son of the Dragon) and when he faces a terrible adversity that he can barely comprehend (Creatures of Beauty, Spare Parts) and he has shown a surprising flair for comedy too (The Kingmaker, Castle of Fear).
The Sixth Doctor - I cannot believe Big Finish are still managing to milk old Sixie for fascinating character insights. After a decade worth of releases he is still the superior audio Doctor and is still managing to surprise me. I have always been a fan of Colin Baker’s Doctor - I am not one of those people who was appalled by his violent streak and acidic nature on the TV. Actually I found it a refreshing return to a Doctor I could believe in after three seasons of the fifth Doctor being awfully nice to everybody. However I wont deny that Big Finish have managed to take a controversial character (and wronged actor) and managed to mould him into something far more appealing to the masses and less abrasive, more approachable. Maybe he lost a little of his edge but considering he went from the bottom of most peoples ‘best Doctor’s’ poll to the very top in some cases prove how successful this transition has been. His stories are a constant highlight of the Big Finish schedule and his performances are simple sensational throughout. He was verging on being my favourite before Big Finish came along but afterwards it sealed the deal. His best stories are hard to name because there are so many but the absolute finest include The Holy Terror, Dr Who and the Pirates, Jubilee, Davros, The Wormery, Arrangements for War, The Raincloud Man, Patient Zero, Legend of the Cybermen, The Feast of Axos and The Curse of Davros.
The Seventh Doctor – My mother always told me if you’re not going to say something nice don’t say anything at al. Obviously I never listened to that advice and yet I still have some very nice things to say about Sylvester McCoy’s audio interpretation of the seventh Doctor. I wont lie, things got off to a pretty shaky start with some inconsistent performances ranging from average (Dust Breeding) to the downright bad (The Rapture, Unregenerate, The Dark Husband). But it would seem in his take over Nick Briggs has decided to rejuvenate the character and he has succeeded by splitting his stories between solo seventh Doctor stories (without companions he is utterly beguiling) and stories with Ace and Hex (which with two solid trilogies behind them are currently one of the best loved Big Finish teams). Its almost as if somebody sat McCoy down and told he had to try harder and come stories such as A Thousand Tiny Wings he is giving his best ever performances in the role. Go figure. Check him out in The Fires of Vulcan, The Fearmonger, LIVE 34, The Architects of History, A Death in the Family & Robophobia for this eccentric little fellow at his best.
The Eighth Doctor – A massive draw for Big Finish was in convincing Paul McGann to return to the role after the aborted series following the TV Movie. This was a very exciting time because this was the one Doctor that we could genuinely say hadn’t had any time to evolve and he hits the ground running in Storm Warning proving what a breathless romantic he would have been. His relationship with Charley was much lauded during their first two seasons together and climaxed on a fantastic cliffhanger in Neverland, one of the most popular eighth Doctor stories. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse after that and the Divergent Universe is possibly the only time when Big Finish could have said to have jumped the shark. Suddenly the eighth Doctor was unlikable, Charley had become an angst ridden hang along and he was stuck in a dead end universe with little of interest. Things did get better once he left the Divergents behind but it wasn’t until the advent of his own range that the eighth Doctor truly found his feet again. Paired up with Lucie Miller, enjoying snappy hour long stories and some lovely story arcs – suddenly the eighth Doctor was the one to watch again. Throughout Paul McGann has given a respectably diverse number of performances and proven what a great choice he was. His best includes The Stones of Venice, The Chimes of Midnight, Neverland, The Natural History of Fear, The Girl Who Never Was, Human Resources, Orbis, Death in Blackpool, To the Death & The Silver Turk.
Susan – Susan has appeared in several of the companion chronicles where her relationship with her Grandfather has been explored (Here There Be Monsters). Where the real gold lies however is her reunion with the Doctor 7 regenerations down the line when he is in eighth regeneration (An Earthly Child). David has died and Susan has a son called Alex and has a lot of questions about being left behind. They share several adventures together where they get to explore how they feel about each other so many years after they parted and enjoy Christmas festivities (Relative Dimensions) and suffer tragedy (To the Death). Older Susan is more assertive, resourceful and a joy to be around. I hope we get to see more of her.
Ian – The original regulars were some of the best, weren’t they? Ian translates so beautifully to audio and William Russell returns and gives a masterful performance each time. In the companion chronicles the focus is on his feelings towards Barbara and it is hinted upon beautifully in The Transit of Venus before him finally coming to terms with it in The Rocket Men. Ian has also popped up in a blistering Lost Story, Farewell Great Macedon where Russell shares the narration with Carole Ann Ford and John Dorney and listening you will absolutely be transported back to a time when Ian was the protector of the ladies and butting heads with the Doctor.
Vicki – We get to meet an older Vicki and discover what happened to her after The Myth Makers in the very first companion chronicle.
Steven – One of the highlights of the companion chronicle range is that it allows Steven to shine like never before and gives Peter Purves a chance to prove what a splendid actor he is. Simon Guerrier champions this character and uses the dramatic weight of the Daleks’ Masterplan conclusion to kick-start a trilogy of adventures that sees the Doctor and attempting to heal from all the losses they have suffered. They gain a new friend in Oliver Harper and for a time this the rarest of things – an all male TARDIS crew. I realised just how many female companions Steven travelled over the course of the chronicles because we get to enjoy adventures when he is travelling with Vicki (The Suffering), Sara Kingdom (a thrilling trilogy of stories – Home Truths, The Drowned World & Guardian of the Solar System) and a gorgeous historical with Dodo (Mother Russia). Of the companions featured in this range I would say Steven has been given the most consistently excellent material and has leapt from the range an even stronger character than before.
Sara – Who would have thought there was such mileage in this companion that barely spanned the length of a story? With Jean Marsh on disquieting form, Simon Guerrier writing a trilogy of thematically linked adventures that progress into something very special and a general feeling of what we missed out because she did die this is a character that Big Finish have done a massive service to.
Polly – Often forgotten because much of her material is missing, Polly (and Ben) are some of my favourites because they brought such a freshness to the show. It was a time when fighting monsters was more important than character development so Big Finish step in a provide some much needed backstory for the character (Resistance) and recapture the wonderful chemistry between the actors at this time (especially in The Forbidden Time which is equally impressive since Anneke Wills is playing most of the parts!).
Jamie – If you don’t want to explore far into Big Finish then I beg of you to at least listen to one of Frazer Hines readings and how perfectly he captures Troughton’s voice and style of acting. It’s uncanny and could only come from a man who had great affection and love for him. We’ve had some dreary Jamie chronicles (Helicon Prime) and some riveting ones (The Glorious Revolution) and whilst there isn’t a great deal to explore during his time (the outrageously camp Prison in Space reveals that) it would appear there is some dramatic mileage in looking at his life after he left the Doctor. Such a thread was picked up in the main range for a trilogy of stories which takes an older Jamie who only has the memories the Time Lords left him with who travels with the sixth Doctor who claims to know him intimately. It’s an excellent trilogy that builds to a great climax but perhaps the fate of Jamie might not be what fans hoped for. We’ll see – check it out and judge for yourself.
Victoria – There’s been very little of Victoria bar the chronicle The Great Space Elevator which was fun but dispensable. If you want to hear Deborah Watling in a mildly villainous role then listen to Three’s a Crowd.
Zoe – For a long while Zoe was the poison chalice when it came the companion chronicles with two pretty forgettable tales (Fear of the Daleks & Echoes of Grey) but the recent release of The Memory Cheats has turned that all around. Here we meet an older Zoe who is in prison and told that she used to travel in time and space. Memories of which her with her photographic recollections cannot agree with. Zoe turned up in Legend of the Cybermen too in an unusual role that might just knock you for six.
Liz – Liz Shaw is definitely a character deserved some extra time and we get to meet her after she has left the Doctor back at Cambridge and enjoy new stories during the superior season seven (The Blue Tooth, Shadow of the Past, The Sentinels of the New Dawn, Binary). It’s nice to see more of her personal life and to learn about her childhood but what really struck me was her reunion with the third Doctor.
Jo – I know Katy Manning was initially reluctant to return as Jo Grant but I’m really glad she has because she gives the sunniest performances of all the returning companions and her love for Jon Pertwee and the show shines through in every story. You could do no finer than Find and Replace, one of the very best companion chronicles, for shot of pleasing nostalgia and to see the depth of feeling between the third Doctor and Jo. Indeed with The Many Deaths of Jo Grant we discover just how far she will go for him over and over again.
Sarah – Oh my lovely Sarah, the ultimate Doctor Who companion. Fully deserving of her own series which ran for two seasons, Sarah Jane Smith returns as an older pricklier and paranoid personality. Not the Sarah we remember from the TV series but Elisabeth Sladen runs with this darker version, one who has pissed off far to many people and is constantly on the run. The variable first season led to a much stronger second year and all the David Bishop scripts are well worth seeking out because he nailed the character and the tone of the series better than anybody. Fortunately he wrote the whole of the second season! Its not Sarah Jane as you know her but if you want a completely different take on the Sarah Jane Adventures then these are well worth a try.
Leela – And we all said that Leela staying behind on Gallifrey was a joke! All hail Gary Russell who decided to set a drama on said planet and feature Leela in a pivotal role as Romana’s bodyguard. Louise Jameson sounds as if she has been put in cryogenic storage in the intervening years because her voice has barely aged, she’s still got that savage charm and childlike wonder that made Leela such a joy on television. What’s more over the course of four series of Gallifrey we get to discover the fallout of her relationship with Andred, enjoy her friendship with Romana, laugh at how she irritates the hell out of the Time Lords and cheer as her intelligence and instincts always win through. Leela has recently been reunited with Tom Baker for a series of adventures and some Lost Stories and the more of her we get the better I say. Up there with Steven for the companion with the most development.
Romana I – A surprisingly absent character from the schedules. However all that is about to change with a whole season of adventures set after the Key to Time season – if that isn’t enough to whet your appetite I don’t know what is! Her companion chronicles have pretty much been a wash out however but that is no fault of Mary Tamm who is a fine dramatic narrator.
Romana II – Oh Lalla! I could listen to Lalla Ward reading a shopping list and be entertained. She’s just a fantastic actress and she brings a great deal of charisma and almost Shakespearean gravitas to her stories. She heads up the Gallifrey range where Romana is now President of Gallifrey and trying to handle the millions of problems that throws at her. She’s also teamed up with several of the Doctors (Sixie in The Apocalypse Element, Eight in Shada) and enjoyed great chemistry with all of them. The quintessential Romana and a great draw for Big Finish.
Adric – Without giving anything away if you want to learn something unusual about Adric then check out The Boy the Time Forgot. You may not like it but it is certainly memorable!
Nyssa – There has been a wealth of Nyssa adventures travelling solo with Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor that more than supports his notion that she was the companion most suited to him. Along the way she has returned home to Traken before it was destroyed (Primeval), fallen out with the Doctor over the death of Adric (Spare Parts), been tortured (Creatures of Beauty), enjoyed a romance (Circular Time), met a twisted version of herself (The Eternal Summer) and generally stood on her own two feet with plenty to do (a failing of the TV series that gave all the good stuff to Tegan). We then catch up with Nyssa after her decision to stay on Terminus for (so far) nine adventures with Tegan and Turlough where she and the Doctor share a special, almost romantic connection. There’s no being pushed to the sidelines anymore for this girl!
Tegan – As soon as Janet Fielding agreed to resurrect the character (she held off for a long time…) we have had a wealth of material featuring everybody’s favourite Aussie (except me). Never a favourite of mine because of her depressing attitude, I have been really impressed at how much humour Big Finish have injected into the character – so much so that she is often the best aspect of the entire story! She is particularly funny in Heroes of Sontar (the end of episode one is hilarious) and her turn flirting with the guard in Hexagora left me speechless!).
Turlough – Due to Mark Strickson’s availability Turlough’s appearances have been sporadic but we have enjoyed a handful of stories where he is travelling with the Doctor solo (post Ressurection of the Daleks). Its confirmed what I always expected, that Turlough is a character with a lot of depths that we never got to explore on TV. Phantasmagoria, Loups-Garoux and Singularity are all great stories if you are a Turlough fan and give him lots to do, especially the middle story. He’s also returned along with Tegan in the fifth Doctor stories but hasn’t really made a massive impact there – certainly the story that concentrated on his past (Kiss of Death) lacked conviction.
Peri – Peri has been served extremely well by Big Finish and my appreciation for the character has improved tenfold since she started appearing in these audio adventures. Perhaps televised Who does not quite have the space between Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani to squeeze in the fifteen or so adventures the fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem had but I’m sure glad they took the risk anyway because it confirmed what we all thought all along that there was a great number of stories to be had with Davison’s Doctor and his new American assistant. The Peri/Erimem sisterly relationship was a joy to listen to because Peri was finally let off the loose allowed to be the wild sister with the crazy ideas whilst Erimem was always trying to rein her in. Then at some very dramatic junctures (one of the best also being a tale written by Nev Fountain) Erimem would reveal her darker morality and it would be Peri who was appalled. It was an interesting relationship and it was a shame it was cut short in the changeover between Gary Russell and Briggsy just as it was getting really exciting (the run of stories from The Council of Nicaea through to The Bride of Peladon was extraordinary). Not content with that we have also had a number stories featuring the sixth Doctor and Peri which for the most part have taken place between Revelation of the Daleks and Trial of a Time Lord (where there is clearly a large gap where adventures can be slotted in). With some terrific writing and a focus on the two of them working together as a team, this duo simply sing together on audio and Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a very natural chemistry that is a joy to listen to. If you honest feel that the Sixie/Peri combination doesn’t work give …ish and Recorded Time a try. Finally Big Finish also gave Peri a homecoming story where we get to meet her mum and friends and see how she doesn’t quite fit in with them anymore. The Reaping is an extraordinary tale and it left me gasping with emotion by the end. Throughout all of these tales Nicola Bryant has supported the character with breathlessly energetic, charismatic and thoroughly charming performances. Then in a moment of insane genius Big Finish decided to bring to life the missing season 23 that we never got when Doctor Who was taken off the air for 18 months and it transpired to be a spot on bridging gap showing how the relationship between Sixie and Peri mellowed in their second season. Not only that but there were absolute masterpieces (Point of Entry, Leviathan) and some real duds (The Hollows of Time, The Macros) so it felt like a real Doctor Who season. Throughout Baker and Bryant shine. Add Peri & the Piscon Paradox to her list of triumphs which is by far the script that asks the most of her but she injects it with sassiness, humour and great pathos. Of all the companions that was transplanted from the television to Big Finish I would say that Peri (by some margin) has been treated to the most development. I think she’s rather wonderful.
Mel – Another character that has shown considerable development on audio, Mel was considered something of a joke after her six stories on television and starting with Steve Lyons’ superlative Fires of Vulcan she has been treated to some excellent material that has cast a whole new light on the character. The One Doctor shows how comedy really can work on audio and Bonnie Langford is more than ready to parody her own character and she proves to be the best thing about Bang Bang a Boom!
Ace – This is one character that Big Finish went careering off in the wrong direction with and after a plethora of books and comic strips with the character I was starting to get Ace fatigue. They began by trying to get Sophie Aldred (who was clearly middle aged by now) to pretend she was sixteen again and piled on the angst (The Rapture) and the dreadful ‘oh wicked!’ behaviour (Colditz) which turned an awful lot of people off her stories. With the introduction Hex however thins have turned around and they have allowed the character to mature into a mentor for the young Scouse which is role that both the character and Sophie Aldred seem very comfortable with. Her recent turn in A Death in the Family where she gets to enjoy a tragic romance is probably Aldred’s best ever performance in the role, she’s phenomenally good.
Evelyn – Simply one of the greatest gifts that Big Finish has given us, Evelyn Smythe was the first original companion to be introduced by the audio dramas and remains one of the most popular to this day. Played by the meticulous, delightful and erudite Maggie Stables who shares gorgeous chemistry with Colin Baker, Evelyn has taken us on a roller coaster of emotions and this is the closest I imagine us ever seeing the Doctor getting to one of his companions. It’s an intellectual as well as an emotional connection that bonds them and they sometimes argue as though they were man and wife! Evelyn is a university lecturer with penchant for chocolate and a lust for something more – she’s kind and thoughtful but also has a crabby side that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of! Introduced in a historical gem (The Marian Conspiracy), Evelyn has walked through the dangers of Daleks invading Gallifrey (The Apocalypse Element), Silurians (Bloodtide), Vampires (Project Twilight), murderous pirates and the Doctor’s singing (Doctor Who and the Pirates), politics and war (Arrangements for War), Burke and Hare (Medicinal Purposes), space walking (The Feast of Axos) and she has always come out smiling! There is a saddening arc in her middle period (Pirates through Arrangements for War) where she is sickened by all the young lives that they have lost on their adventures and has to try and find a way to understand how the Doctor copes with that that allowed us to see both characters in a new light. She’s a marvel and I would welcome her return at any time. We’ve already had her departure story (Thicker than Water) and her very last story (A Death in the Family) but she was too good a companion to let go of so she pops up every now and again to show these young whippersnappers how its done. Check out Jubilee, Pirates and Arrangements for War for Evelyn at her best.
Charley - Miss Pollard comes so far from when she steps into the TARDIS in Storm Warning and leaves in Blue Forgotten Planet. An Edwardian Adventuress with a passion for travelling and saved from the Doctor from the R-101 crash, she proves to be the one of those companions that clings onto out hero for as long as possible. Whilst this might sound like a ridiculous path for a character to forge it is only when things get extremely complicated for the character (so around The Girl Who Never Was) that she has really becomes one to capture the attention in a very captivating way. Charley becomes now a fighting girl, hanging on by the tips of her fingers and tumbling into one unfortunate situation that she has talk her way out of after another with Time itself unsure what to do with her. Given how bored I was with the character during the latter McGann era this is nothing short of a miracle. I can’t think of a single instance where a companion has felt so tired and with a single revolutionary step finding myself falling in love with them again but in a whole new way. What’s even more interesting is how India Fisher’s performance adapts with a new evasive Charley and she goes on to give her strongest turns against Colin Baker. Its a barmy experiment to have her switch from the eighth Doctor to the sixth but one that has paid off. Charley had a phenomenal two seasons with McGann, an inconsistent run in the Divergent Universe and onwards with C’rizz before catapulting into sixth Doctor’s life where she went out at her peak. It’s a shame about the middle section of her time in the audios but taken as a whole Charley has been the poster child for Big Finish companions. A complicated companion whose very presence in the TARDIS is an issue, who declared her love for the Doctor and who broke a vital rule leaping into his past. For her best check out The Stones of venice, Chimes of Midnight, Neverland, Other Lives, The Condemned, The Raincloud Man, Patient Zero & Blue Forgotten Planet.
Hex – Played by the eye catching Philip Olivier, Hex is pretty much the saviour of the seventh Doctor line which was getting a bit stale until he came along like a breath of fresh air. Hex is a staff nurse at a hospital in London when he first meets the Doctor, so he’s capable to provided medical assistance when they need arises. He’s cheeky but also vulnerable, resourceful but sometimes crippled by his humanity – Hex comes across as a normal bloke in some very tough situations. There was a little run of lacklustre tales after he first joined (Dreamtime, The Dark Husband) but the recent trilogies have really opened up his character to a whole new world of hurt and Oliver has delivered some stunning performances. Check out The Settling, The Angel of Scutari & A Death in the Family for the best of Hex.
Erimem – Probably the weirdest spec for a companion yet – an ex Pharaoh of Eygpt and introduced in a deliciously dark tale that sees Erimem trying to stay alive as politicians plot around her. It’s a great match for the fifth Doctor and Peri because she pairs up with Miss Brown to taunt the Doctor and they share a sisterly bond that makes the fifth Doctor’s era feel more domestic than ever (but this time in a positive way). Her morality clashes with Peri on occasion and she would happily hurt somebody should they stand in their way, in that way there is a sense of Leela-ish savagery to the character and also in the way the Doctor is mentoring her and teaching her to read and write. For some top notch Erimem action check out Eye of the Scorpion, The Kingmaker and Son of the Dragon.
C’rizz – Given all these successes there was bound to be one failiure and for Big Finish the only character that never really took off was C’rizz. He’s an alien from another universe with huge personal issues (he killed his girlfriend) and has a taste for murder when he thinks somebody’s soul needs saving. It’s not the fault of Conrad Westmaas who struggles gamely to breathe some life into C’rizz (and sometimes he even succeeds – a true testament to his skill as an actor!) but this character turned up just when the eighth Doctor and Charley were at their peak and nobody wanted a spare part crowbarring their way into their relationship. There were some dramatic moments and his departure certainly caused a stir but on the whole he was a pretty forgettable character. However looking back he had a string of pretty good stories (from Faith Stealer all the way through to Absolution he had a better than average hit rate with only a few stinkers). Try The Last, Terra Firma and Memory Lane for some intriguing C’rizz action.
Lucie – The only character that even approaches Evelyn is Lucie Miller played by the sassy and smart Sheridan Smith. Her relationship with the eighth Doctor started off on a fractious note but over their first season they warmed to each other greatly. By the second and third season she was supremely confident, funny and clever and bringing as much to the series as the Doctor was! Her departure in Death in Blackpool is one of the few times that Doctor Who has reduced me to tears (it had a more profound effect than that but check out the review for the reason) and the two parter at the end of season four that saw her leave the series permanently still haunts me to this day. She’s a girl from Blackpool who speaks her mind and loves the Doctor through and through. Lucie’s best comes in the form of Human Resources, Grand Theft Cosmos, Death in Blackpool and To the Death.
There are some other original companions that have cropped up but usually for a few a stories only but some of the more memorable are Oliver Harper (London banker who accompanied the first Doctor and Steven and a man with a big secret), Thomas Brewster (a cockney scamp who plagued both the fifth and sixth Doctor’s over two separate trilogies), Tamsin (a failed actress who had the unenviable task of replacing Lucie and whose story took some dramatic turns) and Flip (a recent addition and companion of the sixth Doctor – a young Londoner who is bored with her life and wants to get out there and have some fun with the Doctor).
Discovering excellent writers
Big Finish has worked with plenty of established writers (Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gary Russell, Paul Magrs, Alan Barnesc) but it also introduced me to a minor arsenal of writing talent whose other works I have now actively sought out. Amongst my favourites are…
Rob Shearman – A man who revels in the grotesque, the unpredictable and darkly humorous, Rob has probably the highest hit rate of any Big Finish writer and his standard is extremely high. He writes clever mystery tales inject with jet-black humour and memorable characters and there is often a stinging emotional content to be found too. Charley had to live through the crashed airship that she escaped thanks to the Doctor, Evelyn discovered the Doctor with his legs cut off left to rot in the Bloody Tower and Frobisher learns the hard way that you cannot save everybody all in Rob Shearman’s stories. His best? Probably The Chimes of Midnight but Jubilee, The Holy Terror and Deadline are all must listens too. You would be mad to miss this guys work.
Joe Lidster – Like Shearman there is a grittiness to Joe Lidster’s audios that bites you because we simply aren’t used to this kind of angst and real world horror in Doctor Who. He brought Peri home to America, gave Ace a brother, reunited the fifth Doctor and Tegan and turned Evelyn into a monster – all with some emotional fireworks! His best works standout because they really get under the skin of the characters (Master, The Reaping, The Lighthouse) but sometimes that angst can be pushed a little too far into soap opera territory (The Rapture, The Gathering). He’s definitely one to check out because his audios are so controversial and making people talk is always a good thing.
Nick Briggs – I hadn’t read anything of Nick Briggs’ until I started listening to Big Finish but I soon came to realise that, Terry Nation aside, this man is the King of the Daleks. His Dalek Empire series is a thing of beauty because it captures the Dalekmania of the sixties so beautifully but at the same time employs modern day arcs and dramatic device to tell a truly epic, action packed story. His Cyberman series worked less well because there clearly wasn’t quite the same passion for the material but it was still a very worthy stab at bringing the metal meanies to audio. Individual main range tales range from the experimental (Creatures of Beauty), to the snooze worthy (Sword of Orion) to the piss-yourself-with-excitement (Patient Zero) and you could do a lot worse than to check out all three to see how versatile he is. Above that though give Dalek Empire a try, I know there are a lot of people who refuse to touch the spin material but this one is more than worth your time, its essential listening.
Eddie Robson – A sparkling character writer with lots of memorable tales under his belt, Eddie writes pure entertainment and fills his stories with sunshine. Situation Vacant is still one of the funniest, quirkiest oddball stories Doctor Who has ever produced, his debut story Memory Lane has some striking imagery and Human Resources saw the eighth Doctor adventures end their first season in true style.
Jonathan Morris – I once referred to Morris as my modern day Robert Holmes and the more I hear his work the more impressed that I get. He has the ability to conjure up creative plots at the drop of a hat but also has a terrific grasp of character, can write with real pace, inject very funny humour and his dialogue is top notch too. Its hard not to turn reviews of his stories into love fests because he sets the bar high and very rarely disappoints. What impresses me with this releases is the versatility of the mans work because often with the strongest writers for this company you know what to expect and they deliver in spades (Rob Shearman is going to write something blackly funny, Nick Briggs a terrific action adventure, Simon Guerrier something creepy and atmospheric) but let’s take a look at the many styles and genres that Morris has turned his hand to very successfully. Nostalgia trips (Bloodtide & Hothouse), puzzles (Flip Flop, Cobwebs), companion introductions (The Haunting of Thomas Brewster), morality tales (The Cannibalists), comedy (Max Warp, The Beautiful People), dark fairy tales (The Eternal Summer), modern day entertainment (The Crimes of Thomas Brewster), character tales and historicals (The Glorious Revolution, The Curse of Davros), action adventure (Deimos/Ressurection of Mars), Lost Stories (The Guardians of Prophecy) and atmospheric chillers (The Spirit Trap, The Theatre of Dreams). He’s a superb writer that still gets me excited when his name turns up in the schedules because I find it synonymous with a high quality adventure. Big Finish are lucky to have him and I am glad they are exploiting his talent to the full.
Simon Guerrier - Massive respect for Simon Guerrier - again a top bloke (he answered my interview questions in record time and with such charm too!) and he has written the best companion chronicles which truly take the era they are set in allow you to look at them in a brand new way. He's given Peter Purves and Jean Marsh a chance to claim some absolute classics and manages to get into their characters heads with absolute authenticity. Oliver was a great new companion who brought a great deal to the range too. Not only that but he also oversaw two of the finest years of the Benny range offering some really exciting developments and encouraged some of the best writing seen in that range. A really talented guy. Check out any of his companion chronicles (or better still all of them!) and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
John Dorney – A one off companion chronicle that knocked everybody’s socks off (Solitaire) propelled John into the limelight and he has barely stopped working for Big Finish since. He has proven adept at writing Lost Stories (The Foe from the Future, The Elite), for Benny Summerfield (Dead Mans Switch), for those intrepid investigators Jago & Litefoot (the emotive Swan Song)… His writing is literate, witty, fast paced, character led and full of meaning. A fantastic catch for Big Finish.
You might think that Big Finish simply try to tell stories that sound like off air recordings of television stories but their work is far more immersive than that. Once you stick one of their stories on you are entering a world of sound that will whisk you away from where you are for journeys throughout all time and space. Like the series they spawned from Big Finish has stretched the limits of its format and experimented with some pretty imaginative storytelling. We’ve had a story being told over two CDS that can be listened to in any order (Flip Flop), a story where nothing is what it seems to be (Omega), a story told out of order (Creatures of Beauty), a story that has been made up (or has it? The Memory Cheats), four episodes each devoted to a different character (A Death in the Family), bedtime storytelling (Legend of the Cybermen), alternative universes (Klein’s Story), two Doctors in one story but never meeting (Project Lazarus), a two hander (Solitaire), literate madness (Ringpullworld), a musical (Dr Who and the Pirates), Russian doll storytelling (The Natural History of Fear, Brotherhood of the Daleks), temporal shenanigans (The Kingmaker), anthologies (Circular Time, 100…), Christmas specials (The One Doctor, Death in Blackpool, Relative Dimensions), stories with alternative Doctors (the Unbound series)…the list goes on. If you ever wanted to see the flexibility of audio then give some of these stories a try.
Spin Off Ranges
Bernice Summerfield – The range that kicked big Finish off and astonishing it is still going strong today! Of all the spin offs this is my absolute favourite because as well as taking a character who worked perfectly well in the books and transplanting her on audio it also created its own cast of characters, unique situations, arc storylines and also sees the return of countless Doctor Who monsters (everything from Draconians to Daleks!). Bernice Summerfield is a failed academic and wife when the series begins, trying to keep her life in some kind of order and during the course of twelve seasons (so far…count them!) she has managed to find a secure job, a whole host of friends, become a mother, face all manner of emotional trials, realise that her best friend is in fact her greatest enemy, lose her home and then lose all of her friends too! Its been a hell of a ride for Benny but one thing has remained consistent throughout her time and that is the quality of her ever improving series. With the superlative Lisa Bowerman at the helm there is a quality actress driving this through all of its ups and downs and another joy of the series is the amount of fresh printed material that Big Finish released that runs side by side with her audios adventures. The Bernice Summerfield range is a fully immersive independent series (the Doctor has never appeared in it) and its best to start right back at the beginning and let this beguiling series walk you through the life of this wonderful ex companion. Personal favourites include Oh No It Isn’t (handily the first story), Just War, Death and the Daleks, The Masquerade of Death, Timeless Passages, The Judas Gift & Absence but I would say there are only a handful of stories that don’t make the grade.
Companion Chronicles – Mentioned several times here, this is a standout range that Big Finish should be extremely proud of. The amount of actors and actresses that they have managed to tempt back to reprise their roles is astonishing (stretching as far back as the very first televised series) and the consistent gems they keep knocking out speak for themselves. They are narrated adventures of the Doctor’s friend, usually told with a framing device and then working in a story set during their time with the Doctor and often with a string in the tale. It is a chance to get close to these old companions and learn things about them denied by their time on the TV show – this is where they really take the limelight and we learn their deepest thoughts. Its an extremely diverse range and the way it hops about from era to era is exciting because you get the chance to experience the many different tones each era of Doctor Who had but also a chance to try out new genres in eras that were never considered at the time. With Marc Platt, Jonathan Morris and Simon Guerrier contributing a fair whack of these adventures the quality is high and the riches to be found are manifold. Highlights for me are Frostfire (a rare Vicki story), The Catalyst (Leela at her best), The Transit of Venus (Ian telling a tale on the high seas), Find and Replace (a warm UNIT nostalgia tale with a great role for Iris Wildthyme), Solitaire (a gripping two hander for Charley and the Celestial Toymaker) plus any of Simon Guerrier’s first Doctor stories that have justly become known as the crème de la crème.
Jago & Litefoot – Who would ever have imagined this series taking place? Its something that fans have always dreamt about happening back in the day because these two characters were so entertaining and well defined. How could it possibly live up to the hype? But it did and then some and this blissful series has proven to be a real hit for Big Finish with the theatrical Henry Gordon Jago and the mannered George Litefoot taking on all manner of supernatural forces in Victorian London. The tone of the series is pure gothic horror with plenty of vaults, catacombs, midnight sojourns from graveyards and bodies rising from the dead and the writing his been intelligent and full of memorable dialogue. Not a single story is below par but the best to my mind are The Mahogany Murderers, The Bellova Devil, The Theatre of Dreams and Swansong but I promise you this – once you’ve listened to the first story you will not want to miss out on a second of the available stories featuring this wonderful duo.
The Lost Stories – Oddly this is probably the least consistent of the spin off ranges (at least in terms of the quality of the scripts themselves because some of these ideas should have been left on the drawing board) but its also the range I get the most excited about and produces the most surprising results. Literally pouncing on the ‘what’ if’ format, here we have audio recreations of stories that almost made it to screen at the time and are now available to listen to. What if Colin Baker’s original season 23 was made? Now you can listen to it! What if the show wasn’t cancelled after season 26? Here it is for your pleasure! Some of the stories have been an absolute delight (Leviathan, Point of Entry, Farewell Great Macedon & Hexagora) and others have missed the mark (I didn’t enjoy any of the McCoy ones) but overall its an enchanting look at what might have been. My best advice here is to read the synopsis of the story and see which ones appeal to you the most but the two ‘seasons’ are worth trying to listen to in order for the full impact.
Dalek Empire – Which ran for four season and saw Nick Briggs takes us on a whirlwind tour of the galaxy in this exciting space opera. With characters as strong as Susan Mendez (a Dalek slave who speaks for the people and knows who to get inside the head of the Supreme Dalek) and Karlendorf (Gareth Thomas nailing the role of the gruff ex knight) you are led through a myriad of twists and turns with seasons that enjoy real dramatic momentum and climax on something spectacular. Of course the stars are the Daleks and in that respect its almost Skarosian pornography – they are loud, powerful, murderous and manipulative. Seasons two and four are my favourites but again this is a pretty consistently good series.
Gallifrey – A political drama more akin to an outer space West Wing than anything we have ever seen before, Gallifrey is one of the most intelligent and marbled of ranges with massive doses of imagination. With a cast that consists of Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson, Miles Richardson & Lynda Bellingham it is the range that is to be feared!
Whatever genre you want you will be able to find somewhere in Big Finish’s back catalogue. Comedy (the hilarious parody The One Doctor and the less subtle Bang Bang a Boom), historicals (The Fires of Vulcan, The Council of Nicea, The Angel of Scutari), action adventure (The Apocalypse Element, Enemy of the Daleks), crime (The Condemned), documentary (LIVE 34), horror (Night Thoughts, The Holy Terror), mystery (Cobwebs), political drama (The Fearmonger), romance (Arrangements for War), hard science (anything written by Christopher H. Bidmead), supernatural (Winter for the Adept, Master), literate storytelling (Legend of the Cybermen), thrillers (Project Destiny), soap opera (The Rapture)…whatever you might be looking for you will find it here somewhere.
Filling the gaps in TV continuity
Can the first Doctor walk on hot coals? Ever wanted to know how Susan really felt about being abandoned by her Grandfather? Or why Ian was so close to Barbara? How Steven got over the death of Sara so quickly? How did the second Doctor feel when Zoe made a choice that affected so many lives? Why Polly and Ben never got together? What that outrageously sexist Prison in Space story was really like? If Zoe ever got her memory back? How did the third Doctor really feel about his exile? What Liz felt about abandoning the Doctor and going back to Cambridge? How much Jo Grant really loves the Doctor? If Sarah Jane kept seeing Harry after they both left the Doctor? What happened between Leela and Andred? If there were any gaps between adventures during the hunt for the Key to Time? Why Romana regenerated? How did Romana II end up back on Gallifrey? What Nyssa really felt about Adric’s death? Does Tegan really have a sense of humour? Could the fifth Doctor fall in love? Has Turlough ever been in love? Did Peri ever get to go back to Baltimore? Is the sixth Doctor too heartless? How would Mel cope with a historical crisis? Could the seventh Doctor manipulate people too far? Was Ace really an only child? You can find out all these things during selective Big Finish adventures…
Putting together excellent stories
There has been so much talent that has been poured into Big Finish’s back catalogue its hard to know where to begin so lets start with the music. Music has always been an important part of Doctor Who and with a list of musicians such as Jamie Robertson, Alistair Lock, Russell Stone, Yason & Fox writing for the audios we are never short of genuinely cinematic, emotional, catchy soundtracks that make for superb special features on the main range stories. Many of these scores are worth listening to independently because they are great music in their own right. Then there are the directors who bring all the talent together – my favourites rarely let me down and often produce absolute gold. Lisa Bowerman (A Thousand Tiny Wings), Barnaby Edwards (The Chimes of Midnight), Nick Briggs (Legend of the Cybermen), Gary Russell (The One Doctor) and John Ainsworth (A Storm of Angels) are my absolute favourites but there are so many good directors working for this company I would be here all day to list them all.
Finally here is my top five recommendations from the main range where I have chosen one story for each Doctor featured (okay two for one of them…).
1) Dr Who and the Pirates: Strikingly experimental and yet still an absolute pleasure to listen to, Doctor Who and the Pirates has taken all the style and effort that has been missing from recent stories and injects them all into four episodes of bliss. Jac Rayner has written a superb script, easily her best for Big Finish, which manages to be a beautiful character study, a rip roaring adventure, a hilarious comedy, a blinding musical and a striking piece of drama whilst offering a treatise on narrative techniques at the same time. It should be utterly schizophrenic but the story shifts mood effortlessly from humour to horror. Colin Baker and Maggie Stables continue to shine in what has become one of the great Doctor/companion pairings and the guest cast instil the story with some priceless performances. The jokes are funny, the songs are wonderful and the direction is faultless. Why can’t every story be as good as this? Remarkable.
2) The Kingmaker: The last time I had this much fun with history and time travelling antics was City of Death and I don’t exaggerate when I hold this ingenious story in exactly the same league. Nev Fountain has written a fantastic script, which juggles passionate ideas, belly laughs, moments of genius and great character drama. No aliens in sight and yet this is still Doctor Who through and through, the guest cast are phenomenal and the direction keeps the story skipping along energetically. Fountain’s handling of the regulars is perfect, giving the usually colourless fifth Doctor some witty and wonderful moments, touching on Erimem’s ancestry and best of all pushing Peri into the limelight and have her go off like an emotional rocket. Two of the best Big Finish moments come with the revelation of who the Master really is and the identity of the real Princes – this story is beautifully thought through and has some delicious answers. Even the title is on the subterfuge. After an inconsistent run of stories that verged from ball squeezingly awful to tickle my fancies sublime, The Kingmaker is an out and out classic.
3) The Fires of Vulcan: A Scotsman and a redhead visit Pompeii and argue over the morality of their foreknowledge of the future, sound familiar? This is something very special indeed. So many areas of this story could have been fudged (McCoy could have phoned in his performance, Bonnie Langford could have over enthused, the script could have been too maudlin, the atmosphere too grim) but every aspect of this production is spot on from the cast to the director and the musical score. I have always loved Historicals and Steve Lyons produces a powerhouse of drama here, a cast of memorable characters and a emotion drive that runs through the story and makes pressing stop to go to sleep (grrr) very hard indeed! It’s clever, involving and dramatic and it never cheats the audience of the spectacle of Pompeii whilst telling quite an intimate story within it. Possibly the best performance Sylvester McCoy has ever given as the Doctor, it is a triumph for the seventh Doctor and a real highlight amongst the fluff of season 24.
4) The Chimes of Midnight: As good as you have heard and then some, The Chimes of Midnight is one of those very rare Doctor Who stories that get everything right and even when you are told about how brilliant it is it still manages to surprise you. With peerless performances, a script that constantly plays with your mind and leaves you breathlessly emotional at the climax, direction that couldn’t be bettered and more clever concepts than both series of Sapphire and Steel I can’t think of a more accomplished piece of time twisting drama. Paul McGann is given more opportunities to prove just how right he was for the part and India Fisher finally comes out of her shell and rocks Charley up into the higher ranks of the companions. Like The One Doctor I have heard this story more times than it is probably sane to admit and I still find it as thrilling as I did on my first experience. This was a really good time to be a fan of Big Finish where they were producing some of the finest Doctor Who we had been privileged to enjoy.
5) Jubilee: Alarmingly inventive and brooding, I adore this story. Doctor Who rarely has the capacity to make me feel genuinely uncomfortable but Jubilee had me in a cold sweat throughout, compiling one horror and dramatic set piece after another. The humour is jet black and quite inspired making the terror all the twitchier. It is full of strong emotional beats, highly atmospheric and leaves you with lots to think about when it is over. Evelyn gets a really meaty role and Maggie Stables excels in a powerful, angry performance topped only by Colin Baker’s agonising take on the Doctor tortured for 100 years. This story is a (not so) subtle commentary on the horror of mankind and it drives its point home like a knife in the gut. Rob Shearman’s greatest gift to Doctor Who is his ability to make you think in brand new ways about staples of the series we thought have become mere clichés. This is beyond doubt the most interesting exploration of the Daleks we have seen. And the wittiest. And the scariest. John Scott Martin will never complain about getting into a Dalek casing again.
The people you have to thank are the guys behind the scenes so I’d like to mention Gary Russell (who kick started this phenomena in true style), Nick Briggs (who took over the reins and has continued the high standards) and David Richardson (producer extraordinaire who has contributed far more to so many of the companies best ranges more than people will ever know). I know there are names I have forgotten but alas my memory isn’t what it was! These are the people who deserve the credit.
Have fun guys and I hope this helped a little!