2016 – The Year of Big Finish and New Who

Last week, Big Finish Productions were clearly building towards something, most notably through their Facebook and Twitter pages, using the hashtag #BF27June and photos of people with fingers to their lips shushing. Plenty of people joined in, not just the actors and writers at Big Finish, including Colin Baker, but plenty of fans as well. Not that any of us knew what was going to be announced, but it certainly looked set to be pretty big.

And then, on the morning of 27th June, one more photo was shown of someone shushing: Alex Kingston. Or, as Whovians know her, River Song.

Two things instantly became clear: first, that Big Finish’s announcement was huge, possibly one of the biggest they’ve ever made, and second, what the shushing was for: “spoilers”.

Oh boy, was the announcement big. In 2016, Big Finish are going to release several key audio releases that will feature characters and monsters from the New Series, including a series of Churchill’s adventures with the Doctor, River Song getting her own spin-off series and even appearing in the 2nd season of the upcoming Eighth Doctor series Doom Coalition.

How excited am I about this? A few months ago, I posted about how much I’m seriously looking forward to the spin-off UNIT: The New Series, but this is even better. In fact, to me, it’s even better than if Big Finish had announced that they had gotten Eccleston, Tennant and Smith to reprise their roles for new adventures. Because it’s another beautiful way of merging the classic and the new eras together.

When Doctor Who came back ten years ago, it was the greatest feeling in the world. Despite having a brand new Doctor, a faster pace and perhaps a slightly different tone, it was still most recognisably the same show that ran for 26 years: the same old theme tune, the same old police box time machine, and the same old mad, bonkers and brilliant Doctor. It was brand new but at the same time, still very, very familiar.

But it was also keen to present itself to new viewers as a brand new show. This was not only understandable, but practically essential in drawing in a new audience. I still love the way Russell T. Davies handled it – not by taking the easy option and chucking away 26 years of continuity, but actually skipping ahead years (no, centuries) later from the Doctor’s point of view from the end of the classic series and presenting both the oldest fans and the new viewers a brand new backstory that no one knew about.

This left me even more excited, not just for where the TV series could go, but for where the expanded universe could go. Especially Big Finish, who had already given McGann’s Doctor 4 seasons in audio that had been denied to him on television. Before, his Doctor was the ‘current’ Doctor, and his story could literally go anywhere. With the return of the new series, that was no longer the case – or at least, not quite – but this wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, in my humble opinion, it might even have helped in giving his Doctor some direction at a time when he really did need it (while I adore his first two seasons, for reasons that I won’t go into, I wasn’t too keen on the overall arc of the two seasons afterwards, although I must admit, they still had some great stories). That direction was clearly given by Russell T. Davies – War with the Daleks and the destruction of his own race.

And perhaps there were other stories to tell, as well. Stories of classic Doctors meeting monsters from the New Series and finding out about their earliest encounters (I’m still really curious about the Doctor’s previous encounter with the Krillitanes. I love the idea that they adapt and change so much that they would’ve looked completely different). There were so many ways of exploring and celebrating the rich history and the legacy of the show.

But that didn’t happen. At least, not exactly. For reasons that I can only begin to guess at, a clear line had been drawn – Classic and New Who were, as far as Big Finish was concerned, two seperate entities. Of course, the New Series could use as much mythology from the classic series as possible, and in fact has done more and more as the series has gone on. (Something I really enjoyed about RTD’s take on Who is the way he re-introduced some of the biggest enemies of the classic era as each of his seasons’s “Big Bad”, as it were. It was a nice way of bringing back in spectacular fashion some iconic villains for the classic fans, while getting across to newer fans just how major these enemies were to the Doctor. The final 10 minutes of Utopia especially is practically a masterpiece in how to do re-introduce a major villain to an audience so perfectly.)

But, for clearly complicated legal reasons, Big Finish could never return the favour – it could never tell stories showing how the Doctor met the Judoon or have an earlier encounter with the Vashta Nerada, and they certainly couldn’t tell any stories about the Time War. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they have done a brilliant and marvellous job hinting and even building up to it, but anything set during the War was off limits. In fact, when licensing issues were at their worst, even established classic enemies like the Master seemed to be off limits, as one particular story originally written to include the character was re-written enough to make his identity more ambiguous (even when the character’s name is as obvious as “Stream”). For the longest time, it almost looked as if Big Finish, if not classic Who altogether, were to be seen as separate as possible from the New Series. (For the record, one thing that’s become clear is that this wasn’t RTD’s doing – he has done nothing but heaped tons of praise for the company and adores their work. This came across incredibly clear during an interview he had for the special edition of the adaptation of his 7th Doctor novel, Damaged Goods.)

Thankfully, over the last couple of years at least, the barrier between the two eras was slowly coming down. Personally, I think the biggest reason for this was the 50th anniversary – if ever there was a golden opportunity to market the hell out of the classic series license and show to new viewers just how great it really is, the 50th anniversary was the perfect time to do it. This was partially done with Big Finish. Small things that allowed for even greater acknowledgement of the new series. The Beginning, for example, was a First Doctor story that told of the Doctor and Susan’s first trip in the TARDIS. At the very start, there’s a lovely little nod to the opening scene in The Name of the Doctor, and you even see that depiction of the TARDIS from that episode on the front cover.

There was also the final series of Gallifrey, which showed the Russell T. Davies era Daleks on the front cover. Even this was a pretty big moment, as the usual design for the Daleks on Big Finish covers were based on the 60s design. The bronze daleks were a clear indication that, while the series wasn’t exactly a Time War story, it was certainly approaching for the Time Lords.

But I think the biggest moment that really helped to break down the barrier between the New Series and Big Finish was in the New Series itself – specifically, Eight’s final salute to his companions in The Night of the Doctor. I’ve gone on before about how much I love that episode, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but the acknowledgement of his audio companions like Charley and Lucie especially was an absolutely incredible moment. It was Steven Moffat not only paying tribute to them, especially McGann’s Doctor’s journey in them, but also making it that much more difficult for both a part of the audience and the licensing guys to say that they don’t count.

Over the past year, more and more hints of new Who have been steadily trickling through into Big Finish. First, there was the announcement of a Big Finish spin-off based on characters from the New Series. Then there were mentions of mythology that had been, until now, exclusive to New Who in one amazing story released earlier this year. Then in May, it was announced that Big Finish would begin making stories based on Torchwood, with the first episode to be released in September.

All great stuff, but we still had to wonder: would we get anything bigger from the New Series era, and more importantly, would it be allowed to mix in with the classic? Well, on 27th June, we finally got the answer to that question.

It’s taken a long time for Big Finish to reach this point, and I can’t even begin to imagine how much work it must have taken, but it’s finally paid off. As you can probably tell by the sheer length of this post, I’m incredibly happy about this.

For one thing, it’s the sheer ambition of it all. River Song not only getting her own series, but meeting the Eighth Doctor too? Despite the fact that it’s too early for her to meet him (and she knows it)? That’s a bold and incredibly risky story to tell, but it’s also the kind of story that Big Finish excels at. It’s a full-on way of having the classic and new eras collide in an epic fashion.

And that’s only one example, as the upcoming box set “Classic Doctors, New Monsters” shows. As you can guess, it’s some of the classic era Doctors meeting monsters from the new series, and every single one sounds great: with Five against the Weeping Angels (don’t ask me how the Angels are going to work on audio, but with Big Finish making it, I’m sure it’ll be done just right), Six meeting the Judoon (now there’s a clash of massive egos and personalities) and Seven meeting the Sycorrrrrrrrrax, there’s some great combinations to explore right away. But I think the story I’m eager to hear most, despite having a monster that’s technically from the Classic era, but with a version based on the New Series, is the Eighth Doctor going up against the Sontarans. Less for the combination exactly, and more for when it takes place: in the Time War, with Eight in his Night of the Doctor gear on the cover.

Honestly, I have been wanting this to happen for so long because I not only love Who, I also love to see it as one epic journey. Yes, the New Series jumping ahead and giving back a little mystery to the Doctor was a great fresh start, but honestly, as a classic fan, you want to know more about what happened in between. You want to know what lead the Doctor to fight in a War. You want to know what happened to Eight. You want to know how it ended.

All these questions were finally answered during the 50th anniversary, but really, that’s just the start. Ultimately, you want to remember when watching the show that Capaldi is absolutely the same man as Hartnell and all the others, not just Eccleston, Tennant and Smith. Having the classic and new eras merge through Big Finish is absolutely the perfect way to do it, especially as Big Finish have a real talent of making their Doctor’s stories feel true to their eras while feeling as modern and fresh as the New Series, usually at the same time.

It’s going to be a long wait to 2016, and it’s going to be a year of Big Finish releases that I’ll anticipate greatly. However, there’s been plenty of great releases this year already (the final series of Dark Eyes and Damaged Goods especially being two particular highlights), and of course, there’s still plenty to anticipate for the rest of the year. As I mentioned earlier, there’s the new UNIT spin-off to begin in November. There’s the start of a brand new Eighth Doctor epic in Doom Coaltion 1 in October. And then there’s the story I’m anticipating most: The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure, to be released in September. It’s something that I’m sure I’ll be absolutely devastated by, even having already ‘seen’ Six’s regeneration in Time & The Rani.

Big Finish have been making great Doctor Who stories and spin-offs based exclusively on the classic series for over 15 years, and I’m more than certain it could’ve continued to do so if it had to. It’s just great to know that their universe to write stories from has just gotten a whole lot bigger.


Doctor Who: The Secret History review

Big Finish Production have just reached a landmark this month with the release of their 200th monthly Doctor Who story. To celebrate, they decided to do something special: a “season” of 3 linked stories of 80s Doctors swapping places with their earliest incarnations. So you’ve had McCoy turning up in a Pertwee era story, C. Baker in Troughton’s and Davison in Hartnell’s. The result? A trilogy of stories that’s proved to be a rather intriguing listen – not just a great excuse to hear Doctors meet companions from other eras, but also a great look at how much the Doctor has changed over the years and the contrast of what happens when one incarnation ends up in a story that doesn’t suit ‘him’. I’ve enjoyed all 3 of these stories, but The Secret History has definitely proven to be my favourite one of the trilogy, for several reasons.

One is how well writer Eddie Robson gets the First Doctor’s era spot on. It begins with all the right ingredients for a Hartnell classic: the Doctor and his companions land sometime in ancient history, at least one companion gets separated/kidnapped from the rest, with a good strong focus on both the historical characters and the setting. There’s even a villain who appeared in a couple of Hartnell TV stories, but we’ll get to that later. In short, almost everything about the story fits Hartnell’s Doctor spot on.

Except, of course, for the Doctor himself, and this was my favourite thing about The Secret History. Because the story really helps to highlight two things about the Fifth Doctor: first, that he is, despite his outward appearance, much older in personality than his first self, and second, that he’s a lot less sure of his actions. This is a man who has lost a companion and seen too much death, and while he still knows that history can’t be re-written, the cost of maintaining history is a great deal harder for him to bear than it once was. I love how the difference in personality to his earlier self is a central point to the story, and indeed the entire trilogy, and how one moment’s hesitation causes utter disaster.

I also enjoy the return of a particular villain with Graeme Garden back as the Monk, for the first time in 4 years. I love how this character that’s been sadly ignored by the new series (and to be fair, most of the classic series after Hartnell) has been given a wonderful new lease of life by the excellent team at Big Finish – less of an ‘evil’ character like the Master and more of an amoral, overgrown child whose complete lack of responsibility causes more danger than some of the Doctor’s more traditionally ‘evil’ foes. In fact, the last time he showed up, his actions caused more pain and suffering to the Doctor in his Eighth life than the Master could even begin to hope for, and the worst thing was that they were the actions of someone as reckless and naive as a child instead of someone who actually wants to be destructive, something that probably made the Doctor angrier than ever before (seriously, if you haven’t listened to it yet, check out the excellent 2 part story Lucie Miller/To The Death, one of my favourite finales/Dalek stories ever. If you want to get a good idea of what it’s like, imagine Journey’s End as written by George R.R. Martin. Yep. That dark/shocking/depressing/bloody brilliant).

But the Doctor here hasn’t lived through any of that – while he’s still more than aware of how dangerous and reckless the Monk can be, he hasn’t reached the point of completely hating him, either. A point I can certainly never reach: Graeme Garden is delightfully charming in the role. As I’ve mentioned, childlike but intelligent, both the writers and the actor have continued to avoid the trap of making the character just another copy of the Master, and instead continued the legacy that writer Dennis Spooner and actor Peter Butterworth created fifty years ago.

The Secret History is a fantastic way for Big Finish to celebrate it’s 200th main range release. It not only shows just how far Big Finish have come since releasing The Sirens of Time back in 1999, with a mix of an 80s Doctor, 60s companions and their own fresh take of a brilliant villain, but in it’s own right, it’s both a great science fiction story and a great drama, too. 9/10

Doctor Who: Damaged Goods & The Well-Mannered War Review

In the 1990s, Virgin published two series of novels that told brand new stories of Doctor Who – one range for the Seventh Doctor, the ‘current’ Doctor at the time (the New Adventures), and the other for the first six (the Missing Adventures). These stories were designed to be darker, more adult and have more depth than the original TV series. How well this worked is debatable, as for some writers, this meant more violence plus added swearing and even sex scenes, things that a family TV show would have never allowed, but its undeniable that the books have their own very devoted fanbases. I’ve been reading the New Adventures in order very, very gradually (I’m only about 5 books in so far), but I’m appreciating their take on the 7th Doctor and how much darker and slightly more morally-ambiguous his Doctor started to become.

Within the past couple of years, Big Finish productions have been adapting a number of these novels as full-cast audio drama, and so far, I’ve greatly enjoyed them all. The two stories that have been released this month – both individually in standard releases and together in a limited edition – are both very significant. The Well-Mannered War was the final story published in the Missing Adventures range as well as originally written by the excellent Gareth Roberts, while Damaged Goods (which I’ll be reviewing first) was the first ever Doctor Who story written by Russell T. Davies.

Damaged Goods

I have never read the original novel, but, even while it’s been adapted by someone else (the ever excellent and reliable Jonathan Morris), still has that clear Russell T. Davies feel to it, not just as a Doctor Who story but in general. There’s a rather urban feel to it, with a focus on a family living on a council estate (and even having the surname of Tyler, although no relation to THAT Tyler), there’s a heap of more down-to-Earth human drama mixed in with all the sci-fi shenanigans, and all the characters are well-written with very human problems. It’s also incredibly dark, in fact possibly one of the darkest Russell T. Davies stories I’ve experienced yet, almost making the story feel like a cross between Doctor Who and Torchwood. More than that – it feels like a combination of both shows at their very, very best.

There were a number of stories that Russell T. Davies wrote for TV Who that I wasn’t too keen on, (especially Love & Monsters,) and some of his stories and villains weren’t really up to scratch, but when he was good, he was damn fucking good. Usually, this was because ironically he limited the sci-fi to a very small idea that allowed a lot of drama to flow – Midnight is one of my favourite episodes because how much it focuses on human paranoia, and how it turns a bunch of really likeable characters into complete monsters within 45 minutes, and The Waters of Mars is more about the dilemma one man faces over whether he can change history or let it take its course. (Like the excellent Star Trek episode The City at the Edge of Forever, but with zombies.) I do wonder if the faster-pace of the new era sometimes meant that other stories of his suffered because of how rushed they were, especially after listening to something as excellent as Damaged Goods, a story nicely spread over 2 hours, only includes just the right amount of science-fiction, and allows the human drama and horror to flow throughout.

The story flows beautifully, giving you very clear visuals and really drawing you in, and there are so many great performances. Sylvester McCoy is brilliant as ever, playing a Seventh Doctor that is still more concerned about the larger picture than with human problems. Michelle Collins, a casting choice I was initially surprised by, is fantastic as the mother of the family, as she plays someone who’s made a very difficult choice that is haunted by the consequences of that choice, but I think my favourite character of the story is the horrifying Eva Jericho. Another mother, but one who’s rapidly losing her sanity, she becomes the worst kind of monster. I’m not going to spoil anything, but when I found out what the title “Damaged Goods” actually referred to, I was completely and utterly horrified. And, as I’ve said in an earlier blog, that’s one of my favourite things about watching, reading or, in this case, listening to Doctor Who – to be scared or horrified as much as possible. 5/5

The Well-Mannered War

This Fourth Doctor and Romana story is, in some ways, a much lighter story, but still incredibly enjoyable.

It begins with our two key heroes arriving in the far future in the middle of a war, although a rather unusual one – while the two sides in this conflict claim to be ‘at war’, no lives have yet to be taken, and in fact the two opposing forces seem to get on rather well with each other. And then of course, as soon as the Doctor and Romana arrive, the words “escalated” and “quickly” immediately spring to mind.

This is clearly a Gareth Roberts story, as its got a huge Douglas Adams influence, full of colourful characters and aliens and wonderful dialogue. It’s also very grand science-fiction that’s also fun, in some ways the equal and opposite of Damaged Goods.

This would be the fourth adaptation of a Gareth Roberts story that Big Finish have done. It’s also my favourite. There’s a rich amount of complexity in this story that makes you wonder how all the strands come together. It’s very gradual, but it really draws you in. There’s also a fantastic mix of comedy and horror within the story, and the number of characters that are hilarious, funny and yet feel distinctly true to life (especially Stokes as brilliantly performed by Michael Troughton) are wonderful to hear. It also has a fantastic ending that’s incredibly memorable – in fact, the ending was the only thing I knew about the story before going in to listen to it. Even when I knew it was coming though, it sent shivers down my spine and I adored it. It’s the kind of ending that’s bold and built up incredibly well and really shows just how flexible Doctor Who storytelling can be.

I really enjoyed The Well-Mannered War. It’s complex, full of colourful characters, and a really fun story to listen to. 5/5

Overall, these two very different stories work really well together. They’re two very different but equally great examples of exactly the kind of storytelling that Doctor Who is capable of: stories full of humour, horror, tragedy, darkness and even pure joy. They’re also two further examples of exactly why Big Finish are so great, translating two stories originally written in novel form for the very tricky medium of audio. Once again, through the excellent production team, including adapters Johnathan Morris and John Dorney, director Ken Bentley, and of course, the brilliant cast for both stories, these stories find a brand new way to come alive for listeners both old and new. One of my favourite releases of the year so far.

(One more thing – anyone who’s a fan of Russell T. Davies, get the special edition of this set directly through bigfinish.com. There’s a bonus disc included with the Limited Edition CD set already that includes behind the scenes stuff for both stories, but you can also download an extended version that’s two hours long, and it’s more than worth it to hear Russell T. Davies himself interviewed, both for his experience when he originally wrote his first ever Doctor Who story and how enthusiastic he clearly is for Big Finish. Absolutely beautiful listen and worth every penny for that little extra feature alone.)

Big Finish Recommendations – UNIT: Dominion

I’m a big fan of Doctor Who as a TV show, but to be honest, I’m even more of a fan of the audio series by Big Finish. There are just so many great stories out there, stories that develop each of the first 8 Doctors and their companions in ways that the original series sometimes failed to do. And for someone new to Big Finish, that can be a problem, because it’s difficult to know where to even start. There’s a huge number of story arcs that spread out across numerous releases and Doctors (and even years, for quite a few of them). So I’m hoping that this helps: a regular blog where I post recommendations to some stories you may or may not want to jump on board with, including what makes it such a great listen and a rating of how accessible it is for new fans.

To kick things off with, a story I re-listen to on a regular basis:

UNIT: Dominion

Doctor: Seventh and ‘Other’

Companions: Raine and Klein

Continuity Rating: Medium. This is an interesting one in that the main plot itself is easily accessible, as it’s both stand-alone and very much fits the style of the new series, particularly the epic finales. The continuity is more character based: Raine is a companion who’s travelled on-and-off throughout 7’s incarnation, although you don’t need to know much about her to quickly learn what kind of character she is. Klein’s backstory is definitely more complicated, although it’s not only explained clearly by the Doctor to Raine what his relationship with Klein is, but it’s also interesting in that Klein doesn’t know what the Doctor knows, making her perspective not only accessible but also intriguing. There are also hints at other stories that Big Finish haven’t even told yet, so it’s a nice introduction to the Big Finish universe and all its stories without being overwhelming.

(Ironically, despite being labelled as both a Doctor Who story and the 2nd season of Big Finish’s spin-off series UNIT, the only links to the first season is the organisation itself – no characters or plot threads from the first season return.)

Why you should listen to it: 

It’s one of the biggest and most epic stories that Big Finish have ever done. It has the scale of 4 finales in one, as not only does the Earth get invaded by a whole variety of completely alien races all at once across teh globe, but it’s a story that spreads across numerous dimensions, as well. In fact, it’s so huge, it requires not just one Doctor but two: along with the Seventh Doctor, we are also introduced to a previously unknown incarnation from far ahead in his future, as played by Alex MacQueen.

Along with learning more about this mysterious new incarnation, we are also introduced to a whole variety of characters and their stories, as the focus spreads from the two Doctors and their companions to the UNIT soldiers, who for once aren’t treated as simple redshirts (something that often happened in the classic series), but as men and women with lives and families (Sergeant Wilson’s story is especially sweet and really adds an emotional weight to the whole thing). And of course, there’s Klein. For new listeners, she’s a hard working scientist who has found herself growing more and more paranoid over the ‘Umbrella Man’, someone who seems to be watching her every move and she has no clue why. For other listeners, she’s a woman who the Doctor is very understandably afraid of, as he eventually explains to Raine…

In short, this is one I recommend to fans of the new series who love their stories big and epic, as Dominion easily outdoes the best of them in terms of scale at least, while also matching the best stories for their humanity and emotion. Despite being 4 hours long, it’s a story I love any and every excuse to relisten to (as I’m going to this weekend). A link to buy the story on download or CD can be found here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who—unit-dominion-783