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

Why I love the First Doctor

While William Hartnell isn’t my all-time favourite Doctor, he’s certainly one of my favourites. It’s interesting watching the early years of the show and seeing how different not just the show is, but also the Doctor himself. He doesn’t start out as the hero we all know and love, in fact, how he ends up with human companions in the first place isn’t exactly the most sociable of methods – he kidnaps them, pure and simple. Fans more used to the newer Doctors may be shocked at seeing how nasty the Doctor can be in his, er, youth. He’s considerably more reluctant to save the day, at this point. He’s keen to explore and discover, even at the risk of his companion’s safety, but he’s certainly not interested in saving anyone, not if he can leave any world or time behind as soon as things get dangerous. Of course, escape is always the most difficult option in the early stories, as the very moment the Doctor and his crew leave the TARDIS, they always immediately end up in trouble. Admittedly, this is a story trope that remains pretty common to the series to this day, but whereas the Doctor will later regularly make a stand and choose to help someone in trouble, the main focus that drives nearly all the stories in the first season is the crew being separated from, locked out of or generally just having difficulty with the TARDIS for the entire story and not leaving until they find a way back or learn how to fix it.

I’m not gonna lie, there’s something charming about this common trope, but that’s not the only reason why I enjoy the first season. It’s more the little thread of development that runs throughout these stories, particularly with the Doctor. Gradually, over time, we see him start to warm up and become more proactive, until finally, in the second serial of season 2, he makes a conscious decision to stand up and fight.

It has recently occurred to me that there are quite a few reasons for this, and each of them leave me itching to rewatch the first season, due to the Doctor being a very different man compared to the legend he grows to be.

Firstly, the most obvious reason why he gradually grows better is what has always made him better: human beings. The circumstances that have forced him with them may not have been the best – kidnapping two curious schoolteachers to protect him and his granddaughter – but, over time, they do show him a better way. That sometimes, it’s important to stand up and fight. (A rather important example: in the second story, The Daleks, Ian Chesterton convinces the Thals to fight the Daleks. Not for himself, not for his friends, and certainly not for the Doctor, but because, when dealing with something as evil as the Daleks, it’s ultimately the right thing for the Thals to do. It says a lot both about the Doctor’s character and how much he’s not the lead hero at this point when it’s Ian making this speech, not him.) It takes a long time for that change to come, of course, but it really pays off when it does.

There is another reason why the Doctor starts out as differently as he does that’s also companion related, but for very different reasons. Because the First Doctor has something in his earliest days of travelling through the cosmos that he doesn’t have in all his other incarnations: family, specifically of the flesh and blood kind. It’s easy to think that many of the Doctor’s actions at this point serve his own interests. In some cases, admittedly, that is true – his curiosity at seeing a city on an alien world not only put his companions in danger, purely through deception and selfishness, but it also lead him to meeting the Daleks for the first time – but a great deal of them could also be attributed to being greatly over-protective.

For example, there’s some really great character driven drama in season 1 story The Aztecs. When Barbara makes a decision to try and change history. The Doctor is screaming at her when it badly backfires on all of them; more than that, he is furious, the most we’ve ever seen of him up to that point. Which isn’t too surprising when you consider the fact that he’s separated from his granddaughter and is therefore completely unable to protect her in a primitive culture on an alien world (to him, at least). And of course, there’s the fact that the reason he initially kidnapped Ian and Barbara was because he was afraid of one of two things happening – either he and his granddaughter would be exposed to the world as aliens, or Susan would leave him.

Perhaps his methods in protecting his granddaughter are extreme (to say the least), but then again, there’s one more thing to consider – he’s only just starting out on his journey. He’s not a man who’s fought many monsters, not the man who’s seen it all or done it all, not yet. Oh, we hear about a few travels that he and Susan went on before they met Ian and Barbara, but overall, it’s clear that in the grand scheme of things, he’s really only just beginning his journey, both literally as well as spiritually. As I mentioned earlier, Ian is essentially the ‘hero’ of the story, the one who always fights back when he needs to, while the Doctor is more keen on exploration and gathering knowledge while occasionally trying to escape from trouble with his friends or protect Susan.

Bit by bit though, he does learn to become more and more involved in larger ways. In The Sensorites, he helps to cure a plague that had affected the title race for some time, and while this was really to help save Ian’s life, it’s a nice sign of progression from the man who threatened to throw him out of the ship not that long before. This is the biggest reason why I love the first TARDIS team – Ian and Barbara, fantastic characters in their own right, arguably leave the biggest impact on the Doctor. They change him from someone who’s a traveller at best and a selfish old man at worst, to becoming the hero we all know and love, with perhaps the key moments occurring in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Not only does the Doctor make a choice from the start to directly fight the Daleks rather than try and escape (and fighting them as a consequence anyway), he also makes a conscious choice to leave Susan behind and let her start a happy life of her own. It’s only recently occurred to me how big that moment is. Yes, it’s emotional and heartbreaking. Yes, it’s the first companion departure ever on the show. But more than that: it’s the Doctor cutting off any remaining family ties to Gallifrey. Not out of spite, but because it’s the right thing to do. And, while he still does his best to look after his companions, it’s no longer just about him and Susan anymore. It’s about exploring the universe while still doing the right thing: saving planets, stopping alien monsters, doing what he can where he can. The Doctor once said to Ian that their destiny was “in the stars”. In his first incarnation, very gradually, we see him take his first steps towards it.

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.)

Body Horror and Bubblewrap: how Doctor Who helped shape my love of adult horror

Recently, it has come to my attention that the US channel Disney X.D. will start broadcasting David Tennant episodes of Doctor Who in the US. Apparently, there has been an outcry by a certain portion of fans over this, as they’re under the mistaken impression that Doctor Who is “not for kids” and that there aren’t many episodes that are “suitable for children”. This, of course, is bullshit. While a great deal of the expanded universe is most definitely aimed at the adult portion of the fanbase who grew up with the show, the television series is most definitely firmly aimed at creating new fans who have barely begun to grow up (at least in the physical sense, although the metaphorical sense definitely applies as well). In fact, frankly, it really does piss me off that a certain portion of the fanbase are so dismissive of the very idea of children watching Who when it’s always been such a big part of many viewers’s childhoods. It certainly was a massive part of mine, and in fact, helped to shape my taste in horror in later life. Here’s one of my earliest, clearest memories of being truly terrified from watching the show:

Noah has just shot his crewmate dead. There’s something clearly wrong with him, although it’s still not clear what it is. Suddenly, he looks down at his left hand, still in his pocket since being touched by some alien monster. Slowly, he starts to take it out…only it isn’t a hand anymore – not only has the human flesh gone, replaced by some bright green skin, but there aren’t even any fingers that make it look even remotely like a hand, or even human at all – it is just one green lump. As Noah looks on in complete horror and disgust, the all too familiar “sting” comes in and we cut to the end theme tune.

That my friend was the cliffhanger to part 2 of the Tom Baker classic, The Ark in Space. Only his 2nd serial in the role, it has been praised by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat as one of the best stories of the classic series. First time I saw it at the age of 8, I was shocked, horrified and practically traumatised. I was also eager for more.

Despite the fact that the guy’s hand had clearly just been wrapped in bubble wrap that had been spray-painted green, it’s still one of my favourite cliffhangers. It was my first introduction to the idea of body horror, and it stuck with me in a big way. Not just how grotesque the idea of your body changing into something non-human is, but even worse is the idea of you being aware of how it’s changing, and how slowly you lose your humanity and sense of identity with it. This is the only example I can think of right now that gets across both the physical and psychological horror and yet is PG rated. That, my friends, is the fucking magic of Who – introducing truly horrific ideas to children in such a way that make it both family-friendly and still shit-your-pants fucking terrifying.

I watched a lot of classic serials in my new-Who deprived youth, but the ones I always enjoyed the most were the early Tom Baker serials – stories like Pyramids of Mars, The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death were grim, full of gothic scenery and classic horror influences (including Hammer), violence (sometimes shockingly so, ESPECIALLY for stories rated U or PG and yet clearly had a few nasty scenes, complete with excellent use of fake blood), and deaths. It scared the shit out of me, I fucking loved it as a little kid, and I still do now.

I had enjoyed a lot of other Who, including the time travel complexity of The Day of the Daleks or the historical intrigue of The Aztecs, but the ones that evoked horror the most were usually my favourites. It’s funny, because for the longest time, I actually had no interest in adult horror. Classic Who, especially Tom Baker Who, seemed to scare me just fine. And if a PG rated horror could scare me like that, then god knows what an 18 rated horror would be like to a sensitive sod like me.

Of course, eventually you realise that other than old-school Who, there’s little horror out there that could be considered family-friendly and yet still creep you the fuck out (my best recommendation for a fucking Disney film that can do that is The Watcher in the Woods. Holy shit, that film was creepy!), and I had to admit to myself that I had a taste for it. Especially body horror. After my experience with the Ark in Space and The Seeds of Doom, I was eager to find out more in the genre.

Unsurprisingly, I became a lover of movies like David Cronenburg’s The Fly and The Thing, both of which were considerably less cheesier and much more gorier and yet, oddly enough, still stuck to the same basic concepts that made me love the idea of body horror in Doctor Who. The claustrophobic fear I felt in Ark and Robots of Death was shared with films like the first Alien film, and the fresher takes on old horror tropes that were common in Baker’s era were to be found in films like An American Werewolf in London or the gloriously gothic Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As I’ve grown older, I realised the key differences between adult horror and the horror I watched as a kid (and still do now) include more mature themes and allegory like sex, puberty or coming of age (Ginger Snaps was a great example that I watched recently), sexuality etc. Ideas that would be difficult to translate for a younger audience (certainly compared to bloody violence, apparently).

I think one of my favourite things about the revival is that it’s not only still aimed at kids, but also, with particular stories, still aimed at traumatising them, too. The violence isn’t quite as graphic as it used to be in the 70s at times, but it’s still definitely scary. Even better, it does this by doing what the classic series did and finding adult horror sources and finding new ways to make them family friendly. Event Horizon minus the gore? The Impossible Planet. Aliens but with statues? The Time of Angels. Pure fucking paranoia, distrust, and how terrible humanity can be when under pressure? Midnight. I really can’t tell you how glad I am that Who still tells stories like these, but more importantly, makes sure that kids can still watch them. Barely.

When Doctor Who was brought back in 2005, it could’ve easily gone down the easy route and attempted to be ‘mature sci-fi’ like every other sci-fi show at the time. It can find ways to cater to that kind of audience more used to that kind of tone, certainly, but not at the expense of sex scenes or, just as off-putting to children, seriously in-depth exploration of alien culture and politics and using that as an allegory for the modern world. I enjoy that kind of science fiction as an adult, but I think it’s more important for Who to still continue to appeal to children, to give them a taste of what great horror is like without scaring them off permanently. Because, unlike most adult horror stories, as scared as they get, they know one thing – no matter how many monsters there are in the universe, there’s always the Doctor to save the day.

I’m gonna be honest: knowing that a channel more aimed at children is going to be broadcasting Who eps to a young American audience has made me so happy. Everyone in Britain knows that Doctor Who is supposed to be watched by children as well as adults, but I think that idea has been a lot more difficult to sell to an American audience at times. Broadcasting on the same channel as Star Wars: Rebels is a good way to help break down that image barrier. Here’s to hoping that Who will not only reach a wider audience in the US, but an audience that can grow up with the show, too. While getting the same experience I had as a child and getting as close to being deeply traumatised as deemed humanly possible.

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

Doctor Who: Dark Eyes 4 Review

So, here we are. Over 2 years since the first series was released, we’ve reached the end of another era for the Eighth Doctor. It’s been a great and epic journey, full of adventure, darkness and emotion. The final series had a lot to live up to, and now that I’ve finally listened to it, did it live up to my incredibly high expectations (especially since I found it would be written by John Dorney and Matt Fitton, two of my favourite writers at Big Finish right now)? Hell yes. Here’s my episode-by-episode review.

(NOTE: while this review avoids spoilers, it certainly helps to have listened to the first 3 seasons first, and is definitely recommended for enjoying the full story, particularly for the final episode that wraps the whole story up. For buying the complete series, click on the following link: http://www.bigfinish.com/ranges/released/doctor-who—dark-eyes )

A Life in the Day

After the grim and epic darkness we had with Dark Eyes 3, A Life in the Day’s little story seems not only slightly more familiar but also wonderfully refreshing. With so many plot threads and arcs to resolve from the previous 3 seasons, it almost seems an odd way to begin the story, even with the way it ties into the arc of the season at least with the Doctor and Liv being hunted, but it fits in quite nicely. It’s a nice glimpse of Eight, after the sheer grimness he’s dealt with in recent years – since before Dark Eyes began, in fact – to be back to being his happy, stupid self once more: the kind of Doctor who gets excited about a brand new pair of shoes, lies terribly and gets terribly distracted. There have been times, especially early on, when McGann’s incarnation reminded me greatly of Tom Baker’s incarnation, particularly during the Douglas Adams era, and along with his heroism and how much he gets pushed to the edge at times, his childlike innocence and happiness at the little things is something I’ve always enjoyed.

What I really enjoyed about this story is that it’s a great fresh take on an old science fiction trope (which I won’t spoil here) that’s both clever and provides a great emotional core to the story, particularly to the Eighth Doctor’s current companion Liv. From her first appearance in 7th Doctor story Robophobia, Nicola Walker has been fantastic as Liv Chenka, and here she gets a really fantastic story for her character, seeing the contrast of her in the setting of early 20th century Earth and how it takes a lot for her to adjust to, as well as a really great emotional story for her character that leads to some brilliant drama.

This episode is a fantastic opening to the season, and is a great example of what I love about Big Finish’s stories: it combines some of the great science fiction ideas that we often saw in the best classic series stories, with the fantastic emotion of the new series. 5/5

The Monster of Montmatre

This is a story of two halves. The first half begins like your standard pseudo-historical Doctor Who episode: a beautiful historical setting, filled with colourful characters and criminals while not only providing a distinctly Whovian take on an old story (in this case, Moulin Rouge), but also including an alien horror that stalks the streets. Like A Life In The Day, this episode not only feels like very familiar territory but works very well because of it. The imagery of Eight and Liv mingling with some criminals like a couple of private investigators is fantastic, and really starts off the story well.

The second half, however, is where the arc really starts to kick in. I won’t go into too much detail how, but again, it leads into some great imagery, particularly towards the end, and the return of certain characters and plot threads are nicely handled.

It’s a pretty good episode, but it’s a testament to the quality of the episodes surrounding it that it’s my least favourite of the set – while it’s a great story, it’s not quite as emotional or as epic as the episodes surrounding it. However, it’s definitely an enjoyable listen, and really kicks off the season into high gear. 4/5

Master of the Daleks

Oh, I’ve mentioned before how much I love that title, haven’t I? God bless you guys at Big Finish for giving us such great titles. You know, it’s only recently occurred to me that there’s not a single story title in the TV series – both classic and new, shockingly – that have the word “Master” in them. Not a single one. There’s countless Dalek stories that actually end in “of the Daleks”, a couple of stories with “of the Cybermen”, and even the Autons, with only 4 TV appearances, have “Terror of the Autons” (ironically the Master’s first story). But nothing for the Master, not even a pun. (Admittedly, it probably doesn’t help that at least half the time, maybe even MOST of the time, his/her part in the story is mostly kept as a surprise until the shock/dumb cliffhanger. (The difference between ‘shock’ and ‘dumb’ of course is how well it’s done – for a genuine shock, see Utopia; for pure dumb, see Time-Flight.)) So god bless Big Finish for giving us a number of stories with his name in the title: Master, Mastermind, Eyes of the Master and Masterplan.

But this title? Master of the Daleks? A title like that has a lot to live up to. Oh, we’ve had a team-up between the two arch-nemesis before, of sorts, in Frontier in Space, but that wasn’t until the final 10 minutes, which was mostly designed to lead into Master-free story, Planet of the Daleks. A story with a title like this promises something much more full-on, and hopefully much more epic. We get exactly that, and a whole lot more.

Now, it’s difficult to go into this one without giving too much away, especially since it links so heavily into the overall arc, but I’m certainly going to try. First thing’s first: Alex MacQueen. Ever since first playing the role for Big Finish in 2012, he’s been absolutely brilliant as the Master. A really fun incarnation that, yes, definitely has echos of the more recent ones on TV such as John Simm and Michelle Gomez, but is also entirely his own. He’s a sadistic and deliciously evil incarnation that really, really takes pride in his work, and after his involvement in Dark Eyes 2 and 3, it’s a joy to hear him once again.

There’s also plenty of great dialogue that’s absolutely hysterical to listen to, particularly when it comes to his alliance with the Daleks. The best part of this whole relationship is that, when you’ve got two of the most devious and dangerous foes of the Doctor working together, everyone knows what will happen. The Master, the Daleks and especially anyone who’s watched or listened to even one of their stories knows the obvious: that they’re going to betray each other. (One of my favourite lines of dialogue from the story has the Dalek Strategists calculate the probability that the Master will betray them as being ‘one hundred per cent’. Not gonna lie, I genuinely laughed at that.) It’s just a matter of when and how. And that’s part of the real fun of this story, as you wonder who’s going to betray who first. When it does happen, of course, it leads to some epic awesomeness that really shows off how fantastic Big Finish are at telling the kind of stories that fandom want to hear while still being stories that are actually great in their own right.

But it’s not just the Master and the Daleks in this story – oh no! We also get the Sontarans thrown in, as well, played by the brilliant Dan Starkey, who’s pretty much a veteran at playing the species by now, both from his various appearances in the new series (and I’m not gonna lie, while I’d love for another villainous Sontaran story to show up on TV, I really love his performance as Strax) as well as several other Big Finish audios. Naturally, he’s also great here, and adds even more awesome greatness, particularly during the epic climax of the story.

There’s a lot more to it than that, though. While I’m not going to say why, there’s a major emotional element that’s incredibly important, not just to this story but also to the whole season, particularly the finale. Introducing and fleshing out this part of the plot is beautifully done, and it really lets you know that, as much as this episode explores a really, really, really bloomin’ awesome idea as the Master and the Daleks and the Sontarans in one full-on episode, it’s also a reminder that the story of Dark Eyes really is approaching its end.

John Dorney really is one of my favourite writers at Big Finish (then again, there’s quite a large number of favourite writers I have, if I’m honest, but that’s down to just how great Big Finish truly is), and it’s precisely for stories like this that are the reason why. Because for a story involving the Master, the Daleks, Sontarans, and a lot of important story elements that have to be tied up or developed enough to lead into the finale to a 16 episode epic, it can be very, very easy to just leave us with a complete mess. Instead, we get another classic example of what Big Finish does best when it comes to Doctor Who: give us stories that are big, epic, emotional, fun and brilliant to listen to, sometimes in just one single episode. Not just as great as the best of the TV series but even better. 5/5

Eye of Darkness

So this is it. The grand finale. After 4 series, this is where the story ends, and like Master of the Daleks, expectations were pretty darn high. Does it live up to them? Definitely.

The story makes great use of an important part of Who mythology to set the scene, using the setting to slowly put the pieces into place. Major characters and enemies return from previous series, leading to one final confrontation, and one heartbreaking ending.

Storywise, I loved it, even if there were a number of elements like returning characters and some really complex use of time travel that made it just a little bit hard to follow, at times. If I’m honest though, for me, that’s not a complaint, as it really adds a great bonus to listening to the series from scratch all over again and seeing how much the ending was foreshadowed and hopefully getting my head around all the timey-wimey pieces of it. But beyond that, the final few scenes were really emotional to listen to. Eight is the Doctor that I always feel the most sorry for, as I can’t think of any other incarnation who lost as much as he did. Sure, Ten had his fair share of misery, but he didn’t lose half as much as what Eight did. Heck, by the end, he even gave up being the Doctor! As always, Paul McGann really sells how heroic his Doctor tries to be, even when failure is inevitable, as well as what happens when he deals with the consequences afterwards.

This final episode is a finale with real emotional weight, although that’s unsurprising – Matt Fitton is gifted at those kinds of stories, particularly ones that have huge impact on the mythology. With stories like The Wrong Doctors, Afterlife, Signs & Wonders, Return of the Rocket Men, Luna Romana, and a great deal of the Dark Eyes stories, including the whole of season 3, it’s no surprise that he’s been tasked to wrap the whole story up. He’s written a number of other stories for Big Finish too, something I’m continually impressed by considering how few years he’s been writing for Big Finish. This story, particularly the final moments, is up there with his best. 5/5

It’s sad to know that a series as great and ambitious as Dark Eyes has ended, but really great to know that it did so on a high. And while I look forward to Doom Coalition, I’m glad that it’s going to be a long wait for it – not just because I plan on re-listening to the whole epic from scratch as soon as I can, but the ending of Dark Eyes 4 left me so emotionally wrecked that I’m glad it gives me a break from my favourite Doctor for a while. I haven’t felt like that since To The Death, and while this story isn’t quite as devastating or brutal (but seriously, what story is? Bloody hell, Nicholas Briggs, George R.R. Martin treats his characters with more mercy than you did with that story!), this is still gonna leave its mark on Big Finish mythology in a truly memorable way. And I can’t say much higher praise than that.