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.