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

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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.

Geeky Stuff I’m Excited About #2 – Doctor Who: Dark Eyes 4

So what’s it about?

This box set of audio stories is the fourth and final season of the audio series Dark Eyes, featuring the Eighth Doctor as played by Paul McGann. The series began in 2012 and continued with two more seasons in 2014, mainly focusing on the Doctor and his adventures with companions Molly O’Sullivan, a nursing assistant from World War I, and Liv Chenka, who had previously met the Doctor in his seventh incarnation. The series has also featured recurring enemies the Daleks, the Master, and the Eminence, the last of which is currently exclusive to Big Finish. The main arc throughout the series has been Molly, her ‘dark eyes’ and why she’s important to a number of people, including the Time Lords, the Daleks and the Master. While Molly won’t be in the final season of the series, previous key enemies of the series will appear as well as the Sontarans.

Why am I excited about this story?

Well, there’s the obvious: I’m a big fan of both the Eighth Doctor and the Dark Eyes series in general, so the final series of this is something I’ve been anticipating for a few months now. I also adore (and spoiler warning, for those who’ve not yet listened to UNIT: Dominion) Alex MacQueen’s take on the Master. It’s pretty extreme and over-the-top at times, but he’s just so damn fun and lovable, not to mention ruthless and pure evil. He’s featured pretty heavily in the series as well, so it’s great that he’s showing up for the final series. The Daleks also kicked the story off, so it’s great for them to return in the final season.

But the Master and the Daleks in one story? Holy. Crap.

True, we’ve had the Master and the Daleks team up before in the TV series, but that was in Frontier in Space over 40 years ago and, frankly, only something we got a glimpse of in the final 10 minutes. It’s still cool as hell to see two of the Doctor’s greatest enemies teaming up, but still, it’s a shame that it hasn’t happened on screen since, and not explored in greater detail.

Thankfully, that’s what Big Finish is for: doing the seriously cool ideas that the TV series won’t do, and even better, actually creating truly awesome stories out of those cool ideas: The Light at the End, teaming up the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctors; The Worlds of Doctor Who, a story told across numerous spin-off series before climaxing as a Doctor Who episode; An Earthly Child, showing what happens when the Doctor finally returns to Earth in the 22nd century to see Susan, centuries after he had left her in The Dalek Invasion of Earth; and so many more. Stories that could come across as bad fanfic if not handled properly but still turn out to be great Doctor Who stories in their own right that are usually fun to listen to. So naturally, the idea of a full-length Master/Dalek team-up written and produced by the excellent team at Big Finish is almost too awesome to think about. The best part about it, though? They actually used the most Doctor Who-ey title that, for some reason, NO ONE has used before:

Master of the Daleks.

I mean, seriously…how the hell has that title not been used until now?

But also, I’m excited because the previous seasons have been so great and epic, and I know this final season will not only continue that trend, but, I expect, wrap the series up in a satisfying way. I’m continually impressed by the excellent work Big Finish does and, as much as I enjoy the TV series, I generally prefer Big Finish’s output, especially with their Eighth Doctor stories. Even though we now all know how his story ends due to the excellent Night of the Doctor, they can still take his Doctor into big and dramatic directions, something I know will continue with Dark Eyes 4.

When the series does finish, I know I’m going to be pretty sad when the story is over. And I also know that I’ll be immediately looking forward to the next Eighth Doctor series Doom Coalition in November. And, of course, I’ll be re-listening to the entire series and blogging about it as a whole, too. In the meantime, I’m just gonna enjoy the anticipation of more epic Who coming up in a little over a week.

Geeky Stuff I’m Excited About #1- UNIT: The New Series: Extinction

So today Big Finish Productions, makers of a variety of audio series based on many cult TV series, most notably (of course) classic Doctor Who and a variety of their own spin-offs, made a special announcement: a brand new series starring Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart in UNIT: The New Series, beginning in November with a release titled Extinction. To say it’s made me excited is an understatement.

So what’s it about?

UNIT is an organisation that’s featured in a lot of Doctor Who stories, both classic and new. Essentially a military organisation created to fight more unusual threats, most notably extra-terrestrial, it’s been an important part of the mythology of the show since 1968 and even more-so in the early 70s, when the production team focused on more Earth-based stories to save costs. In the classic series, the organisation was lead by Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, arguably one of the oldest and closest friends the Doctor ever had. In the new series, his daughter, Kate Stewart, has lead UNIT to become a military organisation lead by its scientists, and is usually the first person to deal with the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors in the event of a worldwide crisis. This new spin-off is to focus on her character and her team while dealing with alien invasions without the Doctor’s help.

Currently, not many details have been released about the overall plot of the series, other than every six months from November onwards, a brand new 4-part season will be released, the first of which will be titled Extinction and focus on the team battling an invasion by the Autons, a popular monster from both the classic and the new series.

Big Finish have previously released 2 seasons of UNIT based more on the classic series, the first featuring the Brigadier and mostly new characters back in 2005, the second released in 2012 with the overall title of Dominion and featured the Seventh Doctor and several popular characters from Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories.

Why am I excited about this story?

The most immediate thing that springs to mind is that, while Big Finish Productions have been working with actors and characters that have appeared in the classic series for over a decade and a half, due to licensing restrictions, they have never been allowed to have any stories that included elements or actors that had only appeared from the revival that started in 2005 onwards. This meant that they could tell stories that focused on the Doctor, but only feature stories focused on his first 8 incarnations, so nothing featuring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi or even John Hurt. They could focus on monsters from the classic series (eg the Daleks or the Cybermen, for example) or create their own, but they couldn’t use any that had been exclusively created for the new series (so no Weeping Angels stories with classic Doctors, unfortunately). In short, anything featured in the classic series was ok, but anything from the new series was off limits.

Until now.

Now technically, the character of Kate Stewart had originally been created for expanded universe stories back in the 90s, but Jemma Redgrave portraying her had been exclusive to the new series, so this is really is a massive step for Big Finish. Does this mean that anything else from the new series might be appearing in Big Finish stories any time soon? Maybe, maybe not, but either way, this really is an excellent first step. Big Finish Productions have easily made some of my favourite Doctor Who stories ever, and their spin-off series have been consistently excellent, especially. I am a huge fan of Dalek Empire, Gallifrey and Jago & Litefoot especially. So if they can expand their creativity to focus on characters and monsters from the new series, perhaps even find ways of incorporating classic and new series elements into stories, then I’d more than love it. (Big Finish, if you can find a way to make a Jago & Litefoot & Paternoster Gang crossover and blow the minds of every classic/new Who series fan, please do so asap!)

But just as brilliant as that is the fact that Big Finish are doing another series of UNIT. The box set release Dominion in 2012 was truly epic, thrilling stuff. It was a story that honestly, I hadn’t been too excited about pre-release (bear in mind, I was much more looking forward to the new Eighth Doctor release Dark Eyes at the time), but it really blew me away. It had an incredible sense of scale, featuring numerous alien invasions and a wide variety of monsters, while still giving us plenty of memorable and brilliant human characters, plus a few surprises and shocks along the way. It almost felt like a New Series finale with four times the budget and a classic Doctor. While I’ve heard the first season of UNIT that was more focused on gritty, stand-alone storytelling and enjoyed it, I loved the more epic storytelling of Dominion so much more. Extinction sounds like it’s going to continue that style of epic scale and character focus, so new series or not, I’m more than happy for a new season of UNIT.

It’s going to be a long wait until November, but I’m sure it’ll be more than worth it.