A few years ago two things in my life happened almost simultaneously – I became a commuter and I became a devoted Doctor Who fan, following years of urging by a friend who had grown up on the Time Lord’s adventures. Having come late to the party I bought lots of DVDs and books on his recommendation to make up for lost time and had a great time in the process. But how to progress? Finding myself with 3 hours a day travelling to and from work Monday to Friday I finally succumbed to the urge to buy an MP3 player and, having picked up an issue of Doctor Who Magazine, I started to get acquainted with the Big Finish audio productions – and have never looked back.
In many ways the audio adventures are more satisfying that the original TV productions, not least because they have the advantage of using many of the same performers but have none of the budget constraints. In addition the audios, being made for modern niche listeners, can use more up-to-date narrative ideas and constructions, freed of some of TV’s constraints and formulae to tackle more adult situations while remaining faithful to the original premise of the show. I should state in addition that having never read the New Adventures series of books published by Virgin, I have only second hand knowledge of the extent to which many of the audios took their cue from the books, which seemingly took a sometimes much more radical approach to keeping the TV characters alive following the 1989 cancellation of the series.
Since 1999 the Big Finish production company has held a licence from the BBC to make new Doctor Who adventures on audio featuring all the Time Lord incarnation up to Paul McGann, the eighth actor in the role. Audio books featuring the new TV doctors are produced in-house by the BBC. Thus Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy have joined McGann in extending their television performances with generally outstanding results. Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor is the one notable absence but he has recently played the role again in two serials made in-house at the BBC and plans are now apparently in place for him to join the Big Finish Team. In addition the ongoing ‘Companion Chronicles’ series of spinoffs feature new adventures of the Doctor as played by actors who have passed away but which are recounted by his friends and associates. While the main range are two-hour radio production, more or less four half-hour episodes in the style of the original TV series, with a full cast, the Companion series are usually shorter (about an hour-long) and are generally presented as speaking books with one or two readers.
Peter Davison is the earliest and therefore oldest, chronologically speaking, of the actors currently reprising his role for Big Finish, so I begin with him. Brought in originally to replace the hugely popular Tom Baker, who played the role for 7 years on TV without a break, Davison’s persona was deliberately designed as a contrast and is therefore much kinder and softer than that of his predecessor. On audio, with Davison 25 years older, his characterisation retains his enthusiasm and dynamism as well as his forbearance and just sheer ‘niceness’, but can also be crotchety, as seen recently in his encounters with Thomas Brewster, the cockney Victorian wastrel who has proved quite a divisive figure in fandom. The top 5 I have selected (being the fifth doctor, it seemed like the right number somehow) are taken from nearly 10 years of productions. They appear here in chronological order, which is to say in the order in which they were first released.
LOUPS-GAROUX (2001) by Marc Platt
Marc Platt wrote Ghost Light, one of the highlights of the final 1989 season of the classic TV adventures and is the only author who worked on the original show to have become a regular contributor to the audios. His is a highly original mind, one that delights in creating worlds through complex juxtapositions. In this story the Doctor is teamed with Turlough (Mark Strickson) and becomes involved with werewolves in Brazil in 2080. There are several fine set-pieces, most notably an extended section on a train, but its the way that the atmosphere is rendered and the characters are brought vividly to life that lingers. At 137 minutes this in one of the longer productions (nowadays this has been reigned in by Big Finish to reduce the strain in post production)) but it has no problem justifying its extended length. Eleonor Bron and Nicky Henson give excellent performances alongside the leads for what proves to be a highly emotional journey for the Doctor.
SPARE PARTS (2002) by Marc Platt
For many fans this is one is the pinnacles of Big Finish’s early output – an attempt to provide an origin story for the Cybermen in much the same way that the TV serial Genesis of the Daleks helped redefine the mean-spirited pepperpots by travelling back to their creation. The depiction of how the Cybermen first came to be, and the effect that this has on those left behind on the home planet Mondas as it heads for destruction, is handled in devastating fashion – one sequence in particular, reminiscent of WW Jacobs’ classic horror tale ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, in which a newly Cyber-ised daughter returns home to her family, is truly unforgettable. This story teams the Doctor with Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), probably the best of the TV companions he worked with. This serial inspired a two-part cyberman story for the new Who TV series featuring David Tennant and Platt was afforded a credit at the end of the televised show although the final episodes are fairly different from the audio production. It’s easy to see why so many fans consider this audio drama to be a classic with its strong storyline and a particularly good cast (especially Paul Copley as a soulful father). Don’t miss it.
THE KINGMAKER (2006) by Nev Fountain
Perhaps my favourite of the Davison audios so far, this is an extraordinarily intricate story, one that combines Shakespeare, the Master, Richard III (real and imagined) and provides another theory about the Princes in the Tower. The companions here are Peri (the perky and ever-buoyant Nicola Bryant) and audio original Erimem, a princess of ancient Egypt. This extremely long story (virtually a six-parter running in excess of 145 minutes) is packed with plot and jokes (the cast includes Arthur Smith and Jon Culshaw, who provides his familiar Tom Baker impersonation). The latter will be mostly enjoyed by aficionados of the Doctor’s adventures (especially the references to the novelisation) but the plot is particularly ingenious. Plus this is a story that actually dares to tackle, albeit tongue in cheek, just why the Doctor is referred to as ‘Doctor Who’. A classic and you’d be a fool to miss it.
CIRCULAR TIME (2007) by Paul Cornell & Mike Maddox
This is a unusual production, one of the occasional releases made up of individual plays rather than a single serial. The stories, one for each of the four seasons, are all quite different from each other but the clear favourite with listeners is ‘Autumn’ set during a cricket season in Stockbridge, a town created for the Who comic strip – it is a melancholy story which sees Nyssa enjoy a brief love affair as she tries to write an autobiographical story to remember Traken, her lost homeland. ‘Spring’, set among the avian inhabitants of a lush planet, is probably the weakest of the quartet but all the stories are well written and performed, with David Warner standing out in particular for his performance as Sir Isaac Newton in ‘Summer’. Davison had what is probably held to be the most dynamic and successful of on-screen regenerations from the classic period and the final story riffs on that in a way that this listener found moving and surprising though others have been more critical.
COBWEBS (2010) by Jonathan Morris
This very recent story is a clever paradox tale, typical of author Jonathan Morris’ love of timey-whimey plots which are well in sync with Steven Moffat’s approach to such storylines. It seems to have been overshadowed by some by the fact that it brought back Janet Fielding in the role of Tegan, but it is also an excellent story, unusually for this Doctor one with a hard SF surface and a fairly dark, even bleak, narrative as we follow the team, and a much older Nyssa, in their search for the cure to a virus that appears to have wiped out the crew of a space station.