The audio rendition of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor may well be the great success story of Big Finish. Initially portrayed on screen as irascible and curmudgeonly, Baker has subsequently said that he intended for the role to develop slowly over several seasons. Unfortunately for him, the show hit an all-time low in its popularity within the BBC under the management of Michael Grade – and it has to be said, his stories on screen were also not very well received either. From his first full season, Vengence on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks are the ones usually singled out for praise (and rightly so), with Mark of the Rani by the dreaded Pip and Jane Baker coming in a distant third. His second and final season was the ill-fated Trial of a Time Lord cycle, which despite several good ideas (including an imaginative chase through the Matrix and a standout departure for the doctor’s companion Peri in which she is shaved, de-brained and then violently dispatched by Brian Blessed – well, until Lynda Bellingham takes it all back again in the closing seconds) is let down by tatty design and an unwieldy concept that could have suited perhaps a six-part serial at best. And then Baker was unceremoniously fired.
The Big Finish audios have done something truly inspired and inspiring – rescuing one of the least-loved and, it has to be said, most unlucky of TV Doctor Whos, and making him perhaps the most well-rounded of all the Time Lord audio incarnations. Played with nuance and empathy by Baker, his portrayal has not only broken free from the limiting shackles of such tight-fitting character traits as his exasperated repeating of a companion’s last words three times to a much warmer and sympathetic character than his brusque TV equivalent – especially when paired with Evelyn Smythe. These are six favourite stories that to me show a broad range of the approaches successfully adopted thus far in expanding and deepening the character. And most of them emphasise romantic couples (both in the stories and occasionally behind the scenes too). That’s not just because I’m an old softie, but because it is central to the Doctor’s relationship with Evelyn, peaking in a pair of Paul Sutton plays (the first of which I include below) and which have been given pride of place – otherwise Doctor Who and the Pirates (2003), a musical Doctor Who adventure based on Gilbert and Sullivan, would have been included. And excluding the one-part story ‘Urgent Calls’ by Eddie Robson from the I.D. (2007) release wasn’t easy either.
THE SPECTRE OF LANYON MOOR (2000) by Nicholas Pegg
This is a very early adventure and pairs the Doctor with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, played by the late Nicholas Courtney. The cast also includes the splendid husband and wife team of James Bolam and Susan Jameson as members of the landed gentry with perhaps just a little something to hide. Beginning with a Nigel Kneale-style invasion of ancient earth by aliens, presented in an ingeniously oblique fashion, we catch up with the Doctor in modern-day Britain at an archaeological site. A gothic / science fiction mashup that works extremely well and doesn’t take itself too seriously either (‘You mean to tell me my housekeeper has made a Faustian pact with a pixie from outer space? … when she gets back, she’s fired!’).
HOLY TERROR (2000) by Rob Shearman
This may very well be a smart and ingenious satire on religious practices (‘I thought I felt a twinge of something divine for a moment but it was just indigestion’) but to most fans, it’s the one with the penguin – or rather, an misomorph stuck in the shape of a penguin, in the same way that the TARDIS only looks like a 1960s police box. Frobisher was originally invented for the Doctor Who comic strip but makes a hilarious transition to audio sounding just like your average wise-cracking hardboiled American PI as voiced by Robert Jezek. The husband and wife team of Roberta Taylor and Peter Guinness appear as a feuding mother and son reminiscent of I, Claudius.
THE ONE DOCTOR (2001) by Gareth Edwards and Clayton Hickman
This delirious combination of Doctor Who and panto brings out the best in all participants, not least Bonnie Langford as Mel, probably the most maligned of all TV companions and who once again gets a much fairer shake on audio than she ever did on the box, though not without some necessary irony (‘Believe me when I’m scared, I’ll scream the paint off the wall!’). Panto favourite Christopher Biggins (or just ‘Biggins’ as he now wishes to be known, apparently) has great fun as a con man pretending to be the Doctor who exploits the ennui of those living at the far reaches of history (‘the vulgar end of time’), awaiting the end of eternity a-la Douglas Adams’ restaurant. Co-writer Gareth Edwards has ben contributing the lighter editions of the new TV series, under both Davies (the Shakespeare and Agatha Christie episodes) and Moffatt (the amusing excursion co-starring James Corden) but this collaboration with Hickman is his greatest success so far in terms of combining pastiche and self-referential parody without making the result feel disposable. Clever, funny and enormously entertaining – a real gem and it co-stars Mattt Lucas too.
JUBILEE (2003) by Rob Shearman
This is best known perhaps as the play that Shearman adapted as ‘Dalek’ for the new TV series starring Christopher Ecclestone – the core element of the plot, featuring a lone Dalek in captivity, is the same but the audio play is much broader and ambitious. And it stars the crowned king and queen of radio drama, Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres (the husband-and-wife team of Jarvis & Ayres Productions). But this is also a grand extravaganza of an adventure featuring a time-wimey plot set in a counter-factual ‘English Empire’ where verbal contractions have been outlawed and dalek movies are literally required viewing, using a large cast of characters to ruminates with intelligence on the rise and fall of empires and the way history, not necessarily truth, always belongs to the victor. At 142 minutes this a real epic and regularly tops listener’s polls for the Big Finsh audios – it is easy to understand why.
ARRANGEMENTS FOR WAR (2004) by Paul Sutton
Sutton (this was his first script for the range) has a special affinity for stories using war and conflict as a backdrop and this helps to create the most emotional adventure for the sixth doctor so far as his relationship with Evelyn is taken to the brink – the story was later continued in Thicker than Water (2005), which also featured Mel. Essential listening in terms of the Doctor/Smythe relationship.
PAPER CUTS (2009) by Marc Platt
Platt is a favourite writer for this particular fan and his particular aptitude for universe building and atmosphere are well in evidence in this story, the penultimate in the arc which paired the Doctor with Charlotte Pollard, only she isn’t quite herself here having had her body taken over by a parasitic creature in love with the Doctor. This story features the reptilian Draconians in huge space mausoleums designed along the lines of traditional Japanese architecture and culture – origami samurai anyone? Platt is not for everyone and many reviewers complained that this did not particularly advance the story as part of Charley Pollard’s trio of departing stories. But on its own terms this is a tense and original tale which makes a typically, for its author, bold use of imagery for a highly satifying story steeped in the tyle of the Jon Pertwee era (which is where the Draconians hail from).