Big Finish and other publishers and production companies like it, specialising as they do to a certain extent in continuing traditions established on television years ago, can be seen as trading on fan nostalgia, on remembrances of things past. When they began their range of Doctor Who audios in 1999, their objective was partly to plug a perceived gap in the market – the show had by then been off the air for quite some time and it seemed apparent that Paul McGann’s Eighth incarnation, the current incumbent, was unlikely to return as a regular TV character anytime soon. The McGann audios were therefore seen as directly continuing the series, as if it were moving forwards with the show in ‘the present’ while the releases featuring the earlier actors to play the role were aimed inevitably at recreating on audio a television era that had already come and gone. Thus their adventures would seemingly be stylistically mired in the past while McGann’s would be able to move more easily with the times. Once the show came back to TV in 2005 however this would also stop being the case with Christopher Ecclestone taking over the mantle. But Big Finish thankfully proved to be able to provide more than simple exercises in nostalgia and have consistently delivered content that, to these ears, is considerably superior to its television counterpart without betraying its roots but instead developing and building on the promise of the show and without just being hidebound by its past.
Having said that, Sylvester McCoy was very much my Doctor, so the selection I have made below is one coloured to an extent by an inevitable element of nostalgia perhaps. I came to Doctor Who somewhat late in life since as a boy, just before entering my teens, instead of watching Tom Baker as the Time Lord, I opted instead to watch Buck Rogers in ITV and was in fact much more impressed by the more adult and truly baffling abstract darkness and originality of Sapphire and Steel (and consequently love most of the Big Finish audio rendition of that show – for instance see what i say about them here).
But my entrance to University in 1987 coincided with the appearance of McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and that is when I first really started watching the show regularly – and I was frankly amazed at how complex the narratives seemed to have become, completely lacking that campy jokeyness that I thought it had descended into. Instead I was sucked in by complex stories like Ben Aaronovich’s ballsy military adventures Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield, the Dennis Wheatley-meets-Nigel Kneale mixture of science and myth in The Curse of Fenric by Ian Briggs and especially Marc Platt’s gloriously dense and near-incomprehensible Ghost Light – these and others all enthused me with bold and imaginative storylines that seemed to make few concessions to younger viewers in terms of their ambition; or to the increasingly militant Who fanbase in terms of its serving the show’s past glories – this seemed a series intent on striking out on its own into uncharted territories, also making the Doctor a darker and more mysterious figure, quite an achievement after a quarter of a century on the screen; and what is more it seemed, on balance, to be winning. Except the show was scheduled opposite Coronation Street, the rating became catastrophically low and its standing at the BBC could barely have been any lower anyway, so as everyone knows, in 1989 it was cancelled. The team of Ace ( a rebellious teenager that was a clear influence on Rose as played on TV by Billie Piper) and the Doctor would enjoy a new lease of life on the printed page in a series of ‘New Adventures’ novels – and then actors Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (and Bonnie Langford) returned to the fold when, ten years after the BBC’s TV cancellation, Big Finish picked up the mantle and an official licence, with some of the following audios …
THE FIRES OF VULCAN (2000) by Steve Lyons
Bonnie Langford’s Mel makes a much better impression on audio than she ever did on the telly in this, her audio debut, set in dying Ancient Roman days of Pompeii, just before being encased in ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. This is a traditional historical for the most part, very much in the style of the original Hartnell era stories, but given an ingenious spin by Steve Lyons who encases the TARDIS, and his story, in a bookend that seems to spell the doom for the Doctor – indeed McCoy is by turns edgy and subdued, believing that this will in fact be his last adventure. This is a highly enjoyable story, not just for its clever plot gymnastics but also for its depiction of a society on the edge of extinction and the effect this has on Mel who, like Donna in the TV story The Fires of Pompeii (2008) is similarly unable to follow the Doctor in his belief that he must not intervene and let tragedy continue in its pre-ordained course. The destruction of Pompeii has been depicted many, many times in drama but this is an exciting excursion, one that this reviewer certainly preferred to its slightly turgid TV equivalent.
THE SHADOW OF THE SCOURGE (2000) by Paul Cornell
The time-traveling archaeologist Bernice Summerfield, originally invented by Cornell for the series of Who novels published by Virgin, makes her first and, for the time being, only appearance in the main Doctor Who range in this highly enjoyable romp set in a hotel in which a knitting convention (sic) and a scientific experiment gone awry collide. The Seventh Doctor is an inveterate plotter, forever keeping secrets and manipulating all those around him and this comes through particularly well here as he appears to be in league with the invading ‘Scourge’, aliens from another dimension that feed on fear and despair and plan on using this to invade the Earth. There are lots of in-jokes about fans and conventions and cliched SF trappings but Bernice makes for a loyal and steadfast companion and one wishes that, apart from a Companion Chronicle, she would re-appear.
COLDITZ (2001) + THE ARCHITECTS OF HISTORY (2010) by Steve Lyons
David Tennant gets to utter the immortal ‘For you the war was is over’ in this WW2 story set in the infamous POW camp. The Doctor and Ace are here in another historical story by Lyons which avoids alien races and in which it is the Doctor’s presence that creates the SF eleement in the shape of a very clever paradox plot. This production is often criticised for the surprisingly sub-par sound design, which is definitely not up to Big Finish’s usual high standards. However, despite some tinny ‘footsteps’ there is a great plot, Ace gets a great big meaty role, there is lots of good dialogue and in professor Klein (played by Tracey Childs) we find a wonderfully well-realised character, who seems to belong to a parallel version of World War II, one in which the Nazis won and in which she perhaps even has a right to believe should exist. This aspect of ensuring one’s historical destiny and the idea of manipulating events to confirm one historical primacy over another is explored further in Lyons’ sequel, Architects of History, one of a trilogy of plays in which the Nazi professor is paired with McCoy’s Doctor. That proved to be an excellent and well-received trio of plays, to which Architects was the spectacular climax with in addition has a very special ‘guest star’- these are amongst the very best of Big Fnish’s output.
MASTER (2003) by Joseph Lidster
The Doctor is traveling alone in this exceptionally dark and gothic story. It forms part of a trilogy dedicated to great villains of the series, the other two being Nev Fountain’s Omega and Lance Parkin’s Davros. On the planet of Perfugium the Master is suffering from amnesia following a devastating accident that has left him badly scarred, physically and mentally. He now has a new life and new friends, though he is haunted by presentiments of anguish and horror that he can’t explain, but which are brought to the surface by a series of grisly local murders, and the appearance of the Doctor himself. This is a play that revels in its claustrophobic ‘old dark house’ atmosphere and finds willing guest stars in its small cast who really do provide some excellent performances, most notably Geoffrey Beevers in the title role, reprising his performance from both The Keeper of Traken on TV and the audio Dust Breeding (2001); and TV Who regular Philip Madoc, who here appears as the police inspector investigating the murders and as the Master’s friend. Not everything gels in this long play – in particular the bookends featuring a would-be assassin, which do usefully introduce the Doctor early since he will then be absent for the rest of the first Act but which otherwise prove to be a bit of a sham – and the personification of evil in the play as a kind of cosmic force is also pretty unconvincing. However, as a sepulchral examination of the dark bond tying the two Time Lords together, this play is pretty hard to beat and very memorable.
FLIP FLOP (2003) by Jonathan Morris
This is a truly original idea – a 2-disc release in which the story can be listened to irrespective of the order in which the discs are played. Morris is perhaps the Big Finish author that comes closest to employing the structural shenanigans and timey-wimey games beloved by Steven Moffat for the TV series and this is just one of the many fine contributions he has made, once again featuring Bonnie Langford’s Mel. It’s a near irresistible conceit that is pulled off without showing the great effort and strain that doubtless went into its creation.
THE ANGEL OF SCUTARI (2009) by Paul Sutton
The current Seventh Doctor team, featuring the nurse Thomas Hector ‘Hex’ Schofield and Dorothy ‘Ace’ McShane as the doctor’s companions, is here thrown into another historical that does not feature monsters or futuristic elements other than the TARDIS. Sutton has in previous occasions for the series shown his interest in history and conflicts and this story is set in 1854 during the war in the Crimea and amongst its historical characters includes Florence Nightingale, who beguiles Hex and Leo Tolstoy, who is quickly smitten with Ace. The story is told in a thoroughly disjointed fashion but is kept well under control by Sutton. The story itself would perhaps be a little weak were it not for its paradoxical underpinnings, but these are integral to the appeal of Who and this is an adventure that proves thoroughly satisfying. It fed directly into the a trilogy that dealt with Hex’s family and his potential destiny and so ends on a cliffhanger not resolved until the following year in the admittedly continuity-heavy Project: Destiny (2010), which itself continued, at some quite considerable remove, from the much earlier adventures Project: Twilight (2001) and Project: Lazarus (2003), all written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright. This may put some listeners off but Scutari definitely stands up on its own.