The saddest part of any Doctor Who fan’s run is when their Doctor regenerates. In a flash, everything you know dies and a new man goes sauntering away. It’s painful, it’s scary, and it’s the reason this show has lasted 52 years. However, if you ever feel like revisiting some faces (but just the old favourites, eh?) there’s always Big Finish. Every month this amazing audio company produces new content based on the series with the original actors who played our beloved Doctors and companions on TV reprising their roles to give us stories that breathe new life into classic eras.
In this JAM-PACKED month, we get stories featuring the Fifth Doctor, the Fourth Doctor, the Second Doctor, Winston Churchill, and Torchwood to keep our ears busy as we take the long way round into 2016. Over 10 hours of Who per month!? I’m beginning to think my iPod needs to be bigger on the inside.
Main Range #208: The Waters of Amsterdam
(Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa)
Written by Jonathan Morris
Directly following the events of Arc of Infinity, Tegan has only just rejoined Nyssa and the Doctor when an ex-boyfriend comes crashing unwantedly back into her life. This is about as far away from a Doctor Who plot as you might imagine, and for the majority of the first episode that’s legitimately all there is to the story. Yet for that reason, I couldn’t love it more.
I adore Tegan. She’s opinionated, she’s loud, she’s Australian, and she’s one of the few companions memorable not only for standing up to the Doctor but holding her own while doing it. This four-parter does a satisfying job of finally addressing Tegan’s year away from the Tardis through her relationship with new character Kyle, and we end up examining her strengths and flaws as a human being as the collapse of the relationship is retold during a coffee shop conversation with Nyssa. Treated earnestly, Tegan and Kyle’s relationship feels real. Janet Fielding is given some really great material to work with in her internal conflict, and I’m glad it’s something Jonathan Morris took the fullness of time to explore.
Of course, there are aliens in this story as well. In case the title wasn’t enough indication, there are some similarities between this story and a certain 2009 special starring David Tennant, though not enough to make it more suitable to the upcoming Classic Doctors, New Monsters box set, unfortunately. Our actual antagonists, the Nix, are goblin-like creatures made of running water, hunting the Doctor and his companions through the streets of Amsterdam in both 1983 and the 17th century. Not terrifying, they are at least interesting, and the sound of running water often alerts the listener to their presence before the characters are aware of them in a genuinely creepy way.
Also in this story is the Master. No, not him. The Dutch Master Rembrandt whose drawings of “Vessels of the Stars” seem just a touch too anachronistic not to be related to the goings on. Portrayed here as a sad, broken man, Rembrandt’s conversation with Nyssa about loss is a poignant moment on both sides and another genuine highlight of the story. Themes from Vincent and the Doctor apply.
Buy It. Overall a character-driven piece with alien invasion as the backdrop, this audio drama represents Big Finish at their best: filling in the gaps left in the show’s history and strengthening the core of characters we already know while delivering a truly entertaining story. If you’re already invested in the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, or particularly Tegan, this audio comes highly recommended.
Fourth Doctor Adventures: Wave of Destruction
(Fourth Doctor, Romana II, K9)
Written by Justin Richards
Now here’s an idea that just works: the rebellious Fourth Doctor in an adventure centred around a 1960s pirate radio station, defending the Earth from aliens that travel on radio waves. It’s a setting that plays to the strengths of Tom Baker’s eccentric performance, and produces a story that’s enjoyable all the way through.
In Series 5 of The Fourth Doctor Adventures, the “current” companion is Romana II, herself a fellow Time Lord and the Doctor’s intellectual equal (if not his better) who challenges him at every turn. Having the Doctor and companion on equal footing is a marvelous dynamic unique to Romana stories, and to see this pair in their element again is an indulgent delight. Nothing in this story pushes their relationship in quite the same way Series 4 pushed the Doctor and Leela, unfortunately, but for the first story in a series of 8 episodes, the successful reintroduction of these two time-travelling Time Lords is a solid foundation for what’s to come.
The monsters of this story, the Vardans, are just as sinister here as in their first appearance in The Invasion of Time. In true Doctor Who style, they make us fear something completely ordinary, putting me on the edge of my seat merely with the sound of an upbeat radio jingle. I honestly had to go back and double-check that this was a TV villain, as their gimmick makes them perfect for audio (though also, I must imagine, fairly pleasant for a budget-conscious BBC as well). In human form, the villains have all the emotionless charm of what you’d expect from a Fourth Doctor villain in a faithful recreation of the era.
Overall, the Season 17 influence in this one is strong, with guest character Barnaby Miller standing proudly alongside Duggan from City of Death in terms of being a memorable bumbling sidekick who ends up proving their use in the end. Other standout scenes such as an exasperated Romana NOT shopping for plastic handbags or an awkward Romana filling in as pirate radio DJ (can you tell how much I like Romana?) make for a fun ride which will keep you smiling through death and destruction.
Buy It. This is straightforward lighthearted sci-fi all the way, with a fast pace (the FDAs are presented as hour-long adventures similar to the current TV series) and broad secondary characters supporting the action. It’s great to see what a delight a Doctor Who episode can be without the fate of the universe weighing heavily on its shoulders. This is fun. Not life-changing, but definitely worth checking out.
The Churchill Years
(Winston Churchill, Doctors 9,10,11)
Written by Phil Mulryne, Alan Barnes, Justin Richards, Ken Bentley
Definitely the most unexpected of the forthcoming New Series material, The Churchill Years gives us four hour-long stories starring each of the three New Series Doctors Big Finish currently has access to. Though not played by their actual Doctors, Ian McNeice narrates each story from Churchill’s perspective in the style of Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles, which, with the addition of a small cast of actors taking on supporting roles, makes it easy to slip into this new era of storytelling Big Finish is dipping its toes into without risking too much.
To be honest, Winston Churchill would not have been my first choice for the protagonist of a box set. He has too much of his own history to tiptoe around and Victory of the Daleks showed us that, as an in-canon character, Churchill would actually be far too interested in using the Doctor’s technology to win the war to be of any real use to us as a companion. It is in the approach Big Finish has taken because of these limitations, however, that makes this box set clever. Churchill is a passive figure in these stories, looking on while the Doctor remains the one to truly push the story forward. He’s not a companion. He’s an onlooker: someone who just happens to be there. He does take part in the stories, of course, but for the most part he’s still involved in his own problems, something that hasn’t been done nearly as much in other spin-off material such as UNIT or Jagoe & Litefoot.
This box set also gives us something I thought would take a lot longer to actually see happening in Big Finish than it did: the Ninth Doctor. While it’s not Christopher Eccleston’s performance, the introduction of the black leather jacketed war survivor in the first story got the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as the music swelled around him. The fact that he’s travelling alone, as I hoped he would be, raises questions about where in his timeline this takes place, though for the moment I’m spending less time analyzing and more time absolutely enjoying a FANTASTIC character who’s been sadly underrepresented in expanded universe material so far. If ever we’re lucky enough to get Eccleston involved in Big Finish, they’ll have set a solid foundation for his return.
As for the actual stories, there’s no shortage of interesting material to be found. The Time War and World War II come together as pieces of Gallifreyan technology find their way to England. Churchill’s Black Dog of his depressive moods becomes flesh and blood. Churchill, along with Kazan, the companion from A Christmas Carol, travel back to the time of Julius Caesar. And something dark waits for Churchill in his dying days. It would be impossible to give a thorough rundown of these hour-long stories in this (already-not-too) brief review.
Buy It. While Winston Churchill wasn’t exactly the character I was dying to see more of in Big Finish, his role as central protagonist of this box set is one of the more interesting perspectives I’ve seen these stories told in, and they are acted marvellously by Ian McNeice & Co. Most tantalizingly, references to Churchill knowing the doctor even before the Ninth leaves room for further stories in this series with Classic Doctors if this set proves successful.
Early Adventures: The Isos Network
(Second Doctor, Jamie, Zoe)
Written by Nicholas Briggs
The Second Doctor and Cybermen go together like bread and butter, so when Big Finish announced the return of the match-up in The Isos Network, my expectations were set pretty high. I’ve been an increasing fan of this second series of Early Adventures in comparison to the first, either due to a polishing of the format or just because I find the Second Doctor more interesting than the First I’m not sure, but stories such as The Yes Men and The Black Hole have been right up my alley. Unfortunately, after the sheer number of Cyberman stories last year, it seems like the writers at Big Finish have had trouble pushing just one more out the gates, and this particular Early Adventure falls flat to my ears.
Picking up right after The Invasion as a direct sequel, this audio really does feel more like a set of “lost episodes” from the serial than an adventure in its own right. Its ideas are so intrinsically tied to The Invasion that it’s hard for it to find its own two feet, and the music, while iconic, blares out in a distracting repetition that drives home the fact that I’m listening to the same story over again.
The acting, as always, is excellent for the period they are recreating. Frazer Hines continues to deliver a knockout performance as the Second Doctor as well as Jamie, delivering such a pitch-perfect recreation of Patrick Troughton’s role it’s hard to imagine anyone else living up to the legacy. Wendy Padbury brings her all to Zoe, and both share the role of narrator in a way that keeps the action fluid and not confused by the dual roles.
A big issue I have with this audio, however, is that it seems to carry on creating visual images in an audio medium! Ideas such as Isos II being defended by giant slugs are tailor made to see brought to life in the full budgetary splendor 1960s BBC special effects. They could impress, or at least entertain in that manifestation. On audio they are… slugs. Unlike many of Big Finish’s wonderful creations, I just don’t see the point of these. The visual has trumped the idea, and it’s just not as exciting on audio.
Skip It. It pains me to say it, but this story is just played out. It’s not a bad adventure, but the standout moments have been done before in other audios from Big Finish, and there are far better audios in the Early Adventures range which are worth your money. As tempting as it is to hear the Second Doctor up against Cybermen, it’s an idea with its roots in nostalgia. It’s time to move the Second Doctor into new places rather than simply repeating his past.
Torchwood: Uncanny Valley
(Captain Jack Harkness)
Written by David Llewellyn
The Torchwood audios were a highlight of Big Finish’s release schedule for me last year, which is definitely saying something as I somehow never actually found the time to get into the TV series. Yet the allure of Captain Jack can only be held back for so long, and I am now five episodes deep into the universe of this Doctor Who spinoff that approached the universe from a far more adult perspective.
And this is definitely an adult story. A man, Neil Redmond, and his doppelganger, at first conspirators, become increasingly at odds with each other in a story which questions not only what it is to be human but how we interact with the world through technology, what is our self, and what it is to physically connect with another human being. Far more so than previous releases, this story has a hard-R sexual undertone that isn’t completely out of place in this series, but definitely reminds you that this isn’t Doctor Who proper and sets a standard for future stories to remind us that Torchwood isn’t going to hold back.
It is also the most removed episode from Torchwood’s ongoing characters or storyline. The bulk of the story is told in flashback, in one man’s voice, as we witness the development and life of Neil Redmond’s doppleganger. Jack Harkness is here to investigate, but other than one scene in which the omnisexual Jack audibly lives up to his title, he is not an active participant in the tale.
The style of narration used in this story was a little heavy handed for my tastes. I prefer full-cast stories and, for the most part, the Torchwood audios have attained that feel with the minimal casts they’ve been given. This was an issue I had with the first episode of this series, also starring by Captain Jack as its protagonist, so this may have been a conscious choice with his character but it’s one I’m not a fan of.
Wait and See. In terms of mythology or standalone episodes, this is very much a standalone. An adult story that takes us to dark places, this audio is interesting, but compared to what else Big Finish has been putting out this month, this is something I feel listeners can skip, or at least hold out on until a sale makes it more affordable.
OTHER RELEASES FROM BIG FINISH THIS MONTH: The Prisoner Volume 1, The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 5, Short Trips: Gardens of the Dead