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On occasion of recent price cuts on the first 50 installments of their main monthly release line, I thought it apropos to chat a bit about the excellent Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas.

As a Whovian since the early to mid 80’s who harbors decidedly mixed feelings about the post millenial “reboot” of the series, I was quite pleased to discover that most if not all of the surviving original Doctors (and a number of their companions) were in fact still active, and still crafting tales and ongoing adventures in the traditional style.

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With few concessions to the overtly Hollywood-style bombast, overreliance on unimpressive CGI effects and dumbed down scriptwriting that the new series is comprised of and employs as its stock in trade, here once again we find the sort of stories that revolve around ideas and characterization, rather than cue card reliant, beat point-derived paint by numbers bits of exposition designed entirely to get to the next contrived emotional high point.  Will the Doctor or his companion die again this week (for the 8th time this season)?  Excitement!  Tears!  Triumph!  All dissected into bite sized chunks, preferably crammed together in the final 10 minutes of this week’s episode.

Newvians live and die by this stuff, and blasphemously proclaim David Tennant (very possibly the least of all Doctors, whose unconvincing “you don’t know who you’re messing with” became a weekly trademark akin to Tom Baker’s jelly babies or Pat Troughton’s “when I say run…run!”) to be the only true Doctor, and certainly the sine qua non by which the other 11 are measured (!).  Yeah, whatever, kids.  Go back to your toybox and leave the adults in peace.

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That being said, the seemingly unprecedented popularity of the new series and its spinoffs (Torchwood, Sarah Jane Adventures) has (reluctantly, perhaps) brought with it a far more welcome corollary, as Doctor Who (even “Doctor New” as it were) has always carried its history alongside every new iteration thereof.  With more attention being paid to the series per se, the spotlight has been shined on its more storied past.

While nitpickers and CGI aficionados hang on that hoary chestnut of “cheap special effects” (as if the current keyboard jockey lights and mirrors display were in any way impressive or indicative of artistic creativity), the fact is that the original series is enjoying a greater level of appreciation than it has since it folded back in 1989, with “lost” episodes mysteriously reappearing and a goldmine of classic interviews, chat show appearances and documentaries seeing their way onto DVD alongside related re-released and restored serials.

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Running quietly alongside the current crop of DVD releases has been an equally worthy series that continues to fill in the gaps of each of the 80’s Doctors (and now even inclusive of the one historically considered to be the greatest of all Doctors, the legendary Tom Baker).

Not content to merely craft new adventures, Big Finish has provided a plethora of more specialized lines running concurrently:

  • a “Lost Episodes” series, featuring unfilmed, passed over and incomplete scripts from the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras,
  • an “Eighth Doctor Adventures” dedicated solely to Paul McGann’s Doctor (who we only barely got to know in his sole televised appearance),
  • and even the “Companion Chronicles”, which feature mainly companions whose televised Doctors are no longer with us, and tend to be more audiobook than fully acted drama.
  • As noted earlier, there are even “Fourth Doctor Adventures” now, featuring Tom and Louise Jameson’s Leela.

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While my own televised tastes had always run to Jon Pertwee with his backup contingency of Jo, the Brigadier and the only true Master, Roger Delgado, my first Doctor was Tom Baker, and partially by experience, partially by reputation among the community, I’d always given short shrift to Doctors both earlier and subsequent.

BBC Audio of the lost Pat Troughton “monster era” and the lone surviving serial Tomb of the Cybermen got me to appreciate Pat’s Doctor with Jamie and Victoria (never did take a shine to Zoe, mind), and I’ve always had a soft spot for those two final Hartnell serials with Ben & Polly, but such were the limits of my Whovianism.

Then came Big Finish.

While Jon Pertwee, Pat Troughton, and of course Bill Hartnell had since left this mortal vale, a surprising number of Doctors and companions are still with us.  Using some rather creative logical correlations, Big Finish scripters (many of whom were involved in McCoy era Who and/or the Bill Baggs productions of the 90’s) have contrived ways to bring Doctors from Peter Davison through Paul McGann together with companions both new and old in ways that are believable, and which most importantly, work.

While earlier productions tend to retain existing Doctor/companion pairings – Colin with Peri and occasionally Mel; McCoy with Ace and Mel; Davison with Nyssa and occasionally Turlough – later serials began to experiment a bit.  The Brigadier showed up in at least one serial alongside Colin Baker’s Doctor.  Fanfic creations like Ace’s paramilitary career and the character of Bernice (“Benny”) Summerfield were brought along for the ride, with the latter even getting her own sideline series.  And more interestingly, entirely new characters were created, and utilized to the point where they’ve developed their own continuities and virtual histories…

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My personal favorites among these newly minted companions are the Egyptian Pharaoh who never was, Erimem (who traveled extensively with Davison and Peri) and Detective Menzies (who appeared in a mere three memorable episodes with Colin Baker).

There’s really no competition here – Erimem’s cleverly written mix of youthful naivete and inexperience with regal imperiosity were well offset by her girlish enthusiasm and excellent chemistry with Peri (the two were never separated, bar one amusing “bonus story” where Davison and Erimem explore a subtly altered Tardis in search of her beloved cat Antonak), and she even proved to have a rather dark secret…

Menzies first appeared in The Condemned, where she was investigating the inexplicable presence of the Doctor and new companion Charley at a murder scene.  Menzies was memorable enough (and worked well enough with Colin’s Doctor) to return for two more serials, The Raincloud Man and the Crimes of Thomas Brewster.

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Both, however, were criminally underused by comparison with some of the other Big Finish-exclusive companions, such as Charley Pollard herself (a long running McGann companion in the monthly line who displayed some Rose-like infatuation and involvement with the Doctor, which as with her televised analogue, was just weird) and the annoying old biddy Evelyn Smythe, a history professor with a heart condition who was created as a spur to spin Colin’s Doctor into a Hartnellesque sub-line in historicals (with Peri taking the companion role for the more SF adventures, and Mel for the more comedic turns, though she really seemed to excel at those she did with McCoy’s Doctor over those with Colin’s).

Charley herself was accompanied for many of the earlier McGann monthlies by a Data-like alien named C’rizz, who was a defecting priest or somesuch.  These episodes tended to be rather blah, if not downright annoying – it was only with Charley’s final episode, the Girl Who Never Was, that she actually became interesting and likeable.  She would remain thus during her run with Colin Baker’s Doctor (starting with The Condemned).

McGann would go on to far greater success in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, alongside Lucie Miller and the far more entertaining safecracker and second story femme Tamsin Drew (who unfortunately didn’t last long as a companion), before returning (albeit briefly) to the monthly line with The Silver Turk and the quite likeable companionship of one Mary Shelley (yes, THAT Mary Shelley!).

While he didn’t get much of a run on TV, Paul McGann proves a likeable, measured Doctor with a decidedly Victorian bent and mannerisms.  Horror of Glam Rock is a particular standout from his series…

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Evelyn never seemed to go away, running as a companion through a good portion of the Colin Baker episodes from The Marian Conspiracy way back in 2000 all the way through Industrial Evolution in 2011.  For whatever reason, she appears to be quite popular with the listeners, though for the life of me I can’t imagine why – prone to whining, nagging, complaining and generally being an old prude, it baffles one to hear Colin’s Doctor proclaiming his deep affection towards her (in a grandmotherly sense, naturally, but even so).

There’s also Hex, another whiner whose modus operandi derives from his background as a male nurse.  Hex often accompanies the McCoy Doctor with Ace, alternating between bouts of hitting on the latter with sub-existential diatribes about how he doesn’t belong with them and involved in all the conflict traveling with the Doctor always seems to engender; and the aforementioned “Benny” Summerfield, a Wiccan archaeologist who was entertaining in her McCoy/Ace adventures like Shadow of the Scourge and The Dark Flame, but tended to remain exclusive to her own sideline (where she spends a lot of time fawning over and fretting about her whining sissy of a son).

Jo herself, Katy Manning, even gets a go as the dizzy Iris Wildthyme, traveling time and space in her tricked out hippie van – again, appearing once in the monthly line with Colin’s Doctor in The Wormery, but generally residing in her own sideline series.

Similarly, Lalla Ward’s Romana has made an appearance or two, but has tended to remain (alongside Louise Jameson’s Leela, yet) in her own sideline, Gallifrey, where the two deal with political plotting and scheming – it’s a bit slow.   Later in the series, Big Finish actually managed to pull together the infamous “full Tardis” of the Peter Davison era, with Nyssa, Turlough, and Tegan (even Kamelion made an appearance, in Circular Time!), and these are quite entertaining just for the bickering and back and forth between the participants.  Cradle of the Snake updates the infamous Mara storyline of the televised serials Kinda and Snakedance and carries things to their logical conclusion – the Big Finish serials are notable for their penchant towards dark realism if not a streak of outright pessimism, making this story more gripping than its televised predecessors (whatever their relative merits) ever dreamed of being.

McCoy has also traveled with (get this) a Nazi doctor named Klein (originally from the McCoy/Ace serial Colditz), in an attempt to humanize her and show the error of her ways.  While seeming quite bizarre on paper, these actually proved to be among the more entertaining of the McCoy series (which in itself has been quite the standout of the monthly line, whether exploring in depth and fleshing out the “Dark Doctor” persona of the latter televised episodes or going into high camp hilarity with Mel and his infamous jumbled aphorisms – their Deep Space Nine meets Eurovision satire Bang Bang A Boom joining the Colin/Mel serial The One Doctor as the funniest Doctor Who stories ever).

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What Big Finish has done, in short, is to create an entire pocket universe, in which most of our favorite Doctors still travel alongside companions old and new.  That in itself would be a wonderful thing (particularly for those put off by the bombast and overkill of the new series, which makes the fatal mistake of exchanging cerebrality and exploration of issues for “summer blockbuster” style rollercoaster thrills, pretty lights, and explosions).  But there’s something more.

What really gets me excited about Big Finish isn’t just that they brought all these folks back to regurgitate the same old thing so long as the participants may be with us.  But that they’re NOT doing that at all.

In a hypothetical world where I never discovered Big Finish, my wife and I would still be content with our re-releases of Tom Baker and especially Jon Pertwee era serials, and our BBC audios of lost Troughton episodes.  Fair enough.

But what changed all that was Big Finish.

In all honesty and directness, without Big Finish and their monthly line, it’s unlikely I’d ever have given Colin Baker, much less Sylvester McCoy a second chance.  I’d rented The Two Doctors and Curse of Fenric from our local video store back in the days of VHS, and found them campy, jumbled, with confusing stories and overly bright colors.  No wonder they canned the series, I thought smugly.  Then came Whispers of Terror.  Spectre of Lanyon Moor.  The One Doctor.  Ish.

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More great Colin episodes would follow along the way: Medicinal Purposes.  The Nowhere Place.  The Wishing Beast.  The Condemned.  The Lost Stories.  And in the course of these, I came to know the Doctor so many still seem to hate.  Logophile.  Philologist.  Historian.  Yes, he’s pompous and self assured, if not a touch arrogant.  But he’s intelligent and knows it.  And he’s also hiding a warm heart under that brusque standoffish exterior – something that the televised version barely began to hint at during small portions of the overlong miscalculation that was the Trial of a Timelord.  Yeah, it was time to give the man a second chance.

And guess what?  Now he’s one of “my” Doctors.  I finally understand the character, fleshed out, along the lines where Colin (and Peri, and Mel) intended to take him and their televised run, had Michael Grade never intervened, pulling the series off air for nearly 2 years and throwing everything into chaos.

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And what about McCoy?  “The man who killed the Doctor” was the unfair appellation I’d always heard ascribed to him.  Certainly Fenric wasn’t all that impressive.  But then came Shadow of the Scourge.  Dust Breeding.  Bang Bang A Boom.  Flip Flop.  The Dark Flame.  Eventually Live 34.  Night Thoughts.  Nocturne.  The Death Collectors.  Enemy of the Daleks.  Lurkers at Sunlight’s Edge.  A Thousand Tiny Wings.  House of Blue Flame.  Oh my God, this guy is scary…or completely nonthreatening and hilarious, depending on who he’s traveling with.  DEFINITELY time to give this guy another shot.

Now his run of Doctor Who is quite possibly my favorite of any of them, certainly in competition with the Pertwee/Jo/Brigadier one.  And he’s another one of “my” Doctors (the other members of the triumvirate being Pertwee and Colin).  Again, entirely due to the efforts of Big Finish, who fleshed out the character(s), placed them in gripping and intelligent stories, and let the actors and actresses do their stuff.  If only the televised serials were half as impressive as these!  How different their respective reputations would be…and would the series even have undergone a cancellation?

Finally, we come to Peter Davison.  As an acknowledged disciple of Hartnell, he was long one of my least favorite Doctors – too weak and simperingly indecisive, with a domineering cast of companions who seemed to get a far larger share of screentime (and in fact who seemed to be driving the stories more often than not!).  When our public television stations finally ended reruns of the Tom Baker era and a brief stopover into the Pertwee one, it was the Davison episodes which made me stop watching.

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But again, along comes Big Finish.  And right out of the gate, he, with Nyssa or Turlough and later Peri (with or without Erimem) is batting those cricket bowls right out of the park.  Land of the Dead – still my all time favorite Big Finish serial.  Loups-Garoux.  Eye of the Scorpion.  The Church and the Crown.  No Place Like Home.  The Veiled Leopard.  Roof of the World.   Son of the Dragon.  Plague of the Daleks.  Cradle of the Snake.  Again, I get to understand and like the character.  For the first time, I begin to appreciate what Davison brought to the role.

While I still have a strong distaste for Adric and Tegan, and never took a shine to the Anthony Ainley version of The Master (who was probably most prominent during the Davison era), the Big Finish serials have brought me to the point where I actually enjoy the Davison televised serials – a feat I’d thought impossible to envision a mere decade ago.  I’ve even come to appreciate the pre-Ben & Polly Hartnells, just by loose association.  Now THAT’S saying something.

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Yes, there have been a few missteps over the years – I’ve already mentioned some reservations about particular characters and story arcs.  There were even one or two that were quite distasteful, going right over the edge into audio torture porn and gorehound territory (Project Twilight, Project Lazarus, even Unregenerate proved quite unpleasant).  But overall, these have been some of the best stories and performances of the entire 50 year (interrupted) run of Doctor Who.

You see, the true value of the Big Finish Doctor Who line is that they take it seriously.  They believe in the characters.  And most importantly, they have faith in their audience – something you simply will not encounter anywhere else nowadays.

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