A (Great) Year in the Life of Big Finish [WHO-50—2009]October 1st, 2013 at 22:59
I mean, some pretty good things happened that year, don’t get me wrong. Apart from anything else, I got a pretty sweet daughter out of it.
But for Doctor Who fans, it wasn’t that great.
After a successful reboot, four years of full seasons of Doctor Who, and unprecedented mainstream popularity and success for the show, suddenly it all looked to be going terribly wrong.
David Tennant, whose star as a popular actor had risen with and greatly supported Doctor Who, was leaving on the grounds of Shakespeare. A whole new audience had come to the show with Tennant, drawn in by his maniacally attractive Doctor, and were grieving his impending loss. For many, it was hard to imagine what Doctor Who would look like without Ten.
It wasn’t a clean break up. Instead, we were introduced to the impending Doctor, the very young and hand-flappy Matt Smith, at New Year and then had a whole 12 months of saying goodbye to David Tennant, one disappointing Special at a time.
Perhaps more concerning, the producer and show runner who had brought Doctor Who back with such success, Julie Gardner and Russell T Davies, were also leaving. Soon. Any day now.
We were promised grand cinematic specials, but while the show certainly looked better than it ever had before, the pressure on the stories to be worth the long wait was extreme. And while the ‘new one-off pseudo-companion for every story’ formula allowed the production team to experiment with some different types for companions – and to bring in some wonderful guest actors – it was quite jarring for many to accept the Doctor as the only point of view character, when we were used to following a human companion over a whole season.
Also, I hated The Waters of Mars, the story that many fans grasped to their hearts as the best episode of this year. I did rather love The End of Time but I appreciate I’m one of the very few people who felt that way…
Meanwhile, Big Finish Audio was going from strength to strength. The company had struggled in the years since Doctor Who came back to television – they had hoped that the return of the show would bring a whole new generation fans to the Big Finish range, but instead what happened was a massive dip in subscriptions as many people dropped them in favour of “New Who.” Piracy also affected them badly – as a small company, they relied on regular subscribers to allow them to keep making new content with actors, scriptwriters etc., and the ready availability of illegal downloads had a harsh effect on their finances.
They rallied, though, using humour, personality and podcasting to deal with the issue – simply asking people not to take their content without paying for it, and using behind the scenes interviews and office podcasts to show the work behind the product. Their downloads are still DRM free, and where available they also provide a free electronic download to purchasers who choose the CD option, meaning you can listen to it before it has shipped to your house.
By 2009 it was clear that Big Finish were thriving creatively, not only with multiple streams of Doctor Who stories, but also some based on other creative properties. In 2009, the non-Who releases included Dark Shadows, Robin Hood, Highlander, StarGate SG-1, StarGate Atlantis, Judge Dredd and The Scarifyers. Perhaps most significantly, they also launched a Sherlock Holmes series that would develop substantially in the years that followed.
Bernice Summerfield, the original Big Finish hero, was up to Series 10 of her own adventures – having lost her home and all pretence of a safe base, she was now rattling around the universe with her teenage son, still digging up mysteries and treasures while running for her life.
2009 was a year of Doctor Who disappointments for me as a TV viewer, but as an audio listener it was the beginning of a grand adventure – this was the point at which I started listening seriously. Here’s a top 10 of the Doctor Who material that Big Finish was putting out in the year that David Tennant was mostly doing Hamlet:
1. The Key to Time returned in a new trilogy (The Judgement of Isskar, The Destroyer of Delights, The Chaos Pool), in which the question of ‘what is a real person’ was raised by the creation of Amy, a living version of the time tracer, and her possibly evil sister Zara. Together they plunged into a journey to hunt down the pieces of the Key to Time, with the occasional help of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctor… and were enough of a hit with listeners that they later scored their own spin off series, Graceless.
2. Ace and Hex turned the tables on the Seventh Doctor, keeping secrets from him at a mysterious Swiss Alps retreat in one of my favourite all time audios, The Magic Mousetrap. They also fought the Daleks in a traumatic base-under-siege situation in Energy of the Daleks, and then Hex visited Florence Nightingale in The Angel of Scutari, teaching the Crimean war a thing or two about modern hygiene. Shame about the TARDIS being destroyed in the process…
3. In the anthology piece The Company of Friends, three of the Eighth Doctor’s dearest friends got their audio debut: Fitz Kreiner, Izzy from the comic strip, and the previously-namedropped Mary Shelley, while Bernice Summerfield was reunited with him for the first time since the 1998 New Adventures novel The Dying Days. These short adventures are funny and entertaining, but Mary’s Story is a truly beautiful and haunting stand-alone piece of work which reimagines the Doctor as Frankenstein’s monster.
4. Meanwhile, Charley Pollard’s travels with the Sixth Doctor came to an end in Blue Forgotten Planet, finally resolving the second major paradox of her TARDIS days – how on earth was it that that Eighth Doctor had never remembered or mentioned that she was once companion to his Sixth incarnation?
5. The year’s main range was rounded off by a trilogy of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa in different versions of the sleepy town of Stockbridge that they keep coming back to – having to fight Rutans in Castle of Fear, the Plague of the Daleks, and even time itself in The Eternal Summer. There’s something very compelling about Nyssa’s relationship with this town (as seen in other plays as well), and these three are some of the best stories of the many, many plays now inserted between Time Flight and Arc of Infinity developing the history of and relationship between the Doctor and Nyssa.
6. By 2009, the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller (played by the brilliant Sheridan Smith) were up to Season 3 of their Eighth Doctor Adventures, which played on BBC Radio as well as being sold through the Big Finish website, and bridged the two distinct eras of Doctor Who: Lucie’s snappy and sarcastic Northern lass gave these adventures a contemporary, fresh voice (her character is comparable to Donna in the TV series, but with her own unique charms), the format was 40 minute stand-alone or two-parters instead of reflecting the traditional 4 x 30 minutes format still mostly standard at Big Finish, but they also threw in a lot more nostalgia from the classic era of Doctor Who (especially the 1970’s) so that it would really FEEL like Doctor Who to radio listeners who remembered the Doctor as Worzel Gummidge or that chap with the long scarf.
Lucie and Eight battled Krynoids, Giant Spiders and the Wirrn in 2009, as well as creepy robots, sinister medieval types, and a whole planet of adorable jellyfish.
7. In the popular Companion Chronicle series, (one or two hander plays featuring the Doctor’s former travelling companions recalling a ‘lost’ adventure) Ace met time-tracer Zara in The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Sara Kingdom continued her extraordinary trilogy in The Drowned World, and other characters including Ian, Polly, Yates, Romana I & II, Jamie, Turlough and King Peladon all got their moment in the sun.
In the highlight of the Companion Chronicle range for the year, the incomparable Jago and Litefoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang finally got the beginnings of a spin off series that had been mooted since the 1970’s with The Mahogany Murderers. This brilliant Victorian mystery recreated the splendid chemistry between the theatrical impresario and the gentleman pathologist, and a regular series was indeed on the horizon.
8. Iris Wildthyme, Time Lady Extraordinaire and the Doctor’s unofficial stalker, crashed drunkenly into a second series of her own spin off show, this one focusing more completely on her slightly toxic and co-dependent relationship with a gruff and cynical giant Panda. It included a Christmas Special, The Claws of Santa.
9. In a month where audiences were gearing up to say farewell to David Tennant’s Doctor (with added reindeer hats and tinsel), Big Finish actually provided several Christmas presents.
An Earthly Child was the 2009 subscriber-special (a freebie given in December every year to those who subscribe annually to the main range). Here, the Doctor finally reunites with Susan, the granddaughter he left on a recovering post-Dalek-invasion Earth so many centuries before. (Yes he saw her in the Five Doctors, but no one would say that provided anything of an emotional payoff). Susan is now a widow and something of a political figure, with a teenage son Alex who is showing rebellious tendencies. The Doctor breezes into their lives just in time to help prevent Earth from further disaster… but is he just shopping for a new companion?
10. Meanwhile, Death in Blackpool was the story NO ONE really wanted to see, in which Lucie Miller takes the Doctor home for Christmas at the beginning of the 4th season of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, and a series of events leads to the revelation of the horrible secret he had been keeping from her, for her own good, for most of the time they were travelling together. You know how a lot of people’s Christmases are all about heartbreak, drinking too much, unpleasant family revelations, breaking things and crying alone in rooms? Yeah, that. THANKS, BIG FINISH.
Damn good stuff, though, and Big Finish would at least try to repair some of the damage a year later, in Relative Dimensions, a sequel to both of the 2009 Christmas stories – in which the Doctor tries to mend all his fences at once, with Susan and Alex and Lucie, and a turkey dinner cooked in the TARDIS.
ELSEWHERE ON 2009
The Matt Smith Announcement [Two Minute Time Lord]
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Waters of Mars [Radio Free Skaro]
K9 – the Australian spin off series [nwhyte.com]
Watching New Who: The End of Time [TansyRR.com]