Here we are again, my twice-yearly review of the “current” monthly releases from Big Finish that I have heard. As usual I’ve been listening to plenty of backlist titles too (I’m still not caught up on Jago and Litefoot and Bernice Summerfield, for example, as well as series like Graceless, so won’t listen to the current releases any time soon even if they are doing alluring things like casting Arthur Darvill), but given that I do listen to a lot of the current range as they are released, it’s nice to put it in some sort of chronological order.
There really are a lot of them, so I’m splitting the post into two quarters, or it would be the world’s LONGEST audio review. I may consider doing them monthly after this, which means fewer reviews as I don’t always manage to listen to everything in the month it’s released (I’ve only just been able to catch up with some plays of the last 3 months because my subscription had lapsed and I couldn’t afford to resubscribe for a while).
The Curse of Davros (main range)
The first of the official adventures with new girl Flip Jackson travelling with the Sixth Doctor. I was a bit wary of this combination at first because I didn’t remember Flip much at all from the story she first appeared in (The Crimes of Thomas Brewster), because I think Big Finish’s great strength is that it is far less attached to the idea of the Doctor Who companion being an English girl in her late teens/early twenties, and because the same story had tough-talking DI Patricia Menzies in it, and I long for her to travel with the Sixth Doctor like you wouldn’t believe.
But this year’s batch of Main Range Doctor Who scripts are particularly strong, Flip has some great material, and the actress playing her is fun. This story is notable because it does something with the Doctor-Davros relationship never before done, and I’m not going to say WHICH classic SF trope it is, because figuring it out is part of the charm of the episode. But Old Sixy, as Colin Baker calls him, is particularly good with Davros as an enemy (they get to be pompous at each other) and there’s some lovely material here for both he and Terry Molloy to shine.
Destination: Nerva (The Fourth Doctor Adventures)
A fun but rather ordinary space adventure. I like the re-use of Nerva Station, and the hints of the larger universe as it continued on after the classic TV adventures on the station, but apart from it being fun to hear Tom Baker & Louise Jamieson back in the saddle after so many years (he is more Voicey than he was on the television but I’m used to that after all his other audio work, including the stuff he did in the 70’s – she is brilliant, as if she hasn’t aged a day.)
The website says these came out last October but I’m pretty sure that release was delayed so they only arrived in January – which was a bit odd because it collided with the delivery of the first of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, so it was all a bit confusing. Unlike the Adventures, which follow the old Eighth Doctor Adventure/modern TV format by being an hour long single story, the Lost Stories are 4 episodes long. Also, Lost Stories are always based on original scripts or storylines which came close to being produced, which can often mean that they feel a touch old fashioned in comparison with other Big Finish stories. I do think it was a mistake to mix up two series featuring Tom Baker and Louise Jamieson as the Fourth Doctor and Leela – while I love the pairing, having both at once was a bit confusing, and I suspect that it’s hard for the Lost Stories to compete with the more cool and snappy Adventures – though people who are in this for the old school nostalgia may well prefer the Lost Stories. Though to be fair apart from the format, there isn’t a lot of tonal difference between the two series – with the other Lost Stories, we can see a clear distinction between say Old School Sixth Doctor and New Cuddly Sixth Doctor, but I suspect these have been homogenised because they are still in the early phases of Writing Big Finish Tom.
With these, I enjoyed the Foe from the Future very much, I suspect because of the excellent adaption work by John Dorney, who among other things rewrote several characters to be female, specifically so the story wouldn’t be Leela running around with a bunch of men, as often happened in this era. I especially liked Charlotte from the village, the only character in this Year of Tom Baker who seriously made me wonder if they are going to give Tom an original new companion to play with, as well as doing stories with the actors from his era who are still alive. The collision of English village and space story was also great fun. I will confess that I can’t remember much about the other story, Valley of Death, though I enjoyed it at the time. The standout part of it was getting to see Leela’s reaction to travelling on an airplane.
The Anachronauts (companion chronicle)
I’ve already talked about this one as the Companion Chronicle that got me on to a Jean Marsh kick, and a Dalek Masterplan kick, and so on. It’s a lovely fun story set in one of the cracks between episodes of that classic 60’s serial, capturing the characters of Sara and Steven extremely well, and making me fall in love with both of them all over again. It’s the strength of this story which led to my partial disappointment in the first half of the audiobook of the Target novelisation of Dalek Masterplan. I hope they give Peter Purves and Jean Marsh more chances to work together as they spark excellently off each other’s characters, and I do love Companion Chronicles with two companions instead of one – especially for the 60’s characters, where that was the norm. (Though a Jo-and-Yates or Jo-and-Benton story from the Third Doctor era would be fabulous).
The section of the story set in Berlin is marvellous, and I loved the twist about the setting, which took the risk of writing in some unrealistic things and then sneakily pulling the carpet out from under the listener. Plus, Sara Kingdom and Steven Taylor running around Berlin on the wrong side of the wall (from safety and the TARDIS amongst other things) is lovely and fits in very well with the crazycakes second half of their time-hopping original story together.
The Fourth Wall (main range)
My favourite of the Flip stories so far, this one has an ingenious central device, messing around with entertainment technology and using the audio format to do all kinds of clever things that might possibly work on screen, but not to the same extent. Also, killing off the companion this early – bold move, Big Finish! I almost bought it, except that we all knew she’d be back next month… maybe this one should have been third of the trilogy?
Anyway, the Sixth Doctor is terribly good in this and I do admit to being convinced that Flip is good for him, even if she’s not a cranky 30 something Detective Inspector, or Charley or any of my other favourites.
The Renaissance Man (The Fourth Doctor Adventures)
A lovely, creepy story of collectors and sinister eccentrics around a Museum in an English village. I love the Hinchcliffe vibe to this one, and the fantastic character work by the cast. Again, Louise Jamieson’s Leela is a standout.
Blake’s 7 is back! I was so excited about this when it was announced. At this stage the stories are done narratively, Companion Chronicle style, with two characters playing off each other. There is at least one full cast story available for pre-order now though!
The best of this first series is The Turing Test, which manages to feel like it’s a slightly more grown up story of the first season of the show, while at the same time revealing something important about Avon’s character and taking him on something of an emotional journey, which is pretty impressive considering all the actual personal revelations about his past didn’t come out until seasons 2 and 3. Honestly I could listen to Paul Darrow read the phone book, but I’d be worried he might sprain his eyebrows from arching them while doing so. Having Vila there too was nice, as their dynamic remains one of the best things about the original show.
Michael Keating is the one who sounds most natural and like his 1978 character, and while Solitary wasn’t quite as gorgeous a script as The Turing Test (which I think gave him better material, as did the ability to riff off Avon), it was still very good. Counterfeit has a lot of Blake in it, so it was never going to be my favourite – I need to go back and listen to it properly because come on, it has Avon in it, but I found it a bit slow the first time around, and didn’t take much in.
I am very excited that the NEXT series of these will have female characters Cally and Servalan in it, as their absence was pretty notable here – it was disappointing to have an all male line up, and only one substantial female character (in the Turing Test, not played by a female voice).
Wirrn Isle (main range)
I do love a callback to classic monsters, most of which work better in audio than they ever did on screen. Though as a Target novelisation girl I do rather think there should be a third ‘r’ in Wirrrn. This is a rather lovely base under siege story, using an icy post-apocalyptic Earth setting, and setting off one of the more disgusting of the Doctor’s classic foes. I liked the whole Swiss Family Robinson aspect to the story, and the use of transmat technology in various inventive and kind of freaky ways.
Also, it’s nice that Flip gets to have another young female character to interact with, and we get to see her put through the absolute wringer. Both she and Colin Baker are very good, relishing the crunchy material in the script.
The Wrath of the Iceni (The Fourth Doctor Adventures)
The first really breathtaking script for the Fourth Doctor and Leela in this run, and it’s no coincidence that it’s also one that showcases Leela’s character by teaming her up with the legendary Boudicca. I love that we have a story in which it makes complete sense that the Doctor and Leela would be divided – of course they are going to see Boudicca and her warrior ways completely differently! It’s the first real challenge between them, and both actors handle the meaty emotional script without breaking character. Ella Kenion’s portrayal of Boudicca is fantastic, bringing the ancient queen to life, and never flinching from the darker edge of her story, or her ruthless spirit.
Pretty much everything I listened to in this quarter works as a standalone – you might enjoy listening to the whole Flip trilogy in order but there isn’t such huge connection between the stories that you need to.
HOTTEST RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE QUARTER:
The Fourth Wall
The Wrath of the Iceni
Blake’s 7: The Turing Test (though cough, you can’t actually buy these separately from the Liberator Chronicles)