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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Big Finish in (the second half of) 2011

January 4th, 2012 at 21:33

Back in June, I reviewed all of the Big Finish plays I had listened to that were released in the first half of 2011. It was a pretty full on time for me as I wasn’t just a subscriber to the main monthly Doctor Who range, but also to the Sylvester McCoy Lost Stories and the 8th Doctor Adventures. Things were a little quieter for me in the second half of the year, but we’re about to ramp up into a year with new Blake’s 7, Fourth Doctor Adventures, and a whole bunch of other extras that I may or may not have ALREADY subscribed to. So I’d like to keep these posts going!

I’m trying to focus particularly in these recommendations on pointing out the jumping on points for new listeners, because lots of people have indicated they’ve either started listening to Big Finish because of my recs, or they want to and are still not sure where to jump aboard.

JULY

Robophobia – a Seventh Doctor standalone story which also happens to be a sequel to classic story, Robots of Death. I was resentful of this run at first because I am so enamoured of the Seventh Doctor stories with Ace and Hex that anything else feels like a waste of time at first, but Sylvester McCoy is really good playing a Doctor towards the end of his time, and these are all strong stories that work on their own, for a new listener to dip into. I’ve reviewed this one at greater length elsewhere but suffice to say, it has Ruth from Spooks in it, it’s a murder mystery that explores the time & society suggested at in Robots of Death, and it’s really, really good.

Earth Aid

The last of the Seventh Doctor-and-Ace-and-introducing-Raine-Creevey Lost Stories, this one is my favourite script of the bunch, if only for its opening with Ace in the captain’s chair of a spaceship in trouble, with the reader given little clue as to how she ended up in such a Star Trek scenario. The whole story which revolves around Ace and the Seventh Doctor trying to do good yet deceive everyone they meet is quite interesting, and I think it could work on its own as long as you don’t worry too much about who Raine is.

Tales from the Vault – the only Companion Chronicle I’ve read all year, but a really enjoyable one! I tend to get a bit bored with some of the more static one-two voice plays that make up most of the Companion Chronicles, with only a few really transcending the format to compete properly with the full cast plays. This one has such a clever idea and utilises many voices, and is a true two hander rather than one main character & one supporting character who usually turns out to be, surprise, the bad guy.

The two characters, Captain Ruth Matheson and Warrant Officer Charlie Sato, are played by Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso, who played the companions in the Eighth Doctor TV Movie and due to rights issues are not able to portray those characters on Big Finish audio. Their characters here, then, are American UNIT officers assigned to ‘the Vault,’ a museum of alien artefacts. Sato is recruited to join the Vault, and takes a tour of some of the more interesting artefacts, as Matheson explains some of the history they are vouchsafed to protect – and through various audio recordings, they get to eavesdrop on fragments of the history surrounding that mysterious figure, The Doctor. I really enjoyed this one, and the way that the recordings brought in several voices of older companions Steven, Zoe, Jo Grant and Romana I.

Completely standalone.

AUGUST

Recorded Time and Other Stories – Big Finish have a tradition of marking anniversaries within their main range by doing plays which feature a particular Doctor and companion combination in four half hour standalone plays instead of one two hour play – this works very well as an occasional treat as well as a very good taster for the plays, as the scripts are generally tight and have quite small casts. Other anthology episodes include 45 (Seventh Doctor, Ace & Hex), 100 (Sixth Doctor and Evelyn), the Company of Friends (Paul McGann with 3 of his companions from other media: Fitz, Izzy, Benny; plus the one we never knew about until now, Mary Shelley) and the Demons of Red Lodge and other stories (Fifth Doctor and Nyssa).

Recorded Time features the Sixth Doctor and Peri, and has a really nice selection of stories. I especially liked the titular story which takes them to the court of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn but the standout is “Question Marks” which uses the amnesia of all the characters to great effect, telling a story that would only work on audio, where the distinctive voices of the Sixth Doctor and Peri gives the audience an extra layer of narrative.

Anyone who has ever been skeptical about Peri’s worth as a companion based on the TV series could definitely benefit from checking out some of her Big Finish work, and this is a great place to start (though it’s hard to beat Peri and the Piscon Paradox for that).

SEPTEMBER

The Doomsday Quatrain
– this is my least favourite of this “season” of standalone Sylvester McCoy stories, but it’s still not a bad story. The main talking point is that this is where the Seventh Doctor and Nostradamus meet, and while there are lots of Doctor Who-y plots, twists and turns, it’s all about David Schofield’s performance as Nostradamus, which is fantastic.

Again, standalone.

House of Blue Fire – the third of the lone, ‘older’ Seventh Doctor stories, this is a wonderfully structured Gothic (with hidden science fiction) tale, about a group of people with distinct phobias arriving at a mysterious house. It’s powerful, crunchy and kept surprising me from beginning to end. I liked it very much – the only frustration being that two of the female characters had similar voices and I got confused at times.

STAND ALONE.

OCTOBER
The Silver Turk – this is one I’ve been recommending widely to people as the beginning of an exciting new run of Eighth Doctor Adventures. While you probably could start here, I do recommend you take up the Big Finish offer to read the short (half hour) introduction to Mary Shelley’s adventures as a Doctor Who companion, Mary’s Story, which is just a blinding piece of audio fiction, one of the best individual pieces that Big Finish have ever done. It’s still hard to believe that such an epic story is told in such a brief space.

But anyway, once you’re done with that, at only 99 cents/pence, The Silver Turk is a wonderful play about Mary’s first “proper” adventure, only fifty years or so in her own future, but with steampunk Cybermen and other examples of Victorian entertainment. Julie Cox as Mary was a real find – she is gentle but intelligent, and sharp as anything. Her relationship with the absent Percy is an important ongoing theme in the story, as is her contrasting relationship with the Doctor. I DON’T WANT HER TO GO HOME!

The Doctor really has to stop going on about all the books she’s going to write in future, though. Pressure much?

NOVEMBER

The Witch from the Well - this isn’t the best of plays, I have to say, a weird take on witch burnings that ends up more confusing than clever, and with a pair of siblings that rival those twins in the Twin Dilemma for unlikeability. But… Mary Shelley. She’s still awesome, and while I was disappointed to see so little of her with the Doctor, all her scenes are wonderful and I particularly liked her being tempted to research how all her friends turned out (particularly the bit where she learns more about Byron’s past than she knew in real life, which seemed quite realistic).

Only for Mary completists, this one.

DECEMBER
A cavalcade of goodies! Only one release, Army of Death, is part of the regular range – the others are all extras I received for being a subscription. You can receive them free for any subscription made at any time which includes Army of Death, though.

Army of Death
– the third of the Mary Shelley stories, this one was a compelling story of war and politics on an alien world, and I was interested in all of the characters deeply. Very good stuff! My only frustration with it (apart from Mary and the Doctor being separated for most of the story again) was the suggestion that Mary was starting to feel romantically about the Doctor. I found her character a lot stronger when that wasn’t an issue, and it set off enormous warning bells. I adore Charley’s arc with the Eighth Doctor but I think it’s too soon to be trying that again with one of his companions – having said that, the way it was addressed and then resolved put my mind at rest and it looks like, should Mary continue as a companion, it won’t be a huge aspect of her character. PHEW.

I wouldn’t listen to this one without having listened to Mary’s Story & The Silver Turk first, at least (and Witch from the Well to take in the complete character arc)

The Five Companions – this one, the special release created just for subscribers, is – well, a bit soppy, really. I enjoyed it thoroughly, there’s an indulgence about it that makes it a Christmas treat, but very much what fans want rather than what they need. [I'M GONNA SPOIL THE HELL OUT OF THIS, DON'T READ IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW] Basically it’s the Fifth Doctor running around a bunch of tunnels with an unexpected team of former companions – Polly, Steven, Ian, Sara Kingdom and Nyssa.

Yes, they’re all very surprised to see Sara alive again. Heh heh heh.

The point of this one is not the plot at all, but the resolution, the character interactions, like they’re making up for everything that no one was allowed to acknowledge in The Five Doctors. Ian is most definitely an old man (as he should be, RTD!) and his reunion with Steven was very touching. He, unlike the others, has little in the way of unfinished business to be addressed with the Doctor. But Steven needs to call him on the thoughtless way he was abandones, pointing out how young he was when he was hastily written out, Polly needs to work through how she felt like a bit of a useless screamy maker of tea in her travelling days, and Sara… did we mention Sara is still alive? Even Nyssa, who is likewise returning after saying goodbye to the Doctor (though they don’t make it clear which time) has her issues to talk through.

And stuff blows up.

My favourite bits of this are Polly making it clear that actually yes, she and Ben DID get together after they left the TARDIS (damn straight they did), and the very clear indication that we’re going to get to find out more of New Sara’s story after her last Companion Chronicle (like, find out which Doctor found her), oh I hope so.

It’s fluff, with Daleks, but it was a lovely Christmas present, and the kind of thing that TV Who could never have given us.

Memoirs of JNT
– this was an unexpected subscriber bonus, not least because I didn’t have the faintest idea this was a thing that existed in the world. The selected, Doctor Who related memoir-anecdotes of John Nathan Turner, the producer who ran Doctor Who from the late Tom Baker era all the way through to the end of the Sylvester McCoy era in 1989, read in his own voice. It’s an interesting listen, which kept me entertained through a whole lot of boring house cleaning yesterday. Notably absent is any discussion of his personal life, though he does talk about the lengths he went to at times to protect his actors from the more salacious enquiries by the media, and he does address several key events/dramas that obviously still cause him some personal pain, along with all the funny actor banter. The most bizarre thing about this is that he sounds exactly like Paul Darrow. Even when relating anecdotes about Paul Darrow.

Short Trips, Lant Land & Neptune – sweet of them to include these, again as free extras, but I couldn’t listen to either all the way through. It’s very rare for a short story to come across well for me on audio (I prefer to reread in listening form, but single voice narrative tends to send me to sleep) though I have to say the audio production on this is excellent, with use of background music, etc. Just not for me.

The Big Finish Companion Vol. 1 – not an audio production, nor a freebie, but this enormous, long-awaited tome finally arrived in many over-stuffed mail boxes this December. I received mine the week before Christmas and had read it cover to cover not long after Boxing Day. Yes, I’m a sad case. I am well aware of this. It’s a brilliant behind the scenes look at a bunch of Big Finish productions, by Richard Dinnick – I loved reading it, and only skipped over a few (extremely spoilery) synopses. The only thing where it fell down a bit for me was that I couldn’t see much of a pattern to the non-Doctor-Who monthly range material, as it hopped and skipped all over the place, chronologically, so we leaped from 2001 to 2009 and back again a few times. Some sort of timeline might be in order to keep track of it all – but of course I am now hanging out for Vol. 2 in order to complete the picture. Quality stuff, and it resides with pride next to my 1980′s Peter Haining hardbacks, and more recent big non fiction books like Russell T Davies’ Writer’s Tale.

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