Big Finish has a huge back catalogue of plays – more than 12 years worth – and it’s hard for people to know how and where to jump on board. I recently discovered the Little Finish podcast, which is great, but probably of limited value to casual listeners, as they review that month’s plays, spoilers and all. If you’re not keeping up with the latest ones, you’re likely to not get much out of it, which is a shame because it’s a very fun podcast! Anyone wanting to check it out might want to pick the Nicholas Courtney memorial episode, which reviews every Courtney appearance in Big Finish, and has some lovely recommendations and clips.
Anyway, in listening to Little Finish I came to the (not overly shocking) realisation that I actually am one of those listeners now – I subscribe to multiple streams of plays, and have caught up so substantially that I’m in a pretty good position to review, say, the Doctor Who releases for the entire first half of this year.
So here we go!
The Crimes of Thomas Brewster (Monthly Release): Sixth Doctor, Evelyn, Thomas Brewster, DI Menzies, Flip
As far as the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn stories go, this is a self contained 3 story arc set fairly early on (at a guess) in Evelyn’s timeline. I hadn’t listened to Brewster’s previous adventures with the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, and didn’t feel like I missed much, so I’d say this is a good jumping on point. My favourite thing about this story is the re-introduction of DI Menzies, the sarky Northern copper who has met the Sixth Doctor twice before (when he was with Charley) and reacts to all alien incursions with a world-weary attitude that always makes me grin. I am utterly furious they haven’t made her the new companion. The story itself doesn’t offer a lot beyond lots of character interactions for the Doctor, Evelyn, Menzies and Brewster, which is to say I came away from it loving the dialogue, but not really remembering the plot. It is a chance for people to preview young Flip, who was recently announced as the new Sixth Doctor companion, but did I MENTION how annoyed I am it wasn’t Menzies instead?
Prisoner of the Sun (Eighth Doctor Adventure): Eighth Doctor, sort of Lucie Miller
Really I find it hard to suggest anything other than going back and mainlining the entire four season run of the Eighth Doctor and Lucie (I might do a separate review for this whole series) but this one is actually a beautiful standalone. It features the Doctor, trapped by his own conscience, trying to save the lives of his kidnappers. To keep himself sane, he keeps programming his robot assistants with the personality of Lucie (who is not currently travelling with him). It’s a clever story that conveys the tone of this run very well, and is a good way to find out if you want to listen to all the others.
Peri and the Piscon Paradox (Companion Chronicle): Fifth Doctor, Sixth Doctor, Peri
I have an ambivalent relationship with the Companion Chronicles, which are normally two hander plays featuring the companion actor and one other performer, and focus largely on storytelling rather than dialogue. Some of these are truly excellent (Katy Manning playing both Jo Grant and Iris Wildthyme in Find and Replace comes to mind, and I adored the run of three Jean Marsh plays giving new life to Sara Kingdom) but many of them verge on the dull side. This one, however, is a masterpiece. Nev Fountain, one of the most interesting writers Big Finish have working for them, has written a story which manages to tread the thin and difficult line between dark drama and absurdist comedy, as well as acknowledging and dealing with most of the more problematic aspects of Peri as a character. Nicola Bryant is excellent in her dual role as the young and innocent Peri travelling with the Fifth Doctor, and an older, hardbitten version of herself. Colin Baker is note perfect as the Doctor, but very much takes the sidekick role in this adventure, as is only right and proper. I was dazzled by this one, which requires no prior Big Finish listening.
The Feast of Axos (Monthly Release): Sixth Doctor, Evelyn, Thomas Brewster
This is probably my favourite of this trio of Sixth Doctor stories, despite the sad lack of DI Menzies (did I mention, REALLY DISAPPOINTED, BIG FINISH?). One of the things Big Finish does really well is building on classic monster stories with a sharp contemporary edge. This one works as a direct sequel to The Claws of Axos from the 70’s era, using some of the creepiest (though looking kind of dodgy on the TV) concept aliens in Doctor Who’s history. I really loved the use of space as something that is scary, rather than just another setting, and particularly Evelyn’s awestruck reaction to being in space, as well as her quiet horror when it looks as if space might be the thing that kills her… also the troubled relationship between Brewster and the Doctor continues to be crunchy and combative. I tend to sympathise with characters no one likes much, and Brewster is one of these – I felt so sad for him when he overheard the Doctor saying mean things!
Lucie Miller (Eighth Doctor Adventure): Eighth Doctor, Lucie Miller, Susan, etc.
No matter who you are, you are not allowed to watch this without putting in the hours listening to every other Lucie Miller episode that led to this place. She is truly one of the best companions ever, and *the* best of the 21st century companions. Yes, I made that call. Also, to understand where Susan is in this story, you need to have listened to the standalone story An Earthly Child as well as December’s Eighth Doctor Adventure Relative Dimensions (but in the latter’s case you would have listened to that any way because you listened to ALL the Lucie Miller ones first, right?
Lucie is brilliant, but this one and the sequel To The Death next month, is the end of her story as a companion, so this would be the worst possible place to come into the story. But it’s good, oh, so good. Worth the journey.
Industrial Evolution (Monthly Release): Sixth Doctor, Evelyn, Thomas Brewster
A clever script, which showcases Brewster excellently, mostly ignores Evelyn, and reminds us that the Sixth Doctor is often an ass. The Doctor and Evelyn have returned Thomas to his own time and organised a job for him at t’ mill, but there are suspicious doingses going on, and it’s a good thing they decided to lurk around and check all was well before they abandoned him to his fate. (which actually goes to show that however ass-like the Sixth Doctor is in this, he’s still doing better than most of his other selves, yes One and Four I am looking at you!)
To The Death (Eighth Doctor Adventure): Eighth Doctor, Lucie Miller, Susan, etc.
We remember what I said last month, right? THIS STORY IS NOT FOR BEGINNERS! Hot damn, though, it’s good. And bad. Quite awful. Brilliantly awful. Made me cry. Graeme Garden’s performance made me cry. Let’s move on.
Heroes of Sontar (Monthly Release): Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa, Turlough, Sontarans
This is the second trio of stories set after Enlightenment, where Nyssa has returned to the TARDIS crew 50 years after she left it. I am really enjoying this threesome of companions, and the writers are doing a great job at proving that it’s not impossible to write for a TARDIS crew of four, you just have to do it intelligently. This one is a very strange but likeable story, featuring a whole crew of Sontarans with distinct personalities. it was very well timed, coming out just before A Good Man Goes To War which also made us rethink what Sontarans were actually capable of. The oddness of this story comes from the fact that it’s a comedy largely derived from Dad’s Army, even including some rather sneaky reworkings of catchphrases and personality types… and yet it treads that comedy/drama line tightly, never entirely sliding into pure farce. Janet Fielding still sounds like she’s doing a loud parody of 1980’s Tegan, but the rest of the crew are polite enough to pretend they haven’t noticed.
Thin Ice (Lost Stories): Seventh Doctor, Ace, Ice Warriors
This release was the one of the year which most filled me with excitement and trepidation. The premise of the Lost Stories is to produce stories that were intended to be made at the time, and fell through for one reason or another. In this case, it’s Season 28, the stories that famously were going to be commissioned next, if Doctor Who had not been cancelled in 1989. Among other things this season promised to write out Sophie Aldred by sending Ace to be a Time Lord student on Gallifrey (stupidest idea EVER) and to replace her with an elegant catburglar of a companion, possibly played by Catherine Zeta Jones or Julia Sawahla (one of those ideas that sounded quite good at the time, but hasn’t aged well, as proved by Lady Christina De Souza in the fairly dire Planet of the Dead).
This story itself is a very good one, dealing with the suggested plotlines far more effectively than I dreaded. Ace, as it turns out, agrees with me that the Doctor’s plan to get her some Gallifreducation is the stupidest idea ever, and is deeply insulted by it. We also get the Ice Warriors in Cold War Russia, in a plot that actually gives the whispery lispy ones some cultural baggage and personality. Oh Big Finish, you do so well by the old monsters! We also get Creevey, a dubious Cockney wideboy who has no idea that his hot Russian girlfriend Raina is pregnant and actually expects him to take some responsibility for the baby… Sophie Aldred does a really good job of playing late 80’s Ace, rather than the 20-something version of the character we usually get in Big Finish, and it was surprisingly affecting to see all her angst as regards the Doctor in the TV series come to an actual head. I also loved the rapport she had with our token sympathetic Ice Warrior, with his hanging around on Russian hotel balconies. Very nice stuff, and a good entry point to a new mini-series.
Kiss of Death (Monthly Release): Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa & Turlough
This is the story where the Big Finish crew decided to give Turlough an actual plot to himself, which was a bit revolutionary considering that he spent most of the 80’s standing around and holding Tegan’s coat. He’s even provided here with an old flame and a whole lot of personal backstory, which dovetails with what is revealed in his swansong TV story, Planet of Fire. Rather cleverly, the script keeps the Doctor in the tunnels for most of the story so that the only revelations about Turlough’s past are made to Tegan and Nyssa, neither of whom were around for his final story. I find it deeply amusing and yet kind of sweet that Big Finish continue to prioritise the integrity of the TV stories, despite repeatedly making them look shabby and parallel-universey simply by giving the characters better dialogue and depth than we almost always got in the old days.
Turlough with a romance isn’t nearly as interesting as I thought it was going to be, especially the whole thing is basically a junior version of Avon (of Blake’s 7) and Anna Grant, but I thought it was actually quite clever to put in a romance that felt like it belonged to a dodgy 80’s script. Or maybe I’m being kinder than it deserves… there are some nice scenes between the three companions, though, and Tegan as always gets the best lines. Despite the awful approximation of the Australian accent she put on in the 80’s (I know she actually is Australian, you listen to it and tell me it’s real) I am enjoying Janet Fielding’s work in these plays, far more than I ever did in most of her TV stories. The Doctor and Nyssa got some great material to sink their teeth into – Peter Davison does love to be possessed, doesn’t he!
Crime of the Century (Lost Stories): Seventh Doctor, Ace, Raine Creevey
This one was a big disappointment for me. The best scene by far is the opening one which introduces the Doctor to his new companion Raine Creevey, posh bird and teenage catburglar, though sadly I was spoiled for all the detail of the scene thanks to the Extras doco from the previous story. Dudes, if you love that scene so much, let us actually listen to it BEFORE you share interviews of the writer etc. analysing it. The plot itself is… well, I don’t even remember it, so let’s move on.
I like every original Big Finish companion. Hell, I don’t dislike any actual TV companions. Almost all the ones I used to dislike, I have since come around to, often because of the magic of Big Finish. I’m a loyal fangirl, I am! But I’m struggling with Raine Creevey. Part of it is her voice, which is so perky and upbeat that she sounds, it has to be said, exactly like Bonnie Langford. Now, I have a bit of a soft spot for Mel, but that doesn’t mean I want another companion who sounds just like her – breathy, stagey and so sweet it makes your teeth hurt. Then there’s the unfortunate character trait that Raine, daughter of a Cockney criminal and raised in a posh boarding school, is a total class snob. Her accent, then, and her aristocratic manner makes her sound entirely grating in a way that Charley Pollard, legit Edwardian adventuress, did not.
I suspect that in actual fact a big part of the reason why I am not warming to Raine is thanks to listening to the Extras interviews, where everyone at Big Finish, including the actors, writers, etc. seems so totally adoring of her. I’m sure the actress who plays her is lovely, and I really hope I come to like the character, but this story gave me very little to work with. I’m especially sad because I really liked Raina in the previous story (yes, it’s her mother, they acted like this was a massive spoiler but it wasn’t half obvious) and she seems to have been erased in this one, largely I guess because she’s played by the same actress. I honestly would have rather seen the Russian spy bombing around the universe with Ace and the Doctor, she was much more interesting!
Rat Trap (Monthly Release): Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa & Turlough
The premise by this one is a touch heavy handed – intelligent rats performing experiments on humans – but the story is quite effective, claustrophobic and appropriately freaky. I lost track of some of the supporting characters halfway through, but rather appreciated the grotesque horror parts, and thought Turlough’s scenes in this one were far more appealing than the awkward betrayed romance bits of his previous story. Nyssa also got some good sciencey bits, and Tegan got to be snarky to people. Hooray! The Doctor was perhaps at his most colourless here, I suspect because all the companions got such strong bits. Not every story can be perfectly balanced!
Animal (Lost Stories): Seventh Doctor, Ace, Raine Creevey, Brigadier Winifred Bambera
Okay, I like Raine a bit better in this one, but only a bit. The posh snob bits are still infuriating. I do like that not all her scenes with Ace are like that, though, and the two of them work together far more than they snipe jealously at each other. Oddly the plot of this one also revolves around the plight of laboratory animals, in this case a top secret (ha, not so much) wing of a university, and an impending alien invasion. The highlight of the episode is the arrival of Winifred Bambera, one of the best supporting characters to come out of 80’s Who – hearing her work with Ace and the Seventh Doctor again is just lovely, with a good balance of military competence, sarcasm and knowing the Doctor is probably right, damn him, most of the time. Even when she wants to put on record that he is wrong.
Highlights of the year so far:
Peri and the Piscon Paradox
Prisoner of the Sun
[Lucie Miller & To The Death but you know the drill, don’t start with these]
The Feast of Axos
Heroes of Sontar
So far the monthly range are lagging somewhat behind the specials, but last year gave us Project: Destiny, A Death in the Family and the awesome Jamie-and-Six trilogy, so this year has a lot to live up to. Worth noting that I haven’t heard any of the Companion Chronicles of this year yet apart from the Peri one but I defy you to convince me it’s not the best one, possibly of the entire five year series. I am quite interested in the Steven & Oliver stories (new First Doctor companion!) so will probably get to those eventually. Coming up, the story I’m most excited by is Robophobia, featuring the Seventh Doctor, even if I’m a bit cranky he is appearing with Ace and Hex.
Also I just scored a bunch of very old Big Finish plays, thanks to the summer sale, so I’ll be listening to those too. I think I recently came to terms with the fact that I’m just going to listen to all of them eventually!