Spaceships in Your Ears: The Best of Big FinishJuly 18th, 2010 at 17:20
I’ve loved the idea of science fiction on audio since the old Earthsearch and Hitchhiker’s Guide plays (all of which we own on cassette tape) – there’s something gorgeously perfect about huge, high-budget space opera played out on such an “old-fashioned” format – though audio has had a huge renaissance in recent years thanks to the iPod. Honestly how did we ever get housework and exercise done before this?
Big Finish are a company who have been tirelessly working away for the last eleven years, producing high quality audio plays based on popular TV shows and comics with “cult” following. Their core productions are a series of really quite awesome Doctor Who plays, featuring actors from the original roles. As a long time reader of Doctor Who Magazine, I discovered the existence of these plays right from the start, but found them prohibitively expensive, and back in the late 90′s it was still a bit of a hassle to order things from overseas. It was before my long-term Amazon addiction really kicked in!
I did purchase Storm Warning, the first of the Eighth Doctor and Charley stories which formed several formal “seasons” and helped to define that Doctor beyond the disappointing TV Movie, and the first awesome “Gallifrey” series featuring Lord President Romana and her bodyguard Leela (plus two K9s!) and thoroughly enjoyed them, but because of my lack of time/opportunity to listen to audios, I didn’t get further into the Big Finish web of doom.
Since I got my iPod Touch, all bets have been off! I found a whole bunch of Big Finish plays through our local library, which served to fuel an addiction. Once I had run through I returned to the Big Finish site to discover not only that many of the plays are a lot more affordable than I remembered, but particularly that the postage is dirt cheap for overseas, and there are downloadable versions which means you don’t even have to pay postage! I have thus embarked on a frenzy of Big Finish – mostly I have to say I have been going for some of the older plays, some of which are are on such good special prices that it’s cheaper to buy the CDs and get them shipped to me than the downloads!
Here then is a rundown of some of the best Big Finish plays I have listened to recently and why I like them!
Title: Arrangements for War
Featuring: Sixth Doctor and cranky old lady companion Evelyn Smythe
Awesome because: this Romeo+Juliet+alien invasion story is packed with politics and depicts a genuinely mature relationship between the Doctor and companion. Yes. there’s a reason everyone started loving Colin Baker more when he started doing the audios – with better companions, scripts and without That Suit, he creates a far subtler and more likeable Doctor who is still recognisable (mostly) as the same character he played on TV.
Cool Guest Stars: Gabriel “Sutekh” Woolf playing Rossiter, a love interest for Evelyn.
Featuring: Sixth Doctor and Davros
Awesome because: Gets inside the psyche of Davros as never before (honestly I’ve never found him interesting before at all!) and puts he and the Doctor in a position where they have to work together, and conquer each other through subtle undermining rather than shooting and running. Also some commentary on the sociopathic side of capitalism & Big Business.
Cool Guest Stars: Terry Molloy as Davros, Wendy Padbury as bitch historian Lorraine Baynes and Bernard “Gulliver from Mind Robber” Horsfall as her husband, sociopathic big businessman Arnold Baynes.
Featuring:Eighth Doctor, Romana II & K9
Awesome because: this excellent Douglas Adams penned script never got fully made as it was intended, with the Fourth Doctor and the Second Romana, thanks to a strike. Famously, bits of it were later used in The Five Doctors special, to depict those characters being taken out of time. Now, with a few clever edits to explain why the Eighth Doctor is only just getting around to this adventure, and he really needs Lord President Romana along for the ride, this modern production is full of great performances and excellent Adamsian banter. Just lovely and the perfect standalone introduction to audio adventures for fans of Classic Who.
Cool Guest Stars: Sean “Oliver Wood” Biggerstaff as Chris, Susannah “Jane from the real Pride and Prejudice” Harker as Claire among others
Title: The Creed of the Kromon
Featuring: the Eighth Doctor, Charley & C’rizz
Awesome because: a good hopping aboard point for following the Eighth Doctor’s adventures, this is one of a rather cool set of stories that have trapped the Eighth Doctor and his plucky Edwardian adventuress companion Charley in a universe without time – this one introduces new companion C’rizz, whose rather grim backstory sets up an arc that is worth following through. Possibly not the one to try if you’re just interested in standalone stories, though – if you’re anything like me this will start you on a long journey!
Title: Creatures of Beauty
Featuring: Fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Awesome because: This story has a fractured out-of-time narrative that at first made me think my iPod was playing the bits in the wrong order, but is actually terribly clever and horrid at the same time. Also the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa on their own! There are *lots* of these, one of many examples of how Big Finish offers us stories we would have loved to see as part of the classic series.
Title: The Eye of the Scorpion
Featuring: Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem
Awesome because: as with the previous rec – Fifth Doctor and Peri! Not enough of these in classic stories! Add to this the introduction of marvellous new companion Erimem, the Pharoah who never was, and a whole lot of Egyptian sword-and-sandal goodness. This is one of the early Big Finish plays that got it utterly right from the start.
Title: The Harvest
Featuring: Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex
Awesome because: another one not necessarily for those who don’t want to get hooked on following particular character combinations, but brilliant starting point for those who might. This story set in a near future hospital is gory and grotesque, with a very powerful re-introduction of one of the great Classic Monsters, and also introduces Hex, a lovable male nurse (yes, long before Rory) with a Scouse accent who adds a really nice third dimension to the Seventh Doctor/Ace partnership. Listening to he and Ace banter in one of the free mini-stories provided every now and then by DWM (the Veiled Leopard) sold me on their friendship and I’m now keen to listen to more of their stories
Title:Bernice Summerfield – Oh No It Isn’t! (not technically a Doctor Who story)
Featuring: Benny, now otherwise known as I Can’t Believe It’s Not River Song
Awesome because: It’s a fun romp about a sexy older female archaeologist and her pet cat and also a surrealist nightmare in which she gets trapped in a world of pantomime. It’s funny, really!
Cool Guest Stars: Nicholas “the Brig” Courtney playing Benny’s suddenly-walking-and-talking cat and sounding more and more like Mr Badger from the Wind in the Willows. It starts out as a funny and loveable performance and by the end of it he BREAKS YOUR HEART. Mark Gatiss also appears as the Grand Vizier, and the whole play (and the book it’s adapted from) is written by Paul Cornell, who first created Bernice as a character in the old New Adventures novels days. It definitely sold me on listening to more in her series, and liking the character a lot more than I ever did in print (though I suspect she got more interesting after she left the Doctor – I missed a lot of those books in the end).
Of all the Big Finish Plays I’ve listened to, there’s only one that really struck me as appallingly bad, and that was “Dreamtime” which does feature the awesome team of Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex, but is also (drum roll) a tale of alien invasions and Aboriginal mythology. Oh my yes. The appropriation fail is… just gobsmacking, really. I’ve always been of the “anything out of copyright is fair game” mentality but my opinion on this changed a lot when I first read about how important the privacy and containment of myths is within Aboriginal tribes. This is – let’s say not quite up there with those white ice dancers who dressed themselves as Aborigines, but still deeply uncomfortable to listen to. It doesn’t help that half the time it feels like they might actually be talking about South Africans instead. The bits with Ace and Hex are still pretty awesome, but the subject matter was deeply misguided, and quite clumsily handled.
Tags: ace, bernice summerfield, c'rizz, charley pollard, doctor who, erimem, evelyn smythe, fifth doctor, hex, k9, leela, listening, nyssa, on my ipod, peri brown, romana, seventh doctor eighth doctor, sixth doctor