Fri
Jun 1 2012 4:00pm

Big Finish Produces Doctor Who Audio Plays with Brains, Heart and Humor

Doctor Who Big Finish Audio Plays

The 50th anniversary of the beloved, classic Sci-Fi show Doctor Who is almost upon us. Sadly the show was off the air during its 40th anniversary, and so nothing happened—OH WAIT NO, THERE WAS A MULTI-DOCTOR STORY, AND IT WAS SO AWESOME THE THIRD DOCTOR, JON PERTWEE, CAME BACK FROM THE GRAVE TO BE IN IT!

But this wasn’t a television episode—it was part of a series of radio plays that are still being made today. If you’ve enjoyed either New Who or the Classic series and want more, you might enjoy Big Finish’s excellent Doctor Who audios.

Big Finish is a production company that, among other worthy endeavors, makes officially licensed Doctor Who audio plays using actors from the Classic series. Audio dramas are a form of play originally designed for radio listeners. They used to be enormously popular in the U.S. (think “War of the Worlds”), and are still quite popular and relatively common in the U.K. (think both the original "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” and “Miranda”).

Doctors Tom Baker (Four), Peter Davison (Five), Colin Baker (Six), Sylvester McCoy (Seven), and Paul McGann (Eight) reprise their roles for Big Finish, as do a bevy of companions. The audios can take the form of additional episodes, slotted between existing, televised stories, or whole extra seasons with new companions. Big Finish also produces a variety of material set in the regular Doctor Who universe that doesn’t directly involve the Doctor, but instead follows other characters familiar to fans. While these audios are largely rooted in the Classic series, they can also feature long story arcs, a strong focus on character development, and potential romantic interest between Doctors and companions—they have manifestly influenced New Who. Many of the people now involved with Big Finish started out producing unofficial fan audios, and that enthusiasm and love for the Whoniverse animates the plays. These are often wonderfully written, with great acting and very high production values for their medium. You don’t need to be familiar with Classic Doctor Who to enjoy them, either, though I’d say that does enrich your experience.

Because of the American audience’s lack of familiarity with audio drama as a medium, Big Finish has had trouble convincing American Sci-Fi and/or Doctor Who fans that this sort of thing is their bag, baby. But it’s well worth listening to a few excellent ones (perhaps from the list below) and getting a feel for whether the medium, generally, and Big Finish, specifically, could be your bag. If you like theater, books on tape, or even just the experience of being read to, it’s likely they will be. Audios can be an absolute lifesaver if you do repetitive tasks that don’t require all your processing power (I started listening to them while working at a fruit-packing factory). In fact, once you get into audio’s narrative rhythm, the stories flow very naturally, to the point where you may start to resent occasional clumsy ‘What is this we’re looking at, Charley? I estimate it’s an elephant standing roughly seven meters tall. What do you think?’ ‘Oh no, Doctor, I’d say more like six!’ ‘Oho, right you are, attractive Edwardian adventuress wearing a sprightly yellow jumper today!’ gestures.

Big Finish has done particularly amazing work with the Sixth Doctor. His televised run suffered from considerable production issues and a costume that could blind at fifty paces. He was not especially well-loved, and his reign was short. Yet “Old Sixy”, as the actor playing the character fondly calls him, was recognized in a 2001 Doctor Who Magazine poll as the best Doctor in audio format due to Big Finish’s sterling reclamation of the character. They didn’t so much rework the televised Doctor as deepen and improve him. They developed compelling relationships between Six and his companions, and wrote him as a Doctor perhaps uniquely influenced by his strong and ready feelings.

They’ve also done well with the Eighth Doctor, expanding on his sole appearance in an uneven TV movie and creating a complicated, engaging character. This is exemplified by “Caerdoia”, an audio in which the Doctor hives off into three separate aspects of himself. Despite the differences between these men, all of them are recognizable as, and integral to, this particular version of Doctor. Yet they don’t in themselves quite capture the full person, who’s more engaging than any of them due to these rich internal contradictions. Eight’s run is also notable for its involved story and character arcs.

I’m going to be doing breakdowns of Big Finish’s major runs here in the next few weeks, but for now, here’s a selection of some excellent Big Finish to start with. Doctor Who’s a broad church, and which of the following audios will work best for you depends on the sort of thing that draws you to the program:

 

Doctor Who Big Finish, DeadlineAlmost anything by Rob Shearman (“Dalek”) or Paul Cornell (“Father’s Day”, “Human Nature”, “Family of Blood”):

Shearman’s dark, funny, intelligent writing consistently rocks my face off. I have had to get several expensive face transplants as a result of this series of grotesque tragedies, yet I don’t even care because I’m still thinking about how good Rob Shearman is. His big finish stories are:

“Jubilee”, which the televised episode “Dalek” is based off, is arguably even better than the BBC’s version. It’s such a brilliant story about war and cultural memory that I wrote a chunk of my MA thesis on its narrative strategies. Big Finish is particularly good at exploring the the program’s conventions and assumptions, and this episode shows how rewarding that kind of deep involvement can be.

“Scherzo” (which benefits from the context of the Eight and Charley arc—don’t listen to this one until you know what’s going on around it), “Chimes of Midnight” , “Holy Terror” (Frobisher the talking shapeshifting penguin/detective companion from the DWM comics: know him. Love him.), “Deadline” (with Derek Jacobi), “My Own Private Wolfgang”—basically he can do no wrong.

Cornell hasn’t done enough for Big Finish for my liking, but what he has done is almost always outstanding.  His “Seasons of Fear”, written with Caroline Symcox, is a strong historical story with an interesting and well-motivated villain, which follows the Doctor and Charley through four time periods. It’s one of my favorite things Doctor Who has ever done, full-stop. Plus he invented Bernice Summerfield (the much better, earlier River Song)! More on this accomplishment to follow.

BEST FOR: Everyone really, but perhaps particularly for Fans of Stories that Make You FEEL THINGS

 

Doctor Who Big Finish, Storm WarningThe Eight and Charley Run:

From “Storm Warning”  up to “Zagreus” (the half brilliant, half god-awful climax) and Shearman’s “Scherzo” (the denouement, which will BLOW YOUR MIND). Unless you find yourself deeply invested in Big Finish and/or are a completist who can’t be content just skipping past anything, don’t bother with the series that follows on from “Zagreus”. Except for “Scherzo” and “Caerdroia”, which are absolutely excellent, the Divergent Universe arc is a long, anti-climactic ‘meh.’ It’s like following up a splendid home-cooked feast with a pudding cup.

The Charley and Eight run will seem familiar in some respects if you’ve watched Nine and Rose larking about. It’s easy to get into, as the audience meets the new companion when the Doctor does and is introduced to the overhanging plot problem when the Doctor is. And this Doctor is, himself, largely developed during this run of audios. There’s a pleasant sense of having gotten a new game, and of all learning to play it together. Also — Paul McGann’s voice is liquidchocolatesex and should be listened to in public places only with caution. If you are at all that way inclined, you are going to make stupid and embarrassing facial expressions. It is not a question of if this will happen, but when.

These solid, episodic stories build towards a compelling arc, and the whole is carried by fun characters who enjoy one another’s company. After a slightly wobbly start the series gets its footing and grows stronger. While there are some ‘meh’ stories along the way, even a Big Finish story I don’t adore is generally a pleasant way to spend two hours.  

BEST FOR: General Sci-Fi Fans, Fans of Epic Storylines, New Who fans, Classic Who Fans, Fans of Paul McGann’s Embarrassingly Luscious Voice

 

“Kingmaker”:

Erimem is Ancient Egyptian royalty who now rocks out with the Fifth Doctor and Peri. To the extent to which one can be said to ‘rock out’ with Five. That’s all you need to know beforehand to enjoy the cavalcade of luls and serious Shakespearian revisionist history that is “Kingmaker”. While normally I don’t really rate Big Finish’s Five stories (we disagree pretty fundamentally on how the character works), and while I’ve never really bought the core contention of the Peri-and-Erimem run, which involves shoving another couple of seasons between “Planet of Fire” and “Caves of Androzani”, “Kingmaker” is nevertheless hilarious and brilliant. Come for the Publishing Robot that enforces authorial deadlines WITH DEATH, stay for the implied Ninth Doctor cameo and the explanation for the historical ‘princes in the tower.’

BEST FOR: Classic Who Fans, Comedy Fans (particularly fans of Dead Ringers), History Fans, General Sci-Fi Fans

 

“Omega”:

This, like “Kingmaker”, was written by Nev Fountain. When Fountain is good, he’s very very good. “Omega” is a twisty, not-what-it-seems story about the eponymous Classic series villain and, yet again, explores storytelling, history and cultural memory—a theme Big Finish seems to like almost as much as ‘building that is somehow animated.’

BEST FOR: Classic Who fans, General Sci-Fi Fans, Fans of Big Doctor Who Baddies, Fans of Origin Stories

 

“Spare Parts”:

Marc Platt’s “Spare Parts” is regarded as a classic Cyberman episode, up there with Two’s “Tomb of the Cybermen”. Five and his companion Nyssa watch from street level as the planet Mondas, isolated, under the strain of environmental and biological collapse, and without options, slips away from humanity.

BEST FOR: Classic Who fans, General Sci-Fi Fans, Horror Fans, Fans of Stories that Make You FEEL THINGS, Fans of Big Doctor Who Baddies, Fans of Origin Stories

 

“The One Doctor”:

This Six and Mel story is sprightly crack-comedy with good gags and a Six who’s having fun, and is thus a pleasure to listen to.

BEST FOR: Classic Who fans, Comedy Fans, General Sci-Fi Fans, New Who Fans (especially anyone who enjoyed “The Next Doctor” or “Bad Wolf”)

 

Doctor Who Big Finish, The Marian ConspiracyThe Six and Evelyn Run:

Evelyn is an older lady who Professes History and joins the Doctor to study her field, sass him, make a lot of chocolate cake, and be cooler than you. Seriously, she is great, and the excellent dynamic of mutual respect and friendship between her and the Doctor is a pleasure to listen to. A clever older lady main character with her own life and agency, who textually expresses her sexuality yet isn’t defined exclusively by it—how many genre titles can claim to have that?

BEST FOR: Classic Who Fans, Comedy Fans, General Sci-Fi Fans, History Fans, Fans of Great Female Characters

 

Doctor Who and the Pirates”:

Say, do you like Gilbert and Sullivan? Whether or not you do, would you like a musical episode about the nature of storytelling (another recurring Big Finish preoccupation) that breaks up its “I am the very model of a Gallifreyan buccaneer” shanties with tragic death and Evelyn puncturing the Doctor’s natural pomposity? THERE’S AN EP FOR THAT.

BEST FOR: Classic Who fans, Comedy Fans, General Sci-Fi Fans, History Fans, fans of Gilbert and Sullivan (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?), Fans of Stories that Make You FEEL THINGS

 

“Oh No It Isn’t!”:

Speaking of awesome academic ladies who awesome awesomely, this is the first Benny Summerfield audio, and one of the best. Benny is a Seven companion from a variety of paracanonical stuff who got her own novels, then audio adaptations of some of those novels, and then her own full audio series. This one’s a parody of pantomime, a British theater form which is... difficult to explain, and has nothing to do with being trapped in a box. Never mind, there’s sufficient exposition in the audio. Just listen to that and enjoy the Brigadier as Dick Whittington’s talking cat.

BEST FOR: Comedy Fans, General Sci-Fi Fans, History Fans, Nick Courtney Fans


Erin Horáková is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.

19 comments
cj_wildcat
1. cj_wildcat
Big Finish audios are fantastic! I have to echo all of your recommendations - esp. for "The Kingmaker." It was one of the first audios I listened to and I LOVED it!! Also, Big Finish deserves all the praise and adoration for giving Six the chance to be amazing. Thanks for a wonderful article!
cj_wildcat
2. clm33
Yay Big Finish! I loved the Kingmaker too. Thanks for the recs and I'm looking forward to this series. I've only heard a few and it can be hard choosing what to try next - the sheer volume is intimidating...
cj_wildcat
3. ShellyTOtter
With the knowledge (now at least!) that this may open up a can of worms, are the Big Audio productions part of the Doctor Who television show continuity, or are they their own canon?

They're great stories, but I've been told by friends that as far as the television show is concerned, nothing in them has ever "happened" - same as nothing in the New Doctor Who Adventures books can be considered part of the television series continuity.

On the other hand, Paul Cornell (who has actually written for the television series along with the New Doctor Who Adventures book) says that for Doctor Who there is no canon.

Am I confusing the concepts of story continuity and canon?
cj_wildcat
4. John R. Ellis
I love Big Finish's Doctor Who range!

3: It's left up to the fans. The BBC has made no official ruling, and the Big Finish people often slip in surreptitious references to the new series along with the occasional references to Who classic.

So if you enjoy it, it's canon.

If not, consider it one of the "near miss" parallel universes canon to both classic and modern Who.

I like to think everything is canon, somewhere.

Well, except for "Dimensions in Time".
Erin Horakova
5. ErinHoráková
@ShellyTOtter: The tv shows can be viewed and make full sense without the audios, whereas the audios (largely) make sense in context of the televised serials. But the audios also have their own, intenal, continuity, wherein things happen: plot arcs are introduced and wrapped up, companions are introduced, marry, leave, die, etc. Things happen or don't in BFAs, really, to much the same extent as they do in the series proper, given that you pretty much know the Doctor isn't going to *die* in both (or even regenerate). The only change with the audios is that, where you're working with a show-companion between televised arcs, they probably won't die--little else is certain, as with the show.

The notion of canon and continuity in Who is REALLY fluid, as you say, given the comics, Shalka series, old and new Who's internal contadictions, EDAs, NDAs, etc. But I take issue with that popular essay that went around recently about Who not having have any canon, and how canon essentially doesn't matter. Yes and no? Who cares about elaborate debates as to quantifiable levels of continuity, but on the other hand, the relationship between causality (so essentially, continuity and canon) and emotional/character development and creating plots/worlds you can believe in, and thus that you can care about, is *so* key, and kind of embattled in the current few series. So I'd say Who does and should have a strong relationship to those concepts, and does in the audios, but it's 'canon' in more in a qualifiable than in a quantifiable sense? If that works for you?

Yeah there's a lot of overlap between continuity and canon, it's sort of a venn diagram thing.
cj_wildcat
6. AlBrown
I have always loved radio dramas, and loved it when public radio did Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. And then I discovered Hitchhiker's Guide in the best format it ever appeared in. And then, joy of joys, when the current run of the Doctor finally caught my attention, I discovered than not only are there many audio books, but a whole range of Doctor Who radio plays (and some good ones featuring the Torchwood crew as well). Like many people, I spend a couple of hours a weekday in the car, and there is nothing that makes this time fly by like a good radio play. A good cast can put you into a whole different world. It is a wonderful media, and I am glad to find this little niche where it is still florishing.
cj_wildcat
7. Nightsky
I love this post, and I love you for writing it. I've been into the audios for a few years now, as my poor poor audiobook budget will attest. (Subscribers get more at bigfinish.com!) I just treated myself to the Seven/Klein run when it was on sale last weekend, and it's pretty kicking.

I must represent for one of my favorites: The Church and the Crown. Want a swashbuckler starring a reluctant Five, a regally self-assured Erimem, a couple-three musketeers, and Peri being awesome? Of course you do.

Also Son Of The Dragon, which really deconstructs the Doctor's habit of wandering through history as no one wonders who he is or where he comes from or who he might be working for. The Doctor lands himself, Peri, and Erimem in a war zone, and damn near gets them all killed just by assuming he can blithely charm his way around the way he always does. It is teh win.

The Chimes Of Midnight kicks so much ass that if the Geneva Convention placed a limitation on ass-kicking weaponry, it would be declared a weapon of mass ass destruction. If you buy nothing else, buy this audio.

Finally: Companion Chronicles! They were originally conceived as two-person plays, generally a companion talking to/with someone else as part of a frame, but the line between them and the main line is getting blurry. The best of them are pretty damn great. I'm especially fond of Ringpullworld, Solitaire, and The Mahogany Murderers.
Leilani Cantu
8. spanishviolet
Glad to see Big Finish love here! Evelyn is one of my favorite companions, though I haven't finished her run. Need to get more - she is too awesome to neglect!
cj_wildcat
9. Rob Shearman
Oh, bless you, Erin! Thank you for your lovely enthusiasm about Big Finish - and, selfishly, your enthusiasm about my own work within it. (I promise you, you've put a big enough grin on my face that I may have to get an expensive transplant too - so we're even! And I'm deeply intrigued about my featuring in your MA thesis...!)

I think now that there's so much Who out there, and the TV series is riding so high, that it's easy to be complacent about dear old Big Finish - but you're right, they came out of an absolute wilderness of Doctor Who drama, and the fact they're still going strong after over a decade is rather inspiring. I feel so proud to have been a part of the adventure - and proud too to have my work acknowledged in your article. Cheers!
cj_wildcat
10. Yet Another Geek
Are they cannon? Yes and No.

No, because nothing that ever originates in them in taken into account when writing the TV scripts. For example, William Shakespear appears in audio adventures with the 5th and 8th Doctors before the 10th Doctor meets him for the first time on TV.

Yes, because it is a condition of the licence that the audio adventures fit in to the TV series. This means that they are far more respectful of the continuity than the TV series.
alastair chadwin
11. a-j
Don't know if it's available outside the UK, but the digital radio station Radio 4 extra (available on line) is currently transmitting 8th Doctor/Klein stories.
Erin Horakova
12. ErinHoráková
@Rob Shearman / #9

True there's a lot more Who about these days, but the Big Finish stuff is still some of the best Who there is, and yours is some of the best of that bunch! Thank you so much, for the comment and the audios themselves!
cj_wildcat
13. Earl Rogers
"No, because nothing that ever originates in them in taken into account when writing the TV scripts. For example, William Shakespear appears in audio adventures with the 5th and 8th Doctors before the 10th Doctor meets him for the first time on TV."

I don't recall Ten saying this was the first time he met Shakespeare. And keep in mind, that since the Doctor shifts in appearance, personality, and time, it's quite easy for him to be "together again, for the first time!" with someone.

"Yes, because it is a condition of the licence that the audio adventures fit in to the TV series. This means that they are far more respectful of the continuity than the TV series. " Eh, they've retconned Who classic when it suited them. More than once. But that's okay! Who classic was far above retconning itself. (See "Genesis of the Daleks" and other such stories)
cj_wildcat
14. Yet Another Geek
@ Earl Rogers

Oh, I know inconsistancies can always be explained away. (The novels can never resist this.)

But my point is this. The TV series will never make any attempt to fit with the audio series, but the audio stories must always be careful to fit in with the TV stories.

A trivial example, the 6th Doctor can never lose that hated costume. If his coat comes off for some plot reason there must be a line of dialog later to establish that it is back.
Erin Horakova
15. ErinHoráková
@Yet Another Geek I think he wears the blue outfit for several audios, though I guess we have to assume he at least puts the coat back on to die in.
C Smith
16. C12VT
I'd been considering trying out some of Big Finish's stuff but hadn't known where to start. Thanks for this!

I bought and just finished listening to "Storm Warning" - I enjoyed it immensely. I think I'm hooked.
cj_wildcat
17. Steve L
Earl@13,

It's okay. Matt Smith's Doctor or one of the next two Doctors will fix all the inconsistencies with some timey-wimey duct tape (now available in Time Vortex Blue.) Eventually. After all, they have all the time in the universe to patch up the holes.

But your point about meeting someone for the first time again is valid. Remember that River Song and the Doctor met for the first time twice, once from her perspective (yet to be shown, I think) and once from his (Silence in the Library.)
cj_wildcat
19. VTEC
Wow, these comments are old! O.O
Loved Eight mentioning his audio friends in "Night of the Doctor"!

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