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:
Almost 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
The 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
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
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
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
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”)
The 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
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
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.