Over the last few months, I’ve been forcing myself to get up to speed with the Big Finish audio stories. My excuse? I have to write about this stuff. Think that’s bad? I have to review 10 episodes of John Thaw’s 1964 military police series Redcap this week.
Anyway, in case you don’t know, the Big Finish plays are officially licensed stories based on Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People, Sapphire and Steel and a whole load of other British ‘telefantasy’ series and books.
What sets Big Finish apart from a couple of teenagers in a bedroom in Hull, enacting something they rattled off in their lunch breaks, is the presence of the original cast members – or a few of them, at least. So The Tomorrow People stories get Nicholas Young (John) et al while the Doctor Who stories have Peter Davison and co as well as some of the original companions. The producers have also managed to get some reasonably heavyweight actors to do guest roles, including David Warner, Susannah Harker, Don Warrington, Sir Derek Jacobi and, erm, Tony Blackburn. Basically, these are professional productions, endorsed by the BBC et al.
So yesterday I’m listening to one particular audio play, Colditz, and I notice a voice that’s very familiar, despite the extremely iffy German accent. Various poorly oiled cogs slip into place and I realise who it is. It’s David Tennant – Doctor number 10 to the uninitiated (although why the uninitiated would have made it this far into this particular blog entry, I don’t know).
Oh dear. I’d been impressed by DT’s acting. As one of my esteemed colleagues on Off The Telly points out, Tennant’s appearance in ‘The Christmas Invasion’ exposed just how naff Christopher Eccleston is as an actor. He’s also good at audio work, having appeared, it turns out, in a ridiculous number of Big Finish productions: he’s particularly good, in case you’re interested, in a couple of the Doctor Who Unbound plays, namely Sympathy for the Devil, in which he’s a swearing Glaswegian colonel who’s hunting The Master (Mark Gatiss); and Exile, in which he’s a posh English Time Lord who’s hunting The Doctor (Arabella Weir. Seriously) .
But German? Oh dear. I’m guessing that Big Finish can’t quite muster the budget for a dialogue coach, but Herr Tennant seems to have headed straight for a bucket of old Monty Python sketches for his research, rather than Berlin. How disappointing. Still, it’s easy-ish money I guess and I don’t suppose they have too many listeners, so he was probably hoping no one would notice.
In case you’re desperately interested in what I think about the Big Finish stories, I’ll natter on about them after the break (since I have no plans on writing about them again on this blog. Oh no).
You’re still here. Amazing. So what’s good and what’s not about the Big Finish stories?
First off, the Doctors themselves. The Big Finish series is almost a rehabilitation centre for old Doctors. Remember how awful Colin Baker was? It turns out he wasn’t. Given some decent scripts, he’s actually really good (best story: The Sirens of Time). It’s quite amazing. Of all the Doctors, he’s almost my favourite now as a result. Peter Davison (best stories: Omega and Creatures of Beauty) is far more confident than he was on-screen, but his character still lacks definition, unfortunately. Sylvester McCoy? Well, every rule has to have an exception to prove it (best story: The Shadow of the Scourge, despite the fact it was written by that nobber Paul Cornell).
Then there’s Paul McGann. He famously only got one outing as the Doctor, way back in the not-at-all-brilliant TV movie of 1996. Now he’s had the chance to appear in dozens of stories and is effectively the ‘current’ Doctor as far as the Big Finish stories are concerned. It’s interesting to see what he would have done with the part and his enthusiasm is actually quite infectious – he has a lot, so far, in common with David Tennant’s Doctor and while it’s traditional when Doctors come together for them to hate each other, you can imagine Doctors eight and ten twittering away while the others look on distainfully. While the scripts for his stories haven’t been fantastic, with one or two exceptions, I’ve enjoyed his stories more than most thanks to his pairing with new companion Charley (India Fisher). The part’s well written (at least initially), they have an excellent chemistry and Fisher is a fine vocal actress. Equally, the idea of having a companion slowly fall in love with the Doctor is a novel twist the original series never tried and gives the stories an extra depth. Top McGann story: Scherzo.
Next, the ‘companions’, as they’re known in Who circles. Many of the companions in the Big Finish productions, such as Charley, were invented for the audio plays, but there are a number of the original companions who have rejoined their Doctors. The authors of the plays seem to have acknowledged that the companions of yore may have been under-written in the past, so have tried to give them a little more characterisation this time round. It doesn’t always work, although that’s usually because they end up paired with a new companion who gets the good lines.
I started off listening to the continuing tales of Peri (Best story: Her Final Flight), purely because she was, erm, an intrinsic part of my teenage years, but even with the extra writing, as a character, she’s still a little lacking – mainly because of the presence of Eminem… sorry, Erimem, the runaway Egyptian pharoahess who gets all the interesting things to do. Turlough (Mark Strickson), for three stories perhaps the most interesting on-screen companion in the shows’ history, having been hired to kill the Doctor, is utterly bland, acts utterly out of character and Strickson seems to have forgotten how to do the character’s public school accent. Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) is as dull as ever, but well-played by Sutton, and Ace (Sophie Aldred) is well-written but gets extremely variable performances from Aldred.
Amazingly, Mel, played by Bonnie Langford (best stories: The One Doctor and the Doctor Who Unbound story, He Jests at Scars), turns out to be the strongest of the returning companions, even though I’m sure many fans would have issued a fatwa against her if possible when she was on the show. Despite spending her screen time annunciating to the audience at the back of the theatre, her vocal work is pretty restrained here.
Despite her not having appeared in the Big Finish adventures yet, I’ve high expectations for Janet Fielding’s one-off return to the role of Tegan later in the year: Fielding is now notorious for her loathing of the show, warned Paul McGann not to accept the role of the Doctor when she was his agent, and chose to tell everyone it was rubbish, anti-feminist and should never come back – at the show’s 30th anniversary convention back in 1993. Tee hee. I can’t wait.
With Tom Baker notably absent from the audio plays, his companions have all been given the ultimate present of their own series. Leela (Louise Jameson), K9 (John Leeson, playing both K9 Mark 1 and K9 Mark 2) and the second Romanadvoratrelundar (Lalla Ward) make for an interesting gang in the Gallifrey stories, although these are a tad more West Wing than Doctor Who at times – which isn’t a bad thing, of course. In case you’re worried, the first Romana (Mary Tamm) also gets to appear in the second ‘season’ of Gallifrey and is thoroughly entertaining.
As for the Doctor’s other companions, they pop up in a number of ways, although Peter Purves and Frazer Hines, for instance, have yet to feature. The Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney on craggy form) is seemingly ubiquitous. He’s in practically every other Doctor Who story, as well as the UNIT range of stories and the David Warner Doctor Who Unbound stories. That’s mostly because Courtney’s character appeared on-screen with every Doctor bar the sixth and eighth, so can team up with any of them. But the Big Finish team were intent on filling in the blanks in his CV, so chose also to feature him in the mostly entertaining sixth Doctor story The Spectre of Lanyon Moor and the awful eighth Doctor story Minuet in Hell.
Mostly, though, they appear as other characters: Anneke Wills, one of the first Doctor’s companions, gets to be Charley’s mum, although doesn’t make that much of an impact; Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso from the TV movie also grace the audio adventures with their (thankfully) genuine American accents and are actually pretty good. But Katy Manning, who played Jo Grant, has her own, unfortunately execrable series, as the Time Lady Iris Wildthyme; and Carol Anne Ford does a particularly good job as a grown-up, alternative reality version of her old character, the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, in the Doctor Who Unbound stories Auld Mortality and A Storm of Angels.
Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith is possibly the most famous of all the (human) companions. So it’s natural, particularly since she’s appearing in the new season of the TV series and was the only non-metallic companion to get her own spin-off TV show, K9 and Company, that she get her own series of adventures, too: the Sarah Jane Smith stories. These don’t set the world on fire with their quality, although the first adventure, written by good old Terrance Dicks (one of the original creators of the character), does have a nice line in dialogue.
Strangely enough, of all the Who plays, it’s the Doctor Who Unbound stories that are the real standouts. These answer “What if?” questions, such as “what if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey?” and “what if the Valeyard (non-fans: an evil version of the Doctor) had beaten the Doctor during ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’?” None have involved the original Doctors, so get to play around with the rules far more. They’re probably better for it. Full Fathom Five (“what if the Doctor believed the end justified the means?”) has possibly the most disturbing ending of any Doctor Who story I’ve ever seen or heard, while Deadline is notable for not really featuring the Doctor at all, only a writer (Sir Derek Jacobi) who never got around to writing the unmade TV show, Doctor Who, instead coming up with the 14 worst episodes of Juliet Bravo ever made.
Overall, though, most of the Doctor Who plays and spin-offs are a little lacking, with a marked tendency towards OTT humour, overly intricate plotting and reliance on fannish knowledge to get them through. And I won’t even mention how bad the singing is in Doctor Who and The Pirates.
The only other adaptations I’ve bothered with are the Sapphire and Steel adaptations, which are not in the least bit special and suffer from not having the original leads, bar the occasional guest appearance by David Collings as Silver. If they could get PJ Hammond, the show’s creator, to write the scripts, then they’d have something worth shouting about.
On the whole, the Big Finish audios are an interesting diversion and it’s nice to hear the actors getting to flesh out their roles a bit more, but at £15+ a month for all the CDs, it’s really a genre for the dedicated fan, rather than the casual listener. And that’s the last, hopefully, you’ll hear of them from me.
PS Crap. I know way too much about Doctor Who.