Tomorrow night’s when withdrawal kicks in. For the first time in 13 weeks, no Doctor Who, and there won’t be new episodes on television until Christmas. But if you’re not sure whether you’re going to cope, ask yourself if you need to see the Doctor, because you can listen to him courtesy of Big Finish.
Big Finish are a company who produce and sell Doctor Who audio plays of the adventures of Doctors 5 – 8 (currently…) set during their own continuity, and long time readers will know I’ve recommended their output as a way of surviving the drought before. These plays are by top-notch writers, and besides the original actors returning to play the Doctors and companions the roster of acting talent who have appeared in these will impress anyone.
Two particular reasons to repeat my recommendation: first, starting in July the regular monthly Eighth Doctor plays start up again. These are 50 minute single CD plays, and there are 9 instalments to come. It’s at a good point to start listening, though, as the first play Situations Vacant will introduce a new companion, and the next eight follow on from it, so there’s no need to be familiar with any previous stories… (it may be necessary to be familiar with The Apprentice, however, which is a disadvantage for me). I’ve not heard these stories, so I don’t know if they’re good, but recent form for the Eighth Doctor makes me optimistic.
The other reason is that tomorrow is “Big Finish Day” which – besides giving you the chance to download the first episode of a new Peter Davison serial for free – is an opportunity to get hold of any of the first 50 plays they produced for just £5 each. Back then each monthly serial could be from any era of Doctors 5 – 8 and feature any Doctor/Companion combination; besides varying in the continuity, quality varied a lot too. Some of those little plastic discs contain the best Doctor Who dramas of their “eras”, here’s my guide to the best:
The Eighth Doctor Series
Among the first 50 stories are two “seasons” for the Eighth Doctor and new companion Charley Pollard, the Edwardian adventuress, who was created and introduced especially for these tales. Thus there is very little you need to know about prior stories (so long as you are aware of the cybermen and their little cyber-pets) to enjoy most of these:
- Storm Warning is an imaginative pseudo historical and introduces Charley the Edwardian Adventuress
- The Sword of Orion is well executed but traditional cyberman story.
- The Stones of Venice is surreal, very very funny, and quite possibly my favourite Doctor Who audio story
- Minuet in Hell is a Buffy pastiche which gets a bad press but (apart from some suspect American accents) is highly entertaining
- Invaders from Mars by Mark Gatiss is a funny homage to 1930s New York and Welles’ War of the Worlds. The Doctor would have made a great gumshoe: “what’s the rumpus? You cracking foxy with me or is you in trouble with the bricks?”
- The Chimes of Midnight sinister and atmospheric chrimbo-thriller by Rob Shearman, writer of the TV episode Dalek.
- Seasons of Fear is by Paul Cornell (who wrote the book and TV episode Human Nature) and Caroline Symcox and is chase through time, and if you’re lucky you won’t have met the monsters before.
- Embrace the Darkness is claustrophobic thriller perfectly suited to audio. Note that from here on the quality dips….
- The Time of the Daleks is a flimsly time travel/political thriller Dalek story centred around Shakespeare. It’s great to hear them quoting him, but most of the rest is guff.
- Neverland is continuity heavy and tiresome.
- Zagreus is ambitious and unusual, but really continuity heavy and tiresomely over-length.
Recommended listening up to Embrace the Darkness.
The Six Doctor Series
The Eighth Doctor only got a 90 minute TV movie, so his work on audio far outstrips his appearances on screen. But the Sixth Doctor has been equally advantaged by the audios because although he got more time on screen, the stories and the decisions about his character were ill-judged and poor. The audios reinvent him and give him some of the best scripts. And they also give him a new companion, an elderly history professor who makes an excellent foil: Dr Evelyn Smythe; her introduction also makes an excellent “jumping on point” for those unfamiliar with Classic Who.
- The Marian Conspiracy is an excellent pure historical – the first since Black Orchid, which introduces Dr Evelyn Smythe.
- The Spectre of Lanyon Moor has a traditional Pertwee-era feel to it, partly thanks to the presence of the Brigadier. James Bolam guests.
- The Apocalype Element is a blockbuster dalek movie on audio. This one is a little bit continuity heavy, and is probably best skipped by newbies, though I like it a lot.
- Project Twilight is a modern day vampire story set in the East End. Excellent.
- The Sandman is a little more routine – albeit with an imaginative setting and premise.
- Jubilee is just plain weird; writer Rob Shearman adapted it himself as Dalek for the TV series but it’s a lot stranger on audio. Martin Jarvis plays a fruitcake.
- Doctor Who and the Pirates is a brilliantly framed sea-faring saga with an entirely musical third episode, and is absolutely superb.
- Project Lazarus is a direct sequel to Project Twilight. It’s got an eye-catching gimmick but I’d give it a miss.
Recommended listening for The Marian Conspiracy, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, Project Twilight and especially Doctor Who and the Pirates. The others are not quite as good.
The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Nyssa and the Doctor were a duo for almost one part of a serial on TV but a gap was opened up where lost of adventures could slot in. Big Finish slotted lots of adventures in. They’re terrific. The first three, Land of the Dead, Winter for the Adept, and The Mutant Phase are not the most accomplished (though they are good, and get progressively better). But there then follows a trio of outstanding, must-listen plays:
- Primeval is a direct sequel to The Keeper of Traken which originally introduced Nyssa on TV.
- Spare Parts was described by Russell T. Davies as “some of the finest drama ever written for any genre, in any medium, anywhere”. It’s an origin of the cybermen story.
- Creatures of Beauty has a mind-bending non-linear narrative that is integral to the message of the story; brilliant, clever, moving and thoughtful writing that turns the legend of the Doctor on its head.
- The Fearmonger features the Seventh Doctor and Ace; it’s a perfect evolution of their TV companionship and it’s a gripping story that could only have been accomplished on audio.
- The Fires of Vulcan also features the Seventh Doctor but with Mel this time. It’s another brilliant pure historical, and rehabilitates Mel as a companion. Contemporary to, but better than, the TV story The Fires of Pompeii.
- The Holy Terror is unusual in that it features a comic strip-companion with the Sixth Doctor, a shape-shifter who usually appears as a large penguin. It starts out funny and ends out very dark, and is one of my favourites.
- The Eye of the Scorpion is a tale of ancient Egypt which introduces the pharaoh Erimem who goes on to join the Fifth Doctor and Peri in the TARDIS.
- The One Doctor is a Christmas comedy. It’s very, very funny. Sixth Doctor and Mel.
- Davros is an epic villain centred piece telling a dual story of the Doctor collaborating with the Davros in the present day, and Davros’ formative years prior to the events of Genesis of the Daleks to which this story is a direct sequel.
So, there we go: there’s a heap Doctor Who that should keep anyone going until Christmas. But if you do run out, the monthly series now runs to 130+ serials and there must be another 50 specials alongside. And that’s before you get to the sequels…