Happy Birthday, Big Finish! 15 Picks for 15 Years
Gustaff Behr celebrates 15 years of Big Finish audios with a look at 15 of the best.
I’ve noticed that as Doctor Who fans in general, we are a pretty greedy bunch. Not greedy in the sense that it’s sinful or selfish (well…maybe a little), but we always want more Who. More episodes! More minis! More Doctors! Earlier airdates! Longer seasons! We want multi-Doctors for New Who Anniversaries, Classic Anniversaries – Classic/New Bridging Anniversaries. We want it all! That is something I can’t really see in a negative light as it’s something very specific to this fandom and more importantly – we get what we want! Doctor Who has one of the largest, most diverse set of mediums of any franchise. Books! Audio dramas! Comics! Yeah, okay, that was only three, but try counting every Doctor Who story (both short and long, written and spoken) from every Doctor in every medium and you get a lot of adventures.
Fifteen years ago today, Big Finish released their first audio drama entitled The Sirens of Time. It was a fairly ordinary day I imagine. Doctor Who hadn’t been on since 1996. But of course the wilderness years played host to the rise of the novels. Most of them featured the Seventh and later Eighth Doctors, but that just wasn’t enough. Fans wanted more! A big part of Doctor Who is brought to us by Big Finish, who, as you’ve read from other articles I’ve done, have succeeded in telling the stories the lost/cancelled eras couldn’t.
Big Finish have done huge justices to a lot of Doctors and at the same time, supplied greedy fans like myself, who require Big Finish audios to function properly when the TV series isn’t on, with some of the best classic Doctor format combined with 21st century storytelling. They have over 400 titles in their Doctor Who category alone! Yearly, that’s almost double what we get on the TV series! Forgive me if I don’t mention your personal favorite, but selecting fifteen titles, one from each year that stands out as the best to represent and celebrate Big Finish’s success from more than 400 is almost impossible! Let’s see…
The Fearmonger (1999-2000)
After The Sirens of Time, Big Finish started telling stories about Doctor 5-7 for the first year. The Fearmonger stands out as it sort of exemplifies what Seventh Doctor stories need to be about. Still finding their feet, the Seventh Doctor was the only one whose stories felt a little too simplistic. The Fearmonger puts Seven and Ace combatting an alien that breeds fear and hatred and violence by hiding in the voices of certain people. Hiding in someone’s voice? That is the type of stuff we expect from Seven. As mentioned, The Fearmonger was also one of those early, intricate Seventh Doctor stories that featured a lot of plot twists and script changing in the sense that just when you think you’ve found all the answers, Seven goes ahead and changes the questions.
Special mentions: Whispers of Terror
The Holy Terror (2000-2001)
The Holy Terror comes up with arguably one of the most bizarre ideas, bordering on pantomime actually, that Doctor Who has ever done. But it also featured a character from the comics teaming up with the Doctor – Frobisher the Shape shifting Penguin. The premise of The Holy Terror is one I often struggle to describe to people because if you’ve listened to it yourself, you’ll understand my plight. Not only is doing a comedic, pantomime-like story new for Doctor Who, but turning the concept of tradition into playwright and treating it like a sort of stage performance is a very smart, albeit unusual thing to do and put into words that do it justice.
Special mentions: The Fires of Vulcan
The Chimes of Midnight (2001-2002)
Put the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard in a Groundhog Day loop, throw in a murder mystery and combine it with black comedy and the end result is a story that jumps from punching you in the gut with continuous slapslick hilarity that’ll make you tear up from laughing to listening in silent suspense as the plot unfolds. Not only one of the best Eighth Doctor stories out there, but best Doctor Who in general.
Special mentions: Project: Twilight, Colditz
Doctor Who and the Pirates (2002-2003)
A lot of people expect Spare Parts to take up this slot. Cybermen origin story is one thing, but doing a Doctor Who musical with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor and setting the story on a pirate ship and having Six sing Gallifreyian Buccaneer is an entirely different thing. A better thing! It’s the polar opposite of Spare Parts by being very soft and comedic as opposed to the dark and mature tones of Spare Parts, but that’s what it takes to stand out. Plus, don’t think Sixie can carry a note? You’d be surprised!
Special mentions: Spare Parts
Big Finish’s take on wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. Arguably the most intricate, complex, mind-screwy title they have ever done; featuring the Seventh Doctor and Mel in not only a predestination paradox, but putting that paradox in a multiple-world line plot featuring another Seventh Doctor and Mel experiencing the same adventure at the same time. Stop reading a moment and try to wrap your head around it. I know it hurts. The script is simply fantastic. In fact, part of its charm is that parts 1-2 & 3-4 can be listened to in any order and still make sense. No beginning or end, just mindscrewy!
Special mentions: Davros, Master, The Wormery
The Next Life (2004-2005)
Fans in general weren’t all that thrilled with the Divergent Universe Arc the Eighth Doctor had been thrown into. It was very marmite with you either loving it to death or hating it with all your heart and soul. The finale featured a much longer story that brought back familiar ‘faces’ in Daphne Ashbrook who played Grace Holloway, as well as a new incarnation of Rassilon. Set on an island with various plot strands running through, The Next Life managed to end a very controversial story arc on a very satisfying end.
The Kingmaker (2005-2006)
Audio aficionados know that Peter Davison stories are usually very back-to-basics. It’s lighter and softer than other Doctors, but The Kingmaker not only subverts that tradition, but explores the question of ‘what would happen if you got left behind by a time traveler – stranded in the past’. That is a very real and serious question that is taken both seriously, but also mangled by injecting humor into what is otherwise a grim tale. Plus, bonus points for having the Fourth and Ninth Doctors cameoing.
Special mentions: Terra Firma, Other Lives, Night Thoughts
The Reaping (2006-2007)
Cybermen stories are like the lottery – you rarely hit the jackpot. They are supposed to be on equal footing with the Daleks, but a lot of Cybermen stories end up in the mediocre bin. The Reaping subverts this by giving us probably the darkest Cybermen plot you’re likely to ‘see’. There is no way in hell the production team would’ve gotten this script past the BBC back in the 80s. It’s dark, it’s properly grim that not only explores Peri’s family, but also puts the Doctor in a timey-wimey situation that will come back to haunt his past.
Special mentions: Blood of the Daleks, Human Resources
The Girl Who Never Was (2007-2008)
After being a companion for +/- seven years, Big Finish needed to send Charley Pollard off with a bang and they did by exploring the aftermath of a very real event that just proves too much for even the dazzling Edwardian Adventuress. Combining timey-wimey with what feels like a very selfish and insensitive Doctor in some parts, this story definitely stole the year by opening the door to a brand new arc and creating more turmoil than before, instead of closing things down like is custom at the end of a companion’s journey.
Special mentions: Dead London, Grand Theft Cosmos
A year that truly belonged to the Seventh Doctor, 2008-2009 saw three Sylvester McCoy stories dominating the year, but nothing stood out more than the 4-part anthology that is 45. More specifically – The Word Lord – the last story belongs in the Doctor Who Vault of Most Imaginative and Creative Monsters. I’d put it near the top because of the sheer originality used to create the villain for this tale. That’s not even touching the plot!
Special mentions: Enemy of the Daleks, The Magic Mousetrap, Vengeance of Morbius
The Klein Trilogy (2009-2010)
A bit of a cheat here, but again Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor dominated the year by introducing the most controversial companion in the history of Doctor Who – Elizabeth Klein – a Nazi who hails from an alternative timeline in which they won WWII. The 3-story arc, using The Klein Trilogy as an umbrella title, took the Seventh Doctor into new territory, but what it mostly did was torture fans by zigzagging who had control of the situation by continually raising the stakes and giving listeners cruel cliffhangers that left us wanting more. In fact, when people ask about the Klein Trilogy, most fans tend to give the advice of ‘buy them all in one go’.
Special mentions: Patient Zero, The Eternal Summer, Death in Blackpool
The Four Doctors (2010-2011)
Let’s be honest: Multi-Doctor specials are like Whovians’ version of The Avengers. You have to dig freaking deep to beat it. Celebrating ten years of Big Finish, the crew decided to give us a very unusual Anniversary Special by dedicating one episode in a 4-part story to each of the four Doctors (5-8) and throwing in some Daleks, timey-wimey balls that felt lighter and softer than previous anniversaries, but still a showstopper of a romp.
Special mentions: A Death in the Family, To The Death, Lucie Miller
The Curse of Davros (2011-2012)
Body swaps are overrated in my opinion! They are a lazy way for generating cheap laughter and shoving life lessons down children’s throats. There have only ever been two titles that have done body swap fiction correctly that I have respected for taking a clichéd concept and treating it seriously: Kokoro Connect and The Curse of Davros. In the former’s case, having the guts to put androphobic in a male body and sorting through very real-world and mature issues rather than finding out how hard the other half lives, for the latter, it was asking the audience the question of: “What does it feel to be Davros?” What does he go through? How does he cope with the pain surging through his body? What goes on inside his mind?
Special mentions: The Emerald Tiger, The Witch From The Well, House of Blue Fire
The Wrong Doctors (2012-2013)
What’s better than listening to one Colin Baker? Listening to two of them running around Pea’s Pottage: One from just after being put on trial and one who is planning to meet Mel for the first time (from her POV). Is it that simple though? Never! You have two Sixth Doctors and two Melany Bush’s in a story that serves as a prequel, mid-quel and a sequel all in one. Let the confusion begin! The only things distinguishing the dual Doctors are their attire and their volume control. It’s fun listening and trying to keep track of which Doctor is speaking and voicing two distinct versions of himself proves just how Colin Baker has mastered the ins and outs of his incarnation. A fun romp that doubles (no pun intended) as one of those stories that can be listened to over and over again in rapid succession without tiring you out.
Special mentions: The Shadow Heart, The Great War, ‘X’ and the Daleks
The Light at the End (2013-2014)
Oh come on! What else could it have possibly been? Nothing beats Multi-Doctor Specials and nothing on the 2013-2014 rosters was going to. Eight Doctors? In one story? With the Master and a dozen and a half companions? In the 50th year of Doctor Who? Not on your life!
Special mentions: Breaking Bubble, Scavenger, Eyes of the Master
If I didn’t mention your favorite, apologies, but as I said, Big Finish has done such a fantastic job that even selecting these couple was quite a challenge. Celebrating fifteen years of audio, here’s hoping to another equally whimsical fifteen! Happy Birthday Big Finish!