Big Finish Review Round-Up: 2019 – Part 4
Feature by Gustaff Behr.
The Eighth Doctor: The Time War, Series 3
I’m going to be really honest here and say I genuinely only remember State of Bliss, which is a lovely episode dedicated to Bliss, who has had a tough time climbing the ranks of favourite companion, and The War Valeyard, for obvious reasons.
State of Bliss tells the story of what would’ve/could’ve happened to Bliss had the Time War not happened. It’s a perfect episode for a Time War, dealing with alternative realities and collapsing timelines. Most importantly, if you are someone who, like me, has been on the fence about the character, this story is sure to score her some points with you.
The War Valeyard feels out of place in this box set, having not been built up or hinted at or even really needed. His inclusion seems purely as a ‘what if’ idea. What If Big Finish threw the Valeyard into the Time War? However, despite this, his inclusion is welcome and well-utilized. Michael Jayston’s performance is fantastic and the box set finale pays the character great tribute, capping off the story of the strange evil maybe-Doctor-maybe-not incarnation. The reason for the Valeyard’s inclusion, how he fits into the rest of the series and how he’s even present after the events of The Brink of Death is well-explained.
Status: Recommended…only for the Valeyard!
- State of Bliss – 7.0
- The Famished Lands – 8.0
- Fugitive in Time – 8.0
- The War Valeyard – 9.0
The Diary of River Song, Series 6
After the jaw-dropping fifth series, it feels both disappointing but natural for The Diary of River Song to take a step back instead of trying to outdo itself. The sixth series has River Song dropping into popular Doctor Who stories and adventuring there, often at the same time as a classic Doctor but without actually meeting him. The titles spell out which stories River is revisiting and the scores below should tell you exactly how entertaining they are. While this box set does feel like a drop in quality, it should be noted that this season the nostalgia is in a different format and should not be judged on the basis of River not meeting another Doctor, or another Master.
Fans of these adventures will no doubt get a kick out of hearing the reminiscence play out in the background, or off-screen, call backs, references or even how the episodes solve some of the left over questions the television series failed to answer. It is also good to be reminded that River Song doesn’t need the Doctor or the Master to feel exciting or fun to listen to.
- An Unearthly Woman – 8.0
- The Web of Time – 8.0
- Peepshow – 6.0
- The Talents of Greel – 7.0
The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, Volume 5: Buried Memories
The team of Benny and the Unbound Doctor, a version of the Doctor from a parallel universe played by David Warner, continue to be a match made in heaven. Every new volume of this team up continues to get even better and volume five is no different. You have character studies like Pride of the Lampian, cool sci-fi adventures like Clear History and the traditional decent, but not overly spectacular Dead and Breakfast and Burrowed Time. This box set feels a little less spectacular than volume four in places, but there is more than enough cool ideas to make the series still feel fresh and worth your time.
- Pride of the Lampian – 8.0
- Clear History – 8.0
- Dead and Breakfast – 7.0
- Burrowed Time – 7.0
The Paternoster Gang, Heritage 2
This box set completely turned me off the Paternoster Gang. The stories are abysmal with too many characters starting to feel unlikeable. In fact, Jenny spends most of the third story being a soapbox sally, declaring her opinion and forcing every character and the rest of the story to acknowledge that she is right, and they are wrong.
Dining with Death feels like a traditional Third Doctor era episode with the Paternoster Gang playing mediators to two warring alien species. The episode doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but it has tremendous fun with a cute little murder mystery attached to the plot.
The Screaming Ceiling is by far the best episode, but paints the Paternoster Gang in a terrible light when they are called in to investigate a haunted ghost and run into an amateur ghost hunter. While naive, the lad’s heart is clearly in the right place, but Vastra takes every opportunity to belittle, insult and be antagonistic towards him. It’s definitely not a route the Doctor would’ve taken had he been involved.
Status: Not Recommended
- Dining with Death – 6.0
- The Screaming Ceiling – 8.0
- Spring-Heeled Jack – 5.0
The Companion Chronicles, Series 13: The First Doctor Volume 3
This era of Doctor Who just doesn’t do it for me. E is for… is a boring episode of Doctor Who narrated by Carole Ann Ford doing several awful impersonations of her co-stars. Daybreak has a lot more bite to it with a moral and temporal issue at its forefront, but relies too heavily on Vicky expositing why we should care about the people she is protecting instead of actually showing us. This problem could’ve been avoided had the story chosen to use real historical people that some of the listeners could reasonably already have knowledge of.
There’s also the added annoyance of Vicky asking herself repeatedly whether it’s okay to change history or not. This fault is not hers as it is a reasonable question to ask, but the listeners have encountered this dilemma in Doctor Who dozens of times before already, so circling back to this question every couple of minutes is grating.
The Crumbling Magician has been done before and better in The Jigsaw War and Of Chaos Time The. It adds a body swap twist that does not do it any favors. It also says a lot about a story if it only starts becoming enjoyable when Polly (the star of this episode) disappears halfway through it.
Status: Not recommended
- E is for… – 4.0
- Daybreak – 6.0
- The Vardan Invasion of Mirth – 5.0
- The Crumbling Magician – 5.0
Ravenous, Volume 4
Big Finish has a knack for delivering grand finales to their long-term arcs. Ravenous 4 is just the latest in a long line, but it’s obvious just from the plot synopsis how much trouble Big Finish went to to make sure they give fans the perfect send off. Whisper is nothing special, serving as a cute character study filler that feels unnecessary, but it excused given what follows.
On the desert planet of Parrok, the Decayed Master is clinging to life when the Doctor, the Eleven, Helen and Liv drop in for a visit. Oh and they manage to bring the Ravenous with them. Nothing quite solidifies the Ravenous as a top tier threat than the Master’s bone chilling reaction to learning that they are nearby. The episode itself feels like a traditional Doctor Who episode that ultimately can be described as the perfect appetiser for the eagerly anticipated main course.
Day of the Master does for the Master what Day of the Doctor did for the Doctor. It is a perfect send-off to the series, a spectacular celebration and tribute to the character of the Master and an overall fun, exciting romp of an adventure. Throw in some timey-wimey into the mix, add a little Deathworm Master, a pinch of Missy and give the War Master a chance to strut his stuff and you have all the makings of a deadly ‘special ops’ team, as the Master describes it. There is something inherently magical about listening to the Masters try to work together and gain a few insights into their lives. It is also nice that the story tries to answer the single most sought after question fans have had about the Master, much like how Day of the Doctor sought to tell us about the Time War.
Ultimately, Day of the Master successfully pays tribute not only to the Master, but to the Eleven as well and the Ravenous. These are monsters that feel threatening. Their origins are explored, their actions raise the stakes and the episode’s climax feels immensely satisfying. Not only that, but Dorney even manages to set up the next box series…Stranded!
- Whisper – 7.0
- Planet of Dust – 8.0
- Day of the Master – Part 1 – 9.0
- Day of the Master – Part 2 – 10.0
The Lost Stories, Series 5
After listening to these stories, I can see why the BBC chose to pass them up back in the 80s. The Ultimate Evil is bogged down by annoying characters that exposit all over the place. Throw in a hammy villain that takes himself too seriously, and describes what he’s doing while he’s doing it…ugh.
Nightmare Country somewhat redeems the series with a clever idea that would’ve been very original for Doctor Who, had it been done in the 1980s. Unfortunately since then, Doctor Who and Big Finish have employed the storyline multiple times almost always just as good, or even better. Being stuck in a simulated world is cool and all, but Tegan and Turlough feel surplus in this story for a good chunk of it. Tegan gets some good scenes with the Doctor, but the substance is lost and hardly brought up again.
Status: Not recommended
- The Ultimate Evil – 6.0
- Nightmare Country – 8.0
The Early Adventures
Big Finish imagines what an encounter between the Master and the Second Doctor would’ve looked like in the 1960s, and all I can say is: I wish this happened sooner.
James Dreyfus’ Master, introduced by Big Finish as the first incarnation of the Master, takes the helm in Home Guard, a story that feels too clever for 1960s Doctor Who, but at the same time feels like the perfect demonstration of what Classic Who should be. Paradoxical, I know.
For the most part, the story plays its cards close to its vest, slowly unravelling the obvious mystery of why Ben, Polly and Jamie are soldiers and why the Doctor is their commander, willing to send men off to their death. The information dump is organic and the actors do a wonderful job reinventing their characters. The scenes between the Master and the Doctor sometimes feel dangerously brilliant.
Daughter of the Gods imagines a 5th Anniversary special between Two and One, and while it is a welcomed addition to the growing list of multi-Doctor adventures, the episode does rely a little too much on a character most audiences don’t know, don’t remember, or don’t care about. The story’s format is interwoven by scenes of the Second Doctor and his companions’ investigation and the First Doctor and his. Both teams eventually find each other, but in a shocking twist, Big Finish pits the ideologies of the First and Second Doctor against one another. Not quite, but almost turning this title into a Doctor vs Doctor event.
Status: Highly Recommended
- Home Guard – 9.0
- Daughter of the Gods – 7.0
The War Master, Series 4: Anti-Genesis
The year comes to a close in style with Anti-Genesis in which Sir Derek Jacobi’s Master takes four episodes to show audiences why the concept of a Time Lock is so vital to a Time War. The Daleks and the Time Lords have one thing they agree on, one rule both are determined to enforce, and it’s the one rule the Master is hell-bent on breaking.
The entire box set is something of a slow burner, taking its time building up the stakes and placing all the pieces on the chessboard. The Master’s Dalek Plan is the main cause of the pacing issues in this box set, but it also is necessary to showcase the effects of the Master’s crime.
Shockwave introduces an alternative Master from another universe, played spectacularly by Mark Gatiss, who aids the Daleks in stopping his prime-universe self’s plans. The box set is notable for not just showcasing how devastating the Master’s actions are, but also for pitting two versions of the Master against one another, a concept that was successfully carried out in 2016’s The Two Masters. The only difference here is killing one another doesn’t create a life-negating paradox.
Throughout this box set, the Master crosses several lines that you thought were too low even for him…but he does it…and enjoys it.
Status: Super Recommended
- From the Flames – 8.0
- The Master’s Dalek Plan – 7.0
- Shockwave – 9.0
- He Who Wins – 8.0
Big Finish is an amazing company, run by the fans for the fans, and strives to put the need of the fans ahead of everything else. It has been a staple in my life since 2009 and without it and the endless catalogue of fantastic pieces of brilliant storytelling being produced day after day, Doctor Who, for me, would’ve ceased to exist long ago. 2019 has been a bundle of nostalgia in every shape and form and has certainly set a high bar for 2020, which I am sure can be surpassed.