Review: Doctor Who – Big Finish Back Catalog I

With Doctor Who coming back officially for a tenth Series in 2017, I’m going to be quite busy during the spring doing all of the Series 10 reviews of episodes and moments from our adventures with 12, Bill, and Nardole. This does mean that my Big Finish reviews may go a little bit by the wayside (though the bigger releases such as the War Doctor Volume 4, Doom Coalition 4, and Unit Series 4 will still be covered in bigger posts) so I thought I would use a post or two to cover some of the other Big Finish audios that I won’t have time to give proper reviews for but may (or may not) deserve some special attention. With that said, I introduce my first in a series of post which I’m calling my Big Finish Back Catalog. These are audios (recent or otherwise) that I have been listening from the world of Doctor Who from Big Finish that deserve a review / look at. I have linked all of the stories for purchase in the article below for each story if you are interested in giving some of these your own listen. With that said, let’s dive right in:

 

“Nightshade” by Mark Gatiss and Kyle C. Szikora — “Nightshade” is a unique story in that it explores possibilities and scenarios that could’ve existed and were being planned after the Classic series was cancelled in 1989. Written by Mark Gatiss, this story sees a tired and weary Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace arrive in the sleepy village of Crook Marsham where the townspeople are being consumed by their past memories in both lethal and nonlethal ways. With the Doctor desperately missing his granddaughter Susan and seriously considering retirement, Ace is put on the spot as the village becomes cut off from the outside world by a freaky alien menace. Any hope of saving the town may lie in Edmund Trevithick, an elderly actor living in a rest home who was famous for playing a character in a 1950’s serial show named Professor Nightshade. If that name doesn’t bring a clue to the story and who is important, then I don’t know what does. This is easily one of the best Seventh Doctor stories I’ve heard and a beautiful love letter not just to the show but to other television serial shows that sadly no longer exist. It reminds me very much of an episode from “Batman: The Animated Series” where Batman has to team up with a television icon played by an older Batman actor Adam West in order to solve a similar mystery. The soundscape of this story is a bit slower but very eerie, vibrant, and all encompassing with the earthbound feel very reminiscent of some of the older Classic Who stories with a Seventh Doctor twist. We also get some strong character focus and development of our two main leads Seven and Ace which I loved hearing. Sylvester McCoy plays the world-weary aspect of the Doctor beautifully and you can completely understand and see why he would want to settle down for a few centuries and chill. Ace as played once again by Sophie Aldred gives a strong performance in not only attraction in falling for one of the townsfolk but also bereavement in trying to understand why her beloved ‘Professor’ needs a break. With themes of mortality and morbidity being played around with, a freaky alien with a great voice that will send shivers down your spine, many twists and turns for old and new series fan to enjoy, and an extremely big and yet gratifyingly fitting final moment to close out this story, this is one of Big Finish’s all time best especially coming from a writer that I’ve always considered to be one of NuWho’s weakest writers. This is a must-listen for all serious Whovians to hear what might have been and who could be in the future.

— 9 / 10

“Cold Fusion” by Lance Parkin — Now THIS story is a strange one. Not only is it an audio adaptation of a Multi-Doctor novel with two of the most polar opposite Doctors that could ever come together in a story but we also get one of the biggest ties to the Doctor’s past than we’ve ever seen in any form. When the newly regenerated Fifth Doctor and his companions Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan arrive on an occupied ice planet at the same time as the Seventh Doctor who is conducting investigations of his own, it’s obvious that things were drawn together for a reason when experiments on the planet begin to spiral out of control. But things take a turn for the crazier when a mysterious Time Lady named Patience enters the picture who just might happen to be the Doctor’s wife. Needless to say, this is a big story in all forms and it ends up being one of the densest plots I’ve ever listened to in a Doctor Who story which is saying a lot. It’s significantly epic to say the least with gigantic fleets of spaceships, ghosts passing in and out of time and space itself, and links to the past and future on all fronts but it’s a very difficult one to get in to at least at first entrance as it drops you in to the story very quickly with not much time to breathe and let everything soak before in the plot kicks in. There were many times in this story where I just frankly didn’t care or just wasn’t as engrossed I wanted to be because of all of the dense details that are involved and needed. Combine this with the pace of a glacier at 6 parts compared to the normal 4 and ‘Fusion’ gets ridiculously slow at times which helps the slower character driven moments but hampers the bigger action moments. Thus it feels less of a great story than it should’ve been and I wonder if other stories are needed for this one to really click. There are still many things to like about this story though even if they aren’t supporting as a whole by the rest of the production. The soundscape on this one is superb especially in the 5th Doctor era music used for the score that really bring the authenticity up on this one a few notches compared to other Big Finish productions. The cast is fine with Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy turning in particularly good performances especially in the times that they actually do get to meet. Even though this is primarily a Five story with Seven and his book companions being little more than guests, Seven does play a big role in that we do get to see him in full on manipulator mode as is perfect for his character except this time he’s manipulating himself. The little moments and the very dynamic of these two Doctors interacting and reacting off of each other especially in Seven’s meeting with Adric considering what will eventually happen are the best moments of the audio. Patience herself played by Christine Kavanaugh also serves a strong presence when she’s needed providing sort of a proto-River Song but with a much more engaging mystery behind her than River had at times. This is also one that will really reward Whovians who are well-versed on their lore especially from the Wilderness years and the Cartmel masterplan that almost came to be. We get many references to Lungbarrow, the looms, and even a reference to what I think is supposed to be the Other that’s going to unfortunately go right over the heads of most fans but provided some real treats at times for me as the deeply obsessed Whovian that I am. However these do serve to really take away from the main story which is a major point against it. It’s honestly sad for me because I should like this one a bit more than I did when I finished it. My two favorite Classic Doctors together in one epic story with references to past and future? This should’ve been a complete home run and for many reviewers it does seem to be. Don’t get me wrong, this one is well worth a listen for those who are VERY well informed in Doctor Who lore and are fans of Five and Seven. For me personally, the references and smaller moments mentioned above as well as the character histories brought on by this one made it well worth the listen for me even through the extremely boring moments and dense and ultimately insignificant main story that’s far less interesting than it tries to be. This is also the rare individual story that I bought on CD because I want to listen to it again to catch the eccentricities and details of it more. But I wouldn’t say this is one for casual or New Who fans at all as there is potential to get very lost and caught up on details that you simply won’t understand unless you are well versed in your Doctor Who history. Take that for what it’s worth.

— 7 / 10

 

“The Sontarans” by Simon Guerrier — When the First Doctor (here played by Peter Purves) and his companions Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) and Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh) land on an asteroid between two gas giants with one hell of an amazing view, they think it’s the perfect opportunity to rest and unwind after their most recent adventures in the TARDIS. However, it isn’t long before they quickly find themselves in the middle of an intense battle between a group of human soldiers related to Sara’s allegiance and a group of squat potato-like aliens in armor. With lives at stake, the human soldiers seem to be on a mission in search of a weapon inside the asteroid itself but are they really trustworthy compared to the mysterious aliens known as Sontarans and what is really going on here? This story is important in that it marks the first meeting of the Doctor and the Sontarans (as if you couldn’t tell by the name) in canon. It’s an interesting idea that I’m glad we get to see filled in to the Doctor’s history especially as it appears that his companions Steven and Sara for once know more about the menace and their reputation than the Doctor does. This lets the companions take hold and control of the story for once almost more so than the Doctor does who is given free reign to strategize and work up a way to defeat them which he will end up using in the future. In that sense, it weaves perfectly in to the Doctor’s timeline and it fits perfectly in to the canon. The linear story is a very good one, emulates the Hartnell era very well almost to a T, and it does have some very good moments that I’m glad I got to hear. I love listening to the Doctor interact with foes he would come to know very well in the future (played by Dan Starkey of NuWho fame) who are much more menacing and believably portrayed than some of the stories with future Doctors. However at the same time, I do have personal problems with this one that do knock it down a few pegs. The constant narration provided by Peter Purves is honestly distracting and the soundscape and everything around it sounds almost lifeless. Peter Purves and Jean Marsh in their voicing sound constantly out of breath and since I’m not particular invested or know too much about this era, I have a hard time trying to pay attention and be invested in this one. For big First Doctor fans, I can definitely see how this would grab you and it has many things that I love about it. For me however, it’s worth at least one listen just for canon and history’s sake but it’s definitely not a favorite of mine that I’d come back to any time soon.

— 6 / 10

 

“The Black Hole” by Simon Guerrier — The Second Doctor, Jaime, and Victoria land on a space station in the middle of nowhere where time seems to be standing still on a fairly consistent basis due to its proximity to a black hole. As they investigate, they make a terrifying discover in that the black hole itself may have been artificially created…..by the Doctor’s own people. With thousands of people at risk and a constable from his own people at his side, the Doctor scrambles in a race against time to figure out what is going on and what his people have in mind not realizing the devious trap that’s been set in store for him. This is a very difficult story to review in full because part of the novelty and enjoyment of this one relies on two major twists that I won’t DARE spoil for you here. NuWho fans may not be able to get why this story and these twists are so important in the course of the Second Doctor era but this one is a joy for Classic Who fans strictly on those merits. Without giving anything specific away, this high concept story completely shuts the door on and negates a troublesome fan theory and continuity glitch right out of Whovian history in one fell swoop and it makes you view certain aspects of multiple eras (not just the Second Doctor era) in a new way. Having the Doctor’s people (the term ‘Time Lord’ didn’t exist for a long while yet) appear or have some degree of involvement in story this early in the Doctor’s life is extremely significant and it makes this one all the more intriguing and interesting. Guerrier was very brave in taking a Second Doctor story in this direction and thank God he did because this turns out to be one of the best Doctor Who audios I’ve ever heard. The plot is extremely fascinating, the story one of the absolute best in Big Finish history, the script tight from one big twist to another, and the characters and acting amazing with David Warner as the narrator and Frazier Hines as both Two and Jaime coming through in great performances. I love seeing the Second Doctor in this kind of a story and the scared reaction of the possibility of being caught by his people to the point where he feels like he has to run is unusual and yet at the same time perfect for this Doctor as that’s exactly what happens later on in his final story ‘The War Games’. It’s these kinds of details that really connect the dots between audio and TV stories and Guerrier should be applauded for catching these subtle reactions and details to preserve continuity. From tone and story to characters and details, this is a story completely evocative of the era it takes place in while taking the characters in new directions. If I had to pick one flaw, it would unfortunately be Deborah Watling as Victoria. This is no fault of the character at all as Victoria remains one of my all time favorite Classic companions but Watling simply sounds her age when Victoria is supposed to be one of the youngest people ever to travel in the TARDIS and that gets extremely distracting. It’s simply a thrill to listen to from beginning to end and even I couldn’t predict where this one was going to go at times. I’m honestly not a big fan of the Early Adventures though I do love the Second Doctor but if the stories are going to be this good, then I’m really going to have to start getting into these ones sooner rather than later.

— 10 / 10

 

“The Second Doctor Volume 1” — The Second Doctor gets 4 new stories all to himself and his companions in this box set. With all of the Second Doctor’s main companions Jamie (Frazier Hines), Polly (Anneke Wills), Ben (Elliot Chapman), Victoria (Deborah Watling), and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) playing part in various stories (though the focus is mostly on Jaime), this set is a Second Doctor fan’s wet dream and one that many fans were anticipating quite immensely. As this set is comprised of 4 stories, I thought it best to do quick reviews of them similar to past reviews of other sets (albeit in a much more bite sized fashion).

Story 1: “The Mouthless Dead” by John Pritchard: When the TARDIS lands in the dusk of 1920’s England, the TARDIS team of Two, Ben, Polly, and Jaime get involved in a WWI mystery involving the body of the Unknown Warrior and mysterious mouthless ghosts haunting the tracks at night. It’s a strong horror piece with a chilling atmosphere and an interesting overt take on concepts that the Troughton era didn’t touch as often as future eras. We also get some interesting dynamics as since this is near the beginning of the Second Doctor era and Jaime’s time on the Tardis, the interactions between the team at this point are fascinating to hear especially with Jaime still learning about advanced tech in the future. The flickering narration between multiple viewpoints does get a little confusing at times and it does have it’s slower boring moments particularly in the first half. But ‘Mouthless’ ends up being a beautiful and surprisingly well told story that deals with war, loss, and how we actually deal with death in very human ways.  — 8 / 10

Story 2: “The Story of Extinction” by Ian Atkins: Beginning with a bit of a surprising mislead of a plot device that involves a surprise cameo that I certainly wasn’t expecting, we see the Second Doctor, Jaime, and Victoria get involved in a strange archaeological expedition on the remote alien planet Amyrndaa. It is a beautiful lush world but there appears to be absolutely no signs of sentient life. Jaime and Victoria stay behind in the TARDIS while the Doctor goes off to be a scientist but it soons appears that something is picking life off of the planet and the Tardis crew are next. While it does seems to be a standard base under siege like story, the focus becomes apparent in Victoria herself and her friendship with Jaime. The concept is executed well enough and there are some really clever ideas at play with literal moving words and the power of ideas all coming into play that really wasn’t what I was expecting to hear out of this one. With less viewpoints, a bit of a more cohesive flow, and a strong bond to guide us through, despite a few minor nitpicks (the music in this one is way too flowery and cutesy for me), this is a very strong story that fits beautifully into the story of Victoria Waterfield.  — 9 / 10 

Story 3: “The Integral” by David Bartlett: Tempers are fraying on the Tardis as Jaime and Zoe begin to butt heads over their viewpoints from different periods. To resolve their arguments, the Doctor takes them to a medical research base to try and provide a decent distraction for the team. However the base is being menaced by something sinister in both mind and body and the patients are beginning to turn inexplicably violent. This is easily the darkest story of the set, taking the base under siege story (something very common with the Second Doctor) and turning it on it’s head with some very clever tropes thrown in on violent video games of all things, anger, xenophobia, and changing perspective. It almost reminds me of the main element of the film ‘Serenity’ surrounding the reavers being thrown in to a Doctor Who story and it’s a fascinating listen with a strong and terrifying soundscape and sound effects to back it up. This is a claustrophobic and suffocating story to get through but with Frazier Hines and Wendy Padbury narrating and bringing some of their strongest moments both in relationship and action to this one (though I’m surprised Zoe forgot about her martial arts that she displayed in ‘Mind Robber’), it’s another strong Second Doctor story.  — 9 / 10

Story 4: “The Edge” by Rob Nisbet: The galaxy’s scientific hub of experimentation, breakthroughs, and advancements. Just the thing to pique and absorb the Doctor and Zoe’s interest. But it’s ironically Jaime who gets the full focus in the final story as he discovers something odd going on and is pitted against a nasty villain in a confrontation through close corridors, zero-g environments and the full power of the scientific intellect against instinct and other forms of intelligence that Jaime thankfully has in spades. This is truly Frazier Hines’ story and while I don’t think it’s quite as strong as the others in this set as the message is quite obvious and it does feel more like Jaime’s story than a story of the Second Doctor era, it still works for what it is and serves as a nice cap to the set as well as to the character of Jaime as a whole. — 6 / 10

Overall, this is a great one for Second Doctor fans and for all Whovians to listen to who want to get into the Second Doctor era more. Frazier Hines continues to capture the mannerisms of the Second Doctor / Patrick Troughton beautifully, all of the stories have something interesting about them that makes them great listens, and it brings a good representation of the entire era with all companions giving great performances from their respective time periods. It’s not a perfect box set and it doesn’t quite match ‘The Black Hole’ for me personally in terms of interest and big Whovian awesome moments that usually gets me excited. But I will say it’s the perfect box set to introduce someone to the Second Doctor era as a whole and in that sense, it’s very much a success and a favorite.

— 8 / 10 

 

 

SHORT TRIPS: “Washington Burns” by Julian Richards — The first of the Doctor Who Short Trips stories I’ve listened to (essentially more like a 35 minute Doctor Who audiobook than an audio drama) dumps us right in to the middle of the War of 1812 and Washington D.C. in particular. Seven and Ace are brought into conflict with a new villainous creation named CEREBRA who can infect people specifically through any sort of writing. It’s an amazing concept and one that I would love to see brought in to a longer form outside of a short story. Without giving too much away, it really lends itself well to a Doctor Who story and the writing brought to us by Julian Richards is tight and focused with many twists, time zones, and moments that keep this one a fascinating if short listen in particular Ace and The Doctor having dinner at the White House. With only Sophie Aldred narrating and reading the story similar to an actual audiobook, it doesn’t feel much like a drama and it doesn’t quite seem like standard Big Finish fare but she does a great job in telling the story and especially in capturing the Seventh Doctor’s mannerisms even if she goes with the Scottish accent WAY too much at times. It does end rather abruptly and I wish we had more of it but I guess that’s a pretty good sign. For $2.99 on Big Finish, you really can’t go wrong with this one especially if you are a history buff.

— 7 / 10 

 

SHORT TRIPS: “Forever Fallen”  by Joshua Wanisko — In most Doctor Who stories, the Doctor always give the enemy he is up against a chance to surrender and stop their evil schemes. And 99.9% percent of the time, that chance is never taken. Plots have gone through, destruction has rained down, and death has followed in the wake of all nemesis who refuse to take that chance. But when happens when that 0.1% chance occurs? What happens when an enemy takes the opportunity to stop? What happens then? That is the case and the situation being explored in this unique and beautiful story and tribute to one of Big Finish’s fallen members Paul Spragg. Written by our of our fellow Whovian Joshua Wanisko, its an interesting idea that has never been followed up on and explored by any Doctor Who medium. And I’m not going to lie….I absolutely adored this story. It unfolds beautifully over a series of encounters over tea between TARDIS team and nemesis that allows us to see how that one simple decision changes a life and all of the lives around it and is written with such depth that even with not much going on, you are so enveloped that you can’t tear your ears away. Nicholas Briggs as the narrator does a good (if a tiny bit lackluster) job at narrating and is able to capture the characters decently even if his Seven is a little bit forceful and rough with his accent than I would like. But the real start is the writer Wanisko himself. For a first time writer, he really knocks it out of the park in not only creating and working with the mannerisms of both Seven and Ace but in creating a believable character and story to really latch on and relate to in surprising ways. I would love to see him work on more stories in the futures because there is some great talent here. Not to mention that it has one of the most beautiful and hopeful endings I’ve ever heard in ANY story much less a Doctor Who one and it really speaks to the gravitas and power that I almost teared up at the end. In terms of a memorial story and a good Seventh Story, this is about as good as it gets. It’s unique, it’s powerful, it’s challenging, and it’s full of positive hope for all. This story is offered as a free download on Big Finish’s site so you really have absolutely no excuse to check this one out.

— 10 / 10 

 

SHORT TRIPS: “Gardens of the Dead” by Jenny T. Colgan — ‘Gardens of the Dead’ takes place immediately after the TV story ‘Mawdryn Undead’ in the middle of the Black Guardian trilogy and sees the Fifth Doctor companion Turlough (played by Mark Strickson) trying to adjust to life in the TARDIS while still under the employ of the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor. Trying to gain the trust of the other companions onboard Nyssa and Tegan, the TARDIS team end up landing in the serene Gardens of the Dead where they will have to pull together in order to save and keep the Fifth Doctor safe from a mysterious force lurking in the landscape beyond. To do so however, the trio will have to investigate and discover what is behind the very last door in the TARDIS. There are some very intriguing ideas at play in this story and with the (at this point) morally grey Turlough to tell the story, you aren’t entirely sure if his point of view is the correct one or if it’s being exemplified. Since you can’t trust the character at this point in his arc, you really aren’t sure of what you are hearing is the truth or not and it makes the story one of the most unintentionally ambiguous I’ve heard in audio form. Mark Strickson himself replicates his old character beautifully and does a very good job at bringing the other characters to life especially the Fifth Doctor himself. Strickson does a great job of imitating Five and both Five and Turlough are allowed to go in to some very dark and desolate territory in this one. ‘Gardens’ does have its problems in that its climax is a little bit underdeveloped for such interesting concepts and this isn’t one for everyone to immediately delve in to as it does depend on knowing exactly what is going on in this part of the Fifth Doctor era, but I very much enjoyed this one and was certainly never bored with it compared to some other Big Finish stories. It also has a beautiful epilogue from a future version of the character that ends it quite beautifully. If you want to get in to the time of the Fifth Doctor and its characters, don’t have the money for the excellent ‘Fifth Doctor Box Set‘, then this short story isn’t a bad place to start.

— 8 / 10 

 

SHORT TRIPS: “Lepidoptery for Beginners”  by John Dorney — Boy what a weird mouthful of a title this one is to say the least and it follows that we get one of the weirdest and yet most brilliant Second Doctor stories out of it. The title fits the story perfect as ‘Lepidoptery’ (the scientific study of butterflies and moths in case you were wondering) is told from the perspective from Iolas Blue, a socially awkward young villain obsessed with killing the Doctor as they always are. And when I say socially awkward, I mean socially awkward. Iolas is like a basement-dwelling, itemized list-checking, overly trying geek combined with a flamboyant genius with delusions of grandeur and is one of the most enjoyable characters I’ve listened to in a Big Finish audio. Within minutes of Iolas capturing the Doctor and his companions, we get a half an hour battle of wits between the Doctor and Iolas that plays with chaos theory, the changing of fate, and the ultimate prediction and manipulation of the future. It’s mostly a character drama of sorts with not much action going on in a very similar way to “Forever Fallen” but it plays much more on the humorous side than ‘Fallen’ does and it’s another story that really surprised me in how much I was able to stay engaged despite the lack of action. Obviously the spotlight falls on Iolas and the Second Doctor with Jaime and Zoe pretty much relegated to the side which I kind of dislike but it works fine as the focus is where it should be for this one. Duncan Wisbey as narrator is fantastic in both story and as both Iolas and Doctor and you’d almost wonder if Patrick Troughton himself were speaking at times with how well Wisbey captures Troughton’s mannerism and speech. Iolas himself does get quite annoying at times which is another flaw with the story but he never gets uninteresting or dreary and ends up growing on you by the end. With a twist at the end worthy of some of the best Steven Moffat stories, this is a very clever, fun, and highly recommended Short Trip that fits beautifully in to the Second Doctor era.

— 9 / 10 

And that’s all for now. There will be many more of these coming in the future months so plan on more Back Catalog fun. Until next time, ~Geronimo!!

 

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