Beginning with a Big Finish: Memories Of 1999

Doctor Who is coming back!

We heard that so many times between the Classic series vanishing and NuWho’s arrival. But in those sixteen wilderness years, it managed to come back and stay twice…

Big Finish now have over 20 lines of Who-related audio dramas outside their original monthly range of Classic releases. Alongside this they have multiple spin-offs within the Whoniverse (Cyberman, Dalek Empire, Counter Measures, Charlotte Pollard, Iris Wildthyme and Bernice Summerfield). But the company which now commands some authority over Classic Who canon (and more recently branched into NuWho) had much humbler beginnings.

The first official Big Finish release came in July 1999. It had been a full decade since the show disappeared from our televisions (it was in fact smothered in a disused BBC toilet by Michael Grade’s lack of judgement while his ignorance egged it on, but that’s another story). More importantly it had been 3 years since the disappointment that the half-American TV pilot starring Paul McGann did not lead to a new series. What had seemed like the Next Generation of Who had turned out to be a flash in the dark – a spasm in the ailing back of a dying brand…

In 1999 I was gearing up for my own big finish with my final year of school before disappearing off for a gap yaar. I almost certainly found the news in the brightly coloured pages of the Doctor Who Magazine. The original actors were signed up to reprise their roles as the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. The volcano of nostalgia was rumbling and hot memory lava was heading our way.

Phantasmagoria

There had been an Audio Visuals range of Doctor Who audio stories that went as far as getting the original lead actors to reprise their roles but ostensibly as similar-but-different characters for legal reasons. But now the super-fans behind these and other projects throughout the ‘90s had been given the Sacred Duty of making REAL Doctor Who

However, in this angsty, pre-naughties world of dashed hopes, millennium bugs and A-Levels (end of high-school exams for non-Brits) the news of new Doctor Who audio adventures was not quite as exciting as it should have been. The internet was working out how to walk, not everyone had mobiles, and it was five years before Mark Zuckerberg would invent Facebook and turn social media into a mainstream phenomenon. Doctor Who was a dead show and people kept on being born that had never seen it… Nevertheless, as a proper fan I was obviously going to listen. July arrived and The Sirens of Time went into my CD player…

It was an ambitious first-offering. A multi-Doctor story that gave each of the three actors an episode to showcase their goods and then a fourth where they got together in time-honoured fashion. This was both fan-pleasing and good business sense. Everyone’s tastes get teased. I was in it for my Doctor – the Seventh Doctor and Ace, “Sylv and Soph” were on the horizon once more.

I do vaguely remember listening to Sirens for the first time over sixteen years ago. The cover was an unassuming photo-fit of each Doctor in a pinkish vortex. It was reminiscent of the minimalist 1980s covers for VHS cassette tapes of the Classic series – before it was called “the Classic series”.

The story was, if I’m honest, a bit of a let-down. It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t quite the glorious return that my inner seven-year-old wanted. It was like turning up to a party with everyone and everything you love but being too tired to have a good time. Perhaps that was it – we were so far in to the Great Hiatus that I was suffering from hiatus fatigue. And it may have been a little over-ambitious. Three compressed stories and then a multi-Doctor run-around is no small challenge… especially if you’re trying to appeal to a semi-bereaved audience worn out from hoping.

Big Finish Seventh 7th Doctor Sylvester McCoy

So I was left a little non-plussed. I’d grown up largely absorbing Doctor Who on home video and the odd new novel. My first excursion hadn’t given me that buzz I got from televised Who. However, like a football fan sticks with their team no matter what, I persevered. After all, that’s what we do…

And I remember the exact moment Big Finish got me. It was later the following winter. It was dark outside and raining (perfect). I was in my room in deliberately atmospheric semi-darkness, immersed in a vivid audio soundscape and political intrigue. It was quietly tense. Sylv and Soph were in it up to their necks. Someone got shot. I won’t give any more away but I remember it made me jump. Both the sound and the realisation of what happened genuinely took me by surprise. And as the cliffhanger credits played out with the familiar sting I realised I had been on the edge of my seat.

And that was that. All Big Finish had needed (and all any of us really need) was a bit of a run-up. The chaps who now deliver any extra-terrestrial sounds for the BBC, hit their stride.

One of the biggest changes they made to Doctor Who was to give a voice to slightly older versions of Doctors Five and Six and to give their characters a whole new lease of life.

And they immediately began inventing and subverting. And thank goodness, they haven’t stopped. Evelyn Smythe, played by the wonderful and very missed Maggie Stables, was the first companion to be played as notionally an older character than the Doctor. And alongside Colin Baker’s portrayal – which had done what any fine wine does over time – she was utterly fantastic.

Big Finish had brought Doctor Who back. And then, less than two years later in January 2001, they did it all over again with another Doctor…