Celebrating Big Finish’s 20th Anniversary: 12 Essential Releases

In July 1999, Big Finish released its first ever Doctor Who audio, Sirens of Time, but the company was actually founded in 1996. No, really: 20 years ago! Big Finish has treated listeners to hundreds of Doctor Who stories including Companion Chronicles, Lost Stories, Eighth (and Fourth) Doctor Adventures and much, much more.

To celebrate their anniversary, the reviews team has cast its expert eyes over all the stories to produce a list of the twelve that, in some way, encapsulate the essence of the main range. Yes, we’re sticking to the main range only because otherwise, this piece will be longer than War and Peace. Not another ‘best releases’ list, but a considered assessment by the team.

We present the list in release order – there is no hierarchy, all titles are relevant. Enjoy!

#25 COLDITZ

colditz

Released in October 2001, Steve Lyons’ story takes the Doctor and Ace to Colditz castle towards the end of World War II. Up until then, Nazi defeat has been growing more and more likely, but what if they gained access to advanced technology?

Noted for being one of David Tennant’s two main range stories (he appears in thirteen Big Finish releases so far. I hear May will be a big month for him though…), this is more important to the main range as being the story that gave us Elizabeth Klein played with chilling effect by Tracey Childs. Klein would re-appear much later in the story of the main range, and even travel with the Doctor on more than one occasion.

#27 THE ONE DOCTOR

the one doctor

Peter Shaw takes up the story…

“When Big Finish got the licence to produce audio Doctor Who, we all knew it would be great – the dark, gritty Doctor Who we all love. The fans run it, so it won’t end up like a silly pantomime we’re all embarrassed about. And that’s how it was for 26 stories. Then, two-and-a-half years in came The One Doctor by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman.

“A Christmas pantomime for all of us to endure…  or enjoy? Christopher Biggins as the (not quite) Doctor! A time-space toilet called STARDIS! A Weakest Link parody game show! Lots (and lots) of silly jokes!

“You see, The One Doctor helped me realise – and remember – that Doctor Who isn’t dark and gritty after all. Not all the time, anyway. Remember Billy Hartnell having a steam bath with Emperor Nero? Pat pulling a face and shouting ‘Great jumping gobstoppers!’ Pertwee dressed as a cleaning lady? Tom shouting, ‘My arms, my legs, my everything!’ Colin on an exercise bike? Sylvester playing the spoons? (What a shame Peter Davison had so few comedy moments, given he’s one of our greatest comic actors – as witnessed in The Five(ish) Doctors.)

Thank you, The One Doctor, for giving us silly old Doctor Who back. ‘I am the one and only, nobody I’d rather be…’”

#43 AND THE PIRATES!

and the pirates

The story Doctor Who and the Pirates! has the distinction of being the only – so far – main range story to make me cry in public (okay, a few tears). It features the Sixth Doctor and the Big Finish companion Evelyn Smythe (the dearly missed Maggie Stables) and Bill Oddie as a pirate (Red Jasper).

Why is it important? It gives us a moment to cherish Maggie Stables and her contribution to the range, and is also the first, and arguably best, of the few musical stories. It is also powerful in its depth: under the Pirates of Penzance pastiche, which has Colin Baker singing, is a story about how much time travel can hurt. The emotional punch when the listener realises this is not just about Evelyn catching up with one of her students, but a lot more, still sends shivers up my spine as a writer. Jacqueline Rayner has written many fine stories for Big Finish, but this is her best.

#49 MASTER

master

As Big Finish counted down to its fiftieth release (and how long ago – 2003 no less!) it rolled out the big guns. For release #47, Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor encountered Omega; in release #48, Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor had to deal with Davros; and now in release #49, Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor gets to meet the Master as played by Geoffrey Beevers. Written by Joe Lidster, this is a remarkable piece of economical writing, power acting and superb directing from Gary Russell.

Set during a dinner party where the enigmatic Doctor John Smith entertains his closest friends to dinner, and by the end of the meal all are either dead or changed forever by events, this is the Seventh Doctor written large, unfettered by companions and weighed down by the dark memories of his many actions. As a drama it does, perhaps, weaken towards the end once we know what is going on, but that may well be the listener’s natural and subconscious disappointment that the story has to finish at some point.

If you like your Doctor like a fine, strong and ancient whiskey, something the be savoured then this is the story you should listen to. For many fans this is the best piece of writing Joe Lidster produced for the Doctor and is written with an almost surgical precision. Great stuff, and one I will re-listen to soon.

#51 THE WORMERY

the wormery

The main range paused for breath with its 51st release and marked the division between the insane genius of Zagreus and the remarkable Scherzo (coming next). For this release, Stephen Cole and Paul Magrs introduced Iris Wildthyme (Katy Manning), she of the Paul Magrs novels and now the hero of numerous Big Finish titles all of her own.

It’s set in a nightclub named “Bianca’s”, which exists in several places including 1930s Berlin, and whose eponymous host has a dark secret of her own. This secret is of vital importance to Iris, or would be if she could stay sober long enough to work things through. Into this cocktail comes the Sixth Doctor; between Colin Baker and Katy Manning the storytelling is electric, and in some ways Big Finish releases would never be the same.

#52 SCHERZO

scherzo

Having paused with The Wormery, the main range takes another beat. Until Zagreus, the Eighth Doctor had travelled with Charley Pollard in a range of stories most of which fit a classic format – TARDIS, Daleks, Cybermen, Time Lords, and all the usual suspects. Many were good but all constrained by the need to fit into a recognisable universe.

At this stage (2003) there was no imminent return to for the TV show, and Big Finish decided to take the Eighth Doctor into a new direction with an experimental project known as the divergent universe. This isn’t the place to debate the merits, constraints and weaknesses of those stories, nor the way they rushed to get the Doctor back to our universe when the new TV series was announced. Instead, we should focus on the moment when the main range became something new. That moment was the Robert Sherman tale Scherzo.

The dictionary definition of scherzo is along the lines of a fast moving, humorous composition that may be part of a larger work. This doesn’t fit easily with this story – it is an emotional drama, painted against a strange alien backdrop and told with the Doctor and Charley alone. It is not action packed and is certainly not humorous; instead it is a dark, dark tale of two almost lovers who descend into a tale of horror that examines attitudes towards survival as our heroes’ very bodies become fused.

A one-off (we cannot easily imagine being in such a position with the Doctor leaping into a truly unknown future again), this is the main range at its finest.

#58 THE HARVEST

the harvest

Brian Terranova explains why this Dan Abnett seventh Doctor story is so important:

“Not just because of Hex’s introduction although he’s a great character, but because of the extraordinary use of the Cybermen (yes a spoiler possibly to those who have not heard the story but, let’s be fair, you’ve had almost 12 years now), which was an angle not explored in the TV show and I find that surprising. The future setting feels a viable option for our not too distant future and all the characters were spot on for what the story needed, from the principals to the supporting cast.”

One of the most popular choices, The Harvest does work well as an original piece of writing (Dan Abnett has written Doctor Who and Torchwood novels) and gives us the character of Thomas Hector Schofield, aka Hex, fully formed in a story linking back to other Big Finish releases and even back to An Unearthly Child. The relationship with Ace is already there and the Doctor’s guilt over his knowledge of Hex’s past is an added element to savour.

#74 LIVE 34

live 34

Live 34 by James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown is a firm favourite amongst the review team, but does rather defy simple description. As Peter Webb says, “it is a testament to how experimental Big Finish is, and the malleability of the audio format not found on television.” That word also comes up in the phrase an experimental narrative style that will stay with you.

Like many other entries in this list, it is a Seventh Doctor adventure with, inevitably, Ace and Hex. Told as though broadcast live on radio, this is a clever piece of production and a lesson in story telling where a constraint acts as a central narrative driver. What I mean by this is the use of a real-time radio setting ceases to be an obstacle but, instead, is the audio lens through which we experience the story. As ever it is about manipulation and putting companions at risk, but is also the Seventh Doctor at his finest.

#86 THE REAPING

the reaping

Joe Lidster’s The Reaping forms part of a set of connected stories along with The Harvest and The Gathering and with it, Big Finish takes an era and replicates on audio, at the same time adding to Peri’s backstory and mythos and turning a story from two years prior into a non-linear trilogy.

Joe Lidster has made (and continues to make) a large contribution to Big Finish across many ranges, and for the Doctor Who titles contributed to several major stories. His ability to find backstory and adventure is a frequent theme (Peri’s family here, Tegan’s life after the Doctor in The Gathering and Ace’s family in Rapture, which also gave us Tony Blackburn) and his work is never afraid to take chances, even if it sometimes fails to connect with every listener.

#130 A THOUSAND TINY WINGS

a thousand tiny wings

Colditz may have introduced us to the character of Elizabeth Klein, but with Andy Lane’s A Thousand Tiny Wings, she comes to life as Tracey Childs returns for the first Klein Trilogy. In some respects, the whole trilogy should be treated as one piece. The second (Klein’s Story / Survival of the Fittest) is brilliant for its use of an introductory single episode story filling in the back story and its use of Paul McGann as Johann Schmidt, whilst the final story Architects of History is a single glimpse into an entire alternate timeline for the Seventh Doctor.

Yet it is the first story, set in 1950s Kenya, to which people return as favourite. This is not just for the potential of the character of Klein yet to be explored, nor the performances and evocative sound but also the joy of the moment that reunited the Doctor with a woman he had hoped never to meet again, and who would later feature in several more stories and the UNIT: Dominion boxset.

#162 PROTECT AND SURVIVE

protect and survive

A Seventh Doctor story with Ace and Hex and (almost) no Doctor! Protect and Survive by Jonathan Morris takes the Raymond Briggs story When the Wind Blows and produces a harrowing story so good I played it twice in a row without pause. In terms of the main range as a whole the story provides an important beat in the journey of the Seventh Doctor’s various companions, being the point just before things get complicated (two sets of companions join up, one in a Black TARDIS, one in a White TARDIS).

What you have with this story is two things – a well portrayed, dark story where Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier get to show off their talents, and also a moment where two tectonic plates in a long set of arcs come together. Brilliant stuff.

#178 1963: FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MEN

fanfare for the common men

As part of the celebrations of fifty years of Doctor Who, Big Finish treated listeners to a trilogy of stories all linked to the year 1963. Peter Davison’s story (with Sarah Sutton as Nyssa) linked right back to the first episode of Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. As any fan knows, Susan liked to listen to a band called The Common Men; what if these three cheeky lads from Liverpool, Mark, James and Korky made it big, really big? What if The Beatles never happened? As the only person on Earth who remembers the ’60s, it is down to the Doctor to put things right in London, while Nyssa pops over to Hamburg…

Eddie Robson’s story bursts with creativity and has plenty of allusions to all things Beatle. It also has a decent science fiction heart and music, including tunes we all know like Oh, Won’t You Please Love Me?, Just Count To Three and Who Is That Man? This story works on many levels and ties together TV Who, Big Finish, nostalgia, and more. Not bad for two CDs of audio excellence.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Constructing this list was a fascinating if brutal affair – between us, we had some surprising agreement and some widely varied suggestions. Many great titles didn’t make the cut and on another day, they might well have. Do let us know in the comments what other titles you would have listed. I also wanted to put Zagreus on the list, but that is almost in a category of its own in some respects.

The list ends appropriately in 2013; this is not to say nothing of note has happened since, more that it is easier to look back once time has passed. Plenty of recent stories will prove to have been important and their contribution will easier to judge in years to come.

Meanwhile, thanks, of course, to all the contributors, the actors, writers, directors and everyone else at Big Finish for such a superb collection of audios. Thanks also to fellow reviewers who all gave input to this article: Alex Fitch, Peter Shaw, Brian Terranova and Peter Webb. We look forward to the next 20 years with great relish!