❉ The past month’s dispatches from Big Finish, including the return of Jenny, and the latest Sixth Doctor adventure.
In any given month, Big Finish’s releases in the Doctor Who universe are also likely to include more spin-offs of the parent series than adventures starring the original Doctors. While the original Doctors are sometimes missed, the joy of stories that wouldn’t otherwise exist should not be underestimated.
When Doctor Who was out of production in the 1990s, a quirk of copyright allowed fans-turned-producers to tell stories in certain corners of its universe without BBC sanction provided they didn’t reference the show too overtly. A couple decades on, with the series back on TV, spin-offs are are if anything more plentiful and as likely to focus on characters and concepts from the 21st century iteration as the “Classic Series”. In any given month, Big Finish’s releases in the Doctor Who universe are also likely to include more spin-offs of the parent series than adventures starring the original Doctors. This encompasses not just stories spotlighting supporting characters but also those involving the Doctor but told by his friends and companions such as the Short Trips or Companion Chronicles Series. While the original Doctors are sometimes missed, the joy of stories that wouldn’t otherwise exist should not be underestimated. That holds true for the past month’s dispatches from Big Finish, ranging from Troughton to Tennant.
June’s highest profile set is also one of the most anticipated since Big Finish’s remit expanded to include 21st century Doctor Who. Jenny – The Doctor’s Daughter is only the second time the character has appeared since the 2008 episode that introduced her and the first time Georgia Tennant has reprised the role. Fairly or not, anticipation brings expectations, which this set ultimately doesn’t meet.
This is somewhat surprising, because the right ingredients are present in abundance. In addition to a coup in the area of guest-casting, the set features scripts by two of Big Finish’s reliable writers – John Dorney and Matt Fitton – who are also the series’ Script Editors. Unfortunately their approach to the material feels muddled, resulting in a set full of incident but lacking in urgency.
While the intention seemed to be a free-wheeling intergalactic adventure, much of the action comes across as a parody. That could have been a fun approach, but the issue is execution. Good parodies also tend to work as enjoyable examples of whatever’s being spoofed, Big Finish’s own The One Doctor being a prime example. With contrived plots and cardboard supporting characters variously overdoing and underplaying their parts, both Stolen Goods and Prisoner of the Ood feel un-involving as either drama or comedy.
The third story, Neon Reign, benefits from a clearer sense of identity. A repressively repressed society where half the population serves a chemically addicted other half is the perfect backdrop for Jenny to demonstrate that she’s her father’s daughter. Here again, though, the realization disappoints, especially the performances. After a tentative start in the previous stories, Georgia Tennant seems comfortable as Jenny, but Sean Biggerstaff as her companion Noah remains frustratingly dull. Likewise, the marvelous Siân Phillips is squandered as the cyborg bounty-hunter COLT-5000. That casting idea doubtless sounded better in concept than in actuality, and the same can be said of its message of female empowerment – telegraphed with even less subtlety than 1960s stories like Galaxy Four or the thankfully un-produced Prison in Space.
It’s only in the final instalment, Zero Space, that the elements pull together to show this series’ particular potential. Along with some cool science-fiction concepts, the action has a dramatic thrust that was lacking at the outset. By the episode’s conclusion, a variety of questions have been posed – both about Jenny and her mysterious companion. For Jenny, the possibility of reuniting with her father is the biggest open question, but the set’s conclusion suggests it’s likely to be addressed in the virtually inevitable follow up.
Another story that paves the way for a follow up (one that’s already been announced) is the latest Short Trips release. Joseph Lidster’s The Siege Of Big Ben features Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler recounting an adventure alongside the “Meta-Crisis Doctor”. Lidster excels with stories that simultaneously encapsulate and redefine characters we believe we already know. Though that principle holds true here, it also serves as an implicit reminder that Big Finish has released more stories featuring the Tenth Doctor without David Tennant than Tennant has appeared in himself, something that seems unlikely to change soon.
At the other end of Doctor Who continuity, the latest release in the Companion Chronicles range focuses on Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor – except when it doesn’t. The Curator’s Egg and The Iron Maid are fairly straightforward stories from the Second Doctor’s tenure, told by Polly and Zoe respectively. Dumb Waiter and The Tactics of Defeat, however, each mix things up from a continuity standpoint with decidedly mixed results.
Written by Rob Nisbet, who wrote last year’s excellent Short Trip, A Heart On Both Sides, Dumb Waiter is told from multiple perspectives. One of those perspectives happens to be the Fourth Doctor’s companion Leela. While it’s always a pleasure to hear Louise Jameson reprise the role and the dynamic between her and Jamie plays out in some interesting ways, the overall story feels lacking. There are some clever twists but also an underlying sense that the plot was contrived solely to allow Leela to interact with a different TARDIS team.
Though Zoe is notionally the focus of The Tactics Of Defeat, center stage belongs to one of Big Finish’s original characters – Captain Ruth Matheson from UNIT’s Vault. The plot, which revolves around Matheson’s efforts to recover an alien artifact, puts her in opposition to a mercenary who is himself under the influence of an alien artifact. Presumably the interplay between Captain Matheson and her opponent Colonel Deakin is meant to evoke a battle of wits between warriors who are as unlike in their methods as they are similar in their tenacity. In practice, these scenes meander through the first half so that by the time Zoe’s part in the story becomes clear the dilemma raised feels mostly academic.
An underlying thread with all three of these releases is an emphasis on telling rather than showing. The Siege Of Big Ben largely gets away with it thanks to the Short Trips format and Camille Coduri’s affinity for her character, but on-the-nose dialogue like ‘clever’s kind of in my genes’ make the others feel much less dynamic than they should. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean an absence of entertaining Doctor Who stories.
After more than 200 releases, Big Finish’s main monthly range can sometimes be taken for granted. Along with showcasing Peter Davison’s and Sylvester McCoy’s incarnations of the Doctor, it currently offers multiple reminders each year of how much potential Colin Baker’s Doctor still has. The latest instalment is the 19th century-set Iron Bright.
Baker only got one proper trip into history on TV, 1985’s The Mark of the Rani. Like the older story, Iron Bright shows that this period suits him well. Stuffy establishment figures and intractable mysteries are ideal targets for his incarnation’s verbal and intellectual acumen. If there’s nothing here that hasn’t been offered before, that’s really a function of Big Finish’s dedication to ‘The Big Finish Doctor’ rather than any lack of imagination.
Spin-offs play a valuable role in Doctor Who’s ongoing narrative. Not only do they allow for stories that wouldn’t be possible on TV they also expand the fictional universe’s horizons in ways that sometimes enrich the television mothership. At the same time, it’s a joy to spend some time with ‘the definite article’.
❉ Jenny – The Doctor’s Daughter is available now at £23 on CD or £20 on download from Big Finish.
❉ Doctor Who The Companion Chronicles: The Second Doctor Volume Two is exclusively available to buy from the BF website for £15 on download or £20 on CD until July 31st 2018, and on general sale after this date.
❉ Doctor Who: Short Trips can be pre-ordered for download directly from Big Finish’s website.
❉ Doctor Who: Iron Bright is exclusively available to buy from the BF website until July 31st 2018, at £14.99 on CD or £12.99 on download, and on general sale after this date.