❉ We dive deep into a bumper crop of releases from Doctor Who’s anniversary month.
November inevitably inspires nostalgia around Doctor Who in all its forms, and Big Finish Productions’ audio dramas are no exception. Having commemorated the 20th anniversary of their first Doctor Who release earlier this year, throwbacks to the past abound in last month’s releases. This extends not just to their regular strands, such as the monthly main range and Short Trips, but also the Lost Stories line, which returned with a pair of full-cast dramas.
Continuing Big Finish’s approach of interlinked two-part stories within its main monthly strand, Warzone and Conversion once again place Peter Davison’s Doctor in conflict with the Cyberman. Patrick Troughton aside, Davison is the ”Classic Series” Doctor most associated with the Cybermen thanks to the televised story Earthshock and the beloved audio-drama Spare Parts. This release consciously evokes the former but with results that bring unfavorable comparisons to the latter.
Warzone starts off promisingly. Chris Chapman’s script offers some thoughtful world-building and a clever premise that allows the menace to unfold naturally. However, by the time Conversion gets underway the whole affair feels more like a pretext for the Doctor and Tegan to demonstrate their grief over the relatively recent (in continuity terms) death of Adric from Earthshock. While there’s a strong case to be made that the onscreen handling of that event’s aftermath was insufficient, this story suffers by going to the other extreme.
Guy Adams’ script is clearly designed to provide a big emotional payoff, and Peter Davison and Janet Fielding approach these scenes with undeniable conviction. Unfortunately, despite this effort, they feel overdone and unconvincing, lacking the emotional impact of the conceptually similar but very understated moment between Davison and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa in Spare Parts. Ultimately Nyssa is the only character who comes off well. Of the other humanoids, pseudo-companion Marc mainly serves as a plot-complication to inspire the would-be catharsis between the Doctor and Tegan, while the tech-pirates seem like a parody of The Trial of a Time Lord’s Glitz and Dibber from which someone purloined the jokes. As for the alien medical researcher, the less said the better.
Further 1980s nostalgia is on display in the latest Lost Stories releases, Nightmare Country and The Ultimate Evil. Nightmare Country, which also stars Peter Davison, was scripted by Stephen Gallagher from a storyline he submitted to the show’s production team in 1982. Since Gallagher’s previous Doctor Who stories, Warriors’ Gate and Terminus, both had issues in the transfer from script to screen and Nightmare Country was itself rejected due to cost reasons, this audio production offers a unique opportunity to experience the acclaimed writer’s take on Doctor Who.
While not quite as inventive as Warriors’ Gate, Nightmare Country nevertheless feels very much of a piece with Gallagher’s other Doctor Who work. Gallagher clearly enjoys allowing thought-provoking concepts to collide with purposefully mundane elements, especially where crews and management structures are involved. At an even more fundamental level, he displays a good feel for the main characters, which helps bring out the best in the leads.
A standout moment comes late in the story when the Doctor and Tegan share a wonderfully reflective scene touching on identity, mortality and paths not taken. In contrast to the somewhat overwrought performances in Conversion, Peter Davison and Janet Fielding thread the needle of bringing dimension to their characters without undercutting their established personalities. Turlough doesn’t have as much to do in the story as the Doctor or Tegan, but the script gives Mark Strickson ample opportunity to convey the mix of earnest and devious that makes his character weirdly endearing.
Nightmare Country suggests an intriguing what-if scenario for mid-80s Doctor Who. With cast transitions and production delays in the previous season dictating so many aspects of Season 21, it’s tricky to envision where it would have fit in that run of stories. Fan sentiment might inspire hopes that Either the season’s opening or closing stories could have been avoided, but that seems like wishful thinking. It’s hard to believe that producer John Nathan-Turner would have chosen the relatively cerebral story Nightmare Country as a season opener over a more marketable action-oriented piece like Warriors of the Deep, and for all its flaws The Twin Dilemma was essential to the intended portrayal of the incoming Doctor.
Most likely, Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward would have decided that two hard science-fiction stories in a single season were too many, making Frontios the odd one out. Considering the challenges its production would have entailed, if one of those stories was going to exist solely on audio, Nightmare Country is probably the one better served by the audio medium.
The Ultimate Evil by Wally K. Daly also represents a road-not-taken in 1980s Doctor Who but not to its credit. One of the stories commissioned for the show’s 23rd season before the infamous 1985/1986 hiatus led to all those plans being scrapped in favor of The Trial of a Time Lord, The Ultimate Evil attained a rather mixed reputation on the basis of Daly’s 1989 novelization of his scripts. His second go at adapting it seems unlikely to shift opinion for the better. As with so many disappointing Doctor Who stories, the interesting ideas at the core are undercut by the execution.
Since virtually every element in Big Finish’s other Lost Stories releases is different than a televised production would have had, they’re inevitably just indicators of what the stories could have been. The Ultimate Evil indicates that the production team was still struggling with the shift to 45-minute episodes that took place in Season 22. Like many of stories broadcast that year, it takes nearly half the first episode to get the Doctor and Peri to the story’s setting, let alone involved in the actual narrative. That season’s better stories generally picked up a bit once the duo arrived but not so much here.
The combination of a script that’s overloaded with Doctor Who tropes, generally bland sound design and uncommitted acting ensures that nothing stands out for the better. Even Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant – typically one of Big Finish’s best teams – sound bored. That the actor who’s spent the past two decades making good scripts great and shaky ones at least worthwhile can’t enliven this story speaks volumes about the shortcomings of this particular story.
Alternative paths also underpin November’s releases in the Early Adventures range. The Home Guard and Daughter of the Gods each put familiar characters in settings seemingly at odds with the Doctor Who universe’s established state of play yet remain deeply tied to that sense of history. Though both productions are enjoyable, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they exist solely to indulge listeners craving deep immersion into that history.
The Home Guard arguably stands up the best in its own right, in large part due to the regular cast. Anneke Wills and Elliot Chapman as Ben and Polly work well alongside Frazier Hines who performs his now-customary dual roles of Jamie and the Doctor. How one feels about the story overall, though, probably correlates strongly with their opinions of James Dreyfus playing an earlier incarnation of the Master and/or David McIntee’s well-regarded 1997 novel The Dark Path, which depicted an alternative first encounter between the Second Doctor and the Master.
Daughter of the Gods double-dips on the continuity front by presenting a meeting of the first and second Doctors in an alternate timeline where events shown in The Daleks’ Masterplan have gone astray with grave consequences for history. If not for the need to set time back on the proper path, it would have made a nice one-off revival of Big Finish’s Doctor Who Unbound series. In fact, it might have benefitted from the single-disc format of most Unbound stories, because the four-part presentation of the narrative feels a bit slack at times.
On the plus side, the slower pace allows more time to enjoy the regulars who – as in The Home Guard – are a strong point. Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury and Peter Purves all recreate their TV roles nicely, with Purves giving voice to Hartnell’s Doctor as well. In addition, Ajjad Awad who takes on the role of short-lived companion Katarina inspires more than a hint of regret that there seemingly aren’t any more cards to play for revisiting the character.
The simplest and (alongside Nightmare Country) most effective of November’s releases is the Short Trips story Hall of the Ten Thousand by Jaine Fenn. It’s also the lightest on nostalgia, the only real callback being its return to the adventures of the Eighth Doctor and Charley. While some of that duo’s early audio adventures felt like they were one draft away from being really good, Hall of the Ten Thousand stands up as a lovely chamber-piece of a story about the intersection of art and war. It also serves as a reminder that while revisiting Doctor Who’s past in these audio stories can be immensely enjoyable, making the stories are about something other than Doctor Who’s past tends to be more satisfying.
❉ Big Finish produce full-cast audio drama for CD and download. For more information on individual titles and to order visit https://www.bigfinish.com/
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.