Big Finish Round-Up: Spin Me Round!

❉ Big Finish’s recent Doctor Who spin-off releases reviewed including Jago and Litefoot’s final curtain call.

In theory no program in television history offers as much potential for spin-offs as Doctor Who. Beyond its sheer longevity, the practice of introducing new settings and supporting characters multiple times over the course of a season makes the idea feel virtually intrinsic to the show’s foundations. Not surprisingly discussions of potential spin-offs date back to Doctor Who’s early years – not just Terry Nation’s repeated efforts involving the Daleks but also William Hartnell’s ‘Son of Doctor Who’ idea. Of course, in spite of those efforts and several sustained periods of immense popularity for the main program, very few of them actually made it to television.

As surprising as this may seem on the surface, it points to something quite fundamental about Doctor Who. Relatively few characters and concepts offer sufficiently broad appeal and story potential to stand on their own in the long run. The concept that the Doctor makes those around him better isn’t just an expression of the program’s values but also a truism of its storytelling. This explains why the Daleks never appeared in their own program – Mission to the Unknown notwithstanding – but Sarah Jane Smith had two of her own.

Of the spin-offs that received at least some serious consideration by the BBC but never made it to television, the gold-standard was Jago and Litefoot. As played by Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter in 1977’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang, theatre impresario Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot were among the late Robert Holmes’ most memorable double-acts. Unfortunately, discussions of giving the duo their own series apparently stalled due to scheduling conflicts and plans for another Victorian-era detective series by ITV. Other than an appearance by Professor Litefoot in one of the 1990s BBC novels featuring Paul McGann’s Doctor, they wouldn’t be heard from again for a few decades.

Like many popular characters from its original run, Jago and Litefoot returned to Doctor Who via Big Finish’s ongoing line of audio dramas. In 2009 Benjamin and Baxter reprised the roles in The Mahogany Murders, a popular installment of the company’s Companion Chronicles strand which led to the launch of their own series the following year. In addition to the 13 sets under their own name, the duo appeared alongside various Doctors and took part in one of the initial crossovers between the “classic series” and the program’s current run in the form of Jago & Litefoot & Strax – The Haunting.

Trevor Baxter’s death last year put an untimely end to their collaboration, but archival audio has enabled the production team for the series to bring them together for one last adventure. Written by Paul Morris and directed by Lisa Bowerman (who also plays series regular Ellie Higson), the newly released Jago & Litefoot Forever is a fitting final fling for the “infernal investigators”. Using Jago’s search for a missing Professor Litefoot enables the story to acknowledge Baxter’s real-life absence while tying up previous plot threads and celebrating their impressive run of adventures.

It also allows the supporting cast their own moments in the spotlight. Between regulars like Lisa Bowerman and David Warner plus guest appearances from Louise Jameson as Leela and Colin Baker as the Doctor, it’s arguably the best cast assembled for any of Big Finish’s lines. Though the “victory lap” element flirts with self-indulgence, the whole group thoroughly deserves it. Performers and production team alike set a high bar for Big Finish’s Doctor Who spin-offs and generally maintained that level to the end.

Among other potential spin-offs, UNIT is an interesting counterpoint to Jago and Litefoot. While the organization has been far more prevalent in the program’s history, it generally seemed like a less obvious prospect to stand on its own without the Doctor. Even with the Doctor involved, finding a workable post-Pertwee approach remained elusive. Like the 21st century iteration of the television mothership, Big Finish pursued numerous approaches to UNIT until the characters of Kate Stewart and Petronella Osgood proved to be the way forward for both mediums.

The first of Big Finish’s “new series” releases to be announced, the current UNIT team has faced enemies from across the program’s history ranging from the Daleks to the Silence. The sixth and latest release Cyber-Reality pits them against UNIT’s oldest enemy with a very unique twist. Aiding the team in their fight against the Cybermen is the Master, played with venomous relish by Derek Jacobi.

If there’s a flaw in Cyber-Reality, it lies in taking too long for the Cyberman threat to emerge. The first two installments, Game Theory and Telepresence, are reasonably interesting but also feel like they’re marking time until the proper story to begins. Of the two, Telepresence by Guy Adams ties more directly into the overarching storyline, though, its virtual reality aspect comes across awkwardly at times. In any event, since the Cybermen’s involvement in this set was never a secret, having such a protracted set-up was somewhat pointless.

Fortunately, once the Cybermen start their invasion, the proceedings become much more dynamic. The third episode, Code Silver (also by Guy Adams), sets legitimately high stakes – especially where Osgood is concerned – and introduces some nice twists regarding the Cybermen. The Matt Fitton-scripted final episode Master of Worlds, however, is undeniably the highlight of the set. Derek Jacobi recaptures the balance of menace and intellect he initially brought to the Master so effortlessly that it’s easy to forget how briefly he actually played the role on television. He also benefits from having a worthy human opponent.

The dynamic between Jacobi as the Master and Jemma Redgrave as Kate, informed by both the immediate circumstance of UNIT needing his help against the Cybermen and a sense of shared history between their characters, exemplifies the best of Big Finish’s approach. They give their actors solid material and let them run with it. This trait was equally apparent in the best part of the recent Gallifrey: Time War set.

The Devil You Know pairs Jacobi’s incarnation of the Master with Louise Jameson (herself one of the very best actors working for Big Finish) as Leela. Here again, a sense of shared history (from The Fourth Doctor Adventures) underpins their interplay, but what makes it work above all is that both characters have something savage in their nature. While the Time Lord intrigue that sometimes bogs down the Gallifrey series is present here, the events are driven by the fundamental conflict that’s perfectly suited to these characters, predator and prey. For all his bravado, the Master knows better than to underestimate Leela, and Leela’s instincts will never allow her to trust him, leading to an ending with a twist that rivals Utopia and begs for a follow-up.

Since the situation with Leela and the Master was only one of the major questions posed in Gallifrey: Time War, presumably that follow-up is already planned. Likewise, more UNIT sets have been announced, and Big Finish’s longest running spin-off, Bernice Summerfield, will celebrate 20 years of audio adventures later this year. Even with Jago and Litefoot’s final curtain call, there’s clearly more to explore in Doctor Who universe even when the Doctor isn’t around.

❉ ‘Jago & Litefoot Forever is available at £16.99 on CD or £14.99 on download..

❉ ‘UNIT: Cyber-Reality is available now at now at £23 on CD or £20 on download.

❉ ‘Gallifrey: Time Waris now available at £23 on CD or £20 on download.

Become a patron at Patreon!