While Big Finish Productions started producing audioplays in 1998 (with the adaptation of the Bernice Summerfield New Adventure Oh No It Isn't!), it was in July 1999 that the released their first Doctor Who production, The Sirens of Time, on CD and audio cassette. Twenty years later, when even CDs seem a bit archaic and most people download their purchases, BF has released their own anniversary celebratory box set featuring a spread of Doctors, companions, favourite characters and time-twisting shenanigans. SPOILERS will follow in this review of the gigantic six-hour collection.
I've been a bit disappointed in BF's reliance on the same handful of writers and recurring cast, it makes sense for an event project to be placed in reliable hands. Ken Bentley directs all but one episode and by its nature, this features a host of recognisable voices playing familiar characters. The set involves six very separate stories which are linked by a general theme of things going wrong with time, all of which are eventually linked together in a just-about coherent fashion. The overall plot is basically irrelevant, though – the fun is in the individual adventures and the cross-pollination of various Doctors and spin-off casts.
LIES IN RUINS by James Goss
The set kicks off, appropriately enough, with Bernice Summerfield hard at work in the field. She's joined by River Song, who has of late been enjoying her own series of adventures in The Diary of River Song, where she has encountered various incarnations of the Doctor, and latterly, the Master, in flagrant defiance of continuity or logic. Given that River is essentially a combination of the two great heroines of the Wilderness Years, Benny Summerfield and Iris Wildthyme, it makes sense that she should finally meet one of them. (River meets Iris is one story that I'm dying to hear.)
Having two time-travelling archaeologists could have been an exercise in redundancy, but Alex Kingston and Lisa Bowerman have a great chemistry that balances finely between catty one-upmanship and bawdy companionship. It's a bit like when Rose and Sarah Jane fought over the tenth Doctor, only to bond over their mutual experiences of travelling with him. River has one up on Benny, having actually married the Doctor rather than simply been very good friends indeed, but they rub along together surprisingly well once the Doctor turns up.
The eighth Doctor is the version who arrives in the story, but he's not the version either Benny or River remember. Benny, of course, mostly encountered this Doctor in the earlier days of his life, while River, while meeting him in the latter years, still found him in generally good spirits. This is a tired, angry Doctor, though, one who's very, very close to becoming the Doctor of War. When confronted by a very personal threat, he comes closer than ever before to turning the corner from hero to warrior. It's not merely their shared affection for the Doctor that brings River and Benny together though, but also their mutual dislike of his new companion, the impossibly bubbly Ria (named for the companion in the old, pre-BF Audio Visuals range, and played with rambunctious energy by Alexandria Riley).
As good as the ladies are, though, it's Paul McGann's performance that really blows the competition away. This is a Doctor who's lost his faith in the universe after seeing it torn apart in the Time War, who, in the words of River, has lived a very long time indeed. It's a funny thing that the Doctor we saw the least of on TV (of the main incarnations) is the one whose borne one of the longest and most traumatic lives.
THE SPLIT INFINITIVE by John Dorney
The second story jumps back an incarnation for a story that sees characters from the eighties during the sixties and seventies. BF's Countermeasures series – one I haven't explored much, unlike The Diary of River Song – has featured the special operations team from 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks, in their natural home of the 1960s, and latterly regrouped in the 1970s. “The Split Infinitive” hedges its bets by being set in both decades, utilising the running concept of time anomalies to tie the two periods together in ingenious fashion. Cue lines along the lines of “meanwhile, ten years earlier...” as events in one period influence the other and vice versa.
Sly McCoy rrrrollls and rrroarrs through the adventure, while Ace hops back and takes care of events in the further past. They're both completely at ease in their characters after all these years, although McCoy's performance is still as idiosyncratic as ever. The Countermeasures team are a solid troop of characters, but it's Pamela Salem's Professor Jensen who stands out for me – she's an actress of pure class. Dorney's script brings in the Rocketmen, BF's own brand of recurring space gangsters, who work perfectly in the retro setting, although they are a bit too similar to the also-ran baddies that appear in the first episode. There is, however, a gorgeous joke put in just to explain the unending nonsense around UNIT dating.
THE SACRIFICE OF JO GRANT by Guy Adams
Episode three is an exercise in nostalgia, one that could have been saccharine but is actually rather beautiful and moving. BF's UNIT series is another one that's been going for donkey's years, on and off, and lately has been updated to include not only the Moffat-era UNIT team of Kate Stewart and Osgood, but also Katy Manning as Jo Jones. This (slightly misnomered) episode sees Mrs Jones and Ms Stewart pulled back in time to the Pertwee era.
As with “The Split Infinitive,” this episode involves a story split across two points in history, this time on the Jurassic coast. Yes, there are great sea dragons wrenched from prehistory by the temporal disturbances (good idea, that
). Plot is secondary here, though, with this story hinging on the emotional interplay between the characters. I certainly didn't expect a highlight of this box set to be the Doctor and Jo chatting over a pub lunch.
I've been a bit sniffy about Tim Treloar's turn as the third Doctor, but it sounds like he's lately really gotten a hold of the role. There are moments in this episode where he's absolutely dead on Pertwee, although there are others where he drifts pretty far away. Regardless, hearing Jo catch up with her Doctor is a beautiful thing. Nevertheless, the most affecting moment is Kate taking a brief but moving phone call from her late father (recreated here by Jon Culshaw), and god, that was beautiful.
RELATIVE TIME by Matt Fitton
“The Doctor's Daughter” was a dreadful episode, but it did introduce a character who clearly had more potential than the episode explored. “Relative Time” brings back Jenny Anomaly, fresh from her own BF series about a year ago. Georgia Tennant (nee Moffett) is of course the real life daughter of Peter Davison, and having the sort-of daughter of the Doctor share a story with her actual father is, of course, irresistible. They have, in fact, appeared together in a BF Doctor Who before, 2000's Red Dawn, Georgia's first acting role I believe.
In “Relative Time,” she plays Jenny as a lively, adventurous, exciting character, heavily drawing on the performance of David Tennant as the Doctor. So, we basically have someone working with her dad while playing her husband. Still, it works, and the interplay between the more fuddy-duddy fifth Doctor and the boisterous Jenny is a lot of fun. It's always good to hear the snarky side of the fifth Doctor come out, as well, and he's in a dreadful mood for a lot of this story.
The episode see the insane Time Lord known as the Nine attempt a grand heist. This is, of course, an earlier version of the Eleven, the villain of the Doom Coalition box sets with McGann. While I'm not entirely sure if a character who continually reverts to his own earlier incarnations needs to be portrayed in earlier regenerations, I really enjoyed John Heffernan's posh kleptomaniac. He's got his own sidekick in the form of Thana, an immortal ne'er-do-well played by Ronni Ancona. It's a bit of silliness that has time for a few poignant moments between father and daughter, but mostly, it's just a lot of fun.
THE AVENUES OF POSSIBILITY by Jonathan Morris
The fifth instalment of the set was originally to have been a Jago & Litefoot story, but the death of Trevor Baxter necessitated a major rethink. Jonathan Morris has come up with an ingenious idea, of alleyways that lead from the past to variant futures, and as he says in the behind-the-scenes interview, it's something that could spawn a ten-part epic. Here, though, it's mostly used as a way to up the ante as the time anomalies threaten to turn British history into a fascist nightmare, and remind that there by the grace of god we go.
In place of the Victorian sleuths, the sixth Doctor is accompanied by Charley Pollard, formerly companion to his next-incarnation-but-one, and DI Patricia Menzies. These characters first appeared together in the 2008 release The Condemned, and it's bizarre to think that this radical mix-up of a later companion and an earlier Doctor happened over a decade ago. It's still a lot of fun to hear Anna Hope's broad Mancunian police officer join forces with India Fisher's posho Edwardian adventurer.
Acting as pseudo-companions are John and Henry Fielding, (Richard Hansell and Duncan Wisbey), who ground the story in some kind of rationality. I knew Henry Fielding as the author of Tom Jones and was only peripherally aware of his role as the founder of the first modern police force, but I was completely clueless as to his brother John. This was a man who revolutionised social justice and became a respected magistrate after he was blinded as a teenager. He could even, it is said, recognise the criminals of London by the sounds of their voices. This is someone who deserves far more exploration than this relatively short adventure can allow.
COLLISION COURSE by Guy Adams
The final story in the set has to pay double duty as both the fourth Doctor adventure and the obligatory multi-Doctor knees-up. Respect to BF for not making this another full-on multi-Doctor story with the Daleks and the Master causing trouble, as might have been expected. The eventual meeting of all the Doctors to save the day is only the climax to the story, and Tom Baker gets a fairly decent story to himself, but it's easy to overlook it in all the subsequent excitement. We do, however, get a rather lovely celebration of the varied nature of the fourth Doctor era, with both Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward returning as Leela and Romana respectively. The unlikely pairing have become a great double-act over the years in the Gallifrey series, and here we have them both remembering a trip with the Doctor to the planet Henlen; however, the details of their journeys are heavily at odds.
The overarching story reaches its head with temporal anomalies and jostling timelines running out of control. It's all down to the nefarious Sirens of Time, returning from the very first BF Doctor Who adventure, something that feels quite right and proper. Tied into this is the vital journey of the first ever TARDIS, a turning point for the history of the entire universe and a moment ripe for pardoxes and cosmic catastrophe. It's fannish as hell but there's nothing wrong with that in anniversary story, and the climax, while silly in the extreme, is punch-the-air good fun. While it's a trifle hard to swallow Benny being dragged into it again, seemingly just because she's so important to BF rather than any sensible story reason, it's a good excuse to have her meet Leela and Romana plus multiple other Doctors. (At the end of this story and including all media I think she's clocked up eleven distinct incarnations, even more than River.)
It's all an excuse, really, to get as many Doctors together in one room as possible. The proto-TARDIS needs six Gallifreyan pilots, so Romana needs a crew, and all six incarnations of the Doctor from earlier in the set turn up. What's even more indulgent, yet tremendously welcome, is a drop-in cameo from three more. I won't say the actors involved, but one played a villain on the series, one played a companion, and one is married to another star of this box set. It's all rather joyous and sends this very pick-and-mix release out on a high.