A Guide To The Doctor Who Main Range – Part 2 (Jan-Jun 2000)

Doctor Who lives to save the universe once more thanks to the success of the first three audios from Big Finish. This was a year that saw the return of classic monsters, like the Daleks (see The Genocide Machine) and the Ice Warriors (see Red Dawn), as well as classic companions, like Nyssa, Mel and Ace. These audios take us from Alaska to London, from rural England to outer space, not to mention the odd alien planet. But perhaps rather more notably, it introduces Big Finish’s first original companion in the form of Evelyn Smythe – who may well be my favourite companion out of the entire audio library. Time to stop rambling and just get on with it…

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The Land of the Dead: Sent me to The Land of Nod more like.

4) The Land of the Dead

Who’s Involved? : This release was hastily written by Stephen Cole (he had just one week to write the scripts) and directed by Gary Russell. It stars Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor with the return of Sarah Sutton as Nyssa. Notable guest cast include… Um… Nobody really. But I’ll mention it has Alistair Lock who did a lot of the music and sound design in early releases as well as multiple small parts in various audios. I’m sure I’ll mention him again at some point.

What’s it about? : The Doctor and Nyssa arrive in Alaska and bump into an expedition team who accidentally awaken a mysterious ancient force. Well it’s actually some undead dinosaur skeletons alien things, I think. It’s cold and they run around some caves whilst occasionally screaming and trying to be witty. Think The Tomb of the Cybermen but without the charm.

Is it any good? : You could probably see this coming a mile off but it’s honestly the first duff release of the range and a fair argument that the range shouldn’t have jumped to monthly output so quickly. With Sarah going on holiday for three weeks and needing scripts whilst Davison could only do half-days at the recording, it’s actually amazing Stephen Cole went from synopsis to full scripts in six days. But this left us with a half-baked script about one decent idea he came up with in a pinch. The supporting characters make no discernible impression, the dialogue is forgettable and the plot is very thin on the ground. As I said above, it’s like Tomb in that they arrive in part one, run around in cold corridors for the middle parts, then leave at the end. But otherwise that’s where the comparison ends.

Why should I listen to it? : To hear Nyssa. Davison was absolutely right about removing the other ‘irritating’ companions who didn’t want to be there so that Sarah Sutton could really catch the spotlight she deserved. Like Alaska, this one left me cold. Verdict: 4/10

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The Fearmonger: Contains one Monger of Fear.

5) The Fearmonger

Who’s Involved? : This release was written by Jonathan Blum and directed by Gary Russell. It stars Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor with the return of Sophie Aldred as Ace. It also guest stars Jacqueline Pearce, who’s most well known for her role as Servalan in Blake’s 7.

What’s it about? : There’s fear and hatred in 21st Century London. Political rallies, assassination attempts and violent mobs being stirred up. The action unfolds in the streets, on the radio and inside Whitehall. But the Doctor and Ace are on the case to find out what’s going on. Can they put things right though?

Is it any good? : It’s a great shame we never get another audio script from Blum because it’s the first solid script of the range, particularly the radio studio scenes that turn a weakness of audio dramas into a strength. This story wouldn’t have been out of place in Season 27, it brings back the grandmaster chess player in Seven ably assisted by Ace so smoothly you’d think McCoy and Aldred had stepped out of a time machine from 1989. The supporting cast all perform well, with Vince Henderson as DJ Mick Thompson (think David Icke for radio) being particularly memorable for me. Also the themes on display here are surprisingly, yet sadly, more relevant now in Great Britain that when this first came out in 2000.

Why should I listen to it? : To show how the audios picked up where the classic series left off before taking us into territory the TV show never could. Full of ideas, action, drama and pace with some good cliffhangers to boot. Verdict: 8/10

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The Marian Conspiracy: Sadly the Doctor’s coat doesn’t catch fire here.

6) The Marian Conspiracy

Who’s Involved? : This release was written by Jacqueline Rayner (a female writer! Hurrah, hurrah!) and directed by Gary Russell. It stars Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor and introduces Maggie Stables as Dr. Evelyn Smythe, a history lecturer from modern-day Earth. It also guest stars Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg, who would go on to be the principal Dalek operators in the revived series.

What’s it about? : The Doctor gatecrashes a university lecture to tell the professor she’s a nexus point in time and invites her on board the TARDIS to save her from vanishing from history! Not the Doctor’s best chat-up line, but it surprisingly works! They travel back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth and get caught up in the titular conspiracy between people’s Catholic and Protestant beliefs. It’s also a pure historical (bar the nexus point macguffin) a la the Hartnell era of the show and, understandably, freedom of religious expression is a major theme of the story.

Is it any good? : Absolutely! I adore this one. It makes me wonder why the new TV series can’t get a straight-up historical in the schedule because simply messing around in history can produce great drama and real fear without a monster or alien popping up halfway. Plugging up the gap between Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani after Colin’s unfortunately premature exit, this is the beginning of his redemption, his golden years if you like, as he definitely has the highest quality of audios over the initial fifty release in my opinion. He’s mellowed out a bit since his first TV series, showcasing his strength of character and underrated wit. We also no longer have to set our eyes upon his coat in order to appreciate him!

Bringing on an older companion who’ll stand up to Sixie’s bold personality was a stroke of genius. Evelyn is a truly wonderful character: she’s knowledgeable and wise, loves baking and chocolate, stands up for what she believes and is both a caring mother-figure and best friend to all those she meets. The guest cast give their all to the script but I’ll single out Anah Rudlin as the troubled Queen and Nicholas Pegg as the conspiring reverend for their performances which culminate in a powerful final exchange. Another thing I really like is that part 1 focuses on introducing Evelyn before the plot really kicks in part 2, avoiding the pacing trap of some historical stories where the plot starts in part 1 and then pads out in the middle. Oh and the first cliffhanger is so simple but so sublime. Gary Russell did a sterling job with the casting and directing for this one.

Wow I wrote a lot about this one!

Why should I listen to it? : Because not only does it introduce you to a brilliant new companion but also tells a brilliant story in its own right. It effortlessly pulls you right in from the very beginning and makes history come alive. We have the first classic Big Finish play right here and the bar has been well and truly set high now. Verdict: 9/10

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The Genocide Machine: Maybe he doesn’t want the library Doctor. Maybe he just wants to return a book!

7) The Genocide Machine

Who’s Involved? : This release was written by Mike Tucker (a special effects expert who worked during the McCoy era of the show as well as the revived series) and directed by Nicholas Briggs. It stars Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace. It also stars Nicholas Briggs in his official debut as the voice of the Daleks.

What’s it about? : Having forgotten to return a library book for many years, the Doctor visits the library on Kar-Charrat, a vast source of knowledge and information hidden by a perception field on the jungle-like planet. It would be absolutely terrible if something evil and vicious tried to invade the library and.. Oh no the Daleks have showed up again.

Is it any good? : I don’t think so. There’s just enough story here to fill an hour but, alas, it’s a two-hour release so the plot is spread very thin, the pacing drags terribly and it has no really original ideas going to boot. It also has a dreadful running gag about a character that never gets to speak since he’s always interrupted or talked over, serving to only highlight the cast is minimal here – just the Doctor, Ace, Daleks and three other speaking parts. This was probably alright at the time of release but has been terribly eclipsed by the new series and Big Finish’s later work. Mike Tucker fairs somewhat better in his second release Dust Breeding.

Why should I listen to it? : It’s the first part in the Dalek Empire… thing. I don’t know why it says ‘Dalek Empire – Part 1’ on the spine as I can’t seen how these stories are linked bar from the fact there are Daleks invading the universe. So actually, ignore that. You’re much better off with the proper Dalek Empire series or Jubilee. Verdict: 4/10

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Red Dawn: More like Big Yawn! Hahaha, I’m so funny.

8) Red Dawn

Who’s Involved? : This release was written by Justin Richards and directed by Gary Russell. It stars Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor and Nicola Bryant as Peri, a TARDIS team we only ever saw in The Caves of Androzani on TV. Big Finish will go on to greatly exploit this seemingly small gap in the series. It guest stars Canadian actor Robert Jezek, who will later portray off-screen companion Frobisher (who’s a shape-shifting penguin. I know how bonkers that sounds but that’s comics for you). It also guest stars a young Georgia Moffett, daughter of Peter Davison, now Georgia Tennant, who played Jenny in the Tenth Doctor episode, The Doctor’s Daughter, and is also now wife of Tenth Doctor actor David Tennant. Phew!

What’s it about? : The Doctor and Peri visit Mars. They just happen to bump into the crew of the first manned mission to Mars, who in turn accidentally reawaken the Ice Warriors by unfreezing them. Cue the world being in danger, again.

Is it any good? : Another bleh one. Whilst mercifully shorter with a 90-min runtime, this is another simple, straightforward one idea story that has nothing to make it particularly interesting to listen to nor remember about afterwards. I imagine Justin rustled this bland but functional script up particularly quickly. The fact Gary Russell, Jason Haigh-Ellery and Alistair Lock (who are all behind-the-scenes staff) voice Ice Warriors gives a distinct air of fanboy-ism too. But I did remember liking some bits of the music. Still dull though.

Why should I listen to it? : To hear a functional by-the-numbers Doctor Who story produced to an extremely average standard. With the exception of Mission of the Viyrans (a superior one-part story you can hear for free on Big Finish’s Soundcloud site), this is also the only Big Finish story with just Five and Peri. Not very good reasons though, I know. Verdict: 4/10

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The Spectre of Lanyon Moor: Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting, For Fear of little men.

9) The Spectre of Lanyon Moor

Who’s Involved? : This release was written and directed by Nicholas Pegg (Ah, that man again!). It stars Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor and Maggie Stables as Evelyn with the return of Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Hurrah! This story now means every Doctor pre-1989 has acted with Nicholas Courtney in Doctor Who, (No, we don’t mention that one! And Cushing only portrayed Dr. Who. So there.) since he played Space Security Agent Bret Vyon opposite the First Doctor in The Daleks’ Master Plan before being cast as the Brigadier in the second Doctor serial, The Web of Fear.

What’s it about? : The Brigadier is investigating a haunted moor in Pengriffen when the Doctor and Evelyn arrive on the scene. Are there really demonic imps hidden in the countryside? What is the secret of the fogou? And will Lanyon Moor be the final battleground for an ancient and deadly conflict?

Is it any good? : Another really good Sixth Doctor story. Whilst some may criticise it for being rather traditional – it certainly feels familiar to many-a-earthbound UNIT story, particularly The Dæmons and Terror of the Zygons for me – it’s worth remembering Sixie wasn’t lucky enough to get any such stories on the telly. It’s the sort of audio that makes me feel nostalgic for a childhood that didn’t happen!

Evelyn and Sixie are developing a dynamic we could have only dreamed to see from his era on the box, the guest cast are all just simply marvellous, particularly Susan Jameson as Mrs Moynihan, the story is rich with its ideas about Cornish folklore and history, the local mystery being investigated by the Brig and peeling away the characters’ backstories to discover who’s behind it all. It’s also got some marvellous sound design, a moody score which brings an atmosphere to it and the script has memorable dialogue, strong pacing and a wonderful setting and sense of scale. It’s an absolute testament to the whole behind-the-scenes crew who brought this audio, for what is quite a visual story, to life.

Why should I listen to it? : Because by now you should have realised it’s well worth investing in Sixie and Evelyn’s audio adventures. Also if you love the Brigadier or a good old-fashioned yarn that’s really well-executed here. Verdict: 8/10

Next Time: We see, or rather hear, Romana and Bernice Summerfield enter the range, Daleks invade Earth and Gallifrey, shenanigans go down in a hotel in Kent and there’s a talking penguin companion! Don’t miss it!

A Guide To The Doctor Who Main Range – Part 1 (1999)

It’s 1999 and Doctor Who is back. But not on the telly like it used to be. Instead, a small company with big ambitions and run by even bigger fanboys (I would say ‘and fangirls’ but it’s probably just Jacqueline Rayner at this point!) set out to revive Doctor Who the best way they can. All-new audio dramas! Since Big Finish is still alive and kicking, we can probably say they were a success. This new guide from the Blogger On The Inside sets out to introduce you to Big Finish’s back catalogue and recommend some of the best Who you’ve never heard. So without further ado, let’s travel back in the TARDIS to July 1999.

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The Sirens of Time: Only the Doctor can save Gallifrey… again.

1) The Sirens of Time

Who’s Involved? : This debut release was written and directed by Nicholas Briggs. It stars Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors respectively. Notable guest cast include Mark Gatiss (who writes the next story), Sarah Mowat (who goes on to be the lead of the first series of Dalek Empire) and Maggie Stables (who’s later cast as audio companion Evelyn Smythe, who debuts in The Marian Conspiracy).

What’s it about? : Naturally, the first Doctor Who release was a multi-Doctor story. It was never gonna be anything else really. Gallifrey is in crisis and only the Doctor can sort it out. But in a somewhat novel twist, we have one episode for each Doctor (Five, Six and Seven) in a different location before they all meet up in the final part of the story to defeat the baddies – who definitely aren’t in the title at all.

Is it any good? : It’s… alright, I guess. The story has nice ideas but jumps back and forth between unsubtle info-dumping of the plot and character/atmosphere moments which lack any impact since each episode starts from scratch with a new location and characters. Oh, and the cliffhangers from parts 1-3 don’t get any real resolution bar a cheap deus-ex-machina. It is, however, wonderful to hear Peter Davison and Colin Baker return to their parts for the first time after many years; McCoy less so with a weak solo reintroduction, which makes The Fearmonger his true return to the part. Sarah Mowat is also pretty amazing playing all the pseudo-companion roles in this story too. Nicholas Briggs goes on to write and direct much better audios but the function of this release was to relaunch Doctor Who and, with the benefit of hindsight, it did so tremendously.

Why should I listen to it? : For posterity, curiosity or completion. Doctor Who and Big Finish have come on leaps and bounds since this first release, which is only to be expected really. A landmark piece of Doctor Who history but as a standalone story it’s just about okay. Verdict: 5/10

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Phantasmagoria: Passes the time away like a game of cards.

2) Phantasmagoria

Who’s Involved? : This release is written and directed by Mark Gatiss. It stars Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor with the return of Mark Strickson as Turlough – a TARDIS team we’ve only seen in one TV story, Planet of Fire. It also guest stars Mark Gatiss as well as a young David Walliams.

What’s it about? : The Doctor and Turlough land in 18th Century London, people are mysteriously disappearing, pseudo-historical ensues. If you’ve come across anything else written by Mark Gatiss then you know the drill.

Is it any good? : Depends whether you’re a fan of Gatiss’s Doctor Who TV work. There’s nothing wrong with this audio but similarly there’s nothing that makes it memorable. It has good ideas, a good cast and a nice twist in part 3, which would’ve been better if it had some build-up or sense of anticipation, but it all adds up to a very bread-and-butter Doctor Who story.  I’m struggling to say anything decent – that’s how lukewarm I feel about it.

Why should I listen to it? : Because you’re a big fan of anything starring Turlough or anything written by Mark Gatiss. If not, then you have an audio that’ll pass a few hours by before struggling to remember any of it the next day. Verdict: 6/10

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Whispers of Terror: Is there something in the air?

3) Whispers of Terror

Who’s Involved? : This release is written by Justin Richards and directed by Gary Russell. Russell goes on to be producer for Big Finish from 2000 until 2006 before script editing Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. It stars Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor with the return of Nicola Bryant as Peri. It also guest stars Lisa Bowerman (who plays the Seventh Doctor New Adventures companion Professor Bernice Summerfield in the audios) and Peter Miles (who played Nyder in Genesis of the Daleks).

What’s it about? : The Doctor and Peri land in a museum of sound and audio recordings. There’s an intruder lurking about, a dead body on the scene and the Doctor is accused of murder. Classic stuff. But then the museum’s audio recordings start changing, swapping out words and modifying intonations. Is it all an elaborate trick or is there really a monster in the sound waves?

Is it any good? : Yes, it’s actually quite good. This is the first script that’s not only pretty solid but uses the audio medium to its strengths with a great (albeit somewhat obvious) idea. The dynamic between Six and Peri is still bicker-y but toned down from their TV appearances. The plot has enough substance for a two-hour story and just when you think it might run out of steam another loose end of the mystery appears. Also noticing the little changes in the audio recordings of speeches and dialogue it actually quite spooky. I’d say it’s certainly more successful that Gatiss’s use of TV in The Idiot’s Lantern and Moffat’s use of wi-fi in The Bells of Saint John.

Why should I listen to it? : To hear what Season 22 was badly lacking – decent scripts! This is just the very start of what I and many fans could consider the redemption of Old Sixie. I’d probably argue he’s the best Big Finish Doctor too, certainly in the first fifty main range audios thanks to some talented actors, writers and directors. It also earmarks Gary Russell as the ideal candidate to produce and direct the bulk of Big Finish’s Doctor Who output for a number of years. Definitely the best of the 1999 audios. Verdict: 7/10

 

Summary: These three audios were made to test the waters, to see if people were interested in purchasing Doctor Who audios. The answer was a resounding yes, and meant the Doctor Who range would move to a monthly format – one double CD audio drama every month. I wonder if any of them thought it would go on for as long as it has now… Probably not! Whilst Big Finish would go onto produce bigger and better productions, these three audios are a reminder that they had to start somewhere. They brought on multiple writers, Doctors and companions to swell the ranks whilst throwing just about every idea they had at the wall to see what worked. It’s quite surprising how much actually stuck to said metaphorical wall. We go onwards to the next year… The twenty first century awaits…

 

Next Time: The return of Nyssa and Ace, a new companion for Sixie, and the Daleks are back to conquer the universe once again.