Saturday 21 March 2015

For Your Ears Only.. Second Chances, Second Doctors...

At last..! An excuse, as if I needed one, to blog about Doctor Who! I have been pondering on writing a post about Big Finish for some time and recently, a certain Youtube video has given me the incentive to put fingers to keyboard. More about that later..!
Way back, in 1989, when Doctor Who was finally axed, most people assumed time was up for the titular Timelord. The death knell had rung and an era had ended. I have to confess, I had already stopped watching when Colin Baker took over from Davison. I watched a few of Colin's stories, found him too bombastic, and besides, I was (then) 16 years old and had far better things, with which, to occupy my time. I saw none of Sylvester McCoy's stories on the original transmission. I had simply lost interest…
Of course, I couldn't stay away for long. The "anorak" in me was screaming to be set free! During a stint in hospital, someone very kindly rented Revenge of the Cybermen for me to watch in the day room. It immediately rekindled my love affair with the series. Soon after, I rented Genesis of the Daleks...

As time progressed, I started building my own collection of Doctor Who videos, selectively at first and then religiously. Being a completist, I cautiously dipped my toes into the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras. They opened up, for me, a world of Doctor Who adventures I had never seen. Over time, I collected them all. At around the same time, Virgin began publishing the 'New Adventures' series of novels, and shortly after, the 'Missing Stories' range made their debut, commencing with the superb 'Goth Opera', a story which I hold in high regard to this day.
The real turning point, however, was, for me, the release of ‘Paradise of Death’. Finally, a full length, full cast audio adventure. I had always enjoyed the audio format for Doctor Who stories, although they were limited, at the time, to vinyl releases of Genesis of the Daleks, and The Pescatons. The latter was, when released, unique in being a story intended solely for audio release. Following ‘Paradise of Death’, the BBC released ‘Ghosts of N-Space’, another Third Doctor Story. I found both immensely enjoyable, not least because I had grown very fond of the Pertwee era.

Following the release of The TV Movie, with Paul McGann, fans were treated to more novels, this time in the ‘Eighth Doctor Adventures’ series. However, the biggest (and best!) was yet to come…
On the 19th July 1999, a new era of Doctor Who began, with the release ‘Sirens of Time’ by a (then) little known company called Big Finish Productions. Hardcore fans may already be aware of the fan produced 'Audio Visuals' audio stories. These were produced in the 80's, and, unless you happened to know the right people, were practically impossible to track down. Since the advent of the Internet, they are now accessible online. It was, in part, as a result of these stories that Big Finish was formed. Many of the people involved in their creation were the driving force behind Big Finish, including, a then, little known actor by the name of Nicholas Briggs.

Initially Big Finish produced a monthly range of adventures, with the occasional bonus release, available only to subscribers. They soon expanded their range beyond the monthly releases, with the first spin-off series; an adaption of the Virgin range of novels featuring Bernice Summerfield. Soon after, Dalek Empire was released, which ran for four seasons, and, in my opinion, remains one of the finest series of the expanded Whoniverse. 

Long before the Sarah Jane Adventures made their television debut, Big Finish provided two, very strong, series for Lis Sladen, and the opportunity to revist an old villain. As a lifelong fan of Lis, it was a pure joy that she should be rewarded with a series of her very own, especially as the previous attempt, K9 and Company had been less than spectular, although I must confess a fondness for it, despite the poor reputation. Who, even on the release of the audio series, could have possibly predicted she would be (rightly) rewarded with her own television series, much less that it would run for five seasons. 

Perhaps the greatest achievement by Big Finish is in the development of the characters. The Fourth and Fifth Doctors are treated well and remain very true to their on screen personas. However, it is the later Doctors who are perhaps best served. Colin Baker presents us with a much more nuanced, even softened Doctor, perhaps in no small part due to his pairing with Evelyn Smythe, a companion quite unlike any other, in any medium which preceded her. Certainly, the Sixth Doctor loses none of his ebullience, but it is much more tempered and refined. It gives us a real taste of what could have been, had he continued in the role on screen. He often displays a much softer, more compassionate side to his nature, and of all the Big Finish audios, I find myself drawn to his stories more than any other.

Of course, this does not mean other Doctors fair less well. The Seventh is able to explore the darker aspects of his character; aspects which the television series had only begun to explore. McCoy is able to portray a more brooding, manipulative Doctor, and this works well, particularly in his relationship to Ace.

Perhaps the biggest treat offered by Big Finish is the opportunity to spend considerably more time with the Eighth Doctor. Whilst the TV Movie was, shall we say, less than spectacular, it did, at least, give us a new, and rather wonderful Doctor. Sadly, until recently, we were deprived of his on screen presence, something rectified, albeit only for seven minutes, in the superb 'Night of the Doctor'. Following a number of "seasons" in the monthly range, the Eighth Doctor eventually achieved his own set of adventures, which, along with his companion, Lucie Miller, ran for four series. This was followed by the critically acclaimed 'Dark Eyes', which, again, ran for four series.

Equally well served are companions. I have already mentioned Evelyn Smythe, played, very capably, by the much missed Maggie Stables. Perhaps, most surprisingly, is the treatment of "classic" companions. Peri is given a solid backstory and her relationship with the Sixth Doctor flourishes. Most surprising of all, for me, however, is Mel. Her character positively shines on the audio format. As companions go, she was, I think it is fair to say, possibly one of the weakest, and arguably, most annoying, on screen. It is to Big Finish's credit that they have been able to take a mediocre character and sculpt her into an immensly likeable, credible companion. Bonnie Langford demonstrates her capability as an actor when given the right material to work with. 

This is, perhaps, the biggest strength of Big Finish. Where an 'audio only' format could prove a constraint in the hands of a less capable company, Big Finish turns it into an asset. The lack of visual distractions means stories are written with credible, intelligent plots, well formed, developed characters and a clear respect for the traditions of the classic series.

The expansion of the Who Universe with series such as Dalek Empire, Counter-Measures, which explores the military team first established in Remembrance of the Daleks, and more recently, Jago and Litefoot, which revists the characters first encountered in The Talons of Weng Chi'ang, all remain very faithful to the classic series, while managing to forge their own, unique paths. 

That Big Finish has been producing Doctor Who Audios for 15 years is a remarkable achievement, particularly as, for ten of those years, Doctor Who has been back on screens. In that time, we have met, loved and, sometimes, lost new companions. We have met new enemies, faithfully revisted old ones, been transported to new planets and, perhaps, best of all, been able to spend more time with the Doctor(s) many of us grew up watching.

Recently, Doctor Who marked its 50th Anniversary. I make no secret of, or apology for, the fact I am losing interest in the television series. There are millions of people who still enjoy it immensely. I am longer one of them. I find myself being pulled further away from them with each season, due largely to the direction in which Steven Moffat is taking the show. 'Day of the Doctor' was an enjoyable enough adventure, although as a 50th Anniversary special, for me, it fell short. Trust Big Finish, then, to fill that void with the superb "A Light at the End', which was, perhaps with the notable exception of An Adventure in Space and Time, the highlight of the Anniversary. As a 'multi-Doctor' story it far surpassed 'Day'. It needed no 'big name' guest stars, no convulted plots.. It thrived on storytelling and strong casting. It is, therefore, perhaps, unsurprising that it is at the top of my 'recommended list'.

Which brings me neatly to recommendations. If you have not heard any of the Big Finish audio adventures, you are missing out on a real treat. It is difficult to make recommendations with so much on offer, however, stand out stories are, for me, Jubilee (Sixth Doctor), The Reaping (6/Peri), Chimes of Midnight (8/Charley Pollard), the entire 'Dark Eyes' series (8th), Colditz (7/Ace) and The Wrong Doctors (6 with a stellar performance from Bonnie Langford). Fans of the Fourth Doctor need look no further than the Philip Hinchcliffe boxset, and anyone wishing to venture a little deeper into the Whoniverse would do well to listen to the Dalek Empire series. Whatever your pleasure, you are sure to find something to satisfy you!

At the start of this post, I mentioned a YouTube video. It was, as previously alluded to, the impetus behind this post. The Internet is a wonderful place (most of the time!) for Doctor Who fans. There is a plethora of fan fiction; YouTube has everything from alternative credits, variations on the theme music to full length fan films. And then there is TimeTunnel...

"Who?" is probably your response, unless, like me, you are an ardent fan who seeks out every piece of Doctor Who material imaginable. Big Finish has, of course, covered all the extant Doctors. Three, however, are conspicuous in their absence. The First to Third Doctors are covered by Big Finish, however, the lack of original actors means many of their stories are produced with interlinking narration.

Enter TimeTunnel, who have, to date, produced three, positively outstanding stories. 'Red Snow' and 'Freedom of the Daleks' are full length, full cast audio adventures featuring the Second Doctor. A third story, 'Her House', is a short, 20 minute episode. Each features Christopher Thomson as The Second Doctor. And he does not disappoint! His impersonation of the Timelord's second incarnation is quite uncanny. The scripts for the stories are exceptional; faithful to the last detail to the classic era. It is, however Chris who brings the scripts to life. His portrayal of Troughton is extraordinary. Every line is delivered convincingly, every inflection is on point. He, the team of writers and the supporting cast bring a much loved Doctor back to life. Oh, and did I mention, they are completely free to download! Just click on the episode titles to go directly to their individual pages, or visit TimeTunnel's homepage here

And so, to the Youtube video which inspired this post. I like to save the best until last, and this is a real treat! If you haven't already seen it, it is my pleasure to share with you 'The Glimpse'. This 'minisode' features, once again, a superb performance by Chris Thompson. It also features a unique performance from. Siobhan Gallichan as The First Doctor. I am not going to go into detail on the storyline as it should be viewed free from spoilers. Suffice to say, you will thoroughly enjoy it. It has, to date, already reached over 4000 views on YouTube. And with good reason. It is a beautifully constructed video, which fans of the black and white era will find utterly irresistible. I would venture that it is, perhaps, the finest 'short' since 'Night of the Doctor'. It is certainly the best fan produced video I have had the privilege of watching. I use the word 'privilege" with precision.  The story is clever, engaging, funny in the necessary places, and the vocal work is an absolute joy to hear. It is a truly magical tribute to two wonderful Doctors, one which I cannot recommend highly enough.

The video is embedded below, and does count toward Yotube views, however, should you wish to view it on YouTube (recommended), please click HERE.

You can follow Chris, and stay appraised of his ventures on Twitter @MrCThomson. Aside from being an extraordinarily talented vocal actor, he is also a bloody nice guy. He is extraordinarily humble, and I genuinely do not think he is aware of just how talented he his, or how much pleasure he has brought to myself, and to the many others who have already had the pleasure of hearing his work. His ambition is to work with Big Finish. I hope it is an ambition that is realised. Aside from the obvious fulfilment of his dreams, the opportunity to spend more time with the Second Doctor is a tantalising prospect!

Lastly, and briefly returning to Big Finish, I would like to dedicate this post to the late, and much missed Maggie Stables. Her portrayal of Evelyn Smythe was exemplary. She created a companion who, regardless of the medium, has become one of my all time favourites. That we will share no more adventures with her saddens me deeply, but for the stories we have, I will be forever grateful. She was, quite simply, wonderful.

Maggie Stables
26th September 2014

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