Why Doctor Who might be Better Heard Not Seen
Before the Doctor can settle down to married life, he must face one last confrontation with his deadly enemy of certain death – the Master.
You could be forgiven for thinking that 1999 was a low point for Doctor Who. In many ways the year could be counted as a nadir – the long-running television phenomenon had not been on our screens since the TV movie of 1996 that didn’t translate into a series, as was hoped. It looked like the programme that had used up all its regenerations. Doctor Who did, however, live in print – comics, novels – and in 1999 we get the genesis of the programme on audio, as Big Finish Productions obtained a licence from the BBC. So what follows are eight reasons why Doctor Who might be better heard than seen.
The Magic of Audio
There is something particularly distinctive about the sound world of Doctor Who which makes it perfect for audio – the iconic theme tune, the vworp of the TARDIS, the staccato commands of a Dalek. And freed from the same kind of budget restrictions that come with TV, the audios really can be anywhere and anywhen, and through the magic of audio so can you – doing your washing up, traveling on a train through Bucharest, training at a gym in the Bronx – you can be almost anywhere, letting your imagination travel in time and space.
All My Love to Long Ago
The situation that Big Finish have created is, I think, utterly unique. All of the classic run of Doctors that have been with Big Finish since the early days – Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann, playing Doctors five through eight respectively, have over the years racked up far more time on audio than the screen time of their original TV tenures as the Time Lord. More recently, Tom Baker too has joined the fold.
The fact that there are new adventures with these Doctors, makes them not merely former Doctors, but current: these actors are still the Doctor and the Doctor’s past is very much happening now. We see the Twelfth Doctor battling the Mondasian Cybermen on television, and at the same time we can hear on audio the Seventh Doctor encountering trouble on an artificial planetoid above the world of Dashrah – and both adventures are new.
The Doctor has a peculiar place in the culture, a figure that people take to heart to the point where they’re proprietorial, they have their Doctor – usually the first they encounter as a child. This makes the experience sound simply an exercise in nostalgia, but the audios offer far more that. It brings these Doctors – some who originally appeared in the 70s and 80s into contemporary territory – the Sixth Doctor visits Manchester 2008 in The Condemned, but not as envisaged from the 80s, but from 2008 itself, bringing this Doctor closer to us, making him time travel toward the present.
To All the Days to Come
A major perk of being the longest-running science fiction TV series is that you can build up an extensive history and mythos, and since 2005 when the series returned to TV, it has gained a flourishing futurity. Initially, Big Finish was restricted to the so-called classic series – the swathe of time between Doctors one and eight, but since 2015 the BBC has expanded the licence to encompass everything up to the TV episode The Time of the Doctor. The much beloved David Tennant has returned for three episodes alongside Catherine Tate, and will return for another three with Billie Piper in November this year.
While we have seen crossovers on television between the two eras of the show, they have been few and far between. The programme has often looked forward rather than travelled back – and that’s by and large, a wise decision.
But there is a special joy in those moments that remind us that the new series and the old series are the same series and the Doctor the same man – so just as Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor can travel forward to meet the Tenth in the TV mini-episode Time Crash, through Big Finish the Vashta Nerada can travel backward to battle the Tom Baker’s Fourth.
The Days In Between
Before the surprise introduction of John Hurt’s War Doctor in the fiftieth anniversary special, Paul McGann’s turn as Doctor number eight had the least screen time of any Doctor, only appearing in the TV movie, and more recently The Night of the Doctor. From 2001, Big Finish has given McGann’s incarnation of the Time Lord some time to lord it over with hours and hours of adventures taking us from a universe of anti-time to a motorway services on the M62. It’s a gift to have this fine actor properly give us his Doctor – an openhearted, gentle alien, so wearied and wounded by the universe he travels through and tries to save.
I Declare a Time War
One of the central legends of the series since its return is the Time War – the intergalactic bloodbath between the Time Lords and the Daleks – that shapes the tenures of the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors. Not only have Big Finish been able to show parts of the conflict itself in The War Doctor series of audios, but also have throughout various stories – both unwittingly, and later very wittingly – set the stage for this crisis point in the Doctor’s life, so the Time War isn’t only something haunts his past, but casts a shadow onto his future.
Ever Expanding Universes
One of the big draws of Doctor Who is, as with many sci-fi franchises, the large and detailed multiverse with a complex history and futurity, set of rules, cast of characters, species and planets. There are so many stories to tell, the Doctor aside, and this is where spinoffs come in. Indeed Big Finish began not by making Doctor Who, but the Bernice Summerfield Adventures centered around a companion of the Doctor’s from the Virgin New Adventures novels.
These days not only do there continue to be stories featuring Professor Bernice Summerfield, archaeologist, but also River Song, archaeologist, in The Diary of River Song. From Time Lord political maneuverings in Gallifrey to the rise and fall of Dalek supremacy in Dalek Empire, to the earthbound struggles of UNIT and Torchwood, these further forays into the Doctor Who universe that sprawl, and intersect and contradict each other, remind us how this world is a group effort, and a place that can be seen and understood in innumerable ways.
One of the important elements in the series is the companion. With great love to the companions of the current television series, there is largely a set pattern of young female from contemporary Earth. And there are universes of things you can do with that pattern, but the audio adventures have provided refreshing variations.
It is worth singling out Evelyn Smythe, a history lecturer in her fifties, who the audios team up with the Sixth Doctor. There are plenty of companions from history itself – Charley Pollard, the Edwardian Adventureress; Erinem, a pharaoh from ancient Egypt, to name but two. There are companions from the future, such as Thomas Hector “Hex” Schofield who travels with the Seventh Doctor and is an example of that sadly rare species: the male Doctor Who companion.
Each companion is a new relationship between the audience and the Doctor himself. In so many ways, they set the tone, and varying the kinds of companion allow us each time to see him a new light – even when what we have of them, and him, are their voices.
Variation applies to the content and form of the stories themselves. Without the constraints and demands of terrestrial television, the audios have sometimes been bolder and more experimental. For example, they have had a musical story (Doctor Who and the Pirates), a story in which the episodes can be played in any order (Creatures of Beauty), and an adventure into the world of poststructuralism (Ish . . . ). There have been whole seasons in which the Doctor was without his TARDIS and adrift in a new universe, and the trajectory of one companion – Charley Pollard – who travelled with the Eighth Doctor and ended up also traveling with the Sixth.
The best reason to listen is a simple one – some of the audio stories are the best Doctor Who stories of any format, real classics in their own right. Spare Parts, The Chimes of Midnight, Neverland, Loups-Garoux, A Thousand Tiny Wings, Blue Forgotten Planet, To the Death, A Death in the Family, The Red Lady and many others, all substantial contributions – the vast universe of Doctor Who would be smaller without them. To rank stories according to the medium seems faintly ridiculous; there are so many ways to tell a story, and these stories demand listening to. They give the Doctor a whole new set of lives.
Why Doctor Who might be Better Heard Not Seen
There is something particularly distinctive about the sound world of Doctor Who which makes it perfect for audio – the iconic theme tune, the vworp of the TARDIS, the staccato commands of a Dalek