Audio Adventures: Mini-Reviews

Updated 9.8.19 with 1 New Review.

Back in the late ‘90s (time flies, my friends: hold on to your hats!) I titled this section “Who Knew? New Who!” — because the show had been off the air for some considerable time by then, and Big Finish Productions was just getting started. It was fun and exciting to have officially licensed new Doctor Who adventures featuring the original cast, and no one, I daresay not even Nick Briggs and Gary Russell, the two instrumental players behind Big Finish, could guess where it would lead.

Who Knew, indeed? Who knew what a dramatic role Big Finish would play in keeping the series alive, and engineering its return? Who knew that they would still be plugging along, and indeed still expanding, twenty years later?

In America, radio as a vehicle for drama died out sometime in the very late 1950s. During the ’70s, a wave of nostalgia for Old Time Radio (OTR) did keep the concept alive, and introduce it to a new generation (how very well and fondly I remember the excitement of listening to recordings of original radio broadcasts of The Shadow, Flash Gordon, Lights Out, Dimension X and others), but as a genre it enjoyed only sporadic revivals along the lines of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater and Alien Worlds, none of which survived long. Today, I imagine that interest in OTR and radio drama here in America is confined to a dwindling and aging minority of listeners. 

Things appear to have been rather different on the other side of the pond. The genre seems not only to have survived, but thrived. As an American I cannot weigh in with any sense of authority on the history of radio drama in England, but people always need entertainment, and in the austere years following WWII, with the nation still rebuilding, my guess is that radio drama still had a part to play, and that the development of television lagged behind its rapid growth in the U.S. However it happened, the fact that radio drama never completely went away, as it did in the states, plays an important part in how the Doctor Who Audio Adventures came to happen. 

What I know for certain is that one of the biggest genre success stories on the planet, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was born first on radio, and that the radio version was probably its best and most entertaining incarnation. Only in a nation where radio drama had never died, where an institution like the BBC ruled the airwaves, and where something like Hitchhikers had met with such success, would a radio version of a cancelled Sci-Fi show like Doctor Who ever have been considered, let alone produced. And if 1996’s The Paradise of Death (reuniting Who producer Barry Letts with its stars Jon Pertwee and Elizabeth Sladen) had not worked so very well both as a drama and as a blueprint for restoring life to the show, would Big Finish ever have happened? 

But happen it did, and I for one was glad of it. I’m a fan of both Doctor Who and  vintage radio dramas, and so for me the combination is like chocolate. I have never been interested in any of the other Doctor Who “spin-offs,” the comics or novels, and don’t regard them as canon, but these audio dramas featuring many original cast members had me lining up enthusiastically from the start, within the limits of my meager budget. 

I do sometimes have issues with the direction that the series has taken in audio, not the least of which is the often varying quality of the scripts, and the sheer volume of material that Big Finish are cranking out (making it virtually impossible to be a completist), but it’s quite possible that we would not be talking about Who today if Big Finish hadn’t happened, and for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude. With the original cast in place and a concerted effort to produce real dramas — not just recitals of prose stories —  Big Finish were and are impossible to ignore when Doctor Who is the subject. 

How does Doctor Who translate to audio? Very well, thank you. The budgetary constrictions are minimal: the special effects, settings and costumes are as good as your Mind's Eye (and the sound crew) can make them. The plotting (always a Who weakness as stories are padded out over four or more episodes) compares more than favorably to the original series and to other SF radio shows — especially Alien Worlds, which could sometimes get through an entire first episode without offering the slightest indication of a plot; meanwhile, having an increasing number of the old cast back insures that the original series charm is intact.

Following are mini-reviews of the Doctor Who audio dramas I've listened to so far. More will follow soon! One star is not so good: four is tops. Professor?

The Paradise of Death (BBC Radio, 1993) 5 episodes. 
Barry Letts, writer • Phil Clarke, director • Jon Pertwee as The Doctor • Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane • Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart.

We love it when Doctor Who's roots show, and this one turns out to be pure Soylent Green. Pertwee, Slayden and Courtney are in fine voice, and in all but the tone (which is a good deal nastier than Perwtee-era WHO), "Paradise" perfectly recaptures the Letts / Pertwee days of the show. The effect is quite wonderful: better than any other "TV reunion" I'm familiar with. Only some padding in the middle episodes, an overabundance of characters and lackluster work from the sound crew keep this from being a four star venture. * * *

The Ghosts of N-Space (BBC Radio, 1996) 6 episodes. 
Barry Letts, writer • Phil Clarke, director • Jon Pertwee as The Doctor • Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane • Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart.

A good, straightforward story about a Mad Monk transcending time is made needlessly complicated by a degree of doubletalk that's high even by the standards of the Pertwee era. In the first episode we have the Doctor explaining all the secrets of life and death as if he'd invented them: I like the Doctor to be super-humanly knowledgeable, but some mysteries should baffle even a Time Lord. Worse, his explanation is pure gibberish, especially in the light of a more elegant one offered during the Tom Baker era: that ghostly manifestations are nothing more than rips in the fabric of time. The production is further undermined by three really horrible performances from the guest cast: in the end, only the grace of Pertwee, Sladen and Courtney combined with a good technical production save this one. Pertwee's final turn as The Doctor could -- and should -- have been much happier. * *

The Sirens of Time (Big Finish, 1999) 4 episodes.
Nicholas Briggs, writer / director • Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor

Well conceived and managing to balance tradition with invention, Sirens has taken an undeserved drubbing in the fan press for daring to be different. Far from a conventional team-up, Sirens places three Doctors in three separate and distinct adventures linked by a danger that strikes from an unexpected angle (less so if one reads the acting credits beforehand) and brings the Doctors together only in the final episode. It's ambitious, but executed admirably and nicely positioned as a "pilot" for the series to follow. McCoy, Davison and Baker all reprise the part with conviction and style (though McCoy has the best "radio voice"), and the supporting cast is uniformly fine. In particular, Maggie Stables as Ruthley is a delight. Sound effects and design by Briggs are outstanding. * * * *

Phantasmagoria (Big Finish, 1999) 4 episodes. 
Mark Gatiss, writer • Nicholas Briggs, director • Peter Davison as The Doctor
Mark Strickson as Turlough • Mark Gatiss as Jeake

If it isn't the best Doctor Who ever, nor the most imaginative, it's still entertaining and structurally sound. Writer Mark Gatiss has assembled a sort of "master plot" -- about a criminal from the future tapping the life-force of victims from the past -- and populated it with some fun characters -- and it's the characters, not the ideas, that carry this story. Peter Davison plays the Doctor just as if Time had indeed been put on hold from the 1980's until now: only Mark Strickson disappoints; he seems to be rather walking through this job, as though unimpressed with what he was given to do. Alaistair Lock does a fine job at realizing the sound -- only going overboard a bit in one scene (just how many people are in that restaurant, Mr. Lock?) Nothing earth-shattering here, but quite fun. * * *

Whispers of Terror (Big Finish, 1999) 4 episodes. 
Justin Richards, writer • Gary Russell, director • Colin Baker as The Doctor • Nicola Bryant as Peri

Despite a cracking performance from Colin Baker that sees him playing the traditional Doctor as against the psychopathic one he was forced, for a while, to portray on television, this is the weakest Big Finish audiodrama to date thanks to an amateurish script. The dullish plot is full of "surprizes" that aren't; it isn't helped by Justin Richards's hackneyed dialogue and the kind of botched storytelling that makes it difficult to tell which characters are standing in the same room together and who is doing what to whom. Peter Miles makes a fun appearance, cast against type in a sympathetic role, but Mathew Brenner is an absolute disaster in a key role as "the greatest actor of his age." The stakes are extremely low, and the political dialogue is at best trite and uninvolving. On the whole, I'd rather be skydiving. *

The Land of The Dead (Big Finish, 2000) 4 episodes.
Stephen Cole, writer • Gary Russell, director • Peter Davison as The Doctor • Sarah Sutton as Nyssa.

In its early episodes this one has the feeling of being a good one -- despite a couple of rather dowdy performances in the supporting cast. It was only in the final episodes that I realized it wasn't going to live up to my expectations of it -- and that may be more my fault than the author's. The monsters are very good (and this is nothing more than a classic WHO Monster Story) -- but I was hoping for a glimpse of a guiding intelligence behind the monsters that I never got. Even so, it's a good solid claustrophobic chiller, realized very well by the audio team and most of the actors. Sarah Sutton comes off as much older -- as of course she is -- than she did on the television show, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. She and Peter Davison really give the script their all. There's rather too much of the actors telling each other what they, presumably, can see for themselves, though that's a minor quibble. Good monsters, well realized, and Davison at his most congenial. I shan't complain. * * *

The Fearmonger (Big Finish, 2000) 4 episodes.
Jonathan Blum, writer • Gary Russell, director • Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor
Sophie Aldred as Ace.

A very sound story that fits comfortably within the framework of Sylvester McCoy's tenure on the show, The Fearmonger could nonetheless have been better with just a little bit of nudging from a script editor. What it needs is an extra flourish (I really dislike the name of the monster and its lack of a personality) and a little more philosophical weight: as it is, what we have here is nothing more profound than President Roosevelt's "Fear Itself" speech, which said the same things in a fraction of the time. Episode one just crackles but the story flags somewhat from there, despite a riot and assorted bombings and shootings. After strong initial scenes, McCoy begins to seem somewhat distracted, rather under-performing some very good dialogue; meanwhile Sophie Aldred takes the driver's seat as Ace. But it's the fine supporting cast and some of Alastair Lock's best sound production that makes this one finally pull together. Good but not great. * * *

The Genocide Machine (Big Finish, 2000) 4 episodes.
Mike Tucker, writer • Nicholas Briggs, director • Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor
Sophie Aldred as Ace.

Good solid plotting, a high standard of sound dramatization and top-notch performances from McCoy and Aldred make this one a must-have item. It lacks the gleeful anarchism of McCoy's tenure on the show, and the dialogue is not so fine as we sometimes saw during that era ("I hate bus terminals...") but it's unfair to criticize a drama for being traditional. The Daleks come off much more effectively than could reasonably have been expected in an audio drama, and the guest cast are all well up to snuff. This is archetypal WHO. * * * *

Red Dawn (Big Finish, 2000) 4 episodes.
Justin Richards, "writer" • Gary Russell, director • Peter Davison as The Doctor
Nicola Bryant as Peri

A complete misfire from top to bottom, and almost unlistenable thanks to a second rank amateur script from Justin Richards. Why Big Finish continues to use Richards to this day eludes all comprehension. It was this audiodrama that made up my mind never to give Big Finish any more money for anything with Richards's name on it, a promise I have kept to this day. The "big cliffhanger" at the end of episode one is simply the revelation that the Ice Warriors are the villains (in case you didn't know that already from the cover art and jacket copy!). The rest of the story is equally nonsensical. Not even Davison and Bryant could save this travesty, which plays like one of the worst fanfic spinoffs out there. Absolute bottom-of-the-barrel. No stars.

The Mutant Phase (Big Finish #15, 2000) 4 episodes.
Nicholas Briggs writer/director • Peter Davison as The Doctor
Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

Not one of Nick Briggs’s better scripts, really. It’s quite ambitious in concept and scope but sometimes ambition is over-rated. The episodes are both heavily padded (the cliffhanger to episode two seems to arrive at least five times) and full of dialogue explaining why the plot’s many loopholes couldn’t possibly happen. It’s nice that Sarah Sutton finally gets a lot to do, but none of it deepens the character of Nyssa in the slightest, unless constantly remarking that her wasp sting is getting worse counts as character development. When it comes down to it, the Daleks are really quite tedious creatures, and at this point in Doctor Who history the single biggest problem any writer faces in creating a Dalek story lies in keeping them interesting — Briggs fails here in a big way. Between this and Red Dawn, poor Peter Davison really seems to be getting the worst stories at this stage of Big Finish’s development. On the plus side, the performances and sound design are all top notch, with the “on-screen” mutation scene at the end of episode one being a high point. *

...ish (Big Finish, 2002) 4 episodes. 
Phil Pascoe, writer • Nicholas Briggs, director • Colin Baker as The Doctor • Nicola Bryant as Peri

This one is self-describing, really: it's clever-ish and dull-ish, and only Colin Baker's Doctor-ish Doctor could have pulled it off at all. One does get the feeling that Big Finish's ambitious monthly release schedule was forcing them to accept marginal-ish scripts that would have been passed over by the producers of the TV series. With its prig-ish android dictionary and its abstract-ish mystery, it's difficult-ish to care about the outcome. Quite, quite minor-ish, despite top-notch performances by Baker-ish and Bryant-ish.*

The Auntie Matter (Big Finish, 2013) 2 episodes
Jonathan Morris, script • Ken Bentley, director • Tom Baker as The Doctor
Mary Tamm as Romana • Julia McKenzie as Florence

Genre-bending being one of the things that Doctor Who does best, it was only a matter of time before someone threw a dash of P.G. Wodehouse into the glass and shook it up. It works perfectly well in this quite streamlined story of an alien who needs a steady supply of female bodies to stay alive: somewhat of an other-worldly Elizabeth Bathory. It feels traditional, quite basic, but not stale. Baker and Tamm are in fine voice (although Tamm was already ill with the disease that would kill her before the adventure could even be released), and when one closes one’s eyes it is easy to travel back in time and enjoy what amounts to a really well-made light confection. Julia McKenzie, who assumed the role of Miss Marple on telly after Geraldine McEwan left, actually seems to be having a ball here as the body-snatching alien. * * *

The Justice of Jalxar (Big Finish, 2013) 2 episodes
John Dorney, script • Ken Bentley, director • Tom Baker as The Doctor • Mary Tamm as Romana • Christopher Benjamin as Henry Gordon Jago • Trevor Baxter as Professor George Litefoot

Another two-parter that’s elegant in its simplicity, returning The Doctor (this time with Romana in tow) to Victorian-era London to square off against a steampunk vigilante superhero from outer space. So slight is the story that there was room left over to insert Jago and Litefoot, the great double act from TV’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Their presence here adds nothing of substance to the plot; Big Finish does have a habit of pandering to the fans, but sometimes it works, and here is one of those times, simply because Benjamin and Baxter are still utterly charming in their roles and settle in to them just as comfortably as if the last forty years had never happened. Their reunion with Baker’s Doctor is delightful, and in the end takes center stage, rendering the main action almost immaterial. Sound design is good throughout. Rather a jolly romp. * * *
[Noted: Between this and the various other Victorian-era menaces that The Doctor has encountered on telly, especially including a giant Cyberman stomping the whole town, one wonders how England ever managed to make it into the 20th century…]

Phantoms from the Deep (Big Finish, 2013) 2 episodes
Jonathan Morris, script • Ken Bentley, director • Tom Baker as The Doctor
Mary Tamm as Romana • John Leeson as K-9

The Doctor and The Deep Blue Sea was an idea that was long overdue; unfortunately, this ambitious, exciting and original idea for a story goes more than a little bit pear-shaped in the second episode with a bunch of telepathic nonsense. Unless I’m mistaken, our heroes win out by telepathically willing the monster to destroy itself — and that’s just rubbish. Still, there’s quite a lot to recommend this production. It’s atmospheric, gripping and intriguing for most of its runtime, and the trio of Baker, Tamm and Leeson appear to be having fun. If just a little more effort had been put into the plotting of the thing, it could have been an outstanding adventure. * *

The King of Sontar (Big Finish, 2014) 2 episodes
John Dorney, script • Nicholas Briggs, director • Tom Baker as The Doctor
Louise Jameson as Leela • Dan Starkey as Strang

Despite the silly title, this is another ambitious, high-concept story somewhat betrayed by its ending; we think it rather unfair for the Doctor to be so stern and righteous with Leela (who is utilized quite well throughout) just because the writer couldn’t think of a way to take the high road out of the menace he’d written himself into! Still and all it’s quite the gripping story, well-realized by Briggs and played with conviction by the whole cast. Lovely that Starkey gets to play a serious Sontaran for a change. This is a story that really seeks to boost the Sontarans as villains, and overall succeeds. Can’t help but think that it would have made a smashing four-parter, had Leela simply failed to blow up the hatchery in time. . . * * *

White Ghosts (Big Finish, 2014) 2 episodes
Alan Barnes, script • Nicholas Briggs, director • Tom Baker as The Doctor
Louise Jameson as Leela • Virginia Hey as Bengel

A “base under siege” story leaning quite heavily on The Day of The Triffids is saved by some really lovely character dialogue by Barnes, and top-notch performances by Baker and Jameson. Virginia Hey — Farscape’s very own and much-beloved Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan — appears in a prominent role to strong effect. Despite some good sound design, I found some of the action in episode two confusing, but that could be my own fault, and it’s not a deal-breaker. So far, Big Finish is turning out Fourth Doctor adventures that are creditable and enjoyable without anything really standing out as a Home Run. * * *

The Crooked Man (Big Finish, 2014) 2 episodes
John Dorney, script • Nicholas Briggs, director • Tom Baker as The Doctor
Louise Jameson as Leela

This ill-advised sort-of sequel to The Mind Robber must have seemed better on paper than it is in execution. A concept this high requires cracking and sophisticated dialogue and a lightness of touch that the script does not even come close to delivering. Instead, the dialogue is hackneyed (maybe Dorney and Briggs consider that to be part of the point?), the action confusing and the performances from the guest cast severely second-rate — the villains appear to be incapable of delivering a single line without cackling maniacally. Fiction is our friend, or it should be… instead we have a story in which fiction is actively trying to kill us, and a production that seems bent on making it possible. Toss in a squalling baby and you pretty much have an unendurable listening experience. *

The Evil One (Big Finish, 2014) 2 episodes
Nicholas Briggs, writer/director • Tom Baker as The Doctor
Louise Jameson as Leela • Geoffrey Beevers as The Master

Quite a fun outing, with Leela really benefitting from an expansion of her backstory. This feels like a story that would have been right at home during Louise Jameson’s time on the TV series; the multiple mysteries are intriguing and come together quite nicely and without all the draggy padding of four-part stories. As always the sound design and performances are top notch, and Baker really seems to channelling his younger self here. Not a huge, earth-shaking story that cracks open the series continuity, but that’s actually one of its strong points. Straightforward, classic in design, and well worth the listen. ***

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