Big Finish review time! I started these reviews because I’d slowly built up a collection of Seventh Doctor stories, but foolishly deferred to my completist side by not actually watching or listening to them. This is my motivation for finally doing so – sharing them with you. Unlike the serials, where I dwelt a bit more on the history and the broader implications for the show, I’ll look at these through a simpler good/bad lens, and whether I think you should buy them if you’re interested. For the continuity nuts (like me) they’re in a chronological order. Mostly that comes from the writers’ intent, sometimes it’s just where I think they fit best. Big Finish also hold themed sales quite regularly, so unless you want to buy something that’s just been released, if you have the patience to wait you don’t have to pay full price for anything.
I’ve rated them for ease of reference. Avoid anything with one star. Two means don’t bother unless you really want to, three stars means perfectly cromulent, entertaining Who with few to no glaring flaws. Four is a solid recommendation, and five an absolute, stone-cold classic.
In both reviews so far, I mentioned The Mel Problem, and this is as good a time to talk about it as any. The simple truth is that Mel never quite worked. The character concept seemed to be “Bonnie Langford as a Doctor Who companion” and nothing else. Since she debuts as part of a predestination paradox, almost nothing is revealed about her past, or even why she wants to travel with the Doctor. In fact, most of her background – even her surname! – was revealed offscreen, in a book called Doctor Who: The Companions by John Nathan-Turner. She was a computer programmer who never did any computer programming. She was a literal genius with an eidetic memory who was also a ditz who constantly walked around oblivious to danger. She was a gung-ho trouble-seeker who nevertheless screamed her head off when she found it. In short, she was a mess of contradictions.
So Big Finish had their work cut out for them. But they solved it in a rather clever way. They took all the information given about Mel, then just wrote that person instead. Then they let Bonnie Langford actually act. She’s still the same Mel, but it’s a shift of attitude among the writers. No longer is she “Plucky Screaming Girl Companion #n”, she’s a brave, extremely smart young everywoman with a relentlessly positive attitude to life. She has a great dynamic with the Seventh Doctor, keeping the daffy, easily distracted Doctor on-mission. And in contrast to her TV predecessors Tegan, Turlough and Peri, who were all reluctant travellers to some extent, Mel’s reason for travelling with the Doctor is refreshingly direct — Mel Bush wants to see the universe. And when she finds trouble, she rolls up her poofy sleeves and gets stuck in!
By David A McIntee
Placement: Right after “Time And The Rani”.
We’re right out the gate with one of my favourite 7-Mel audio adventures, with an engagingly mysterious setup that actually pays off in interesting ways, and some great moments for Mel. It picks up not long after “Time and the Rani”. Mel gets to carry plot for the first two episodes, alongside a taxi driver (BF regular Toby Longworth) she befriends along the way. Longworth’s Cabbie is a real standout, a regular yet colourful bloke (let’s just say he knows his way around a sawn-off shotgun) who gets dragged into Mel’s crazy world. The Doctor is missing, and he joins Mel on the trail of a man named Louis who’s offering people a curiously Faustian deal. He can make their lives a little better, a little richer and a little more comfortable for a small price — they must come away with him, no questions asked, on the day before their deaths. No, he’s not going to kill them. But he refuses to be drawn on how exactly this is possible. Add in an elderly German-British man and a hive-mind alien who both took the offered deal, a mysterious old mental hospital with no doors and a kidnapped Doctor who appears to have quite literally lost his mind, and it’s a good time.
This one’s a strong recommend. The conspiracy elements of the plot actually make sense and amount to something that feels significant, and the three cliffhangers are some of the best, most memorable ones in Big Finish adventures. It’s even constructed so that the odd title makes perfect sense in the end! Also, as one of the first one hundred releases, it’s only €2.99.
We Are The Daleks
By Jonathan Morris
Placement: The following three were released together, and occur in this order between “Paradise Towers” and “Delta and the Bannermen”.
The Doctor and Mel arrive back in 1987 to find a massive, Dalek-shaped building dominating the London skyline. What follows is a fun but lightweight romp, yet another take on the classic “Power of the Daleks” model where Daleks pretend to be friendly for nefarious purposes! This time they’re providing exciting new business opportunities on other planets, in exchange for access to Britain’s resources. What could go wrong? The story, which came out in 2015 in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, feels like a Brexit parable as Season 24 might have done it – a slightly camp romp about how Dalek-like Thatcherites can be. Particularly amusing is how even after learning their true nature, Celia Dunthorpe (who isn’t a Margaret Thatcher analogue at all, we swear) would rather deal with the Daleks than the Germans. Or worse, the French! And the Daleks are ultimately defeated by literalising one of Thatcher’s most infamous quotes.
So would I recommend it? It’s a measured yes. It’s good fun, if a little complicated. Its politics are straightforward, but if you somehow think that Tories and Thatcherites deserve more than vicious mockery, then Doctor Who is probably not the show for you in the first place. Plus there’s a subtle tie-in to something from “Asylum of the Daleks”, if you like continuity easter eggs.
By Mike Tucker
Mike Tucker has a long association with the McCoy era, working on visual effects from “Delta and the Bannermen” to the end of the original run, and returning for the revived series in 2005. He’s also written extensively for the characters, starting with an episode pitch for Season 27 that eventually became the novel Illegal Alien, his first of many Seventh Doctor novels and audios. This is his first to feature Mel rather than Ace.
In the manner of Season 24’s “ordinary spaces turned weird” theme — so far we’ve had a tower block, with a holiday camp and cold storage complex still to come — this one is set in a warehouse. Again, this one is a fun runaround, with at least one clever twist at the first episode cliffhanger. But despite the plot being about workers who live and raise families in an orbital warehouse so they never have to stop working, it’s mostly just about the invasion of a sinister fungus. It’s even stranger because Tucker clearly know how topical it is in the age of the Amazon Warehouse. But he never really digs into the politics of the theme, which is almost worse than just ignoring it.
This one is another qualified recommendation. It’s a fun adventure, but if you expect any sort of statement at all, you won’t really find it. Also, there’s another small thing for continuity buffs – at the beginning of the adventure the Doctor’s whangee-handled umbrella is destroyed, and at the end he gets his new, red-handled question mark umbrella (which debuts on TV in “Delta and the Bannermen”).
Terror Of The Sontarans
By Dan Starkey and John Dorney
I can’t think of much to say about this one. It’s a fun two hours co-written by Dan Starkey, who plays Strax (and countless other Sontarans) on TV and for Big Finish. The Doctor and Mel investigate an abandoned Earth mining colony on a desert planet. It appears to have been used by the Sontarans for experimentation on prisoners, except something drove all the Sontarans to kill themselves in a fit of madness. Our heroes are separated, and Mel teams up with a motley crew of the former prisoners while the Doctor finds himself Field Major Kayste’s unwilling scientific advisor. And we get to find out what, exactly, can terrify a Sontaran.
Occasionally there’s a bit too much shouting and confusion to follow. But it has some particularly lovely imagery, if you enjoy doing the set design and special effects in your head as I do. Also on a trivia note, it’s the first time the Seventh Doctor has met the Sontarans.
And that’s it. Happy Thanksgiving to all our Americados, I hope you have a safe, healthy and happy holiday.
Next time, we return to TV with “Delta and the Bannermen”, another of the lowest-rated serials ever, one I haven’t seen in years and didn’t think much of. Yet, surprising even myself… I loved it? Tune in next time to find out why!