Big Finish review time once more! 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 many of them until I could do so chronologically. This is my motivation for finally doing so – sharing them with you. Unlike the serials, where I dwell 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 wonks (like me) they’re in chronological order with the TV serials. 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 rarely pay full price for anything.
I don’t normally do ratings, but I’ve rated these for ease of reference. One star – avoid. Two – 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 stars an absolute, stone-cold classic.
Last time I touched Big Finish I talked about “the Mel Problem”. I think this is a good time to talk about “the Season 24 Problem” – namely, whether it exists or not. The fan consensus (though “fan folklore” might be more accurate) is that the Seventh Doctor’s era consists of one season of faffing about and mixing metaphors, before “Remembrance of the Daleks” happens and the “real” Seventh Doctor begins, the scheming, manipulative little man who topples empires. Something I hope I emphasised about “Paradise Towers” and “Delta and the Bannermen” is that this isn’t really true – both serials actually did want to do new things, to speak to people beyond Doctor Who‘s locked-in fannish audience. A lot of the themes and ambitions of the latter two seasons, including the Doctor’s anarchist spirit, are already in full flow. And the next two seasons will also engage with camp and silliness as a valid part of Doctor Who – an evil Bertie Bassett is hardly the stuff of Serious Science Fiction, after all. This puts later writers who want to set stories in this season in an interesting position. Some go down the route of rewriting history, putting the Doctor and Mel in stories tonally similar to the latter seasons and the Virgin New Adventures – serious-minded and grim, with a more thoughtful, brooding Doctor. Others do the opposite, embracing the opportunity to do fun, knockabout stories with a Seventh Doctor who was making things up as he went.
By Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman
Placement: Between “Paradise Towers” and “Delta and the Bannermen”.
Right off the bat, we have a stone-cold classic. Big Finish’s second Christmas comedy release, “Bang-Bang-A-Boom” gleefully embraces Season 24’s absurd and camp side to do a straight-up comedy murder mystery. Yes, it’s an Agatha Christie style murder mystery at the
Eurovision Intergalactic Song Contest aboard Deep Space Nine Dark Space Eight, which is being narrated by Commentator Terry Wogan Logan. It features parodies of the main cast of Space 1999, of Star Trek technobabble and of the tropes of Doctor Who itself, yet is also a proper whodunnit. It features Pat Quinn of The Rocky Horror Show as Queen Angvia the space Valkyrie, who falls for the hapless Doctor, in one of the hammiest performances in Doctor Who history. (“The universe can VAIT! I am a VOMAN!”) The Doctor meanwhile, has been mistaken for the station’s new commander, showing just how odd a fit it is to put the Doctor in the lead role of a Star Trek. It is giddily, joyfully funny and I cannot recommend it enough. It also finds a great angle for Mel, making her the Straight Woman who tries to find the murderer, keep the Doctor focused, and basically treat the Whodunnit and Space Opera genre tropes seriously. The Doctor, meanwhile, gets to be distracted by various comic hijinks and ends up playing holistic detective. It proves that not only is the “light” Seventh Doctor worthwhile, it’s a mode in which Sylvester McCoy excels.
Inevitably, we should mention this one was co-written by noted transphobe and Twitter arsehole Gareth Roberts. I bought my copy years ago, but I suppose it’s up to the individual conscience whether you feel happy buying it today. At this point it’s nearly twenty years old and costs pennies, so he probably doesn’t get much of a financial cut. Personally, while I would avoid any work by him as a single author, like a book, I feel that in a collaborative medium his being an arsehole has no right to stop me enjoying the work of the many other people involved.
By Jonathan Barnes
Placement: Between “Bang-Bang-A-Boom” and “Delta…”
Have you heard the story about the dancing bear? The point isn’t whether the bear’s dancing is any good, because the fact that the bear can dance at all is remarkable in itself. The spectacle is more notable than the content. Is this the case with “Flip Flop”? “Flip Flop” has one of the cleverest conceits in Doctor Who – the story is essentially two two-parters, the Black disk and the White disk. In one reality, the planet Puxatornee welcomed some Slithergee “refugees”, who gradually took over and subjugated the planet. In the other, Puxatornee attacked the Slithergee, whose retaliation left the planet in a nuclear winter. In each reality, two people named Stewart and Reed go back in time to try and change the horrible history of Puxatornee. And like a Möbius strip, they end up causing the events that lead to the equally terrible other one. The end of either half feeds directly into the start of the other, round and round. All the characters are named after people from It’s a Wonderful Life, another story about seeing how the world would turn out if one thing were different. It’s all terribly clever and very, very well constructed.
Of course, we must once again mention the uncomfortable elephant in the room – the Slithergee’s “refugee” status. One of the main points of the story is that the Slithergee arrive as (suspiciously well-armed) “refugees”, and slowly take over Puxatornee by claiming to be an oppressed minority until they control the entire planet and force humans into ghettos. They declare “being an oppressed minority has nothing to do with how many of us there are”, and replace Christmas with “Slimetide Solstice” because a human holiday is “culturally insensitive” to their beliefs. To me, it seemed obvious that this was black comedy – the story also plays mass starvation in a nuclear winter for dark laughs, and features a torture device called the “mind-peeler”. Hilariously hammy, sinister, obsequious and blind slug people who claim to be “refugees” reads more like a parody of Tory/BNP sentiments about how “liberals and political correctness” would doom British culture to the immigrant hordes than a serious parable about immigration. But other people seem to think it’s meant honestly. One even wonders if it was both, if Barnes intended it as pointed criticism but the cast interpreted it, and played it, as a dark joke. I just don’t know.
The Fires of Vulcan
By Steve Cole
Placement: With its more serious, brooding Doctor, I think it works best right not long before “Dragonfire”.
Once up a time, I accepted the conventional wisdom about Season 24, that it wasn’t the “real”, serious Seventh Doctor with his brooding and his plans, but re-watching them made me realise that a lot of the supposed improvements of Season 25 were already there in embryonic form the previous year, and that S24 is Good, Actually (give or take a Rani). The previous two audios both attempted to do a “Season 24 story” on its own terms, mixing a sense of whimsy with a strong dose of black comedy that often mines laughs from an absurd juxtaposition of violence and camp. Steve Cole’s “The Fires of Vulcan”, on the other hand, was the very first Seven/Mel audio and had the burden of being the one to “fix” the perceived faults of the era. It’s a much more po-faced story in the mould of season 26 or the Virgin New Adventures. In principle, I’m not really a fan of that treatment anymore, because I don’t think the “feel” of S24 actually needed fixing (even if the execution occasionally stumbled). But luckily enough, “The Fires of Vulcan” is pretty Good, Actually on its own terms.
The Doctor and Mel land in Pompeii, on exactly the day any time traveller is going to land in Pompeii, because nobody ever goes to Pompeii on a regular Tuesday. The only problem is that back in his fifth incarnation, UNIT told the Doctor they’d dug up the TARDIS in Pompeii, so he immediately assumes this is the end of the road for him. Then, an improvised lie that they’re messengers of Isis goes wrong when they get caught up in the power struggle between Popidius Celcinus, decurion (town councillor) and Isis worshipper, and Eumachia, priestess of the Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. They lose the TARDIS, Mel befriends a slave named Aglae, the Doctor makes an enemy in a gladiator named Murranus, and various misadventures leave our heroes in a race against time to get the hell out of Pompeii before the eruption. With the longer runtime, it’s also able to take the time to soak in the atmosphere of the town, and it’s full of little everyday Roman details. It’s a tense and entertaining few episodes, and unlike the later “The Fires of Pompeii” (which is excellent in its own way), this one is a straight historical, with no alien or supernatural involvement at all, just a ticking clock and a rumbling volcano. McCoy and Langford do a fine job with a more straightforwardly dramatic script. I think it adds an interesting shade to the Tenth Doctor’s fatalistic attitude in “The Fires of Pompeii”, too – he knows he can’t save the people of Pompeii because he’s tried and failed once before.
By Stewart Sheargold
Placement: Officially between “Rani” and “Paradise Towers”, but I think it fits better here, near the end of Mel’s tenure.
“Red” is one I can’t find much to say about. Mel and the Doctor land on the Needle, an intelligent spire city run by the computer Whitenoise, wherein every inhabitant has a chip that edits out their aggressive impulses. Except something has gotten into the system, infecting people with “Red” and driving them to murder. Meanwhile, there’s a thriving black market in vicarious experiences of violence, run by (of all people) Sandi Toksvig, who gets a great moment when she enthusiastically tells Mel she bears her no malice, but she’d love to murder her just to see what it felt like. Of the four this week, this one is the only “meat-and-potatoes” serial that’s neither a commentary on the era in which it’s set, or a show-off piece. Indeed, it feels a lot like the high concept came first and you could slot any TARDIS team into it – it could have starred Baker/Bryant or Davison/Sutton just as easily.
But the choice of Doctor, even if it was dictated by circumstance, stakes out an interesting position. The Seventh Doctor would come to be defined as the one with bloody hands at arms length, eschewing violence himself even as he manipulated others into doing it for him. This one forces him to experience the act of violence personally, and also puts him into the interesting position of defending people’s capacity for physical violence and aggression as one of their natural rights. It’s a clever setup, though the eventual resolution of just how the Red infected the city is perhaps a bit underwhelming. And unfortunately a lot of it requires Sylvester McCoy to play angry, something he can never quite pull of with as much conviction as being funny, brooding or cryptic, especially on audio. (Contrast to the incredible emotional range of Colin Baker, who I’m convinced is actually the best voice actor of the lot.) But he does get to roll “Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreeedddddddd!” a lot. Great cover too.
And that’s it for this week. Next week, it’s Mel’s last hurrah and the debut of the first recognizably modern companion character, Ace.