For 15 years Big Finish Productions have been producing inventive, entertaining and award-winning officially licensed Doctor Who audio adventures. In over 400 stories the universe of the Doctor has been expanded by a talented family of actors, writers, directors, sound designers, and many other behind-the-scenes geniuses. And the lunches are legendary…
The first that the world knew of this new chapter in the Doctor’s adventures in space and time came with an announcement in the Gallifrey Guardian news column in issue 275 of Doctor Who Magazine, dated 10 March 1999:
WORLD EXCLUSIVE! Doctors unite for “canonical” drama. BBC approves new Doctor Who audio plays.
Big Finish Productions, the company behind the recent audio dramatisations of the Bernice Summerfield New Adventures novels, has secured a ground-breaking licence to produce all-new, full-length Doctor Who dramas.
Released in July 1999 Big Finish’s first Doctor Who adventure was The Sirens of Time, written and directed by Nicholas Briggs (now the voice of the Daleks in the revived TV series). Uniting three of the original actors who played the Doctor: Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor), Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor) and Sylvester McCoy (Seventh Doctor), the play was an immediate success and paved the way for Big Finish to redefine the possibilities offered by the Doctor Who universe.
Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor joined the fold in January 2001 in Storm Warning and, after many years of reticence, Tom Baker finally reprised his role as the iconic Fourth Doctor, commencing in January 2012 with Destination: Nerva and The Fourth Doctor Box Set. All five of the living 20th century classic Doctors subsequently came together in 2013 for The Light at the End, a special audio event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.
As well as being accompanied by characters from their respective eras, including Louise Jameson, Sarah Sutton, Nicola Bryant and Sophie Aldred, the classic Doctors have found themselves teamed with specially created audio companions. The Sixth Doctor has travelled at various points with Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables) and Philippa ‘Flip’ Jackson (Lisa Greenwood); the enigmatic Elizabeth Klein (Tracey Childs) and Raine Creevy (Beth Chalmers) and ‘Hex’ (Philip Olivier) accompanied the Seventh Doctor; and the Eighth Doctor has been joined by Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith), Molly O’Sullivan (Ruth Bradley) and Edwardian adventuress Charlotte ‘Charley’ Pollard (India Fisher).
Despite the absence of deceased actors William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee, the first three Doctors have been extensively represented by The Companion Chronicles, a series of talking book-style adventures told through the eyes of companions from their eras. The black and white era of Doctor Who will be further explored in the forthcoming The Early Adventures.
In addition to forging these all-new audio adventures for the first eight Doctors, Big Finish has brought to life nearly 30 Doctor Who storylines originally developed for inclusion in the television incarnation of Doctor Who but unmade for various reasons. From The Masters of Luxor (originally intended as the second story ever in the slot taken by The Daleks), to Colin Baker’s cancelled second season, to the unmade 27th Season envisioned for Sylvester McCoy in 1990, The Lost Stories are a fascinating glimpse of what might have been. A highlight of the range is The Foe from the Future, which if it had been made would have meant no existence for The Talons of Weng-Chiang, regularly voted as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever.
And the absence of The Talons of Weng-Chiang would mean no Jago & Litefoot. Starring Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot, this is one of Big Finish’s most popular and acclaimed Doctor Who spin-offs, and has now reached seven series with at least three more planned. Other spin-offs from the parent series include Counter-Measures (featuring characters from 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks), Gallifrey (set on the Time Lord home world and featuring Louise Jameson’s Leela and Lalla Ward’s Romana) and Sarah Jane Smith (starring the much-missed Elisabeth Sladen).
From the very beginning of their adventures Big Finish have continually attracted some of the biggest stars of television, film and theatre: Jenny Agutter (The Railway Children, Spooks), Hayley Atwell (Captain America: The First Avenger), Honor Blackman (The Avengers TV series, Goldfinger), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Maryam d’Abo (The Living Daylights), Sir Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius, 1989’s Henry V, The King’s Speech), Rory Kinnear (Skyfall, Penny Dreadful), David Tennant (didn’t he do well) and David Warner (Time Bandits, Star Trek, Penny Dreadful).
I was fortunate enough to meet David Warner at Big Finish Day 3 in March 2013 and his enthusiasm of working with Big Finish was palpable. Happily signing various CD inlays, he enthused about his enjoyment of working with Big Finish and how he would happily go into the studio to record a single line of dialogue if asked to. This is a man whose CV includes work with some of the greatest names in the history of popular entertainment and he’s delighted to be working with a small but dedicated audio production team.
For many years the canonicity of the Big Finish audios in relation to the television series was a much debated issue. Was the Fifth Doctor’s involvement in the birth of the classic Mondasian Cybermen in Spare Parts as much a part of the accepted timeline as the Tenth Doctor’s encounter with the parallel Earth Cybermen in Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel (which in fact took it’s inspiration from the far better Big Finish tale). The issue was more or less settled in The Night of the Doctor, the special online 50th anniversary mini-episode featuring Paul McGann, when the Eighth Doctor saluted his audio companions before his controlled regeneration.
Much of the Big Finish saga has been devoted to making the impossible possible. The unfairly ridiculed Colin Baker has been allowed to give the world the Sixth Doctor he’d hoped to play on television, Paul McGann has been given the era denied to him, and actors who it seemed would never return to their roles (amongst them Janet Fielding, Bonnie Langford and Tom Baker) are happy members of the Big Finish family.
A key to the success and popularity of Big Finish lies in putting themselves in the shoes of their customers. How would they wish to be treated? The result is gripping drama within superbly designed packaging backed up by excellent customer service. From humble beginnings Big Finish’s Doctor Who plays have become part of the official universe of the Doctor and set the standard for grippingly scripted adventures within immaculately polished audio landscapes and in 2014 their Eight Doctor production Dark Eyes won Best Online Drama, BBC Drama Awards 2014.
Big Finish love stories and hundreds of people love working with them to produce some of the greatest adventures in the history of Doctor Who. Such is the quality, inventiveness and enjoyment of Big Finish Doctor Who that if it came down to voting for 15 more years of the televised series or 15 more years of the audios then my affirmation would be for the audio adventures – each and every time.
This article is respectfully dedicated to Jason Haigh-Ellery, whose wisdom and vision from the very beginning continues to guide Big Finish to this day, and the memory of Paul Spragg (1975-2014), a much-valued and loved member of the Big Finish family, who passed away suddenly on the eve of this 15th anniversary.
Learn more about Big Finish at www.bigfinish.com