Big Finish

Doctor Who Review: The Curse of the Fugue

Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor has had a marvelous existence in Big Finish’s audio adventures. Through them, we’ve been able to see how this eccentric, passionate, and occasionally dour Doctor lived between his birth in the 1996 TV movie and death in “The Night of the Doctor.” Adding greatly to the popularity of these adventures was companion Lucie Miller, played by the superb Sheridan Smith. Outspoken, indomitable, and even caustic at times, Lucie was the perfect foil to the Eighth Doctor, balancing his melancholy as much as Sarah Jane Smith’s tenacity redeemed the Fourth Doctor’s recklessness. What really stood out, though, was that the character felt real.

Last heard in 2011’s “To the Death,” Sheridan Smith and Lucie Miller have returned in “The Curse of the Fugue” – and it’s like they never left. The 30-minute tale is part of Big Finish’s Short Trips range, where one actor reads an original story (as opposed to Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays).


Alice Cavender’s story drops us into 1974 London, during an energy crisis, and where we find Lucie working in a nursing home. But why? Where is the Doctor? And is resident Cecille’s invisible friend a figment – or a messenger from the past with a dire warning?

The story takes a little while to develop, but that’s fine because it does an admirable job of creating a true 1970’s feel and establishing key characters like Cecille. It’s also fun to hear Lucie – who’s not at all happy about her apparent abandonment by the Doctor – casually sharing future news tidbits with the ’70s residents. An added treat is Sheridan’s interpretation of the Eighth Doctor. She handles both roles extremely well.

One thing I feel compelled to mention is that when Sheridan goes “Full Lucie,” it can sometimes be difficult for American ears to pick up everything she’s saying. But hey, that’s the character! Ultimately, “The Curse of the Fugue” is cause for celebration for all Lucie Miller fans. (And if you’re not familiar with Lucie Miller or the Eighth Doctor, I recommend listening to, say, “Human Resources” first.)

Additional: Big Finish is hosting a Short Trips writing competition this month! Fancy a chance at writing your own Doctor Who tale for the Big Finish website? Check out the details here.

Rating: 4/5 Braaaaaaaaaains.


Review: Mistfall

One of the major appeals for Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio release is the line’s ability to revisit lesser-known parts of the show’s past. Much as long-time Who viewers would love to see an appearance by the Rani, for example, or perhaps even Sil, it’s unlikely to happen. And it’s unlikely that the TARDIS would ever land on Metebelis Three so that the Twelfth Doctor could face off with the Queen of Spiders once more. However, with the Big Finish releases, such scenarios are not only possible, they’re likely. Nostalgia is one of the driving forces of the Doctor Who line, particularly for the “classic” Doctors appearing in them.

The real test for these nostalgic stories, though, is if they simply wallow in the past, or if they also manage to bring something new to the table as well. Is there a more modern take on a past character? Is there a new angle for an old storyline? If there isn’t something new, then that nostalgic element can get boring fairly quickly, as it becomes an old friend who’s good to see, but unfortunately doesn’t have much to say.

Fortunately, that’s not the case with Mistfall, the opening adventure of a trilogy of Fifth Doctor adventures set in E-Space – the same place where a trio of televised Doctor Who adventures (“Full Circle”, “State of Decay”, and “Warrior’s Gate”) featuring the Fourth Doctor took place. And not only does Mistfall rely on that bit of nostalgia, it’s also a sequel to “Full Circle”. Written by Andrew Smith, who also penned “Circle”, Mistfall hits a lot of the same themes and beats as its predecessor. But there’s enough new ideas injected into the story – and, in particular, one new character – that keeps it feeling fresh, and not just a retread of an old but good televised adventure.

Mistfall begins with the crew of the TARDIS – the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, and an older Nyssa (brought onboard once more after twenty-odd years on Terminus) – rediscovering some of Adric’s old calculations for negative E-Space coordinates. Adric had stated before his untimely demise in “Earthshock” that he’d been able to figure out a way back to E-Space … and, as it turns out, he was correct, as the calculations lead the TARDIS back through a CVE to that other universe, and lead the Doctor and his companions to a new set of adventures there.

Much like the original “Full Circle”, the first planet that the TARDIS lands on is the planet Alzarius, home to the Sleestak Marshmen. There, the Doctor and his companions encounter explorers from the world of New Alzarius – the descendants of the original inhabitants who left in the Starliner, many generations before – who are there ostensibly to study the homeworld of their ancestors, and to learn more about the Marshmen. Of course, nothing’s that simple, and it’s up to the Doctor and the rest of the TARDIS crew to figure out exactly what’s going on, and to put a stop to some rather nefarious activities before it’s too late.

In terms of story, Mistfall follows the outline of its source material from “Full Circle” closely – perhaps a bit too closely at times. The titular mist appears conveniently just when the TARDIS arrives. Evil experiments on the Marshmen. Yet more mistaken beliefs that the Marshmen are evil and must be destroyed. But what makes things interesting is that unlike “Full Circle”, Mistfall gets to explore some of these ideas in depth. There’s real debate about the good that comes from the Marshmen experiments, for example, and the downside of stopping them – it’s not just a five-second good/evil debate. Mistfall gets the luxury of taking “Full Circle” and looking at the source material with a more nuanced eye, and that’s a very good thing.

Mistfall also follows some of the ideas first presented in “Full Circle” to some logical extensions. For example, in that original story, the Alzarians are revealed to be the descendants of the Marshmen. But were there any evolutionary steps in between? What were they like? The answer to that comes in Mistfall in the form of the character Fem … and it’s interesting to see which characters treat her as Alzarian, while others give her the disdain they give a Marshman. Again, it’s a level of complexity rarely seen in the original story, and it’s wonderful to see here.

In terms of performance, there’s some marvelous ones in this story. Peter Davison is great as the Fifth Doctor, professing his indignation and outrage at what’s happening on Alzarius as only he can. I particularly enjoyed Janet Fielding as Tegan in Mistfall as well – the Big Finish adventures (such as this one) do a great job of showing that she’s more than a “mouth with legs”, but clever, compassionate … and yes, easily outraged. Also of particular note is the appearance of Jemma Redgrave (U.N.I.T.’s Kate Stewart, in the modern Who series) as Decider Merrion. She gets a great role in this story as someone who trying’s to balance what’s best for the New Alzarians versus what’s best for the planet Alzarius – and that’s no simple task. She gives a great performance of someone who’s often conflicted, but still trying to do the right thing.

In fairness, if you’ve never seen “Full Circle”, I do wonder how much you might enjoy this story. There is a certain amount of assumption that the listener is familiar with that original televised story, enough so that I could understand how someone who’d never seen it might be a little lost listening to Mistfall at times. But for such a listener, I still think this would be an enjoyable story … and for Who fans familiar with “Full Circle”, this one would definitely be a treat. The story’s available now on the Big Finish website.


Review: The Widow’s Assassin

Big Finish’s new audio release sets the bar pretty high: How do you address one of the most nagging and least-liked outcomes in Doctor Who history? Quick refresher: At the end of Mindwarp (part of the knotty Trial of a Time Lord), the Sixth Doctor’s first companion, Peri, is either – take your pick – abandoned, mindwiped, and killed OR rescued by a barbarian warlord and becomes his queen.

As Bugs Bunny would say, “Would you like to shoot me now or wait until you get home?”

The pleasant surprise is that The Widow’s Assassin wildly succeeds, doing for Mindwarp what X-Men: Days of Future Past did for X-Men: The Last Stand – cutting the original tale’s Gordian knot and spinning gold out of the pieces. Writer Nev Fountain waded into Mindwarp’s mess once before, in the clever Peri and the Piscon Paradox. Here he tackles the problem head on, coming up with an answer that not only maintains continuity but clears the path for a new, refreshing wave of post-Trial Sixth Doctor and Peri adventures.

The tale kicks off with the Doctor traveling to Krontep, seeking forgiveness for betraying and abandoning Peri. But the bride-to-be is not in a forgiving mood. The fairy-tale/murder-mystery mashup that follows is full of drama, sadness, marvelous timey-wimey, and lots of humor. (I really did laugh out loud in spots.) There are a couple of jaw-dropping shocks, plus moments of giddy revelation, as we see the Sixth Doctor playing the Long Game in shrewd, scheming ways we’d associate with the Seventh and Eleventh Doctors.

Excelling throughout are Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant. While their TV relationship was sometimes maligned as one of the most unpleasant Doctor/Companion pairings, The Widow’s Assassin shows us where their relationship could have – and should have – gone. The Doctor’s abrasive personality has been mellowed by years of traveling, and dire circumstances have forced Peri to adopt a more mature outlook on life. Baker wonderfully conveys the Doctor’s earnestness and confusion when he first approaches Peri. (He also contributes to the story more than you think.) Bryant gives us a confident yet sad Peri who reveals new layers to her personality – in more ways than one.

The Widow’s Assassin jumps straight into the Top 5 releases of Big Finish’s Doctor Who line. After listening to this, you’ll finally be able to rewatch parts of Trial of a Time Lord with a smile on your face, which is probably the highest praise that a Doctor Who fan can give. It’s available on the Big Finish website.


Davros: His Greatest Schemes and Grating Screams

“The graveyards are full of the ‘indispensable,’ Mrs. Baynes.”

Big Finish DavrosRecently, while listening to an older Big Finish audio, called simply Davros, I said, “Good god, this is spectacular.” Right away, it blasted into the top tier of my Doctor Who/Big Finish list. Terry Molloy, who portrayed the creator of the Daleks in Davros’ last Classic Who appearances, is terrific, and his stabbing banter with Colin Baker’s Doctor is a dream. More important, though, is the story, which explores Davros’ origin and showcases his brilliant, twisted intellect in a way not seen since waaaaaay back in his introduction, Genesis of the Daleks (which cracked the Top 5 list on this very site).

Two things came to mind: 1) It’s not a surprise that the story is great, as it was written by Lance Parkin, author of the best of the Missing Adventures novels, Cold Fusion. 2) Why isn’t Davros written like this ALL THE TIME?

Let’s face it. Davros is as well known for his hysterical shrieks as he is for creating the Daleks. And considering that he’s also the galaxy’s foremost geneticist with an intellect that rivals the Doctor’s… well, that’s a Dalekanium-encrusted shame. Is it that hard to write a obsessed fascist scientist with visions of galactic conquest? Let’s take a look through his TV appearances.

genesis-of-the-daleks-5Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
We’ve praised this great tale already on the blog, but let’s call out the chilling performance of Michael Wisher. He makes you not merely loathe Davros… he makes you understand him. Davros is a megalomaniacal scientist, sure, but whoop dee doo; Whovian history is full of those. What makes Davros stand out is that he’s also, oddly enough, a patriot. He does what he does because, in his mind, it’s the only way for his nation to “win.” Anyone who stands in his way is a traitor who must be exterminated. Yet, when he seems to secure his victory over the Doctor, he wants to talk to his foe — not as enemies, but “as men of science.” The resulting scene is iconic. Forget the makeup. Marvel at what Wisher does using only one hand and the inflections of his voice.

Destiny of the Daleks (1979)
Unfortunately, Wisher wasn’t available for Davros’ return and was replaced by David Gooderson. Davros’ makeup, though, was already designed for Wisher. The result, like just about everything else in this episode, is off. The Daleks are mercilessly mocked within the show (blame Douglas Adams’ rewrites more than Terry Nation’s script), they’re treated like unfeeling robots, they’re powerless to defeat the Derek Zoolanders of Space, and both Davros and his creations lack the menace that made the previous story so powerful.

Resurrection of the Daleks (1984)
Davros, portrayed for the first time by Terry Molloy, gets a little bit of his necrotic mojo back in this relentlessly grim tale (a staple of Eric Saward’s scripts). Not content to be a mere tool of his creations, Davros plots to regain power with help from an extremely handy mind-control needle that’s in his chair. (In fact, it’s SO handy that one can’t help but wonder why he didn’t use it in his previous stories!) But that’s about it for Davros’ character. He does do something that would appear again in the series: He calls out the Doctor on his convenient morality. The Doctor refuses to do the dirty deed of assassinating Davros, although he’d probably find a way to indirectly assign that task to someone else.

Revelation of the Daleks (1985)
Davros (Terry Molloy) pops back in the very next season, and this time he has — brace yourself — an actual plan! He pulls a Soylent Green in order to amass funds and create more loyal Daleks to support him, now that the Dalek Civil War is underway. He gets to make a couple of funny business/marketing comments, but otherwise, there isn’t much depth to his character until the climax, where he and the Doctor have it out. Before that, it’s more of the usual “I will make the Daleks the Supreme Power in the Universe” stuff.

Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)
Without a doubt, one of the best Dalek stories ever. Alas, it’s also the worse use of Davros (a blameless Terry Molloy). He doesn’t pop up until the final minutes, where we discover that he is actually the Emperor Dalek. His ranting is now so over the top that Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor rightfully mocks him. Davros’ final words to the Doctor: a cowardly, pleading “Have pity!” By the roving eye of Rassilon, this is NOT the way the creator of the Daleks should behave!

We wouldn’t see Davros on screen again for 20 years, not until…

The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End (2008)
Journey's End (8)Russell T. Davies pulled out all the stops for the Series 4 two-part finale, bringing back a slew of plot threads, companions, supporting characters, and classic baddies. “New Who,” now firmly a success, could comfortably dive headlong into its history without worrying about viewers saying “WTF?” and changing channels. And dive it did. Julian Bleach portrayed Davros here, and it’s a stellar performance! The actor said in an interview that he saw Davros as part Hitler, part Stephen Hawking, and that impression comes through solidly here. Even though Davros isn’t quite the top dog among the Daleks, it’s his body — literally — that is responsible for these new Daleks’ dominance. And with the Reality Bomb, he’ll finally be able to ensure that his creations are the masters of the universe… because no one else will be left. Mixing Machiavellian tactics, insanity, and scientific fascination, it’s the best portrayal of Davros since Wisher’s original. Davros and the Daleks are genuinely scary again in this story, for the first time in a very long time. It all ties up near the end, when Davros completely NAILS the Doctor on the Time Lord’s “true self”:

“The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth, Doctor: You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons… behold your Children of Time, transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor — you made this.

“The Doctor, the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.”

That description sounds a lot like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in Series 8, doesn’t it?

Also worth noting is the Doctor’s initial shock at seeing Davros. He says that Davros died in the first year of the Time War, when his command ship was seemingly destroyed at the Gates of Elysium after flying into the jaws of the Nightmare Child. With that, Russell T. Davies successfully caused millions of Who fans to jump at their screens and yell, “What the hell is that?! It sounds great! We need to see that story NOW!!!”

Your move, Big Finish.

After hearing Lance Parkin’s Davros, I’m eager to sample to rest of Big Finish’s Davros tales. The guy deserves to be treated well… preferably with a dermatologist on call.


Doctor Who and the Pirates

Big Finish and a Quartet of Evelyns

Big Finish has been creating wild, thrilling Doctor Who audio adventures since 1999. Along the way, we’ve met several new Companions (a few of whom were name-dropped into official Who canon in The Night of the Doctor). Of these, perhaps the most creatively successful is Evelyn Smythe.

Created by Jacqueline Rayner and voiced by Maggie Stables, Evelyn is the type of Companion not seen on TV Who to that point. She’s 55 when we meet her, can’t run well, acts independently, and constantly calls the Doctor out on his bad manners. And when “her” Doctor happens to be the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) in the early post-Peri years, she calls him out a LOT. She’s an excellent character who is partly responsible for the growth of the Sixth Doctor’s mellower, more reflective persona in later Big Finish releases.

In all, there are about two dozen Big Finish adventures with Evelyn. Unfortunately, Maggie Stables died late last month after a long illness. So, as a salute to both Maggie and Evelyn, here’s a sampling of her time aboard the TARDIS:

The Marian Conspiracy (2000)

The Marian Conspiracy“What would you say if I were to tell you that I once destroyed an entire race, that I have led friends to their deaths and caused numerous wars. That my intervention has led to peaceful people taking up arms and good people having their faith or reason destroyed.”

Evelyn’s first adventure with the Sixth Doctor is that rarest of treats: a historical! No aliens or monsters – just human beings in 16th century England. The Doctor traces a temporal fault to Professor Evelyn Smythe in the year 2000 and he tells her that her family history is being wiped out. The solution? Go to the source of the problem in the time of the Tudors! But when she’s pulled into a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Mary, will the Doctor’s solution cause more harm than good?

Pros: Worth repeating: a historical! Evelyn’s confidence and sass, right from the get-go. Her understandable belief at one point that the Doctor is her great-great-etc.-grandfather! The Doctor’s dark admission of the many mistakes he’s made. Good times.

Cons: None really, unless you’re against historicals, in which case you’re a fiend.

The Sandman (2002)

The Sandman“There’s a worrying possibility they’ll be less afraid of me now. It’s incredibly difficult to maintain one’s reputation of a fearsome monster when you’ve been seen running away!”

In the Clutch, a massive space fleet in constant motion, the Galyari are being stalked in the shadows by a boogeyman from their distant past, a bloodthirsty monster known as the Sandman. It is death to look upon him. He is also called… the Doctor. This tale is a weird one! The Sixth Doctor is positively creepy at times, and Evelyn is understandably confused and repulsed as she hears of the Sandman’s legacy.

Pros: Colin Baker clearly relishes the opportunity to go into Full Villainy Mode in the Sandman flashbacks. It’s a side of the Doctor rarely seen up to then. It precedes similar tactics used by the Tenth and even Twelfth Doctors. The nature of the true killer is rather clever.

Cons: Big Finish overdid it on the Galyari voices. At the start of the story, the lizard-like aliens’ voices are so distorted and grating that you may be tempted to tune out. The Doctor’s method of defeating the killer is a few feathers short of coherent.

Doctor Who and the Pirates (2003)

Doctor Who and the Pirates“Mutiny this is! Again! Mutiny squared!”

A bona fide Big Finish classic. Thrill to the exploits of the Gallifreyan swashbuckler, the Doctor, as he faces off that dread pirate, Red Jasper. Will Evelyn the Pirate Queen find the buried treasure or will she first order the foppish English captain to walk the plank? Yes, this is a comedy, through and through, set within a somber and surprising frame. Colin Baker, blessed with a wonderful script, is simply magnificent, going for Gilbert & Sullivan levels of bombast and comedy. Evelyn again is the moral center of the tale, and it’s her morality and empathy that lead to emotional payoffs in both the past and present.

Pros: The continuity-packed and hilarious “I am the very model of a Gallifreyan buccaneer…” The never-better chemistry between the Doctor and Evelyn. Red Jasper’s varying opinion of the Doctor’s wardrobe and manner, depending on whether Evelyn or the Doctor is telling the story (I laughed quite a bit). Nick Pegg as the cowardly Captain Swan. The out-of-the-blue emotional wallop in the final minutes.

Cons: Probably not for everyone. It IS a comedy. But if you’d let that stop you from listening to this, ye should be keelhauled, you scurvy dog!

Medicinal Purposes (2004)

Medicinal Purposes“How can you be so matter of fact about it?” “His death is his destiny.”

Evelyn, already grappling with the pain of seeing good people die, now faces the body-snatching deeds of Burke and Hare in 1827 Edinburgh, where the death of innocents is not only certain, but a fixed part of history! A bold and dark story – featuring murder and prostitution right off the bat – Medicinal Purposes has a fantastic cast, including Leslie Phillips, David Tennant, Glenna Morrison, and an interesting discussion of the historical benefits of murder.

Pros: The Doctor’s stance that body snatching was “admirable, but not honorable” and Evelyn’s disgusted reaction to it. His explanation of proper name-dropping. Also, did you see what I wrote above? DAVID TENNANT IS IN THIS!

Cons: The time-loop machinations aren’t easy to grasp, and the virus subplot doesn’t help.

Any Big Finish audios you’d like to recommend? Do you have a favorite Big Finish Companion? Post your comments below!