There is a misconception that we never got to see how good Paul McGann is as the Eighth Doctor. This is wrong; he’s the lead in some of the best Who stories I know: audio dramas produced by Big Finish Productions, officially licensed by the BBC. Find yourself a task that doesn’t involve words, put a Big Finish drama on, and let your mind’s eye open to a world of unbridled imagination, breathtaking scope, colossal tragedy and alien beauty.
But before the audio, this post covers what happened in Who in the period of 1990 to 2003, including the 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann. I chose not to split it, because I wanted to create a single solid connection from Classic Who to New Who. The fact is, the only reason why the new show began with “series 1,” which was really Season 27, was that the BBC wanted to encourage people to watch it without worrying about not having seen seasons 1-26. Unfortunately, the reset numbers have also discouraged fans of the new show from watching the classic series; many seem to think that they’re not missing anything. In truth, there really is no great overarching plot thread to the entire classic series; how could there have been? No one could have planned for the 26 year run that it had. But I am immensely glad that finally I took the time to watch the old series, after planning to for over a decade. And it really is all one show, from 1963 to 2013.
Wander in the Wilderness
After the cancellation of the television series in 1989, Doctor Who entered the “wilderness years,” during which fans took it upon themselves to produce new content set in the DWU. Most of these were produced by BBV Productions, and often starred actors from the television stories, usually as original characters. The BBC licensed some of these productions, but did not allow the character of the Doctor to appear, or even to be mentioned by name. These productions are not on DVD, but I found VHS rips of some on DailyMotion.
I recently watched the first instalment [UK English spell-check option in Chrome! I still write like an American] of the P.R.O.B.E. series (1994-1996), which amazingly stars Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, plus Caroline John (Liz Shaw from season seven), Louise Jameson (Leela), and Sophie Aldred (Ace). What a tragedy that the character of the Doctor couldn’t be licensed! Still, it’s great to see them all together, even in different roles. The Zero Imperative is a one-hour horror film of a whole different calibre compared to the censored show, and it’s quite well done. Wikipedia notes that the P.R.O.B.E. series preceded Torchwood as the first ongoing spin-off series of Doctor Who; K9 and Company had been a previous attempt back in 1981, but only its pilot episode was ever produced.
Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans (1994), written by former script editor (1970-1974) and bona fide legendary guru of Who, Terrance Dicks, is my favourite screen appearance of the Sontarans yet. (Being a moderate fan of the Sontarans, I’m hoping something from new series 1-4 will outdo it when I watch them.) It’s the only time that they and their great enemy, the Rutan Host, have ever appeared on screen together, and it’s executed very impressively. The new look of the Sontarans (caused by legal red tape) is easily explained; they’re simply from a different, experimental batch of clones. Shakedown also stars, as original characters, Carole Ann Ford (Susan, the First Doctor’s granddaughter) and Sophie Aldred, and features some beautiful model work on the solar sail ship. It also has the distinction of having been adapted and expanded (by Terrance Dicks) into a novel.
Downtime (1995) is a messily conducted and downright bad re-introduction of the Great Intelligence, the Doctor’s old foe from The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, recently reintroduced in the 2012 Christmas Special, The Snowmen. (NB: The Abominable Snowmen concerns Yeti, not literal snowmen.) I watched it only because it was the introduction of Kate Stewart, seen recently in The Power of Three – the only character from one of these spinoffs ever to later appear in the show, albeit played by a different actress. Downtime also features the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith – and Deborah Watling returns as Victoria Waterfield, but she’s disappointingly written nothing like the Victoria I knew.
Doctor Who: The Movie
All this time, the fate of Doctor Who had been in utter turmoil. American television producer and lifelong Doctor Who fan, Philip Segal, had made the creation of a new Who series his “passion project,” and he heroically and relentlessly pursued this goal against immense opposition. This saga is chronicled on the TARDIS Wiki, and recounted in full in a documentary on the movie’s DVD. BBC initially wanted nothing to do with Who, but Segal’s accociation with Steven Spielberg led to initial agreements to produce a TV movie, and possibly a new series.
The BBC then decided to separately produce a new program for the show’s 30th anniversary in 1993, called Lost in the Dark Dimension. Pre-production included a new design for the Cybermen by the Jim Henson Company, and it was set to star all of the surviving Doctors. Segal felt that the script was bad, and that bringing out all the old Doctors to instead of beginning anew would be too regressive, and the production was cancelled. Instead, all five living Doctors appeared in the 17-minute, non-canonical Children in Need skit, Dimensions in Time, which was also a crossover with the popular soap opera EastEnders. It’s a bizarre whirlwind, in which the Doctor walks through the East End while flashing back and forth in time, turning into a different Doctor with each jump; and, inexplicably, his companion also becomes a different companion each time, while keeping the memory of being all the others.
Ultimately Paul McGann was cast as the Eighth Doctor, and the movie was co-produced by the BBC and Fox, filmed in Canada, set in San Francisco. Segal had rejected multiple writers’ scripts along the way, but ultimately had to bow to some of the demands coming in from clueless American studio bosses. One of these concessions was that an American be cast as the Master, and another was that a studio writer from Universal write the script, against Segal’s wishes. I’m sure it was either an exec’s idea, or that writer’s, that the Doctor claim to have a human mother, as Spock had in Star Trek – because a British hero is bad enough, without being non-human as well, must have been the reasoning.
My reaction to the film mostly ran along these lines: “That’s not right… BUT THIS IS AWESOME!” On the DVD is an excellent little discussion of the film by fans, cleverly titled “The Doctor’s Strange Love: or How I learned to stop worrying and love the TV Movie,” which is apparently from a series of these conversations. The panel contains two writers, Simon Guerrier and Joseph Lidster, and a comedienne, Josie Long. I’m going to follow along with their breakdown.
Josie: I really enjoyed it. I found it really compelling, and fine, and – even bits that I thought were absurd, and ridiculous, and stupid, I still really enjoyed…. It reminded me a bit of the most recent series, insofar as the Doctor was lot more fresh, and a little bit flirty…. He wasn’t so avuncular. He was like, “Come, quickly! We’re gonna run over this pile of tyres!”
Joseph: …Very much like David Tennant’s Doctor, in that he’s a young action hero who’s out to have fun, and is very easily distracted by things.
The movie famously included the Doctor’s first kiss(es) ever shown, shared with heart surgeon Doctor Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), the main companion in this episode.
Joseph: The kissing… gives them a different sort of dynamic to what you had in the old series, the Seventh Doctor and Ace, you know, granddad – that would be wrong.
Simon: You mean they’re much more equal?
Joseph: They’re just fun.
Yeah. Equality isn’t necessarily tied to the category of relationship the Doctor has with his companions. Sarah Jane and Romana, for instance, were very much equals to the Doctor, despite the lack of explicit romantic attraction. And yes, Ace was Seven’s young student, but Charlie Jane Anders considers her the most assertive and independent classic companion; surely that counts for something? On the other hand, equality is definitely not guaranteed in romantic relationships.
The Eighth Doctor is romantic in both senses of the word. He has an elegant Victorian style, and his “gothic” steampunk console room is lavishly furnished, a dramatic change from the traditionally bare set. The old unfurnished set had been a deliberate choice at the beginning, to give the TARDIS a more alien feel.
It’s easily my favourite TARDIS interior ever. Also heavily featured in the film is the cloister room, which now literally looks like the inside of a cathedral, complete with bats (fledershrews), and sunlight shining through the windows.
Eight loved putting the outdoors inside the TARDIS; one later addition was the Butterfly Room, a countryside scene full of butterflies, wonderfully illustrated in this painting:
Simon: It’s not really an opening episode, because it assumes that you know that… that huge room is inside the Police Box. If the episode had begun… so that you don’t know what’s inside the TARDIS when it arrives, and you don’t know what’s going to come out of it, that maybe would have worked better as an introduction to Doctor Who.
Absolutely. One reason given for the American audience’s confusion was the decision to begin with the Seventh Doctor (right), who regenerates 22 minutes in. I’m strongly of the opinion that that should have been kept to a mini-prequel of the current tradition.
Worse, in the TV movie Seven survives being pointlessly shot, but then is killed accidentally in surgery by Grace, because she is unaware of his second heart, and doesn’t believe him when he tries to tell her. (The two hearts thing was played up, presumably because the Americans thought it was cool.) This pointless death was a terrible way to go. Just give Seven a quick heroic death! He could have died in the intro saving the world from the Master, only to regenerate while the Master finds his new body.
The Master accomplishes this in the movie through use of a Deathworm, a transparent CG snake. Now that I finally understand what that was, I’m fine with it. I assume that the writers of the movie just put it in as a weird alien plot device, and that the explanation was only created by spinoff writers later.
Josie: “What I did not appreciate… [were] slight inconsistencies with regards to the Master. He starts off, and he’s playing it like he’s in Terminator 2. And then, by the end, once he puts on his big robe, he’s… the camp king.”
The imitation of the Terminator movies here goes beyond that; there’s a night highway race that visually resembles the first Terminator film’s night chase. And it works just fine for Doctor Who.
Joseph: The thing about the TV movie is that they do that pan across the “900 year diary” and all that nonsense, and that’s not what Doctor Who is! What Doctor Who is, it’s the moments like when the Doctor hasn’t got the key to the TARDIS. [He has Grace retrieve it from "a cubbyhole above the P."] It’s not Star Trek, it’s not taking it seriously, it’s this time-travelling police box, and we leave a spare key on the outside!
Simon: They try and lay in all this mythology: “Yeah, we know what we’re doing, we’ve done our research! Look, we’re got the Seal of Rassilon, and we’ve got pictures of Rassilon, and we’ve got the diary, and we’ve got Jelly Babies, and we’ve got Britishness, and we’ve got a picture of Buckingham Palace behind the TARDIS [right] for no reason whatsoever! The bit that I absolutely love is right at the end, and they’re in that beautiful TARDIS set, and then it doesn’t work, and he has to thump it [the console].
That’s also a Star Wars thing (the Millennium Falcon), though Doctor Who pre-dates Star Wars by 14 years. (Don’t ask me when the Doctor first hit the console to get it to work, but I’m pretty sure Troughton did it, if not Hartnell. Both predate Star Wars.)
Joseph: It’s when it forgets that it should be like old style Doctor Who, and it goes, “You know what, we’ve got the money, let’s have a motorbike chase. Let’s have people coming down buildings, and big ambulances, and let’s block off a whole motorway – actually, it feels a lot more like Doctor Who! It’s a modern version of what the old series was doing, which… was lots of people running up and down corridors, because they couldn’t afford to do motorbike chases.
Well, one exception of course being part 2 of Planet of the Spiders, which was nothing but a chase involving the stolen “Whomobile,” a police car, an autogyro, and a hovercraft.
I feel like the image of the Doctor and Clara riding a motorbike has become iconic already….
But the Doctor riding a motorcycle didn’t begin with the TV movie; Jon Pertwee rode one in The Dæmons, and it was awesome. Sylvester McCoy also rode motorbikes on a couple of occasions.
Joseph: He’s a British gentleman, so he’s got to wear the quite silly costume. He’s got to wear that wig.
This is clearly something less than ideal about modern-day Britain/Britons. Eight’s costume is awesome. And I like his hair. I didn’t realize while watching that it was a wig. Hey now, all the male leads in The Lord of the Rings wore wigs. It’s a done thing. Or you could be like me and actually have 20-inch natural hair.
The fourth main character in the movie is Chang Lee, a teenage gang member from San Francisco’s Chinatown. The Master recruits him as an assistant in his plan to steal the Doctor’s remaining regeneration energy (putting it in the terms of the current show). Chang Lee becomes a second companion for a couple of minutes at the end, and having watched that part first, I was disappointed that he wasn’t with the Doctor all along.
Joseph: There’s something lovely about the scenes of the Doctor, Grace, and Chang Lee just standing around the console. And you kind of think, “You three look like the Doctor and his companions!”
Simon: So what would the series have been like?
Josie: It would have been awesome! It would have been him and her, and Chang Lee, and they would have had a cracking time!
The special effects are good, considered better than the effects of the new series in its first season, or beyond, depending on you you ask. There isn’t a huge number of nonexistent elements on screen, though. The music was primarily composed by John Debney (Iron Man 2, The Passion of the Christ), who had worked for Philip Segal before on Seaquest DSV. Much of the score was written by Louis Febre and John Sponsler. The latter is credited with Breakout, an action cue which sounds a bit like Murray Gold’s I am the Doctor.
Unfortunately the US premier went up against the series finale of Roseanne, of all things, and resulting ratings were not high enough for Fox to greenlight an ongoing series. But the movie received good ratings in the UK, and it renewed and refreshed the presence of Doctor Who in British popular culture. It will always have a place in my heart.
Other Worlds, Other Nines
A few other Doctor Who productions followed before 2005. In 1999, a writer and lifelong Who fanboy named Steven Moffat had the opportunity to write a charity special for the BBC’s Red Nose Day. Seeing what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity to write Doctor Who, he created a parody episode called The Curse of Fatal Death. It starred Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) as the Ninth Doctor, who survives for most of the episode but at the end regenerates several times. The short-lived Eleventh Doctor is played by Jim Broadbent, now familiar to young US audiences as Professor Digory Kirke in the first Narnia movie, and as Professor Horace Slughorn in the Harry Potter films. Finally the Thirteenth Doctor is Joanna Lumley from Absolutely Fabulous, known to me as Aunt Spiker from James and the Giant Peach. Now finding each other much more attractive, the Doctor and the Master depart as lovers.
Scream of the Shalka was a briefly canonical animated web serial, released as a part of the 2003 40th anniversary celebrations, featuring Richard E. Grant as the voice of a new Ninth Doctor. Grant had previously played the Tenth Doctor in The Curse of Fatal Death, and later played Doctor Walter Simeon in the 2012 Christmas special, The Snowmen. Though intended to put the Doctor on screen in a canon production for the first time since 1996, it was quickly subverted by the announcement of the new live-action series. Grant’s was never the same Nine as Eccleston’s, and Shalka is now considered at best a tale from an alternate universe. The Time War never happened in this world.
This Nine seems to be a selfish, unheroic Doctor; “I’m not human, and I don’t care,” he says to an invading alien army. That turns out to be a ruse, an attempt to hide his caring nature from them so that they won’t exploit it. Traumatized by his failure to save a past companion, he’s determined not to become attached, to the point that he’s in a hurry to leave before he’s finished his job. Seems the Doctor has been in a neverending cycle of this ever since Eight.
The 40th anniversary was also celebrated by a “Doctor Who @ 40″ series, consisting of segments dedicated to each of the first eight Doctors, with a host of interviewees – the vast majority of the living major actors and crew members from the classic show. It’s on YouTube, and makes a good quick introduction to Classic Who. I particularly enjoyed the Paul McGann segment:
It goes from the movie through the Big Finish audio, then on to the news that the series was to return under Russell T. Davies, with some suggestions for the Ninth Doctor, and others that they should have started with Paul McGann. Fans continue to speculate to this day about McGann’s possible return for the 50th anniversary, or for a later special. Davies and Moffat both like him; it’s a shame it didn’t happen in the Time War flashbacks that have been shown so far.
Big Finish Audio
I was initially reluctant to get into the world of Doctor Who audio, because the TV archives alone are already daunting enough – my friend Ty aptly calls Who a “gaping maw,” explaining his reason for ignoring it thus far, which was also my reason all these years. But because audio is the only way to experience the Eighth Doctor’s adventures, I decided to take yet another plunge.
Nicholas Briggs is the writer, director, and/or producer of many Big Finish audio productions, and is also the voice of the Daleks for Big Finish, a job which led to his being cast by Russell T. Davies as the Dalek voice for Nu Who, a position he holds to this day. Briggs comments in a 2012 interview, included with the Dark Eyes set:
“The history of Paul McGann with Big Finish is a remarkable one, because I think he was the Doctor who we never expected to get. Bizarrely, I think we thought it was more likely we’d get Tom Baker. It turned out to be the other way around. I suppose we thought we wouldn’t get him, and then suddenly the answer was yes! And at that point, of course, Doctor Who wasn’t back on the television, so there was very much the feeling that we were making new Doctor Who. And that was certainly reflected in the audience response, you know, the listeners, and they thought, ‘Well, this is it!’ And it was very exciting for all of us.”
Listening to Big Finish audio is a challenge, because they expect you to pay $9 per episode even if you only want to listen to them once. Contrast this with Netflix, where you can pay $8 for a month of unlimited viewing of Doctor Who (which means a couple of entire seasons if you watch one episode per day). With Big Finish, the business model is an impossible ultimatum: either buy the audio, or never hear it. There is a “subscription” option, but this is merely a bulk purchase price, which cuts the cost per episode to $5. I wouldn’t be willing to pay more than $1 per episode for one-time streaming (no download or ownership). I don’t even buy Doctor Who episodes, and they’re $2 per episode for permanent ownership! I just watch them on Netflix. Big Finish complains on their website about the piracy their own business model has exacerbated:
Big Finish loses around three-quarters of its potential revenue to piracy, so we have no compunction whatsoever in prosecuting bootleggers and pirates. (…) Please remember, this affects us all: if more people buy a legal Big Finish CD or download, the greater the opportunity for price cuts and special offers for our loyal listeners – and you’ll be funding new productions too!
I’d love to support Big Finish by buying one or two episodes, but, wonderful as they can be, it’s hard to be sure I’ll want to listen to them repeatedly. There’s too much other stuff to explore! It’s really a sad situation. And by the way, that 3/4 of potential revenue is money that doesn’t exist. We fans are mostly poor kids. But we do have a little money to spare, which more of us would send Big Finish’s way if there were a reasonable way to do so.
The Big Finish version of the Doctor Who theme accompanies most Eighth Doctor adventures, so I associate it with Eight, even though it’s not exclusively his. A dark, rough, mechanical-feeling arrangement, it was composed by none other than David Arnold, the prolific master composer of Stargate, Independence Day, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the last five James Bond films before Skyfall, and co-composer of the BBC’s Sherlock.
A Brief Survey of Eighth Doctor Audio
I quickly assembled a list of which Eighth Doctor audio adventures to listen to by combining this list with this one, and added a couple along the way, including the most recent Dark Eyes set, which was recorded in 2012 and only just released in November. Now I want to eventually listen to everything Paul McGann’s done. His Doctor is that good in these. His voice is both pleasing to the ear and highly expressive. He’s a much stronger character in the audio than he was in the movie – a Doctor as worthy of trust and allegiance as any. And it’s the little moments that make these audio plays so worthwhile – the Doctor expressing wonder and joy at a new discovery, or delivering a monologue of warning or judgement. (UK SPELLING <3)
Storm Warning (2001) was the first Big Finish production to feature the Eighth Doctor, and introduced Charlotte “Charley” Pollard (left), Eight’s longest running companion, voiced by India Fisher. Charley, a 1930’s English girl, wishes to be an “Edwardian adventuress,” and has disguised herself as a boy to get passage on a new hydrogen airship. The Doctor discovers an alien prisoner, whom the ship’s leaders claim to be returning home, but they have hidden imperialist intentions. It’s one of my favourite Eighth Doctor stories. It also introduces vortisaurs, pterodactyl-like creatures who live in the time vortex, and are a recurring presence in the Eighth Doctor’s stories. He says he used to ride them when he was young on Gallifrey.
In Sword of Orion, the Doctor tries to save the crew of a scavenger ship from the Cybermen. There’s a great deal of the Doctor being blamed for things, which is one of the most annoying Who tropes, but it is a good story in the end. The ambience of the massive abandoned ship is what stands out most in my memory.
The Stones of Venice is set in Venice in the late 23rd century, a city full of revellers, although everyone knows it will sink into the sea within days. It’s the natural course of things – or is it? Not bad, but perhaps too long; same with the next one, The Chimes of Midnight. The latter is a freaky one, set in an Edwardian mansion where a murder is happening hourly, only for people to forget that the deceased people ever existed. In the end it bears similarities to Neil Gaiman’s later story, The Doctor’s Wife, but Chimes is a decidedly more fantastical dark fairy tale – or, perhaps I should say, ghost story.
Neverland (2002) teams up the Eighth Doctor with Second Romana (Lalla Ward), who is now the High President of Gallifrey. The Time Lords are under attack from beings of anti-time, “Neverpeople,” who, it turns out, are their government’s own political enemies from the past. A device similar to the De-Mat Gun and The Moment had secretly been used for ages to utterly remove undesirables from existence: yet another sign of the corruption of the Time Lords. And it seems Charley must die to save the Web of Time, because she was supposed to die in the events of Storm Warning, but the Doctor won’t let her die. He enters the world of anti-time and prevents the Neverpeople from destroying Gallifrey, but in so doing he infects himself and the TARDIS with anti-time. The Doctor’s will is overcome, and he adopts the identify of the the nursery rhyme character Zagreus.
Zagreus (2003) continues the story; while the Doctor fights for control of his mind, Charley meets the soul of the TARDIS, in the form of a hologram of the Brigadier. The TARDIS expresses jealousy of the Doctor’s companions, and is outraged at his willingness, after hundreds of years, to sacrifice it and himself to save Charley. Still, it puts Charley in a series of three holographical re-creations of real events, to give her clues to understand what is happening. This is Big Finish’s 40th Anniversary Doctor Who special, so Charley meets original characters voiced by Doctors 5 through 7, plus many other actors from the classic series. Even the late Jon Pertwee’s voice is played by the TARDIS to help the Doctor is his mental struggle. In the end, to prevent the prime universe from being infected with anti-time, the Doctor and the TARDIS must depart forever to the divergent universe, which a people who would have advanced to rival the Time Lords was banished to by Rassilon. His aim in this was the preservation of absolute control over his web of time. The crimes of the Time Lords are many.
I found this two-part story fascinating, and Neverland was superb, but Zagreus not so much. Parts of it were hard to follow.
Shada is an adaptation of Douglas Adams’s never-completed Fourth Doctor serial, which it regards as never having happened. It’s unclear where it fits in the Eighth Doctor’s timeline, since he is not infected with Anti-Time in this story, and he has no companion. Instead, he recruits President Romana, and they have almost the same adventure as in the TV serial. I watched the shorter, animated version of it that was released for free, and preceded Scream of the Shalka as part of the 40th anniversary. It’s quite wonderful to see Douglas Adams’s story in full, though it would have been better if I hadn’t already watched the incomplete Fourth Doctor version.
Living Legend is a 20-minute mini-adventure similarly set at an unknown point in Eight’s timeline, with Charley but free of Anti-Time. The pair dress as Time Lords in order to stave off an invasion of Earth by gullible aliens. It’s hilarious, awesome, and painless! Listen to it.
By The Natural History of Fear (2004), the Doctor has been cleansed of Anti-Time in the main series, and has returned from the Divergent Universe. This one pretty much lost me, but at least I understood the ending. I’ll quote from The Digital Fix:
The closest the series has ever come to a David Lynch film, by way of George Orwell, this meta-textural puzzle box of an audio demands several listens to give the listener the faintest clue of what’s going on, and even then you won’t be quite sure you’ve got it sussed.
And I’m not sure if I’d want to do that. It’s definitely a cool concept or collection thereof, but only suitable for the adventurous.
Other Lives (2005) is a relatively relaxed story, in which the TARDIS crew is able to experience the world of 1851 London without stress-inducing aliens to bother them. In the case of The Aztecs I found myself wishing that weren’t so, but in Other Lives I was glad of it.
Charley and Eight finally parted ways in 2007, under sad circumstances which left fans crestfallen and unsatisfied.
The New Eighth Doctor Adventures
Whereas Paul McGann stories had heretofore been distributed among Big Finish’s main series of releases, his Doctor now has his own series, launched in 2007. The format has also changed; before, each story tended to approach or even exceed the length of two hours; now, each episode clips along to a length of 50 minutes. Most stories are two-parters.
In Blood of the Daleks (2007) the Doctor is assigned a new companion, Lucie Miller, by the Time Lords, as part of a witness protection program. Naturally, she and the Doctor don’t get along in the slightest. Lucie is a cockney London girl from 2006, and she was irritating for much of this story, but improved greatly in later ones. They land on Red Rocket Rising, a future human colony world which has been devastated by a meteorite impact, where the remaining leaders have accepted an offer of aid and evacuation… from the Daleks. Once the consequences of that get underway, it’s excellent Doctor Who in the show’s serious dark sci-fi tradition. It turns out that, like in Remembrance, the Daleks are out to destroy an offshoot race of Daleks, which they of course regard as inferior. But there’s more to it than that, and this is the superior tale in my opinion.
The brilliance of Human Resources (2007) begins with the name, which is a reference to the Cybermen, but also to the setting: a London office, where Lucie is a new hire and the Doctor becomes a high-ranking consultant. It begins much like The Office, with parodies of modern corporate jargon and cubicle life, but before long Lucie is “fired,” and discovers that the office building is actually a giant mech, a walking battle tank on an alien world. And brilliantly, the explanation for this actually makes sense: remote controls can be severed, and humans make better controllers than computers, but they suffer from battle fatigue. Recruiting office workers to control the machines, but keeping them unaware of their situation or what they’re actually working on, is an effective solution. This is the most fun I’ve had with a Cybermen story, and one of my favourite Eighth Doctor adventures.
Sisters of the Flame / The Vengeance of Morbius (2008) is a sequel to the Fourth Doctor serial The Brain of Morbius, a classic from the “gothic horror” Hinchcliffe era, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the original serial, a mad scientist stitched together a body to house the brain of the ancient criminal Time Lord Morbius, but the resulting monster was destroyed. The title of this audio drama tells what happens next.
I listened to it solely because I read here that “Lucie mentions that she used to be ‘great friends with a centipede,'” and it was totally worth it for that. It’s a pretty good audio drama, but the centipede scenes are priceless. Lucie is (as usual in Who) arrested as a stowaway and asks to see a police officer; the nearest officer who responds is Rosto, a giant sapient centipede who speaks in “clicks,” which are translated into the voice of a polite English gentleman by his voice box. Lucie is initially horrified and asks for a human police officer, but as Rosto investigates he starts to believe her, and she grows to like him, apologizing:
Lucie: I was upset, but I suppose there’s no excuse, really…
Rosto: No excuse?
Lucie: Well, for… racism, I suppose you’d call it, and… well, look, I’m really sorry.
Rosto: You were just scared, Lucie. I understand that.
Lucie: Is that you forgiving me?
Rosto: You seem embarrassed. There’s no need!
Lucie: Well, that’s… that’s very kind of you. I don’t know if I’d be so forgiving in your shoes.
Rosto: Perhaps it’s because I’m, “One of the good guys.”
Lucie, chuckling: Yeah. Must be, I suppose, yeah. Well, thanks, any way.
Rosto: You’re welcome, Lucie Miller.
But then Rosto is infected with mind-control nanites, and even though the Doctor wins and the Time Lords fix everything, we never find out what happened to Rosto. Bad finish, Big Finish!
I had to listen to the next episode, Orbis (2009), to find out what happened to the Doctor. It turns out he was transported to Orbis, an oceanic planet in the backwaters, populated by the short-lived Keltans. These people are described as walking jellyfish, but the one on the cover looks like a nautilus – unless that’s one of their enemies, the Molluscari. Again, the story starts out well, but ends badly. Rather than trying to escape from what most would consider a cold, dismal, rainswept world, and happily retired from heroics, and has adopted Orbis as a sort of mission field, aiming to improve the locals’ quality of life. He has been living on Orbis for six centuries, making him probably at least 1,600 by this point in his life, assuming his estimates were accurate through the Seventh Doctor’s age of 953. (His age increased more or less steadily through the classic series, only to be set back to 900 and remain there through new seasons 1-5; Steven Moffat rightly asserts that the Doctor has no idea how old he is. Adding another six centuries doesn’t pose any problems at all. He also asserts in Orbis that he doesn’t necessarily stick to the same definition of “year” when he gives his age.) Lucie arrives to find that he has forgotten her, and has a Keltan companion – a bright young female, of course. Lucie is amusingly jealous. Then Orbis and all its inhabitants are horrifically obliterated, forcing the Doctor to come out of retirement. Why, Big Finish?
The Eight Truths / Worldwide Web is a sequel to Planet of the Spiders, and this time the Eight Legs have created a self-improvement cult in a new scheme to control the universe. I keep saying they just need to learn to be happy being spiders! Fortunately there is no genocide this time (referring to both Orbis and Planet of the Spiders); the defeated Eight Legs are merely sent home to Metebelis 3. It’s an epic story, and I could hardly imagine it being done better, considering the anti-spider racist constraints that it operates under.
The Company of Friends (2009), a part of the main Big Finish line rather than the New Eighth Doctor Adventures, is a little collection of four non-canonical short adventures, and it’s loads of fun. Highly recommended. Mary’s Story appears to be canonical, set between the TV movie and Storm Warning. In it, Mary Shelley meets the Eighth Doctor in two forms – one normal, healthy one, and another from his future, horribly disfigured and half-mad. The encounter gives Mary Shelley the idea to write Frankenstein. In 2011, Big Finish released a trilogy of stories in the main line that featured Mary Shelley as the Doctor’s companion.
Journey to the End of Time
“In all my travelling throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation: decadent, degenerate, and rotten to the core. Power mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power. That’s what it takes to be really corrupt.”
-The Sixth Doctor to the Time Lords, The Trial of a Time Lord: The Ultimate Foe
The Eighth Doctor’s life of romantic adventure began to spiral into darkness as the Time War drew closer. After a brief bright spot with his granddaughter and great-grandson, he suffers some immensely personal losses at the hands of the Daleks, and his hatred for them reaches new and terrible depths. One fan speculates that his Ninth incarnation was a fighter because he was “born during a war.” Though the Doctor seems to have no conscious control over his regenerations, I would support the idea that his subconscious does. Thus his regenerations into Ten and Eleven, “boys” preoccupied with having fun and (in Eleven’s case) wearing “cool” clothing: regenerations influenced by a deep desire to regain his lost innocence.
The Doctor’s long-awaited proper reunion with Susan occurs in An Earthly Child (2009), and her son, Alex Campbell, is voiced by Paul McGann’s son, Jake McGann. Earth still has not recovered from the Dalek occupation of 2157-2167, and xenophobia is basically mandatory for acceptance in society. Alex, annoyingly, does not know that his mother is an alien, so he works with the xenophobes for most of the story. Then the aliens invited by Susan to help turn out to be malevolent. It’s all a rather terrible mess of a reunion, realistic though it may be.
The Four Doctors (2010) stars Doctors Five through Eight, but, not so surprisingly, they never meet. Instead, one man and the Dalek Time Controller find themselves travelling backwards along the Doctor’s personal timeline. It’s very cleverly written, in a way I found enjoyable, and not at all confusing. Definitely recommended.
The Dalek Time Controller basically takes the place of Davros in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, and sounds just like him sometimes. Claiming to have a transcendent existence outside of time, he is the mastermind behind the Daleks’ plots in all of these stories.
The Book of Kells (2010) is a sequel to The Time Meddler, the famous First Doctor story that introduced the Monk, a renegade Time Lord who meddles with history for petty personal profit. This time he’s in Ireland at the Abbey of Kells, AD 1006. I didn’t find the mystery compelling, but I enjoyed regarding it as a sequel to The Secret of Kells (watch – it’s basically to Irish mythology as Ghibli films are to Japanese). This is one of a few stories in this series that feature Tamsin Drew as companion while Lucie Miller takes a hiatus; Tamsin Drew is an actress who met the Doctor by coming to an audition he held to find his next companion. I think that makes her ultimate fate sadder.
Relative Dimensions, the 2010 Christmas special, is what I’d have liked An Unearthly Child to be, and it’s the one audio story I am most likely to buy. It’s strange that my favourite Eighth Doctor story so far came out in the same month at my favourite episode of the TV series, A Christmas Carol. There is nothing so deep or moving here, but it is a lot of fun: Susan and Alex are invited on board the TARDIS for Christmas. Lucie cooks Christmas dinner, while the Doctor tries to persuade Alex to come with him for a year of adventures, against his mother’s wishes. No Daleks, no enemies, only a very special little pet fish that Susan thought had died, kept locked in her room all these years… yes, that’s it on the cover art… and that’s the Doctor riding it.
Lucie Miller / To the Death is the point at which the Daleks destroy almost everything that matters to the Doctor. Highlight for spoilers (which I don’t regret that I knew going in): Tamsin and Lucie both perish – as does the Doctor’s great-grandson, Alex. The Daleks invade Earth again, and it’s just like the last time. This powerful story climaxes with the second strongest companion departure I’ve experienced yet, after Amy’s – and it’s Lucie, who I only know from eight stories! The final scenes are heart-wrenching. I loved it.
For the 2012 New Eighth Doctor Adventure, Dark Eyes, fresh promotional photographs of Paul McGann were taken for the first time since 1996 – Big Finish having licensed and used the movie’s original promo stills for cover art all along.
Paul McGann himself selected his new costume, a sea captain’s jacket, which he says he chose because he comes from a long line of seamen. Is it coincidental that it looks like Nine’s jacket? Which is problematic, given that Nine apparently used to dress like Eight.
A new sonic screwdriver prop was also commissioned for Dark Eyes – made by Weta Workshop, of The Lord of the Rings and Narnia fame, beside many other accomplishments. McGann says he likes the steampunk design (he actually calls it that), and recounts that the Weta crew were excited to meet him and to be working on Doctor Who, having grown up with the show themselves.
Dark Eyes is a four-part saga, picking up there To the Death left off. The Doctor is at his lowest point. He’s railing against The Universe, personifying it and attributing it with a will and power. As it opens, he sets his course:
“Nothing else matters any more. Nothing makes sense. Take me to the edge and beyond, to the edge of existence itself!”
Straxus, who had throughout the series been the Time Lords’ chosen babysitter for the Eighth Doctor, appears again. (Not to be confused with Eleven’s Sontaran friend, Strax.) The Doctor asks if Susan betrayed him to them.
Straxus: Betray you? Oh, she loves you, Doctor, you must know that.
Doctor: Well, so much for love, Straxus. What did love ever do for Susan or Lucie? It left them grieving or dead! Because the Universe, in its infinite wisdom, gives way to creatures like the Daleks.
Straxus: Oh, you blame the Universe?
Doctor: Then who? What? Who’s to blame?
This belief in the deity of The Universe was recently reiterated in The Snowmen:
Doctor: It is not our problem. Over a thousand years of saving the universe, Strax, you know the one thing I learned? The universe doesn’t care.
Vastra: So then, Doctor, saving the world again? Might I ask why? Are you making a bargain with the universe? You’ll save the world to let her live?
Doctor: Yes. And don’t you think, after all this time and everything I’ve ever done, that I am owed this one?
Vastra: I don’t think the universe makes bargains.
Doctor: It was my fault.
Vastra: Well then. Better save the world.
Jenny: But Clara’s dead. What’s he talking about, finding her?
Vastra: I don’t know. But perhaps the universe makes bargains after all….
The pantheist anthropomorphizing of The Universe at one point became even more blatant in Who canon: in one 2007 story, “The Iska’lanz’rm were created by the universe, which had observed Harry Ware writing the story of their war with the Xarantharax.”
But Dark Eyes is not about the Doctor trying to work out his theology. It’s about his search for hope.
Straxus: So you set course for the end of everything… why did you want to go there?
Doctor: Perspective. I’m told it’s a wonderful view.
Doctor: No, I mean it! I really hoped it would be a wonderful view, to look back from the end of everything, to see how things finally turned out. Straxus, I was looking for hope.
Straxus: Ah, that.
Doctor: Are you telling me that I wouldn’t have found any?
Straxus: I honestly don’t know, Doctor. (…) Perhaps there is no view… no end. No way of telling. Have you considered that? Perhaps it’s just another beginning. And perhaps you will find that new universe equally devoid of hope.
Doctor: Are you telling me the truth?
Straxus: It is the truth of what I fear, and you may well destroy us both trying to find out the truth.
Doctor: Right now, to find some hope, I think I would do almost anything.
Straxus offers the Doctor hope in the chance to save a girl, Molly, an Irish volunteer nurses’ aide in World War I. The Doctor can’t refuse, and together he and Molly are hunted across space and time by the Daleks. Molly, voiced by genuine Irish actress Ruth Bradley, is feisty and tough, having spent months in tent hospitals near the horrific front lines. She’s amusingly unimpressed with the TARDIS, calling it the “Tardy box.” I warmed to her quickly, though she sounds and acts more like a woman in her 40’s than a girl in her 20’s, and I half-thought she was the former for the first two hours.
At one point she and the Doctor themselves on a future utopian Skaro, populated by reformed Daleks after a terrible war destroyed the Time Lords and almost destroyed the Daleks. These Daleks have changed their ways, and are engineering themselves to restore their lost humanity: some hope at last? Unfortunately it turns out to be an illusion. But we know that while the Daleks cannot change their own nature, they can be changed for the better, as the Second Doctor proved in The Evil of the Daleks. Why can’t any Daleks ever be redeemed since then, like Hugh in the acclaimed Star Trek: The Next Generation episode I, Borg? What if a few Daleks had been captured and treated to counteract their hateful nature, and then the original Daleks came to destroy them for being impure, forcing the Doctor to decide whether to protect the new Daleks or not? Couldn’t that make a great episode?
By the end, the Doctor still doesn’t have an overarching reason to hope. To put it in flowery terms, he still hears no grand symphony in the cacophony of the universe, and he probably never will. But saving Molly from the Dalek Time Controller’s plan does give him enough new hope and meaning for him to go on.
Doctor: You know that pain?
Molly: I do. I do.
Doctor: That pain is hope, Molly. And it hurts. Because you don’t dare to feel it… in case it gets crushed. But if you can cling onto it, it can get you through the worst of times.
In that he looks to the people he meets for hope, it reminds me of the conclusion in the film Contact: “in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” Apparently the equivalent line in Carl Sagan’s original book is this: “She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Although the audio series seems to have run right up against the Time War, and indeed there was fan speculation that Dark Eyes would be about it, the story of the Time War will most likely never be told by Big Finish. For one thing, the BBC will not allow it. From the FAQ:
Will any stars of the current TV series be doing Big Finish plays?
No. The terms of our licence with the BBC allow us to only produced (sic) ‘Classic’ Doctor Who. This means that we can only use the first eight Doctors and their companions. Anything connected to the new series – even characters who are no longer featured – cannot be used by us in a Big Finish Doctor Who production. Actors from the series do often appear in audio adventures as different characters, however, and before he landed the role of the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant featured in eight Big Finish productions as assorted characters.
Will you be featuring the Time War in any of your forthcoming plays?
No. We are unable to feature the Time War in any of our stories for the reasons given in the previous answer.
Furthermore, Nicholas Briggs questions the wisdom of the idea of a Time War story:
“People think, ‘Oh, the ultimate thing to do would be to do a story about the Time War,’ and I think that would be possibly one of the dullest things in the world. (Those words will come back to haunt me, I realize….) Because I think the Time War is much more effective as a mythical thing – you know, not a myth, really, because we know it happened, or will happen, or has happened, or is happening all the time, that’s the thing, it was a Time War – [but] it’s not going to be like D-Day, is it? It’s going to be like something weird, to do with time. It’s so weird, I think it’s best that it’s kept beyond our comprehension, and just the hint that it was something appalling, you know.”
And on that note, now I can finally watch a little episode called Rose. And as a fan of Classic Who, I am immensely excited.
The photo of Christopher Eccleston above is from The Bass Collective, described as “a genuine BBC promo photo of Nine just after regeneration.” To me, this is the most definitive, tangible connection from Classic Who to New Who. It makes it all a bit more real. (Edit, November 14, 2013: Well now, with John Hurt’s “War Doctor” coming in between, I suppose the photo is no longer canon, but I’ll take The Night of the Doctor over it any day! And the new third costume was great. I never thought we’d get so much.)
‘Til we meet again….