We continue our look at twenty great Big Finish releases in celebration of Big Finish’s Twentieth Anniversary. Last week we covered numbers 15-11. See Part One for numbers 20-16. This week we’ll cover numbers 10-6.
10) UNIT Encounters
Big Finish’s original Doctor Who license was limited to production based on the classic era of Doctor Who and the first eight Doctors. That changed in 2015 as they were allowed to tell stories based on characters in the revived series. The first new series that Big Finish did was UNIT featuring Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgraves) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) and adding a new cast of characters around them. The UNIT releases are action-packed stories of UNIT defending the Earth from danger in the absence of the Doctor.
Encounters is one of my favorite of these sets. While generally, the UNIT box sets feature four hour-long episodes based on a single threat, this is much more an anthology piece. In four different episodes, the UNIT team deals with a disabled Dalek in South America, has a creepy sci-fi ghost story, meets up with classic Doctor Who monsters like the Sontarans, and has a hilarious meet-up with an alternate dimension. It’s a fun box set that shows the great range of both the writers and the actors.
9) Live 34
This is one of Big Finish’s most impressive experimental stories as we are brought four separate news casts from the radio station Live 34, the top channel on Colony 34 where the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companions Ace (Sophia Allred) and Hex (Philip Oliver) have inserted themselves to challenge the regime of Premier Jaeger, the Colony’s long-time ruler, who has been delaying a general election for five years.
The story is chillingly realistic. The news programs feel true to life. Andrew Collins and Duncan Wiseby deserve a lot of credit for the way they played a news anchor and a news magazine host respectively. They manage to create a feeling of authenticity that brings appropriate gravity to the proceedings. The realism makes the grim nature of this police state planet feel plausible and that’s terrifying.
One complaint some people have about the story is that we’ve seen this all before: tyrannical government feeds masses misinformation and oppresses the planet, Doctor comes to the rescue. Yes, that’s true. But the difference between a good Doctor Who story and a bad one isn’t the total originality of the plot, it’s how the story is told. And this one is told brilliantly in a way that makes the grim reality of a police state come to life.
8) The First Doctor Adventures, Volume 1
I was dubious of this series. The idea was to record adventures featuring the First Doctor, played by David Bradley (who played the original First Doctor William Hartnell in an Adventure in Space and Time.) The series also had the actors who played the original Doctor Who companion actors in that same film play the First Doctor’s companions. This seemed gimmicky and unnecessary.
Yet, it worked wonderfully. The two stories were marvelous. “The Destination Wars” features the First Doctor encountering the Doctor Who villain the Master in an encounter that predates their meeting on television in a great science fiction time manipulation plot. Then there’s “The Great White Hurricane” which finds the crew landing in New York City just before the Great Blizzard of 1888. This story is a fantastic historical which brings to life a part of American history which I’d never heard about before and tells a really compelling story.
The acting is also superb as each of the leads offers their own interpretation of their classic roles and makes these characters their own. Whether you’re a fan of the original Hartnell stories or not, this box set features some incredibly well-done drama and is definitely worth a listen.
7) The War Doctor: Casualties of War
For Doctor Who’s Fiftieth Anniversary, the series introduced legendary British actor John Hurt as a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor (the War Doctor) who lived and fought during the great Time War with the Daleks. Hurt’s appearances on TV were limited to two TV episodes, but Big Finish did a series of four three-episode box sets examining the life of the War Doctor, of which this is the last, having been released just after Hurt’s death in January 2017.
The box set contains three solid stories that deal with the cost of the Time War not only in lives, but in the cost to the soul, and to the very idea of truth. The set works on many levels. On one hand, the story is a great space opera offering big battles and high concepts. There are even a few moments of levity. On the other hand, the costs and suffering of the Time War are wearing on the Doctor’s heart and mind, particularly as he sees how the war has touched one of his previous companions, Leela (Louise Jameson.)
The entire set is well-written with great music and sound design, as well as solid acting including featured performances from Hurt, Jameson, and Jacqueline Pearce.
6) The English Way of Death
In this story adapted from a novel by Gareth Roberts by John Dorney, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Leela Ward) travel to 1930s England to return an overdue library book but they run into time tourists who have illegally come from the future and more alarmingly, a sinister alien who is using zombies in a nefarious scheme.
The villains in this story are somewhat generic, particularly the zombies, though I found one plot twist in part four to be quite hilarious. Roberts does best with character pieces and this is quite cleverly done as a period drama gives him the chance to introduce all the sorts of interesting characters including a gung-ho British Colonel who gets drawn into the adventure, the cowardly Percy, and some of his braver colleagues from the future. The dialogue is rich and is perhaps even funnier than the TV story, “City of Death”, though not quite as stylish.
This is one of Big Finish’s best releases with the most popular classic series Doctor and one of the funnier stories they’ve ever made.
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