Here’s a candidate for the least controversial statement you’ll read this week: The 1963-1989 series of Doctor Who did not rely on a high standard of quality in its visual effects.
If you think about it from an engineering mindset, you might ask: couldn’t you make Doctor Who more efficiently if you left out the video? That way, producers wouldn’t have to pay for sets and costumes, directors wouldn’t need as many takes, and the audience wouldn’t have to look at a screen all the time while watching it.
In 1999, a company called Big Finish Productions began reuniting casts from multiple eras of Doctor Who to do exactly that. Actors who had portrayed the Doctor and his companions on television returned to their roles for direct-to-audio adventures. When the Doctor returned to television with a new incarnation in 2005, television showrunner Russell Davies personally made sure that the new television series would not prevent Big Finish from continuing the classic series in audio form.
(If you are the sort of pedantic fan who insists on knowing whether events are acknowledged across media, the television minisode “The Night of the Doctor” explicitly mentions characters from multiple Big Finish stories.)
Big Finish continues to produce Doctor Who to this day. Depending on how you count it, there is probably more Big Finish Doctor Who than television Doctor Who. As with any large body of serial media, finding a starting point can be a serious problem. Fortunately, Big Finish knows what they’re doing, and they occasionally go out of their way to attract new listeners. One way they do this is by providing free samples.
Most Big Finish free samples are just one half-hour episode from a four-episode story, but every once in a while they release a complete beginning-to-end story as a free sample. Most of these are on their Soundcloud page, while a few others are on Big Finish’s own website and in other places. I’ve gone through all of them for you, and in this article I’m going to tell you what I think of them. Since they’re all free, you don’t have to take my word for it.
Long version: Here are the fourteen free complete Big Finish Doctor Who stories which I’ve found. I’ve ordered the ones with the Doctor by a reasonable guess of their story timeline, followed by the five no-Doctor ones arbitrarily. Except for the First Doctor in Rise and Fall, named characters who were on TV are played by the same actors as on TV.
Rise and Fall (on Soundcloud) (as Big Finish podcast)
WHO’S IN IT: The First Doctor and Ian Chesterton.
THE SETTING: An anomalous alien world.
THE VILLAIN: None in a conventional Doctor Who sense of villainy.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: Big Finish’s bread and butter are full-cast audiodramas, but they also have two-reader and single-reader audiobook lines. Rise and Fall is the first story on the first disc of “Short Trips”, their short story anthology line.
THE CASE FOR: Weird allegory-ridden sci-fi in the vein of Twilight Zone or old Star Trek. Well-read prose. Well-captured First Doctor mood.
THE CASE AGAINST: It’s not actually an audioplay, just William Russell (who played Ian) reading alone for half an hour with some sound effects. The Doctor and Ian have no real involvement in any of the story’s conflicts.
THE MOOD: Philosophical reflection on time and civilization.
HUMOR: Some slightly satirical elements, but not played for laughs at all.
GRADE: C. If you don’t mind the single-reader audiobook format, it’s a rather nice piece of contemplative retro sci-fi.
The Mutant Phase (on Soundcloud)
WHO’S IN IT: The Fifth Doctor and Peri.
THE SETTING: Multiple Dalek-infested locations in time and space.
THE VILLAINS: Daleks and mutated alternate-timeline Daleks.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: The Mutant Phase was a 2-CD Big Finish release which they later abridged to one CD for release as a cover disc with an issue of Doctor Who Adventures magazine. The Soundcloud release is of that abridged version.
THE CASE FOR: Big-idea cosmic stuff with temporal anomalies and planet-sized monsters. Lots of Daleks played by Nicholas Briggs (who also plays most Daleks in the revived TV series). Fast paced without being hard to follow.
THE CASE AGAINST: The Daleks are used weirdly in a way that undermines the sort of threat they usually present. The Soundcloud version seems to have an audio glitch near the end that interrupts a piece of key exposition.
THE MOOD: The universe is in apocalyptic peril, warranting a lot of running around and panicked screaming.
HUMOR: Not deliberately, but some accidental camp.
GRADE: C. If you like Daleks running around doing Dalek stuff, worth a spin.
Cuddlesome (on Soundcloud)
WHO’S IN IT: The Fifth Doctor.
THE SETTING: Contemporary England.
THE VILLAINS: Pink stuffed animals who bite people to infect them and say things like “Trespassers will be obliterated. Wheeee!”, and darker forces behind their creation.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: Cuddlesome was created specifically to be a cover disc for an issue of Doctor Who Magazine.
THE CASE FOR: Fun monsters that make good use of the audio medium. An entertaining mix of wackiness and lethal peril. Excellent pacing. A multi-layered conflict with sympathetic characters on multiple sides.
THE CASE AGAINST: The monsters are silly even by Doctor Who standards.
THE MOOD: Heavy comic relief, high stakes, and some emotional moments, all tied together into one coherent thread.
HUMOR: Inherent in the voice acting and characterization of the Cuddlesomes themselves; also some banter.
GRADE: A. Unless you have a massive aversion to funny monsters, this is the best of Big Finish’s freebies.
No Place Like Home (on Big Finish store)
WHO’S IN IT: The Fifth Doctor, Erimem (an audio-original Egyptian princess companion of the Fifth Doctor), and Shayde (from Doctor Who magazine comics).
THE SETTING: The TARDIS interior.
THE VILLAIN: I suggest listening without plot spoilers.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: No Place Like Home was released on a Doctor Who Magazine cover disc, introducing the new character of Erimem to Doctor Who Magazine readers.
THE CASE FOR: Nice at-home-inside-the-TARDIS slice-of-life moments. An interesting, albeit silly, villain, with an interesting, albeit very silly, plan. Good introduction to Erimem.
THE CASE AGAINST: The silliness isn’t particularly offset by any sense of menace or high stakes. While Erimem’s backstory is provided, Shayde’s is less so.
THE MOOD: The doctor is at home in the TARDIS, and his home is a safe place where otherwise dangerous things don’t need to be taken seriously.
HUMOR: The villain is mostly comedic.
GRADE: B. A solid listen, if you know who Shayde is or are willing to just roll with not knowing who Shayde is.
Mission of the Viyrans (on Soundcloud)
WHO’S IN IT: The Fifth Doctor and Peri.
THE SETTING: A resort planet.
THE VILLAINS: The Viyrans (audio-original; this is their first appearance).
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: Big Finish’s 2-CD releases are usually a single four-part story, but are occasionally split into a three-parter and a one-parter. Mission of the Viyrans was originally such a one-parter.
THE CASE FOR: Dramatic intensity. Interesting storytelling conceits.
THE CASE AGAINST: Overuse of amnesia. The ending is as much a setup for later stories as it is a conclusion to this one.
THE MOOD: Mindwipey body horror.
GRADE: C. If you like darker stories and don’t mind amnesia plot devices, your opinion of this one might be higher than mine.
The Ratings War (on Big Finish store)
WHO’S IN IT: The Sixth Doctor.
THE SETTING: A television studio in the future.
THE VILLAIN: Beep the Meep (an evil dictator who looks like a cute talking animal, from Doctor Who Magazine comics)
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: The Ratings War story was released on a Doctor Who Magazine cover disc, giving fan favorite villain Beep the Meep an audio appearance.
THE CASE FOR: Fun, if shallow, satire of television broadcasting trends. Good use of the audio medium. Suspenseful, but not tedious, pacing.
THE CASE AGAINST: A bit heavy on “I already thought of your next move and pre-emptively stopped it from working” strategems. Beep’s past is inadequately described if you don’t already know about him.
THE MOOD: Tense Doctor-and-villain endgame banter, intercut with light satire.
HUMOR: The setting is funny, and Beep the Meep himself is darkly comical.
GRADE: B. If you like the part near the end of a Doctor Who story where the Doctor and villain are facing off and the villain is boasting about his plans, you’ll probably appreciate how this story cuts almost directly to that point and then holds on it.
Urgent Calls (on Soundcloud)
WHO’S IN IT: The Sixth Doctor.
THE SETTING: Contemporary Earth.
THE VILLAINS: Indirectly the Viyrans (see Mission of the Viyrans), but the fact is irrelevant to the central story.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: Like Mission of the Viyrans, Urgent Calls was a one-parter that was originally part of a split three-part/one-part 2-CD release.
THE CASE FOR: Heavy formal use of the audio medium: almost all of the story is told in the form of phone calls. A strong emphasis on the human element, as opposed to the sci-fi action.
THE CASE AGAINST: The sci-fi action happens offstage ambiguously. If you listen to it as an adventure story, it’s one big violation of “show, don’t tell”.
THE MOOD: A typical human on the fringes of something much larger, something like the first meeting between the Doctor and a companion-to-be but taking it in a different direction.
HUMOR: A core plot device plays out in a funny way.
GRADE: A. Between its use of the audio medium and the emotional notes the story hits, highly worthwhile all around. Mission of the Viyrans is not a prerequisite.
Shada (on BBC website)
WHO’S IN IT: The Eighth Doctor, the Second Romana, and K9.
THE SETTING: Contemporary England and various spaceships and space stations.
THE VILLAIN: An alien scientist involved with Time Lord technology.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: Shada was an unfinished Fourth Doctor television story. Big Finish produced the audio for this online animated reworking of it as an Eighth Doctor story. The website hasn’t been updated in a long time, but still works.
THE CASE FOR: Douglas Adams’s wit is on display in much of the dialogue, and that dialogue is in good hands with Big Finish’s cast and audio crew.
THE CASE AGAINST: The webcast animation does not live up to the audio. Action scenes are poorly paced. The webcast’s implementation has some technical deficiencies, such as a lack of a navigation timeline and some issues with missing fonts. A few winking tributes to the script’s production history don’t quite fit properly into the tone and pacing of their scenes.
THE MOOD: The Doctor and company are a ray of (occasionally comical) light, both defeating a dark scheme and thematically contrasting its darkness.
HUMOR: The plot is serious, but Douglas Adams banter abounds.
GRADE: C if you’re not interested in the Shada script as a matter of Doctor Who’s production history. If you are, then B.
Living Legend (on Big Finish store)
WHO’S IN IT: The Eighth Doctor and Charley (an audio-original early 20th century young woman companion of the Eighth Doctor).
THE SETTING: Recent past Italy, but the setting is barely relevant.
THE VILLAINS: Dimwitted aliens attempting to set up an invasion portal on Earth.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: Living Legend was originally on a cover disc for Doctor Who Magazine.
THE CASE FOR: A fun running-rings-around-the-dumb-aliens story with a bit of continuity fanservice about Time Lord culture.
THE CASE AGAINST: A setup that should call for high-stakes tension almost immediately degenerates into a sort of vaudeville or panto routine.
THE MOOD: Basically a Bugs Bunny cartoon with alien Elmer Fudds.
HUMOR: Humor is the main point of the story.
GRADE: B. It’s just a comedy bit, but it is a good comedy bit.
U.N.I.T. – The Coup (on Soundcloud) (on Big Finish store)
WHO’S IN IT: Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.
THE SETTING: Near-future England.
THE VILLAINS: I suggest listening without plot spoilers.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: The Coup was released on half of a Doctor Who Magazine cover disc as a teaser for a miniseries of full-CD U.N.I.T. audioplays. It is a self-contained story, not an excerpt from the series.
THE CASE FOR: An excellent coming-out-of-retirement story for the Brigadier. A nicely woven espionage plot. Great use of a recurring Doctor Who species, considering them from a sometimes underconsidered angle.
THE CASE AGAINST: A few lines of dialogue only exist to connect to metaplot threads and don’t make sense for this story itself. If you somehow know nothing about the frequently recurring species that appears, you might need to relisten to follow things.
THE MOOD: Political conspiracy and tense espionage.
HUMOR: None overt, but some of the plot twists might elicit a sort of knowing chuckle.
GRADE: A. Unless you actively dislike the Brigadier, this is on the short list of Big Finish audios to try first, and it would be on the short list of Doctorless ones to try first even if it weren’t a free download.
The Veiled Leopard (on Soundcloud)
WHO’S IN IT: Peri, Erimem (see No Place Like Home), Ace, and Hex (an audio-original 21st century male nurse companion of the Seventh Doctor)
THE SETTING: Recent past Monaco.
THE VILLAINS: None in a conventional Doctor Who sense of villainy.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: The Veiled Leopard was released as a Doctor Who Magazine cover disc. It is a crossover between Fifth and Seventh Doctor companions, with only indirect involvement by the Doctors.
THE CASE FOR: Interesting use of a two-episode format, with the episodes covering almost the same timeframe from the perspective of separate pairs of companions. If you like the story at all, you’ll get at least one relisten out of it to connect the dots.
THE CASE AGAINST: It’s very confusing, and it makes no effort to explain who anyone is.
THE MOOD: Low-stakes, high-society detective/heist story.
HUMOR: Attempted, but not succeeded.
GRADE: D. Skip this one if you have other things to listen to, unless you really specifically want to hear Big Finish’s take on a high-class jewel heist.
Silver Lining (on Soundcloud)
WHO’S IN IT: Bernice Summerfield (a future archaeologist who was originally a companion of the Seventh Doctor in novels, but has had many solo novels and audioplays since)
THE SETTING: An archaeological site on an alien world.
THE VILLAINS: Cybermen.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: Silver Lining was on the other half of the same magazine cover disc as U.N.I.T. – The Coup, promoting Bernice Summerfield’s ongoing Big Finish series.
THE CASE FOR: The direction and performance are good. Bernice is currently the closest thing there is to a serious female Doctor, and parts of this story do a good job of introducing her.
THE CASE AGAINST: The early portion of the plot is almost cartoonishly cliche-ridden, and it never quite rises above that begining.
THE MOOD: Space Indiana Jones, but with less direct fighting.
HUMOR: Some slight banterishness in Bernice’s narration. Possibly some accidental humor in the cliched parts.
GRADE: C. The production values don’t really save a generic plot, but it might be fun for you in a popcorn-movie way.
Dead and Buried (on Youtube)
WHO’S IN IT: Bernice Summerfield (see Silver Lining).
THE SETTING: An archaeological site on an alien world.
THE VILLAIN: Irving Braxiatel (a walking continuity tarpit who is definitely a Time Lord, possibly the Doctor’s literal brother, and possibly different alternate-timeline versions of himself between different stories).
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: Dead and Buried is a CGI animated short which bridges separate Big Finish Bernice Summerfield prose and audio releases.
THE CASE FOR: The CGI is terrible enough to be fun to gawk at.
THE CASE AGAINST: The writing is also terrible. The story basically just gets Bernice from point A to point B in her ongoing plot arc, without any satisfying conflict, resolution, or characterization en route.
THE MOOD: Interstitial video game cutscene.
GRADE: F, but highly recommended for CGI train-wreck value.
The Iris Wildthyme Appreciation Society (on BF podcast)
WHO’S IN IT: Iris Wildthyme (a possible Time Lady or other-dimensional Time Lady analogue with many appearances in novels and audioplays) and Panda (her companion, who seems to be a talking stuffed panda but probably isn’t).
THE SETTING: A few locations in time and space, mostly an urbanized future planet.
THE VILLAIN: If you listen at all, I suggest listening without plot spoilers.
WHAT’S ITS DEAL: The Iris Wildthyme Appreciation Society was a normal episode of Big Finish’s Iris Wildthyme series which they later released in full as a podcast bonus.
THE CASE FOR: Good characterization moments late in the story. A soft-sci-fi staple plot hook, used in a way that saves it from being overly generic.
THE CASE AGAINST: As an introduction to Iris Wildthyme, the story has serious issues. It works best if you already know things about what’s normal for her, since part of the story is about things being subtly abnormal.
THE MOOD: High-stakes sci-fi melodrama where the high stakes are mostly personal and not particularly about world-saving.
HUMOR: Most of the characterization moments have a humorous element.
GRADE: D as a promotional item for new listeners. If you are already familiar with Iris and Panda and like listening to them, then B.
If some of these have convinced you Big Finish might be worth your money, I suggest trying http://www.bigfinish.com/ranges/released_reverse/monthly-series as your starting point in their back catalog. The first 50 stories in the monthly series are particularly budget-friendly downloads, mostly 2 hours long at 3 dollars each. I’ll start covering them in an upcoming article, but it’s hard to go too badly wrong with any of them that sound interesting.