Friday, September 23, 2011

The Keys to the TARDIS: Doctor Who Big Finish Audio Dramas

Doctor Who Big Finish Audio DramaThose of us who were Doctor Who fans back in the day—you know, before the reboot, the era now known as classic Doctor Who—suffered during the long hiatus when the program was not on the air. Spin-off books and comics were interesting but somehow, I don't know, derivative. Doctor Who fans had a long wait: the last classic episode aired in 1989 and the reboot aired in 2005, with only a single canonical Doctor Who text in the interim to sate us: 1996 saw the airing of the made-for-TV backdoor-pilot movie. There was joy—they did it and the Doctor rocked! There was despair—it was kinda bad and wasn't picked up as a TV show! The despair was further compounded by the lengthy rights-related delay between the movie's airing and the region 1 DVD release in 2011: 15 years.

What about the classic-era sensibilities die-hard fans like me loved? How to get that classic Doctor Who fix? Answer: Since 1999, Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas. Once I gave them a listen, there was no going back. Here they were, blasts from my past, Doctors and companions, and not only were they good, they were in many ways even better than the original show, particularly in terms of character growth. One hundred fifty episodes have been released in the Doctor Who series, the tagline of which is, "Classic Doctors. Brand new adventures."

Four of the five living actors who have portrayed the Doctor appear in the audio plays, along with their accompanying companions: Peter Davison (Five), Colin Baker (Six), Sylvester McCoy (Seven), and Paul McGann (Eight). Tom Baker's Four is not among these, but the actor has at long last decided to join the fold, and audios featuring Four will be released in 2012. (Big Finish does not have the rights to record postreboot Doctors.) In addition to featuring members of the original casts, the writing is terrific, and the fidelity to the classic era impressive. They easily bear repeated listening. Further, the audios plumb new character depths, particularly in the cases of Six and Nyssa. Make no mistake: these are not readings, but full-cast plays featuring the original actors reprising their roles.

The audio dramas are interstitial texts, existing in the spaces of the classic canon. The Web page for each audio drama identifies the stories within which the episode is placed, but sometimes it's hard to tell what iteration of a character is meant. This is particularly true of the character of Ace (Sophie Aldred), a companion of Seven, who ranges from excitable bomb-throwing teen to older, wiser woman. Companions original to the audio dramas come and go, sometimes in conjunction with established companions. Sequential same-companion stories can be read as a series, but often over the course of literally years. Each Doctor has his own arc; multiple arcs/plots run simultaneously, even with the same Doctor. All this is to say that with some exceptions, like deliberately presented series within the series, the audios may be listened to in any order.

The audio dramas do not anticipate the reboot or serve as a bridge between the two iterations of the program. They remain firmly within the classic canon. The only thing borrowed from the reboot is the structure. The classic TV show is structured in four approximately half-hour parts separated by a cliffhanger, and this is also how most of the audio dramas are presented. However, some of Eight's episodes use the hour-long single-episode format used by the reboot. Many releases, particularly the later ones, also feature extended cast interviews...and the casting! Oh my! The caliber of the casting has always been fabulous, but I've noticed an uptick in excellence since the reboot reignited interest in the show. The extras are like the new series' companion show, Doctor Who Confidential, a behind-the-scenes making-of program, with interesting interviews of cast and crew.

I've chosen a single audio drama for each Doctor, all personal favorites, to pique the interest of Doctor Who fans interested in giving them a try. I've privileged stand-alone texts featuring original companions, and I've tried to give you a sense of why these texts are awesome without spoiling the plot. Trust me, fans of the classic era and newbies alike: you'll get hooked.


44 "Creatures of Beauty," by Nicholas Briggs (2003), 1 hour 50 minutes

Creatures of BeautyThe Doctor and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) land on a planet that suffered a disaster years ago, horribly disfiguring the planet's inhabitants. Themes of beauty, hate, love, loss, good, and evil intertwine with a story with a stunning ending. The nonchronological storytelling initially caused me confusion (I thought I had gotten the tracks out of order), but its dense complexity and true emotional resonance make this heart-rending.

This audio drama is remarkable for its use of character to drive the plot and illuminate the themes. The Doctor's tendency to interfere, so often presented in canon as for the greater good, comes to the fore here, with consequences that show how "the greater good" may not be as easy as it sounds—consequences that the Doctor all too often remains ignorant of. Nyssa's empathy and gentleness embed her in a series of escalating events that test these very qualities. Her beauty in the face of the planet's disfigured inhabitants damns her in their eyes: she cannot be good because she is beautiful, which marks her as the product of wealth and privilege even as the masses suffer. The Doctor, usually technologically adept and in control, is challenged here because he initially misreads the situation. By the time he's up to speed, he and Nyssa are separately in custody, he accused of being an alien and she accused of murder, in the hands of cruel people who believe the worst and cannot believe the truth. The Doctor cannot even effect their escape without help. The able Doctor is, for once, without agency. The listener has to work here to put it all together: cause and effect, benign intent and evil result. The nonchronological storytelling withholds a crucial plot element until the very end, looping the causal impetus of the story into a Moebius strip. Nothing fundamentally changes: the Doctor does not learn, and Nyssa's character remains true despite extreme hardship that would drive a weaker person to violence. Instead, we, the listeners, change as we realize the horrible extent of the effect of the Doctor's unwitting meddling.


35 "...ish," by Phil Pascoe (2002), 2 hours 10 minutes

The Doctor has been invited to attend a lexicographer's convention at which a new comprehensive dictionary will be unveiled, but he and American companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) find themselves involved in a murder mystery. Clever wordplay and neologisms, the expected tension between American versus British English, even the beeping out of the word/suffix "...ish"—all pale next to the story's main conceit: what if, instead of collecting a word, the word collected you?

"...ish" is a Big Finish masterwork, beautifully written and perfectly paced, and, unlike some of the other adventures, which could conceivably be filmed, was made for the audio medium. Its denseness means that a single listen does not do it justice; it demands repeated listening, or the plot gets lost in the wordplay. The story exploits Six's arrogance and deft tongue, and Peri, the obvious companion in a story about language, brings breezy charm to the role, with her tendency to act first and think later helping along the plot. "...ish" is also about something: quite literally, the construction of reality by language. The dictionary's avatar, Book (Moray Treadwell), a hologlyph, is more than a query interface who can appear and disappear. He assisted one of the dictionary's compilers during fieldwork, and he has a life and reality of his own. He exists to construct language—that is, to compile the dictionary—but he is also constructed by it, summoned into existence by a word ("Book!"). Ironically for a master collection and collector of words, he struggles with them as he seeks to articulate how he feels, what he wants, what he's for, in scenes of true pathos that conflate the chicken-and-egg nature of language, feeling, and reality. An alien force that Book encountered during fieldwork malevolently seizes on "...ish," a word that adds meaning but is itself not meaningful (just like the dictionary that Book represents, and by inference perhaps Book himself), with frightening results. The word "...ish" infects the symposium's attendees; bereft of language, they become mindless babblers of the word. As the word-world quite literally begins to dissolve around them, the Doctor and Peri must defeat the ...ish, their use of language their only weapon.


85 "Red," by Stewart Sheargold (2006), 2 hours 10 minutes

The Doctor and Melanie (Bonnie Langford) discover that in the perfect world of the needle, where computer chips stop citizens from committing violence, violence is instead fetishized. Implicated in a murder, the Doctor has to confront his dark side, and Mel's usual engaging cheeriness gets her nowhere with the citizens, who demand extreme behavior of her on threat of violence.

Whitenoise (John Stahl), the master computer of the needle, has been tracking a murderer that jumps from person to person via the antiviolence chips embedded in every citizen. The Doctor somehow becomes conflated with the murdering entity: the two of them synchronize, and the Doctor experiences the murder firsthand. But to his horror, he also helps the murderer along. We are reminded of how much the Doctor has seen, and how much he has done that he has to live with. As the Doctor explores the world of checked violence within the needle controlled by Whitenoise, Mel falls in with the world of unchecked violence outside, where the chips are disabled, and discovers that the inhabitants are desensitized to the point of cruelty. Mel is our point-of-view character: her thoughts of violence and whose self-control are unremarkable to us, but her new friends are titillated by the very thought that she could hurt them.  They demand sensation, asking her to strike them, or threatening to kill her so that they might enjoy her terror and their power over her. In both worlds, violence is treated as a spectacle. The Doctor's resigned understanding conflicts with Mel's shocked horror, and we are reminded of the vastness of the distance between the alien, long-lived, long-traveling Doctor and his innocent companion.


2.2 "Max Warp," by Jonathan Morris (2008), 60 minutes

The Doctor and Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith, playing a companion original to the audio dramas) embed themselves in a show about spaceships (a la Top Gear) to figure out what happened during an on-air accident. Fast-paced, utterly hilarious hijinks ensue, only to conclude with the kind of ending that keeps on...not ending.

The perfection of this short episode lies not in its rich, meaningful denseness, as my previous selections do. Instead, I'm recommending it because it is very funny, and because it explodes pretty much every SF and mystery trope out there, from the red herring to the warring aliens to the weird robot to the "I suppose you wonder why I've gathered you all together" climax. Little details make the audio: Lucie's wild guesswork as she tries to stop a spaceship she's on from crashing; the Doctor's assumption that a robot might be controlled with a key fob; the board where cool spaceships are listed, just because they're cool; the silly PA announcements in the background; the hilarious alien, with an obscure accent and a spore cycle. This audio drama also stands out because of its pitch-perfect casting. Other episodes may plumb the depths of the Doctor's soul, but here he gets to play detective and handle ridiculous situations, and it's a genuine pleasure to hear it so well done.