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24th July 2009 12:00:00
Posted by James

Big Finish - The Best and Worst of the Seventh Doctor

Technically speaking, Sylvester McCoy was BF’s first Doctor. It was he who first stepped out of the TARDIS at the beginning of Episode One of The Sirens of Time, the multi-Doc epic which launched the company’s Doctor Who range way back in 1999, and in doing so effectively introduced the world to audio adventures in time and space. Unfortunately, said episode was a bit rubbish; while in that story’s later episodes the Fifth Doctor got to fight for his life on a German submarine and the Sixth Doctor attend an intergalactic conference, Time’s Champion spent his half hour being chased around by a cackling female warthog (played by future Evelyn actress Maggie Stables) while being shot at by various spacecraft. Unfortunately, the mediocrity of that episode proved a bit of a harbinger of things to come; while it wouldn’t be at all correct to say that individually the Seventh Doctor’s early audios were any weaker than those of the other Doctors, collectively they were lacking a certain... something. Even though I would list Sylv as one of my favourite Doctors, I never looked forward to his audios with the same degree of anticipation as those of Peter and Colin’s, for the reason that while the latter two’s audios felt somehow fresh and new, those with McCoy and Aldred... didn’t. The reason was obvious; unlike the new BF pairing of the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn and the relatively unexplored partnership of the Fifth with Peri, the Seventh Doctor and Ace had already been done to death in nearly fifty novels and numerous comic strips so that, after a decade’s worth of stories, there was really very little elsewhere to go with them. (And this doesn’t even count the unofficial audios McCoy and Aldred had recorded as “The Professor” and “Ace” for BF’s former rivals BBV.) As a result, it seemed that for the first two or three years of the range’s life producer Gary Russell just didn’t know what else could be done to the pair, eventually leading to a mildly desperate attempt to develop Ace’s character, in which she decided she’d had enough of being treated as a child and wished to be known as McShane from now on (rather ironically sounding more childish in the process.) This was wholly unconvincing, and rather tiresome, so I suspect I wasn’t the only one who breathed a sigh of relief when she decided to go back to her original name.

It was around this time that things began to pick up for the Seventh Doctor audios, a revival spear-headed by the introduction of new companion Thomas Hector Schofield, known as Hex, played by ex-Brookside star Philip Olivier. Once you get past his stupid name he really has introduced a new dynamic into this well worn TARDIS team; he and Ace have developed an interesting relationship, one in which she thinks of him as a younger brother while he has more amorous intentions towards her. Indeed, his character is defined far more by his interactions with her than with the Doctor with whom he has a fairly neutral, even distant relationship (not helped by the fact the Doctor insists on calling him “Mr Hex”) – it’s easy to imagine, when and if he does leave the TARDIS, Ace being far more upset than the Doctor. What Hex doesn’t realise is that the Doctor, typically, knows far more about his past than he does himself; the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn met his doomed mother Cassie twice, in Project: Twilight and Project: Lazarus, in the latter of which she came to a rather sticky end for which, it’s arguable, the Doctor was partially responsible. Although the pair’s subsequent meeting in The Harvest was apparently a coincidence, the Doctor has yet to tell Hex he knew his mother, and it’ll be interesting to see how that strand, first revealed way back in 2005 in a rather good scene in Thicker Than Water will resolve itself.

Intermixed with the Ace/Hex stories are also a handful starring Bonnie Langford as Mel. While the character herself continues to be utterly bland, she does work better I feel with Sylv’s Doctor rather than Colin’s – as Generic Companion 1.0 Mel fills the role perfectly adequately, and Langford’s breezy personality (thankfully toned down a few notches but still very Mel-ish) contrasts nicely with Sylv’s brooding persona. Not surprisingly, there’s been no attempt, aside from the Eurovision spoof Bang-Bang-a-Boom, to replicate the tone of the pair’s television adventures, their audios being played totally straight with a Doctor far more akin to his Seasons Twenty-Five and Six persona than the spoon-playing clown of his first few stories. It’s well known that McCoy enjoys playing the Dark Doctor, and over the past couple of years he’s asked BF to give him a number of companionless stories as well, to help highlight the loneliness of being the Time Lord, and while none of the resulting audios are listed below they’ve all been, with the possible exception of the disappointing Valhalla by the normally reliable Marc Platt, well worth a listen - The Death Collectors was particularly good.

Indeed, out of the four BF Doctors it’s been choosing the best and worst audios for this incarnation that has been the hardest to narrow down. While it’s fair to say that McCoy hasn’t really had the solid gold classics each of his colleagues have been blessed with, he’s also had far fewer out and out turkeys. Thus picking the best was even more of a personal choice than usual, and I had to leave a fair few other titles out which on another day could very easily have featured – stories like The Genocide Machine, BF’s very first Dalek story, The Fires of Vulcan which saw the Doctor visiting Pompeii years before his successor got round to it, Dust Breeding which at the end of Episode Two has one of BF’s most famous cliffhangers, or even The Angel of Scutari which ended the recent Seventh Doctor mini-season on a high. That said, here’s our pick of the ten best, and five worst, audios...

The Best





The Fearmonger by Jonathan Blum
Number: 5
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor and Ace
Released: February 2000
The Seventh Doctor’s first regular release, and of the three BF Doctors at the time he made the strongest debut, with Blum’s story managing to recapture Season Twenty-Six’s atmosphere almost perfectly, as though there hadn’t been a decade in between the two. What’s noteworthy is that the story has only increased in relevance since its release, featuring as it does the leader of a neo-fascist political group (played by Jacqueline Pearce) gaining traction in an England of the near future, and an alien presence which feeds on the fear which her party is spreading. Blum reputedly had great difficulties with the script, but the result is a fine piece of work (albeit perhaps not as good as the best of the novels he wrote with his wife Kate Orman) and made for a strong start to the Seventh Doctor’s BF adventures.



The Shadow of the Scourge by Paul Cornell
Number: 13
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Benny
Released:
Ahh the New Adventures, for me as much part of Doctor Who growing up as the recently cancelled series had been. Although some of the books have dated, they were and continue to be hugely influential, with their most popular character, Benny Summerfield, still going strong in her own audio range for BF. Indeed, it was the first season of Benny audios that Gary Russell and Jason Haigh-Ellery used as a calling card for the BBC to convince them to give them the licence for Who, so it’s not surprising that soon after the audio range was up and running this audio, recreating the NA TARDIS team of the Doctor, Ace and Benny, was announced. There was only really one person who could have written it too - not only had Paul Cornell almost single-handedly defined what the NAs were, but he was Benny’s creator as well, so his commission was a bit of a non-brainer. The result did not disappoint, with Cornell producing a clever story which simultaneously ticked off all the NA archetypes (it’s all a cleverly laid masterplan by the Doctor!) while slyly subverting them (it’s all gone wrong!) Benny actress Lisa Bowerman sounds as though she has been acting with Sylv and Sophie for years, and while some of the humour is a little laboured, the story, in which an alien invasion force makes its first moves in a Travel Lodge hosting amongst other things a Cross-Stitch convention, is quintessentially Who. That said, it does have an awful cover. Regrettably, this story didn’t sell nearly as well as it should, some being put off by the presence of the non-canon Benny, so that since then there has only been one further NA audio – unfortunately, if you look below, you’ll see that it was something of a let down after this.



Flip-Flop by Jonathan Morris
Number: 46
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor and Mel
Released: August 2003
Not as you might expect from the title a story about the Doctor taking on a particularly evil pair of sandals but rather one of BF’s most ingenious releases to date, and yet another from the golden year of 2003. The twist is that the story comes on two CDs, White and Black, which can be listened to in either order, hence the title. Quite how this works is rather ingenious; each CD basically tells the reverse story of the other, so that the status quo at the beginning of one CD is reversed by its end and vice versa. There is an argument to be made that as a result you’re getting one story being told twice, but it doesn’t quite work like that, while Morris is witty enough to construct a continuous game of “Spot the Difference” with many subtle variations between the two that can take several listens to spot. Unsurprisingly given the technical nature of the audio the actual story of alien invasion is fairly routine, but the slug-like Slithergees are a memorably unpleasant alien race which would have been fun to hear from again. A one-off, and another example of BF’s willingness to experiment with their format.



The Harvest by Dan Abnett
Number: 58
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Introducing Hex
Released: June 2004
The first hint we had that the Seventh Doctor was going to get a new companion was when Gary Russell snuck a reference to Hex into a list of companions in his Unbound audio He Jests At Scars... The following year the young nurse, played by an Olivier who had only just finished Brookside, made his debut in this near-future cyber thriller set in his hospital St. Gart’s (quite who St Gart was is never revealed) in the middle of London. Like many NAs it kicks off with the Doctor and Ace already deeply embedded in their investigations as the story begins, Hex very quickly getting involved in their quest to discover just what is going on up on the 31st floor (hint: it’s nothing to do with ingrowing toenails.) At this point Ace was still in her tiresome McShane stage (notably quickly dropped in subsequent audios now that Hex was on the scene), while Hex itself is hardly a great moniker, but aside from that this is good stuff, and marked a new direction for the Seventh Doctor adventures. This story was much later on followed by two prequels, The Reaping and The Gathering, which revealed where the Cyber tech in the story came from, but neither were half as good as this one.



Dreamtime by Simon A Forward
Number: 67
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex
Released: March 2005
Dreamtime has always seemed to have a rather lowly reputation in fandom and I’ve never really understood why. Forward’s tale melds Doctor Who with aboriginal folklore to come up with a mystical, ethereal story, set on a distant asteroid but with its soul embedded deeply in the Outback. At the risk of inducing a groan, it’s yet another story more like a NA than the TV show, with the Doctor entering a netherworld to solve the central mystery while his companions are left to fend for themselves. Featuring the Galyari, an intriguing alien race introduced in Forward’s earlier audio The Sandman, this is a beguiling story which is seriously under-rated.



Live 34 by James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown
Number: 74
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex
Released: September 2005
Back in 2003 BF briefly re-opened their open door policy for script submissions in the form of a competition and were duly inundated with hundreds of entries. In the end it was Live 34 which was the winning pitch, Gary Russell attracted to the story not so much for its plot (a fairly generic Doctor-brings-down-a-totalitarian regime affair) but rather for the manner in which it was told. Eschewing the normal format, each of the four episodes instead takes the form of a radio broadcast from the titular station, compete with news items, weather updates, interviews and jingles, through which we hear the Doctor, Ace and Hex doing their thing. It’s extremely well done, slightly contrived of course in needing to tell its story but far less than you might expect, while managing to convey the dour, grey atmosphere of the dystopian Colony 34 far more effectively than many of the more straight forward audios with similar settings. Not even the mildly off-putting sound of guest star Andrew Collins (playing the radio host) making an irritating breathing noise every time he speaks stops this being one well worth tuning into.



Night Thoughts by Edward Young
Number: 79
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex
Released: February 2006
A Ghost Light style exercise in atmosphere, Young’s script was originally written for possible inclusion of Season Twenty-Seven before the series was cancelled, but its tale of a dark old house housing a group of scientists and an experiment that went badly wrong translates well to the audio format. Although the actual plot ends up not making a great deal of sense, this is still an extremely creepy four parter, let down only slightly by Happy the doll, Lizzie Hopley’s character Sue sounding just nuts rather than terrifying when she adopts the voice of her soft toy. Not nearly as good as Ghost Light (although not much is) but a solid story and one of the surprisingly few audios which exist solely to have their listeners diving behind the sofa.



Red by Stewart Sheargold
Number: 85
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor and Mel
Released: August 2006
There’s one problem with Sheargold’s otherwise excellent story about a society in which all violent tendencies have been suppressed, and that is that it requires poor old Sylv at several points, when the Doctor is possessed by the titular being, to chant “Red, red, red” in a manic fashion. This is like manna from heaven for the famously r-rolling actor, who goes into full audio gurn mode, chewing up the scenery like there’s no tomorrow, in the process inadvertently rendering what should be a couple of the play’s most intense moment unintentionally comic. That aside, however, this is an intelligent, thoughtful script from Sheargold, co-starring Sandi Toksvig as a black marketer peddling violent imagery to an emotionally dead clientele desperate to feel some kind of emotion again. Sheargold is something of a Seventh Doctor specialist, having gone on to write the enjoyable potboiler The Death Collectors but this is the better story, and one of the finest adventures BF have sent the Seventh Doctor on.



No Man’s Land by Martin Day
Number: 89
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex
Released: November 2006
As last month’s The War Games DVD reminded us, the Doctor and the First World War work rather well together, and Day’s story, set in a French military hospital in 1917, is another good example. Starting off with an intriguing premise - the Doctor is invited to investigate a murder which hasn’t happened yet – this rapidly descends into a psychological horror in which the effects of the war on the young men who fought it are explored. A good story for Hex in particular, and featuring McCoy’s Ghost Light co-star Michael Cochrane giving a fine guest performance, this is a sometime heavy-going but very worthwhile audio which does justice to those who were caught up in the conflict and is, in truth, a world away from the Troughton romp.



The Magic Mousetrap by Matthew Sweet
Number: 120
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex
Released: April 2009
The most recent release to feature in these lists, and as it’s still fairly new I don’t want to say too much about it for fear of spoiling the plot for anyone a few months behind. Suffice to say the story features the return of an old villain, one especially suited to squaring off against Sylv’s Doctor, and the resulting clash does not disappoint. Sweet, who previously wrote the amusing but extremely indulgent Sixth Doctor story Year of the Pig, opens this year’s McCoy mini-season in a stylish, off-beat fashion, which marked an upturn for the year after the mediocre “Key 2 Time” trilogy – although the next story, Enemy of the Daleks wasn’t so good, the third, The Angel of Scutari, could very easily have found itself on this list as well, and has left Hex’s arc in particular at a tantalising point.

And the Worst...





The Rapture by Joseph Lidster
Number: 36
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor and Ace
Released: September 2002
In his introduction to The Rapture’s script in The Audio Scripts: Volume 3 Joe Lidster rather ruefully wrote “Let’s not kid ourselves; The Rapture isn’t one of Big Finish’s most popular stories.” Such candour instantly makes one want to forgive him for this dire audio, but sadly he’s not wrong in his assessment. The problem with it is that while everything about the play in theory should have been fantastic in practise it falls catastrophically apart. The premise – the Doctor goes to Ibiza – is thrilling, and full of possibilities. The plot, which sees a pair of “angels” trying to take advantage of the island’s partygoers, is perfectly judged. The opening moments, in which Tony Blackburn segues into a dance music version of the Who theme, is spine-tingling. The cover remains one of my favourite BF covers ever. In theory everything works. In practise, it all falls apart. The script, sadly tempered by the fact one can’t really replicate what is said and done in Ibiza in an audio aimed at the whole family, is fatally comprised, and sounds absurd. Performances are sub-par, while the introduction of another family member for Ace is totally unnecessary. It’s all very frustrating – this could have been a real high for the range, but in the end it’s just one big downer.



The Dark Flame by Trevor Baxendale
Number: 42
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Benny
Released: March 2003
Are you ready to face the peril that is THE DARK FLAME? For THE DARK FLAME is one of those ancient evils which the Doctor has an unfortunate habit of bumping into all too often, this one distinguished solely by the fact that every five minutes it needs to remind us its name by having one of its minions utter THE DARK FLAME is appropriately melodramatic fashion. By the start of the second episode you’ll be thoroughly sick of being reminded you are listening to THE DARK FLAME, and the fact that the story itself is somewhat generic means that sticking it out until THE DARK FLAME is defeated is a wearying task. This was a doubly disappointing audio; not only was it the one stinker from the otherwise superb 2003 stories, but it was the second, and sadly up to now last, teaming up of the New Adventures TARDIS team. As I said above they work well together, and the lack of any further audios starring them means that this just feels like a wasted, and all too rare, opportunity, so that in the end you can’t help wishing that THE DARK FLAME had been snuffed out long before it got into studio.



Unregenerate! by David A McIntee
Number: 70
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor and Mel
Released: June 2005
David McIntee was a prolific New Adventures novelist (including writing, in Sanctuary one of the finest of the range) and had already contributed the highly enjoyable Excelis Rising to BF a couple of years prior to this story's release. It was thus doubly disappointing when his first, and so far only, main range audio was a tedious excursion in which the Doctor loses his marbles and is consigned to a mental asylum, giving McCoy ample reason to ham it up for all he’s worth. The story just doesn’t really work, takes too long to get into and the secondary characters not sufficiently interesting to absorb one’s attention, resulting in an audio which isn’t heinously bad but just very, very tiresome.



The Dark Husband by David Quantick
Number: 106
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex
Released: March 2008
Having the word “Dark” in the title obviously doesn’t bode well for the Who range. In addition to THE DARK FLAME above last year saw the release of The Dark Husband, a n extremely poor tale from comedy writer Quantick. Anyone who wrote for both Brass Eye and TV Burp is worthy of all the adulation one can offer, but you wouldn’t know this drivel came from the same pen, its broad humour and ropey plot making for a bit of a low point last year. Notable only for having the reclusive actors Andy B Newb and Benny Dawb (both friends of the similarly shy Sam Kisgart) joining Danny Webb in virtually the only roles other than our heroes, not only is this not funny but it also doesn’t feel much like a Seventh Doctor story – if one was going for a light-hearted bent, far better to try and recapture the manic style of Season Twenty-Four (as Clay Hickman and Gareth Roberts did with Bang-Bang-a-Boom!) than go for something new. Not fun.



Excelis Decays by Craig Hinton
Number: NA
TARDIS Team: The Seventh Doctor
Released:
Not unlike McIntee above, Hinton was responsible for some of the most purely entertaining Who novels there have ever been (in a fanwanky sort of way) but who came a cropper when it came to BF. The main problem with this lacklustre conclusion to the Excelis trilogy, sadly his only audio for the company, is that it’s a real letdown; with both the enjoyable Excelis Dawns and Excelis Rising chronicling the rise of Lord Greyvorn (guest star Anthony Stewart Head) to mastery of the city state of Excelis this play, in which he tries to marshall a war against the rest of the planet of Arturis, is totally anticlimactic. McCoy is on good form as the Doctor, and the fact that Head was not present with the other actors is totally unnoticeable, but countering that is a turgid, uninvolving story with an unsatisfactory climax, and, after Real Time which featured in the Worst of the Sixth Doctor, another rotten performance from Yee Jee Tso. Not even Ian Collier’s rich tones can redeem it. Poor.

All the above titles can be bought at Big Finish's website. Next week we finish our month long trawl through the Best and Worst of each Doctor with the Eighth Doctor's audios, in which he soars in the clouds, loses all track of time and plays tiddlywinks with the Tsarina. Join us then!

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