Meanwhile, the people at Big Finish had been busy. They’d got the license to create new Doctor Who audio adventures, initially featuring the fifth, sixth and seventh Doctors, and had started with a range that was more-or-less straightforward pastiche of the TV show, although generally with a standard of writing that was much higher than it had been during the time those Doctors were on the TV.

Colin Baker, in particular, had been very well served by his first few stories. Baker was not served well by his TV appearances in the role, and to this day is the butt of jokes by the ignorant about them. As I write this, the Daily Telegraph has just run a “top ten best Doctors” list, when there have so far been eleven actors who have taken the role in the TV series proper. Of course, the joke is that Colin Baker isn’t there. Ho, ho, ho.

But Baker is, in fact, a very strong actor, and when he was given a run of good scripts in the Big Finish audio, soon found his reputation among those fans who were bothering to listen thoroughly rehabilitated.

Some of this was deliberate. Baker’s first full story, The Marian Conspiracy by Jacqueline Rayner, was a wonderful story unlike anything that had been done in the TV series since the early 60s, being a straight historical story. It also introduced a new companion, Dr Evelyn Smythe, who was bar none the most fully-rounded character ever to be a companion for the Doctor.

But it’s with this story, one that was apparently originally intended for Tom Baker before he turned Big Finish down, that both Baker and Big Finish come into their own.

This is the first time that Big Finish did something totally new and original. Rob Shearman, a respected playwright who was at the time best known for his work with Alan Ayckbourn and Martin Jarvis, came up with a story about cruelty, about imagination, and about the creative process.

The Doctor and Frobisher — a companion from the comics, a shapeshifting alien who spends most of his time in the form of a penguin, and who has only appeared in two audio stories, both by Shearman — arrive in a castle where the King has just died. And as is always the case when the King has died, the new King is the good son of the old King and his evil, scheming wife, and is the victim of a plot to usurp the throne by his evil illegitimate half-brother and the High Priest. This has happened every time the King has died, forever…

The basic structure of the story seems to owe a lot to Terry Pratchett and his playing with fantasy conventions — it resembles Pyramids, especially, right down to the new King denying his divinity (Peppin even has a very similar name to Pteppic), with a touch of Small Gods thrown in — but it also resembles Morrison’s Animal Man, going from an argument about animal rights at the start (one following on from Robert Holmes’ similar argument in The Two Doctors, one of Shearman’s very favourite Doctor Who stories) to an argument at the end about how a writer should treat the fictional characters s/he creates.

Shearman has a lot of themes he keeps coming back to, and the two overriding themes here, of a father inadvertantly hurting his son, and of a writer inadvertantly harming his creations, come back time and again, especially in Unbound: Deadline, his “out of continuity” audio story for Big Finish.

But this, his first Doctor Who, is arguably his best. People are cruel to each other because they’re acting roles which they have been placed in and don’t think to break them. Frobisher toys with the gumblejack not because he’s cruel, but because he’s in the form of a penguin. The high priest conspires with the illegitimate evil brother to overthrow Peppin, not because he wants to, but out of a sense of duty. The guards are killed during the ritual assassination attempt because that’s what happens to guards.

People are trapped in their roles, acting out the same pointless mistakes over, and over, and over again.

And so when the big twist comes, and we hear “Are you my daddy?” repeated over and over (yes, Steven Moffat has heard this story, why do you ask?) then we realise that the historian — the writer — who has trapped himself in his own creation has done so because he is living, over and over, the very worst moment of his life. (There’s a similarity here to Permutation City by Greg Egan, though I suspect it’s coincidental).

Much like Dead Romance, this is a strange combination of the highly metafictional and a statement about depression — the whole story turns out to be the thoughts of a man who can’t stop obsessing over the worst thing he has ever done, and who has created an entire civilisation in his own mind just to punish himself for it. One wonders why all the best Doctor Who material from the late 90s and early 2000s seems to combine these two elements, but whatever the reason it led to strikingly good work.

This is not to say that The Holy Terror is depressing — for the most part, it isn’t. Shearman’s style is to write very broad, black, farce that only right at the end has a very serious, horrifying point. For most of the story, The Holy Terror is hilarious, if in a very dark manner — the jokes are mostly about torture, religious persecution, and murder.

While the early Big Finish stories had been good — though not great — pastiches of 1980s Doctor Who, The Holy Terror showed that Big Finish were as capable as anyone of making work that was funny, clever, and moving. As the Eighth Doctor Adventures were fast disintegrating into unreadability (with a few honourable exceptions) as a bunch of terrible editorial decisions alienated all but the most dedicated readers, the Big Finish stories became, from here until 2005, the most vital continuation of the Doctor Who story.

7 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 2000”

  1. New Who Post On Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] In which I look at The Holy Terror, Colin Baker, Rob Shearman and Big Finish Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Matthew Craig Says:

    Apologies for the consumerist vulgarity, but this is one of the First Fifty £2.99 downloads on bigfinish dot com. There are so many of these blamed plays that I have no idea where to start (especially wrt the Eighth Doctor). Actually, I tell you what, I tend to pass over all the ones with more than one Doctor on the cover.

    I’m still working through the “lost episode” productions I got from audiogo (featuring linking narration from Purves and Hines), but I’ll give this a go as well, eventually. Cheers, Andrew.

    //\Oo/\\

  3. Andrew Hickey Says:

    With the Eighth Doctor, basically, don’t. His stories in the first fifty are all part of one long, convoluted, story arc with a very unsatisfactory ending. Unless you’re planning on getting them all, don’t get any, except maybe Chimes At Midnight, which is *very* good.

    The first ten you should go for out of that fifty are (in order of release):

    The Marian Conspiracy — Introduces Evelyn, the best companion, and is written by Jac Rayner who is a criminally underrated writer.

    The Holy Terror

    Project: Twilight — The start of a massive thread that runs through Big Finish’s stuff to this day. It’s a perfectly decent story in its own right, but it sets up stuff that’s still relevant now.

    Spare Parts — Wonderful Cyberman origin story, and possibly the best use of the Cybermen ever

    …ish — Very well-done metafictional piece about the power of words

    Bang-Bang-a-Boom! — Laugh out loud parody of 90s Star Trek and the Eurovision Song Contest. Some of the jokes don’t work, but there are so many that some of them hit their targets.

    Jubilee — Another Rob Shearman masterpiece. The basis of the TV story Dalek, but roughly a trillion times better than that.

    Doctor Who and the Pirates — I’ll be writing about this one next week. A musical, with Bill Oddie in.

    Omega — Nev Fountain’s first work for the series. Very strong story which it’s hard to sum up without giving away the twist.

    and Davros — basically just an excuse to hear Colin Baker and Terry Molloy try to out-ham each other for two and a half hours.

  4. Matthew Craig Says:

    Excellent reccos, Andrew. I’ll start with Holy Terror and Spare Parts. Thanks!

    //\OO/\\

  5. Cleofis Says:

    While the Eighth Doctor Adventures do have a story arc, you can still enjoy them individually for the most part; they function somewhat like the new series, with little bits here and there each episode reminding you of the overall arc, and occasionally moving it forward a bit, but it doesn’t come to a head until Neverland and Zagreus, which are terrible. That aside, you’d be missing out if you didn’t check them out. So then, my recommendations would be:

    Storm Warning- the first Eighth Doctor adventure, and introduces his companion Charley (around whom the aforementioned arc revolves)

    Chimes of Midnight- as Andrew said, VERY good

    Seasons of Fear- Paul Cornell doing historical comedy, good stuff

    After that, Neverland/Zagreus happens and the next arc of stories are all about the Doctor and Charley journeying through multiple universes, and also stand almost entirely on their own. Scherzo (also by Shearman) and The Natural History of Fear are both sublime. Once the Divergent Universe thing ends, then it’s on to Big Finish business as usual, and you can jump on with Human Resources. That may all sound a bit complicated, but I, personally, didn’t find it difficult.

  6. James Precious Says:

    ‘Primeval’ by Lance Parkin is stunning: a brilliant revisit to Traken, featuring one of Big Finish’s strongest antagonists for The Doctor, performed by Stephen Grief.

    Parkin’s work is often exceptional: his ‘Davros’ play in the Villains trilogy is a fabulous exploration of Davros’s character & how it was formed, along with themes of globalisation & corporations that connect with the later Davros’s activities as The Great Healer.

    I disagree that the acting in ‘Davros’ is hammy: Molloy’s take on Davros finally equals, or exceeds, Michael Wisher’s; also you get the superb Bernard Horsfall.

  7. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I wasn’t hugely impressed by Primeval, even though I’m a huge fan of Parkin generally.

    And calling Davros hammy was *far* from a criticism — Baker and Molloy are both overacting *perfectly*, in exactly the way the script calls for, and clearly loving it.

Leave a Reply