During its wilderness years – after the BBC banished it from television after 1989 not to return until 2005 save for one TV movie that must never, ever be mentioned – Doctor Who was kept alive by a series of novels and audio adventures. The production company Big Finish Productions won the license to produce the latter and is still going strong.
Strangely these new adventures have been relatively unexploited by the BBC in their quest for new radio drama material, when you would think they would be ideal. Until recently the the only such stories to have made it onto the BBC’s Radio 7 spoken word station were those featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor with a new companion (played by the wonderful Sheridan Smith) in an almost entirely separate, self-contained ‘series’ that the Corporation felt could run in parallel with the TV adventures of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith without interfering or confusing.
But this week, in a rather daring and very welcome departure to boost the launch of the new BBC Radio 4 Extra brand, the BBC have bought up a batch of Big Finish stories for the station. These feature not only Peter Davison as the Doctor, but his actual early 80s companion line-up of bolshy Tegan (Janet Fielding – particularly wonderful to have her back!), scheming Turlough (Mark Strickson) and nice Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). And the stories are in four half hour episodes with cliffhangers: it really is like being transported back.
Nyssa was always one of the dullest, least formed, “nicest” companions of 70s and 80s Doctor Who and Big Finish have pulled a nice twist here in setting this story two days after Nyssa departed the crew. In a lovely character touch, Tegan goes from pinning for the departed Nyssa to being incredibly antagonised when she returns, and Tegan is reminded of her former friend’s goody-goody tendencies and made to realise that she has much more in common with the “evil” Turlough whom she had formerly loathed – a nice transition that also fills in a character development gap in the original 80s stories, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence or accident that it does so.
In fact, while Nyssa’s been gone for only two days, that’s two days Tardis time – but 50 years for her, a marvellous idea that wouldn’t have occurred to the original production team but is very much in the spirit of the Moffat era of playing with time. It gives Sarah Sutton so much more to work with, while playing with time is what this whole “Cobwebs” episode is about – in a wonderfully simple, boiled-down and creepy first episode set in an abandoned station the Tardis crew find what look to be their own bodies, dead for 40 years; and in the second episode, it all starts to come true as they travel back in time. So far, so great.
If there’s a criticism of this story (and of some others that I’ve listened to in the Big Finish line) it’s that they’re simply too clever, intelligent and audacious for their own good. If you’re used to the nice, steady, linear productions that form the bulk of Radio 4’s drama output then these stories can overwhelm and become really quite confusing, as in the case of “Cobwebs” where the third episode goes off on a different tangent altogether and the guest characters we thought we had been introduced to suddenly turn out not to be who we – or even they – thought they were. It’s so many switches and reversals that – taken together with all the advanced timey-wimey stuff playing out as well – could well leave people struggling to maintain a grip with its breathless pace.
I suspect that this shows the roots of the Big Finish production. This is something like the 130th instalment and they’re well into their groove, so for those of us jumping in late in the day it’s hard for us to keep our balance on an already fast-moving vehicle. Also, let’s not forget that these productions were originally created for CD (and download) where listeners would set everything aside and play it when they have the requisite two hours’ of attention to devote to it, not just when it happened to come on the radio even if they were in the middle of doing something else. Such context can make a big difference: perhaps this is drama best reserved to iPlayer scheduling.
Still, it’s surely no bad criticism to say that something’s too clever or too ambitious – better than than safe-but-dull conservatism. And maybe it’s just that I hadn’t engaged my thinking head mode before listening.