big finish

The Avengers – The Lost Episodes Volume 1 (Big Finish Productions)

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When I wrote my review of the new Survivors audio series from Big Finish Productions, I briefly mentioned another new title from the company’s prodigious range output – their recreations of the first series of 1960s ITV series The Avengers. However, I really wanted to circle back and give that a little more stand-alone attention.

Most people will know The Avengers as the light-hearted semi-fantasy show starring bowler-hatted John Steed and his convention-breaking leading lady (initially Honor Blackman, later Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson). Those are the episodes of the show that survived, but there is a first season now largely lost that is very different, in which Steed was the sidekick and the lead role was that of Doctor David Keel, with the pair teaming up to tackle the very realistic grim and dirty street crime of 1960s London from drug smuggling to extortion and murder.

The show was the creation of producer Sydney Newman, and it was the success of The Avengers that gave him the clout to get Doctor Who off the ground when he moved to the BBC. Doctor Who fans will be familiar with the problem of early episodes of a beloved TV series being wiped from the archives because of the cost of storage and the assumption that there would never be any demand to reshow them in the future. In the case of Who,, we’re fortunate enough that the show’s fans were so devoted that they managed to capture off-air audio recordings so that even if we can no longer see the programme we can at least listen to it, but in the case of The Avengers there is no such Plan B: of 26 episodes of its first series, only two exist in full together with the first 20-minute act of the first show. That’s it, though. Read the rest of this entry »

Survivors [BBC and Big Finish Productions]

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I set out intending to write a review of a new collection of audio dramas from Big Finish Productions, a company best known for its extensive range of Doctor Who audio spin-offs but who’ve also produced ‘new episodes’ of cult dramas ranging from The Tomorrow People to Sapphire and Steel and who have also just started an interesting new line of audio recreations of the mostly lost 1961 first series of The Avengers. Big Finish’s newest line is Survivors, which is based on a BBC TV series from the mid-1970s; but for obvious reasons I soon found that it’s impossible to talk about the new production without first undertaking a historical discussion of its television roots to set it in context, so please pardon the diversion…

The original Survivors was created by Terry Nation, the writer best remembered for penning the second Doctor Who story in 1963 and for introducing the Doctor’s nemeses, the Daleks. Nation went on to write episodes of The Avengers and a swathe of ITC productions including The Baron, The Saint, The Champions, Department S, The Persuaders! and The Protectors and also going on to create another cult favourite, Blake’s 7 before moving to the US and working on MacGyver in the 1980s.

Survivors could best be described as the dark reflection of 1970s sitcom favourite The Good Life. While Tom and Barbara Good got to play for laughs throwing themselves into then-trendy self-sufficiency in the backyard of their Surbiton home, in Survivors such endeavours become a matter of life and death in a post-plague world in which 99% of the population has been killed by a virulent flu-like epidemic leaving only isolated pockets of survivors trying to work out how to live without power, technology or law and order. Read the rest of this entry »

Dr Who: Cobwebs (Big Finish Productions/BBC Radio 4 Extra)

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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.