It was July 1999 when Big Finish released Sirens of Time, their first officially-licensed Doctor Who audio production. Doctor #’s 5-7 (Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy) were all part of the adventure, and so began a new monthly line of adventures based on everyone’s favorite Time Lord.
(The Doctor is everyone’s favorite right? Is there anyone out there saying, “No, my favorite is the Master. Or Romana. Or Borusa…” ? Maybe Drax?)
Anyway, Sirens of Time was not all that great of a story, frankly, but it was the beginning of better things. (There are hundreds and hundreds of these things, certainly some of them are better, right?) The range of Doctors has expanded to include Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor, Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor, David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, and fill-ins for the 1st, 2nd & 3rd Doctors (whose original actors have all died). Plus alternative-continuity Doctors, Doctors from stage plays, story’s featuring companions, story’s featuring enemies, story’s featuring monsters…whole series of adventures featuring one-off guest characters from the show. It’s everything you could want from an “Expanded Universe” and then some.
So this past year, 2019, Big Finish celebrated their two decades of Doctor Who production with The Legacy of Time, a six episode celebration of both the show and Big Finish’s contribution to it.
Each episode is a stand-alone adventure written by a different author and featuring a different Doctor and different supporting cast. All of them feature the Doctor teaming up with allies, mostly from the TV series, who have all featured in Big Finish before, mostly in their own spin-off adventures. Interestingly, none feature any monsters or villains from the TV show, though some have threats that previously appeared in Big Finish audios. And though each story has its own start and finish, they all add up, at least loosely, to an overall story about a universal threat to hearkens all the way back to that first Big Finish project, The Sirens of Time.
Lies in Ruins is by James Goss, and features Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor, accompanied by a companion named Ria that we have never met before. He runs into two significant archeologists in his life, Professor Bernice Summerfield and Professor River Song. “Benny” Summerfield is a character created by Paul Cornell who originated in prose and eventually had her own series of novels and audios. River Song was created by Steven Moffat and appeared a bunch on TV played by Alex Kingston, where she became the Doctor’s wife, mostly next to the 11th Doctor. The story features the characters all exploring a mysterious dead planet that has appeared out of nowhere, and the two archeologists dealing with the fact that they seem to have been overturned for a decidely clumsier and stupider companion, and coming to realize that something is wrong with the Doctor himself. In many ways, this is the simplest of the stories, no doubt in part because of the limited cast (there are really only the four major characters).
The Split Infinitive is by John Dorney, and features Sylvester McCoy as the 7th Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace, teaming up with the crew from “Counter-Measures”–a team of soldiers and scientists who appeared on TV back in the 7th Doctor story, Remembrance of the Daleks, and served as a sort of proto-UNIT, and were breathed new life by Big Finish. Together, these guys deal with a group of jet-pack armed criminal gangsters…from the future! Adding an interesting element to the story is the fact that circumstances cause the battle to be fought in two time frames “simultaneously”–Ace works with Counter-Measures to confront the villains in the 60’s, while the Doctor does the same thing with the same people in the 70’s. The two time streams are linked so that whatever Ace does in the past causes changes in the situation for the Doctor–thus the Doctor relies on his friends to fill him on what Ace did ten years ago, which they can’t remember until right “as it happens”. It’s the sort of weirdness that is perfect for Doctor Who, but perhaps a challenge in audio as without active listening it could become tricky to keep track of which time-frame one is focusing on at the moment.
The Sacrifice of Jo Grant is by Guy Adams and features a “modern day” Jo Grant, as played by Katy Manning, hanging out with the modern day version of UNIT–specifically Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), both recurring characters on TV and also stars of their own Big Finish line. A report has surfaced that Jo Grant died in an incident some forty years prior, which of course is nonsense, until time-travel science fiction turns up and delivers Jo to that time and circumstance. There she teams up with the Third Doctor, played by regular Big Finish stand-in for Jon Pertwee, Tim Treloar. There’s a decent adventure afoot which involves dinosaurs and zombies, but the heart of this story is older Jo Grant having the opportunity to meet up again with “her” Doctor, and the two friends musing on what their time together has meant to them both. We get our first real hint of the larger story arc that The Legacy of Time is telling in this episode, and there’s an extra treat when voice impersonator Jon Culshaw makes a brief and very believable appearance as Kate’s father, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
Relative Time is by Matt Fitton, and the title is a bit of a joke as the story features the 5th Doctor, played by Peter Davison, teaming up with Jenny, who is the Doctor’s daughter from the TV show episode The Doctor’s Daughter, as played by Georgia Tennant (née Moffett), who is Peter Davison’s daughter. (She’s also David Tennant’s wife, but that’s not strictly speaking relevant here.) Like some of the characters in the prior episodes, Jenny also has her won Big Finish audio adventures. The story here features her meeting with a Doctor who doesn’t know her to deal with a threat to deal with a temporal explosion that is threatening a luxury cruise ship and, because Doctor Who never does things by halves, the entire history of earth. Complicating things is the presence of the Nine, a renegade Time Lord, original to earlier Big Finish stories, who has the unique twist of suffering from “regenerative dissonance”, a condition whereby all of the Time Lord’s prior personalities continue to live within their current body, fighting for control (other stories also feature “The Eleven” and “The Twelve”). There’s also a female thief from a planet of people who can only die of natural causes, and vortisaurs–a sort of cosmic pterodactyl that lives in the time vortex. The interaction between the Doctor and Jenny is lot of fun here and definitely worth listening to, but the story highlights the most challenging thing about The Legacy of Time, which is that it’s not fully friendly for new listeners–see my comments below.
The Avenues of Possibilities is written by Jonathan Morris, and stars Colin Baker as the 6th Doctor and India Fisher as long-term Big Finish companion Charley Pollard. They team up with old friend from the police, DI Patricia Menzies, and real-life historical figures Henry and John Fielding, to combat a group of officers from a totalitarian alternate timeline who are attempting to ensure that their own history comes to past. Again, it’s the sort of great high concept time travel histrionics that Doctor Who is perfect for, but a little confusing to actually listen to with all its hopping between time frames and characters. It’s in this story where we get definitive evidence that the overall big threat of the series are the Sirens of Time, the eponymous menaces of Big Finish’s first release. The Avenues of Possibilities is the only episode of this series which doesn’t feature a supporting character who was introduced on TV and then later got their own Big Finish line of adventures. Instead, we have Patricia Menzies who has made a few guest appearances in other audios, but that’s it. Apparently this became the case when the death of actor Trevor Baxter meant the story couldn’t use Jago & Litefoot–characters who debuted on TV back in 1977 before getting their own audios.
Collision Course is also by Guy Adams (see above), and stars Tom Baker as the 4th Doctor, alongside his TV companions Leela (Louise Jameson) and Romana (Lalla Ward). Leela and Romana have actually been starring in a series of audios about Gallifrey (the Doctor’s home planet), and her a lot of the story actually rests with them. It turns out that there is a universal disaster taking place, and somehow within it, both woman can remember separate but contradictory adventures with the Doctor where they visited a particular world where the original test flight for the firsts TARDIS took place. It turns out that the Sirens–beings that feed on energy from temporal distortions–were attempting to manipulate this critical event to allow them to be set free from the prison they were trapped in since The Sirens of Time. This interference has caused both of the Doctor’s visits to end in disaster and death, which is part of the paradox that threatens reality, leading Romana and Leela to travel there again to try to set things right. It’s a lot of time travel trippiness anchored by some good performances by the main cast. Louise Jameson always impresses as Leela, especially, and has this epic moment before her (shortly undone) death, where she epicly yells, “I will face you as I have lived, with my knife in my hand and strength in my heart. Be aware in whatever part of the underworld you roam, I will be there and I SHALL HAUNT YOU!”
In fact, all of the adventures hold up well, and all of the cast are bringing their A-game. There’s lot of action, lots of adventure, and lots of science fiction fun, with some interesting pairing up of characters. It makes the six episodes all a lot of fun to listen to, even if the connection they each have to the over-arching story is not obvious if you are not listening casually.
Indeed, if there is a weakness here, as mentioned above, it’s how actively you have to focus not just to understand the plots (that’s acceptable, of course) but to figure out who everyone actually is. The Legacy of Time is obviously marketed to fans of Big Finish who are familiar not just with Doctor Who, but with Big Finish’s expansions and developments of the mythology. Thus, very little time is spent actually explaining who anyone is, particularly if they have appeared in other releases. For someone like me, who has listed to a bunch of Big Finish but by no means even a fourth of all they have done, it meant I was sometimes a bit unnecessarily confused. I know the show well enough to recognize when the Doctor or Leela or Ace are speaking, but characters like Bernice Summerfield or Charley Pollard or the Counter-Measures crew? Not so much, and the stories aren’t particularly designed to help me keep up. It took me a while in Relative Time, for example, to figure out that the Nine was just one person and not a small group, and I was a good halfway through Avenues of Possibilities before I was sure that it was Charley Pollard who was with the Doctor, and not someone else. And while Bernice Summerfield took the time to introduce herself in Lies in Ruins, when she suddenly reappeared at the end of Collision Course, it took me a minute to place her.
The other weak spot of the series is one that we were never going to avoid, and maybe we wouldn’t have wanted to. In pretty much every multi-Doctor special that the BBC or Big Finish have produced, there is always a scene or sequence where we get the various Doctors bicker at or tease each other. This is a tradition that goes back to Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton exchanging barbs in The Three Doctors in 1973. Here, the story doesn’t actually have room for something like this, since it’s about something that the Doctors are all facing separately, so the final script manufactures this in the most contrived way. Desperate to avoid the final paradox of the Sirens, Romana needs six Time Lords to help her pilot the first TARDIS, and apparently in the future asks Bernice Summerfield to collect six version of the Doctor (and not just say, six Time Lords from Gallifrey, where she is the president). Bernice turns up with Doctors #4-8, allowing all of The Legacy of Time‘s lead actors to turn up, tease each other about their clothes, throw out easter eggs about things from the TV show, and generally sit around and talk about how awesome they all are.
And then, to top it off, the story even more obviously shoe-horns in appearances by other big Finish Doctors–namely David Tennant as the 10th, and the current fill-ins for the 1st (David Bradley, who turned up in the part in a Christmas special on TV) and 2nd (Frazer Hines, better known as the companion Jamie). They turn up, prattle out a few funny lines, and then promptly leave again. At this point the festivities are very self aware and a bit self serving, which doesn’t make for a great story, but I guess is fine as far as being actually being a celebration is concerned.
So in the end, weaknesses are easily excused, and strengths are greatly appreciated!