In the wake of the whole COVID-19 pandemic, Big Finish–most famous for their original and licensed Doctor Who audios–began to release a variety of projects for free on a weekly basis. Some of these were related to Doctor Who but many others were based on different licensed properties or even completely original series. tried to snatch up a bunch of the stuff when it was available, and have just recently gotten around to checking a bunch of it out.
Big Finish has been pretty generous with all this free product, but each one also serves as a sampler to tempt me to buy other material. Do they work?
Sherlock Holmes – The Speckled Band
Line: Sherlock Holmes (1.4)
Length: 61 minutes
Buying Price: If you’re interested, this can be bought for just $2.99 Australian dollars from Big Finish
Comments: Big Finish has done bunch of Sherlock Holmes-related dramas, some of which bring the famous detective into confrontations with the likes of Jack the Ripper or Dracula. But some, like this one, seem to just be straight adaptations of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. The Adventure of the Speckled Band is one of the most famous of these stories, and for good reason, so there’s not much to fault by way of the plot, which has to do with a soon-to-be-married woman’s fear for her life after the mysterious death of her twin sister. The audio is also well produced, though it rests in an odd place between full-cast drama and an audio book. I think the script is basically the entire text of the original story, and there are only three actors–Nicholas Briggs as Holmes, Richard Earl as Watson, and Jane Goddard as the woman, Helen Stoner. As a result, we’re subject to quite a loooong monologue by Helen Stoner which sets up the backstory for the case. It’s one thing to read such passages, but when spoken aloud as part of a semi-naturalistic audio, it is a bit jarring and tiresome, though of course the exposition is necessary. Once we get past that, though, I found the rest of the drama to be highly engaging, thanks to the overall strong sound design and performances working well with the original written material. If you’re interested in a solid and straightforward adaptation of Doyle’s work, you’ve come to the right place
Does it tempt me to get more? Not really. I definitely enjoyed listening to this adventure, but not so much that I want to pay money to buy more of what are basically straight audio books, even if they are really well done. And I’m not enough of a Holmes aficionado to be seriously interested in new stories of Holmes fighting Jack the Ripper or whoever.
Blake’s 7 – The Armageddon Storm – Part 1
Line: Blake’s 7 – The Liberator Chronicles (3.1)
Length: 61 minutes
Buying Price: Free! Unlike the other items in this post, this one seems to be permanently on offer on the Big Finish website.
Comments: Blake’s 7 was a British sci-fi show from the 1970’s with a lot of connections to Doctor Who, so it’s not surprising that Big Finish would go that way when looking for other properties to get into. It ran for four seasons and was about a group of questionably moral freedom fighters who were combating a clearly immoral galactic federation. The show went through lots of changes through the years, including the departure of the lead actor, who played the titular Blake. When he left, the show made the decision to elevate a popular secondary character to the lead, and Avon (played by Paul Darrow) became the leader of the freedom fighters. While Blake was a (sometimes dangerous) idealist, however, Avon was a ruthless pragmatist, often motivated by self-interest and survival. The Armageddon Storm takes place during the third season of the show, when Avon was in charge and the crew still had their highly advanced ship, the Liberator (hence the name of the line of stories). Original actor Paul Darrow is back, along with fellow regulars Michael Keating (Vila) and Jan Chappell (Cally). One is tempted to wonder why, though, as Vila and Cally are barely in the story. Well, it is a Part 1, so maybe they figure more prominently in the later episodes?
Instead, Avon spends most of his time with Del Grant, a one-off guest character from the old show who was and is played by Tom Chadbon (an actor I also recognize as a Doctor Who guest star). Fans of the TV show know that there’s a lot of baggage with Grant and Avon’s relationship (Grant’s sister Anna was Avon’s dead lover, whom Grant blamed Avon for the death of) (and then later Anna out to be secretly alive and secretly the legendary murderer who was credited for killing her…and then Avon killed her for real, though in self defense…although Del never knew any of that). The story builds on all of that extensively. The plot involves Avon and Grant having to work together to break into a place to get information from guy about a new doomsday weapon the Federation has developed–over the course of their mission all sorts of secrets come to light.
The story is done in a similar style to Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles range, with a limited cast and a lot of narration (by Avon, in this case). I always find this takes some getting used to but the story itself, and the character work, is pretty engaging and the production values are strong. Avon can be pretty pretentious and seems to like to use a lot of overly complex sentences in his narration, but his character manages to walk a fine line between being completely self-interested while not forgetting he leads a band of freedom fighters, which keeps him interesting. Of course, this being Blake’s 7, it’s all a bit depressing and the doomsday weapon ends up being deployed in the end–but it’s still just the first of three parts, so who knows what happens next.
Does it tempt me to get more? Well, I’m tempted because I’m curious to know what happens next, and I know that somehow Del Grant ends up being around for a bunch of Big Finish’s Blake’s 7 audios, though there are several lines of releases and I’m not sure where this fits in. However, I don’t think I’m sufficiently tempted to want to spend actual money on this.
Cicero – Episode 1
Line: Cicero (1.1)
Length: 57 minutes
Buying Price: $4.99 AUD
Comments: Cicero is a Big Finish original–not based on any prior intellectual property (though Cicero himself apparently appeared in one their Doctor Who dramas). The story is set in ancient Greece–Marcus Tullius Cicero (Samuel Barnett) is a young and idealistic lawyer in a corrupt world, who in this story is tasked to represent a man accused of the odious crime of murdering his own father. The earnest young man is assisted in this by his less serious brother Quintus (George Naylor). Together, they investigate this crime and pursue justice, even though it brings them in opposition to powerful men in their society.
Even though the characters are original, the genre is not–this is the sort of detective drama that the English are so good at. All the usual tropes are there, with even the big final speech to all the gathered suspects being accomplished via Cicero’s courtroom presentation. Unlike the two titles listed above, this one is a full-cast audio drama, with just a bit of narration in the form of a letter that Cicero is writing. But while it’s got nicely crafted dialogue and good performances, there is nothing special about the story itself, nothing to draw me to this setting beyond the novelty of listening to a detective story in audio rather than just watching it on TV.
The mystery plays out fine but has nothing in particular to recommend it, and the final reveal doesn’t pack any punch. By the time Cicero is spelling everything out, it’s pretty easy to guess who the guilty party is, especially since the story has just gone to the bother of re-introducing the character so that we’ll remember who the lawyer is even talking about. So while there’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, there’s nothing especially strong about it either.
Does it tempt me to get more? No, it doesn’t. If the mystery had been stronger, I’d feel differently. Maybe the mystery is stronger in other episodes, but I certainly don’t want to spend the money finding out.
Jeremiah Bourne in Time – Episode 1
Line: Jeremiah Bourne in Time (1.1)
Length: 53 minutes
Buying Price: A bit unclear–you can get a 16 minute excerpt of this episode for free. The first episode is listed on the Big Finish website, but without a price attached to it. The whole story (four episodes) is available for $19.99 AUD.
Comments: Jeremiah Bourne in Time is another Big Finish original, but this time a much more unique sort of story. Jeremiah Bourne (Sebastian Armesto) is a modern day teenager who fairly randomly finds himself transported back in time a century ago, into the middle of a seance being conducted by some elderly ladies. There are some funny bits as they believe that they’ve successfully reached their loved ones in the afterlife, and the befuddled Jeremiah attempts to convince them that he is from the future.
As the plot continues, Jeremiah makes friends with a variety of eccentric locals in his effort to figure out how he came to be in this environment and how he might eventually return. I don’t know how any of that plays out because this is only the first episode, and all ends with a cliffhanger (some ruffians suddenly break into Jeremiah’s room and kidnap him!). But it’s a very promising adventure–completely different in tone and style to Doctor Who, even though it’s also a light-hearted take on time travel.
The story is by Nigel Planer, who played Neil the hippie on The Young Ones. The script is witty and well-paced, and the production strong. Planer also plays one of the odd characters in the past, a mysterious guy about whom I’m sure more will be revealed. The uniformly excellent cast also includes Sophie Thompson (Reinette from the Doctor Who episode The Girl in the Fireplace), Tim McInnery (Blackadder) and Christopher Ryan (Planer’s co-star on The Young Ones–he played Mike–and also featured as a couple of aliens on both classic and modern Doctor Who).
Does it tempt me to get more? Yes! More than any of these, I’m interested in hearing how this story plays out. Unfortunately, there is no option for buying Jeremiah Bourne by episode, so the only choice is to spend $20 and get Episode 1 again. That’s a little off-putting. But when the time is right, I may still take the plunge.