A new Doctor Who range standard release by Big Finish costs between £12.99 and £14.99. Box sets start at £20. To keep up to date with the range of audioplays featuring previous Doctors and companions is an expensive business.
Big Finish's audience is therefore self-selecting. You have to have disposable income and enough spare time to listen to the stories before we take into account the niche within a niche that is they occupy within Doctor Who fandom.
I have never been able to afford to regularly buy Big Finish plays, and probably won’t be able to for at least a decade. I would wait for good reviews, friends and word of mouth to convince me to buy the occasional story if it came down in price.
Recently, I've been trying to play catch up with their boxsets, listening to Dark Eyes and the War Doctor series. I'd also heard the Sixth Doctor's regeneration story last year in a friend’s car.
Today, I saw the announcement that two actors who played Cybermen in the Eighties had played Cybermen for a Big Finish play, and an enthusiastic tweet in response that read '@bigfinish have been producing so much innovative and exciting work lately ... but this is something special. It feels like an era of 1980s television has returned!'
I'd already decided that Big Finish's plays weren't for me anymore, but if there had been any lingering doubts that would have confirmed it.
If work can be regarded as innovative for bringing back some actors who used to do the job thirty years ago, then clearly Attack of the Cybermen is a lot more innovative than we gave it credit for.
Big Finish occasionally do something stunning. Spare Parts, The Chimes of Midnight, and Jubilee are rightly acclaimed to this day. Protect & Survive and A Death in the Family are - I thought - more recent successes, but they were released in 2012 and 2010.
This was when Big Finish had a restricted playset, and they had to focus on what they could do with limited resources. Now they have a licence to explore the old and new series' continuity and with this comes irresistible temptation.
If John Hurt is interested in working with you, then you can see why it's tempting to do a Time War series. Unfortunately reading and listening to Time War stories confirms that it’s a terrible idea. Russell T. Davies' version allowed so much interpretation in the mind's eye of the viewer, that the Time War was something unimaginable that didn’t always follow a conventional narrative.
It has to because Big Finish have a roster of writers working hard on the increasing number of ranges. Their output is considerable. Their writers spread thin. The Time War's greatest enemy is a writer with multiple deadlines who doesn't have time to make this exposition seem natural.
Also it would really help if the first three War Doctor stories (including George Mann's book) didn't all follow the same pattern:
- The War Doctor – who it turns out is just the Doctor behaving as normal but OMG he's in a war – meets a young woman who fulfils the companion role.
- The Time Lords are up to something.
- Underwhelming fanwank (the debate about whether this is a tautology will have to happen some other time).
- The young woman dies at the end because of war and the War Doctor is upset because of war and it transpires that war is actually bad.
I'm not confident about never seeing this story again. If we have to hear a conventional narrative depicting events that shouldn’t have one, it would be lovely if it wasn’t the same one over and over again.
However, as you can see from the Cybermen quote above, Big Finish have an audience who are being entertained, and it's clear to me that what I want from Doctor Who is not the same as what they want.
Also, I have been trying not to read/listen to books by straight cis white men (for reasons mentioned here), and so if I want to listen to Big Finish then I've got a limited choice. Looking at the monthly main range releases from 2014 – 2018, five stories have female authors. Five out of seventy-eight. It's about as good as on television, really, with a similarly white writing pool.
Another major problem, is that because he's the Executive Producer, it's very unlikely that Nick Briggs will be stopped from writing scripts ever again. This is a shame, because at best he's the Eric Saward to Terry Nation's Robert Holmes.
There’s a paragraph in El Sandifer’s article on Time Heist - a story my wife could not remember even as I reiterated the plot to her - which has a delightfully pithy description courtesy of Jack Graham:
"There’s a pleasantly devastating phrase that I think Jack originated—visual Big Finish—that applies to stories like this. And it’s easy to imagine Big Finish making many of the storytelling decisions here. Psi and Saibra, in particular, are crap in almost the exact way Big Finish usually is. But for the most part, this is the rare story that probably would have been improved if it had come out of Big Finish. They can at least be bothered to do a basic Chekov’s Gun setup, and they are mercifully minimalist in their use of lighting gels. And more to the point, as a Big Finish release it could have just been politely forgotten in the way that Fiesta of the Damned, Moonflesh, and City of Spires are."
And it’s entirely true that Big Finish produce disposable and forgettable stories, which is a given in any long running series, but on telly this doesn’t work out at a £12 loss.
The War Doctor Boxsets, Dark Eyes and the Sixth Doctor regeneration boxset all felt like Time Heist - TV episodes that are mid-season filler. They pass the time, they have their ups and downs, and once they’re finished you don’t really remember them. The difference with Big Finish is that there can be a lot of continuity to pick up along the way, so they feel like your first attempt at baking scones - they’re not bad but they are far too dense to actually enjoy.
However, these are Big Finish’s boxsets, their events and blockbusters. They pull focus. They’re £20 each when they’re not on sale.
As I said, Big Finish’s audience is self-selecting based on price. They’re also self-selecting based on content.
This is Doctor Who for a specific fan audience, and a valid one to target, who are happy enough seeing these concepts realised in the first place, who are excited by the mere presence of David Banks in a new Cyberman story, as if the character of Cyberleader is one with masses of untapped potential.