Big Finish
Season 21b

Released 2001-5

Synopsis: The continuing adventures of the fifth Doctor and Turlough, Peri and Erimem.


The Malus versus Werewolves! Tractators versus Ice Warriors! by Stephen Maslin 4/2/16


Unquestionably but, more so than books, audio stories hold a special secondary status. It is, after all, possible for them to have actual cast members, assuming they have not been taken from us, rather than just a reproduction of a face or two on a book cover. They can also be "a bit like the Telly" - 25 minute episodes, book-ended by that beloved theme tune, existing in impersonal clock time and so forth - in a way that books cannot. So far, so blindingly obvious.


The Canon (TV Season 1 to TV Season 2014 and beyond) is fixed, immutable, sacrosanct. Unless, of course, it isn't (for even now there are people queuing up to throw their own grandiose story arcs into the mix). One of Big Finish's defining traits has been its expanding of canon (how could it have been otherwise?), but such expansions can be awkward things: some fit so much more easily, especially those that are 'inter-season' and so it is that out of isolated stories, distinctive bodies of work can emerge:

22a, 22b etc. - stories featuring the Sixth Doctor & Peri

19a, 19b etc. - stories featuring the Fifth Doctor & Nyssa

more recently (and more self-consciously seasonal)

14a, 14b etc. - stories featuring the Fourth Doctor & Leela

16a - the single season of Fourth Doctor & Romana 1 stories

17a, 17b etc. - stories featuring the Fourth Doctor & Romana 2

and so on.

How about 21a (or 21b)? Can there be such a thing?


Strictly speaking, Seasons 21a and 21b would be two runs of stories immediately after Season 21's tele-visual conclusion The Twin Dilemma (which, thank heavens, have never been considered). There are, however, a couple of dozen stories from Big Finish's first decade that take place within Season 21, a handful of them rather good...


All I'm going to do here is line up two imagined audio seasons, 21a and 21b, alongside the original Season 21 and see how they fare. (This technique can also be used to create, say, one's own "Perfect Pertwee Season of the Imagination": The Time Warrior, as season opener, followed by Carnival of Monsters as the preferred second story, The Sea Devils as the third, The Ambassadors of Death as penultimate and The Daemons or The Green Death as the chosen finale. You get the idea.)


By 'Season 21a', I here mean Fifth Doctor stories with Turlough, and then those with Peri (and subsequently Erimem), from Big Finish's monthly releases up to mid 2004. Thus we are deprived of 2005's Fifth-and-Turlough story Singularity, 2007's Fifth-and-Peri story Exotron and the charming Fifth-and-Erimem DWM freebie No Place Like Home. By 'Season 21b', I here mean Fifth Doctor stories with Peri and Erimem from mid 2004 to 2008, leaving us without Joseph Lidster's The Gathering (no Erimem and is really only half a story) or 2009's ramshackle Key 2 Time trilogy (too late to come to the party, and not really that good anyway).

So, on with the motley...


Warriors of the Deep v Phantasmagoria v Roof of the World

Long, long after the fact, the glory that was JNT still fascinates and appalls in equal measure. One may also raise an eyebrow at certain individual writers and actors from during his nine-year tenure, but, when it comes to quality control, the buck still stops in one place and one place only. It still seems mind-boggling how something so awful as Warriors of the Deep ever made it to our screens: the dialogue, the acting, the Myrka, Ingrid Pitt... We now know of course that studio time was extraordinarily limited, even by Doctor Who standards but, even so, "there should have been a another way". How much better for all concerned if we'd had something as quirky and understated as The Roof of the World to kick the season off. Just think of how effective that initial Himalayan train ride would have been (even it had been badly done, low-budget-80s-TV-style). Better still, just think how good Phantasmagoria would have been as season opener: the early 18th century period details caught to a tee, the sparkling script, Nicholas Valentine in a dimly lit corner slowly shuffling his playing cards. Both Roof of the World and Phantasmagoria have polished scripts and some great casting (though William Franklyn and David Walliams do let their respective sides down), yet the latter is not only more consistent but remains one of Big Finish's most satisfying releases.

WINNER: Phantasmagoria 9/10

WORTHY SECOND PLACE: Roof of the World 7/10


The Awakening v Loups-Garoux v Three's a Crowd

Three's a Crowd is the kind of thing that one came to expect from Big Finish in 2005: competent filler that would not have anyone begging for a second listen. Not bad by any means, just a little ordinary. 5/10 at best. Loups-Garoux, from four years earlier, almost manages to sustain the high quality we never expected from the Fifth-and-Turlough partnership in Phantasmagoria and is bolstered by the magnificent performances of Nicky Henson and Eleanor Bron. Yet The Awakening - the tasteless humorous aside "the toast of Little Hodcombe" notwithstanding - equals it, helped no end by the presence of Polly James as Jane Hampden and Keith Jayne as Will Chandler, two of Doctor Who's best "companions-of-the-week".

JOINT WINNERS: The Awakening and Loups-Garoux 8/10


Frontios v Red Dawn v The Council of Nicaea

Red Dawn is, again, typical Big Finish fare of its time: reverential, a triumph of respect over thrills, very much what you would expect of a spin-off audio. The Council of Nicaea is something altogether different and one would dearly have loved to give it the prize here as, for all its flaws, one never thought that such esotericism as the theological controversy of Arianism would ever have been so seamlessly weaved into Doctor Who. Yet it is Frontios that actually takes the plaudits here. Though it is a typical C H Bidmead confection (matter-of-fact, meticulously plotted, sciencey), it succeeds due to the above-average execution of its creepy premise.

WINNER: Frontios 7/10

WORTHY SECOND: The Council of Nicaea 6/10


Resurrection of the Daleks v Eye of the Scorpion v The Kingmaker

There can only be one winner here. The opposition doesn't even come close: Resurrection of the Daleks is overblown rubbish, pompous and dreary; Eye of the Scorpion is better than that but soon wears its welcome rather thin with a little too much scenery-chewing in the acting department. The Kingmaker, on the other hand, is superb from start to finish (and frequently hilarious), with a terrific musical score and not one performance less than stellar. (Yes, even Arthur Smith.) The new sound of 1483 and one of a handful of audio stories that can be returned to again and again.

WINNER: The Kingmaker 10/10


Planet of Fire v Church and the Crown v Son of the Dragon

Planet of Fire may not be as bad as Warriors of the Deep but it is infinitely more cynical. Up until its arrival on our screens, Doctor Who may have been inept or misguided, but it had never been desperate. Writer Peter Grimwade cannot really be criticized, considering what the production team asked him to cram in, but once a long-running show resorts to eye-candy in such a shameless way as Nicola Bryant's introduction, it has already given up its right to exist. (We were lucky to get to Androzani afterwards to take away the nasty taste left in the mouth.) Son of the Dragon isn't really Doctor Who at all: atmospheric certainly, but much too dark for family entertainment. The Church and the Crown, by happy contrast, is Doctor Who at its finest: hugely entertaining, highly quotable and, in this case, swash-buckling too. There's a whiff of the Hartnell era here (we even have a doppelganger plot strand), but with the new companion leading the charge rather than cowering in a corner. Best of all, the support cast are all wonderful, particularly Peter John and Andy Coleman as Delmarre and Rouffet, and Andrew MacKay and Michael Shallard as Louis and Richlieu. (In an interesting piece of cross-casting, Marcus Hutton plays George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Four years later, he would play Henry Stafford, an earlier Duke of Buckingham in The Kingmaker.)

WINNER: The Church and the Crown 9/10


The Caves of Androzani v Nekromanteia v Mind's Eye

No matter how good Nekromanteia and Mind's Eye were, they would never have stood a chance against the might of Androzani. In fact, neither are much to write home about and Caves is the last great Doctor Who on TV or audio until the second season of McGann audios in 2002. 'Nuff said.

WINNER: The Caves of Androzani 9/10


The Twin Dilemma v The Axis of Insanity v The Bride of Peladon

Everybody knows it: The Twin Dilemma is terrible, not only one of the worst Doctor Who stories ever made but one of the worst pieces of television ever made. The Axis of Insanity could not help but be better although, in spite of a marvelous central idea, it manages to underwhelm at almost every turn; a very 'visual' story, with a lot of verbalized description, which would have been better drawn rather than heard. The Bride of Peladon takes the prize for season closer by virtue of pushing a few necessary fan buttons, by having a pretty good script and by being a more than half-decent farewell to Erimem. Though her back-story was a bit of a tall order, Erimem had developed into an extremely successful second companion and the perfect foil for Peri. I have no idea whether Caroline Morris and Nicola Bryant got on as well in the studio, but the sisterly relationship their characters developed was a joy to hear.

WINNER: The Bride of Peladon 7/10


Nothing earth-shattering. All rather obvious...


When Big Finish audios are any good, they can truly hold their own, even outshine their TV counterparts. If, for instance, you have the DVDs of Warriors of the Deep, Resurrection of the Daleks and Planet of Fire on your shelves but refuse to have CDs of Phantasmagoria, The Church and the Crown and The Kingmaker nearby, then there is something wrong with you.


I learnt a few years back (later than most I dare say) that just because some official product exists with the Doctor Who name on it, this alone is no reason to cherish it. One may be reluctant to knock holes in the original TV run but when one lines up apocryphal stuff - audios or indeed books - and gets them to fight for their place in the world, a lot of it is revealed to be mediocre tosh. That said, the worst of the audios referred to here are of the 5/10 variety (Red Dawn, Nekromanteia, Axis of Insanity, Three's a Crowd, Mind's Eye) whereas the worst of the TV here (Warriors of the Deep, Planet of Fire, The Twin Dilemma) barely makes it above 0/10.


Neither 21a nor 21b could ever work as seasons: they have to be broken up to follow TV continuity (the Fifth-and-Turlough stories between Resurrection of the Daleks and Planet of Fire, the Fifth-and-Peri-and-Erimem stories between Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani). This, plus the inclusion of a non-TV companion, perhaps removes a great deal of desirability in some quarters, but there are at least half a dozen audio stories here (and many more besides elsewhere) of which any self-respecting fan of Doctor Who should get hold.