Big Finish
The New Eighth Doctor Adventures
Series Four

Released 2011

Starring Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith



The End of the Affair by Stephen Maslin 1/4/13

More than perhaps any other company you could name, Big Finish is a Fans' Company. It is debatable whether it has always been FOR fans, but it is most definitely BY fans. On the plus side, this means they know their subject and yet it has also, from time to time, resulted in a kind of private game which one can pay to tune into. In an ideal world, the rules of such a game might have gone something like this...

  1. Imagine the TARDIS is real so that you could
  2. Go back in time and
  3. Tell the makers of the programme that invented said TARDIS not to do certain things before they did them.
This would cause a huge temporal paradox (that is, if you had already gone back to make later changes unnecessary then why would you have needed to go back?), but if you ignored that, the list of priorities for Doctors Three to Five might go something like this...

Spearhead From Space: don't do that thing at the end with the comedy octopus;

The Silurians: the head-waggling is a really bad idea;

The Claws of Axos: get Robert Holmes in to sparkle up the dialogue (see also The Mutants, Planet of the Daleks, Death to the Daleks);

The Time Monster: don't cast Ingrid Pitt (see also Warriors of the Deep);

Invasion of the Dinosaurs: that particular outside contractor will let you down badly;

Revenge of the Cybermen: tell the Cyberleader not to put his hands on his hips;

The Talons of Weng-Chiang: that rat is going to spoil everything;

Underworld: those robot guardians will look much better without the noses;

The Ribos Operation: that claw shouldn't bend;

The Androids of Tara: do something about that bloody woodbeast;

The Power of Kroll: no-one will take the Swampies seriously dressed like that;

Shada: you should finish this before you make Nightmare of Eden;

Full Circle: don't cast Matthew Waterhouse, I'm begging you;

Logopolis: kill Paddy Kingsland;

Kinda: that snake is crap (see also Snakedance);

Mawdryn Undead: kill Paddy Kingsland again;

The Awakening: the 'toast' joke is in really poor taste;

The Caves of Androzani: call it a day after you've finished this one.

None of the above being possible, Big Finish have contented themselves with tying up lose ends, creating back story, putting previously poor monsters in better stories and so forth. (Quite often with great success. Mel, for example, is now officially the greatest companion the show ever had.) But if it were truly possible to Meddle with Time, what, pray, would you tell the makers of the 1996 TV movie as they sat down to plot the whole sorry thing out? One way would be to just give them copies of The Chimes of Midnight, Other Lives, Memory Lane and disc one of Storm Warning then leave the room (and the time zone). One feels, however, that if one had left them copies of some of the NEDAs, one would have got pretty much the same TV movie we actually got: overly detailed references to the past; too much bowing the knee toward youth culture; an earnest and rather dull script with a whole lot of sound and fury amounting to not all that much.

One feels that Big Finish has struggled gamely to return to some sort of form since its horrendous quality crash in 2007-08 but there has been no clearer evidence of its having lost its once golden touch than in the NEDAs. There have been some shockers: The Horror of Glam Rock, The Skull of Sobek, The Zygon Who Fell to Earth, Hothouse, Wirrn Dawn and The Cannibalists all deserve to have every copy incinerated for their crimes against culture; either comedies that weren't funny or that all too pervasive lack of subtlety that goes with shock-for-the-sake-of-it. Yet it would be unfair not to mention that there had been some notable triumphs as well: Human Resources, Brave New Town, Grand Theft Cosmos, The Beast of Orlok and Scapegoat are all up there: clever, funny, dramatic, scary. Fifty per cent saints and fifty per cent sinners so far by my reckoning. With the Fourth Doctor stealing the limelight (didn't he always?) as of 2012, the Eighth is returned to the monthly double CD schedules.

So, how does the final season of NEDAs stand up to scrutiny?

4.01 Death in Blackpool (Alan Barnes) Lucie Miller always loved Christmas back in Blackpool. Her Mam running a still frozen turkey under the hot tap at ten. Great-Grandma Miller half-cut on the cooking sherry by eleven. Her Dad and her uncle arguing hammer and tongs about who was the best James Bond all through dinner. And in the afternoon, Aunty Pat, haring up to the house on the back of a moped weighed down with ridiculous presents. Christmas 2009 didn't turn out like that. Christmas 2009, the Doctor turned up...

Imagine you in the position to cast a new companion for the Doctor. You're in charge of a company that makes audio adventures. You think back to when you were a nerdy teenager, unable to persuade any member of the opposite sex to join you in your fantasy world. You remember that posh bird who was always very polite, but never spent any more time with you than was absolutely necessary. You cast India Fisher as Charley Pollard. Almost by accident, that works out pretty well. Or you remember that mouthy bad girl who repeatedly told you to take a hike. You cast Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller.

Absolutely nothing wrong with Sheridan Smith as an actress but just about everything wrong with the initial conception of the character: based on an unattainable childhood fantasy figure, rather than on 'companionability'.

It is with some relief, then, that Lucie is finally (or so we're led to believe) offloaded at the end of NEDA IV, story one (which in truth feels more like an inter-season special than a season opener). The story itself spends most of its time desperately digging itself out of the hole dug for it in the excruciating The Zygon Who Fell To Earth. Though it is better than that (it couldn't possibly be worse), Death in Blackpool is boring and overly sentimental with a treacly final conversation (over 'In The Bleak Winter' for heaven's sake) that is truly toe curling. (And the plot is more than a little reminiscent of the BBV story The Other Side). Oh, and one more thing: Zynog? I mean, Zynog?!? 3 out of 10.

4.01a An Earthly Child (Marc Platt) Thirty years on from the Daleks' invasion of Earth, the scars still haven't healed. The survivors inhabit a world thrown back two hundred years. a world of crop shortages and civil unrest. A world where the brightest and best of its young are drawn to the xenophobic Earth United group.

This was a freebie given away to BF subscribers which, though not part of the season proper, is intended to go in the gap between Death in Blackpool and Situation Vacant. It's also a sequel to The Dalek Invasion of Earth, so there should be a lot to interest for any old school fan. Sadly, it is let down by one piece of casting that just doesn't work. Half of what McGann junior (as Alex Campbell, great grandchild of the Doctor) utters is barely intelligible and the other half exists in an unconvincing nether world of awkwardness and odd inflections. Sorry, Paul: it pains me to say it, but the son you love so dearly can't act. It doesn't help that I've never enjoyed listening to Carole Ann Ford much either, whose style of acting seems to come from a time long before even 1963 (though her meeting with 'Grandfather' is rather touching). To be fair, the supporting cast aren't up to much either. As the script is by Marc Platt, it is all well stuck together and fits in nicely with the classic series as a whole, in spite of a lot of the dialogue being a bit clunky. ("Freedom for students!") There are some nice moments and it sounds pretty good but, let's face it: freebies are rarely as good as things that can actually be sold. 6 out of 10.

4.02 Situation Vacant (Eddie Robson) Traveller in time and space seeks male or female companion with good sense of humour for adventures in the fourth and fit dimensions. No experience necessary.

Nice little idea this except that it's kind of been done before - and recently, being very similar in tone (and, ultimately, in intention) to The Company of Friends: a general lightness of touch; the Eighth Doctor with four different companions (of whom James Bachman really stands out), one of whom earns an extended stay. Also similar in that it doesn't take itself too seriously and is great fun. Even though it is sometimes hard to work out who is talking (and a lot of the TV references are, frankly, over my head), I'd much rather be listening to this than the more po-faced, hard sci-fi that has so often bedevilled this series. Neat ending, too. 9 out of 10.

With two and a half stories under its belt, with Lucie Miller seemingly dispatched into history and a new companion on board, one might expect an altogether different dynamic to the rest of NEDA season four...

4.03 Nevermore (Alan Barnes) A bizarre manifestation in the control room forces the TARDIS onto the Plutonian shores of the irradiated world Nevermore, whose sole inhabitant is the war criminal Morella Wendigo, a prisoner of this devastated planet. But the Doctor and Tamsin aren't Morella's only visitors. Senior Prosecutor Uglosi fears the arrival of an assassin, after the blood of his prize prisoner. An assassin with claws...

If I were a devotee of Edgar Alan Poe, then I might have enjoyed this more, though frankly I doubt it. It's very much classic Alan Barnes, in that it is wonderfully imaginative, but rather wordy and matter-of-fact. Worse, there's very little sense of place in the sound design, the music is rather oppressive at times and the robot ravens are rubbish. Bizarrely, with actual Americans doing the acting, the most convincing American accent on show is Fenella Woolgar. As for Tamsin Drew, Niki Wardley overdoes things just a little too much to be convincing. 6 out of 10.

4.04 Book of Kells (Barnaby Edwards) Ireland, 1006. Strange things have been happening at the isolated Abbey of Kells: disembodied voices, unexplained disappearances, sudden death. The monks whisper of imps and demons. Could the Lord of the Dead himself be stalking these hallowed cloisters?

Mr Edwards' previous NEDA The Beast of Orlok was a personal fave, a real treat that combined everything one could want from an audio drama. Of all the stories in this run, this was the one to which I was most looking forward... A few minutes in and one is wondering if this is by the same author. There is another splendid plot (though the denouement is too tidy for its own good) with lots of spot on historical detail but it lacks the sparkle of Mr Edward's previous. Niki Wardley finds her feet in the companion role, Graeme Garden shines but the great Jim Carter is cruelly under-used and, in spite of a rather creepy opening, it all lacks sufficient tension. Not bad by any means but not a classic either. (Abbot Thelonius? Lucianus? Spotted them a mile off.) 6 out of 10.

4.05, 4.06 Deimos/Resurrection of Mars (Jonathan Morris) Millions of years ago, the noble Ice Warriors fled to Deimos, moon of Mars, hoping to sit out the radioactive death throes of their home planet. When the TARDIS lands on Deimos, the Doctor discovers that the Warriors' ancient catacombs are now a popular stop for space tourists.

If there's one thing Nicholas Briggs excels at it's his uncanny reproducing of the sound of former foes. (My favourite was the Cyberman series' Cyber-Controller for which he should have been knighted. I've no doubt he cooks a mean quiche, too.) No surprise then that the Ice Warriors here are superbly recreated, much more in the vein of their original Troughton story (no bad thing). Better still, the appearance of David Warner immediately brings the whole thing up a gear but then, oh Lord, Lucie's back. Yes, Sheridan Smith would appeared to have had a contract for the entire series after all. So the weepy parting at the end of Death in Blackpool counts for nothing and we have to tolerate a saccharine reunion, complete with a reprise of 'In the Bleak Winter'. Apart from that, Deimos is pretty good and sets things up nicely for what must surely be a belter of a resolution. 6 out of 10.

Resurrection of Mars Deimos, moon of Mars - where Lord Sladek's plans to revive the ancient Ice Warrior civilization hang by a thread. Only the Doctor can stop him...

The fact that 'disc two' is a real problem is not anything to do with the production or the story as such, rather its underlying intention. I'm all for deep discussions about ethics but... In Resurrection of Mars, we are expected to engage in a ham-fisted debate in which the Doctor sides with the idea that killing one person to save billions is wrong. Now we've all heard of Isaiah Berlin's 'Two Concepts of Liberty' and we've all read Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thompson. (Let's leave aside the fact that the rejection of dogmatic utilitarianism has itself become a dogma.) Yardy, yardy, yadda. Yet the Doctor opining that one should "...never countenance the death of a single living being..." (as long as that person is his friend) while not lifting a finger to save 300,000 others (and when that one person has said it would be okay to do so) is not only morally questionable but totally out of character: a monumentally selfish act which falls far short of the heroic. "Never forget how precious a single life is..." he says. So how much more precious are 300,000 single lives? This is the kind of smug abstraction that we now face in the modern world, which values the rights of the individual over the survival of the species (without which there can be no rights of the individual). In the context of the story, it doesn't make any sense either: Miss Finch is portrayed as morally corrupt for spouting precisely the same dictum. If this is an attempt to engage the audience in healthy debate, it fails utterly and the Doctor just comes across as a sanctimonious prick. By the time we reach the middle of the story, Paul McGann is not playing the Doctor but Tony Blair. And don't get me started on the CD extras, which reach new heights of hideous self-satisfaction. Sixteen minutes of it! Is there anything more revolting than actors talking about how much they're are enjoying themselves? -300,000 out of 10.

4.07 Relative Dimensions (Marc Platt) Christmas is a time for family, they say - which is why the Doctor has invited his grand-daughter Susan and great-grandson Alex to join him and Lucie for Christmas dinner in his time and space machine. But who, or what, is the spectre at their yuletide feast?

Oh god! What the f**k is that music at the start? And then the perky, perky Hey-kids-smile-this-is-comedy! music that comes soon after?! (And it gets worse: alternately intrusive and derivative and usually both). The music's bad enough but (with the exception of Sheridan Smith) the performances are even worse. In terms of acting, Carole Ann Ford seems to have beamed in from the 19th century, but at least we can understand what she's saying. The same cannot be said for Jake McGann, which for an audio production is pretty well unforgivable. Having already given us the definitive Christmas story in 2002's Chimes of Midnight and another much poorer one to start off this season, why do we need this? The script flits between golly-gosh threat, cloying sentimentality and feeble comedy that is so unfunny, it hurts. None of this would matter were it not for the fact it is also really boring. There is barely a plot at all, padded out with tedious sincerity, pointless nods to the past and risible gobbledygook. This is not the worst that Big Finish has produced but it is far and away the most depressing. Just before the end, with a choir warbling 'Silent Night' in the background, the Doctor says "I live too much in the past." And for once in this pitiful excuse for entertainment, he is spot on: this whole sorry spin-off business has gone on far, far too long. The desperate attempt to re-do the ending of The Feast of Steven ("and Happy Christmas to everyone else too, if anyone's listening") just about sums it up. Who still really listens to this? Completists may put it up on their shelves but who really needs it? The final notes of the choir being out of tune is all too in keeping with this shoddy garbage. 0 out of 10.

4.08 Prisoner of the Sun (Eddie Robson) Six years after being captured by the galaxy-spanning organization known only as The Consensus, the Doctor lives inside a high-tech complex at the heart of an unstable sun, condemned to an eternity maintaining its systems. A moment's carelessness could cause the star to collapse - and the deaths of billions.

After the previous two discs, I could barely bring myself to listen to this. Deep breath, everyone. Sheridan Smith's contract ensures that when the Doctor has to design his own companion, he chooses Lucie's voice. Fair enough, I suppose. She's very good too - twice - as is Paul McGann (no surprise). The script is of the fiendishly convoluted variety. All very clever but... Of the authors used in NEDAs IV, all but one have been asked for two scripts and each has come up with one above average and one below. Doesn't that tell you something? That maybe using ten authors would have been better than using six? It seems that those involved are having too much fun putting on their own work, safe in the knowledge that a loyal and generally forgiving fanbase means they only have to worry about quantity rather than quality. Eddie Robson is one of Big Finish's brightest and best but this is way below par. Poor supporting cast, flat sound design, lack of thrills. 3 out of 10.

4.09, 4.10 Lucie Miller/To The Death (Nicholas Briggs) Lucie Miller needs the Doctor's help. The whole planet Earth is nowhere to be seen. While Lucie struggles to survive a terrible sickness, an even greater threat to the human race is about to be unleashed. And this will be the second Dalek invasion of Earth the Doctor's grand-daughter has had to endure.

If you could choose one Troughton era Dalek story to be fully restored to the archives, which would you choose? Much as I love Ben and Polly, for me, Evil of the Daleks wins out every time; it's such an oddity (with the Dalek voices at their most menacing). I suspect this two-part story would go down better with those who'd opt for Power of the Daleks, with its brutal ending and periodic technobabble. As season finale (indeed, quite probably the NEDA finale), one would have expected an all-star, all guns blazing, pulling-out-all-the-stops extravaganza but this first part is strangely under-stated and compelling. Sheridan Smith carries it really well and everything seems to be building to an impressive send-off. Let's hope so. 6 out of 10.

After a last, futile fight-back against the Daleks, Lucie, Susan and Alex are heading home to England in the desperate hope of saving the Doctor's life. But the true, terrible nature of the Daleks' plan is beginning to emerge...

There's been nothing new said about the Daleks since the mid 60s. Sorry, but it's true. That doesn't mean that we should forget about them but, every time another Dalek story - TV or audio - comes along, I'm underwhelmed. (The 2005 TV story Dalek came close but ended up telling us more about the Doctor.) To The Death is no exception. The writer seems to be of the opinion that as fans of the original series have all grown up, so should the show. Perhaps this is ultimately why I find To The Death so lacking in heart. If you're a Dalek obsessive or someone who prefers their Doctor Who stories to be grown up and closer to actual sci-fi, then this might be for you but, yet again, I found myself yawning through the frantic attempts at adulthood, cringing at its supposed emotional depth and being deafened. It has to be said that the music's pretty good and the sound design has a lot more life than the rest of the season but the dialogue!? Oh, the portentousness! Worst of it is that we seem to have been through this kind of story many, many times before and the final hand-wringing is truly naff. Don't-Care-Anymore out of 10.

So the NEDAs, it would appear, have come to a halt and by the end it's all fallen to bits. Situation Vacant excepted, their final season is a sad epitaph indeed. If the purpose of the whole exercise were to make a kind of bridge (in terms of style and tone) between the old series and the new, then Big Finish certainly succeeded. Having said that, the stories that brought back old foes were, with the exception of Human Resources in season one, no good at all. Paul McGann, close relatives notwithstanding, was rarely less than superb, even though he often had some dreadful dialogue to chew on. Sheridan Smith acted her socks off too, though I never warmed to her character at all. I don't think anyone believes that the NEDAs will go down as one of the Doctor's finest hours. For Paul McGann, the best Doctor we never really had, this is a great shame as it would have been nice to have a long run of distinctive stories that showed him in his true light (his own little Hinchcliffe era, so to speak). As it is, we can look nostalgically back to some great stories from 2002 (and perhaps 2004 with a few others after that) and leave it at that. The NEDAs, his own little range within a range, stand as a lost opportunity for three seasons and an insult to the paying public for most of its last.