Big Finish: Every Era of the Eighth Doctor Revisited
The Eighth Doctor has thrived for almost twenty years in audio plays from Big Finish Productions. His adventures, and the roster of companions who have joined him in the TARDIS, have been varied and plentiful. The one hundred-plus stories to feature Paul McGann’s incarnation can be divided into roughly seven separate eras – so far! – each defined by a distinct story arc and companion lineup.
Ahead of the release of the new sixteen-part series Stranded beginning in June 2020, let’s take a look back over each phase of the Eighth Doctor’s lifetime on audio. This list focuses on the broad strokes of story arc and character development in each main era, in an effort to portray the wide scope of Doctor Who storytelling on show in the Eighth Doctor Adventures at Big Finish.
Five years after his appearance in the television movie, Paul McGann made his much-anticipated return in 2001 alongside self-styled Edwardian adventuress Charlotte Pollard. With this being the first Eighth Doctor content for half a decade and preceding the show’s 2005 revival, the new audio series was considered to be the definition of new and current Doctor Who on audio.
The initial run of ten stories are great standalone adventures which include the intensely atmospheric Storm Warning, Sword of Orion, The Stones of Venice, the much-lauded Christmas tale The Chimes of Midnight, and the Doctor against the Daleks in The Time of the Daleks. After 2003’s quasi-celebratory and highly experimental Zagreus, Big Finish introduced an ambitious ongoing story dubbed the Divergent Universe arc, and a new, non-human companion for the Doctor and Charley, C’rizz.
The Doctor and Charley grow very close across the course of her time in the TARDIS, and the character became so popular that after Charley leaves the Eighth Doctor’s company – repairing quite a significant tear in the timelines in the process – she was paired with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor and has even been given her own spin-off series.
Across four series in 2007-2011 (plus one interquel boxset released in 2019), the Doctor and Lucie Miller were at the reigns of the TARDIS. Their sparring yet sparkling rapport develops quickly, hitting its stride in series two, and is mostly down to Lucie’s characterisation as a highly dependable friend for the Doctor, one who kindles his joie de vivre in a way that resonates with his own characterisation.
The writing and directing during this period are of high quality, Barnaby Edwards’ superior casting elevates the product considerably, and the assortment of stories emulates the very best of the New Series format. The series balances returning foes (Brave New Town, The Zygon Who Fell to Earth) and science fiction (Immortal Beloved, Relative Dimensions) with historical-flavoured episodes (The Skull of Sobek, The Book of Kells) and lighter entertainment (Max Warp, Situation Vacant).
The Lucie Miller run is a highlight of the Eighth Doctor’s tenure for its fun and adventurous tone. Yet, change has always been vital to Doctor Who’s success, and the series should also be commended for ending on a highly traumatic note, one that propels the Doctor into a new and very different era of his life, one far less forgiving and more emotionally demanding.
In 2012, with the Doctor Who world collectively preparing itself for its fiftieth anniversary the following year, Big Finish effectively rebooted the Eighth Doctor with Dark Eyes. The changes they introduced were significant: the regular single release schedule was replaced by twice-yearly boxsets; the Doctor, too, was re-costumed and given new companions.
Serialised storytelling and psychological themes raise the stakes and darken the tone. From the gritty First World War-set opening story, the Doctor has it cut out for him, facing down not only the Daleks but also the Master, the Eminence, the Sontarans and other rogue Time Lords. Companions Molly and Liv are complex and very distinct characters, unafraid to speak their minds or pull the Doctor up when required, and their presence raises the series from humble science fiction adventure to hard-hitting drama.
Dark Eyes was a game changer and has defined the nature of experimentation with storytelling that has been done within the range ever since.
The success of Dark Eyes led to the commissioning of another sixteen-episode epic, one that forms an easy jumping-on point for newcomers. Following its predecessor’s dark and psychological storyline, Doom Coalition quickly becomes a universe-ranging science fantasy with its sights set on a truly apocalyptic ending. Doom Coalition goes big (The Satanic Mill, The Sonomancer) then small (Absent Friends, Ship in a Bottle) then big again (The Crucible of Souls, Stop the Clock), resting only to ramp it all back up again.
A raft of characters, both good and bad, is assembled across the course of the sixteen episodes, and the series a strong sense of being a classic showdown between good and evil. Chief among these is the Eleven, a psychopathic Time Lord who swiftly became a fan favourite and one of the most captivating Big Finish-created characters. Mark Bonnar’s performance proves disturbing and captivating in equal measure.
Doom Coalition was the first range to feature Alex Kingston’s River Song outside her own, giving extra life to an important character. The continued involvement of companions Liv and Helen in the Eighth Doctor range exemplifies their broad appeal, piquant characterisation and, most importantly of all, positive influence on the Doctor.
The Ravenous saga, as reviewed previously by The Digital Fix, features a mix of standalone and arc-reliant stories for the Doctor alongside companions Liv and Helen and quasi-antagonist the Eleven, who up against a race of creatures called the Ravenous. In a sense, this saga is less arc-heavy than its predecessors, due to the increase of fully or mostly standalone episodes.
The Ravenous creatures give the series its tone – low-key horror – and episodes play directly into the idea of scares and fears: think World of Damnation/Sweet Salvation, Seizure or Whisper. At the same time, stories like Their Finest Hour, How to Make a Killing in Time Travel and Better Watch Out/Fairytale of Salzburg showcase a return to excitingly realised, good old-fashioned storytelling that make you laugh, cry and punch the air in triumph.
Character development is often paramount in this era. The Eleven is the chief beneficiary of this, developing from an out-and-out villain to a potentially reformed member of the TARDIS team, before being corrupted once more by the lure of power and world domination. Big Finish struck gold with the Eleven; Doom Coalition and Ravenous rank among the company’s best releases of recent years.
One of the newest eras for the Eighth Doctor – a series that is still ongoing and is the most recent in his personal chronology – charts his exploits on the fringes of the Time War. This range has done a commendable job at depicting the mania of a Time War wreaking havoc across the universe, while keeping the drama close to its key characters, including companion Bliss in The Lords of Terror and State of Bliss.
Volumes one through three are fascinating explorations of time-gone-wrong concepts (Echoes of War, The Famished Lands), character drama (One Life), morality (In the Garden of Death, The War Valeyard) and wartime values (The Conscript). And the fourth volume, due for release in September 2020, promises the most time-twisting set of circumstances yet, with both Davros and Ken Bones’ General making their debuts in the Time War at Big Finish.
Another new series for the Eighth Doctor heralds another shift in tone and setting. Released this June and following the same format of Dark Eyes, Doom Coalition and Ravenous, Stranded will be a contained sequence of four four-episode releases, but promises to shake up the dynamic by introducing a single setting and something of an ensemble cast in addition to, one presumes, an ongoing story arc.
After the universe-spanning of previous releases, the Stranded miniseries depicts the lives of the Doctor, Helen and Liv in contemporary urban London in the present day, alongside a number of characters new to the Eighth Doctor range, including Torchwood’s Sergeant Andy. If the track record of Eighth Doctor stories is anything to go by, Stranded is in very safe and exciting hands indeed.
The Eighth Doctor: Final Thoughts
Any Eighth Doctor story has become an event-piece release. His tenure features some of the most widely lauded – and award-winning – stories: think The Chimes of Midnight, Absent Friends and The Red Lady. This Doctor’s enemies are among the most memorable, and his friends the most plentiful – and eternal. All in all, Paul McGann’s Doctor is essential listening.