Big Finish – The Best and the Worst of The Fifth Doctor

This month Big Finish celebrates ten years of releasing original full-cast Doctor Who audios starring the original cast, and to celebrate Relative Dimensions will be looking at the best and worse of the range, Doctor-by-Doctor. This week we start off with Peter Davison, as he encounters werewolves, Dracula and the genesis of the Cybermen…

This month Big Finish Productions celebrate ten years of producing original full cast Doctor Who audio plays. Back in July 1999, at a time when it seemed like the Paul McGann TV Movie had killed stone dead the possibility of Doctor Who ever returning to TV and Rose Tyler, Mickey Smith and the Moxx of Balhoon were not even twinkles in Russell T Davies’s eyes, the release of The Sirens of Time shone like the sole beacon of hope for an otherwise dwindling and aging fan base. Starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, it was the first of what was promised to be a series of bimonthly (soon monthly) audio releases, each one a new four parter starring one of those three Doctors (Tom Baker to this day refuses to have anything to do with the company) and their respective companions. Since that time BF’s Who range has gone on to release nearly 150 plays starring Davison, Baker, McCoy and, latterly Paul McGann, as well as nearly 50 spin-off audios depicting the wider Whoniverse, with series focusing on, amongst others, Sarah Jane Smith (again, years before her on-screen revival), UNIT and the political machinations of Gallifrey. Under the watchful eye of Big Finish’s company director Jason Haigh-Ellery, first Gary Russell and now Nick “the voice of the Daleks” Briggs have masterminded new monthly adventures in time and space, both drawing on the series’ rich history in their use of old monsters and companions as well as expanding, giving the Doctor new friends with whom to share his adventures and new adversaries to battle against. Written by many of those who have gone on to work on the new series such as Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts and Robert Shearman, the range has laid the foundations for much of what made the new series so popular, including in the Eighth Doctor and Charley a TARDIS team who were professing their love for each other years before the Tenth Doctor paid an emotional farewell to Rose in Bad Wolf Bay. Titles like The Holy Terror, The Chimes of Midnight and Spare Parts stand proudly alongside the best of the TV series, and while a range with as many titles as BF has inevitably hit dry periods and rotten stories, the quality as a whole has been remarkably consistent over the ten years.

Following Russell’s departure to Cardiff to act as Script Editor for RTD’s many shows, Briggs has developed further the operation. Following two successful trial seasons, The Companion Chronicles now get a monthly release running alongside the main range, successfully recreating the eras of the Doctors no longer with us. Starring the likes of Peter Purves, Frazer Hines and Katy Manning, the First, Second, Third (and Fourth) Doctors once more are embarking on new adventures to great acclaim, (although the inclusion of stories from more recent eras seems a bit of a strange decision.) Last year’s The Stage Plays, meanwhile, revived the three official theatrical productions the series has inspired down the years (with Colin Baker reprising his role in the musical The Ultimate Adventure) while the upcoming The Lost Stories promises to be one of the most exciting series the company has ever released – tight stories, all originally written or drafted for Colin Baker in the mid Eighties, are being brought to life with the man himself, including one of the most famous of all lost Who stories, The Nightmare Fair (the Sixth Doctor will finally get to Blackpool!) Complete with a newly revamped website and a long-requested option from listeners to be able to purchase the stories via download, BF’s range has recovered after a wobbly time a couple of years ago and is once again attempting ambitious, exciting projects far beyond the remit of Cardiff’s mainstream series. Aside from a tendency to rely far too much on old monsters (one now groans when news is announced about yet another Dalek story) and a slightly too stringent insistence on keeping the stories to a uniform length (the exact opposite of a problem which plagued the range’s early years when several rambling adventures could have done with a judicious pruning) this is a good time to get listening to what BF are doing and investigate their fine legacy of the past ten years.

To help you pick, and to celebrate their decade in audio time and space, this month Relative Dimensions will be taking a look at the best and worst of their range so far. Each week we’ll feature the stories of each of the four BF Doctors, revealing the various story arcs they’ve gone through (without too many spoilers) and highlight their ten best stories, as well as five it would be as well to give a miss. We start with

The Fifth Doctor

The audio adventures of the Fifth Doctor began in the second episode of Big Finish’s first DW release, the multi-Doctor adventure The Sirens of Time. Peter Davison, reunited with Mark Strickson as Turlough, then went on to star in the range’s first single Doctor release, Phantasmagoria written by The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss and co-starring a pre-fame David Walliams. Unfortunately, due to his work Strickson has only returned for a couple more stories since that time, and for the majority of the range Davison has been paired either with Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa or Nicola Bryant’s Peri. Early on Gary Russell was keen to use this latter combination more, as he felt that Davison and Bryant worked well together and, given that they only shared two TV stories, it would be more of a novelty to have those two together than the more usual Fifth Doctor teams. Expanding the idea further, he introduced in the Ancient Egypt romp Eye of the Scorpion a second companion, the Pharaoh-who-never-was Erimemushinteperem, or Erimem for short, played by Caroline Morris. Peri and Erimem developed what Russell described as a “Buffy and Dawn” relationship, allowing Peri to mature somewhat as she guided the Leela-like young Egyptian through the mysteries of the universe, their sisterly bond growing over the course of the stories. Following Erimem’s departure in The Bride of Peladon new producer Nick Briggs ran a series of stories revolving around a new companion, the Artful Dodger-like Thomas Brewster, whom the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa first encounter in Victorian London in The Haunting of Thomas Brewster, a story which ended with the ragamuffin stealing the TARDIS. Two stories later however he too left at the end of Time Rift. This year the three Fifth Doctor plays, the appallingly named Key 2 Time season, have paired the Doctor with yet another new companion, Amy (Ciara Johnson), although once again it seems that she has only a three story limit.

Over the ten years Big Finish’s Fifth Doctor adventures have had their fair share of hits and duds. Peter Davison freely admits that he almost never reads the scripts before he turns up at the studio to record a story, and that is occasionally obvious – of the four BF Doctors he is the one most prone to giving if not exactly a lazy performance then a mildly uninterested one. He’s also suffered from the weakest story arcs – while the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctor have all gone through great traumas of one sort or another in their audio adventures, he has had a more placid time of it; the storyline following Erimem’s development were not always terribly interesting, while the more recent Brewster stories began well but arguably gave up the character slightly too early. However, to counter those issues he’s starred in perhaps the greatest number of BF classics, most notably Marc Platt’s Spare Parts and has appeared in a far higher than average number of superb historicals. Here then is a brief guide to the best – and worst – of the Fifth Doctor at Big Finish:

The Best…

Phantasmagoria by Mark Gatiss
Number: 2
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Turlough
Released: October 1999
Nowadays the sound design comes across as a little primitive, and the story is short and somewhat insubstantial, but there’s no disputing how much fun Gatiss’ Restoration romp is. The Doctor and Turlough arrive in 1702 in a London abuzz with talk about Major Billy Lovemore, a rogueish highwayman who is terrorising the great and the good of the city. The Doctor soon encounters both him and also the mysterious gambler Nikolas Valentine (David Ryall), who plies his trade at the aptly named Diabola Club and whose opponents stake far more than the contents of their wallets when they sit down at his table. But what exactly is he up to, what his connection with Lovemore, and will the Doctor ever manage to convince Turlough of the majesty inherent in the game of cricket? Partly inspired by the League of Gentlemen’s “Go Johnny Go Go Go Go” sketch, Gatiss typically soaks his dialogue in period detail, while even David Walliams plays it semi-seriously in his role as one of Valentine’s prospective victims. Hardly a great, the story still got BF’s range proper off to an enjoyably light-hearted start.

Loups-Garoux by Marc Platt
Number: 20
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Turlough
Released: May 2001
The first bona-fide Fifth Doctor classic, and still one of BF’s finest plays. Writer Marc Platt’s name is going to crop up several times in these articles, but this lyrical story of werewolves roaming across an Amazonian desert of the future remains one of his strongest and most atmospheric tales, in which a group of disparate characters in 2080 Rio go in search of the legendary lycanthrope Pieter Stubbe (played by Nicky Henson). Co-starring Eleanor Bron and Burt Kwouk, Platt’s story combines the traditional elements of werewolf lore with a harsh environmental message, imbuing the figure of Stubbe with a tragic dignity even as he fails to control his animalistic tendencies. It also presents the Doctor with one his most morally questionable choices, lending an ambiguous end to this most subtle and layered of stories.

The Eye of the Scorpion by Iain McLaughlin
Number: 24
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Peri, and introducing Erimem
Released: September 2001
A Hartnell quasi-historical disguised as a Fifth doctor adventure, McLaughlin’s Ancient Egyptian romp comes complete with assassinations plots, swarming scarabs, runaway chariots, heavenly omens and even the Doctor missing out an episode having narrowly averted being poisoned (a very Hartnell-esque trick.) Giving Peri a chance to shine, this isn’t a five-star story but with its larger than life setting and court intrigue still a very pleasurable story to listen to, and one can’t help but wish that McLaughlin, whose day job was writing for the Beano and Dandy, had written more extensively for the main line.

Excelis Dawns by Paul Magrs
Number: NA
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Iris Wyldthyme
Released: February 2002
The Excelis trilogy, which saw the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors visiting the same world at different points in its history, were not part of the main range, but a side release to complement BF’s six-month second season of Paul McGann adventures. All three starred Anthony Stewart Head as the villainous warlord Grayvorn, and it’s this first adventure, in which he, the Fifth Doctor and Paul Magrs’s gin-swilling Time Lady Iris Wyldthyme (played with must gusto by Katy Manning), head off on a treasure hunt in Iris’s double-decker bus-shaped TARDIS, which is the most satisfying. In all honesty I don’t know why I like this one so much – I’m not a big fan of Iris, and it’s a fairly standard sort of story – but it all just meshes into an enjoyable travelogue, and there’s one very memorable scene, in which Magrs puts a whole new spin on the events of The Five Doctors which is extremely thought-provoking. Ignore the nonsense about the handbag, and this is an amusing, fast-moving story.

Spare Parts by Marc Platt
Number: 34
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Released: July 2002
It’s that man again, as once more Marc Platt serves up a five star classic. The idea of doing a Cybermen equivalent of Genesis of the Daleks had been knocking around for years, but few could have expected that when it did arrive it could have come close to equalling Terry Nation’s story. Platt achieves that with ease however, producing a story that in focusing on one single family as they gradually fall victim to the increasing cybernisation of their world Mondas manages to brings into underline the inherently tragic nature of the metallic monsters far better than any of their onscreen appearances. Imbued with a great soundscape, the forlorn world of Mondas is brought vividly to life, and even one stupidly unnecessary bit of prime Fanwank late on can’t scupper its greatness. One of the four or five absolutely essential BF titles every Who fan should own.

The Church and the Crown by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
Number: 38
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem
Released: November 2002
Another full-blooded historical which, unlike The Eye of the Scorpion, has no sci-fi elements at all, this swashbuckling adventure in the spirit of The Three Musketeers is the best thing writers Scott and Wright have contributed to the range. More The Smugglers than The Crusade, it lands our heroes smack in the middle of Paris at the time of Cardinal Richelieu, and sees the Doctor battling musketeers and Peri encountering her double in Queen Anne (also played by Bryant, a very Sixties touch). High-spirited and very jolly, the play perfectly captures the tone of both Alexandre Dumas and Richard Lester’s films of the Seventies, and while it’s hardly deep is great fun.

Omega by Nev Fountain
Number: 47
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor
Released: August 2003
2003 was one of Big Finish’s strongest years, and one of the many highlights were the trilogy of Villains Plays, each of which pitted a lone Doctor against one of his most famous adversaries and explored their relationship in some depth. The first of the three saw the Fifth Doctor once again facing Omega (the original plan to feature the Celestial Toymaker falling through), whom he had lasted battled on the streets of Amsterdam some twenty years earlier in 1983’s Arc of Infinity. In both Infinity and his first appearance The Three Doctors Omega had been little more than a raging megalomaniac but Fountain’s deceptively intelligent script treats the character with a great deal more dignity, molding him into a far more interesting and complex figure. Ian Collier reprises his role from Infinity with suitable gravitas, his rich tones lending a grandeur to a story of doomed love and frustrated ambitions, and while Fountain’s comedy background occasionally gets in the way this is a fine epic, with Davison giving one of his finest performances, as well as featuring, at the end of Episode Three, one of Big Finish’s most famous cliffhangers. To say more would be to spoil it… (It’s worth noting that Fountain later went on to write The Kingmaker, a somewhat over-the-top adventure for the Fifth Doctor featuring King Richard the Third, which gets far too carried away with itself, but which is neither brilliant enough to feature here nor heinous enough to appear among the duds listed below.)

The Council of Nicaea by Caroline Symcox
Number: 71
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem
Released: July 2005
Written by biblical scholar Symcox (aka Mrs Paul Cornell) this is a learned and interesting account of one of the first major schisms that occurred in the Christian Church, at the time Emperor Constantine (played here by David Bamber) decided to convert Rome to the faith. Erimem gets embroiled in the debates between Constantine and Arius, a true historical figure who ended up founding his own brand of Christianity and got exiled for his pains and who is shown here working out his beliefs and challenging the prevailing orthodoxy of the Church. It helps if you have some knowledge of the period in question as the debates get surprisingly detailed, but even if you’re not this makes for good drama, with Caroline Morris giving her best, most impassioned performance as Erimem. The sort of story you will almost certainly never see in televised Doctor Who again.

Circular Time by Paul Cornell and Mike Maddox
Number: 91
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Released: January 2007
In what was at time of release a departure for the range, Circular Time featured four individual stories, none connected to each other except for the idea that each takes place in a different season. Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter tell four very disparate tales, in which we follow the Doctor and Nyssa as they travel to an avian planet ruled by a renegade Time Lord (played by Hugh “Captain Hastings” Fraser), run up against an irascible Sir Isaac Newton (played with relish by David Warner) and find differing fortunes in a small English village, while the climactic Winter, without spoiling too much, presents a very different perspective on one of the Fifth Doctor’s most famous scenes. This is a collection that will not be to everyone’s taste but those who do go for it will be rewarded with a series of tales which puts character above incident and give us one of the most intimate looks at this particular incarnation of the Doctor and his young Traken friend.

Son of the Dragon by Steve Lyons
Number: 99
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem
Released: September 2007
It won’t be the last time I say this in these articles, but Steve Lyons is consistently one of the most underrated Who writers out there. Whether in his novels or audios he produces consistently excellent work, often able to put new spins on familiar themes and I always look forward to any upcoming releases bearing his name. Son of the Dragon is a typical example of what he does well, a pure historical which sees our heroes encountering Vlad the Impaler (played by James Purefoy) as he wages a campaign against fellow warlords. Lyons presents a fair portrait of Vlad, a man who while fully earning his nickname in the course of the story also manages to engender sympathy, giving us a rounded portrait of a man doing what he must to keep on top. Nicely setting up Erimem’s departure in the following story, this has a suitably medieval atmosphere and is far more interesting than the vaguely similar Seventh Doctor story The Settling.

And the Worst…

The Game by Darin Henry
Number: 66
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Released: February 2005
Given that Henry has written for Futurama, you might expect him to contribute a wacky, referential bit of nonsense well worth a listen. Unfortunately, he went serious instead, presenting an oddly unlikeable six-parter (still over two CDs) about the Doctor and Nyssa getting involved in a Rollerball-like future sport called Naxy. A muddled, ill-conceived affair, it also criminally squanders a guest appearance by Ian Chesterton himself William Russell as a venerable negotiator who, for no apparent reason, has a past history with the Doctor. With its Eastenders-like hoodlums and unengaging story, The Game has an unpleasant atmosphere not unlike one of the more grisly Colin Baker stories.

The Gathering by Joe Lidster
Number: 87
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Tegan
Released: September 2006
From the moment BF first got the Who license Gary Russell tried to get Janet Fielding to do an audio, but for years and years she refused, saying she had no wish to go back. However, eventually he managed to wear her down, persuading her to make this single appearance as Tegan: unfortunately in the end it turned out not to be worth the bother. In fairness to Lidster, Fielding did say that she wanted the story to feature Tegan years after she had left the TARDIS, and for the story to make very clear that she wouldn’t be coming back again, but this is still a miserable downer of a tale, one which makes it appear as though travelling with the Doctor ruined Tegan’s life, and ending with her choosing death over travelling with the Doctor again. The Cyberman story attached to all the heartache isn’t bad (it’s certainly more interesting than that of its sister story The Reaping) but in the end this just isn’t a whole lot of fun to listen to. (Fortunately, since this article was first posted, BF have announced that Fielding is coming back for a series of further stories.)

Renaissance of the Daleks from a story by Christopher H Bidmead
Number: 93
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Released: March 2007
Shortly before this story’s release, Bidmead asked for his Written By credit to be changed to the odd wording above and, while it’s never been revealed quite how much of his story was changed in the editing phase, it’s little surprise he wouldn’t want to be associated with this dreck. Quite simply one of the worst Whos Big Finish have ever released, it’s worth hearing just once to understand how magnificently rubbish it is, and wonder how anyone involved ever thought it was worth the time and effort. To describe its story is a waste of time, but involves the Doctor hopping through various time zones, picking up stragglers along the way, to do battle with the Daleks, including small toy versions who menace all and sundry in the TARDIS. Avoid.

Exotron by Paul Sutton
Number: 95
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Peri
Released: May 2007
A story of giant robots going awry, this isn’t heinously bad, but there’s nothing to distinguish it from the countless other similar stories that have gone before. All involved sound as though they are simply going through their paces as the Doctor, Peri and guest star Isla Blair run around a desert planet being chased, coupled with a tedious love story which would do discredit to Mills and Boon. The one-parter that is attached, Urban Myths, is better, a comedy Rashomon-like story, but it’s not enough to merit this being a release worth seeking out.

The Boy That Time Forgot by Paul Magrs
Number: 110
TARDIS Team: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa
Released: July 2008
A story scuppered from the start by its premise, this is a pretty unconvincing story with a twist those on the forums saw coming a mile away. It’s tricky to talk about why this doesn’t work without revealing said twist, but suffice to say that there are elements to chief guest star Andrew Sachs’ character The Scorpion King that neither ring true nor do the character any service, while the surrounding tale is too generic to have any sort of interest whatsoever. To pull off this kind of story, you have to have the justification that it really does add something new or different to the canon, an insight or a different way of looking at things, but this has none, resulting in a story which gives the impression that it exists solely for the shock value. Poor stuff.
And that’s our pick of the best and worst of Peter Davison’s Doctor at BF. All titles can be bought directly from Big Finish’s website. Next week we’ll be turning our attention to the audio adventures of the Sixth Doctor, a character whom it is generally acknowledged Big Finish almost single-handedly redeemed after his controversial television era. Join us then!


Updated: Jul 07, 2009

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