Big Finish – The Spin-offs

As a follow-up to last month’s Best and Worst features, James takes a look at Big Finish’s Doctor Who spin-offs.

The spin-off came very early to the world of Doctor Who. Early annuals featuring the good Doctor and his companions were released alongside Dalek-only versions which featured stories about mankind’s struggles against the plunger-wielding pepperpots as the latter conquered the galaxy. These were inspired by, and in turn helped to further, their creator’s ultimately fruitless attempts to get a spin-off television show off the ground in which James Bond-like space agents would battle the Daleks on a weekly basis. That didn’t get any further than one single, Doctor-less episode in the main series itself (Mission to the Unknown which Nation used as both a backdoor pilot for his proposed show and a prologue to the upcoming The Daleks’ Masterplan) and for the rest of the Sixties the only on-screen spin-offs to make it into production were the two Day-Glo Peter Cushing “Dr Who” films. This set a bit of a precedent for any future spin-off projects, and for a long time it seemed that while there were plenty of books and comic strips examining the wider Whoniverse any attempts to get any on-screen projects on the go were doomed to failure. During the Seventies, which up until the revival was the show’s most successful and popular decade, many ideas for shows were mooted only to fail to get off the drawing board, including one for a Victorian X-Files-like show starring Jago and Litefoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang and even a feature film version spearheaded by none other than Tom Baker himself. If even the Doctor himself couldn’t get another show up and running, what hope was there for anyone else?

In the end, up to 1989 there was only one further project which actually made it before the cameras, the now infamous K9 and Company, starring the titular dog and Sarah Jane Smith. The peculiar delights of this unique addition to Who lore can now be enjoyed by all and sundry on DVD (for a further reminder of its charms, click here) but it’s hardly surprising that it never went any further. In addition to that, and the sporadic Dalek annuals, there were also three original Target novels, “The Companions of Doctor Who” which chronicled the continuing adventures of Turlough and Harry (as well as novelising K9 and Company) once they left the TARDIS, but other than those officially licensed project were thin on the ground – the show had enough problems in the Eighties getting itself made, never mind anything else. It was only once the show was off the air and fans had nothing to abate their hunger for further adventures in time and space that the day of the Doctor Who spin-off finally arrived. In addition to the New and Missing Adventures novels, two independent production companies issued a number of low-budget direct-to-video films over the course of the next decade starring former companions and monsters. Indeed, Reeltime Pictures produced their first film, Wartime, in 1987. before the series was cancelled: in getting permission to use UNIT characters directly from their creator Derrick Sherwin, they set a precedent in how to circumvent more tricky (and expensive) rights negotiations with the BBC which proved so beneficial over the next decade or so. Even now Wartime isn’t bad, giving Benton (John Levene reprising his role for the first time since The Android Invasion twelve years earlier) a starring role and setting a reasonable standard. Subsequent Reeltime films saw the return of the likes of the Sontarans and Yeti, and characters like the Brigadier, Victoria and Sarah Jane Smith. The more productive of the two companies, however, were BBV, who produced both proper spin-offs and original dramas in a Who-ish vein which starred various Who alumni, including, in The Airzone Solution, nearly all the surviving Doctors. These latter efforts aren’t really in the purview of this article (even if several of the stories – most notably their “Stranger” films, which had Colin Baker as the eponymous hero and Nicola Bryant as “Miss Brown” – were strangely familiar) but those with direct links to the TARDIS certainly are. Their first film which could be said to take place in the Whoniverse was 1994’s The Zero Imperative, the first of four stories which followed Liz Shaw (once again played by Caroline John) as she headed up a paranormal investigative team somewhat unfortunately called PROBE. Although written by Mark Gatiss, these weren’t great, not least because Liz’s character was very different to her original persona in Season Seven, but these paved the way for the more successful Auton trilogy, which saw the return of UNIT as they battled the walking mannequins.

Unfortunately, none of these films could ever really disguise their incredibly low budgets (although in fairness Auton, with its ambitious CGI effects, did try) and it’s not surprising that eventually BBV turned their attention to the more cost-effective world of audio. The company’s director Bill Baggs had been one of the instigators of the Audio Visual audios of the Eighties, a fan project starring a future incarnation of the Doctor played by one Nick Briggs which also saw Gary Russell taking his first steps into the world of audio Doctor Who which would bear fruit nearly two decades later at Big Finish. It was Baggs, though, who did spin-off audios first; although once again the range’s first titles were a Stranger-esque series starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred as “The Professor and Ace” (sounding even more like their TV alter-egos than Baker and Bryant did in the Stranger films) a number of their later titles could be considered bona-fide spin-offs. In particular, they produced a whole range of stories highlighting different monsters – Zygons, Krynoids, Sontarans, The Rani and the Wirrn all reappeared (some more than once) – and although the quality of these productions is very variable, in both content and production values, some weren’t bad at all. In addition, K9 and Romana II (once again played by John Leeson and Lalla Ward) also popped up in a couple of stories, and although Ward’s character is referred to throughout as “The Mistress” it is very easy to consider them part of the wider spin-off “canon.” BBV also produced a number of audios which starred characters from the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor novels, most notably a successful run of Faction Paradox stories which expanded the universe of Lawrence Miles’s mischief-makers who were to central to the Eighth Doctor’s literary adventures.

But then, in 1999, BF came along and almost overnight BBV waved the white flag and all but disappeared. Indeed, BF only got the Who license after their successful run of Bernice Summerfield plays (Bennie being of course the Seventh Doctor’s main companion in Virgin’s New Adventures) so you could say at a stretch their success is largely based on a spin-off (although of course in reality the adventures of the female Indiana Jones had long before BF came along assumed a life of their own.) The Benny plays have continued to this day – last month the tenth season kicked off – but it wasn’t long after The Sirens of Time that plans were underway for the company’s first proper spin-off from their Who range. To this day the first two seasons of Dalek Empire remain not only the finest thing Nick Briggs has written for BF, but also one of the strongest of all the audios set in the wider Whoniverse. Coming full circle from those early attempts by Nation to get a Dalek-only series off the ground, Briggs’s epic is set at a time when the Daleks have all but conquered the universe, and follows the adventures of Susan Mendes (Sarah Mowatt), her lover Alby (Mark McDonnell) Kalendorf (Gareth Thomas) and others as they battle to survive in the new galactic order. A true space opera which mixes high action with intelligent, well-drawn characters, the eight CDs making up Dalek Empire and Dalek War are pretty much indispensable for any Dalek nut. Regrettably, Briggs then went ahead and produced two more unnecessary seasons: Dalek Empire III, co-starring a David Tennant on the cusp of being cast as some Time Lord or other, is okay if superfluous, but the fourth, Dalek Empire: The Fearless, set during the events of the first two seasons, is a bit of a dud. Far better than either is the subscriber freebie Return of the Daleks which Briggs wrote some time after the first two seasons but which reveals exactly what the Doctor, in his seventh incarnation, was doing during its events, making for a worthy companion piece to the two superior parts of the series.

Dalek Empire and Dalek War are two of the three crown jewels in BF’s Who spin-off crown, the third being the Unbounds, a wonderful series which began life as part of the 40th Anniversary celebrations during one of BF’s golden ages in 2003. The idea of the series was to explore a series of What Ifs: What if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey? What if the Doctor believed the ends justified the means? What if Doctor Who itself had never existed? and in doing so explored just what it was that made Doctor Who what it is. Each sixty minute play cast a new actor in the role of the Doctor, including the notable casting coups of David Warner and Derek Jacobi, and out of the six initial audios which make up the run no less than four are sold gold, 10/10 classics, an incredibly impressive hit rate. Unfortunately, this feat is somewhat let down by the fact that one of the other two, Exile, is quite the worst audio BF have ever produced, a disastrous “comedy” which hasn’t got a single redeeming feature about it. Aimed at those who find Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps too sophisticated, its many crimes were compounded by squandering the first ever casting of a female actor (Arabella Weir) as the Doctor. However, despite its general rubbishness it wasn’t the most contentious of the six; that accolade undoubtedly goes to Full Fathom Five by David Bishop, a real Marmite audio which drew as much opprobrium as praise on its release due to its portrayal of an amoral Doctor (played superbly by David Collings) who will do whatever it takes to rescue his TARDIS from an undersea research base (for the record I’m firmly in the love it camp.) That’s one of the 10/10 audios as far as I’m concerned – the only other besides Exile which isn’t from the initial run being Gary Russell’s He Jests At Scars… This asked the question What if the Valeyard had beaten the Sixth Doctor? and featured Michael Jayston reprising his role from Trial of the Time Lord as he wreaked havoc throughout the cosmos, but while undoubtedly good fun the play is more an amusingly indulgent fanwanky romp through past Who stories rather than a proper narrative in its own right.

There’s little arguing with the classic status of the other three though. Deadline by Robert Shearman starred Jacobi as a former TV writer, now living in a care home for the elderly, whose one regret was that his pitch to the BBC for a show called “Doctor Who” never got off the ground. Deeply poignant, it served as a fitting tribute to the show’s importance to the industry as well as the many individuals who have been touched by it in one way or the other, and while the reality-based story won’t be to everyone’s tastes is still a fine piece of drama (and one, incidentally, that would not be out of place appearing in one of Radio 4’s drama slots.) Meanwhile, even today many cite Jonathan Clement’s Sympathy for the Devil (what if the Third Doctor had never turned up to help UNIT?) as one of their favourite BFs – while I’m not sure I would put it in that category, the story, which pairs David Warner’s Doctor up with the Brigadier and features noted actor Sam Kisgart (look closely) as a familiar Pertwee villain, is a fine piece of work which segues from an action-packed opening through to an examination of the Doctor’s relationship with both the Brig and Kisgart’s character. Comedy Buddhists aside, it’s good stuff, as is the story which opened the series, Auld Mortality from the ever-reliable Marc Platt, which saw a Gallifrey-bound incarnation of the first Doctor, played by Geoffrey Bayldon, rueing the fact he never took his chance to leave his stuffy home world. Crucially Bayldon makes the character his own, rather than just relying on a Hartnell-impersonation, in doing so making for an entirely credible alternative in a story which also saw Carole Ann Ford returning to the role of Susan. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to cheer the story’s conclusion, one which was picked up a couple of years later in a sequel, A Storm of Angels, also written by Platt. This audio, my pick of the bunch, asks What if the Doctor really did change history? and is stuffed full of wonderful sci-fi ideas as the Doctor and Susan join Sir Francis Drake as he explores the stars rather the oceans. It’s a brilliant audio, helped along by one of BF’s strongest musical scores. Auld Mortality was one of two Unbounds to get a sequel some time after the original season; the other was Sympathy For the Devil. The second David Warner/Nicholas Courtney audio had a troubled history; originally Clements penned his own follow-up before it was scuppered, reportedly at the request of Cardiff when some of its plot points coincided with upcoming episodes. The project then seemed to be dead in the water for a bit, before Eddie Robson was commissioned to write Masters of War, an alternative take on the Daleks which was decent but overall not as strong as its predecessor. Overall, however, it’s incredibly easy to recommend the Unbounds en masse: give or take Exile and He Jests At Scars… and you have arguably the finest series BF has ever produced.

Of course, the Unbounds are all side-steps, stories which couldn’t take place in the official Whoniverse (whatever decides what that is.) All of BF’s other spin-offs, on the other hand, very well could. After Dalek Empire, unquestionably the next strongest is I, Davros, a four-CD series chronicling the rise of Davros from his early childhood through to his creation of the Daleks. When this was first announced it sounded a highly dubious idea, filling a gap which didn’t need filling, but the end product managed to paint a more than convincing portrayal of one man’s descent into amorality and proved unexpectedly riveting. One of the most interesting plays BF have ever done, the Colin Baker story Davros, managed to flesh out the increasingly two-dimensional villain far more than any of his television appearances since Genesis of the Daleks and I, Davros continued that development – none of his other appearances in BF, in the likes of The Juggernauts or Terror Firma, have come close to these two titles in their treatment of him. The fourth and final pick of the bunch are the three seasons of Gallifrey. Showcasing Romana II (in her latter-day guise as the Time Lord President) and Leela, as well as bringing back a host of Time Lord celebs like Lynda Bellingham’s Inquisitor and even Mary Tamm’s Romana I (not, to be fair, in quite the way you’d imagine) the series mixed political intrigue with the usual universe-threatening plot and made for three seasons’ worth of entertaining stories. The jury’s still out, though, on the cliff-hanging ending of the last episode, as to whether it’s a suitably enigmatic, Italian Job-style conclusion or just an irritatingly open-ended way to finish things off, so be warned.

I find it more difficult to recommend the other spin-offs, although in the case of two of them it’s more because I don’t especially respond to the characters rather than anything being particularly wrong with the material. Being a child of the Eighties I don’t have the same slavering adoration for Sarah Jane Smith as those who grew up with her in the Seventies do, and so the two seasons of Sarah Jane Smith rather leave me cold (it’s worth noting, though, that these were released years before her television renaissance.) Sladen reprised her role with aplomb, and even brought her real life daughter along for the ride, while Season Two’s Crimson Chapter made for quite an interesting enemy, but still, I dunno… meh. Could never get into them. Similarly, despite the fact she appears in one of my favourite Doctor audios Excelis Dawns I have a hard time liking Paul Magrs’s iconoclastic Time Lady Iris Wyldthyme, played at all times with hearty enthusiasm by a Katy Manning. That said, the second season was enlivened by being a series of pastiches of eras of Doctor Who itself which were fun, but again she’s an acquired taste that I have yet to – erm – acquire. Nick Brigg’s Cyberman series is more my sort of thing, the four-parter expanding on the backstory to his ace Eighth Doctor story Sword of Orion but nevertheless it is still lacking that extra something which marked out his earlier Dalek Empire series (as well as not being quite as packed full of Cyber-action as you might expect, especially early on.)

The poorest offshoot of the BF universe is undoubtedly the UNIT series. Now you might expect that such a series would star the Brigadier, Sgt Benton and Captain Yates having a series of cheerfully nostalgic adventures, once more reprising the old team for the joy of Pertwee fans everywhere who unfortunately can’t hear more adventures from the great man himself. It might not have been the most revolutionary series BF had ever done, but it could easily have been amongst the most jolly. Instead, the Brig was relegated to essentially a cameo part in what turned out to be a charmless, hi-tech Spooks-with-aliens affair, complete with yet another Conspiracy which needed unravelling. With unlikeable main characters and uninvolving stories, it’s little surprise that this strand has never been recommisioned. (Should you wish to sample it for yourself, Big Finish offer the first episode, which was originally included on a Doctor Who Magazine coverdisc, for free to download, from here) which gives a fair indication of what to expect from the rest.

There have been less spin-offs of late, not particularly surprising when you consider they have no less than three main Who strands now going: the regular monthly series, The Companion Chronicles and the Eighth Doctor and Lucie adventures (as well as, of course, The Lost Stories coming up at the end of the year.) Nevertheless, we are promised Cyberman 2 coming up, and one can only hope for perhaps some further Unbounds (of similar quality) further down the line. The good news is that should you wish to sample any of these titles, many now feature in the “Big Finish for a fiver” sale which can be found here. Just avoid Exile and you’ll be fine.

And that concludes our month-long survey of Big Finish’s Doctor Who range. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and of course we will continue to provide some of the earliest reviews for BF’s releases you’ll find anywhere on the web. In the meantime, if there’s another aspect of Who lore you’d be interested in our covering in a similar way, please let us know here.


Updated: Aug 19, 2009

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