Several people have said to me over the years that they wished they knew where to start with Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories and spin-off ranges. Big Finish have a page themselves with some suggestions of where to start, but I thought I’d make a few suggestions myself.
Big Finish have put out a lot of Doctor Who and related stories — I haven’t counted them all, but it must be around five hundred by now, if not more — and no-one can be expected to listen to them all, so we need rules of thumb to go on.
The first of these is that stories from Big Finish’s first six years tend to be much better than the later ones. Once Doctor Who returned to the TV, a combination of factors including personnel changes at Big Finish, stricter licensing requirements, and overexpansion conspired to make Big Finish’s output slowly decline from its 2003-2004 peak. They have still put out good material in the years since — some of which I’ll be listing here — but in 2003 and 2004 one could expect that everything in their main Doctor Who range would be excitingly different, whereas now there is more of a sense of consistent competence.
Handily, the first fifty Doctor Who main range stories, which include much of the best material, are also much, much cheaper than the later ones.
The second rule of thumb is that some writers are much, much better than others. Pretty much anything by Rob Shearman, Jac Rayner, Nev Fountain, Paul Magrs, Stephen Hall, or Lance Parkin is going to be extremely good. Other writers, such as Gareth Roberts or Jonathan Morris, are usually pretty good but occasionally have lapses. And others are less good.
And the third rule I’d advise using is that story arcs are a bad idea. Big Finish are as susceptible as anyone to the lure of the big story arc, and in some cases this can reach silly proportions — A Death In The Family, for example, a story which I would say is one of the best things Big Finish have put out in the last five years, requires having heard at least ten other stories, released over a period of about ten years, to get the full effect. So here I’m choosing only stories which don’t require knowing anything other than what’s been on the TV show.
So with those factors in mind, here are ten Big Finish stories to check out.
Peri And The Piscon Paradox is the best of the “Companion Chronicles” line. These are not full-cast plays, like most of Big Finish’s stuff, but are stories read by an actor who played a companion, with one other actor adding a voice. Here, Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker perform a story by Nev Fountain which combines two Doctors, a fish monster, and the Peris of two very different time periods, to tell a story which manages to be both hilariously funny and heartbreakingly moving.
Shada is a story that Douglas Adams wrote for the TV during the Tom Baker years, but which was abandoned about three-quarters of the way through filming due to strike action. Big Finish remade it with Paul McGann’s Doctor, and it’s as good as you’d expect from Adams.
Deadline isn’t a Doctor Who story at all, but a touching play by Rob Shearman about the absence of Doctor Who. An elderly, dying, writer, played by Derek Jacobi, who received great acclaim in his youth but spent most of his life doing hack work on bad TV shows, slowly retreats into a fantasy life based around a TV show he once wrote for, but which was cancelled straight away, and wonders how much better his life would have been if Doctor Who had been a success…
Jubilee is another Shearman story, a viciously funny black comedy satirising nostalgia for Empire, with marvellously strong central performances from Colin Baker (who really shines in the early Big Finish stories, finally given consistently good scripts), Maggie Stables (as Evelyn Smythe, the best companion ever), Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres.
Three of my choices feature members of the Goodies. The Zygon Who Fell To Earth by Paul Magrs is a sequel to Magrs’ earlier The Horror of Glam Rock, but doesn’t require you to have heard the earlier piece. It’s a clever, funny, moving story, as one would expect from Magrs, and has Tim Brooke-Taylor as a Zygon.
Bang Bang A Boom! is the lightest and frothiest of all these stories, an outright farce parodying Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and similarly po-faced USian SF, featuring a lovely deadpan performance from Graeme Garden as the science officer on the space station.
And Doctor Who And The Pirates by Jac Rayner is just about the best thing ever. A clever, metafictional, musical comedy (featuring parodies of many Gilbert and Sullivan songs) that turns in the last part to something more serious, and featuring a perfectly-pitched over-the-top performance from Bill Oddie as the psychopathic pirate Red Jasper, this may be my favourite Doctor Who story in any medium.
The Kingmaker by Nev Fountain is another out-and-out comedy — the genre that Big Finish seem to do best. Here the Doctor goes back to the time of Richard III, to investigate what happened to the princes in the Tower, in order to write the latest of his Doctor Who Investigates series of children’s books to mollify a violent robot sent by his publisher. The cliffhanger at the end of episode three may be the best cliffhanger in all of Doctor Who.
And finally, two of the “villain trilogy” that Big Finish did to celebrate the show’s fortieth anniversary. All of those stories were based around the Doctor coming into conflict with a villain in his present, with flashbacks filling in back-story about that villain’s childhood and early life. Omega by Nev Fountain is, as all Fountain’s work is, funny, but it’s not the outright farce that some of his other work is, and features a very strong performance by Peter Davison (and another great cliffhanger, though one that those who are familiar with the TV series during Davison’s time on the show might see coming), while Davros by Lance Parkin is to all intents and purposes a two-hander — there are other actors, and a plot, and all the other things you’d expect, but really Parkin is just giving Colin Baker and Terry Molloy lines that allow them to constantly try to out-ham each other, and when given the witty, bitchy, dialogue Parkin writes for them they both turn in wonderfully overblown performances that are a delight to listen to.
There are many, many good stories I’ve left off this list — I could easily make good cases for Spare Parts, The Holy Terror, The Council of Nicaea, The Marian Conspiracy, Scherzo, …Ish, and more — but that should be enough to keep the curious happy for now.