Most people love marking a birthday or an anniversary, as there’s nothing quite like all the hoopla and jollity associated with a darn good celebration. It gives us free reign to roll out the barrel, go a bit overboard, and be rather self-indulgent. There’s no other time when having cake for breakfast would be acceptable, yet in the case of a darn good knees-up, the sky is absolutely the limit.
For a 20th anniversary, the gift used to be china, but nowadays it’s platinum, which is rather fitting when you think just how many CDs Big Finish Productions must’ve sold over the last two decades. Since 1999, they’ve been responsible for bringing us brand new Doctor Who adventures with old Doctors, and certainly gave fans some form of officially-licenced drama during the wilderness years when the show was off the air.
Starting out with Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy in a multi-Doctor story, ‘The Sirens Of Time’, Big Finish has gradually added most other Doctors, from Paul McGann through to Tom Baker, and – more recently – David Tennant and Sir John Hurt. They’ve even gone as far as recruiting David Bradley to reprise the First Doctor, as well as casting Fraser Hines and Tim Treloar to portray the second and third incarnations, with the original actors sadly no longer being with us.
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They’ve also expanded the range with a series of different official spin-offs, such as Torchwood, UNIT, The Paternoster Gang, The Diary Of River Song, The War Master, and many more than you could shake a Sonic Screwdriver at. Given the momentous occasion of spending some 20 circuits around the Sun giving us a variety of audio adventures too broad and deep for the small screen, you can forgive Big Finish for doing a lap of honour, bringing us a big multi-Doctor escapade in the best tradition of the TV series.
Usually, the Doctors only unite on screen in the event of those moments of cosmic importance, like the universe itself being under threat, or special occasions, or just for a ratings boost. Big Finish already has its loyal audience, so it can only be a mix of revelry combined with a danger to the very fabric of existence which brings us their new boxed set, ‘The Legacy Of Time’, with six interlinked tales split across the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth incarnations of the venerable Time Lord.
The set’s opener is ‘Lies In Ruins’ by James Goss, which has the Doctor (Paul McGann) crossing paths with two ex-companions of his, the pair of whom just so happen to be space archaeologists. Professor Bernice Summerfield (Lisa Bowerman) meets up with Professor River Song (Alex Kingston) on audio for the first time, Bernice being a character originally created for Virgin Books’ series of novels Doctor Who: The New Adventures in the 1990s, when the series was off-air, before going on to star in her own audio dramas for Big Finish starting in 1998.
It was the professional quality of those ‘Benny Adventures’ which persuaded the BBC to give Big Finish the official Doctor Who audio drama licence, and the rest is history (unless you’re a time traveller). It seems only fitting that Benny should have a role to play in this celebration, and here she crosses swords (or, rather, trowels) with River Song, who – it turns out – was one of Benny’s students. Sonic handbags at dawn seem to be the order of the day, as they investigate a mysterious planet which has a link to the Doctor. It’s a lot of fun, with boundless energy and vitality, helped by some sparkling performances by the leads.
Next up is ‘The Split Infinitive’ by John Dorney, which brings back the Counter-Measures team from the Big Finish spin-off series featuring three characters who appeared in 1988’s television adventure ‘Remembrance Of The Daleks’ – Group Captain Ian ‘Chunky’ Gilmore (Simon Williams), Rachel Jensen (Pamela Salem), and Allison Williams (Karen Gledhill). The trio ran into the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) on audio once before, and now they meet up again – in two different decades.
The story takes place concurrently in the 1960s and 1970s, with the Doctor and Ace working across two time periods to find a mysterious individual who isn’t where – or when – he should be. It’s a rollicking good romp, with plenty of action, mixed with some clever wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, where characters gain new memories of events in the ’70s as things are taking place in the ’60s, and we hear things unfolding as we flit back and forth between the two eras.
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The third tale is ‘The Sacrifice Of Jo Grant’ by Guy Adams. Jo Jones (née Grant) (Katy Manning) teams up with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and Petronella Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) of UNIT in order to literally look into a number of holes in time which have cropped up in a small village. However, a witness report from Allison Williams (Karen Gledhill) in the 1970s not only places Jo there, but also says that she sacrificed herself in order to save the day.
Jo and Kate end up falling through one of the holes, leading to them meeting the Third Doctor (Tim Treloar), while Kate is given the opportunity to talk one final time to her father, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who in her present has passed away. It’s a touching tale of loss, and the melancholy which comes with having the chance to spend more time with a loved one who you’d lost many years ago. It’s in equal measure uplifting and bittersweet, and gives a change of pace from some of the more frenetic episodes in the set.
Matt Fitton’s ‘Relative Time’ brings Jenny (Georgia Tennant) into the life of the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), when he turns up on a time cruiser which has sent a distress call, and is only just managing to outrun a temporal shockwave from an explosion in the Time Vortex. Jenny was created from the generic material of the Tenth Doctor in TV episode ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’, and she’s completely thrilled to come across a far earlier version of her ‘dad’ than she’s used to.
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Meanwhile, a schizophrenic kleptomaniac Time Lord known as The Nine (due to his retaining all his earlier personalities with each regeneration) is up to no good, and ends up crossing swords with the Doctor. It’s an irresistible central conceit to have real-life father and daughter Davison and Tennant play (effectively) the same roles on audio. While it’s not the first occasion they’ve appeared together for Big Finish, it’s certainly the best, and is tremendous knockabout fun, hearing the two playing off each other.
‘The Avenues Of Possibility’ by Jonathan Morris is our ‘celebrity historical’, with Henry Fielding (Duncan Wisbey) ending up in 2009 instead of the 18th Century, with Detective Inspector Patricia Menzies (Anna Hope) on the case, encountering old friends the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Charlotte ‘Charley’ Pollard (India Fisher), who find doorways not only to the past, but also into alternative timelines, with an armed force from a divergent 1950s looking to secure their timeline forever through a paradox.
Probably the weakest of all the stories in this sextet, it treads the old, cliched trope of an authoritarian state (with more than a trace of fascism) from a parallel reality, which has been done so much better with other attempts (at least one of which was by Big Finish). It isn’t helped by a rather flat and one-note performance by Sara Poyzer as Stables, the lead villain in the proceedings. A great pity, and it feels like it would have perhaps worked better if it’d been a standalone, rather than being part of a linked set, as this more readily exposes its weaknesses.
The mini-series culminates in ‘Collision Course’, again by Guy Adams, with plot threads involving temporal distortions from the separate tales coming together in this climax. Back on Gallifrey, President Romana (Lalla Ward) and Leela (Louise Jameson) find themselves troubled by the memories of both visiting the exact same planet at different times with the Doctor (Tom Baker) and having vivid memories of their own deaths. Time is collapsing, and reality threatens to unravel as they work to stop a cataclysmic event which may already have happened, or still be happening.
Luckily, their best man is on the job – or several of him are, anyway. As you may well expect, we get some worthy inter-Doctor banter, with his various selves ribbing each other over everything from their dress sense, to their navigational skills. There’s also a genuine, punch-the-air moment which feels totally earnt and, with hindsight, absolutely the right thing to do; the fact it comes totally out of left field makes it all the sweeter, and is truly the icing on the cherry on an already well stacked and delicious cake. In fact, it’s so spectacular a moment, it earns an extra star all by itself. You can’t fault Big Finish for living up to its name.
It’s a totally valedictory experience, and well worth all the hype. Full credit must go to Big Finish for coming full circle and continuing a story which they first started 20 years ago. Happy birthday, Big Finish. Same time in 2029?
Doctor Who – The Legacy of Time is available digitally and on audio CD now, exclusively from Big Finish.