The 1990s was something of a fallow period when it came to new televised adventures of that venerable Time Lord when Doctor Who’s run on the BBC finally came to an end in 1989, after 26 years as a mainstay of the TV schedules. Apart from a Children In Need special in 1993, the one glorious evening in 1996 when Paul McGann took on the mantle in a one-off British / American co-production, and a Comic Relief spoof by future showrunner Steven Moffat, the Doctor was sadly absent from our screens throughout.
Although there were comic strips and original novels which featured the character’s exploits, the next best thing to him being back on television happened in the July of 1999 when, thanks to Big Finish Productions, the Doctor travelled into a rather different dimension: audio. The company managed to get a licence from the BBC to produce a range of new stories based on the series, to be released on CD and cassette (later on via download as well), featuring returning characters and actors from its almost three decades on TV.
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This managed to keep the flame burning during that terrible interregnum, during a period when it appeared that Doctor Who was totally finished as a television programme, and Big Finish went from strength to strength when the series came back in 2005. Over the last 22 years, the Big Finish range has seen numerous spin-offs, and has even been made canon in 2013, when the Eighth Doctor mentioned some of his audio companions shortly before regenerating, in a special online minisode made for the 50th anniversary.
In May 2020, Big Finish announced it would be ending its run of monthly adventures, and instead issuing branded box sets of tales for each Doctor, making it easier for new listeners to find a jumping-on point, instead of getting overwhelmed by the plethora of numbered releases. So, with March 2021, we arrive at Big Finish’s final monthly adventure, #275, entitled – appropriately enough – ‘The End Of The Beginning’. With a last hurrah, Big Finish goes full circle, mirroring what it did back in 1999 with its first tale, ‘The Sirens Of Time’.
In that story, there were three different incarnations of the Doctor, each of them having their own individual episode in which to get embroiled in their own exploits across space & time, before meeting up and joining forces for the finale. It did cause some controversy at the time, as fans were wholly expecting the trio to spend more time together, interacting and bantering (although, on TV, multi-Doctor stories were rarely like that in reality, mostly keeping the Doctors apart, so the memory perhaps cheats); however, things all worked out in the end.
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In a rather lovely nod back to how it all started, ‘The End Of The Beginning’ repeats this particular format, with the first episode – ‘Death And The Desert’ – putting the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) in an historical escapade based in Ottoman Syria; the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) taking on a marauding band of piratical robots in the year 5122, in the second part, ‘Flight Of The Blackstar’; and the third instalment – ‘Night Gallery’ – landing the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) in July 1999, to visit an old frenemy, whilst getting wrapped up in some rather bloodthirsty goings-on.
The script by Robert Valentine lets Big Finish triumphantly do just what it does best, which is take its listeners on trips both backwards and forwards in time, as well as across space, showing the limitless possibilities offered not just by Doctor Who itself, but also by being made on audio: no wobbly sets, rubber monsters or dodgy CGI here (unless that happens to be exactly what you want, in which case, knock yourself out with that). This provides just the lap of honour the monthly range deserves for its final outing.
Big Finish are old hands by now when it comes to bringing together different Doctors, like during the company’s own 20th anniversary celebration tale, ‘The Legacy Of Time’; it does not, however, mean that they are complacent when it comes to delivering something which should feel like a big, important event, and ‘The End Of The Beginning’ certainly clears that bar with ease here. It never ceases to be a major delight to have various Doctors interacting, and the rapport between the actors here is just a joy, warming the heart(s) of even the most cynical fanboy.
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Another notable success of Big Finish is in getting a variety of acting talent over the years, from some relative unknown named David Tennant two decades ago (whatever happened to him?), to huge name stars, and all points in between. The tradition proudly continues here, with Kevin McNally – well known for his turn as Tony Hancock in Radio 4’s The Missing Hancocks – playing the sinister Vakrass; Richard Goulding’s underhanded John Quarrington and Youssef Kerkour’s noble Ibrahim make ‘Death And The Desert’ come to life, and Tim Faulkner’s louche Highgate in ‘Night Gallery’ is a joy.
Longtime fans of Doctor Who may find more than a passing similarity with another multi-Doctor adventure – ‘The Five Doctors’ – in relation to part of the thread linking the trio of individual tales; however, you can forgive Big Finish for this minor parallel, as the strength of the story as a whole earns them a pass. There also happens to be more than a soupçon of Douglas Adams with one of the characters, but with such a deliciously funny and innovative spin which upends all your expectations that you simply end up gladly letting them get away with it.
’The End Of The Beginning’ is definitely a fitting way to close the book on this part of Big Finish’s legacy, and sets up a solid platform for even greater triumphs ahead. Here’s to another 22 years (and more)!
Doctor Who: The End of the Beginning is out now from Big Finish Productions.