Back in the dark days of the end of the last millennium, things looked bleak for Whovian fandom. The TV movie was a still divisive but fading memory and the prospects of any new “Doctor Who” were but a distant dream. Into this dark space, Big Finish shone a bright light of hope. Founded in 1996 and making a name for themselves in adapting the Doctor Who spin-off Bernice Summerfield for audio, 1999 saw them secure a licence to produce official “Doctor Who” audio plays and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the very first official Big Finish “Doctor Who” Audio Play and what better way to mark the occasion but by travelling back in time and looking at that very first adventure: “The Sirens Of Time”?
With Gallifrey in a state of crisis, under siege from an overwhelming enemy force, the Doctor – in three of his incarnations – finds himself caught up in seemingly disparate yet malevolently connected adventures. With the web of time threatened, can the Doctors join forces to set the timelines straight or will his meddling finally lead to his undoing?
One of the advantages Big Finish had was they were playing to a captive and well-informed audience. There was no need, as there would be six years later of television, to gradually reintroduce the series’ mythology a bit at a time so as not to alienate new viewers, so the first story is an ambitious multi-doctor story – the first since 1985’s “The Two Doctors” (I don’t count “Dimensions In Time”) and it’s an appropriately timey-wimey story to boot.
Steeped in the lore of the series, there’s an embarrassment of riches in imagination and ideas on show here, presaging just how ambitious Big Finish intended to be. There’s a wonderfully triptych structure too with each of the Doctor’s getting an episode to themselves before they finally team up in part four. And yes, I’m not going to lie, the four half-hour episode structure is another nice touch.
First up is Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, followed by Peter Davison in Part 2 as the Fifth Doctor and finally Colin Baker’s avuncular Sixth Doctor. Big Finish would go on to do wonders with the character of the Sixth Doctor – compensation for this unfairly truncated TV tenure – and the Seventh Doctor but both Baker and McCoy slip effortlessly back into their roles here as if they’d never been away. It’s Davison, interestingly, that doesn’t quite sound like the Doctor of old (young?) but maybe it’s because he was my Doctor that I’m hyper-sensitive to the tiny differences but whatever the cause, it’s not something that last beyond a few of the early adventures and soon each Doctor sounds so authentic you’d think it’d been taped off the telly at the time of transmission.
The script, by Nicholas Briggs, gets all the details right and in your mindscape, you can see the adventure unfolding with those gloriously ramshackle 1980s BBC production values. In terms of story, it’s breathtakingly impressive in its scale and scope. It introduces a new alien race and credible threat to the Time Lords, throws in some historical action alongside the futuristic sci-fi and even manages to side-step the tricky issue of companions – for now. It also features some guest players who will go on to make much more significant contributions to Big Finish Whovian history, including Mark Gatiss and the late, great Maggie Stables as the memorable Ruthley. It plays with ideas and concepts which would eventually find their way into the new Doctor Who tv show, especially under Stephen Moffat’s tenure, unsurprising as he’s always been quite open about his admiration for Big Finish’s work.
A bold and bravura start, “The Sirens Of Time” only hints at the brilliance that Big Finish’s “Doctor Who” would achieve in the months and years to come but back in 1999 all of that was waiting in the future. All that mattered now was that the Doctor – Doctors – were back, and not before time!