Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts in which I will be reviewing all of the Eighth Doctor audio dramas produced by Big Finish from beginning to end. This series will serve as part-review, part-guide for those who want to get into the Eighth Doctor audios but aren’t sure where to begin. The Eighth Doctor audios started in 2001 when Paul McGann starred in his first audio for Big Finish’s Main Range, titled Storm Warning. Until then, McGann’s only performance as the Eighth Doctor was in the 1996 TV Movie, and although he has gone on to become a cult fan-favourite due to the huge number of audio stories he has since starred in, back in 2001 the Eighth Doctor audios were seen as experimental, allowing the writers free reign to write about more expansive concepts as they were not tied to writing stories for the ‘Classic Era’.
#16 – Storm Warning
The first Big Finish audio starring Paul McGann as the Doctor does a fantastic job of reintroducing us to the character of the Eighth Doctor (who listeners at the time had only seen in the 1996 TV movie up until this point) as well as introducing us to the new companion, Charley Pollard, and the series arc that continues throughout her time in the TARDIS. Charley, played by India Fisher, receives a strong introduction in this story, as her character as an Edwardian adventuress is well-established as she boards the doomed English airship R101 and subsequently encounters the Doctor. Charley is a wonderful companion original to the Big Finish audios who plays an important role in the early phase of the Eighth Doctor’s tenure, and she immediately proves her worth in her debut story.
Through Charley we are introduced to Paul McGann’s Doctor, who keeps many of the character traits present in the TV Movie but is given much more time to develop the characterisation and add many subtle nuances to his performance. The Eighth Doctor emerges in this story fully-formed, and although he goes on to experience several character shifts throughout the vast range of Big Finish Eighth Doctor stories, his character for the duration of the Charley era is firmly established in this story. This Doctor has the air of having gleaned a huge amount of knowledge and experience from their seven previous lifetimes, and yet is also very scatterbrained and is among the most human and relatable Doctors of the Classic era.
Storm Warning tells a wonderful story within its source material, as the era is brought to life in this story through a range of interesting characters who really help set the scene to flesh out the era of 1930, and there are great cliffhangers throughout that are punctuated by the new arrangement of the theme composed by none other than James Bond composer David Arnold. Although Storm Warning is not technically the Eighth Doctor’s first story, as he debuted in the TV Movie, those who have never seen that film will have lost nothing as Storm Warning does a brilliant job of establishing the new Doctor, new companion and new era for Big Finish.
#17 – Sword of Orion
The Eighth Doctor’s first outing with the Cybermen is written by none other than Nicholas Briggs, who takes inspiration from the Alien series for this audio to deliver a story that is both spooky and thrilling. Sword of Orion is essentially a space opera, with a variety of locations and characters to illustrate the diversity of the Galaxy in 2503, and also references several Classic TV Cyberman stories such as The Tomb of the Cybermen. The Cybermen themselves are depicted well in this story, which is a considerable feat as this was the first audio story to feature them. The voices are reminiscent of the more human-sounding voices of the earlier Cybermen, though there is also a hint of the 80s-era voice in some specific scenes, particularly involving rogue Cybermen. This story is suitably creepy, as its primary setting is a derelict Cyberman Star Destroyer which is excellently depicted by the fantastic sound design present in this story. Everything from ominous creaking bulkheads to distant shrieks of insane Cybermen makes this audio an unnerving one to listen to with headphones on at night.
There is a particularly creepy scene in which the Doctor finds an abandoned Cyber-conversion facility that still contains the remains of its last victims, which gives a chilling insight into the horrific nature of cyber-conversion. The supporting characters give this story a significant degree of depth, particularly as we spend a fair amount of time with the side cast before they encounter the Cybermen – we also get a fair amount of worldbuilding that explains the current situation of not only the Cybermen but also the Humans and their current conflict with a race of androids who rebelled against Human control and eventually conquered their own system – Orion. The introduction of the android race as a third party separate from the Humans and the Cybermen is an interesting dynamic that presents interesting questions about the nature of the Cybermen compared to humanity and a race of synthetics.
Overall this story is a great first outing in the TARIS for Charley, who demonstrates her impressive ability to absorb information and quickly adapts to the nature of space travel despite being from the 1930s. One of Charley’s most endearing characteristics which is prominent in this story is her investigative mind and curious personality, which combined helps her to keep up to speed with the intrigue developing between other characters in a story at the same rate as the Doctor – although she does fill the companion role of asking questions, Charley quickly establishes herself as among the most resourceful and adventurous companions.
#18 – The Stones of Venice
The first audio that Paul McGann recorded for Big Finish, The Stones of Venice is interesting because although it is set in the future of 2294, it often comes across as a historical story because of the manner in which a lot of the supporting characters behave. This story depicts a very stylised view of 23rd century Venice at the point in which the city is doomed to sink into the sea, and the population of the city has essentially resigned themselves to that fate. There is certainly a melancholy atmosphere to this story, though there are enough lighthearted moments to keep it from being too bleak. Although this audio is set in Venice it is a very different story from the more famous Doctor Who story set in the same place, the Eleventh Doctor TV story Vampires of Venice, though there are some unusual similarities.
This audio develops the relationship between the Doctor and Charley and firmly establishes the pair as a time-travelling duo – the best companions are usually established by their second or third story, and Charley Pollard is no exception. There is an amusing scene early on in which Charley criticises the interior design of the TARDIS (which retains the design from the TV Movie), arguing that the Victorian aesthetic seems very out-of-date from her perspective as a native of the 1930s – moments like these continue to reinforce Charley’s role as a companion viewing events through the lens of the past, and yet Charley’s character is as forward-thinking as any modern companion. The bleak nature of this story is counteracted by the dynamic interaction between the Doctor and Charley that keeps this one interesting, though the side characters have a tendency to hop between theatrically melancholy to dramatically over-the-top.
This is essentially an audio that reinforces the pre-existing characterisation of the Eighth Doctor and Charley – whilst it is by no means essential listening to understand the wider story of the series, those who skip this audio will miss out on some great scenes between Paul McGann and India Fisher that helps to firmly establish their characters as a unique Doctor-companion duo – in the unlikely event that you were unsure about the Eighth Doctor and Charley during Storm Warning and Sword of Orion, The Stones of Venice completes the set and rounds off the first three Eighth Doctor audios with a strong audio that builds a rich world and offers some great moments for the Eighth Doctor and Charley.
#19 – Minuet in Hell
This story is intensely controversial among the fanbase for a number of reasons – the two most prominent are that the story uses several tropes that would become tired staples of the Eighth Doctor era, particularly the ‘amnesiac Doctor’ trope, and that it also sexualises Charley in a way that would be wholly inappropriate on the televised version of the show. In many ways Big Finish’s ability to write stories that do not conform to the family-friendly nature of the TV series is an asset, but this audio is a perfect example of how letting that become the driving force behind a story can detract from the narrative – at times it seems as though this audio is deliberately trying to be provocative or even borderline offensive, and to make matters worse the setting is so inconceivable and bizarre that the ‘adult’ nature of this audio seems utterly unearned.
For those who want to complete the set of Eighth Doctor and Charley audios then Minuet in Hell is interesting on its own merits – but for those who want to experience the wider story arc of the Eighth Doctor and Charley, then this audio is completely skippable. It is rare to encounter a Big Finish audio that has a negative reputation among the fanbase, so Minuet in Hell presents a certain fascination based on that fact alone, but it is quickly apparent why this audio has the reputation that it does among the fanbase. Arguably the only significant aspect of this audio is that it features Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, though he meets the Doctor only briefly.
This concludes the first series of the first era of Eighth Doctor stories, and although it ended on a bit of a misstep, overall the audios are promising. Paul McGann fits into the role of the Eighth Doctor perfectly, despite it being five years since his TV appearance. India Fisher is excellent as Charley, who is brought to life as a fully-formed companion out of the gate, and is without doubt one of the most iconic and memorable companions who are original to audio.