Concluding the first series of Eighth Doctor audios, we resume our review of the Early Charley Era with the second ‘wave’ of audios that was released in 2002 and 2003. This was a fascinating turning point both for Big Finish and Doctor Who in general, as audios were quickly establishing themselves as a fundamental aspect of Doctor Who in their own right. The audios in this list are famous for defining the Eighth Doctor’s early era and dazzling fans with a wide variety of creative concepts and thought-provoking stories that question the very nature of Doctor Who itself.
#28 – Invaders from Mars
We begin with a cult classic, Invaders from Mars, by Mark Gatiss. This is a fascinating audio with a very creative story idea – the story revolves around the historic broadcast of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds on a 1938 broadcast of the American radio show The mercury Theatre on the Air directed by Orson Welles that allegedly misled many listeners into believing that the Earth was actually under attack by a real-life Martian invasion, and essentially asks the question of what would happen if aliens were actually attempting an invasion at this time – only to be tricked into believing they had been beaten to the planet by an even more powerful race of aliens. This audio also features an incredible cast that includes Simon Pegg, Katy Manning, Jessica Hynes and Mark Gatiss, so it is a fascinating listen for that alone, and fans of Orson Welles will appreciate that he is included as a historical figure in a Doctor Who story.
Written by Mark Gatiss, this audio features the customary fun and wonder that would later become a recognisable trait of episodes of the New Series penned by Gatiss, so fans of his work are bound to enjoy this one. It’s got just enough murder mystery and New York accents to be called a Noir, yet this story also stays true to its science fiction roots to create an interesting blend of genres that makes for a great listen. It’s certainly one for those who enjoy the more light-hearted approach to Doctor Who but it is not short of atmosphere or suspense.
#29 – The Chimes of Midnight
The famous ‘Christmas Special’ of the Big Finish audios, The Chimes of Midnight should, despite its setting, be considered a Halloween special more than anything – this is without a doubt one of the most atmospheric and creepy Big Finish audios starring the Eighth Doctor. This audio highlights the backstory of Charley and continues the story arc revolving around her being saved from the R101 when in reality she was supposed to have died, whilst at the same time delivering a fantastic standalone story that makes for essential listening every time the festive season comes around. Although the ‘haunted house’ is a tired trope at this point, The Chimes of Midnight gives a fresh new take on this concept and also advances Charley’s story by exploring the temporal consequences of a house with occupants that should not exist.
This audio is not for the faint-hearted, and it deals with issues that the televised series would not be able to tackle in such a head-on fashion – there are several scenes that some listeners might find upsetting, a testament to how well the audio executes its central premise – and one of the main reasons why this audio has become an enduring classic that fans listen to time and time again is that it creates a spectacular atmosphere that, to date, has not been replicated in any other form of Doctor Who media to quite the same extent. Subsequent episodes of the televised series have attempted to utilise the ‘haunted house’ setting to varying degrees of success, but The Chimes of Midnight has a distinctive identity that cannot be imitated.
To reveal more about The Chimes of Midnight would spoil some essential aspects of the story, and it won’t be the only audio in this review that is difficult to discuss in writing as we will see later, but for those who enjoy creepy Christmas stories about haunted houses that also involve raspberry jam and copious amounts of plum pudding then this is the story for you. It is easily one of the best Christmas-themed pieces of Doctor Who material out there, especially for those who appreciate a festive ghost story.
#30 – Seasons of Fear
Despite being a franchise that revolves around the concept of time travel, there are actually very few Doctor Who stories that use time travel as a central concept to the story, instead the process is mostly used as a means of transportation rather than a plot device within the stories themselves – there are some exceptions, of course, but generally speaking this pattern holds true for Doctor Who TV episodes and audio stories alike. However, Seasons of Fear is a rare example of a story that not only spans multiple timeframes in a single narrative, but also utilises time travel in a way that is unique among Doctor Who stories.
One of the most refreshing aspects to this story, which is a driving force behind the narrative, is its exceptional villain – Sebastian Grayle is a great example of an original villain who fits into the Doctor Who mythos as if he was introduced in the 60s. The interesting thing about this story is that although Grayle is presented as maniacal and arrogant from the beginning, he is also a tragic, almost sympathetic character as over the course of the story we witness his deterioration as he becomes more and more obsessed with killing the Doctor and sacrificing the Earth to his ‘masters’ in order to achieve immortality.
This story also develops the relationship between the Doctor and Charley and hints at a romantic relationship developing between the two. Although the hints have been fairly strong throughout the series, it is here that the notion becomes less of an implication and more of an inevitability. There are those who find the idea of the Doctor having romantic relationships with their companions to be distasteful, but Big Finish did an excellent job of writing Charley to be an intellectual equal to the Doctor, but it is India Fisher’s exceptional performance that sells Charley’s wonder and sense of adventure, and that is what draws her and the Doctor together.
#31 – Embrace the Darkness
If The Chimes of Midnight somehow wasn’t spooky enough for you, this series delivers yet another excellent ‘scary’ episode in Embrace the Darkness, a story that takes full advantage of the format of the audio dramas by telling a story set in almost complete darkness for the majority of the runtime, with creatures who have adapted to live in the dark and who take the eyes of the Human inhabitants of a science station. One of the best things about the early Eighth Doctor audios is the diverse variety of experimentation in storytelling that is displayed throughout, and that is clearly demonstrated by audios like Embrace the Darkness.
A highlight of this story is ROSM, or more specifically Rescue Operational Security Module G723, voiced by Ian Brooker – an AI operating several assault units designed to carry out search-and-rescue – at any cost. The other supporting characters are very clearly defined, though their more grating personality traits can get tiresome, especially the persistent pessimism from the Humans in the base – something the Doctor actually comments on. Nonetheless, Embrace the Darkness is a memorable audio that has its fair share of chilling scenes, and is one of the first choices for a ‘scary story’.
The best thing about this audio is Paul McGann, who by this point is firmly established in the character of the Eighth Doctor. This era of Big Finish invokes a sense of nostalgia for fans who listened to them on release, as the early Eighth Doctor audios were, at that time, the only source of ‘new’ Doctor Who, as in stories set after the TV Movie aside from the various novel and comic series, and Big Finish did an excellent job of establishing their new era of Doctor Who, and to this day the early Eighth Doctor audios stand as a truly unique era of experimentation for the audio series.
#32 – The Time of the Daleks
The first Dalek story starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor is unfortunately quite a lacklustre one, as although this audio is the fourth and final instalment in a story arc that ran through the three previous Dalek stories produced by Big Finish (The Genocide Machine, The Apocalypse Element and The Mutant Phase) this audio does not share the same space-opera quality of those audios and instead opts to retell the events of The Evil of the Daleks with a subplot about the Daleks attempting to remove Shakespeare from history, among other things, and the end result is less-than-stellar. Recycling plot elements from The Evil of the Daleks has been a common occurrence in the past, likely due to the fact that many fans have reached the conclusion that the episode is lost forever, but unfortunately every attempt to rewrite this story – from this audio to the Eleventh Doctor TV story Victory of the Daleks – has been lacklustre.
Fans of the Daleks will be able to appreciate this audio, not least because of the excellent voice work provided by Nicholas Briggs. As this is the fourth audio featuring the Daleks to be released by Big Finish, by this time the iconic Dalek voice that fans know from the New Series had been well-established. Unfortunately, as the weakest of the ‘Dalek Empire’ story arc this story doesn’t give the Daleks much to do, although there are several scenes of the Daleks quoting Shakespeare that is perhaps the most memorable aspect of this story.
There is an appearance from the Dalek Emperor, however, which is always welcome – although featuring most prominently in The Mutant Phase, the Emperor appears here using the same booming, authoritative voice that Nicholas Briggs used for the later appearance for the Dalek Emperor in The Parting of the Ways in 2005. Overall, the final part is fairly strong so this audio is definitely worth a listen, and fans of the Daleks in particularly will enjoy this story. However, it is not among the strongest stories featuring the Daleks that Big Finish have produced.
#33 – Neverland
Lovers of Gallifrey lore will feel right at home with Neverland, as this story is perhaps one of the most interesting insights into Time Lord society since The Deadly Assassin. It also stars Lalla Ward as Romana II, continuing her story from the Sixth Doctor audio The Apocalypse Element and establishing her role as President of Gallifrey that becomes a central plot point to the Big Finish Gallifrey spinoff box sets. This audio has generous helpings of intrigue, critical plot revelations and a fantastic story – as the penultimate story of the first wave of Charley-era audios, Neverland delivers on every front. The Doctor and Charley’s relationship reaches its most critical point as the Doctor realises the full extent of the damage that saving Charley from the R1-01 has done to the Web of Time, and we empathize with his desperation to find a way of saving Charley without destroying the universe.
The characters in this story are very interesting, as nothing is as it seems – without delving into too may spoilers, Neverland deals with the consequences of one of Gallifrey’s darkest secrets, and presents a very interesting interpretation of the concept of time that allows for some very creative narrative developments. The performances given by the cast are all excellent, but standouts include India Fisher and Paul McGann, as always, as well as Lalla Ward who always delivers a great performance as Romana that makes me wish she had appeared in the Monthly Adventures series more often, although she would go on to play the primary role in the Gallifrey spinoffs leading right up to the Time War.
#50 – Zagreus
Writing about Zagreus is difficult because it is rather like trying to describe a dream you had when you don’t fully understand what the dream was supposed to mean and find it extremely disturbing yet fascinating to consider how it might have subconsciously affected you. The three-hour long audio was produced in celebration of Doctor Who’s 40th Anniversary, and all of Big Finish’s regular cast from the Monthly Range of Doctor Who stories were creatively cast in different roles in Zagreus, meaning that Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy all appear as well as all of the other recurring cast from Big Finish’s range of Doctor Who stories, and they are all playing different characters which is a very unique and fun feature of this audio.
The story itself is steeped in Time Lord lore, as well as the lore of the show in general, though this is not a traditional ‘Anniversary celebration’ episode – in fact it is quite unlike any other Doctor Who story ever produced, but it is for each individual listener to decide if this is good or bad. There are a few often-repeated phrases describing Zagreus that pop up in reviews and essays related to the drama, these are that it definitely doesn’t need to be four hours long and that it is almost completely impenetrable to newer listeners. Although it was marketed as a 40th Anniversary celebration story, it definitely requires a lot of contextual listening in order to have any chance of understanding the story.
Describing too much about the story will spoil crucial plot developments, but the basic overview of the audio is that Charley and the Doctor are separated and wandering among the many rooms and corridors of the TARDIS, as she generates holographic representations of real-life events happening elsewhere in time in an attempt to guide Charley through the story. Overall, Zagreus is a bizarre listen that can only be fully appreciated if the entire Eighth Doctor and Charley arc up until this point has been listened to at least once, if not multiple times. Zagreus itself often requires a few listens in order to fully understand the plot, and it is not recommended for newer listeners to the audio genre. As a rule, Zagreus is best listened to knowing that the project was perhaps an example of Big Finish overextending themselves. Still, having a main cast filled with cast members from Classic Who is always a treat.