Well, here we go. My first journey into Big Finish land. The first of a great many, if all goes according to plan, as I sequentially battle my way through the mass of the main Big Finish Doctor Who audio range over this 50th Anniversary year. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Of course, as everyone knows, in life things rarely go to plan. And my own life is certainly no exception. So, if it turned out that I hated this first audio release then this could be a very short blog series indeed. Luckily, that didn’t quite happen. Read on further to discover what did.
First thing’s first: As much as is practical, I intend to give my thoughts on the audio adventures in as spoiler free a manner as is possible, that way any twists and turns these stories may take can hopefully still be enjoyed in full, without me having given the game away. Just enough to hopefully put my mad ramblings into some kind of context, but without damaging the listening experience should you ever wish to listen for yourself, and have so far yet to do so.
So if you were hoping for a detailed, point-by-point breakdown of every adventure I’m afraid that you won’t get that here. To that end, I am happy to drop a suitable recommendation or two upon request, however.
What you will get is my random and scatter-shot thoughts about all that I have just listened to, and my personal and honest opinion on it’s worth, or lack thereof. So with that out of the way, let’s get into the first episode of The Sirens of Time…
“Appearances can be deceptive.”
Episode 1: The Seventh Doctor finds himself stranded on a mysterious world, in the company of an equally mysterious and stranded young woman named Elenya. Meanwhile the only apparent occupants of the planet, an elderly and infirm man, and his decidedly unpleasant nursemaid, both have secrets of their own.
Well, to be perfectly honest, this wasn’t quite the start I had hoped for. Though to be fair, neither was it the train-wreck that I had feared it could end up being. Instead it fell somewhere uncomfortably in between, listenable, but hardly assured. Demonstrating the potential of the audio range, without actually living up to it.
Everybody seems to be putting in an effort here, but few seem to have yet found their feet, nor manage to put their finger quite on the pulse of what works and what doesn’t in this particular medium. And as nice as it is to have Sylvester McCoy back playing The Doctor again, his performance here seems a bit off, almost as if he is doing an impression of his Doctor, rather than actually playing The Doctor. This is especially noticeable when he doesn’t have anyone else to bounce off of, such as when left to his own devices during the beginning of the episode.
That said, he also happens to be lumbered with some rather heavy-handed expository and descriptive dialogue that he has been left on his own to spout and make work, which is never the easiest of tasks, so I tend to want to cut him a bit of slack on that account. After all, let us not forget that at the time of recording it had been quite a while since he last played The Doctor, so a slight adjustment period is only to be expected as he, and other returning cast members, transition back into these roles.
It also doesn’t exactly help matters that the rest of the guest cast are little more than serviceable here, with two key exceptions. Sarah Mowat is actually very good as The Doctor’s new acquaintance, while Maggie Stables is nothing short of cringeworthy as the crone-like Ruthley. In the case of the latter, it’s a completely over-the-top pantomime performance of what is, frankly, a rather terribly written and utterly clichéd character to begin with, and it does this opening episode no favours whatsoever. The others all do what they can with what they have, and the core story itself is fine, albeit rather simple in both nature and execution. However, the characterisations and dialogue are rather patchy, to put it kindly, and the attempts at humour here almost always fall completely flat.
On the upside, the soundscape and music are well done, and do help greatly in bringing a genuine classic era Doctor Who feel to the whole proceedings. And it really isn’t that bad, it just isn’t that good, either. It does, however, show some potential, and happily, things only get better from here.
“Doctor? That’s a profession, not a name.”
Episode 2: The Fifth Doctor is trapped aboard a hostile German U-Boat during the early days of World War One. His only ally, a young woman named Helen.
Which brings us to the second episode, which while hardly the most exciting piece of audio in the world, was to me a significant improvement over episode one, and managed to hold my attention easily throughout.
Peter Davison sounds a bit flat here, to be perfectly honest, but again, I’m willing to let that go as part of the expected teething pains of returning to a role after being away from it for so long. And once again I found Sarah Mowat to be a standout.
The rest of the cast fulfil their roles solidly enough, including Mark Gatiss as the pragmatic Das Boot-like U-Boat Captain, Schwieger, and the script feels generally tighter this time around, if a little perfunctory in spots. It seems that ze U-Boat crew have all been outfitted with ze standard stereotypical German accents, but surprisingly it never particularly detracts or starts to grate. In fact, everything all comes together and works rather well.
Even the fact that the cliff-hanger from last episode isn’t actually followed up on in any way, and won’t be until episode four rolls around, isn’t a problem. This is actually a significant change to the traditional cliff-hanger format for classic era Doctor Who, but for this story, it’s also a necessary one, and it works, for me at least, without any real issue or complaint.
That is not meaning to damn it with faint praise, either. I genuinely enjoyed this episode, and especially the scene where The Doctor allows an ally to basically be his weapon, which always tends to ring truer than the character himself might like to admit. Particularly this incarnation of the character.
Oh, and the Time Lords of Gallifrey are still utter bastards, which is nice.
“It’s just that I have the strangest feeling that we’ve met before.”
Episode 3: The Sixth Doctor is violently ejected from the TARDIS after colliding with some form of temporal anomaly. Waking up aboard the starliner Edifice, he soon encounters an oddly familiar looking young waitress who says her name is Ellie.
We now interrupt this review for a brief confession. I am a huge Colin Baker fan. In fact, to me, he is the most under-rated and under-appreciated of all the official Doctors. That doesn’t mean he is my favourite, but it does mean that I am genuinely a big fan, and that I honestly believe that he got a bit of raw deal, not only back in the day, but also from parts of fandom, and the general public, ever since. In fact, one of the two biggest reasons why I wanted to get into the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range to begin with is in the hopes of hearing Colin Baker finally getting his due.
With that out of the way, I think I am about to get my wish. Colin Baker is great here, right from the off. It’s almost as if he never left the role. And unburdened by some of the sillier aspects of his TV stories (Carrot juice!) he really has a chance to shine, and has grabbed onto it and run with the opportunity full force. Listening to the Sixth Doctor, you get the feeling that Colin Baker has been waiting for this day for a long time, and now that it has arrived, he is damn sure not going to blow it. And he doesn’t. Not even a little bit. In fact he is easily the highlight of this release, while being more than ably assisted, once again, by a certain Sarah Mowat.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I like this episode, story wise, better than the Davison chapter, but it is at least on a par, and Colin Baker’s performance elevates it further still. A fun, fast-paced romp this one, that finally starts to bite into the over-arching mystery of the whole story, as a lead in to the final chapter.
“Beware the Sirens of Time.”
Episode 4: The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors all find themselves together on a Gallifrey that has been laid siege. The Panopticon lay in ruins, but does the answer as to why lie with Knight Commander Lyena, and the mysterious Knights of Venyshaa?
I have just realised that one thing I have failed to mention, or give proper credit for up to this point, is the characterisations of the three incarnations of The Doctor. They all feel pretty much spot on, and regardless of what other issues one may have with the script along the way, that is one area that Briggs and company have managed to get absolutely right, much to their credit. Despite any little variances in performance that may be here, these aren’t merely ‘The Doctors in name only‘, they feel like the real deal, the characters that we know and love from the classic series, transported into all new (audio based) adventures. And for whatever teething problems this first release may have, that is something that all concerned should be very proud of. Not to mention being something that this listener is eminently grateful for.
And so here we are, the final episode, where the machinations are all laid bare, and the three Doctors deliver what fans were most eagerly awaiting, as they finally get the chance to unite, and play off one another, all while doing their best to save the universe. And good fun it is, too. Colin Baker once again shines, while Sylvester McCoy enjoyably bounces off of his fellow Doctors, particularly Baker, being much more lively than he was in his initial chapter. Even Peter Davison seems to have woken up. A bit. And yes, Sarah Mowat is quite good again, also. But you probably could have guessed that by this point.
Sure, there is a little bit of padding here in this final episode, and while the Three Doctors-esque ‘contact’ scene was a nice throwback, I’m not sure we, as listeners, needed quite the lengthy recap that followed, but these are small niggles is what is ultimately a fun romp, and one that also manages to draw all three disparate episodes together surprisingly well. In fact it almost makes that first episode seem a bit better in retrospect. Almost.
While The Sirens of Time is unlikely to ever be thought of by me as an all time Who audio great, at the end of the day where it has succeeded is in showing a glimpse into the sheer potential of the Big Finish Doctor Who range as a legitimate and worthwhile continuation of the original series. A task that, going in, I honestly wasn’t sure it would be able to achieve, despite many a fan claim to the contrary. But achieve it, it has, and I give writer/director Nicholas Briggs full credit for managing to do so, despite a few bumps along the way.
So while this story may not be a classic, make no mistake, it very much feels like a refugee from classic series Doctor Who, both for better and for worse. Just minus the visual component. And much like classic Who, it is sometimes rough around the edges, it sometimes has a grasp that seems beyond it’s actual reach, and you are likely to encounter the odd dodgy performance or naff effect. But even through all of that, it’s overall charm, creativity, and enthusiasm still manages to envelop you and pull you along, or at least it did me. It was an extremely rocky start, admittedly, but after that first episode it soon started to find it’s footing, and then got progressively better as it went along.
And while I’ll never know what listening to this release, with the prospect of more to follow, must have felt like for Who starved fans during the so-called wilderness years of Doctor Who, I can say that I now very much look forward to continuing my Doctor Who audio journey, with the hope of even better things to come.
Next up: Peter Davison returns in Phantasmagoria