A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Doctor Who’ on Audio

Doctor Who has had quite a large number of stories told under its fifty-five year history across several mediums. Obviously there is television, but also novels, comics, and…radio?

For twenty years, Big Finish Productions has been telling an unprecedented amount of stories across the entire Whoniverse featuring original cast members from the show, lush soundscapes, and narratives which could never be shown on television during a pre-watershed time slot. Starting with Bernice Summerfield in 1998, they graduated to producing full cast adventures with the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors and their companions in 1999, with the Eighth Doctor joining the fray in 2001 and the Fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker, completing the remaining ensemble of classic Doctors in 2011. And in recent years, the War Doctor and Tenth Doctor have appeared as well thanks to an expansion of the company’s licensing agreements with the BBC.

And it’s all on audio.

But these are not just glorified audio books (except for Short Trips and Companion Chronicles); these are all-new adventures featuring new and original cast members carrying a story through their performances of the script. It’s like a TV show without the visuals.

The format is not for everyone, but the stories are worth giving the medium a shot during a long drive or a workout. But with twenty years of stories, many of which weave in and out of each other, where does one even begin? Well, that’s what I hope to accomplish today. The releases listed herein are what I consider to be the most easily accessible entry points into Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas, with links to purchase them on Big Finish’s website. But it’s important to note that Big Finish can be notoriously expensive, so I will also be trying to pick out releases which will not completely break the bank. However, there are sales every weekend and over the course of the year pretty much everything will have been on some kind of sale.

So, without further ado…

1. The Tenth Doctor Adventures

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It’s like 2008 all over again…

Despite my personal distaste for the Tenth Doctor, I understand that he is the most popular incarnation of the character and it would be foolish of me not to include his Big Finish outings on this list, even if I am not really a fan of them. So why is his entire range (currently consisting of two volumes of three hour-long stories) at the top of the list?

Firstly, I’m not listing these in any particular order of quality or importance. Secondly, because, unlike Big Finish’s other work, the Tenth Doctor Adventures don’t try anything new or different with its characters or try to weave itself into the rest of Big Finish’s output in terms of story. They are very much stand alone stories released in packages of three (but are available for separate purchase) that are meant to recapture the Russell T. Davies era of the TV show, particularly 2008 for Volume 1 (featuring Catherine Tate reprising her role as Donna Noble) and 2006 for Volume 2 (with Billie Piper as Rose Tyler).

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Pre-orders for Volume 2 broke the website. Seriously.

If you want more David Tennant as a way to help ease you into an unfamiliar medium, then I would recommend any of these stories. They aren’t particularly deep or challenging, and their structure, pacing, and tone emulate Tennant’s time on the show, meaning that you will be in familiar territory in some regard. Just be prepared to fork up a bit of money.

Volume 1 (Standard Edition)
Volume 1 (Limited Edition; Download Only)
1.1 Technophobia
1.2 Time Reaver
1.3 Death and the Queen
Volume 2 (Limited Edition)
2.1 Infamy of the Zaross
2.2 Sword of the Chevalier
2.3 Cold Vengeance

2. Classic Doctors, New Monsters

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There are classic Doctors, and new monsters. The name fits.

Another somewhat pricier outing, but seeing as how the vast majority of Big Finish’s output is set within the realm of Classic Who, listening to them go up against monsters from the new series provides a level of familiarity which can help in transitioning to these earlier incarnations of the character. These two box sets each consist of four hour-long stories in the style of the new series wherein a classic Doctor takes on a new monster. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was clear enough.

The first sets sees the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and 16th century artist Michelangelo square off against the Weeping Angels, and despite the Angels being a monster which relies on visuals they work surprisingly well on audio. The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) defends a cultured Judoon deserter in court in what is not just the strongest story in the set, but one of Baker’s finest performances with Big Finish and one of Sixie’s best, most heartfelt stories. Then the scheming, manipulative Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) finds himself in a future where humanity suppresses their emotions through willing subjugation by way of popping pills through the Sycorax’s manipulation. And finally, we get the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) struggling to help during the Time War. The picture may show a modern Sontaran, but make no mistake; the “new monster” in his outing here is the Time War itself.

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Volume 2 sees the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) find himself trapped in an abandoned theme park overtaken by the Vashta Nerada; the Fifth Doctor embroiled in a past war between the Time Lords and the Racnoss; the Sixth Doctor encounters the Carrionites following their defeat at the hands of his tenth incarnation (and defeats them just as one would expect Sixie to); and the Eighth Doctor happens upon a research facility which has been conducting experiments on Vashta Nerada following his encounter with them in his fourth incarnation, turning them into the Nerada Vashta: creatures that hide in light and have been genetically engineered for warfare…by the Time Lords.

Out of all eight stories, there is really only one that disappoints, but if you really want to dive into the meat of Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories without watching any of the classic series, then it would be best to be a bit familiar with the classic Doctors. With Classic Doctors, New Monsters, that transition is made easier.

Classic Doctors, New Monsters Volume 1
Classic Doctors, New Monsters Volume 2

3. Blood of the Daleks

 

Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor never got a fair crack at the role on television. After the 1996 TV movie, he wouldn’t return to the role on-screen for seventeen years. But in 2001, he started doing Big Finish, and in 2007 he got his own, separate range of stories: the Eighth Doctor Adventures, which were meant to bring in new listeners by putting the company’s most “current” Doctor into a style of stories similar to the TV show at the time: 45 minutes to an hour long, season-long story arcs, and a spunky, young, modern woman for a companion.

The EDAs ran over the course of four seasons from 2007 to 2011, and are a brilliant jumping on point for the Eighth Doctor. Knowledge of his adventures with Charley Pollard and C’rizz in the monthly range is not required in the least bit to follow these stories, and the events of this range are what begin to set Eight on the path to being the broken man seen in 2013’s The Night of the Doctor.

It all started with the two-part story Blood of the Daleks which, unfortunately, was also released in two parts. It does a fair job at introducing the new companion, Lucie Miller; giving the listener a solid characterization for the screen-elusive Eighth Doctor, who by this point had developed a decent bit from how he was in the TV movie; and presents mystery box storytelling in a way which does not feeling heavy handed or self-aggrandizing a la Steven Moffat or J.J. Abrams.

The whole first season goes on sale relatively frequently and I believe is available to listen to on Spotify. I recommend listening to the whole range of EDAs in order. That way, we can cry together at the ending before jumping into Dark Eyes.

Blood of the Daleks Part 1
Blood of the Daleks Part 2

4. The Marian Conspiracy

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Not everything you read in history books is totally correct.

One of the goals Big Finish had set when acquiring the Doctor Who license was to redeem the Sixth Doctor in the eyes of fans. 2000’s The Marian Conspiracy was the first step in achieving this goal, as it featured the linchpin to the whole plan: a new companion, and the first one created for audio, Dr. Evelyn Smythe: a fifty-five year old history professor played by the late Maggie Stables. Over the course of their travels together, through a combination of stubborn fortitude when dealing with Sixie’s ego, acting as his emotional center, and love of baking chocolate cakes, she would succeed in mellowing out the colorful and controversial Sixth Doctor. He would even swap out his technicolor coat for one consisting of various shades of blue.

But that all started here, in a pure historical story which explores the realities of historical revisionism by examining Queen Mary as she was versus how she is taught to be in the modern age. And it works because Evelyn, being a student of history (as well as the source of the problem the Doctor is trying to solve in this story by pure happenstance), actively wants to travel in the TARDIS to see the history she has dedicated her life to, and she has a particular disgust for Queen Mary based on what historical revisionism has taught her.

Six and Evelyn’s story arc would go on until Thicker Than Water, and numerous other stories with the two traveling together at earlier points would be released after that. But their story arc also has ties to another arc with the Seventh Doctor, which we will touch on shortly.

On the plus side, each story in the main story arc with Six and Evelyn is only $2.99 each on a download (most of them are download only, unfortunately), and they work as a complete package. But this story arc is required in order to fully grasp a certain other arc…

The Marian Conspiracy (Download Only)

5. Colditz

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Something something Godwin’s Law of Time Travel.

But before that other story arc, let’s backpedal a bit. Like the Virgin New Adventures novels from the 1990s, Big Finish pushed the Seventh Doctor and Ace in darker directions. While there were some stories with the two released before it (as well as one with the two and Benny set in the VNA continuity), Colditz can be seen as the point when the first major story arc involving the Seventh Doctor’s companions really began.

The TARDIS lands at Colditz Castle in October 1944, while the Nazis are using it as a base of operations. As they step outside, the Doctor and Ace are captured, with one of the officers, Dr. Elizabeth Klein, taking a particular interest in the Doctor and the TARDIS, seeing them as vital to winning World War II. But Klein has her secrets. Secrets which may help prevent Ace’s death at the hands of a crazy Nazi officer played by David Tennant as well as Germany’s early development of nuclear weapons.

Colditz sets up a minor arc for Ace which follows into a larger one (or three) later, as well as introduces Elizabeth Klein, who would much later become a companion of the Seventh Doctor. The franchise’s entire time travel premise is put to magnificent use here not just as a plot device to bring the characters to a particular location but as a vital part of the narrative.

Its direct follow-up, The Rapture, is not quite as strong but scars of the events of Colditz carry forward into it, and the two truly do further Ace’s growth as a character going forward.

Colditz (Download Only)
The Rapture (Download Only)

6. The Harvest

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“Oh my god!” -Hex

This is where the convergence of the Seventh Doctor’s stories and Evelyn Smythe’s begins…sort of. Evelyn herself does not appear until much later, but the ramifications of her time with the Sixth Doctor reverberate throughout every story with Seven’s new companion, a nurse from the year 2021 named Hex, who makes his first appearance in The Harvest.

The Harvest in and of itself is alright. It continues on with Ace’s changes in character brought on by the events of Colditz and The Rapture, as well as act as the finale of a trilogy to Cyberman stories…with the first two parts being released in the ensuing years. Time travel is funny like that.

By no means is The Harvest the highlight of the Hex story arc; it is merely the beginning. The real standouts include LIVE 34, Project: Destiny (which concludes a story arc which began with Six and Evelyn in Project: Twilight and Project: Lazarus), and A Death in the Family (which follows up on several arcs between the Six/Evelyn stories and the Hex stories up to that point). And while LIVE 34 does not require much context, the other two certainly do, and The Harvest is the best place to start for the Seventh Doctor’s side of them, while The Marian Conspiracy is the best place to start on the other side of the story.

Hex himself starts off as being a bit annoying, but over time he becomes an incredibly sympathetic character who adds some much needed levity to the TARDIS team. The Seventh Doctor is a manipulative chessmaster who uses his companions as pawns in plans they are not made privy to; Ace has been traveling in the TARDIS for so long she’s become more prone to resorting to more and more unsavory methods for accomplishing whatever must be done; and Hex is the only sane person in the whole dynamic. He isn’t totally detached from reality and acts as a supplementary moral compass for the others, even if he gets easily overwhelmed during intense situations. The Daleks practically give him PTSD later down the line.

The Harvest

7. Spare Parts

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“We…will…survive…!”

Marc Platt is often considered to be one of the best writers to have every worked on Doctor Who, even if 1989’s “Ghost Light” was a bit naff. Spare Parts alone is proof of how great a writer Platt is, and it is all thanks to the story’s depiction of the conditions that lead to the people of Mondas to become the Cybermen. It is a depressing, bleak, dark, twisted, horrific telling of the genesis of these iconic monsters that will leave you shaking in fear long after it has ended.

Spare Parts is often considered one of Big Finish’s all-time greatest releases, if not the absolute best they have. They even made 500 limited edition vinyl copies of it with new artwork alongside Robert Shearman’s The Chimes of Midnight. While the ending may seem obvious given the subject matter, the journey to the ending is something I dare not spoil in the least bit. It has to be experienced.

Spare Parts (Download Only)

8. The Chimes of Midnight

Chimes of Midnight, The cover

“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas with Mrs. Baddely’s plum pudding!”

Robert Shearman is a fantastic writer and I will defend that statement to the death (no pun intended). I reviewed his first short story collection Tiny Deaths last month, so I won’t get too far into details about his writing, but The Chimes of Midnight, like Spare Parts, is one of the greatest stories to come out of Big Finish thanks to Shearman’s terrifically absurd style of writing that somehow manages to wind back around into genuinely foreboding yet still hilarious world building.

The Doctor and Charley end up in a mysterious manor and…I really can’t say much more without giving the game away. Thankfully, while it does add a bit to the Charley arc, the previous five releases with her and the Eighth Doctor are in no way required to enjoy or understand this one.

The Chimes of Midnight (Download Only)

9. Master

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What is evil?

Back again with Marc Platt. In the lead up to Doctor Who‘s 40th anniversary, Big Finish had a tetralogy of stories focusing on a particularly significant villain. The Fifth Doctor clashed with Omega; the Sixth Doctor would gain insight into who Davros really is on the inside; the Seventh Doctor tried to find some way to give the Master a peaceful life; and it all culminated in the four-hour cavalcade of insanity that was Zagreus, the 40th anniversary story, the capstone to the Eighth Doctor’s first story arc, and Big Finish’s fiftieth monthly release.

But this is about Master, an insular story where the disfigured Dr. John Smith, while having his birthday dinner with close friends, meets the Doctor, who has made a deal with Death herself to give the Master ten years of a normal, peaceful life. In exchange, after those ten years have passed, the Doctor must kill him.

What ensues is a series of philosophical and introspective discussions on the nature of evil. What defines evil? Is one’s definition of evil equivalent to someone else’s definition of good and just? What drives someone to commit evil acts? Is evil inherent by nature or does society arbitrarily define what is and is not evil, thus painting a skewed perspective of what evil is?

I find myself going back to this one regularly. Not only is it a fascinating story with an incredible theme at its core, but it is also a fascinating character study for both the Doctor and the Master, as well as the relationship between the two.

Master (Download Only)

10. The Holy Terror

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Yup. That’s a penguin.

Ah, Rob Shearman. This and the next (and final) entry will be the last of his work on here, I promise.

The Holy Terror is a truly hilarious satire of blindly following any religion that not only does not paint religion itself in a negative light, but manages to get its point across when the Doctor’s companion is the comic strip character Frobisher, a shape-shifting penguin who talks with a 1920s New York accent.

It’s a shame that this and Shearman’s other Frobisher story, The Maltese Penguin, did not sell very well until years later, as I would have loved to hear more of Robert Jezek as the character. He runs the gamut of emotion from comical to quizzical to somber without missing a beat, and his chemistry with Colin Baker is on point.

The story itself is just what one would expect from Shearman, and that is “brilliant”. The Doctor and Frobisher arrive at a kingdom where the dominant (read: only) religion revolves around their monarch being omnipotent, complete with rituals and other practices which go unquestioned and all bend to the will of the monarch. When Frobisher is bequeathed the crown, he tries to establish some form of democratic elections so that the citizenry may choose how the monarchy rules their lives, but before the elections begin they ask him who he wants them to vote for.

It’s little things like that which give this story charm before the layers are peeled back on the whole thing.

The Holy Terror (Download Only)

11. Jubilee

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What does what we have done with our fallen foes say about us as a species?

Capping off this list is the inspiration for the Ninth Doctor episode “Dalek”: Jubilee. It is set a fair bit into Six’s adventures with Evelyn, but it does not bear any of the weight of the arc and thus one can easily jump into it.

The Doctor and Evelyn materialize in an alternate 2003 where the English Empire rules the world and the Daleks have been made into the butt of popular culture, just as the Nazis were following World War II, after their defeat at the pair’s hands in an alternate 1903. The President of the English Empire, Nigel Rochester, is planning the festivities for their one hundred year Jubilee celebration, which is set to feature the execution of the last remaining Dalek. Only Nigel is a bit…unhinged…

While this story did serve as the foundation for 2005’s “Dalek”, there is really only one scene which made the transition. Everything else, from its alternate Earth setting to its commentary on the barbarism of those who win wars do with the very idea of those whom they have conquered, was kept only to Jubilee. And while that doesn’t one better than the other, it does make them separate stories serving different purposes. Regardless, Jubilee is definitely worth checking out and is another major highlight in Big Finish’s catalog.

Jubilee (Download Only)

Felt I missed another strong starting point for newcomers? Let me know in the comments and I may make an addendum to this list!

 

 

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