Tony Fyler picks a handful of the best Fifth Doctor stories from the Big Finish canon.
1. Spare Parts
When it comes to Big Finish, there are great jumping on points, and then there are perfect jumping on points. The company has a solid reputation for bringing back classic monsters, or showing you elements of those monsters that you’ve always wanted to see but which have never been filmed. Some of them work brilliantly, others less well. None of them to date work as well as Spare Parts. Before there were Cybermen in New Who, this was the definitive ‘Genesis of the Cybermen’ story, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa landing on Mondas at the technological and sociological tipping point where cyber-technology went from being an upgrade to a life-form. Showing both ‘the little people’ who don’t want to be converted and the scientists responsible for the evolution of cyber-life, this is an utterly pitch-perfect piece of Doctor Who writing, and stands to this day as the real Genesis of the Cybermen story, alongside Genesis of the Daleks in its scope and thrills. If there were only one Big Finish story to listen to, or if you were only ever going to try one – try this one.
2. Circular Time
An unusual entry, this, it’s one of the occasional collections of short stories that Big Finish puts out, largely to fill up its year of releases, and occasionally to take storytelling risks. This collection has no particular linking thread in the storytelling, but nevertheless, it takes the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa into deep and unexplored territory. Nyssa on screen often came off as a kind of sensible middle-child, the Fifth Doctor’s favourite of his original companions precisely because she did as she was told, didn’t have childish strops and didn’t keep demanding to be taken home – there being no home for her to go to. Big Finish in general has expanded Nyssa’s timeline hugely (there are two Nyssas now – Young Nyssa, as seen on screen most of the time, and Older Nyssa, who has a family and children in what to the rest of the Tardis crew seems to be only a few weeks), but here we dip in and out of her timeline with the Fifth Doctor to show a number of important moments. If we say that among those moments, they meet Sir Isaac Newton (brilliantly, almost demonically played by the ever-wonderful David Warner), Nyssa falls in love and, it’s at least strongly hinted, gives up her virginity, and – ohhh, it would be too spoilerific to explain much at all about the fourth tale in the collection, but for many people it’s the best of the lot. Circular Time spans almost the whole width of the Fifth Doctor’s life in just four short stories, and is in itself a thing of quiet, sometimes overlooked beauty.
3. Red Dawn
There are now at least three Big Finish stories that show some aspect of the ‘beginning’ of the Ice Warriors – Lords of the Red Planet (as recommended in our Second Doctor feature) is the most thorough and canon-correct of them. The Fifth Doctor has the other two – The Judgment of Isskar doesn’t exactly claim to be an origin story, but it explains a lot about how the Ice Warriors became set on a path of conquest. And Red Dawn is among the most interesting of the Fifth Doctor stories, with the Doctor and Peri being present at the awakening of some ancient Ice Warriors on Mars itself. The Ice Warriors are always among the more complex protagonists in Doctor Who, being a mixture of potential villainy and rigid honour-codes, and Red Dawn delivers both in spades, while also crafting a denouement that is both sad and rather beautiful, while taking in themes of medical, corporate and political ethics. Get Lords of the Red Planet, certainly, for an authentic Troughton take on the Ice Warriors – but pick this one up too for a more personal insight into the Ice Warriors’ mind.
4. The Church and the Crown
The on screen Fifth Doctor dabbled in the pure historical just once, in the well-crafted oddity that was Black Orchid. Here we see him, along with Peri and audio companion Erinem (The Doctor was travelling with an Egyptian queen long before Nephrititi pushed her way into the Eleventh Doctor’s Tardis), embroiled in the affairs of King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, amid plots, sub-plots, counter-plots, often prosecuted at the sword-point of the real musketeers, rather than those of Dumas’ invention. There’s a richness in the swash and buckle of this story that harks back to Hartnell’s occasional French escapades – a sense heightened by the fact that Peri turns out to be an exact doppelganger of Queen Anne (giving Nicola Bryant the chance to stretch herself beyond the usual companion dialogue with which she was frequently stuck on screen). Bryant in particular is excellent here, as we see her enjoying the presence of another girl on board the Tardis, and bantering with Erinem as though they are sorority sisters. Enjoy a trip to the court of King Louis, and strap yourself in for a pacey, complex thrill ride of a story.
5. The Gathering
The Fifth Doctor’s entry in a loose trilogy of stories, each of which featured the Cybermen in a new, horrifying way, is actually much deeper than just the threat of the metal monsters. This is the Fifth Doctor travelling alone, and encountering Tegan, some 21 years after she chose to leave him. So not only is there the threat of the Cybermen – or at least the Cyber-technology – at work here, there are old wounds to address, and Tegan here is uncompromising, just as she was on screen. Her life has not turned out especially well, there’s been no magic touch from travelling with the Doctor, and in the audio world before she was name-checked in the Sarah-Jane adventures, this feels like a Tegan more harshly realised, and less CBBC-friendly. This feels like the more grown-up, real-world Who we now are used to, and it’s both a shock and a treat to see Tegan as she’ll eventually become, long after her time in the Tardis is over.
6. The Butcher of Brisbane
An atypically convoluted Fifth Doctor premise, this story takes us into the world of Magnus Greel, the ‘Butcher of Brisbane’ of the title – before he escaped to Victorian England and started impersonating Weng Chiang. The set-up is bold, and the lengths to which the Doctor’s companions go to survive and make a difference is breathtaking – Turlough plays politics, Nyssa – calm, quiet, unassuming Nyssa becomes… Well, perhaps that’s a spoiler too far, but here is the prequel that such a ready-made character as Greel demands – complex, political, scientific and gruesome, it’s everything you could hope for from the Weng-Chiang prequel, and a little bit more in terms of the companions’ character development.
As ever, these recommendations are subjective – feel free to add your own in the comments. But this initial handful will allow people new to Big Finish to get a sense of the Fifth Doctor in a number of phases and moods, some of which will be recognisable, and others refreshingly new. Spare Parts remains one of the best of the whole Big Finish range, so above all, give that a try. You won’t be disappointed.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk