It’s still January of 2001, so I suppose I’m kind of stuck not having much of an intro here. This marks the point in the McGann era where we jump tracks. Thus far we’ve focused primarily on the Eighth Doctor Adventures. We’re still going to cover another six of those (well, five, technically), but for the next month and a half or so we’re going to focus on the other McGann era: the Big Finish audios. This means a couple of things. First, these posts won’t have the “I’ll Explain Later” headers, for the simple reason that all of the Big Finish material can easily be bought on their website, making it less necessary to get people up to speed. Go buy these, basically. They’re cool. Second, it means that we have something today that we haven’t seen, or, rather, heard since the TV Movie itself: Paul McGann’s Doctor as played by Paul McGann.
This is a strange thing. McGann at once has a nearly blank slate and years of expectations and assumptions that he has to contend with.. The script does McGann few favors here, making him talk to himself for almost a full episode in the most “and now I will explain the plot to nobody” manner imaginable. It’s unfortunate, and more than a bit amateur hour. Yes, this story is meant to introduce a new companion, but the natural consequence of that should have been a start in which the Doctor arrives and gets into the action, not an episode of solo TARDIS scenes. It butchers the episode’s momentum, but worse, it butchers McGann, who rings in the sixth year of his tenure as the Doctor still trying to figure out how to play the part.
Already, though, some cross purposes are arising. McGann is in the deeply awkward position of stepping into a role that’s been defined in his absence. Momentarily, at least, the flaws of the Eighth Doctor Adventures are helping him slightly: his role may have been defined, but not with any consistency. And while it’s absurd to suggest that Big Finish wasn’t influenced by the BBC Books portrayals, they’re also reacting against BBC Books and creating their own version of the Eighth Doctor. Still, there’s a tension between what the script wants, which is for the Doctor to be the proper Edwardian Adventurer that allows Charlie to be the Edwardian Adventuress she proclaims herself to be, and what McGann seems to want, which is to play the Doctor as Ford Prefect: blasé and a bit snarky, rolling his eyes a bit at the plot around him.
If one wants to try to classify Doctors, one could do worse than dividing between leading man Doctors and reactive Doctors. The leading man Doctors are the ones who are played as active figures at the center of things: Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Colin Baker, and David Tennant. The reactive Doctors, on the other hand, are the ones who flit about the edges of the story and tend to react to what’s going on. This isn’t, to be clear, a comment on charisma so much as one of the ways in which a Doctor acts. Sylvester McCoy is a reactive Doctor for all his manipulations and power simply because he tends to manipulate by letting the person he’s talking to think they’re in control of the conversation. Patrick Troughton, Peter Davison, and Matt Smith are among the other reactive Doctors.
And McGann ends up in an odd place. Because his debut came out of the American cult television model he got cast firmly as a leading man Doctor to start. And that’s not what McGann seems interested in. Back in the TV Movie post we talked about how he’s visibly more engaged in the audition tapes than he is in the TV Movie. Yes, the audition tapes were off of the dreadful Leekley script with its father issues, but in those scenes he’s getting to be reactive. The scenes are about him being told information, and while they’re fundamentally about his character, they’re about his character’s reactions as things happen, not about his character taking charge and doing things. It’s when he’s put in the straight leading man role of the TV Movie that he visibly gets bored, because he doesn’t seem to want to flounce around being the hero. This makes sense. The reactive approach is the larger acting challenge, and is one of the things that makes the Doctor unique as a role: the fact that he’s reactive and the hero. Unfortunately, McGann is mostly on his own in wanting to play the part that way.
But in Storm Warning he starts to find a way to subvert that, continually underplaying lines or adding a sort of bemused detachment to them that plays more towards a reactive approach. The script, again, doesn’t quite know what to do with him here. Nor could it – Alan Barnes is necessarily writing for generic Doctor here. (It’s telling that two of the first four Eighth Doctor audios are simply adaptations of stories written for another Doctor entirely, but we’ll talk more about that on Wednesday.) But it’s an interesting aspect to McGann’s Doctor, and reveals vividly how little of what we think of as the Eighth Doctor actually stems from the man who plays him.
But the context of this story is strange in other ways. Back in the Virgin era I considered and ultimately rejected a division of Doctor Who that was commonly cited at the time – the famed and foolish “rad/trad” debate. My argument which I still stand by in the general case, was that there’s an illusion at the heart of the distinction given that every classic era of Doctor Who was, at the time it was being made, terribly radical. But as we reach the Big Finish/Eighth Doctor Adventures fork it becomes impossible to ignore this issue, simply because it is, in practice, the fundamental divide between the two lines. The Eighth Doctor Adventures were weird and written by Lawrence Miles, whereas Big Finish was proper Doctor who with actors.
More to the point, the Big Finish personnel were sober, safe pair of hands types. The fact that they were able to work up Big Finish and get the rights to make Doctor Who in the first place is a testament to their considerable professionalism – as is the fact that they’ve mildly improbably held the rights and continued their line with no end in sight as the new series kicked up. Equally telling is the number of people involved with Big Finish who have been gifted jobs on the new series. Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg, who both provide stirringly mediocre voice acting on Storm Warning can be unseen in any Dalek story. Alan Barnes and Gary Russell got the plum of doing The Infinite Quest, and Gary Russell was script editor for the new series (a far more menial and paper pushing position than on the classic series) on the last few Tennant specials, as well as on a few episodes of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. And, of course, Nicholas Briggs voices all of the monsters.
So, we hit one of these points where I need to be clear that I don’t mean something as an insult: with the exception of Nicholas Briggs (who really does do some phenomenal voice work with his monsters), none of these people were hired on the new series for their talent. They’re mostly sinecures given to people for faithful service to Doctor Who over the years. And they’re deserved. It’s absolutely wonderful that Doctor Who hires Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg to be Dalek operators. But they got the jobs by being reliable and professional. Which sums up the nature of Big Finish pretty well: they can get a cast together to produce professional quality Doctor Who on a monthly basis.
When compared to the gibbering shambles that the Eighth Doctor Adventures often are as a line, the difference is striking. It’s not that the two lines have a ton of differences in their creative staff. There are a few writers who did work for the Eighth Doctor Adventures and not Big Finish, and visa versa, but they’re mostly the same crowd. It’s not as though Big Finish and the Eighth Doctor Adventures represent a massive schism in Doctor Who’s creative staff. Heck, the third and fourth Big Finish audios were written by Stephen Cole and Justin Richards: clearly there’s not some intractable factionalization involved here. But where the Eighth Doctor Adventures constantly strove and angsted over a desire to find the future of Doctor Who, Big Finish just got on with the task of making it.
Which is the other facet of the rad/trad division. If the so-called rads could defend their inherent superiority on the grounds that every classic era of Doctor Who was radical, the so-called trads had an equally good defense.Because the overwhelming ethos of Doctor Who on television was “shut up and get the thing made with a reasonable level of professionalism.” Robert Holmes may have been a genius, but the bulk of his classic scripts in the Hinchcliffe era came out of him throwing his hands up and rewriting an unworkable script from scratch. He didn’t aspire to creating televisual classics that would be beloved for generations. He aspired to not missing the deadline. It is, in other words, not that the rads are clearly correct whereas the trads are boring. It’s that the entire distinction is absurd: Doctor Who at its best has always been innovative, and it’s always been driven by an unpretentious desire to make pretty good television.
In the early part of the Wilderness Years, specifically in the Virgin era, it was the latter desire that threatened to get out of control. The prospect of Doctor Who as a series of bland but competent tie-in novels loomed large until writers like Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore, Kate Orman, and Ben Aaronovitch pulled the line towards something more ambitious. But by 2001 the pendulum swung the opposite way: the last thing Doctor Who needed, as we said, were more people being bloody clever about it. And so in early 2001 the steady hand of Big Finish was in many ways exactly what the series needed.
Certainly in terms of experiencing the history in hindsight there is a sense of relief that one gets upon reaching the Big Finish material. From the vantage point of the guy behind the keyboard, there’s something a bit frustrating about the stretches of the series’ history where the historical context alone can eat up two thousand words. I go stir crazy for the sorts of entries where I can get into the weeds on details of stories instead of framing general case issues and history and production. Which is, perhaps, an ironic thing to say 1600 words into an entry in which I’ve mostly done just that, and its not as though there aren’t other aspects of the production history of Big Finish to sort out over the next three entries, but the transition is still there.
So what we have here is a familiar set of Doctor Who tropes. Angst over changing history, the idea that humanity ruins everything it touches through greed, alien species with distinct sub-factions. But crucially, they are put together in a way we’ve never quite seen before. The R101 disaster is obscure enough that we’re back in the territory of The Massacre – a terrible thing that the audience is unlikely to know the details of. (Indeed, even the writer seems not to know the details, deciding that everyone on board died instead of having six survivors.)
Furthermore, we’ve never had the “you can’t rewrite history, not one line” idea joined up with the companion before – the idea of a companion who is intrinsically wrong and against the Doctor’s ethics is clever, and manages to find a way to make the whole changing history idea actually have some consequences that don’t feel theoretical. When it’s just a bunch of supporting characters who the web of time says have to die we pretty much know how it’s going to play out – some angst and then them dying. But the idea of a companion who history says should have died is an interesting unknown. It’s in many ways surprising that it’s taken until 2001 to actually explore the whole fixed points in time business as anything other than a tragedy founded on an abstract ethical point. Even So Vile a Sin, the incumbent best dealing with these issues to date, had an element of the abstraction to it. Roz’s death is part of a larger philosophical point about the nature of history.
But that’s not what’s going on with Charley. Indeed, the philosophical aspects of it are absolutely threadbare. There’s nothing to this beyond the basic trope of “angst over rewriting history.” It’s self-justifying – the only reason the Doctor can’t change history is that the idea of the Doctor being unable to change history is an established bit of Doctor Who. There’s no idea to it. But in an odd way that makes it more fascinating, simply because the “you can’t change history” idea was never that good to begin with, reflecting as it does a bafflingly ethnocentric view of the world. It’s an idea that’s usually played as a big sci-fi idea, that here gets played for its narrative consequences instead.
There are two things to note here. The first is that there’s a surprising maturity to that. It’s characteristic of the new series, where the point isn’t whether or not you have a cool sci-fi idea but whether you have an interesting story around it. The companion the Doctor knows he isn’t supposed to save. That’s a story in a way “the Doctor can’t save an airship” isn’t. But second, and perhaps more interestingly, this jump in the sorts of stories Doctor Who does comes purely out of the decision to go back and play with the old tropes of the series without feeling obliged to in some tacit fashion apologize for the use of the tropes. It’s classic Doctor Who, but not quite as it’s ever been done before.
Storm Warning is, of course, imperfect. The voice acting is spotty, the writing doesn’t always know how best to accomplish its goals, and the aliens are terribly unoriginal. But it’s enough to show the potential of this as a future for Doctor Who, and more than a bit refreshing after the fruitlessly overambitious antics of the Eighth Doctor Adventures.