It’s a fair question why this exists. The continuing adventures of the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard, long after their quasi-era had ended. Really, the entire existence of Big Finish as the last man standing from the wilderness years is strange. As we’ve pointed out before, almost all of the creative debates of the wilderness years are settled. Russell T Davies, by making Doctor Who an unequivocal part of the mainstream again, settled them. The future of Doctor Who was secured. What use can we have for the calx of the wilderness years? And this is, of course, the hardest to understand one. Nostalgia for the Davison or McCoy eras makes sense. Even nostalgia for the Colin Baker years makes sense as a sort of redemption. But nostalgia for the culturally irrelevant speck that is the McGann era? Why would we miss it? Why would we want to sustain it?
And so many of the familiar tics are present. The Cybermen on the cover make a “surprise” appearance at the end of the second episode. The first episode spends all of its effort setting up the surprise revelation of the story’s premise (also essentially emblazoned on the cover). These are small, niggling things, but nevertheless, eight years into the Big Finish era they’re still going on. There’s a stubbornness to this that borders on the sweet. Big Finish could have entirely thrown in the towel in the wake of the new series. Sure, they don’t have Eccleston or Tennant, but they could have turned overtly into new series clones. Instead here they are, cranking out 4×25 minute stories with the same pesky flaws they’ve always had. It’s almost romantic, in a way. Almost.
Elsewhere, however, the influence of the new series is more tangible. The structure of the episode is in effect a shell game, furiously moving the audience’s focus around in the hopes that they’ll lose sight of the foreknowledge that Charley is leaving this story and will thus be surprised by it in spite of themselves. This is standard practice for new series finales, but Big Finish had never really done it before. Of course, equally, by this point in Doctor Who “new series finale” and “departure of a major character” were essentially synonymous, especially when you consider that The Girl Who Never Was was, in practice, recorded in the wake of Doomsday.
Indeed, it’s difficult not to see the two stories as causally related. Televised Doctor Who – by this point well established as legitimate and proper Doctor Who in a way that Big Finish never was nor could be – did a big companion departure in a story with Cybermen, so Big Finish followed suit, recording it almost exactly a year later. And it’s worth stresing that this is actually the first time Big Finish ever did a companion departure. They’d previously established how Evelyn parts company with the Sixth Doctor, but she didn’t actually get a departure story as such: the Doctor just shows up with Mel after Evelyn has departed and we find out why Evelyn departed.
This is, in other words, a different sort of “season finale” than what Big Finish had done in the past. Much like the new series, where, under Davies at least, season finales were first and foremost character pieces, The Girl Who Never Was is mainly about Charley. There are no new revelations about the web of time, no extensions to the interminable battle between Rassilon and Zagreus, and no major shifts to any Doctor Who icons. The Cybermen show up, yes, but they’re just some decaying half-rate Cybermen who exist to give the story a monster and keep the balls in the air for another episode or two. They’re not a serious attempt at a big monster story.
It has to be said, however, that Big Finish just aren’t as good at this as BBC Wales is. I’m not even talking in the general case of whether this is a good thing to do in the first place – we can save the consideration of the new series’ aesthetic decisions in the general case for later. I’m just talking on a basic level of technique here. The Girl Who Never Was doesn’t quite work. Its final twist – the revelation that Byron had stowed away on the TARDIS – is too obviously telegraphed. The decision to have the Doctor forget the entire adventure and to have Charley’s letter to him from the first episode be the terms on which they depart is too reductive, rendering the entire adventure somewhat pointless. The cop-out on the nature of the older Charley is too easy and the least interesting of the possibilities. And, of course, it cheats, albeit charmingly, in that it makes no effort at all to resolve Charley’s emotional arc, instead sidelining her into the Sixth Doctor line for a while.
None of these things work, and most of them are ones that it’s difficult to imagine how could have survived a notes-giving process by a reasonably serious executive. They’re not amateur mistakes, but they’re b-list mistakes, if you will: the sorts of things that separate the sorts of writers the BBC entrusts million pound episode budgets to and the sort they don’t. They’re the sorts of mistakes a high-end writer is expected to catch for themselves. And more to the point, they’re mistakes that a good editor should catch and make sure to get rewrites on. I don’t for a moment believe that every script to cross Russell T Davies’s desk avoided basic storytelling mistakes of these sorts. But I do think he, whether through sending writers notes or rewriting things himself, made sure the shooting scripts fixed things. Sure, bits of his storytelling fall flat from time to time, but you’d never see an emotional character departure story where the Doctor doesn’t remember it and the companion doesn’t get an emotional payoff one way or the other.
I don’t even mean this to say that the new series is consistently better than The Girl Who Never Was. I’d listen to the audio again in a heartbeat before I trudged through Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel again, given the choice. Rather it’s that The Girl Who Never Was isn’t making particularly interesting errors. When the new series fails – and it often does – it at least fails in reasonably complex and nuanced ways, as opposed to ones that are easily diagnosed. And there is a sense in which this is preferable. New mistakes are more exciting than old ones. In many ways, progress, whether material social or otherwise, is a matter of making new mistakes.
But all of this catches The Girl Who Never Was in a strange sort of nether-space that can’t quite be pinned down. On the one hand it is a tacit admission of the supremacy of the new series. For all that it’s stubbornly clinging to what might be described as the Big Finish approach, it’s also profoundly influenced by the new series in its basic goals. It has one foot in each world. Which is a little bit of a strange thing to do in 2007 when one world has fairly decisively become a massive pop culture phenomenon while the other is still firmly a marginal cult pursuit. The approach here is too blended to call it a rebuke to the new series – this is nothing like the relationship between Zagreus and the Eighth Doctor Adventures, for instance. But there’s still an odd hesitation – an insistence on the old-fashioned.
To some extent, and especially from the vantage point of 2013, this seems right and proper. Simply put, it’s nice to have someone watching over the history of Doctor Who. It’s nice to know that someone, if the Doctor were to invent a quadracycle, would ensure that a Day of the Daleks reference came up, that if the Doctor were to dress as a monk then the Meddling Monk would get namechecked, and that if there were to be monsters in the wi-fi they’d be the Vardans. It’s not that any of these things are particularly important in any sort of inherent sense. Rather it’s that in the face of the new series exploding in popularity there’s something to respecting the old series as more than that ropey old thing that the new series is based off of.
In an odd way, in other words, the flaws of Big Finish were perfectly suited to become advantages once the new series was a thing that existed. All of the reasons why Big Finish wasn’t sufficient to carry on the cultural legacy of Doctor Who became valuable things to have once Doctor Who’s cultural legacy became secured. Suddenly treating the series as a museum piece stopped being a bad thing and started being the one thing that Doctor Who as something that was alive in the present couldn’t do. The problem, for over twenty years of Doctor Who now, has been the insistence on treating Doctor Who as an active museum. But that’s not an objection to the prospect of a museum of Doctor Who’s past: it’s just an objection to confusing that with the present.
This is, once again, something that was obscured during the wilderness years themselves. With all the asinine fan politics over the wilderness years themselves it’s easy to forget both that none of the contenders of the late 90s/early 00s were actually viable futures for Doctor Who, concerned as they were over capturing a dwindling fanbase that was attracting little new blood. In hindsight the important question of the wilderness years, once the issue of what influences and ideas germinated there is settled, isn’t the one we could see at the time – which vision of Doctor Who would become the “proper” one – but a wholly invisible one: which vision of Doctor Who would best fit as a part of the then unknown future.
And the answer, in practice, is Big Finish. The reasons for this are several. On the most basic level, they had the better medium. Novels take longer and require concentration, whereas audios, particularly in the post-iPod era, love nothing more than a nice commute to work. It’s not, obviously, that books are a dead medium – that would be phenomenally silly. But as a serialized secondary line to an existing television series audios have some clear advantages. On top of that, Big Finish had a more pleasant balance between line-wide storytelling and individual stories. Even if you hated the Divergent Universe arc there were still audios with three other Doctors going. These days Big Finish puts out almost too much to follow it all, making it even easier to select the line that appeals to you. The trilogy structure of releases works well in this regard, giving several mini-seasons a year alongside Companion Chronicles, Fourth Doctor Adventures, Eighth Doctor releases, and various other plums like Jago and Lightfoot, Benny, Gallifrey, etc. Compare to BBC Books, where if you disliked the amnesia plot you were basically out of luck, since you were otherwise going to get a more or less random selection of Past Doctor Adventures over a year. Big Finish releases a ton, but they release it in well-defined and reasonably varied lines.
But more than that, Big Finish secured the value of Doctor Who’s history. We can talk about this in terms of continuity – and we will next Friday – but the real content here is structural. And it’s something that we do have something of a rapidly closing window to talk about. As Doctor Who becomes a tremendously successful modern television production that didn’t just become very contemporary but became so utterly of-the-moment that it crafted its cultural moment it’s easy to lose the material past of the program. Throughout this blog we’ve reconstructed bits of it – the way in which the Hartnell era was based around not just the TV technology of the mid-1960s but around a specific rhythm of television that was related to the two-channel setup whereby one watched what was on, generally as a family, and for a prolonged period of time, or the way in which the Davison era was in part an attempt to rework Doctor Who according to the structural logic of Coronation Street.
These moments are, of course, past. There’s no way to do Hartnell-style Doctor Who anymore, although as we’ll see, the new series makes stabs at updating the logic of that and other eras. But Big Finish, by virtue of continuing to do Doctor Who in the present according to a bafflingly ornate production logic – an odd (and in many ways under-precedented) medium with a peculiar target audience, at least keeps the spirit of structural flexibility and problem solving alive. Their mandate to be based in Doctor Who’s pre-2005 past and to keep that past alive not just in terms of continuity but in terms of the character of the eras and the structure of stories provides a small but vital counterweight to the dominance of the new series. Not in spite of its odd flaws but because of them – because of the way in which it is a holdover with arbitrary bits of material history preserved in amber. Its strangeness makes the material history of the program and its development visible, reminding us constantly that 2005 was not some miraculous moment of creation in which something emerged from nothing, but a particularly important step in a story that had been going on for forty-two years previously.
And even after we’ve subtracted all of the innovations from the wilderness years that directly influenced the new series, the years still have value for being, in many ways, the most sustained and incongruous exploration of the basic question that animates every era of Doctor Who: how do we make this format work for today? The fact that the wilderness years, for all their moments of brilliance, never quite solved it in the general case (though they came close at times), in an odd way, sets the tone of their legacy. And so they continue today.