You Were Expecting Someone Else: UNIT Assembled
It’s been nearly five years since I last wrote about Big Finish on this site. Much of this gap is due to the fact that it’s only fairly recently that Big Finish’s license was expanded to cover the new series, so there’s been pretty slim pickings post-McGann. But in 2015 Big Finish released their first Torchwood and UNIT audios, and since then new series-adjacent material has been a mainstay of their increasingly bloated line. To date there’s nothing that directly ties into the Capaldi era, but as all of Osgood’s stories and all but one of Kate Stewart’s have Capaldi in them, this seemed the line to check back in on the company with.
It’s no secret to anyone who reads my social media that I’m hostile to Big Finish of late. But I haven’t really talked about that in long form. So instead of beating around the bush and coming to a conclusion that Big Finish is in much the same boat as the novel line in terms of its complete failure to do anything of worth with its license, let’s just start up front with the litany of problems this set has. Its hook is compelling enough—the surviving Pertwee-era actors (save for Fernanda Marlowe) team up with modern day UNIT to fight the Silurians. There are some problems baked into this, like that Benton and Yates are not exactly characters who bring a ton of, well, character to the table, with Benton’s main trait being an earnest masculinity and Yates’s being that he’s played by a rapist. But it’s a perfectly charming premise for what it is, and clearly the sort of thing Big Finish exists to do.
It’s after the hook that the problems start mounting up. The four episodes of this are written by Matt Fitton and Guy Adams, who currently average about a story a month for Big Finish. Nothing about that is a good idea. Big Finish released, and I am astonished by this figure, a hundred and twenty-five separate Doctor Who audios that were an hour or longer in 2017. Fully 28% of these were by three authors, two of which were Fitton and Adams. Both halves of those statements are absurd. The creative case for making a hundred and twenty-three separate Doctor Who audios in a single year is non-existent. But to do so while so heavily centralizing the work among a small number of writers is simply appalling. Big Finish cycles in more new and first-time writers than their reputation would suggest, but the fact that they are engaging in such grotesque overproduction while continuing to maintain a “no unsolicited submissions” policy and leaning so hard on the same writers (another 39% are accounted for by just nine additional writers, meaning twelve writers are collectively responsible for two-thirds of their output) is the sort of thing that makes it very hard not to tip into outright Levineism and just call “evil.” Really, the only reason not to is that it’s better to save it for the fact that only ten of those hundred and twenty-five are by women, a majority of which are in the Torchwood line. And, you know, Richard Franklin.
It would be one thing, of course, if their mainstay writers were generally of decent quality. But Big Finish remains plagued by the shoddy and amateurish tics that have existed since The Sirens of Time. This story still routinely has people narrating their actions as they do them for no reason, describing what they see to the person standing next to them, and engaging in such gripping auditory affairs as lengthy fist fights. This was embarrassing twenty years ago when they started. But in 2017, when audio drama is undergoing a major renaissance on the back of the podcast, it’s downright pathological. It’s not that Big Finish is completely ignoring these developments—Mac Rogers, a playwright who has built a sizable and acclaimed sideline out of podcast dramas, contributed a Torchwood script. But that’s, you know, one script out of a hundred and twenty-five. Hiring the writer of Steal the Stars to do one audio and Guy Adams to do twelve is mapractice that makes Justin Richards’s stewardship of the novel line look stellar. (Richards, by the way, is one of the twelve writers doing two-thirds of their output because of course he is.)
But what’s going on here is more than just the problems of the novel line on a grander scale and wedded to an embarrassing ethos of overproduction. The flaws of Unit: Assembled aren’t just structural malaise and a poor sense of medium. It’s also just broadly crap. Big Finish displays a perpetual anxiety over the prospect of good ideas or complexity. Take Osgood. Now, admittedly there are very plausibly details of their license that prohibit them from setting stories post-Zygon Invasion/Zygon Inversion with the Bonnie Osgood. But these stories are set before Day of the Doctor, thus side-stepping the entire Zygon thing. Which, yes, it’s a thing, but it’s also hard not to view taking the most interesting and complex character in the entire history of UNIT and regressing her to fawning fangirl status as, frankly, gross. Sure, she’s still a capable scientist who assists in saving the day, but there’s a conscious reversion of her to the simplest and least challenging version of what her character can be. And that’s before you get to the frankly baffling imposition of heterosexuality on her.
This problem serves as a microcosm of the problem this story has with the Silurians in general. The Silurians are not, strictly speaking, a concept that has ever worked. Malcolm Hulke got by on their novelty once, while Johnny Byrne and Chris Chibnall comprehensively failed at repeating the trick. Moffat made a Silurian work in the form of Madame Vastra, but only by ostentatiously breaking the concept and adding lesbianism, and frankly you can make anything work that way. Nevertheless, it’s a clear concept. They’re monsters with an entirely legitimate claim to the planet whose great horror is that they’re exactly as flawed as we are. None of which works or has much of a point if you just, as this set does, make all the Silurian characters genocidal warmongers who, we’re informed, even the Doctor writes off. What you get if you do that are just generic monsters that could be replaced with Sontarans or Mire without changing anything but the detail of them having nests already on the planet instead of invading.
Unsurprisingly, given the extent to which this story has fundamentally rotten principles, the details are mostly crass as well. Katy Manning remains Big Finish’s not particularly secret weapon, but it would be nice if they didn’t so gruesomely abuse her abilities by forcing her to “finally admit” that she loves the Doctor, or by having her be the lone representative of the classic Hulkean “the Silurians are a peaceful race and we should negotiate” position, which, in the face of the all-evil Silurians is predictably disastrous and means her primary role in the fourth disc is to be likable and captured. Which certainly fulfills Big Finish’s traditionalism mandate, but it’s once again simultaneously gross and boring.
We could continue on into the clanging “FYI nuclear weapons are bad” speeches, the way in which the plotting veers from the hamfisted to the inept, or unpack my realization that there are actually two male supporting characters in the new UNIT cast and not, as I’d assumed until reading the cast list just now, one. But at some point it just becomes abuse instead of insight. This is bad. It’s bad in ways that are utterly predictable, and that seem like nothing more than banal and depressing inevitabilities of what Big Finish is.
What is more interesting to me is unpicking what Big Finish is, and more broadly to unpick an issue that’s been vexing us through all of the spinoff posts in the Capaldi era, which is who exactly this is all for. Because that’s traditionally had at least some sort of an answer in the past. The World Distributors Annuals and Polystyle strips weren’t good either, but they were at least coherent cultural objects that served clear markets that were distinct from what Doctor Who itself did. As a result, their interpolations of Doctor Who were consistently intriguing failures and half-formed concepts, a set of near neighbors of Doctor Who. And that continued through the classic series. Even when the spinoff material was largely synergized with the advent of Doctor Who Magazine, the actual stories being produced were weird and off-kilter things that explored the often interesting question what happened when talented freelancers in another medium were let loose on a property they didn’t give a shit about. Through the Wilderness Years, meanwhile, the spinoff material got to fight with other lines for the mandate of heaven, a vast and ultimately pointless argument over the future of Doctor Who that nevertheless spawned a host of fascinating and extreme suggestions that would never have emerged out of any other circumstances.
But since 2005 the spinoff material has gradually lost any sense of separate purpose. For a while it existed with momentum inherited from the Wilderness Years, and then with a manic energy as excess BBC budgets and a flock of new licensees allowed a variety of new ideas. But by the present day, these fizzing energies have largely subsided. The spinoff material has become the province of a handful of companies run by the burnt out mediocrities of the Wilderness Years, stamping out an endless line of stories that are mediocre in exactly the same lame, half-assed fannish ways. Occasionally bursts of quality may happen, but they’re mostly accidents—the products of talented fans with the right combination of clout and obsession to wade through the experience of being edited by lesser writers with an active animosity towards creativity.
And yet Big Finish produced a hundred and twenty-five of these things in 2017 alone. That’s somewhere well north of a thousand dollars of Doctor Who audio CDs that are selling at least enough for the company to afford a few days of Derek Jacobi or John Hurt’s time. And Penguin Random House has the economics working well enough to drop three books without fail every year. Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon—shitty Doctor Who cash-ins have been a thing since the mid-60s. What’s new is that all of this has been united under a BBC-controlled Doctor Who industry that had its own “brand manager.”
It would be pathetic to act as though this is some sort of moral failing; as though the capitalism of the 1960s was inherently better than the capitalism of the 2010s. But there’s nevertheless something to be mourned in the transition. Doctor Who spinoff material used to be a weird fringe—a place we could turn to in order to find a stranger version of the show. Strangeness, in Doctor Who, is always something to savor, successful or not. And the domestication of those fringes is thus sad. It’s not that the show itself is not still weird—the moon was just an egg after all. But it now sits at the forefront of the Doctor Who Industry, setting a template that can only be followed by more conservative clones that are churned out on an increasingly industrial scale for an audience selected purely for obsession and disposable income. That might not be worse, but it’s certainly less interesting.
So if one is looking for Doctor Who spinoff material that captures any of the weird incandescence of “The Fish-Men of Kandalinga,” “The Ugrakks,” and “Voyager” one suspects that it would be more advisable to look to the vast world of fanfiction. Not, I stress, because it is on the whole better than Big Finish—though I’m sure there are some extraordinary gems to be found for anyone with the patience to sift through it. But it is at least a place where one can find Doctor Who pushed to weird extremes instead of hammered into the most banal and timid traditionalism imaginable.
And a hell of a lot more than 10% of it is by women to boot.
August 20, 2018 @ 3:34 am
Speaking of fanfiction, two projects by friends of the blog that are worth plugging, especially if you want Doctor Who written by queer women.
The Twelfth Doctor Adventures, a series of fan audios featuring Paul Cabria and Michelle Coats as the Twelfth Doctor and new companion Antonia Perkins, overseen by Janine Rivers, can be found at https://twelfthdoctoradventures.wordpress.com/
Clara Oswald: The Untold Adventures is a prose series about the adventures of Clara and Me, co-run by Ruth Long and frequent guest star at Eruditorum Press Caitlin Smith. Those live at https://www.theuntoldadventures.com/
August 20, 2018 @ 1:15 pm
I’d add my voice to people advocating for both series – “The Untold Adventures” has yet to be released, but Ruth, Caitlin, and the rest of the team behind it are incredibly talented and deserve all the support, I have no doubt it’s going to be fantastic.
As for the Twelfth Doctor Adventures, I’ll admit that I have a bit of vested interest – I wrote episode six, which is getting released this weekend, so my apologies in advance, I can confirm everyone else involved is very talented and, they have produced some fantastic stories – of the five episodes released so far, I’d give a particular shout out to “Erasure”, a feature length story that I’d pitch as the best possible progressive response to “The Shakespeare Code” – it’s dark, funny, socially conscious, incredibly clever, and deeply moving, and “Ghosts in the Machine”, a Dalek story with some thought provoking commentary on the possibility the future might get worse, instead of better. And that’s not to downplay the other three episodes, all of which feel wonderfully fresh and vibrant products of a groups of fans with a deep love for the Capaldi era telling the Doctor Who stories they’ve always wanted to see. And I have no doubt the rest of the series will be just as good – there are some really talented writers working on the rest of the series, a couple of whom people will recognise from tumblr, or this comments section.
Also, huge shoutout to Janine, Paul, and Michelle, who have been at the centre of this project, and have done a fantastic job. The two leads really are the heart of the show: Paul’s Twelfth Doctor impersonation is every bit as good as Jacob Dudman’s Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, or Jon Culshaw’s Fourth Doctor – it’s uncanny, and he’s brilliant in the role, and Michelle has been a revelation as Antonia. And Janine’s been brilliant – as well as writing four episodes and overseeing the series, she’s co written three, been the project’s composer and sound designer, and directed my episode, and has done an astonishing job – her episodes are superbly scripted, her sound design has gotten better and better as the project’s gone on, and her scores are beautiful to listen to. If nothing else, you should listen to the series because she deserves it after all the work and talent she’s poured into this labour of love.
August 20, 2018 @ 1:21 pm
If anyone involved in “Clara Oswald: The Untold Adventures” wants to promote the heck out of that series like I have for “The Twelfth Doctor Adventures”, please do – that series deserves talking up, too.
August 20, 2018 @ 7:58 pm
Thanks for the recommendations, and congratulations, Scarves/ Andrew! I notice Adam Riggio is next….
I am delighted that transcript PDFs are included. Big Finish’s refusal to do the same, when I’m not capable of processing/ enjoying audio-only stories, has kept even their early inspired work from me. This is better. 🙂
John G. Wood
August 20, 2018 @ 1:33 pm
Thanks for the suggestions. I’m always on the lookout for more good audio drama (not just Doctor Who-related), and I’ve nearly finished EOS 10 so I’m ready for a new podcast. I’ll definitely check out the 12th Doctor Adventures, as well as Steal the Stars if I can find the early episodes (they seem to be missing from Soundcloud for some reason, and I don’t have iTunes). I will also try the Clara stories, though audio is my preferred medium (far more than TV).
August 20, 2018 @ 3:27 pm
Not sure whether I should be mentioning this yet, but if you like good audio drama, keep an eye out for a show called ‘Verity Weaver’ around winter. It’s looking like a very satisfying sci-fi serial.
John G. Wood
August 22, 2018 @ 6:42 pm
Thanks, I will try to remember!
August 20, 2018 @ 2:59 pm
Thank you El! The Untold Adventures isn’t actually out until early 2019, we’re still working away on writing the series (with 9/12 female writers and 10/12 queer ones, so definitely some fresh perspectives to Doctor Who there).
It’s been really fascinating to explore Clara post Hell Bent, and what it means for a human and a woman to become a mythic figure on the scale of the Doctor, and particularly what it means for Clara. It’ll obviously be offering a different perspective on the matter than S11 because Thirteen and Clara are coming at this from very different perspectives, but I feel like both series will enrich each other.
You can also find us on twitter here: https://twitter.com/ClaraOswaldTUA for updates about the series!
August 20, 2018 @ 5:24 pm
Thanks for this, El. I really appreciate the boost. Those first few episodes were a production disaster, but we had the fifth on Saturday and the sixth is coming up, and they’ve really found their feet now. I think it’s going to be great series.
I’m also involved in The Untold Advebntures, and I’m continually blown away by how well-organised it’s been. A real pleasure to take part.
August 20, 2018 @ 5:30 pm
And that’s a good call from Caitlin — we’re on Twitter at @12DAOfficial. It’s run by someone more social media-savvy than I am, so probably a better way of keeping updated than the official website.
August 20, 2018 @ 9:13 am
“(…) it’s also hard not to view taking the most interesting and complex character in the entire history of UNIT and regressing her to fawning fangirl status as, frankly, gross.”
Especially seeing as Moffat’s adaptation of The Day of the Doctor managed to avoid that and infused Osgood with her later complexity.
August 20, 2018 @ 1:20 pm
I really liked how the TARGET novellisation approached Osgood’s characterisation – it drew more attention to the aspects of her character that were already there – she does get to be clever and quick witted in the original episode – and added some of the valuable complexity that comes with her later stories, while also quietly removing the “please save us Doctor” side of her character (while still keeping her fangirl characterisation) in a way that was very welcome.
August 20, 2018 @ 9:50 am
But did you like it?
August 20, 2018 @ 9:51 am
Agreed there’s a problem, but… Matt Fitton, John Dorney, Ken Bentley, Scott Handcock, and Guy Adams (who oversee / script edit / direct most of the output these days) are none of them “burnt out mediocrities of the wilderness years”, though. You might call them present day mediocrities, but none of them contributed anything to DW until 2006 at the earliest, with 90% of it being in the 2010s. In fact, Fitton only came to BF through an open submission.
If you explicitly mean Briggs, Alan Barnes and Jason Heigh-Ellery and only them, seeing as they’re the ones at the top, then fair enough.
August 20, 2018 @ 6:13 pm
I did say “run by.”
August 20, 2018 @ 10:09 am
What are you basing the accusation of Richard Franklin being a rapist on?
August 20, 2018 @ 10:33 am
John G. Wood
August 20, 2018 @ 1:36 pm
So sorry to read this.
August 24, 2018 @ 10:18 am
Really terrible to hear this and to read the link. Horrid.
August 20, 2018 @ 10:55 am
The company with a liscense doing the most interesting work right now is Obverse books with their Doctor Who spin off books. They’re weird, good, and hire different kinds of people to boot!
August 21, 2018 @ 10:45 pm
Yeah! Obverse exists on the fringes and has open submissions. Whilst inherently hit and miss, I’ve found the Faction line to have produced consistently interesting stories, if not always parsable ones. It’s still very boysy, but I can’t think of a better way to shake that up than by promoting it on a LGBTQI+ blog.
Instead we get an aggressive takedown of what was formerly described as akin to a pension for retired Doctor Who actors.
August 21, 2018 @ 10:58 pm
I wrote up A Romance in Twelve Parts as part of the Smith era: http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/outside-the-government-18-a-romance-in-twelve-parts/
I also interviewed Kate Orman to promote Liberating Earth: http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/hell-bent-podcast/
And I gave a glowing review to their Black Archives line: http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/review-the-black-archives-dark-waterdeath-in-heaven/
It’s true I haven’t planned to check back in with Obverse again during the Capaldi era, mostly because they don’t have anything that ties particularly closely to it so it really would just be a random sidestep into an obscure spinoff line for the sake of it that wouldn’t particularly support any narrative about the Capaldi era, whereas this entry does allow me to talk meaningfully about what the Doctor Who brand and licensing is up to during the Capaldi era. But the suggestion that I haven’t promoted the company is pretty strained.
August 20, 2018 @ 11:42 am
I would argue that the charity anthologies, like the upcoming Unbound anthology, as well as the Seasons of War: Gallifrey book, are what is basically the new places (alongside fanfiction as you mention) where weirder pieces of Who are. As are the Faction Paradox books from Obverse–like Book of the Enemy and Book of the Peace. (Also, the 12th audio adventures you mention are worth listening to).
Even though BF’s quality may suffer at times, it still has good spots. River Song’s audios are consistently good, as was the latest “Bradley First Doctor” sets. I’ve heard many good things about the Torchwood audio line as well.
August 20, 2018 @ 5:20 pm
I think the River Song audios are hampered by their compulsion to bring a classic Doctor into each set (why can’t River just have her own stories?), and I think the Bradley sets are hampered by, well, not knowing what they actually are. (And by having James Dreyfus, who is a talentless hack as well as an arsehole.)
But the Torchwood range is brilliant. I hope El covers some of the Torchwood range, someday. puppy eyes
John G. Wood
August 22, 2018 @ 9:41 am
But preferably not the first one – The Conspiracy – which I don’t think is representative of either the general quality or style.
August 20, 2018 @ 11:49 am
I really enjoyed this essay. I always admired you for treating the works you analyze fairly and this essay is a prime example of that. You give credit where it’s due but you also don’t beat aroung the bush when something is just shit. And you don’t tend to moralize unless there’s a really compelling reason for it. I wish more writers/reviewers followed your example.
I wonder if there’s anything to UNIT anymore other than pure nostalgia. A secret military force who likes to solve problems by shooting at them is a poor match for the Doctor (and, I think, has always been). The Matt Smith era was doing just fine without UNIT…
August 20, 2018 @ 12:08 pm
Exactly. UNIT was somewhat nostalgic in the 80’s but it’s embarrassing now. The pro-establishment tone of the Pertwee era was a bad match for Dr Who. Verity Lambert didn’t like it either.
August 21, 2018 @ 11:20 am
I don’t think UNIT is totally without value. For one, as an antagonist force they’re still relatively untapped, especially as they have mythic weight to seriously impact the Doctor. “Sometimes the Doctor must looks this planet snd turn away in shame” is just one half step away from “Science leads, Kate, is thst what you meant?” And I don’t think the franchise has really been willing to look into that space for more than a line here or a Torchwood episode there.
But that being said, they’re also tons of fun as an almost parodical take on those “elite force” series, be they science fiction or just action, that still get made every day. Crossing Lines, Criminal Minds, and Seal Team all jump immediately to mind, though I suppose classic UNIT fits more with the NCIS demographic. And I’m still enough of a child that “the Doctor meets a thin parody of some other franchise” can still tickle me at times. That’s another relatively untapped vector for UNIT.
Now, that said, I don’t quite know how I’d write a UNIT series or boxset, exactly. I had an idea for a big UNIT crossover featuring a mishmash of each era, plus future ones, but that’s just one big story. Maybe something that gives a sense of it as an organization with a history, with a legacy, skeletons and drashigs in the closet.
August 20, 2018 @ 12:18 pm
Is there anything more telling about Big Finish’s abject failure to understand the audio medium than the fact that they’ve had a companion who can change color but not a single recurring character who is sight impaired?
August 20, 2018 @ 1:10 pm
I’ve not listened to any Big Finish, but I’ve listened to other radio plays. It seems that an audio version of Doctor Who would be forced to have characters describing everything. Most radio dramas have to do it to some extent, and when they don’t, like The Archers, it’s because they are set in stories built entirely around conversations, from the genre up.
In short, I’m not sure if short of one-off twists and reveals, an audio version of Doctor Who could ever not struggle with that. Am I misunderstanding the issue? I probably am.
August 20, 2018 @ 5:16 pm
I think you are misunderstanding the issue a bit, yes — but it’s only an issue I’ve started to grasp after a year of sound editing, so frankly, I really wouldn’t expect people to know the details of this.
The thing about an audio drama is that you use the sound effects to cut down on the description. And you can achieve a lot through those sound effects, a surprising amount that people listening to podcasts don’t even realise they’re learning.
For instance — with a proper binaural sound setup, you can convey the geography of a very simple room without needing to state out loud who is sitting where, when people are moving, which door has been opened, what the weather is doing outside, how large the room is, etc. The panning, the acoustics, the volume of each actor, and the individual effects will each speak for themselves. Similarly so for a really well-made battle scene.
Here’s an example of Big Finish being really weird: in the story ‘False Coronets’ (which I HATE, if you couldn’t tell already), Alice Cavender (the writer) states every single thing a character does, because the format is meant to be partly narrated. But she doesn’t get how narration and audio drama intersect — so after the Doctor says anything, we get “…the Doctor said”, which is entirely unnecessary when you have someone as good as Jake Dudman voicing the Doctor. And when someone puts a glass on a bar, you get — you guessed it — “he placed his glass on the bar”. You don’t need both those things.
Sure, characters have to take a lot of the weight of description. They might have to describe an alien planet, or what a character is wearing, or what’s happening in the distance. But whenever the sound effects do the talking, the characters don’t need to — and a strong production will have more effects than talking.
I don’t think Doctor Who audio drama struggles. It needs to take a different approach, vary the format a tad, but it’s always been more of a “talky” show, even with all the running through corridors. It transfers surprisingly easily.
August 20, 2018 @ 10:30 pm
Thanks. That’s cleared up my confusion. The Archers is full of motion, but it’s always made by noise.
I guess I got confused between “What are these green bubblewrap monsters?” scenes and “Oh no, they’re eating Dr. Jones” instead of having Dr Jones scream and the alien noise play.
August 20, 2018 @ 1:13 pm
I’m a huge lover of Big Finish, and their output over the last few years has been really strong. UNIT Silenced was brilliant, and I’d recommend the River Song, Torchwood and Doom Coalition! I’d completely disagree that Big Finish is just ‘traditionalist’, and think its quite sad you write off productions solely because of the writers and their gender.
August 20, 2018 @ 2:19 pm
Doom Coalition and Torchwood have been absolutely vital and fantastic engagements with Doctor Who has a series with meaningful things to say that are I think important to the show as a whole, and I second being saddened and disappointed that El chose one of the worst sets of recent years to uphold as baseline Big Finish.
HOWEVER, the lack of women or people of color in Big Finish IS a problem. It’s not hating them because they’re men, it’s criticizing the overwhelming tendency to hire white men over anyone else when there are so many diverse people who would write amazing Who and are dying for a chance. That is a problem. A very big problem.
Plus queer/feminist themes have been a big part of WHY Doom Coalition and Torchwood were so successful. Hell, even UNIT Silenced was a success because it took on Trump with progressive politics.
August 20, 2018 @ 3:17 pm
I think I do agree with you, certainly on the themes used. However, I don’t see a huge problem in the current writers who write about these themes – sure it’s great to have more female/LGBT+ writers, but I don’t think it necessarily makes the stories better. I’m sure there are many cis straight white men who would love to write for Doctor Who – but at the end of the day talent must come before identity. However, increasing the pool of writers can only be good for Big Finish, and I’d welcome a more diverse team.
August 20, 2018 @ 5:03 pm
I think diversity always makes a production company better. Sure, LGBT+ and women writers aren’t inherently better than white cishet blokes, but I think that’s missing the point — a writing team with perfect demographic variety will be better than one without, because you’re going to have a wealth of very different experiences and people with very different concerns.
It isn’t a case of “talent before identity” at all, don’t let alt-right media “criticism” fool you. There’s always talent there, and usually way too much of it — being a bit more discerning in the talent you pick isn’t making any sort of sacrifice. You’re not losing any talent, you’re just gaining representation.
August 20, 2018 @ 11:33 pm
You’re also gaining talent by adding diversity.
Because people from diverse backgrounds will bring experience and talents that are related to that diversity.
A mature talent is a combination of innate abilities and experience. And people in different circumstances have different experiences of life. If you have a team with only one type of life experience, you will have only one type of talent, and you’ll have less total talent, because the talents will have heavy overlap.
I can’t put a picture here, but imagine a Venn diagram. Writers of equal basic talent have circles of the same size. The experience that their talent draws on is represented by the placement of the circle on the diagram. You’ll cover a larger area if the areas of their experience don’t overlap as much.
Which means a larger total talent area.
August 21, 2018 @ 10:13 am
I think there are exceptions. In particular, I think GAINAX got a lot of energy from a lack of diversity which meant everyone was on the same page, though there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. Similarly I think being written entirely by Oxbridge graduates was good for Monty Python. (Though that’s not actually a production company.)
Very different situation to writing Doctor Who, of course. Doctor Who is supposed to be aimed at a very broad audience, and relies on new ideas way over doing existing ideas better than they’ve been done before. There are few places where diversity is more important.
But the great variety of different production company purposes makes it hard to find statements which apply to all of them.
August 21, 2018 @ 2:33 pm
I disagree with the claim that the only way a production company can get on the same page is a lack of diversity, and if you aren’t making that claim, then what is the advantage of an undiverse production company which just happens to be on the same page in the way that they would if they were diverse?
I also don’t agree with erasing Terry Gilliam (graduate, Occidental College) from Monty Python. Or that Python wouldn’t have been strengthened if they’d had more for people like Carol Cleveland to do, which would have been more likely if a bunch of Oxbridge blokes hadn’t done most of the writing.
August 21, 2018 @ 3:14 pm
It’s perfectly possible for a production company featuring diverse people to get on the same page, of course. Just like it’s possible for a bunch of white cis het men to write a large variety of stories full of new ideas. It just seems like an advantage, in both cases. A diverse bunch are more likely to come up with lots of different new ideas, and they will probably do it more thoroughly, a more uniform bunch are more likely to all pull in compatible directions and will probably do that more thoroughly.
Terry Gilliam was an important part of Python, of course, but his existence doesn’t stop the unified Oxbridge-ness of the other five being a notable thing, especially since they were mostly doing the live action while he did the animation. And while it’s possible that some other set-up could have lead to even greater results, I find Monty Python to be the funniest thing ever made, so it’s natural for me to assume that they have close to the ideal set-up for creating something funny. If a collection of very different people can make something funnier, I’d have expected it to happen by now.
August 22, 2018 @ 7:35 am
“If a collection of very different people can make something funnier, I’d have expected it to happen by now.”
I don’t think the statement “I haven’t seen anything funnier than the one thing I consider to be the funniest thing ever made” says much about all those other works.
August 20, 2018 @ 5:37 pm
Re. Big Finish and Diversity of writers – I think it’s instructive to compare the diversity of its writer pool to that of recent televised Doctor Who – we’ll focus primarily on female writers, but the principle applies to minority writers as well. And really, the key thing to focus on is this: the last three seasons of New Who actually have a higher proportion of female writers working on the show than the last year of Big Finish audios, even though, as a tentpole BBC production, instead of a comparatively niche audio drama company, New Who has more reason to follow the “pick on talent first” maxim. Because there’s more than enough untapped talent to work with more experienced and talented female and minority writers than Big Finish have been employing at the moment. Those people just aren’t getting the opportunities.
El was actually being kind when she estimated that 10% of Big Finish audios were written by women – going by her numbers, it’s actually 8% of Big finish’s episodes that were written by women last year – the TV show does better, though it still doesn’t do as much as I’d like – of the 38 episodes that will have been released between 2015 and the end of this year (series 9 through to series 11), 6 will have been written by women – that’s a touch under 16%. So recently, TV Who has been doing better than Big Finish (and in pure storytelling terms, it’s been a lot more daring and radical in terms of both the themes it explores and the way it tells stories). But while Big Finish isn’t doing that much worse than New Who in terms of numbers of women and minority creators working on their creative output, they really should be doing better – there’s a clear potential path of progression from their less well known ranges than could be used to hone fresh new voices from inexperienced women and minority writers, with those writers then being moved towards the more mainstream releases as they gain more experience. But Big Finish visibly aren’t making use of that path of progression. With exceptions like the Torchwood range, most of their ranges, including the less prominent ones, are incredibly dominated by white men – and of the minority and women writers who do get to write for Big Finish rarely get to progress to the main ranges, with two thirds of their audios being written by twelve white men. New Who can only really afford to get writers with talent and experience working on the show, due to Doctor Who’s status as a flagship show. That doesn’t mean it can’t do better – every season since series 9 has had 2 female writers, and frankly, there are more than 2 talented and experienced women writers working in television today. But Big Finish, being less prominent than New Who can afford to look for talented but inexperienced writers who haven’t yet had a chance to write for the show, as well as talented and experienced writers. They shouldn’t be doing half as well as New Who, they should be doing comfortably better.
August 20, 2018 @ 6:26 pm
I’ll note that my tendency to focus on the percentage of women is mostly because it can usually be done by looking at the names of writers instead of Googling each one and I am lazy.
August 21, 2018 @ 9:32 am
For the record, same.
August 20, 2018 @ 6:24 pm
To say that “talent must come before identity” seems to me a necessary false dichotomy. Let’s start by imagining an oversimplified world in which it’s meaningfully possible to create an ordered list of writers from best to worst. Unless you reject the idea that this talent is going to be evenly distributed across race, gender, and other identity lines then hiring the twenty best men means that writers #11-20 are going to be inferior to what you’d get if you’d hired the ten best women. And likewise, you’d improve your talent pool by hiring the best people of color over second tier white guys, etc.
More to the point, though, Doctor Who is a property that thrives on the new. The default value of introducing a new idea to Doctor Who is higher than for, say, Babylon 5. And hiring for diversity is an easy way to get new ideas. A POC Doctor Who writer is going to bring new ideas by virtue of having different life experiences than the writers before them. These new ideas will enrich Doctor Who. To the point where, for Doctor Who, a writer from a previously underrepresented background is likely to produce a better result than an equivalently skilled white man.
But more bluntly, a <10% rate of hiring women basically necessarily reflects a failure to hire on talent.
Nick Lord Lancaster
August 21, 2018 @ 9:38 am
I don’t think “talent” is the right word when talking about Big Finish. I’m not suggesting the writers aren’t talented, but what keeps Matt Fitton coming back is the fact that he’s capable of churning out scripts of an acceptable quality at a tremendous rate. And he’s as versatile as Big Finish need – he can do comedic or dramatic to the same acceptable standard. He is to Big Finish what Justin Richards was to Virgin Books (and BBC Books, and Big Finish). It’s understandable from a commercial perspective, if you abandon any idea that they’re supposed to be catering to a discerning audience.
Listening to the interviews at the end of the few Big Finish stories I bother with these days, every time a writer speaks it’s to say “The producer rang me up and said he wanted a funny story set on a jungle planet with the Voord in it…” That brief isn’t going to attract too many top writers. Also, I imagine the pay is pretty crap, otherwise Matt Fitton would surely be able to retire by now.
August 21, 2018 @ 7:58 am
In addition to what everybody else has said, embedded deep within the “talent before identity” argument is usually the belief that great art comes from a handful of brilliant, uniquely talented individuals who should be given opportunities above everyone else. Which, fair enough in certain cases but when it comes to group efforts like TV episodes or audio dramas, overall quality largely comes from the collaboration between many, many somewhat-talented people. Hiring solely on talent (how does one quantify talent, anyway?) can thus lead one to miss many other qualities of a person that can be beneficial to the work.
Not to mention “hiring on talent” in practice often turns out to mean “hiring the handful of names I recognize”, which in today’s media is mostly white men.
John G. Wood
August 20, 2018 @ 1:24 pm
I’m wanting to defend Big Finish here, because frankly I love the audios, although I’m having trouble coming up with anything coherent. For one thing, as with Gallifrey Base I avoid the parts I don’t think I’m going to enjoy – so, having read almost nothing but bad reviews of the UNIT stories, I haven’t bought any. In addition, I actually agree with many of your criticisms, in particular the bloated output and the comparatively tiny pool of writers. I suspect that the former is a consequence of the way modern capitalism works rather than just a random crazy decision on their part, but there is a sense that they are afraid to take risks and be as experimental as they were in the early days. How much of this can be blamed on Cardiff is a matter for speculation, but I don’t think taking risks with new writers can be.
On the other hand, I rarely notice the “describe what you are doing” problem in the stories. Take Fall to Earth, for example: the entire story is a phone call between two people, and 90% of it is either someone telling the other what to do or describing what is going on, yet it feels perfectly natural. Other stories do occasionally fall into the trap, but the ones that bother me most tend to be written by writers other than the core team (“celebrity” writers like Philip Martin and Christopher H. Bidmead who are less familiar with audio, for example).
I’m not a fan of Guy Adams’ writing, and Matt Fitton tends to be solid but not spectacular – neither of them have any stories in my top fifty – but others in the core group impress more. Head of the list are probably Simon Guerrier and John Dorney, with Jonathan Morris close behind as the writer most inclined to surprise me with a script.
Really, my best argument is anecdotal. My family and I have just come back from holiday, and our journeys were made much more enjoyable through listening to a Big Finish audio – in this case, series 1 of Cicero. And I find doing jobs like cooking or washing up much more pleasant when I’ve got an audio drama to listen to, even one of their weaker efforts. You comment on the lack of a sense of purpose; for me, while I would ideally wish for more strangeness and experimentation, providing me with a pleasant way to fill my time is, in the end, enough.
August 20, 2018 @ 4:58 pm
“Take Fall to Earth, for example: the entire story is a phone call between two people, and 90% of it is either someone telling the other what to do or describing what is going on, yet it feels perfectly natural.”
That’s because James Goss can actually write a radio script.
I absolutely agree about audios being fun and convenient. I’ll listen to any audio drama or podcast you give me. I tend to find that there are two types of fan — those who do audios, and those who don’t. The former category (myself included) insist that they aren’t completionists, but usually end up listening to ‘Dalek Empire’, which I think says all it needs to. The latter often “try” audios, but rarely actually finish them.
That’s all just a matter of personal taste, and it’s not fair blaming people in either camp for something they can’t control. I’m an excellent multi-tasker, so listening to audio dramas is a pleasure, especially when I’m cooking or cleaning. It makes the mundane jobs that plague my life much, much more bearable. For others, it would send them over the edge.
Sex and Violins
August 23, 2018 @ 8:54 pm
James Goss is actually an extremely competent tie-in writer. He did stuff for Warhammer 40,000 that is about as good as Games Workshop projects have ever been.
August 20, 2018 @ 9:50 pm
I remember way back when on rec.arts.drwho, there was a thread about the best lines from Big Finish, and someone proposed this bit from “Living Legend” (from memory):
DOCTOR: Charley, do you see those things they’re carrying that look like guns?
CHARLEY: Yes, what are they?
And someone who obviously hadn’t heard it complained about how this was exactly what they feared a Doctor Who audio drama would be like; characters telling each other what they were looking at.
But it wasn’t that at all. In context the reason for the Doctor saying that was clear; he was snarkily explaining why Charley’s rushing-in plan was a bad one. It was a funny character moment. And the fact it also gave us some information about what they were seeing was a bonus.
It can be done badly, sure. In fact, it can be done badly even with pictures; in today’s The Phantom comic strip, for instance, we get a panel of Heloise having her phone taken away by a policeman, and then a panel of the baddie telling his daughter “Look, your friend is having her phone taken away by a policeman!” And it just feels like the writer doesn’t trust the art to get the image across, in much the same way as Big Finish writers sometimes don’t trust the soundscape.
August 21, 2018 @ 8:05 am
The “describe what you are doing” technique is about 60% of why I just can’t get into DW audio dramas. I just really dislike blatant exposition. I understand the limitations of the medium but it still puts me off. The other 40% consists mostly of me being unimpressed with the audios everyone says are the best, so I have zero incentive to try new ones.
August 22, 2018 @ 12:40 pm
For what it’s worth, I co-host a podcast called Talking Who To You, which is dedicated to the Big Finish audios (you can find it on Soundcloud, iTunes etc). If you’re interested in the audios, that’s what we discuss, and we love feedback.
Saying that, a lot of what El says of modern Big Finish is 100% valid and correct – these days they are often blandly unremarkable, wildly unchallenging, and they have a real ability at the moment to come up with “cool concept / dreadful execution” on such a regular basis that it’s hard to imagine it’s not intentional sometimes. They are still capable of greatness – the first First Doctor Box Set was a real exercise in doing something because they can rather than because they should, but the second has The Invention of Death as its first story, and it’s absolutely, stragihtforwardly brilliant. They are still capable of knocking it out the part, but the consistency with which they do it has massively shrunk, and again I’m in agreement with El that it’s because they produce far, far too much material from far, far too small a writer’s pool. The last two Main Range stories I listened to (Iron Bright and Hour Of The Cybermen) made me think it was time to shutter the main range altogether because they’re so pointless, and I’m saying that as someone who’s broadly on Big Finish’s side.
We interviewed Rob Shearman (thanks Rob, you’re awesome!) on the podcast recently, and all but pleaded with him to write for Big Finish again, because they so very badly need someone of his skill and, well, weirdness. What’s so great about the aforementioned The Invention Of Death is that it’s channeling the strangeness of The Web Planet without ever just being a re-write or “inspired by” that story – it’s exactly the sort of oddity the Hartnell era could bring up, and exactly the bizarreness that Big Finish need. They used to do a lot of that in the past, take creative gambles, and they don’t much any more, and that’s a terrible loss. Should there be more diversity in the writing staff? Hell yes, and as soon as is feasibly possible! That’s how you get fresh ideas in, and the more sources that talent comes from the better it is for everyone.
TL;DR – Big Finish should neither be dismissed out of hand nor given unalloyed praise simply for doing something because they can. There’s still many possibilities in there, but things need to change, and change soon.
August 20, 2018 @ 1:43 pm
Good take. The UNIT range is worthy of particular derision; UNIT Shutdown going fucking insane with the Orientalism, all the sets managing the absurd by not characterising a character as begging-for-characterisation as Kate, and the beyond-forgettable audio-original cast. I agree with an earlier commenter that the sins of BF can’t be placed at the feet of has-been wilderness writers inexplicably still at the forefront of the EU, no, the people (the men, that is) squandering the vast potential BF is handed more and more of every few years are more or less unique to the Briggs era of BF. Thank god for small wonders like James Goss’ handling of the TW line, where he makes the effort to hire new and different writers (including BF’s first trans writer, who’s audios are notably impressive). I really don’t see a solution for the company as a whole; the overproduction and their reticence to hire new talent handicaps them from iterating in any meaningful way.
August 20, 2018 @ 2:24 pm
The worst part of Shutdown is that the Jenny range is an extended sequel.
Neon Reign is basically the worst case scenario of a man writing feminism. Which, interestingly, is the product of a new writer. Matt Fitton’s contribution to the set is more competent and subtly, meaningfully feminist. Counterintuitive there.
August 20, 2018 @ 1:43 pm
For me, I think the problem with Big Finish is best summed up by the Tenth Doctor Adventures – It’s currently £52 to get the cheapest downloads of the six episodes released so far. By contrast, Series Ten of Doctor Who is £24.99 for its most expensive Blu Ray. So you at cheapest can buy half a season of Big Finish audios with a New Who Doctor for more than twice the price of the most expensive boxset of the most recent new who season. That’s a ridiculously steep price, and if you’re even going to begin justifying it, you’re going to need to make sure the stories justify it.
They’re fine, they’re acceptable nostalgic runarounds, but none of them really exceed the quality of, well, a middling early or mid season Tennant story, with the one exception of “Death and the Queen”, which is excellent, and feels like a genuinely worthwhile addition to Doctor Who. But while Big Finish occasionally produce an excellent story, and rarely outright mess up, I don’t want to pay far too much money on stories that are about as good as “Rise of the Cybermen/ The Age of Steel”, when I could just open up Netflix/ Iplayer/ get my DVD off my shelf, and watch “Rise of the Cyberman/ The Age of Steel” (which is much better value, and frankly more meorable, than “Technophobia” or “Time Reaver”, stories that feel like they were pushed out of their season 4 slot for the likes of “Partners in Crime” and “Planet of the Ood”, stories that have things to say, and actually stay with you unlike their Big Finish counterparts.
August 20, 2018 @ 3:25 pm
Ahhh! I’ve been looking forward to this all day at work. Caitlin promised great things. I fully expected to disagree, given that I’ve often disagreed with your Big Finish opinions in the past. But, well… here’s the thing.
Now, it’s not that you’ve changed by mind exactly, because I don’t think I’ve been swept over by any particular argument. But I went into this piece, perhaps unfairly, with a touch of antagonism, looking for points to counter you on, observations that I could interrogate with a wry “ah, but”. Ultimately… ultimately, I couldn’t commit to any, because I found myself basically agreeing with everything you said.
I think one major reason for that is the timing of this post. Consider that:
– Today, Big Finish released details of its twentieth anniversary special, a six-part story written entirely by the white men you mentioned, including two episodes by Guy Adams. (I actually quite like Guy Adams when he’s doing the Torchwood range, but I’m sick of him getting shoehorned into absolutely everything.) Oh, and including a River/Benny crossover featuring the Eighth Doctor, because apparently those two aren’t compelling enough to leave unchaperoned.
– Last week, I was really looking forward to False Coronets — a Clara Oswald/Jane Austen story penned by a woman, which I naively assumed was something Big Finish couldn’t fuck up. Well, they did. I’ll say this much — the last scene refers to them, I shit you not, as “friends” (and the whole story goes to show why you shouldn’t let Matt Fitton — or any of Big Finish’s main staple of writers — near a script editor position).
– Today, they announced the writers for Series Eleven, and there’s already a whole load more diversity than I’ve ever seen on Big Finish. As you point out, it should be easier for Big Finish to find diverse writers. But apparently (and I’m paraphrasing an actual Briggs quote here) it’s more important for them to find writers with impressive credentials, which implicitly means that it’s okay to hire a Leave-voting misogynist (yes, really) and a friend of Georgia Tennant who managed the impressive feat of writing something arguably more orientalist than Talons.
Sure, it’s not all straightforward. The Wilderness Years were still making crap like Unbound: Exile and The Sirens of Time, and you still get high-quality content today like, well, anything from the Torchwood range. (I’d actually love to see you write about their Torchwood range, because even if Big Finish don’t deserve them, positive essays are more enjoyable than negative ones. I’d happily recommend a couple of their best. But I also understand if that sort of spin-off content is just too far into the margins.)
But whether or not there’s the occasional gem, I think you essentially have a very good point here. None of Big Finish’s answers to “What sort of story could we tell with a whole boxset of x?” are even remotely interesting. Their take on a Capaldi era UNIT spin-off is to add more male characters. Their take on a River Song spin-off is to tediously cycle through every classic Doctor until it physically hurts to watch Silence in the Library because of what they’ve done to it. And their take on offering “opportunities” is a yearly glorified short story competition in which you leave with zero chance of ever getting hired again. It’s fucking patronising.
Will I still listen to whatever Big Finish I can get hold of? Well, sure — I like to listen to podcasts when I’m cooking dinner, and something with actors and characters I like is better than something without. But I’ll beg and borrow from friends, because at this point I’m just not going to bother giving money to a company like Big Finish when I can’t even afford the rent. Next time they release a set of entirely new writers, or with all-women line-up, maybe I’ll think about tapping in those card details.
Good write-up. It’s got me thinking about a lot of feelings I’ve been repressing over this hot mess of a company for a long time.
August 20, 2018 @ 3:45 pm
The short story opportunity really strikes me – the fact Joshua Wanisko and Selim Ulug haven’t yet been hired back on the strengths of their entries is shocking.
That and the rather slapdash handling of the Bernice Summerfield story competition earlier this year (just over one week to assemble a pitch) are not great signs in terms of their efforts to seek out new talent, especially when 2000AD manages to have a better open submissions policy while producing less content, to say nothing of the short fiction podcast market.
But hey, I’m sure the audio adaptation of The Iron Legion will be fun.
March 11, 2019 @ 6:38 pm
Who is the leave-voting misogynist? There’s probably a reason you didn’t name names and if you want to keep it that way I understand, but I am curious.
August 20, 2018 @ 3:38 pm
A hundred and twenty five hours!?
Part of the reason I never really bothered looking into the Big Finish stuff was because I felt like there was a bit too much there for me to keep up with, but there’s definitely no way I could (or would want to) keep up with over a hundred hours of narrative in a year.
Of course I’d prefer more than the 5-10 hours of Who we get on the telly each year, but 125 hours is definitely going too far the wrong way.
August 21, 2018 @ 1:59 am
Your criticisms may be valid, but I think you may have mistaken who Big Finish are.
A few of points to consider first; if I may,
The BBC has a mandate, and a Diversity & Inclusion strategy and people higher up to answer to for their decisions and their jobs.
Big Finish caters to its customers, and writes and produces what sells best.
To chastise Big Finish for not being as progressive, daring or outrageous as maybe some would like, is, perhaps, a little disingenuous.
Take the tag line for the earliest fourth Doctor audios, “It’s Saturday tea-time 1975, all over again.” If that doesn’t tell you exactly what you’re getting for your pound or dollar, then more fool you.
Big Finish is, on the whole, comfort food. Occasionally they colour outside the lines and if listeners like the squiggly edges, they’ll cater to them. If not, they stop. They experimented with adaptions of the New Adventures novels line. The audios were not popular and didn’t sell well, so they stopped.
When they did try to break the mould with the Eighth Doctor line, it proved to be disastrous on the whole. You could say that was down to the writing talent involved. But I would suggest that whatever bold new direction they struck out in it would have failed to engage with their core listeners. On the whole, I would suggest listeners don’t go to Big Finish for a bold new take on Doctor Who.
I do not believe that Big Finish can ‘make’ Doctor Who, they can only reflect what has come before, with a few interesting distortions and optical illusions (visual metaphors when discussion audio content, hmm, anyway) thrown in where they dare, or a writer of sufficient talent is involved
Could it be better? Of course. But then so could the current series as broadcast. Everything could be better.
If one poorly received episode of Doctor Who is broadcast in a season, then a few fans with blogs waste electrons and risk Carpal Tunnel Syndrome bashing out pithy diatribes. The show may lose a few viewers, but the impact is negligible. It can withstand a few per season without much lasting damage (and arguably does).
The same cannot be said for a business like Big Finish. A series of poorly received entries, and it can all come crashing down. So they don’t take risks, and give (the bulk of) the customers exactly what they want.
Comicsgate! Oh, did I have to bring that up. Actually I have no dog in the fight. I don’t read comics; never have. However, the new direction at Marvel, IDW, etc. may have appealed to a more progressive readership, it brought in diverse and interesting writers, artists and characters, storylines and series. But does it sell well? Is it sustainable to put ideology or diversity above sales? And if no one is reading it, no one is going to hear the message. And their ability to bring that message to the general public will die.
(I had a whole other paragraph or two here about why business, particularly small businesses, tend to shy away from the new and diverse, but this is already too long and I’m sure most have already… TL;DR)
An aside; my sister, with a university education and Business Degree, and the only other Doctor Who viewer left in my family aside from me, is an avid reader, but stays away from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Roxane Gay and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and prefers bodice-ripping smut with heroines in distress and big hunky men coming to rescue them… And reads them by the box-full.
Sometimes I want challenging, thoughtful stories that engage the mind and forge new pathways through old thoughts. And sometimes I just want to listen to Doctor Who that makes me feel good while I commute, or slave away bathed in the harsh glow from the LCD screen.
You could argue that if all Big Finish is producing is disposable pulp Doctor Who, or propose that if they only produced a dozen hours of top notch audio drama that was Hugh worthy each year, it would be a better situation; and if they can’t do that, then perhaps we’d be better off with none.
But I would disagree strongly. I, like many others, enjoy my comfort food in a world that is as challenging and often distressing as the one which surrounds us every day. And like my sister, with her regency smut, I enjoy Big Finish for what it is; perfectly serviceable Doctor Who.
And my world, for one, would be poorer without it.
August 21, 2018 @ 2:06 am
Hmmm, the aside, about my sister and her reading preferences, seems out of place now I read it back, even though I was trying to set it up something for the conclusion. I’m still new at this.
August 21, 2018 @ 8:16 am
Setting aside the very valid question of whether bold and new sells well, you make it sound like comfort food can only taste bland. I think El argues it could be fucking delicious.
August 21, 2018 @ 10:54 am
Well, I find that Doctor Who doesn’t really make sense as comfort food, because of all the fighting and death and nasty people. My comfort television tends to have generally nice characters who generally like each other. But it does indeed come in bland and delicious varieties.
August 21, 2018 @ 10:22 am
I don’t think anyone is arguing that Big Finish should go away. Certainly, if there’s enough of an audience for the stuff they do now for people to pay them enough to keep doing it, then it should exist. I think that rather, we’re generally mourning the way that interesting professional spinoff material has become non-existent. Or at least less existent.
August 21, 2018 @ 2:05 am
Hmmm, the aside, about my sister and her reading preferences, seems out of place now I read it back, even though I was trying to set it up something for the conclusion. I’m still new at this.
August 21, 2018 @ 10:54 am
Is there much else advising about Big Finish’s contemptible inability to comprehend the sound medium than the way that they’ve had a buddy who can change shading yet not a solitary repeating character who is locate weakened?
August 21, 2018 @ 6:43 pm
A year subscribing to Big Finish has basically put me off their output, nearly entirely. I’ll probably keep following the Eight Doctor series because I adore the current companions and in all likelihood will shell out for Benny boxsets (especially if featuring David Warner) but even my love of the idea of a Doctor/Ace/Mel TARDIS crew cannot sustain me through the mediocre reality of the main range.
And that really is the nub of it – even when the ideas are great, the execution seldom is. I would have paid good money to have a story where Jo Grant and Osgood team up; there is a heck of a lot of potentially interesting things you could do there . . . and surprise, surprise, turns out I was entirely correct not to waste money on this boxset.
So, thank you for the dis-recommendation (un-recommendation? Anti-recommendation?) – I shall instead listen to and/or read your much more exciting sounding suggestions!
August 22, 2018 @ 1:42 am
one aspect of this review bothered me more than a little.
if you want to bring up as serious a topic as rape, don’t just bring it out for shock value and move on to the next witty put-down. it trivializes the act for to talk about in such a flippant way.
August 22, 2018 @ 3:17 am
Fair enough. I gave a lot of thought to how I handled that, so let me talk through my reasoning, not so much because I want to invalidate the criticism, but at least to explain what I was thinking and why I don’t think I was being flippant or going for shock value.
Let’s start with the idea of “wanting” to bring up rape. Because I don’t. I’d generally much prefer not to have to point out that Doctor Who actors are rapists. But, well, Richard Franklin raped someone. I can’t not point that out while talking about his legacy within Doctor Who. Especially since I didn’t know about it when I covered the Pertwee era, so this is the first time I’ve been able to bring it up.
But I also didn’t want Franklin’s behavior to become what the entry was about. The Capaldi era would be a strange place to write an entry about that, and I had things I wanted to say about the actual story. Beyond that, it felt sensationalistic and Daily Mailish to dust off an old post on someone’s personal website.
So I decided to treat it the way I’ve treated a large number of nasty things people have done over the history of Eruditorum: with contemptuous derision. Did this mean making what are, structurally, a pair of jokes about it? Yes. In both instances I bring it up the passages are constructed so that the fact that Franklin is a rapist comes as a surprise. But my intention with that wasn’t shock value, or at least not any sort of flippant shock value. My intention was for Franklin’s behavior to be a rupture that highlighted my anger and contempt for him. I wanted to generate shock in the sense of horror, as opposed to shock that serves to valorize how witty I am.
I apologize if I failed in this.
John G. Wood
August 22, 2018 @ 9:52 am
“My intention was for Franklin’s behavior to be a rupture that highlighted my anger and contempt for him. I wanted to generate shock in the sense of horror […]”
For what it’s worth, that’s how it came across to me.
August 24, 2018 @ 10:16 am
I also got the way it was intended and found it to be a real ‘rupture’ in my reading of the article I didn’t expect and had to go and look into.
August 22, 2018 @ 8:16 pm
thank you for your reply. “want to” as in, as you pointed out, BF put out many DOCTOR WHO-related audios per years and most of them don’t have Richard Franklin in them. (clarifying my point here, since you did yours.)
August 22, 2018 @ 11:57 pm
I put this on the running order long before I’d heard anything untoward about Franklin, and had already done the listening and was within a week of the post going up when I found out the specific details.
August 23, 2018 @ 8:41 pm
Anything else aside, the insanely shoddy photoshopping on that CD cover speaks loudly about the publisher’s interest in quality. Just look at John Levene’s head!
August 23, 2018 @ 9:27 pm
I know it’s been pointed out but it is literally perfect that this came out the same day as their announcement of “Legacy of Time”.
One range that would really have benefited from a more diverse writing line-up would be my personal favorite Big Finish project, Jago & Litefoot. I adore the chemistry between Trevor Baxter (RIP) and Christopher Benjamin, and when the stories are good, they’re utterly delightful – John Dorney, Matthew Sweet, Jonathan Morris, and James Goss in particular turned in some of their career best scripts for the series.
But the audios never called out the problematic connotations of the Victorian adventure genre and setting enough for my liking, as you would sadly expect from a series capitalizing on nostalgia for Talons of Weng-Chiang. As far as I’m aware, the series was written entirely by white men. POC writers in particular would perhaps have done a better job calling out some of the reactionary tropes that made their way into the stories (Gluttonous Guru and Island of Death, I’m looking at you in particular >:( )
But then, I suppose one couldn’t expect much from having Justin Richards as head writer. Once he moved to doing series finales in particular, his caricature-heavy, meat-and-potatoes storytelling really got in the way of resolving the box sets in a satisfactory manner* (The Final Act and The Wax Princess especially are two of my least favorite Big Finish audios ever, along with the Andy Lane-penned dud The Ruthven Inheritance which served as the Series Two finale).
The series continually fails to quite realize its full potential. Take Series Five, where Jago and Litefoot find themselves trapped in the 1960s. What a magnificent opportunity to explore the characters in a new setting, to tell stories that you could only tell in that time period! Why, you could spend two or even three box sets tapping all the potential of the set-up! …and after a promising first episode, the set soon devolves to telling stories that could be told in the Victorian time period. It has the gall to end on a nostalgia-fest Talons sequel that completely discards any ’60s trappings and kills off the one new main character of the set in a completely throwaway manner, before J & L hop into a functioning time cabinet and travel back to the Victorian times first chance they get, leaving their ’60s lives behind with no resolution or regret. Whereupon they have their memories wiped in the next (far superior) box set so the writers don’t have to deal with the ramifications of their time travel adventures. Because remember, listeners, Big Finish will never stray too far into new territory, we’ll always go back to just how things were! With this mindset, the fact that the series managed to produce a pretty high ratio of gold (at least five really good box sets and fun specials) is a miracle.
Anyway, now that Jago & Litefoot is understandably over, the Companion Chronicles have winded down, and I’ve filled in almost all of the gaps I’ve wanted to in my listening, I have little reason to stick with them. I’ve been spending this year trying to watch as many and as wide a range of films as possible, and I’ve found that far more challenging and creatively invigorating in comparison to what I’ve heard from their recent stuff. It’s time for a shake-up on their part.
August 24, 2018 @ 9:48 pm
I really feel the need to stick up for Big Finish a bit here. I feel you are correct with the view that they are currently pumping out far too much content with far too small a pool of talent to sustain it. The around 2009 ish plundering of old stuff (Lost Stories and Stageplays) was is probably the turning point where the idea of revisiting stuff rather than going forwards kicked in a bit. Although saying that it was around here the excellent Companion Chronicles started. I also feel recently (about 2012/13 onwards) they have essentially taken a lego brick mentality to fanwank and continuity and are just sticking things together because it sounds appealing to fans on a press release rather than because it makes any sense to do so (hey kids 5th Doctor on Alzarius or 6th Doctor during the Dalek invasion of Earth or Rose meets the Ice Warriors).
But back in the day they created some superb stuff. Ironically the story I will defend most (not the best story just one I feel needs it’s corner fighting) is The Rapture, and one of the reasons I feel this story is so maligned is because it came out early enough to not be drowned out by other stuff around it and had to stand on it’s own. I can see why it’s not to everyone’s taste but it is good and also the backlash is indicative of the sort of conventional (or trad classic to use fan parlance) stuff the “core” big finish audience is after, or rather the stuff that sold better (didn’t they go dalek mad for a year to boost the bank balance up a bit after falling sales when the new series started?). Not long after they made the rapture they made Davros which is loved by both rad and trad fans in equal measure. And a bloody good audio drama it is to boot and one that plays with fanwankery in a brilliant way.
There is lots to say here about Big Finish. Nick Briggs is a better high concept writer than he is given credit for (or at least was in the day) for example. But I’m saddened that I am no longer interested in a production company who are reduced to releasing over priced box sets of predicable fan pleasing yet ultimately hollow drama, who at one time made Arrangements For War and A Thousand Tiny Wings.
August 29, 2018 @ 8:29 am
W-what happened to Benton’s head in the cover??