Charity special episodes of our favourite show are always such a mixed blessing. Doctor Who is a British institution beloved for many years but when my sanity isn’t affected by unusual heatwaves I would usually avoid these ‘charitee’ specials like the plague as I realised pretty early on that if you go in expecting too much you surely will be disappointed. YouTube has been my frienemy throwing up little nuggets of Doctor Who in an attempt to feed my need for an interesting Who fix so I watched ‘Dimensions in Time’ the other night. My oh my, it drew me in even though it felt as if watching the aftermath of a car accident. You know you shouldn’t look but you can’t draw your eyes away. Yes I entered the world of the ‘charity special ‘

The common refrain about special charity episodes is ‘but it’s for charitee’ so whatever is produced by the BBC is meant to be gratefully received by the viewers regardless of actual quality. We doff our cap’ Thank-you sir, begging your pardon, ever so grateful sir’ but if I’m honest sometimes the Doctor Who offerings have been so dubious in quality for me that it makes me as a fan want to squirm in pitiful embarrassment. But I do have a sense of humour if anyone is wondering.

Depending on what you are looking for here’s my personal selection of fool’s goods and the 24-carat real deal that we gave our hard-earned money towards watching over the years.

Best for Nostalgia: Dimensions in Time 1993 – Cringe factor: 6 floating heads out of 10

All the Doctors unite to defeat the Rani
All the Doctors unite to defeat the Rani

This special 12-minute crossover between Doctor Who and the soap opera Eastenders ran in two parts on 26 and 27 November 1993. It’s a cornucopia of old companions (Susan, Victoria, Liz Shaw, Mike Yates, The Brigadier, Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, K9, Romana II, Nyssa, Peri, and Ace) and all the then alive Doctors broadcast in celebration of the show’s 30th anniversary. It was unique as a charity Doctor Who as there were experiments in 3D television within the BBC at the time so the audience had to wear special glasses and viewers decided in a vote which EastEnders character would help the Doctor.

Introducing it in the setting of Noel’s House Party (attached to the darn awful Mr Blobby) sets the tone for early evening mediocrity and seems to demonstrate the BBC still despised the show four years after it went on hiatus. It amazingly achieved viewing figures of 13.8 million viewers for the first part and 13.6 million for the second part, which are the highest ever ratings bar Part Four of ‘City of Death’ at 16.1 million viewers. It’s a strange beast as far as I am concerned as the Rani’s plan makes little logical sense but when you get the 1st and 2nd doctor’s heads twirling around her Tardis and she is triumphantly crowing they are “Pickled like gherkins in a jar,” you get a sense that this may have to be taken as high farce.

She’s attempting to transfer a massive time tunnel,” the Doctor explained, “to the Greenwich meridian. She has a computer in there with genetic codes and brain prints of every living creature in the entire universe.”

Hampered by having to be set on the EastEnders Albert Square market and the doctor and companion pairings are a bit odd at times although the 5th Doctor with Peri and Nyssa felt right. How did the Sixth Doctor know who Ace was by the way? On the plus side the absolutely charming Jon Pertwee, in his last official appearance as the Doctor (he died three years later) playing up to Noel Edmonds is a joy and the location filming  at Greenwich with the Brigadier, the Sixth (it suits him having shorter hair) and a helicopter is lovely to see just for the spectacle.

But the Rani is still rubbish at defeating the Doctor.

Best for Comedy: The Curse of Fatal Death 1999 –  Cringe factor: 8 corridors out of 10

Emma wishes she were in another chair
Emma wishes she were in another chair

Written by ex-Head writer Steven Moffat for Comic Relief in 1999 a few years after the movie was released I can’t make up my mind if Steven Moffat loved the show or not at this moment in time. Personally, I’ve given it a high cringe factor because as a spoof it’s a bit too close for comfort for me at poking fun at all the familiar tropes of Doctor Who (an all-knowing Doctor, the adoring female clueless companion, running up and down corridors, the useless caricature villain) but a lot of people seem to love it. I like it rather than love it. The appeal to the lowest common denominator with all the fart jokes doesn’t really do anything for the show’s then reputation so it felt as if Doctor Who wasn’t really cared about but seen as an oddball.

In retrospect you can see in those 24 minutes most of the ideas that Steven Moffat then re-used for his tenure, time travel manipulation where the Master and the Doctor are pre-empting each other by travelling back further in time, a more sexualised Doctor wanting to marry his companion (later River Song), Fluidity around gender regeneration with the first female Doctor. It does make me wonder what kind of show new Doctor Who would have started as if Steven Moffat had been the original creator of the new Doctor Who earlier instead of Russell T Davies in 2005? Would we still be talking about the show all these years later?

MASTER: They’re not breasts, okay? They’re Dalek bumps. They can detect ion charged emissions and operate as aetheric beam locators at a distance of up to twenty thousand light years.

As a positive, I was surprised at how well the actors who play the Doctors inhabit their differing personas even though it is very tongue in cheek. Rowan Atkinson and Julia Sawalha are fine although nothing special. But I have now lost count how many alternate versions there have been of the Doctor since the TV movie. Jonathan Pryce is probably the best thing in it channelling a crazed Anthony Ainley version of the Master and it is, to be honest, funny watching him fall through the trap door each time, Richard E Grant was later cast for the animated 40th anniversary story Scream of the Shalka in 2003 and Hugh Grant was offered the role of the 9th Doctor ahead of Christopher Eccleston but turned it down which probably was a blessing for all of us in the end as Chris brings a grit and gravitas Hugh Grant doesn’t possess.

Best loved by critics: Time Crash 2007 – Cringe Factor: 1 decorative vegetable out of 10

The 10th and the 5th Doctor are trapped together

Time Crash was an 8-minute mini-episode broadcast on the 16th November 2007 as part of the Children in Need telethon. What’s interesting is that Steven Moffat’s second offering feels like the love letter to the series that Doctor Who charity contributions should always have been. Apparently, the fifth Doctor is one of Moffat’s favourites? Not sure if that is true but this tasty morsel achieves the right balance of humour and mutual respect between the two actors David Tennant and Peter Davison, who are enjoying themselves immensely playing two official doctors. The critics loved it. The public loved it. It was the most-viewed show of the night, and briefly the most-viewed episode of Doctor Who since 2005, with 11 million viewers

The 10th DOCTOR  : Snap. Because you know what, Doctor? You were my Doctor.

Perhaps because of the then popularity of the programme or the parameters set by executive producer Julie Gardner, that they needed to shoot in one day and on one set with no CGI, the thick brush of parody that Steven Moffat used fourteen years previously disappears and it becomes an enjoyable character piece. The very low cringe factor was for 10’s crack about the back of five’s head  (oh he was a bit mean then) but yes overall I loved it even the jokes about the celery for one of my favourite doctors.

Best for Continuity: Doctor Who Born Again 2005 – Cringe factor: 2 Slitheen out of 10

This was a 7-minute mini-episode was broadcast as part of Children in Need on the 18th November 2005 and was a two-hander episode with Billie Piper and David Tennant taking part between ‘The Parting of the Ways’ and ‘The Christmas Invasion’ with a newly regenerated 10th Doctor.

ROSE : Oh, my God, are you a Slitheen?

This short episode adds a bit of depth to the events we’ve seen in ‘Parting’ Playing on the assumption that Rose, unused to seeing a regeneration, will not just accept the change her initial confusion and fear is sensitively handled by this new incarnation. I do enjoy watching the change of mood and pace in this mini-episode between them and although she still feels overwhelmed by the gradual realisation that it is the same man. The cringe factor, albeit low is for watching David Tennant play having a seizure which made my stomach churn in sympathy.

The ends justify the means

Extra Doctor Who should always feel like a plus but on the other hand, I guess they are only there to do a job and that is to raise money for charity. The Dimensions in Time episodes will never be released onto DVD as all the actors waived their fees on the condition it would never be rebroadcast or on home release. It was a special one night only event before the rise of the internet and YouTube. Regardless of whether mini episodes like these are brilliant or not, I realise that they aren’t aimed at me, the superfan, but at ‘the general public’ to enjoy as part of an evening of awareness and fun. Maybe they deserve more credit than I have given them.

Do you agree with my ratings for each story and what is your favourite? Post your thoughts on here or on Twitter. Let’s talk.

As Big Finish celebrates their 20th anniversary this week, Mark Donaldson looks at their approach to “shared universe” storytelling and ponders what the billion-dollar Disney owned Star Wars franchise can learn from an audio production company in Bedfordshire.

In the past week, “sources” broke the news that future entries in the Star Wars Story anthology series were being put on hold following the lacklustre (if you can call $339.5 million lacklustre) box office performance of Solo

Promotional artwork for “Solo: A Star Wars Story”

As a Doctor Who fan sitting down to watch Solo: A Star Wars Story, it occurs to you that Disney/Lucasfilm are attempting to make billions of dollars from emulating what an audio production company in Maidenhead have been doing for 20 years, producing full cast spin-off media from a beloved science fiction franchise. The difference, apart from the budgets, is that Disney is attempting to entertain a general audience alongside a core fanbase whereas Big Finish is gleefully playing to the hardcore initiates.

The other difference is that the Star Wars trilogies have a limited number of characters interesting enough to shoulder their own spin-off stories whilst Doctor Who, like Marvel, has over five decades of characters and worlds to revisit. Whilst the 20th anniversary of Big Finish’s official Doctor Who audios is a year away, 1998 saw them start production on plays featuring New Adventures companion Bernice Summerfield, a character that means as much to those growing up in the wilderness years as Sarah Jane Smith does to the children of the 1970s. Interestingly, this is a character that has never appeared on actual televised Doctor Who, having always existed in the world of spin-off media. This allows for much more freedom to tell exciting stories for Bernice and given that the licence has been extended for another 5 years there’s certainly a lot more adventures to come for the hard-drinking archaeologist. Incidentally, a River Song crossover pitch is surely sitting on a hard drive somewhere at Big Finish HQ.

The novel “Oh No It Isn’t!”, adapted into Big Finish’s first audio play

The problem with the two Star Wars Story films is that, narratively, the characters are already written into a corner. We know that Han’s romance with Kira is doomed from the moment we meet her because we have already seen how his story ends. Similarly, the characters we meet in the, admittedly superior, Rogue One is doomed because we never see them pop up in the original trilogy. There’s no jeopardy, no real dramatic stakes, so the scripts have to settle for showing us the Kessel Run or needlessly explaining why the Millennium Falcon has a gap at the front. Of course, Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios are hamstrung by similar constraints, which is presumably why new companions are created, so as to make their adventures less predictable. Audiences are clearly much more interested in what happens next rather than finally seeing key backstory moments that will never be as exciting on-screen as they were in our imaginations.

Whilst Disney has reportedly paused their Boba Fett, Obi-Wan and Yoda films, Big Finish are releasing an ever-expanding range of Doctor Who spin-offs including Jenny: The Doctor’s Daughter, The Diary of River Song, UNIT, The Corporal Bell Chronicles, Torchwood and most recently Class*. If franchise fatigue really is a concern, someone clearly hasn’t told Nicholas Briggs. Alongside the spin-offs there is a new series of Chris Boucher’s Star Cops, Gerry Anderson’s Terrahawaks and released over the next few months, their own original dramas including the Louise Jameson devised wartime drama ATA Girl as part of the Netflix inspired Big Finish Originals range. Something for everyone there.

Which is rather the point, as pop culture enthusiasts in this digital age, it is possible to have whatever we desire. Want to find out what the 8th Doctor was up to during the Time War? Big Finish have you covered. Want to listen to fellow fans dissect old episodes and discuss the latest news? Big Blue Box and a multitude of other podcasts have you covered (I hear On the Time Lash is quite good too). Want a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo for a fictional 1950’s Welsh holiday camp from Delta and the BannermenHead over to RedBubble. There’s a lot of money to be made here and Disney has cottoned on to this pretty quickly, buying the Marvel and Star Wars franchises and producing multiple films and television shows each year aimed at both fans and more general audiences.

This has been incredibly successful for Marvel because each of the characters has their own fanbase. The films and shows all have their own separate tones and feels too which guarantee another audience. Like a bit of political intrigue in your blockbuster? The Captain America series is for you. Like your superhero series to discuss issues of race and criminality? Luke Cage is probably up your street. The same is true for Big Finish’s various ranges, whilst there will be hardcore Doctor Who fans who want to listen to each new release, there will also be those who only follow the adventures of the 8th Doctor or want the comforting embrace of brand new Tom Baker. From the very early stages, they cracked the “team-up” model of Marvel’s Avengers franchise with a multi-Doctor story The Sirens of Time being their first release. In recent years we’ve had River Song meet each of the surviving Doctors, which is a tempting proposition for fans of both River and whichever Doctor she encounters. And most tantalisingly of all, the Class audios will feature the Daleks and Sophie Aldred in a sequel to the seminal Remembrance of the Daleks. You don’t have to be a fan of Class to feel a slight bristle of excitement.

Promotional artwork for Big Finish’s “Class” audios

The issue for Star Wars is that whilst there are certain fan favourites like Lando or Boba Fett, George Lucas is a writer and director who is more interested in world and mood than characters with depth. Because of this, those characters often feel as if they can only really be part of one particular type of story. Therefore, revisiting those fan favourites can only get you so far. Perhaps it’s best to park such characters in the spin-off fiction in which they’ve resided since the original trilogy ended in 1983.

Harrison Ford can’t appear in Solo for the same reasons that Colin Baker can’t pop up alongside Jodie Whittaker in full costume as the Sixth Doctor, so why bother replacing him when that character is so clearly defined by the actor inhabiting the role? A guaranteed audience, sure, but if Solo teaches us anything it’s that there’s less interest in a Han Solo film without Harrison Ford. It’s the universe of Star Wars that is most appealing, those rich worlds that hark back to 1950s sci-fi serials. The lesson is surely to set any future films within that universe, give fans new characters with potential for new adventures and long lives. The truly hardcore fan can pick up a Han Solo novel or comic book to spend time with that character in their own imaginations, in the same way, popping on a new Tom Baker audio transports your mind back to the mid to late 70s regardless of your date of birth.

There’s been no word on the progress of Rian Johnson or Beinoff and Weiss’ Star Wars trilogies but the hope is that they will indeed look to do just that, introduce new characters and stories to capture the imagination of audiences once more. In a similar way, Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who is rumoured to jettison much of the series mythology and target a new generation of viewers. Big Finish will continue to cater for those of us who want to hear new/old adventures for our favourite incarnations of the Doctor or his companions. The past is the past and designing blockbusters to tap into some fan nostalgia won’t lead your billion-dollar franchise. It should, as Big Finish has shown us for two glorious decades, supplement it in fallow periods between series or provide us with some extra entertainment during the week between episodes. That appeared to be the intention with the Star Wars Story films, but if Disney truly wants those films to make more money, they need to look ahead, to new stories to tell where we don’t know the ending. Less “A long time ago…” And more “Here’s to the Future.”

*One of these spin-offs is not real, but if you read the list fast enough you can convince yourself it’s already reached three volumes