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.
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 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 Bannermen? Head 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.
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