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The Big Finish Vault: Sirens of Time & Phantasmagoria

Has there ever been a better time for Big Finish? As a massive fan, I would say that every moment in okay to listen to some audiobooks, but in these dark times, Big Finish is proving to be a bright and shining light, keeping us entertained throughout the isolation period.

I’ve recently started my own Big Finish re-listen, trying my hardest to listen to all their audio dramas/books, mainly from Doctor Who, but I’ve got some from their other ranges that I’m looking forward to hearing again.

What better time then to start a new series of articles, in a similar vein to The Great Virgin Adventures Review range we do here, to delve into the Doctor Who audiobooks, including the spinoff’s from the main range in a series of look-backs and reviews?

A small disclaimer, I hope to cover the Bernice Summerfield range, only their in my attic in one of the hundreds of boxes, so I’ll give them a listen again eventually!

The Sirens of Time

Written By: Nicholas Briggs

It’s hard to believe now that once upon a time, Big Finish had trouble trying to get the rights from the BBC to produce proper Doctor Who audio dramas. However, that’s a long and convoluted story that spun out of the success of the Bernice Summerfield opening series. The BBC would then call Big Finish back and tell them of a great idea; “What if you produced Doctor Who audiobooks?” For the long-time fans that work at Big Finish, this was the realisation of a dream come true and as a result, in 1999, the main Doctor Who range kicked off with The Sirens of Time, a story that sees three-incarnations of the Doctor team up to stop the titular Sirens before they destroy the time-stream and lay waste to Gallifrey.

Let’s get this straight right off the bat, The Sirens of Time isn’t an excellent story, it’s not even a good story but it certainly isn’t a terrible outing. What it is, is strong indicators of the love and affection that these creators were going to give the legacy of the, at the time still cancelled, show. Each episode features a different Doctor until the fourth and final part which sees all three come together. Long before the days where Tom Baker and Paul McGann had joined the cast, these Doctors were Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. What The Sirens of Time is also able to do is set up a few future spin-off series like Gallifrey and a hint of Dalek Empire.

The Sirens of Time
The Sirens of Time

The Seventh Doctor kicks off the opening episode and unfortunately, some of the kinks that they’ve since ironed out are on display from the moment he leaves the TARDIS. Heavy exposition scenes were the bane of early releases and this one is no different, giving the Chris Chibnall era a run for its money. Perhaps worse though is that nothing really happens apart from the Doctor meeting with a woman he could’ve sworn he’s met before. It is nice though to hear the glorious Maggie Stables in a small role in this episode before she became the fabulous Sixth Doctor companion, Evelyn Smythe.

The second episode is a different affair, which held my interest throughout. The Fifth Doctor lands in a German submarine and meets Helen, a woman who like him, shouldn’t be there. It also expands upon the mysteries taking place on Gallifrey, with Coordinator Vancill deciding it would be best to kill the Doctor as the Sirens seem to have latched onto his time-stream and are breaking through to our universe through the Doctor. The third episode sees the Sixth Doctor arriving at an intergalactic conference where he meets a woman called, Ellie. For me, the third episode is my favourite, mainly because it does have a similar vibe to Terror of the Vervoids, one of my favourite Sixth Doctor stories. There is also plenty of action to keep you interested.

It’s a shame then that it all comes a little undone in the final episode. While much of the selling point is hearing these three Doctors come together, and their scenes are fantastic, largely down to the brilliant performances from Davison, Baker and McCoy. And it seems that none of the Doctors has forgotten their different personalities come into conflict with one another, a large appeal to stories like The Three Doctors.

Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Peter Davison at the recording of The Sirens of Time
Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Peter Davison at the recording of The Sirens of Time

The story’s plot though is less satisfactory, with much of the information being told to us with character’s standing around, and giving us more exposition and explanation than we need. The Sirens would return in the recent 20th Anniversary Big Finish audio, The Legacy of Time and they impressed me about the same as they did here, mainly not very much. As villains, Big Finish has done a lot better, though they do allow for the introduction of the Knights of Valyeshaa, a group that would come into play more in the Dalek Empire series.

But as I said above, if The Sirens of Time manages to achieve anything it is proving that Doctor Who was in very safe hands, even if for the first couple of years, as Big Finish found its feet as a company, the stories didn’t really have many stand-outs. The Sirens of Time isn’t an amazing story but its a solid opener, the best was yet to come…

Phantasmagoria

Written by: Mark Gatiss

Following on from the rather lacklustre The Sirens of Time, Big Finish quickly improved their game with Phantasmagoria, written by none other than Mark Gatiss. I’ve always enjoyed Gatiss’ contributions to Doctor Who with stories that weren’t written for the screen the exception being The Unquiet Dead, where Charles Dickens name-checks this adventure.

I’ve got two reasons for really liking this story, the first of which is that its a nice blend of The Talons of Weng-Chiang – minus the racism – and The Awakening – minus the village setting – both of those stories are some of my favourite Doctor Who stories ever written, so it’s nice to hear Big Finish giving us similar vibes here.

The other reason I like this story is that it kick-starts the trend of giving the Fifth Doctor historical stories. And though much better were to come for the Fifth Doctor and companions when they journeyed back in time, Phantasmagoria is a brilliant Victorian outing.

Phantasmagoria
Phantasmagoria

Phantasmagoria also marks the debut of Mark Strickson as Turlough in the Big Finish landscape. Certainly, one of the stranger companions the Doctor has had over the years, Turlough might be a strange choice as the first real-on-screen companion to be in Big Finish. One would think it would be someone like Katy Manning or Elisabeth Sladen. However, Strickson recaptures the role excellently, and Gatiss really writes well for Turlough, giving him much more of the action than he ever got on television.

The gap between Resurrection of the Daleks and Planet of Fire is still a mine that Big Finish hasn’t really explored, only giving us a handful of stories for the Fifth Doctor and Turlough, especially in the early years of the range. However, there is something magical and very enjoyable about the two characters, probably down to the seemingly odd pairing the two make. Still, its one of my favourite Big Finish pairings and it would be nice if Big Finish could give us more solo Turlough adventures in the future!

Peter Davison also shines here, really grabbing the material and running with it. What helps is that he is the only Doctor here and, like many characters, Big Finish have used over the years, this the beginning of the Fifth Doctor makeover. I think this improvement in his character comes from the fact there aren’t so many companions hanging around as this allows for much more Fifth Doctor action. Davison has always been my favourite Doctor so its great to hear him getting a lot more material to work with here and it’s a story that fits perfectly into Series 21.

Gatiss, as well as handling the Doctor and Turlough well, gives us an interesting story filled with highway robberies, hauntings, gambling and then throws a house of horrors into the mix to keep things interesting. Where the story doesn’t hold up too well for me is in its side-characters, one of whom feels a lot like the fun Richard Mace from The Visitation but I had a little trouble telling the others apart as they all sounded like one-another, though whether this down to the writing or the similar clichéd Victorian accents and performances is anyone’s guess.

Overall though, Phantasmagoria is a marked improvement from The Sirens of Time. It’s still not a perfect story by any means but you’ll have a lot of fun giving it a listen, if only for the fantastic pairing of the Fifth Doctor and Turlough!

Next Time: The Sixth Doctor and Peri in The Whispers of Terror and the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa in Land of the Dead

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