It may be an exaggeration to refer to anyone as a “miracle worker,” but I have few qualms about applying that phrase to Big Finish. They’ve kept Classic Who going with quality stories for over 15 years, gradually coaxed some reluctant participants out of the shadows, and reunited many old teams (I suspect that Paul McGann’s birthday in 2013 was a day that hell froze over, because Big Finish announced that the infamously estranged Tom Baker and Lalla Ward would be doing a season of Fourth Doctor Adventures together, news that was probably overshadowed quite a bit by a certain 50th anniversary short called Night of the Doctor). Finally, after a good five years or so of my being an Adric fan, Big Finish made yet another incredible thing happen and reunited my favorite Classic Who TARDIS team of all time: the Season 19 crew of the Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan. Unfortunately, the actual release of the Fifth Doctor Box Set in the summer of 2014 was a time when my commute entertainment was changing from listening to Big Finish audios while playing iPhone games to playing Pokémon on my newfangled Nintendo 3DS. Fortunately, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned New Year’s home office cleaning to get you in the mood for some audio plays. And so it happened that at the beginning of 2016, I finally made it on two brand new journeys with my favorite time-and-space-traveling quartet. It was worth the wait.
Psychodrome by Jonathan Morris
I love the Season 19 crew, and I love the “mysterious place where you have to face manifestations of the depths of your psyche” trope, but in 2010 there was no such Doctor Who story that married the two, so I decided to take a crack at writing one myself. “The Safe House” was a multi-chapter fanfic that I sadly never finished, but it looks like Big Finish did the work for me, and much better. Set almost immediately after the end of Castrovalva, Psychodrome admittedly takes a little while to get off the ground, spending nearly all of Part 1 introducing new sets of characters every few minutes once the TARDIS lands. However, once it’s revealed exactly why the supporting cast is so large, things get much more interesting. The order of the day in this story is “the most intense Getting to Know You field trip ever,” as the team is forced to confront things they might not want to know about both themselves and each other. It’s very much a character piece first and foremost, using its setting purely to enable particular interactions between people. But more importantly, this is the Fifth Doctor story I’ve always wanted to see, and now it finally exists.
Performance-wise, this story is most notable for the return of Matthew Waterhouse as Adric. While Matthew has performed for Big Finish in the past, but not as Adric, and while Adric has returned to Big Finish in the past, but not played by Matthew, the stars (as they say) have finally aligned again. While I loved his performance as a troubled WWI-soldier-turned-museum-curator-with-PTSD in Dark Shadows’ “The Creeping Fog” a few years back, I’m sorry to say that Matthew’s previously expressed concerns about being too old to revisit teenaged Adric are not entirely unfounded. That’s not to say that there aren’t other Big Finish stories where you can hear at least some of the additional years on their actors, but for the youthful Adric it stands out more than usual. Fortunately, once the story kicks into full gear, it’s easier to ignore or forget about as you get wrapped up in the character drama. It also helps that the character is served well in the story, and even gets a couple more intense and frantic scenes that give Matthew a chance to act much harder than he usually had to do in the show. And yes, this does involve some heavy Earthshock foreshadowing.
Iterations of I by John Dorney
While Psychodrome has the general premise of “The Safe House,” Iterations of I has its setting. Jumping ahead to after the events of Black Orchid, Adric and Nyssa have a go at flying the TARDIS themselves and land the crew on a cliffside near Ireland in the early 1980s, on an uninhabited island sporting nothing but a smashed boat and a mysterious old house. Upon investigating and running into a few fellow investigators from the mainland, they find that the house may be haunted…but not by ghosts. Iterations of I is a very, for lack of a better description, mathematical horror story. I’m glad I made attempts to pay attention in high school algebra class, or even more of the numerical theory behind this story would’ve gone over my head. The fact that some of the supporting casts’ backstory involves a math cult should have been an early tip-off. While that set-up may make it sound like this is the most Adric-centric story you could possibly write, it’s actually the Doctor doing most of the work. Although, our mathematical marshboy does get to see a rare bit of action near the end.
There are some technology jokes employed here that might not have worked as well in televised story back in Season 19, mostly involving the Doctor bemoaning the state (and size) of 1980s computers, that got a chuckle out of me. The thing that struck me the most about this story by the end, however, was the fact that this is one of those stories that benefits considerably from being audio-only. Occasionally Big Finish will do an audio drama that features a sentient concept of some sort (the sound creature from Scherzo comes to mind) and, outside of outright personification, that can be difficult to pull off visually. I really have no idea how the monster of Iterations of I would have worked on screen, although I sense it might have looked something like the jittery gap between universes from The Three Doctors at worst. Stick around for the extra features on this one, because hearing the majority of the cast admitting that math was not their strong suit at school (Sarah Sutton’s anecdote is particularly hilarious) is pretty great.
Overall, the Fifth Doctor Box Set is certainly recommended for fans of the early Davison era, and for those who like character exploration with their drama. A solid entry in the Big Finish canon.