(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 31 March, 2003.)
I was a little surprised to find out that Big Finish was releasing a book of their audio scripts -- after all, they'd said on their website that they had no interest in putting out print versions of their audios, since the audio was a hard enough format to get people interested in. It's certainly been a hard format to get me interested in, mainly because a lifetime of reading has trained me to tune out the noises around me so I can concentrate on visual stimuli, which is a bad trait to have when you're trying to listen to an audio-only drama.
In other words, I was quite glad to see a book of audio scripts from Big Finish. I hadn't been avoiding their work on any principle of cost or quality, but simply because the medium didn't appeal to me... and this nice hardcover book was going to give me a chance to read some of the Doctor Who I'd missed out on as a result. As it turned out, there was quite a lot of good Who in here (and some bad, as well, but you can't have everything) -- it served as a good read, a nice work of reference on the four audios it contained, and enough of an advertisement that I'm probably going to be buying two of the four audios just to hear the voice performances. So on the whole, I'd call this an excellent success for Big Finish, and I hope very much that this is just the first volume of many.
Loups-Garoux, by Marc Platt, was one of the reasons I bought this book -- I'd heard a lot of raves about the story, and I've also been a huge fan of Platt ever since Ghost Light. I wasn't disappointed, either... this is a great story. Pieter Stubbe is a wonderful villain, filled with a dark and menacing charm, and I find myself wanting to buy the audio just to hear his voice when he delivers lines like, "Huh. Grandmothers. I've had my fill of grandmothers." Doctor Who has given us very few villains as utterly cool as Stubbe, and my only wish is to somehow see him again. The other characters are nice too, and the regulars are dealt with well (I love the Doctor's awkward, tentative stabs at romance), and although the plot sometimes seems a little vague, it's never contradictory and always engaging.
The Holy Terror, by Rob Shearman... wow. This has been billed by many as a comedy (sometimes prefaced with the words "dark"), but don't be fooled. This is actually an intense drama with comic moments strategically placed to relieve the tension like lightning bolts in a storm. The whole thing is an exploration of responsibility -- What responsibility does the Creator have to his Creation? -- and it's dealt with on many levels, from Frobisher hunting down the gumblejack he created out of the TARDIS databanks to Pepin VII refusing to become a god to his subjects to the final, shattering denoument in which we see who the Creator really is, and what he's been doing to his creations all along. It's violent, it's bloody, it's gory, but there's never a moment in which I don't believe that this is the natural, inevitable progress of events -- I've got to get this on audio, because I think it's possibly one of the best works of Who to have shown up in a while. It's on a very high plane, and I recommend it a lot.
The Fires of Vulcan, by Steve Lyons, is... solid. It's like a lot of Steve Lyons books -- the characterization is sound, the plot unfolds well enough, there are reasonably clever moments, and on the whole, there are far worse ways to pass an afternoon (or evening, in my case) than to read it. But don't expect something world-shatteringly good. It's solid. That's probably damning it with faint praise, but there's really nothing else you can say.
Neverland, by Alan Barnes... yeurgh. This is the "bad Who" I was talking about earlier. I understand that Gary Russell wants to show off not just the quality of the scripts, but also the storylines and writers that he's developed at Big Finish. Hence, instead of including a probable crowd-pleaser Eighth Doctor story such as The Stones of Venice, Invaders From Mars, or Seasons of Fear (I'm basing this on the writers involved, not on having heard the audios), he went with one of his own writers, and a story tied strongly in with the Big Finish Eighth Doctor mythos. This proves to be a mistake, in my opinion, because Barnes isn't a very good writer, and Neverland isn't a very good story. The whole thing reads like a second-hand-shop version of the War, and although there are a few cute ideas (dispersed Time Lords continuing to exist somewhere, Time Lords donating lives to soldiers in the fight), there's a lot of codswallop (why do anti-time creatures feed on time? Shouldn't they annihilate each other?) and blather (Zagreus, Zagreus, Zagreus, yadda yadda yadda.) The Eighth Doctor... I will never again claim that the Eighth Doctor in the books doesn't have a distinct character anymore, because now I've read Neverland, and I can at least tell you who he isn't. He's not this guy. Ironic, since Paul McGann actually voiced these lines, but this isn't the Doctor. There are further problems with this as the selection (it relies heavily on knowledge of previous audios, it ends on a cliff-hanger) but the biggest one is that it's just plain bad. Not the best way to end the book.
Still, with four stories and only one being dross (and two being spectacular), that gives it a pretty good claim to be worth picking up -- and it helps that this also doubles as a reference work, for those people who want to refer back to events in The Holy Terror but don't have a good fast-forward/rewind feature on their CD player. I'd love to see another volume of these, perhaps one featuring The Shadow of the Scourge or an all-Excelis edition... and Big Finish needn't worry about this cutting into their audio sales. If anything, it'll increase them.