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Listen closely! Doctor Who lives on in exciting audio adventures

Doctor Who is back! Well, sort of. While efforts to bring the beloved British time travel series back to television remain stalled, the BBC has granted a license to Big Finish Productions to produce audio dramas starring various Doctors and companions—all played by the actors who originally portrayed the characters.

In charge of this undertaking are Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gary Russell, who respectively oversee the business aspects and creative direction of the stories. Longtime Who fans, they're delighted to be keeping the spirit of the show alive, although they freely admit that it hasn't been easy getting this project off the ground. In 1996, Russell unsuccessfully approached the BBC after the Paul McGann Doctor Who TV movie had aired. However, he did get a license from Virgin Publishing to do audio adaptations of their New Adventures series featuring Professor Bernice Summer-field after she ceased traveling with the Seventh Doctor. Seven installments of this well-received series have been produced to date, starring Lisa Bowerman as Benny.

After two Bennys were released, Haigh-Ellery and Russell went to Steve Cole—then-editor of the BBC Who novels—to show him the quality of work they were producing. "The next thing we knew," Russell recounts, "the BBC came back to us and said, 'Steve has played us these tapes, and we're very impressed. We're looking to issue a license for this sort of thing. Would your company be interested?' "

Continues Haigh-Ellery, "Within two weeks, we had an agreement sitting on my desk. And we couldn't tell anyone what we were doing initially, because we had to sort out a number of factors, including asking the actors if they wanted to do it. If we hadn't gotten any Doctors willing to do it, that would have been rather a letdown."

To Haigh-Ellery and Russell's delight, however, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors) immediately agreed to take part. Russell partly credits his background in Who fandom for this development. "I emcee a lot of conventions in England, so they know who I am, and there's a degree of trust built into that," he explains. "They didn't think, 'Hang on, is this going to be dodgy?' or, 'Are we going to end up making fools of ourselves?' There was an immediate rapport of, 'Yes, as it's you, absolutely,' which was very pleasing. I didn't really know Peter that much at all, whereas I know Colin and Sylvester quite well. Colin and I have been mates for a number of years now."

Their connections with actors who played companions—like Sophie Aldred (Ace), Nicola Bryant (Peri Brown), Mark Strickson (Turlough) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa)—paid off as well. "There's something to be said for the fact that after this many years, they want to do more Doctor Who," Russell notes. And the audio medium affords certain advantages. "They don't have to go in front of a camera and spend four weeks in a studio; they can make a whole four-part story in a weekend. They're not just keeping the concept of Doctor Who alive, they're keeping their own particular eras of the show alive, and it give them all something new to talk about at conventions."

Doctors Today

While they're currently concentrating on these three Doctors, Big Finish has been "in discussion" with Tom Baker and McGann (the Fourth and Eighth Doctors) about reprising their roles. "Paul's incredibly busy all the time," Haigh-Ellery explains. "In principle, he has nothing against the idea; it's whether or not he can do it. He hasn't turned it down, but he hasn't accepted it either. He sandwiched some BBC audio readings as the Doctor in between other jobs, and that's what we're going to have to wait for if we're going to get him. In the long term, I'll be very disappointed if we don't do a McGann Doctor Who story, but I can't guarantee it. As for Tom, he is interested, but the big thing with Tom is whether or not he likes the script. Because of that and Tom's tastes, it's going to be a while before we get the right script for him. But I do hope that we'll work with him at some point in the future."

And don't expect any stories involving the first three Doctors, since William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee have all died. 'We don't think it would be right to recast them," Haigh-Ellery says. "There have been suggestions that we ask Sean [Event Horizon] Pertwee or David Troughton do it, and while they do sound similar to their fathers, we know they won't do it. Sean's very protective of his father and would feel like he was stepping into his father's boots. David definitely wouldn't do it; he has said so in the past. And people have asked, 'What about someone who could mimic their voices?' I just don't see the value of it; to be honest, it seems a bit of a fraud. Although some fans might like the idea, I believe many more wouldn't."

While the actors may be able to record a story in a weekend, creating the finished product takes much longer. 'When the BBC have done their radio shows in the past, they've done them live in studio after a read-through, with all the FX going on, so there's very little editing time afterward. That's why it takes them so long to do a recording, but so little time to edit," Haigh-Ellery explains. "We do it a completely different way, like a feature using a lot of blue screen work. We get the actors in there for only two days and we record all their pieces and sort out all the sound FX and cutting and interaction between the actors later. For example, if a scene has monsters on one side and the Doctor on the other, we put the monsters in a completely different studio and do the edit later. Working around the technical equipment is very time-consuming, so it's easier to do the post-production later. We actually take six to eight weeks to do the edits, whereas a radio play might only take one to two weeks. The extra time is spent giving layers to the production.

"And to be honest, the biggest relaxation is that we can 'film' whatever we want now, because there are no pictures to restrict us in what we're doing. When you look at our first story, 'The Sirens of Time,' for example, there are four huge 'sets' we use: the inside of a cavernous spacecraft, a huge jungle, the inside of a German WWI submarine under the Atlantic Ocean and Gallifrey, which is huge and majestic, but it only sounds that way because we didn't have to build the sets. If you wanted to make 'Sirens' as a movie, you would need the money they spent on Titanic."

Adventures Now

Big Finish released "The Sirens of Time," a multiple Doctor story written by Nick Biggs, in July 1999. "It was my suggestion to get three Doctors in the first play," says Haigh-Ellery. "I thought each Doctor should have an episode, and Nick said, 'The fans will feel betrayed if the Doctors don't get together at some point, so why don't we do that in the last episode?' Without giving too much away, Gallifrey, the Doctor's homeworld, is destroyed and it's down to the Doctor to put things right again and combat the Sirens of Time, who have not only destroyed Gallifrey, but changed Earth's history in many ways:'

But while the story has been warmly received, he feels "it still is not perfect. It was the first one we did, and with effectively having only one episode to do a story in, in retrospect it might seem a bit rushed in places."

Two months later came the Fifth Doc-tor/Turlough story "Phantasmagoria," set in 1702 London. Haigh-Ellery describes it as "a much more straightforward story, very funny in places and very dramatic in others. Basically, it's the interaction of the Doctor and Turlough with Restoration England and with a villain played by David Ryall, an actor you would recognize even in America because he has done so much television over the years. He plays a wonderful villain; everyone keeps asking when we're going to bring him back!" Who novelist Mark Gatiss, who wrote the script and plays Jasper Jeake, "is a very in-demand writer at the moment; his comedy series The League of Gentlemen has been a huge hit over here, and he still gives up his time to write for us."

November saw the release of "Whispers of Terror," a Sixth Doctor/Peri story by Justin Richards in which the Doctor is accused of murder shortly after arriving at the Museum of Aural Antiquities in the far future. "It's technically the most difficult thing we've done so far. It's very different and eerie, completely the flip side of 'Phantasmagoria,' which is what we like to do, not have the same sort of story one after another. We're using the medium amazingly in this story, which is why it's such a pain to edit!"

Beginning in January, the audio dramas are being released monthly, starting with the Fifth Doctor/Nyssa story "The Land of the Dead." Set in 1994, "this one's a bit introverted and very spiritual. It's set around a huge fake house built by an eccentric millionaire in the middle of Alaska. The script, by Steve Cole, was actually a replacement written in two weeks and it's brilliant. One of the main characters, Tulung, is half-Inuit, and because we couldn't find any actual Inuits to play the part, we ended up with someone who's very good at doing accents: Neil Roberts, who was in Charmed, Beverly Hills 90210 and lots of other American stuff. He's a very good actor in great demand and we're lucky to get him. He really enjoyed it; he said, 'If I'm available, give me a call and I'll come back and do another.' "

February's release, "The Fearmonger," pairs McCoy with Aldred as the Seventh Doctor and Ace track down a monster with a peculiar appetite in the near-future. Says Russell, "It's about the New Brittania Party, an extreme right-wing political party trying to win power in an election. They're not adverse to stirring up mobs and things like that. At the center of all this is a creature known only as a Fearmonger. It's stirring up as much trouble as it possibly can, because it feeds off the fear that this right-wing party is creating. Jacqueline Pearce [Servalan in Blake's 7] plays Sherilyn Harper, the New Brittania leader, and Hugh Walters is her PR man. I've always wanted to work with Hugh Walters; he's an actor I've admired both in and out of Doctor Who. I phoned his agent and explained what we were doing: 'I really, really just want to work with Hugh. It's not the biggest part in the world, a day's work recording, but it needs an actor of that quality.' She said she would ask him, and he came back straight away; he thought it was a fantastic idea and he loves Doctor Who.

"To be in a studio with Sophie, Sylvester, Hugh and Jacqueline, you just can't ask for anything more. Hugh and Jacqueline are this kind of double act, and just watching them do their scenes together, it was all far too brief, over and done with in two or three hours. The enthusiasm is what makes all this worthwhile. When you find other people sharing that enthusiasm, whether they're writers, musicians or actors, it just makes the whole job so much easier and more fun. I remember when we finished 'The Sirens of Time,' I looked at everyone and said, 'I can't believe it! We've made brand new Doctor Who! After all these years, we've finally achieved it!' It was some kind of epiphany for me."

New Companions

"The Marian Conspiracy," by Jac Rayner, sees the debut of something unique to the Big Finish audio dramas: a new companion for the Sixth Doctor, a 55-year-old history professor named Dr. Evelyn Smythe, played by Maggie Stables. As Russell, her creator, explains, "I didn't want I to create a companion who was just the same old thing. Because we're concentrating on Peter, Colin, and Sylvester, we are to some extent retreading the past, so I have to see what I can do within these rather tight boundaries. On TV, companions start off as really strong and powerful, and within three stories they're screaming. By making Evelyn older, we can't have her running around and being tied up by the villains and so on. Evelyn's a very sensible person. She can get quite enthusiastic about things, but she has her feet very firmly on the ground and spends a lot of her time making sure the Doctor's feet stay there, too. She's a very good foil for him in that respect. She thinks, 'I'm 55, you look like you're 40, so I'm older than you,' and he's like, I'm actually 900, and I think you need to remember that.' I was very keen not to create another friction relationship, like what the Doctor and Peri had. There's a gentle goading between them, but it's born out of mutual respect rather than any degree of having to put up with each other."

In April, Justin Richard's "Red Dawn" heralds the return of some longtime foes: the reptilian Ice Warriors, in a Fifth Doctor/Peri adventure set on Mars. "We've been trying to create our own feel for Doctor Who in the first few stories before we introduced elements like old monsters so that we were really confident of what we were doing before the monsters came along:' says Haigh-Ellery.

Adds Russell, "I'm well aware of the fact that while we have an Ice Warrior story and loads of Dalek stories and at least two other monsters lined up as well, people keep saying, 'Oh God, it's all old monsters!' It's not, actually. There are four or five old monsters over a long period of time. But I'm aware of the danger. I've set a moratorium on bringing back old villains. I would love one of the writers to come up with a new race of aliens we could use again and again for ourselves: something unique that works because it's the audio medium."

Details beyond this point are subject to change, but May should see the release of "The Genocide Machine," a Seventh Doctor/Ace story and the first installment of the "Dalek Empire," an ongoing storyline featuring Terry Nation's exterminating creations. "The Spectre of Lanyon Moor," a Sixth Doctor and Evelyn story featuring Nicholas Courtney as Bridgadier Lethbridge-Stewart, is scheduled for June, followed by Andrew Cartmel's Fifth Doctor/Nyssa story "Winter for the Adept" in July.

The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn will battle the Daleks in "The Apocalypse Element" in August, while September sees the Seventh Doctor and Mel (Bonnie Langford) arrive in Pompeii before Mount Vesuvius' eruption in "The Fires of Vulcan." "Getting Bonnie is a personal triumph for me," says Russell, "and I'm really looking forward to working with her. I think it's going to be an absolute ball."

Further storylines have been tentatively planned to 2003. Plus, Russell says, they will consider submissions from outside writers. "We're looking at submissions. Accepting is a bit of a strong word. I've no problem with looking at stuff, but there is that rejoinder that as far as I'm concerned at the moment, I have writers and stories sorted out until 2003, so something is going to have to be very, very exceptional. You've probably got a harder job selling an audio to me than you have selling a Who novel to the BBC."

While some American specialist shops and convention dealers carry these audio dramas, the easiest place to find them is on Big Finish's web site,, which has secure online ordering, as well as the latest news and schedule updates.

So for the foreseeable future, Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gary Russell will be sending the Doctor and his various companions into new adventures across time and space. "It's obviously a dream come true for all of us to be working on this," concludes Haigh-Ellery. "We're making it a commercially viable operation as well, thank God, which means the BBC will let us continue with our license to create more Doctor Who."


"Sirens" stars three Doctors: Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Peter Davison. The other surviving Time Lords, Tom Baker and Paul McGann. are interested in joining in on future exploits.

It's a family moment Davison records with is actress daughter Georgia Moffatt in "The Land of the Dead."

Spirited events occur in Alaska when the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa visit "The Land of the Dead."

"Phantasmagoria," the second audio release, dispatches the Fifth Doctor and Turlough to Restoration England.

"The Fearmonger" boasts guest stars Hugh Walters and Jacqueline Pearce, a fan favorite as Servalan in Blake's 7.

On the trail of an unusual monster dubbed "The Fearmonger," Ace (Sophie Aldred) and the Seventh Doctor (McCoy) get involved with right-wing politics.

For creative guru Jason Haigh-Ellery (left), it's a dream come true to devise new stories for the Time Lord and companions like Turlough (Mark Strickson).

This month, a new companion joins the audio saga—history professor Dr. Evelyn Smythe played by Maggie Stables. Alongside the Sixth Doctor, she faces "The Marian Conspiracy."

In an eerie tale of "Whispers of Terror," the Sixth Doctor gets accused of murder.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Hall, John S. (number 273 (April 2000)). Ear Candy. Starlog p. 88.
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