Twenty years of Doctor Who at Big Finish, eh? Who would have believed it? Big Finish have been running just six years shy of how long the classic series itself did. When The Sirens of Time came out, it had been nearly ten years since the classic series had come to an end, and that already felt like an eternity.
If you’re hoping for deep formal innovation, The Legacy of Time is not the place for it. It might look fancy, but it’s like a number of other Big Finish box sets — a loose linking thread unites a series of largely standalone stories that all come together in the end. The intent, then, seems to largely be to celebrate what Big Finish have done by bringing back a number of characters and concepts they have made particular use of, and also throwing in some crossovers that they haven’t done before.
Thus we get a collision of space archaeologists as River Song finally meets Bernice Summerfield, a tale uniting Big Finish’s two different versions of Counter-Measures, a story that plunges Kate Stewart back into the time of the Third Doctor and classic UNIT, a meeting between Doctor and daughter that works on two levels as the Fifth Doctor meets Jenny, the return of fan-favourite DI Menzies (this fan’s favourite, anyway), and a return to Gallifrey with Leela and Romana. It’s an odd mix of the been-done (one of Big Finish’s other celebratory box sets ended with Leela and Romana intervening from Gallifrey) and the tantalisingly promising.
As a whole it’s an odd release because many of the parts are odd. It’s very conservative in parts, telling the exact same kind of stories you expect Big Finish to tell (it bears some similarity to their own The Four Doctors, for example). Compare it to The Day of the Doctor, which found an entirely new kind of multi-Doctor story to tell for the fiftieth anniversary. Or even to Zagreus, which was terrible, but was definitely trying to innovate. On the other hand, it strangely doesn’t always feel celebratory enough — you don’t get that unabashed nostalgic glee that you get from watching, say, The Five Doctors.
Anyway, I’ll tackle the parts from least effective to most (except I’ll save the last one for last). Relative Time, by Matt Fitton, has the Fifth Doctor bumping into the Tenth Doctor’s daughter Jenny on a crashing time cruise liner that’s also in the process of being robbed by the Nine. It’s kind of your typical Matt Fitton box set script: loud but ultimately hollow. Yes, Jenny is played by Georgia Tennant, the real life daughter of Peter Davison, but there doesn’t seem to be much to the story on the level of the story. Is Jenny after the Doctor’s approval? Does she feel abandoned? It seems like there’s room for character work here that the story doesn’t actually explore. I enjoyed the Nine in Doom Coalition and he was okay in Ravenous, but I feel a bit oversaturated with incarnations of this Time Lord by this point. Plus he gains a sidekick in this story in a turn of events that seemed improbable and rushed. And maybe someone should have told Mandi Symons to back off a little — she seems to be channelling Queen Katryca from Trial of a Time Lord to play a cruise liner captain!
Lies in Ruins feels like the first draft of a story that could have used a second. The Eighth Doctor summons an archaeologist to assist him, but ends up with two, as Bernice Summerfield and River Song both come to his aid during the Time War. Only, he doesn’t seem to like either woman very much, and is accompanied by a truly insipid companion, Ria (a tip of the hat, I believe, to the fan audios Nick Briggs wrote in his pre-BF days). It pushes the Eighth Doctor to some interesting places, and Paul McGann rises to the occasion, but the story doesn’t entirely convince when it begins resolving its mysteries. One idea, in particular, has been done better elsewhere, and the characters sometimes feel more like caricatures.
I enjoy a bit of Counter-Measures, but John Dorney’s The Split Infinitive feels like a missed opportunity. While Ace hangs out with the OG Counter-Measures team in the 1960s, the Seventh Doctor is simultaneously on a mission with their New Counter-Measures counterparts in the 1970s; the 1970s team remember stuff only as it happens to the 1960s one. It’s a typically clever John Dorney idea… but he atypically doesn’t actually do anything clever with it. There’s no point where it feels like the unspooling memories really affect the way the story progresses. Plus, it really shines a light on how unchanged the 1970s team is from the 1960s one — the characters don’t really do much different. But it’s always fun to hear from the team. Ian in particular gets some awesome stuff to do, and Dorney drops in a past threat that is both fun to hear from and appropriate for an anniversary release. Enjoyable, but seems like it could have been more.
The Avenues of Possibility is in a sense the least ambitious story here. No crossovers between characters from different spin-off ranges, just a solid adventure from Jonathan Morris for the Sixth Doctor, Charlotte Pollard, and DI Patricia Menzies. DI Menzies, played by Anna Hope, is much loved here at Unreality SF for her laconic sarcasm and down-to-earth investigations of all things extraterrestrial and paranormal. Her last appearance for Big Finish was back in 2011’s The Crimes of Thomas Brewster, so it might not be a crossover, but it is nice to hear someone who we haven’t heard from in a long time. I didn’t find Menzies quite as fun as in her earlier appearances, but it was much appreciated. Morris’s script is fun, uniting the Doctor, Charley, and Menzies with author Henry Fielding and his brother as portals begin appearing across London. Morris is always good at taking a basic situation and escalating it to get bigger and bigger and this story is no exception. The whole thing culminates in a great scene where the Sixth Doctor and Charley get to have a conversation there never was any space for during her original run. I have some quibbles (the “romance” made me roll my eyes), but overall I enjoyed this, and I hope it’s not the last we hear of Menzies at Big Finish.
The one story here that seems to be trying to push the boundaries and do something interesting with the anniversary premise is The Sacrifice of Jo Grant. Guy Adams’s script is a crossover between new UNIT and old: portals open up all over time (seemingly the same portals as in Avenues, but the two stories’ portals follow completely different rules) and Kate Stewart and Jo Grant end up travelling from the 2010s to the classic UNIT era, where Jo is reunited with her Doctor, as played by Tim Treloar. I’m not terribly into soundalike recasting, but this is a surprisingly effective and emotional tale, as Jo and the Doctor get to say some things they never said to each other back in the day. Katy Manning always gives her all for Big Finish, but this story shows how great she really is, and for the first time, I see the point in casting someone as the Third Doctor of old. The end gets a bit techno-twaddle, and Osgood’s role is so perfunctory I’m not sure why Big Finish bothered to put her in, but otherwise I enjoyed it a lot.
The final story, also by Guy Adams, is Collision Course. On Gallifrey, Leela and Romana are monitoring the universe’s collapse, and they both remember a trip to the same planet with the Fourth Doctor. The first half of the story is a decently spooky Fourth Doctor adventure, its highlight definitely being a bit where Leela thinks the Doctor has died. Louise Jameson is a great actress, and anything that lets her do something with Leela that she hasn’t done before is a good thing. I found myself touched even though you know it’s all going to turn out all right in the end.
The other half of Collision Course is the story that brings all the Doctors together to save the universe. I found this disappointing. If you’ve heard other Big Finish celebrations, you’ll know the beats of this one. They banter a bit, and then they save the day. It’s just that each time Big Finish do this, they have one more Doctor they didn’t have before; the main difference between this and The Light at the End is that Tim Treloar is a “main” Doctor now, instead of being relegated to one side. (But though Treloar works on his own, as in Light at the End, putting him next to the “real” Doctors makes it too obvious he’s not one.) There’s a lot of tedious Time Lord stuff, which I think is meant to add weight to the proceedings, but I’m tired of Doctor Who stories always being about them; we’re rapidly reaching diminishing returns on bits of their history to mine.
The big problem is that it’s meant to be a celebration of Doctor Who and thus the Doctor, but nothing in the climax of Collision Course really gets at what makes the series or the character so special. Literally any Time Lord character could have done what the Doctor does at the climax. Compare The Day of the Doctor. That story brought together three Doctors for some comedic bickering but (in addition to the fact that Steven Moffat is just a massively better comic writer than anyone who has ever worked for Big Finish) the story also said something about who the Doctor was and what he stands for. Even Zagreus did this. Yes, Big Finish’s fortieth-anniversary release is much derided, including by me, but it still has an excellent scene where all four Doctors come together and make a statement about what it means to be the Doctor. (“You gave in. You gave up! No matter what happens, no matter the odds, we never ever ever give up!”)
You might object that anniversary releases aren’t obligated to do something like this: The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors don’t. But those stories both gave us something we couldn’t get elsewhere: the nostalgia of a whole passel of long-retired Doctors and companions. Legacy of Time can’t do that, because for the most part it features adventures of characters we hear from regularly already. If I want to hear Tim Treloar, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, or Paul McGann on audio, every single one of them has multiple audio adventures out from Big Finish in 2019. If I want to hear more from River Song, Bernice Summerfield, Counter-Measures, UNIT, Jenny, Charley Pollard, or Leela and Romana, every one of them stars in their own ongoing series from Big Finish! Literally the only nostalgic callback appearance here is DI Menzies! Am I saying what would have made this set feel really special was appearances from Coordinator Vansell, Frobisher, Nimrod, the Don Warrington Rassilon, Lord Grayvorn, C’rizz and the Kro’ka, and Josh and Nat from Sarah Jane Smith? I guess so.
Not really. (Although I would be into that.) But what I am saying is that by my count, Legacy of Time is the seventeenth Doctor Who or “from the worlds of Doctor Who” box set released by Big Finish this year. At its price, it needs to feel more special than it is, and to give me something I can’t get from Doctor Who month in, month out from Big Finish. A fancy box isn’t enough. At its best, Big Finish has pushed Doctor Who forward, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to this.
The Legacy of Time (by James Goss, John Dorney, Guy Adams, Matt Fitton, Jonathan Morris; starring Lisa Bowerman, Paul McGann, Alex Kingston, Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Simon Williams, Pamela Salem, Karen Gledhill, Hugh Ross, Katy Manning, Tim Treloar, Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver, Peter Davison, Georgia Tennant, Colin Baker, India Fisher, Louise Jameson, Lalla Ward, Tom Baker) was released by Big Finish Productions in July 2019.