There are days in Doctor Who fandom that live and breathe in your memory forever. The first episode you saw that made you aware you were really and truly a fan (Destiny of the Daleks, Episode 1, 1st September, 1979, since you didn’t ask). The day a new Doctor arrives, and there’s all the buzz of what they’re going to be like.
And for quite some time now, there’s been an extra special buzz when something truly new and momentous comes to Big Finish. When the company finally persuaded Tom Baker to come on board, for instance, and a whole new raft of adventures opened up before us. When David Tennant returned both Big Finish and Doctor Who as the Tenth Doctor.
The release of the first box set of Christopher Eccleston Ninth Doctor stories is on the Tom Baker scale of relevance and excitement, and with the best will in the world towards the Tenth Doctor and the actor who plays him, it’s bigger than the Tennant return.
It’s bigger because Tennant had history with Big Finish, and he was a boyhood fan of Doctor Who, so it always seemed like something he might want to come back to. Christopher Eccleston was never a fan of the show before Russell T Davies, and for many years after he left, assumed his connection with the show was finished. He was quoted as saying he had an immense fondness for the show and the character, but that he preferred to earn his living from acting, rather than for instance, attending conventions. It always seemed unlikely he would return to the role.
A combination of a softening towards conventions, an understanding and an appreciation of the love the fandom has for both the show and for his Doctor, and a year of lockdown may have helped to change his mind on a return, but just as was the case in his initial approach to Russell T Davies about the role, Christopher Eccleston has always been an actor drawn to good writing.
That he signed on for these box sets at Big Finish then is a good sign in itself that you’re in for a treat.
This first box set, Ravagers, is written by Nicholas Briggs, who has stood in vocally for Eccleston in the handful of Big Finish stories in which the Ninth Doctor has appeared so far, and as with Davies, Eccleston says that Briggs’ writing is a major part of what got him to re-join the universe of Doctor Who.
So, what’s it all about?
As you might expect given the name, the ‘Big Bad’ here is a race of creatures who eat absolutely everything they come into contact with – people, buildings, planets, suns. Seemingly implacable, unstoppable and hungry, the Ravagers are a threat that’s held in suspense for much of the box set, following the Shakespearean principle of being magnified by report in their absence (or telling, rather than showing).
Meanwhile, in the first episode, Sphere of Freedom, the Ninth Doctor is picking up a chef who’s working under indenture (slavery without the word) at an enormous immersive video game empire, and setting about the task of pulling that empire to the ground.
Not a fan of immersive gaming, then, this Doctor? Quite the contrary – he goes out of his way to explain that he has nothing against gamers and gaming, but he has reason to believe this particular gaming empire is responsible for some real temporal eddies that are displacing people from all over time and space, scooping them up and dumping them somewhere else. Roman legionaries in Trafalgar Square during the war, that sort of thing – complete with the ensuing bloodbath.
The Doctor knows these time eddies are more of a threat than just a bunch of displaced people, though – they’re a potential threat to the whole of the vortex, the whole of reality. And so, with the audio adventure equivalent of an outstretched hand and a “D’you wanna come with me?”, the Ninth Doctor is back, Chef Nova (Camille Beeput) at his side, trying to stop misguided gaming CEO Audrey (Jayne McKenna) from ripping the fabric of space-time to shreds, seemingly just for short-term profit. Very Ninth Doctor, very “Run for your life,” and altogether a thing of pure joy.
It’s been sixteen years since the Ninth Doctor was on screen, and two things are evident immediately about his return. The first is that if the memory doesn’t exactly cheat, we do get used to our general perceptions of a Doctor, and set them in stone in a kind of shorthand. Patrick Troughton’s ‘cosmic hobo,’ Jon Pertwee’s ‘establishment dandy,’ and so on.
For the Ninth Doctor, we seem to have memories of him being more taciturn, more mournful and filled with survivor-guilt than for the most part he really was. Eccleston on screen was far more animated, far more willing to be silly and funny, and to give his Doctor a bounce of energy, than our memories allow him.
And the second thing is that were he to have been as grim as our memories sometimes paint him, it wouldn’t work long term on audio. He’d have to be shifted towards more speech, more full-on conversations, because of the nature of the medium. You can do a lot with a look on TV. It means more or less nothing on audio.
But as we say, the Ninth Doctor was always a glorious mixture of silliness and fun and a steel-spined understanding of the universe. He was always both things, and a million more besides, and in this first box set, Christopher Eccleston gets a chance to show a lot more of that Doctor to us – the Doctor who will take a stand and then do whatever is necessary to achieve his goal, so long as it doesn’t cross his personal moral threshold.
Why are we mentioning this?
Simply because the Ninth Doctor here is more garrulous, more talkative than people remember him being. But he hasn’t been carbon copied from the naturally chattier Tenth Doctor at all. Partly, any potential disconnect is due to a shading out of these elements of his personality when we think back to him, and partly, he needs to talk more in audio to carry the day anyway.
And frankly, it’s gorgeous. This more universally bouncy Ninth Doctor, in the days when he believed the Daleks were finally gone from the universe, is mischievous, persuasive and always looking to have his breath taken by the people and things he encounters, quite as much as he is a moral guardian of the universe and a sticker-up for the little people against the bullies of the universe.
In Sphere Of Freedom, there’s a good deal of set-up, as we learn of Audrey’s empire, the temporally displaced people and what they have to do with Audrey’s empire (there is a fairly explicit link), the nature of the Sphere as a basic indenture world – think zero hour contracts, minimum wages and company ‘perks’ that do nothing to keep body and soul together – and why all this should require the creation of temporal eddies that imperil the cosmos.
Eccleston, coming back to the Ninth Doctor, is a tour de force – but you knew that already. We also need to pay huge respect to Camilla Beeput, who as Chef Nova gets the companion energy note perfect immediately, while also subtly hinting that there’s more to her than meets the ear. Jayne McKenna as Audrey spends much of the episode in shadow, but gives us just enough towards the end to pull us headlong into Episode 2, Cataclysm.
This is where the story of Ravagers goes properly Nick Briggs tonto. Nova gets separated from the Doctor and meets an army of drones who want to turn her into fuel, while we begin to suspect that things might not be all we thought they were.
Is the Doctor in an immersive video game himself, his dreams of being the universe-saving hero playing out around him like memories of a life long gone? Or are he and Nova really experiencing this timeline in slightly the wrong order? It seems they might be as they turn up to stop Audrey too late, only to be told they’ve just left, and they failed in any case.
This is a much more reflective episode in some ways, but the pace remains relentless – and actually, somewhat breathless. You may need a pin board and a load of Post-It notes to keep track of the careering path of this story, especially as in Cataclysm we see the Doctor seeming to ‘haunt’ Audrey at various points in her earlier life, an idea that, pleasingly, has been used before at Big Finish, with the Seventh Doctor ‘haunting’ the life of complex character Elizabeth Klein. The idea gets a neat re-use here, and it feels true to his character that the Doctor will still essentially ‘stalk’ people if he feels they need watching to stay on his version of a positive pathway.
There’s a solid MacGuffin responsible for a lot of what happens in this first box set – a Time Lord MacGuffin, nevertheless. And there’s some degree of story involved in tracking it through Audrey’s life as she discovers the Ravagers and the impossible threat they pose, and then begins to build her defences against them, creating time eddies and displacing people in direct response to what she sees as an imminent threat.
Cataclysm, while rarely pausing for breath, feels like both a more active story than Sphere Of Freedom and a more reflective one as the ‘Ghost Doctor’ haunts Audrey’s younger life through her disappointments, her rise, her last ditch creation of a solution to the Ravagers problem – even though it may eventually destroy the universe.
Episode 3, Food Fight, is all revelation and resolution, but that’s not to say it’s at any point easy. The true scale of the storytelling arc is revealed in this episode, and it’s much bigger and grander and more impressive than you may have cottoned onto before you get there, because you’re more or less constantly running to escape from things throughout the first two episodes.
There’s a lot more calmness and talking in episode 3, because the big threat that is the Ravagers is not only revealed, but eventually understood. There are changes that need making if the universe is to be saved from both the Ravagers and from Audrey’s suicidal plan to keep them at bay.
When the Ravagers are finally released, it works with the same sort of dramatic impact as, for instance, a swarm of 21st century Daleks flying out of the sun to come and kill us all – you’ll bite at least a nail or two when it happens – and the solution the Doctor improvises to their phenomenal hunger depends on a last-minute paradigm-shift in what we’re dealing with.
And when it happens, you’ll punch the air, because it’s so very Ninth Doctor you could squeal – compassionate, caring, revolutionary and universe-saving all in one. It’s a moment of glory that the return of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor deserves, and you’ll go around with a stupid, blissed-out grin on your face for the rest of the day once you hear it.
The return of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is sublime. Breathless sometimes, head-scratchingly (ahem) timey-wimey at others, but with everything from immersive games, omnivores screaming across space to devour the universe, Dan Starkey giving us Latin lessons as a Roman soldier, a full-on Ocean’s 11 style heist-cum-revolution, a bunch of reprogrammable drones and the adventures of an immensely enjoyable indentured chef, it has more than you could possibly have dreamed of asking for.
But mostly of course, it has Christopher Eccleston, getting the chance we’d always hoped for, to add new words to his pre-Rose Tyler Doctor, to have new adventures and be the Doctor again, with all the energy and verve and interstellar brilliance that made Doctor Who a world-beater again in 2005.
That’s not just brilliant. That’s ffffffflippin’ marvelous. Tony Fyler