Here we are again. Another Doctor Who series has concluded, fans are furiously debating each other about deep questions of canon…business as usual. But I think we're all agreed that we already miss the Doctor, whether we're satisfied with her most recent adventures or not.
The question is, what on Earth, or multiversal variations thereupon, or other planets entirely, do we do now? How will we manage without Doctor Who in our lives?
We don't have to, silly. We are Whovians. Time is not the boss of us.
If you are a Doctor Who fan who hasn't yet taken advantage of the wealth of audio stories the fandom has to offer, you're seriously missing out. Doctor Who has possibly the best “expanded universe” of non-TV or film content of any big sci-fi/fantasy franchise in existence, thanks to the tireless and skillful efforts of Big Finish Productions. This company was responsible for keeping Doctor Who alive during the “wilderness years” between the cancellation of the classic series and the premiere of the new, and now, they continue to breathe new life into past eras of the show with one brilliant release after another. The best thing about Big Finish is that they have great respect for both the wishes of Doctor Who fans and the quality of their craft, and they've struck a perfect balance between meeting fan expectations and telling truly great stories.
However, the most common response I get from people when I tell them about these audios is, “I don't know where to start.” I understand. There are a gazillion of these dramas, after all. That's why I've whipped up this handy guide to the best “access points” in the Big Finish canon for casual Whovians.
A couple of notes before we start. First, I'm not going to divulge any spoilers, either for the audios or recent episodes of Doctor Who. Second, the point of this guide is to give you the best places to start with Big Finish Doctor Who, not necessarily to list the “Top Ten Doctor Who Audio Dramas”. My point is, if you're a long-time Big Finish fan and don't see your favorite audio on this list, it's not necessarily because I don't love it too. Chances are, I didn't include it because I didn't think it was the best jumping-on point for new listeners. (To that end, you'll find that most of the audios in this guide are either new-series based or a blend of classic and new-series elements.) That said, if you feel that I've missed a particularly good place to start, feel free to mention it in the comments. Down the line, I will probably do more in-depth posts about the best audios featuring certain Doctors, characters, etc. I will also briefly mention a couple of my personal favorite titles in each series I have listed here.
Also, a word about the elephant in the room: price. Collecting Doctor Who audio dramas is not a cheap hobby, and because these audios are full-cast, they're not always going to be quite as affordable as Audible titles. However, Big Finish does frequently run sales, so the best strategy is to sign up for their email list on their website (scroll down to find the form on their homepage) and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Their pre-orders and recent releases are always discounted, so you save a lot of money if you keep up with them as they release stuff.
Plus, we're going to start out by talking about Big Finish titles you can listen to for free on Spotify.
There are lots of Doctor Who audios on Spotify. I believe this playlist contains all the ones currently available. Most are from a while back, and no new-series elements are featured, but they're all still very good. You can pretty much start where you like, depending on which Doctors or characters you prefer.
My Favorites: Blood of the Daleks, a two-parter featuring the introduction of Eighth Doctor companion Lucie Miller and a villainous performance by the legendary Hayley Atwell herself. Also Master, a dark and fascinating story pitting the Seventh Doctor against Geoffrey Beevers' incarnation of the Master. This story provides what I consider to be a very satisfying explanation of how the conflict between the Doctor and the Master first began.
At $3 (USD) apiece, these brilliant little stories are bargains. They're not full-cast, but the narrators are all so talented that you quickly forget that as you begin to listen. At the moment, there are stories featuring every Doctor except the Thirteenth in this range. None require a great deal of familiarity with established continuity, so you can pick and choose whatever appeals to you.
My Favorites: Too many to list, but I'm particularly fond of How to Win Planets and Influence People, a hilarious Fourth Doctor story told by Time Lord villain The Meddling Monk (played by Rufus Hound); All Hands on Deck, the emotional story of how the Doctor's granddaughter Susan joined the Time War (narrated by Carole Ann Ford); and Dead Media, a Twelfth Doctor story brilliantly performed by Jacob Dudman.
I'm listing these near the top because…well, let's face it; the Tenth Doctor is really, really popular. And for good reason. One of Big Finish's greatest triumphs was to reunite David Tennant with companions and characters from his tenure on Doctor Who to create brand-new, full-cast audio adventures. Volume 1 brings back the dynamic duo of Ten and Donna, Volume 2 features Ten and Rose, and Volume 3 has Ten and Donna again. There are three stories in each volume, each of which is available to purchase separately in addition to the volume box sets.. New releases in this range don't happen very often, due to David Tennant and his fellow stars being busy people, but a Donna Noble spinoff series with Catherine Tate (and a brief cameo by David Tennant as the Doctor) just dropped today. I haven't heard it yet, but I'm expecting magnificent things.
There are certain Who actors Big Finish has not been able to secure for audio dramas…yet. And even the ones who are available from time to time, like David Tennant, don't have free slots in their schedules very often. So, in the absence of him, Christopher Eccleston, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi, Big Finish has crafted stories which mix narration with full-cast elements to give us more adventures from new-series Doctors. The Ninth Doctor Chronicles are narrated/performed by Nicholas Briggs (who famously voices the Daleks as well as other characters and monsters), and the other releases so far are led by Jacob Dudman, a very talented young impressionist who rose to fame with YouTube performances as the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors. Dudman has done Chronicles for the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors. I haven't heard the Twelfth Doctor Chronicles yet (they were just released), but I know he's excellent as Twelve from his narration of the Short Trip story Dead Media, so I'm excited to listen to this box set.
My Favorites: Actually, I'm not going to pick favorites here, since I haven't heard the entire range yet, but there really aren't any that I haven't enjoyed.
This Whomongous, six-part epic unites characters from across the whole of Doctor Who canon. It contains lots of Easter eggs for long-time listeners, but if you're not very familiar with the audio continuity, this one is still very enjoyable and accessible.
My Favorites: Well, the whole thing, obviously.
In my opinion, this Eighth Doctor series and its follow-ups are the best remedy for anyone who's frustrated with the lengthy gaps between seasons of the show on TV. Plus, if you enjoyed the Eighth Doctor's return to the screen in the minisode “The Night of the Doctor”, you'll love this range. I have frequently wished that the TV series could be more like this series. It's very much modern-day Doctor Who, with action-packed stories similar to what we're accustomed to on TV, but it also updates classic-era elements in brilliant ways. Pre-Time-War Gallifrey, for example, plays a very significant role, and there are plenty of fun surprises for fans who enjoy Time Lord lore. There's a perfect mixture of established canon and fresh new storylines in these adventures. Plus, certain characters from the Doctor's future make appearances, including River Song herself. (River Song and Eight are second-only to River and Twelve as a duo, in my opinion.) The companions, Liv Chenka (played by Nicola Walker) and Helen Sinclair (Hattie Morahan), make for one of the best TARDIS teams in Who history. The standout character by far, however, is the Eleven, a Time Lord villain who retains his past incarnations as alternate personalities within his mind. Mark Bonnar delivers an incredible performance as this truly intimidating foe of the Doctor. Doom Coalition leads into Ravenous, another great storyline with some startling twists in the finale, and then Stranded, a new series coming later this year.
My Favorites: You need to listen to the episodes in order, obviously, but my favorite installments from Doom Coalition are The Red Lady, Songs of Love, and The Side of the Angels. And…well, all of Doom Coalition 3, because it's basically all about River zapping to and fro and breaking every single rule of time travel in existence to flirt with the Eighth Doctor.
We're up to seven sets of four stories each in this series so far, and it's still going strong. Alex Kingston does an amazing job leading a solo series, showing us aspects of River's persona that the TV series never had the time or space to explore. While many of the stories revolve around River meeting classic Doctors (don't worry, it doesn't break continuity) or encountering friends and foes from her husband's past (and future), there are also a number of episodes that don't feature any established canon elements, and which work perfectly well without them. As such, this series is well worth following not just for the fun of River criss-crossing the Doctor's timeline, but for the opportunity to see (or rather, hear) River finally get a chance to be a main character in her own right.
My Favorites: Series 5, which pits River against four different versions of the Master (including Missy); Series 3, which brings back Frances Barber's Madame Kovarian for a much needed epilogue to the Silence arc; and Series 2, which teams River up with the Sixth and Seventh Doctors…at the same time. These box sets can be enjoyed in any order. No word on a Series 8 yet, but I'll be very surprised if that doesn't happen soon.
Featuring Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) from the Eleventh Doctor years, plus an excellent supporting cast of new characters, the UNIT series does a fantastic job of telling enthralling Doctor Who stories in which the Doctor never actually shows up. Classic Who characters and monsters do appear from time to time, but even the stories which revolve entirely around new threats are usually amazing. This series feels on par with the best present-day-Earth episodes of the TV show, and is well worth a listen. Note that these stories are set before the Twelfth Doctor era, so the events of Dark Water/Death in Heaven haven't happened yet.
My Favorites: Silenced (in which UNIT cleans up a certain mess the Eleventh Doctor left behind), Assembled (in which present-day UNIT teams up with characters from the Third Doctor era), and Cyber-Reality (in which UNIT has to team up with Derek Jacobi's incarnation of the Master to fight interdimensional Cybermen). These box sets can be enjoyed in any order.
I don't think Lady Christina de Souza is very high on many Whovians' “favorite companion” lists…but darned if Big Finish didn't deliver something wonderful with this release. (They tend to do great things with overlooked or less-popular characters.) There's only been one volume in this series so far, but I very much hope there will be more. Michelle Ryan clearly has a great time revisiting the character of Lady Christina, and the premise of a jewel thief having earthbound adventures in the world of Doctor Who works surprisingly well.
My Favorites: The whole thing.
Another series which really needs more than one box set. People have been wanting more of Georgia Tennant as Jenny ever since her single appearance on Doctor Who in 2008, and these adventures do not disappoint. Tennant goes far beyond her characterization in “The Doctor's Daughter” TV episode to deliver a performance worthy of a full-fledged female Doctor. The stories are a great mix of light-hearted adventure and high stakes, with an intriguing overall arc that has yet to be explored in detail. Also, there's a quick cameo at the end of the final episode which you definitely don't want to miss.
My Favorites: The whole thing.
Really, all of the many Time-War-based stories Big Finish has released in recent years are excellent, but the War Master series remains the best, in my opinion. The basic idea of the Master having a series all to himself is exciting, and the Time War element makes these stories even more epic. Derek Jacobi returns as the version of the Master we met briefly in the episode “Utopia”, and delves into all the nuances of this “Hannibal Lecter” version of the evil Time Lord with gusto. The Master has a plan to end the war single-handedly, but how many people are going to get horribly murdered along the way? (Lots. The answer is lots of people.)
My Favorites: The whole series is great, but Volume 4: Anti-Genesis, and Volume 2: The Master of Callous are my top picks. By the way, I recommend you listen to them in this order: 2, 3, 4, then 1. You'll understand once you do. The timeline for these is a little wobbly, for reasons which I can't get into because of spoilers. The series is technically concluded, but the War Master has made a number of appearances elsewhere in Big Finish audios, and I expect he will continue to do so. He will be featured alongside Michelle Gomez and John Simm, as well as several other Masters, in a special release entitled Masterful next January.
This may be my favorite of all the Big Finish Doctor Who releases, at the moment. Missy's solo series is everything that fans of the character want it to be, and more. It's got everything–Missy wavering between anti-hero and outright villain, copious amounts of wit and fun, brilliant stories that shatter the fourth wall with impunity, and an intriguing story arc that promises exciting twists in the future. If you like the Michelle Gomez version of the Master, you really owe it to yourself to listen to the four amazing episodes of Missy Series 1.
Favorites: All the stories are equally excellent, in different ways. The series is continuing with Volume 2 this July, and Missy has also made appearances elsewhere in Big Finish audios, including an incredible multi-Master story at the end of the Eighth Doctor Ravenous series. (But you should really listen to Doom Coalition before you hear that one.)
And now you have a whole bunch of options for where to start with Doctor Who on audio. You're welcome. Which one looks most appealing to you? And if you're a Big Finish fan already, do you agree with my choices? Have I missed anything? (Spoiler alert: I probably have. Yell at me in the comments.)