Hello and welcome to the Big Who Listen! We’re here to listen to and talk about the Doctor Who audio dramas produced by Big Finish, and have some fun along the way.
We’re starting off, naturally, at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start) with The Sirens of Time by Nicholas Briggs, release no. 1, all the way back to July 1999.
Each of our eight reviewers have listened to the full story and their thoughts are presented here in a random order. Want to know a little more about them? Click the “Meet The Team” button above to see their bios.
In our next post we’ll be bringing the whole gang together for an informal discussion about the story, but let’s start with the official synopsis for The Sirens of Time courtesy of the Big Finish website…
Gallifrey is in a state of crisis, facing destruction at the hands of an overwhelming enemy. And the Doctor is involved in three different incarnations – each caught up in a deadly adventure, scattered across time and space. The web of time is threatened – and someone wants the Doctor dead.
The three incarnations of the Doctor must join together to set time back on the right track – but in doing so, will they unleash a still greater threat?
So, we have Big Finish’s first ever release, from 1999. It brings together the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors (plus the Fourth Doctor’s theme tune, for some reason), for the first time in 10 years, to fight the eponymous Sirens of Time. And it’s not very good. It’s not terrible, but it fails to stand out to me very much.
To summarise briefly, we spend 25 minutes with each Doctor, watching them get involved in a little situation, only for them all to be brought together at the end, with a framing device of Gallifrey being conquered by aliens that are more of a plot device than anything else. While this works in theory, to keep the story moving along at a brisk pace, it also backfires. The individual parts themselves suffer from being entirely contained to their one part, which means, once they’re over, they basically stop mattering, except for a little resolution to make them seem like they mattered. What’s worse is that the smaller stories, to me at least, are the interesting parts. Hyper-advanced aliens conquering Gallifrey, apart from feeling like a call-back to The Invasion of Time (which, given all the other intentional callbacks to previous Gallifrey stories, might be on purpose), also feels like an attempt to make the story seem bigger than it needs to be. We’re supposed to think its big and dramatic, when in fact, the story could take place nearly anywhere. Maybe I’m burnt out on the idea after seeing it done terribly in other fan-based media, but it makes me roll my eyes.
My main interest goes to the individual stories, which aren’t given enough time to shine. McCoy’s section is probably the worst, with a lot of pointless cackling, and repetitive insults that made it hard to sit through, but there’s a good idea at the core which is mainly brushed under the rug. Davison’s is the best, with an interesting atmosphere and secondary cast, even if they have to come up with a quick excuse about Tegan and Turlough being stuck in the TARDIS. I’m sure that’s the last time we’ll see any weird continuity wrangling in these audios. The set-up was so good, I almost wanted to see it in an actual adventure, not just as backdrop to another, “bigger” story, which feels like its very much cut short. Baker’s is where the overarching plot starts to intrude, and his side characters aren’t quite as likeable, but his charm is enough to make you want to know what’s going on, even if where it ends up isn’t quite as good. The resolution, featuring all three Doctors coming together, complete with 70’s “Contact!”, feels like it’s meant to be a twist, but maybe I’m just too good at guessing, as it didn’t really surprise me. In any case, the finale (and speech from Six) feels more like a kickstarter for future character arcs – almost like Big Finish’s way of announcing where its going with the characters, which I can respect.
Overall, while I think the plot might have been novel when first released, after more than a decade of New Who, and its time bending shenanigans, it doesn’t come off as well. The Doctors are certainly played well, and I want to see them in other adventures, where they can shine individually, but as a whole, it’s a bit of a let down that tries to be too timey wimey, and misses the ball.
Favourite Quote – “I’d trust you to fly me stark naked through a cheese grater.”
So my Big Finish journey begins with a multi-Doctor story! Having watched all five such televised stories, and having thought hard while procrastinating for weeks before listening, I felt I knew exactly how this was going to go. There would be banter centring around a comic relief caricature of a past Doctor but eventually the “main” Doctor would get the other two to work as a team to face the biggest of big threats that he can’t sort out on his own. It would be my chance to witness the palette of vulnerable Five, brash Six and sly Seven blend together to form something unique and unrepeatable. All I needed was a straightforward plot so that I could spend the whole two hours savouring that chemistry which would clearly be the major selling point.
In fact, first Seven, then Five, then Six have separate but closely analogous adventures, each an episode long and each ending on an apparently unresolved cliffhanger. Each time, the TARDIS experiences a time distortion and lands, the Doctor saves a young woman, they get into trouble and he tries to get back to the TARDIS and can’t. There is a Gallifrey-based frame story that impacts on each of these escapades.
McCoy’s adventure takes place in a nebulous setting, similar to Karn with its crashing spaceships, but unlike Karn, it has a pointless pantomime witch whose irritating voice is painful to listen to and often indecipherable, security robots with the same problem, and an old man she is guarding for a reason that is revealed in the end without making you care first. Davison’s adventure, by far my favourite and seasoned with sumptuous atmospheric music, takes place in and around a German U-boat. You sense his exasperation as he seems genuinely hurt that people distrust and wish to kill him when all wants to do is to get back to his TARDIS. This, of course, follows on in recording order from his superlative Androzani swansong. Finally, Baker is also not Mr Popular with the locals either, as he and his companion become two survivors of a spaceship crash, but he’s loving it, as suits his personality, when the third and final survivor, a hostile android, interrogates him.
It’s only at the start of episode 4 that the three of them finally get together. There’s no time for the traditional banter though as the crisis has become urgent at that point. It is the extrovert Sixth Doctor who becomes the main “boss” Doctor but choice words about their respective personalities play a crucial role in saving the day. Only in episode 4 do we discover what the Sirens of Time are, while we also process the Temperon, the Knights of Velyshaa, and various backward references that justify the previous three episodes, and yes (did you see my cunning setup in paragraph one?) the tangled complexity completely ruins everything that I had hoped to get from the entire story.
Having finally obtained the license to produce Doctor Who audio dramas in 1999 (after first dipping their toe into the Whoniverse with a set of Bernice Summerfield book adaptations), Big Finish aimed to make a splash with their first official Doctor Who release, and a multi-Doctor story seemed a great way to grab the fans’ attention and show off the three Doctors that they can bring to the table. But can The Sirens of Time live up to the expectations that such an event creates?
In the first three episodes, each Doctor tackles their own separate adventure, which is sure to disappoint those expecting a full-length multi-Doctor story. This does, however, allow Big Finish to show how subsequent releases set in the past or future might sound, sort of like a Doctor Who demo reel. These short, rather minor plotlines certainly feel more like vignettes than complete tales – but saying that, they are quite entertaining vignettes and construct new characters and settings very efficiently. The second episode, set aboard a submarine, is a particularly good demonstration of how well sound effects and music can bring a location to life.
Each of the Doctors is well presented, with Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy rather effortlessly recreating their TV roles, while there seems to have been a rather deliberate effort to “rehabilitate” Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor, whose sharp, prickly nature is softened at the edges for a warmer, far more likeable presence than was seen on 80s television sets. Indeed, if any Doctor can be said to be the hero of the piece, it’s this one, which is a nice gesture for a Doctor whose era is often maligned, fairly or unfairly.
Unfortunately, the decision to make the first three episodes more or less completely separate from each other means that the final episode must work overtime to weave the disparate threads together, while also pressing onwards with its own invasion plotline, which seems like too much weight for one episode to sensibly bear. As such, it becomes a very talky finale, with endless scenes of characters explaining the story to each other, and a disappointing conclusion where the Doctors do very little in a story that is ostensibly all about them!
In the end, The Sirens of Time is a story that feels hamstrung by its own format, but it does demonstrate in its first three episodes that Doctor Who suits the audio medium very well. I certainly don’t dislike this opening tale – while rather inconsequential I do find it consistently entertaining – but I don’t think its unfair to expect more from a multi-Doctor story, or from a story meant to kickstart an entire range of adventures.
If you’re going to launch a new franchise of Doctor Who audio stories, why wouldn’t you start off with a multi-Doctor adventure? The narrative structure of The Sirens of Time is rather ambitious for Big Finish’s first story, with three separate mini-adventures that intertwine during the fourth. However, the result is somewhat convoluted and heavily dependent on technobabble, and I would have preferred it if each narrative thread had been developed further into deeper stories.
Nevertheless, each Doctor receives their turn in the spotlight and being able to hear all three interacting with each other is what makes the finale a delight. Davison, Baker and McCoy deliver great performances which allow them to communicate their own interpretations of their respective incarnations. The biggest success by far is Colin Baker who, now free from the shackles of his abrasive 80s characterisation, is finally able to shine with a gentler and far more amiable Doctor, albeit one who still has an underlying streak of pompousness and pragmatism.
There is a considerable amount of audio design which went into this story, from the sounds of spaceships crashing and battleships exploding, to the robotic voices of the Drudgers and the Knights. The retro-inspired incidental music helps to create a mysterious atmosphere and there’s a certain member of the supporting cast who proves themselves to be particularly versatile. Unfortunately, while the voices of the Lord President of Gallifrey and Commander Vansell are decent enough, the same cannot be said for either the ludicrously cartoonish Ruthley, who resembles a joke character from Monty Python instead of a plausible villain, nor the dodgy German accents throughout the second episode.
Overall, this was a promising introduction to the Big Finish range which left me looking forward to hearing more thoroughly-developed stories in this format – especially those featuring the Sixth Doctor.
‘It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure’. In some ways, this quote from the First Doctor is reflective of how far Doctor Who had come by 1999, encompassing eight Doctors, 26 series and 1 TV movie, and now moving back into the world of audios after an original foray in the 70s. In other ways, it also refers to our endeavour to listen and discuss every story in the Doctor Who audio range from Big Finish from this point. To stretch the analogy to breaking point, let’s begin our own mild curiosity at the beginning, with The Sirens of Time.
For a cover that promises three Doctors, the 5th, 6th and 7th, The Sirens of Time does a good job of not putting them together for a while. Slightly upping the ante from the 25 minute stories of the past, this serial sees the Doctors on their own individual adventures, coming together to battle a threat to them all. The structure of this story is not its strong suit, but then that’s perhaps by design. With each Doctor exploring a different setting (Alien Planet, The Past, Space), it does serve more as Big Finish advertising what it can do rather than a standard story, but this still gives time for a bit of adventuring in each place. Personally, I enjoyed the historical section the most, but each is still vivid enough for their brief appearance before giving way, quite abruptly, to the next.
The other problem with the split structure, before coming together, is that the characterisation tends to suffer somewhat. The jumps between storyline don’t really present the villains in a particularly compelling way, and when this settles, you still expect another jump to be around the corner. For the Doctors’, their personalities seem slightly off, especially the 7th Doctor, who doesn’t quite seem to be the Clown or the Schemer he tends to be in either the series or the New Adventures. This may just be down to first serial jitters, and when the Doctors meet the personalisation kicks up a notch, with banter between them reminiscent particularly of that in ‘The Three Doctors’, with 6 and 7 acting like 2 and 3, and the 5th Doctor as a mediating influence. It’s quite nice in particular to see Sylvester McCoy finally getting a chance to team up with other Doctors, which as will be seen throughout this odyssey is the first of many.
Overall, The Sirens of Time is a pleasingly diverting way to spend two hours. While it’s not the triumphant return that was maybe expected after three years of no Doctor Who, it does its job well, whetting your appetite for further adventures. And all this without any companions either! Having laid the groundwork for new Doctor Who audios, I for one look forward to seeing where this great spirit of adventure continues…
The Sirens of Time is the debut script for Big Finish, and long term writer and producer Nicholas Briggs, but unfortunately it’s not a successful one in my opinion. While I admire the ambition and attempted scale it suffers from a few major problems – most notably a lack of coherence and structure in the script.
To summarise: The central setup is that three incarnations of the Doctor (Fifth, Sixth and Seventh) are somehow entangled in an event that threatens Gallifrey and which involves the eponymous ‘Sirens of Time’. In theory I can understand why this might seem like an ideal story to launch Big Finish’s Doctor Who range back in 1999. It has multiple Doctors engaged in various different plot strands and involves Gallifrey and the Time Lords – just the sort of thing I can imagine fans, especially in the ‘Wilderness Years’ of the 1990s, might have looked for.
However, I think this is also symptomatic of the main issue with The Sirens of Time. It clearly wants to be a sort of ‘anniversary special’ type story with multiple incarnations, continuity references and Time Lord mythology but it gets so caught up in the establishing scale that it loses most of its dramatic potential. The choice to have the first three parts devoted to each Doctors separate story, while providing an opportunity to have three different settings (the most interesting of which is the WW1 submarine in part two), means that the best part of a multi-Doctor story – when they meet – is delayed until the end! It also means that each part has to deal with a new set of characters which are then discarded almost immediately, limiting the possibilities for building dramatic momentum. This comes to a head in the final section which throws around so much exposition about Knights of Velyshaa, Temperons, Sirens of Time and the Celestial Intervention Agency that I was hard pressed to follow the plot, or indeed to care much about it.
Having said all this The Sirens of Time was not entirely a waste. As mentioned, part two with the Fifth Doctor is pretty good and there are some excellent moments (which I won’t spoil) that along with the more grounded setting allowed me to engage more with the events unfolding. Peter Davison and Colin Baker are also pretty good reprising their incarnations and providing more mature and measured performances, although the same can’t be said of Sylvester McCoy who mainly relies, unsuccessfully, on one tone of delivery.
In general this is not a story that I would urge anyone to prioritise. It’s not actively terrible per se but I did find myself on a few occasions throughout wondering what the point was. It’s nice to hear as a historical artefact– after all it kicked off a whole new lease of life for Doctor Who – but it’s not wholly engaging or coherent and the ending is largely a mess of unearned exposition.
Jonathan P. Martindale
Why Doctor Who as audio drama? I don’t mean in the ‘because that was the closest we could get to real, televised Who back in 1999’ sense – although it may well have been – or the ‘because I’ll take my Who in whatever format I can get it’ sense either (although that might again be true). I mean, rather, something like this: what is it about the world of Doctor Who that the medium of the audio drama might be peculiarly well suited to bring out? And conversely, how might the possibilities of storytelling that the world of Doctor Who opens up show how the medium of the audio drama might be made use of to its fullest potential? I hope the reader will consider joining me in pondering these questions as we make our way through this Big Who Listen.
Lets start with a simple answer. Describing far-away planets, distant times, fantastic events, terrifying monsters, etc., is a lot cheaper than having to show them; thus given a limited budget, a cast and crew reliant on saying rather than showing should be able to give us a lot more of the above than one dependent on the latter. The Sirens of Time actually reminds me as much of The Keys of Marinus as any of the classic televised multi-Doctor stories in the way that Nicholas Briggs respectively sets his first three episodes in completely different time and places, introducing his Doctors one-per-episode alongside their own cast of characters before bringing them together together in a lengthy forty minute conclusion that still feels packed fit to burst. Furthermore, the obvious budget problems that The Keys of Marinus suffered on its way to the screen suggest a story like The Sirens of Time, far less modest in scope, simply wouldn’t have been realisable as television during the classic era of Who.
The benefit of Briggs’ separate-episodes approach is that it limits the chaotic, everything louder than everything else feel of, for instance, The Five Doctors, to the final episode. The downside is that Briggs is left with only enough time in episodes 1-3 to sketch his characters and settings in briefest outline before the listener is whisked onward into the next episode. Unlike some of Big Finish’s later audio dramas – but like much of classic Who – exposition and action are definitely at forefront here, sometimes at the expense of character development. One senses that, aware of the flagship role his drama would have to play for the range, Briggs has tried to include something to please every possible Doctor Who fan in The Sirens of Time; the story ranges across past and future, Earth, Gallifrey, and several other locations, and Briggs draws heavily on existing series continuity in developing his own ideas. That’s a good formula for an ‘all-rounder’, certainly; for an introduction to Doctor Who in a new medium. Less sound for a classic, perhaps. But since when has there been a formula for one of those?
When I began to listen to this story, I was delighted to find that I wasn’t just going to be treated to one, but three whole Doctors! There’s something about having more than one Doctor in an episode that for some reason makes it feel more exciting and special, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The story followed a plot device I’ve seen before, and quite like, which is to follow several separate stories that all link together at the end. In this case it was the Fifth Doctor in a German Submarine, the Sixth Doctor on a space ship and the Seventh Doctor on a strange planet.
From the name of the episode I was expecting the story to have some basis on the Greek myth of the Sirens, but I was surprised to find that it was only very loosely connected to it. I actually preferred the story because of this because a retelling of Greek myths has been done before in Doctor Who and elsewhere and would be too predictable.
The story was well thought out and kept an air of mystery right until the end, with even the identity of the Sirens of Time being unknown for most of the story.
All together well written and a good start to our adventures through the audio stories of Doctor Who.