Since 1999, Big Finish Productions has been releasing at least one full-length Doctor Who audio drama, featuring original cast members, in the multiple-25-minute-episode format of the original TV series.
But, as the Doctor himself once said, “Times change, and so must I.” At the end of 2021, Big Finish’s monthly Doctor Who four-parters will come to an end as the company brings its Doctor Who storytelling output more in line with the format of the Time Lord’s current TV adventures.
It was in 1999 that the fifth, sixth, and seventh Doctors – Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy – reunited in a recording studio for The Sirens Of Time, a traditional “multi-Doctor” story that brought those actors back to their roles in grand style – and in the traditional, fan-pleasing format of four episodes running roughly 25 minutes each, hearkening back to Doctor Who’s heyday. It was a signal to the fandom that, yes, someone remembers how to make this show, and here we go, making it.
But in the 2020s, that four-episode format isn’t as important as it used to be. In 1999, it was important to get enough old-school Doctor Who fans on board for Big Finish to survive. In 2000, the seemingly impossible happened – Paul McGann agreed to reprise his role as the eighth Doctor, and he did so within that four-episode format.
The 2010s saw Big Finish pull off another coup once thought impossible: Tom Baker made a comeback as the fourth Doctor, though it was conspicuous that, while the episodes were still roughly 25 minutes in length (sometimes more, if the demands of the story merited it), the new adventures of the fourth Doctor were only two episodes long, though in some cases multiple consecutive releases would build up into a larger story.
During and alongside all of the Doctor’s audio adventures, Big Finish embarked on original stories about the Daleks, the Cybermen, UNIT, Sarah Jane Smith (even before her TV comeback), and numerous other friends and foes of the Doctor. And if Tom Baker’s return as the Doctor for Big Finish was unexpected, the expansion of Big Finish’s license from the BBC to include elements of the 21st century television revivial of Doctor Who brought even bigger surprises.
In a way, it’s that release that helped to set the template for what is now Doctor Who’s future in audio form: a box set containing three interlinked adventures, each running nearly an hour. This is the format that Big Finish has settled on to keep the audio voyages of the TARDIS going (and to keep them economical for both the producers and listeners).
On the production end, a four-episode format meant a total of eight usages of the theme music – each of which had to be paid for. Shorter scripts, shorter stories, less studio time…it all adds up. Or, at least on the balance sheet, it subtracts, which makes it easier for Big Finish to survive in the trying times that, frankly, we’re all finding ourselves in.
(It must be said, however, that Big Finish was able to adapt its business model better than many – as in the case of a recent release which was recorded entirely in lockdown from the various cast members’ homes and, despite having been written months before the pandemic hit, turned out to be eerily predictive of the tug-of-war between acceptance vs. denial of science.)
That the more-or-less-hour-long format change also brings upcoming audio stories into line with the current format of the Doctor’s televised adventures may be less of a consideration than the economic factor, but it probably can’t hurt to make it less daunting for fans of the more recent Doctors to sample the latest adventures of their predecessors.
Big Finish brought Doctor Who back at a time when it was considered a has-been media property with no future prospects – and the fact that it was able to experiment with modernizing Doctor Who storytelling and make a success of it almost certainly played into the Doctor’s eventual return to television. (And it would seem that the makers of TV Doctor Who feel the same way: to return the favor, the eighth Doctor rattled off the names of his Big Finish audio companions just before regenerating into the War Doctor, thereby settling a long-standing debate – the Big Finish characters were now on-screen official.)
(Oh, and speaking of the War Doctor…yes, Big Finish brought John Hurt back to the TARDIS as well, across four box sets recorded prior to his death in 2017.)
While some fans may see the new format for Doctor Who audio as some kind of decline, their own favorite Time Lord should have already clued them in to what the change represents: a regeneration of sorts, which is, after all, the very thing that has allowed Doctor Who to survive in any medium for as long as it has. The series itself has changed and adapted many times over the years, and this is simply the latest of those many changes.