While 2019 marked the official 20th anniversary of Big Finish Productions’ Doctor Who audio range, it is 2020 that perhaps marks a “true” anniversry. It was in the year 2000 after all that Big Finish hit their stride, releasing 12 complete stories as they delivered new adventures for fans of Doctor Who’s classic series. Their output would be on a scale not seen since Sylvester McCay and Sophie Aldred walked into the sunset at the conclusion to 1989’s Survival.
Since those tentative days of The Genocide Machine and The Fires of Pompeii, Big Finish have released a total of 269 monthly adventures alongside invividual ranges for the Third, Fourth, Eighth and Tenth Doctors. They have gained the rights to the ongoing series (which didn’t even exist when Big Finish started) and produced far too many spin-offs to count.
This company has given the fans of this show so many beautiful stories, moments and performances over the years that many fans no longer see a distinction between Big Finish and the televised show. Indeed, after 2013’s The Night of the Doctor, Big Finish is officially canon. The company grows to new heights year upon year, but the origins of this Doctor Who juggernaut began on a much smaller scale.
The story starts not in the late 1990s with The Sirens of Time, nor even with the preceding Bernice Summerfield plays. It starts in 1984 with the creation of Audio Visuals by Bill Baggs and future Big Finish founder Gary Russell. Both fans of audio drama and, of course, prominent Doctor Who fans, the duo decided against setting up a fanzine. Instead, they took the then-unprecedented route of the fan audio, creating Audio Visuals in the process.
“I ran the Hampshire local group of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, and one of the members of the group had a reel-to-reel recording machine. I wrote some god-awful script called ‘Planet of Death’ and got the group to take part. We only ever recorded the first episode, and, even though it was never released doing the play inspired me to keep going and develop something more substantial. That was how ‘Audio Visuals’ was born. Even though I had no real experience, directing the play satisfied a need to be in production. It crossed my mind that I should consider a series of videos, but finances being what they were audio was the most suitable medium to start with.”
Bill Baggs, talking to Justyce.org.
Initially starring Stephen Payne as the Doctor and Richard Marson in the companion role, the lead quickly changed hands following an unsure performance by Payne in the ranges first story The Space Wail. Enter a man who would become synonymous with Big Finish Productions, Nick Briggs. Briggs at the time had recently left drama school and was unemployed (as most drama postgraduates seem to be!) giving him ample time and ability to get into the role despite early reservations about the fledgeling range.
“I’d spent my childhood pretending to be Doctor Who in my own little audio plays recorded in my bedroom starring me and bits of sound nicked from the T.V. programme. I leapt at the chance to do it ‘sort of’ legitimately. I think I felt it was ok for me to play the Doctor because we’d just had a young one for real. And I recall being a little disgruntled with the T.V. programme. I think all fans go through that stage. When they lose their innocence and start wanting to criticise everything. I’d just left drama school, so I probably thought I was a world authority on acting and drama etc. Pillock!”
Nick Briggs, talking to Justyce.org.
Over the next seven years, Audio Visuals produced dozens of Doctor Who audio productions and those involved learned valuable lessons along the way. Their work put them in contact with future Doctor Who writing luminaries such as Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane alongside those who would go on to be involved with Big Finish such as Jason Haigh-Ellery and Alistair Lock. The Audio Visuals series became one of the best-kept secrets in fandom, going from distributing a mere two dozen copies upon their inception to regularly receiving around 700 preorders by the late 1980s. Yet, like all good things, they had to come to an end. Bill Baggs desired a more hands-on and creative approach elsewhere and handed over to Gary Russell for the final season. Nick Briggs meanwhile felt it was time to move on from his role as the Doctor and when Virgin Publishing launched their series of New Adventures novels, the Audio Visuals came to a natural conclusion. Gary Russell explained when it was they knew time was up for the series:
“Roughly when Virgin announced the New Adventures were going monthly, maybe a bit before then. Justyce (the final A.V. tape) was a year in the making, and that typified our exhaustion. We were willing, but all three of us were in full-time employment, and there simply wasn’t the opportunity to keep the quality high enough.”
Gary Russell, talking to Justyce.org.
The next decade would see the significant Audio Visuals players make their name in wider fandom. Gary Russell went on to edit Doctor Who Magazine between 1992 and 1995 and had several novels published by Virgin including Legacy and The Scales of Injustice. Bill Baggs meanwhile founded Bill and Ben Video (BBV) which sought to produce spin-off and “Doctor Who by any other name” video productions throughout the 1990s. The likes of Nick Briggs and Nigel Fairs, with who Baggs had worked on the Audio Visuals series, joined his endeavours and BBV produced some well-remembered productions including Mark Gatiss’ P.R.O.B.E. series starring Caroline John as Liz Shaw.
In 1996, Jason Haigh-Ellery founded Big Finish Productions. It was a shell company through which productions could be put after was asked to create the business by the European Sci-Fi channel with whom he was working on ideas at the time. The plans and funding for projects came to nothing, despite a script from Paul Cornell being in place. But Big Finish remained, named of course after an episode of Steven Moffat’s Press Gang series. Meanwhile, Gary Russell had left Doctor Who Magazine and alongside Nick Briggs was talking about a resumption of their audio endeavours. In 1997, the duo asked Haigh-Ellery aboard a proposal to the BBC for the audio rights to produce Doctor Who. The BBC turned the request down, still hopeful of a television deal following the 1996 TV Movie, and instead, they approached Virgin Publishing for the rights to Bernice Summerfield.
Having lost the Doctor Who license as the BBC brought it back in-house, Virgin Publishing were currently continuing the New Adventures range in a fashion with the continuing adventures of Benny, an all-new companion introduced in Paul Cornell’s Love and War in 1992. Virgin awarded the rights to produce dramatisations to Haigh-Ellery in 1998, and with Big Finish Productions sitting idle, the decision was made to use the company to create the new dramas. Big Finish was born.
Between 1998 and 2000 Big Finish released a total of six audio dramas based on the New Adventures series or the solo Bernice Summerfield range, including Doctorless adaptions of Just War and Birthright. All the plays were produced by Gary Russell with the director’s role being shared with Nick Briggs. After Virgin cancelled their own range of Benny novels, Big Finish negotiated with Paul Cornell to allow the continuation of the archaeologist’s adventures through original audio productions based upon the character.
By 1998, an increasingly experimental BBC Audio allowed the release of several original stories as audio readings such as the Short Trips and Earth and Beyond cassettes alongside the CD exclusive Out of the Darkness. BBV meanwhile were causing some consternation with their continued “Doctor Who under any other name” and spin-off releases. Now on audio, the BBV range was gaining some decent coverage and sales. The market for original Doctor Who stories on audio was clearly there.
“I thought, after making a few films, it would be a good opportunity to exploit the audio-medium too, so I convinced Sylvester and Sophie to recreate their roles of The Professor and Ace … but I got into a bit of trouble with the BBC on that one when they tried to stop me doing it!”
Bill Baggs, talking to Justyce.org.
By late 1998 it had become evident that no new series as a result of the TV Movie was going to happen and that merchandise sales would either remain at current levels or in fact begin to decline as the memories of the McGann movie faded. The Doctor Who brand was no longer as crucial from a merchandising standpoint as it had been upon Big Finish’s initial rejection. With this in mind, BBC Project Editor Stephen Cole approached corporation bosses with the concept of allowing Big Finish the license to produce Doctor Who audio drama. Citing the quality of their Benny plays and emphasising that the risk was Big Finish’s alone, Cole convinced the corporation of the validity of the concept and the license was duly awarded to Big Finish.
“The approach was made in November 1998, we knew by the day of Doctor Who Magazine’s 35 Up do at BAFTA. All these people saying ‘Now you’ve done the Bennys, why don’t you do Dr Who?’ and us going ‘Oh, the BBC would never let that happen’, knowing full well they would and had, but we weren’t allowed to say so cos we hadn’t signed bits of paper. We did that in December.”
Gary Russell, talking to Justyce.org.
With the license acquired, Big Finish now had the task of logistics, fees and assigning production duties. Stephen Cole was appointed by BBC Worldwide as executive producer to ensure that the plays remained in-line with the BBC’s own range of novels and to ease them through the BBC licensing department. Gary Russell and Nick Briggs would be the primary directors for the range while their old Audio Visuals partner Bill Baggs was excluded. Baggs, through his BBV productions, was in dispute with BBC Worldwide at the time and it was seen as an unsound move to have him involved with the process. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy all agreed to return to the role of the Doctor, while Tom Baker declined.
In January of 1999, Big Finish held a meeting of potential writers for the forthcoming series at Gary Gillatt’s flat in London. The guest list reads like a meeting of the elders of Who. The tightly packed meeting was attended by Nick Briggs, Gary Russell, Jason Haigh-Ellory, Jacqueline Raynor, Stephen Cole, Justin Richards, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Alistair Lock, Mike Tucker, Steven Moffat, Andy Lane and Marc Platt. Steven Moffat reportedly left the meeting early through having no interest in writing for past Doctors, only for Paul McGann who had not yet been approached by the company. While all were sworn to secrecy, those in attendance were encouraged to submit story proposals as soon as possible. Nick Briggs, Mark Gatiss, Justin Richards, Stephen Cole and Jonathan Blum would go on to be the first five writers for Big Finish.
Gary Russell made the official announcement of Big Finish acquiring the license at the Gallifrey convention in Los Angeles in February of 1999, just a few weeks before Big Finish’s first Doctor Who production The Sirens of Time which was written by Nick Briggs went into the studio.
“To be honest, none of it seemed real until the day we were in the studio for Sirens, and I just looked around and went ‘Oh my God. We’ve actually done it’. That was the best day.”
Gary Russell, talking to Justyce.org.
The fan response and ecitement for The Sirens of Time would be immense. Followed quickly by Mark Gatiss’ Phantasmagoria featuring Peter Davison and Whisper’s of Terror featuring Colin Baker, Big Finish would end 1999 on a high. 2000 would see 12 releases and the return of the Daleks and Ice Warriors, the debut of a whole new companion in the late Maggie Stables’ Evelyn and even room to experiment with the likes of The Holy Terror. By 2001 Big Finish were ready for their first spin-off with Dalek Empire and future years would see the debut of Paul McGann, Tom Baker, John Hurt, David Tennant and, next year, Christopher Eccleston.
From bedroom recordings and Audio Visual releases that skirted the laws of copyright, Big Finish has developed to a point where it is inseperable from the show it produces. To many, the company is maybe even as important as the BBC itself, keeping alive the legacy of childhoods and the dream that our favourites could have had just one more adventure.
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