Welcome to a very special edition of DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress: that’s where we assess … stress. Or, more accurately, in that special, yearly edition, reward the best stories of the year – there’s no need for a top of our favourite TV stories (mostly because that already exists, head that way), but, in the wild, savage jungle of Big Finish, maybe taking a step back and coming back to some releases is in order – some we covered here already (and who knows, we might have changed our mind on those!), and some that passed by because we hadn’t the time or the means to talk about them at the time. It’s not a ranked list, just some of our favourites.

Also, since this is intended in part intended as a buying guide for those that only want to enjoy the best of the year, we’ll keep our thoughts general and spoiler-free. Links to the detailed conversations, if they exist, will be provided.

But no more chatter – the curtain rises on the prestigious 2017 “Oh, Brilliant!” Awards …


– “Dalek Soul”, by Guy Adams

SCRIBBLES: It’s hard to talk what’s so brilliant about this story without spoilers, but it’s without a doubt the freshest take on the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and the Daleks in ages. Sarah Sutton and Peter Davison are both on top of their game, each putting in a star turn entirely new takes on their roles. Meanwhile, the horror of the Daleks is taken to a deep and intimate place that makes them all the more affecting. It’s an absolutely gripping story and one of the highlights of this year’s main range.

TIBERE: The main range is currently in a bit of a structural transition, I think it’s fair to say, with the semi-anthology format of “Time in Office”, and the two-stories releases that came between April and June. And this is probably the most successful of these experiments yet – a short, one-hour long conceptual piece that hits you directly with a wonderfully confusing conceit, and then proceeds to weave a complex tapestry of political, subversive, horrific imagery. There has been a long tradition in Big Finish of portraying the Fifth and Sixth Doctor has politically flawed heroes (in, for instance, the wonderful “Project: Lazarus”) – and this is some of the most daring explorations of that theme. It’s really quite wonderful.


– “Stop the Clock”, by John Dorney

SCRIBBLES: I, of course, am in no way subtle about how much I love Doom Coalition. I’d quite happily nominate the entire fourth set as some of the best Doctor Who audio material this year. But this, well, this is the extra special highlight. The character threads that mean the most to the range come to a head in a daring and beautiful finale with fantastic emotional resonance. This is the kind of Doctor Who that there can never be enough of. It sparkles with love and hope through some wonderful political commentary, and the sequel can’t come soon enough. Until then, well, I’ll be rambling about the brilliance of Doom Coalition on this site for months to come.

TIBERE: Doom Coalition may have some faults at the microscopic level, but when you step back and look at the full picture, it’s simply magnificent. This is not just a great story, this is what an entire, sixteen-hours long series has been building to, and does it deliver – it justifies the entire project, really, by tying up with cleverness the one hundred plot threads set up by the previous stories, but, above all else, by being a feminist manifesto and a queer empowerment anthem. The pacing and action never lets down, the imagery and symbolism is perfect – it’s powerful, beautiful stuff. Which both closes perfectly a chapter in Big Finish’ history, and tantalizingly teases another one.


– “False Negative”, by John Dorney

TIBERE: I’ve generally enjoyed the UNIT range, with the occasional caveat, but while its politics and themes were often fascinating, and Silenced a great conceptual object, it would have been, until last November, for me to single out a story as a true masterpiece nailing all the aspects of these audios and fulfilling all their potential. And then came “False Negative”, which not only revisits Classic UNIT concepts with a wonderful cheeky verve, turning “Inferno” into a comedy romp, but also acts as an incredibly well-thought session of critical self-examination and auto-exorcism. Big Finish is a flawed company, but at their best, they have a wonderful sense of self-awareness that plays in their favour – especially when it’s channeled with that much talent into such a wonderfully crafted, clever story.

SCRIBBLES: For me, this was just delightful. It leaned into all the strengths and flaws of the range to put out a delight of a farce with some character and thematic heft where it matters. I doubt I’m the only person who first ordered Extinction a few years back just for the promise of more Osgood, and here we have it, an Osgood showcase up there with the best of them, all while giving Jemma Redgrave new things to do and resolving awkward tensions with Josh. Encounters could have just been a rote monster mash of fanservice, but instead, I think the New Series UNIT has totally found its footing, and I expect we’ll get more highlights like this to come.


– The Time War I, by John Dorney & Matt Fitton

SCRIBBLES: Wait, we can just list whole sets? Why isn’t all of Doom Coalition IV up here? Anyway, The Time War I is a great outing for the Eighth Doctor, finding new ways to approach the Time War with the different angles the character offers through several very strong stories. It’s hard, honestly, to say which story is the standout of this set, which is really just a testament to how efficiently it does what it does. I’d say “more like this, please,” but fortunately, we know more is on the way. If they keep up this high standard, they’ll be stunning.

TIBERE: Well, it was easy to single out “Stop the Clock” as the highlight of Doom Coalition IV, whereas we have wildly different opinions on which of these four stories should go on the list (I’m rooting for “The Conscript”, him for “Echoes of War”). Henceforth … But yes, this is a wonder of a set – that I think has to be especially commended for the way it manages to craft a compelling, self-contained narrative in four individual stories. Recent audio experiments have failed at finding this balance – The War Master set, especially; and even Aliens Among Us, which we have showered with praise, does sometimes feel a little frustrating, with all its teases and cryptic hints of bigger things to come in a few months. There’s a lot of narrative promises here that could be expended upon later on, but it’s also a very powerful story in its own right – one with Paul McGann’s best performance in eons, if not ever, fantastic politics themes, and a great mix of old and new Who elements.


– “The Empty Hand”, by Tim Foley

TIBERE: I mean, we spend half our time waxing lyrical about how great the Torchwood audios  are, so of course there was going to be some on here. But even knowing how good and boundary-pushing that range can be, that story was a bit of a shock. To tackle police brutality and the moral complexities of justice, activism and law enforcement in the modern world is one thing – but to do it in such a raw, desperate and pessimistic way is another. It’s not an edgy sort of darkness, trying to look cool and relevant, no – it’s not forced, it comes from very organic and real places, and it makes for an uncomfortable, challenging, but utterly fascinating listen. For a first foray into the world of Who, I don’t think you can do better than this – and I can’t wait to see more of Tim Foley next year. Thankfully, Big Finish seem to have understood what kind of talent they have on hand, because he has about three of them between February and July. Nice. Oh, and yes, you can’t mention that story without talking about its cliffhanger, which is … Well, quite something. Aliens Among Us is a great project, and this is its crown jewel.

SCRIBBLES: Torchwood began in a very different era, where we actually could, to some extent, trust the police. Gwen and Andy were good, moral characters because they came from a well-meaning police force. That is, in part, an American problem. As Chris Chibnall once said, “one of the great essences of Torchwood was taking those American tropes and doing them in Wales.” You just can’t accept that optimistic American take on the police procedural at face value now, not in an era of black lives matter and protests. And so this story manages to invert the cheerful, lovable, white police officer Andy into the source of a very political narrative, that asks all the right questions and provokes in all the right ways. It’s uncomfortable and daring but so, so good at hitting its mark. This is, in short, what Torchwood needs to be in the political present day. This is a true successor, honestly, to the political strength and darkness of “Children of Earth.” Even leaving aside the massive climactic twist and the changes this story makes for Andy’s character going forward, this is just a story that means Torchwood never can quite be the same again.


– “Asking for a Friend”, by James Goss

TIBERE: There are problems with James Goss’ approach to audio storytelling in general, and to his handling of Bernice Summerfield specifically. And we’ll probably end up discussing those eventually – but it’s not always easy to craft a coherent case against the man, because, well, he’s brilliant. Sometimes infuriating, yes, but absolutely brilliant, and this has to be one of his most brilliant, and most daring scripts yet. Not only is it an absolute wonder in terms of construction, playing with the show’s handling of time travel to deliver some stunning, brutal and utterly surprising twists; not only is it a great thematic piece tying together Bernice’s own past, with echoes of her relationship with Irving Braxiatel playing a big part, and the show’s current mythology, with the Time War and the complex status of the Doctor hanging around the quiet, tranquil meeting between David Warner’s Unbound Doctor and his therapist, brilliantly played by Annette Badland; but it’s above all else a raw and devastating story about personal tragedy and mental health. A tale that breaks your heart with a few words – “can you fix it?”. In one word – a wonder.

SCRIBBLES: It’s not really a Bernice Summerfield audio, that’s I think the words you’re looking for. She features, but it’s not really about her in any way here. But it is very, very good as a high-concept, technically perfect script, with many clever structural tricks and thematic flourishes. It does a great job of juxtaposing high concepts with a pretty straightforward emotional issue by extrapolating it onto the Doctor, and refusing to take easy answers. It didn’t hit quite as personally for me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize the raw strength of this tour-de-force of writing.


– “Retail Therapy”, by James Goss

TIBERE: Jackie Tyler discovers revolutionary praxis and topples capitalism. I mean, I don’t need to say more, do I? That one’s just a great case for Big Finish – it takes one of the Russell T. Davies’ era most interesting side characters, and give her a story of her own, one where she can truly shine. And god, it is a triumph – the political subtext at the core of the Powell Estate weaponized into a biting, corrosive satire that is both incredibly funny, quietly heartbreaking, and deeply political. They have given Jackie other stories since, and both of those have been very good, but nothing has touched the immaculate perfection of this first one. My favourite audio of the year.

SCRIBBLES: If someone were to say this was the best Big Finish of the year outright, I certainly wouldn’t argue. Though we approached the Ninth Doctor Chronicles with skepticism, this alone is proof of how wrong we were. It’s utterly, utterly marvellous. There’s such a razor sharp focus on the emotional and political reality Jackie Tyler lives in that it immediately feels like a vital missing piece to the 2005 run, something that feels like it should have been there all along. It’s witty, it’s political, it’s emotional, but most of all, it’s so, so real. Because the magic of Doctor Who isn’t generally out there in space, though it certainly can be. But it’s in how our ordinary lives intersect with the wonders and horrors of the universe, and how infinity can be steps away. Usually, particularly with Russell T Davies’ time, that’s a source of magic. The deep, deep sadness of Jackie being left behind, however, makes for magnificent narrative fuel, and James Goss pushes it to the fullest. Every line of this story is perfectly judged.


– “The Office of Never Was“, by James Goss

SCRIBBLES: Cascade was Tibere’s favorite, but this was mine. The concept of retcon is a convenient plot device, but also, of course, a problematic one. My favorite moments of the UNIT range have toyed with this previously with the character of Jacqui McGee resisting such political horrors, but its so rich and fascinating to see James Goss switch the lenses, to focus on the bureaucratic nightmare that creates this kind of exploitation. Ianto Jones is, really, a very beautiful character in that he is so ordinary and out of place in Torchwood. There’s an innate tension in that that can be glorious from putting him out of his depth. This story does. It takes the worst possible day at work and pushes it to the limit with the lives at stake from Torchwood, and makes human error the scariest monster of all. Brilliant.


– “torchwood_cascade_CDRIP.tor”, by Scott Handcock

TIBERE: Alright, maybe that one is the best audio of the year. I honestly can’t choose. Playing with the audio format in original and new ways has always been something Big Finish has been good at, and it has given us some fantastic stories (“Scherzo”, or the musical Scorchies episodes, for instance) – but this is not just an attempt at capitalizing on these past glories, no. It’s a format that perfectly fits Goss and Llewellyn’s vision of the range, and Tosh’s character – a structural experiment that makes you feel within your very bones the awful corruption and utter chaos of the world of Torchwood, coupled with great, meta conceptual horror, and a deep, relevant look at an often neglected character.


Honorable Mentions:
  • The Plague of Dreams”, by Guy Adams
  • Charlotte Pollard – Series 2, by Nicholas Briggs.
  • The Middle”, by Chris Chapman.
  • The Dollhouse”, by Juno Dawson.
  • The Destination Wars”, by Matt Fitton.
  • Day of the Vashta Nerada”, by Matt Fitton.
  • Corpse Day”, by James Goss.
  • The Sky Man,” by James Goss.
  • The Dance”, by Simon Guerrier
  • Futureproof”, by Victoria CW Griffiths.
  • My Enemy’s Enemy”, by Robert Khan & Tom Salinsky
  • Torchwood One: Before the Fall,” by Joseph Lidster, Jenny T. Colgan, and Matt Fitton.
  • A Heart on Both Sides”, by Rob Nisbet.
  • The Blood Furnace”, by Eddie Robson.
  • Time in Office”, by Eddie Robson.
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