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Big Finish audio - John C. Kirk

Oct. 20th, 2013

11:54 pm - Big Finish audio

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Last year, I bought an iPod; as I mentioned, I just use this for spoken word (e.g. catching up with podcasts) rather than music. I'm currently making chainmail, which I'll blog about when it's done. This is a good time to listen to speech: I don't really need much concentration for what I'm doing, but I do need to watch my hands. I've tried doing this while watching TV, but I've found that it takes me a lot longer to make the same amount of mail, and I don't enjoy the program/film so much when I'm distracted.

Aside from podcasts, I've also bought a couple of audio productions from Big Finish. As I've mentioned before, I'm a bit dubious about audiobooks, since it's quicker and cheaper for me to just read it myself (either on paper or as an ebook). I have two on CD: "Q-in-Law" and "Imzadi", both Star Trek novels by Peter David. The standard approach for audiobooks is that you have one person literally reading out the prose, word for word, and impersonating voices for the various characters. Obviously there's an advantage if you have an actor from the TV series, since they will convincingly sound like themselves, and I thought Jonathan Frakes (who played Riker) actually did a pretty good job with Deanna Troi's voice. "Q-in-Law" was unusual because it had two people reading it out: John De Lancie (who played Q) and Majel Barrett (who played Lwaxana Troi). This meant that when it came to a particular argument between the two characters, both actors were essentially acting that scene out as a play rather than just narrating it. The writer mentioned online that this caused some controversy behind the scenes, since it departed from the normal audiobook format, but I liked it.

As a side note, I had to do a bit of fiddling before my iPod would handle the books properly. Basically, start by importing the mp3 files into iTunes. Then right click the file(s) and click Get Info. Go to the Options tab, and change Media Kind to be "Audiobook" rather than "Music". After that, I had a new category for synching the iPod. Once they're on the iPod, it knows that it shouldn't shuffle chapters around. It also groups all the files for a particular book/podcast into their own playlist, e.g. it will loop around through all the podcasts from a particular source and start over at the beginning, so I had to shift over to a different playlist to listen to a particular book.

Turning to Big Finish, I'd say that their productions count as plays rather than books. They're original stories, and the whole thing is done "in character" rather than having an omniscient third party as narrator. The company works with series (or characters) who are no longer on TV, so it's not really a choice between this and TV episodes; it's this, books, comics, or nothing. Also, since I can download the audio files rather than buying CDs I can avoid a bit of physical clutter.

I started with a Stargate SG-1 story: Gift of the Gods. This is read by Michael Shanks, so as you'd expect it's based around Daniel Jackson. Unlike the Star Trek relaunch novels, this doesn't pick up where the TV series left off, i.e. this isn't the equivalent of season 11. Instead, these are "untold tales", which fit in around the existing episodes, and this one is supposed to be set during season 3.

This particular story is told as a mission report, which gives Daniel a reason to narrate the whole thing. There's one other voice actor, who helps out with some of the dialogue, but Michael Shanks does most of the voices himself. I can generally tell which character is supposed to be speaking, but he's not as good as some of the Star Trek actors; that was particularly an issue for Sam Carter's speech.

I thought that the story got off to a slightly bumpy start due to some of the language. It wasn't obscene, or anything like that, but there are certain phrases which sound fine coming from an omniscient narrator but don't really sound like natural speech patterns (at least to me). For instance, Daniel says: "It was beautiful, inlaid with ivory and exquisitely engraved. It glowed with a lustrous sheen that seemed almost luminous as it hummed softly to itself." Still, it got better after that, with some clever ideas. I wouldn't say that they're entirely original, but this story would have worked well as a TV episode. Based on this, I'll pick up some more of the series.

Turning to Doctor Who, I bought a bunch of spin-off novels from a car boot sale a few years ago. They were a mixed bunch, but the main problem was that I didn't understand the ongoing stories; they had their own ongoing continuity, so watching the TV episodes wasn't enough to give me the context. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did mean that I wasn't really in the target audience. Looking at Big Finish, they have a lot of stuff for Doctor Who. In fact, their list of ranges includes 28 entries for it! That includes spin-offs, e.g. "I, Davros" but it's still a bit imposing. So, I intended to skip the whole lot.

However, one of my LARP friends is very keen on Doctor Who, and she specifically recommended the stories about the 8th Doctor. So, following her advice, I bought Storm Warning. As promised, there's no backstory here: if you've seen the film with the 8th Doctor then that's all you need to know.

I thought this was a lot better than the Stargate story. For one thing, it has a much larger cast (eight people). There's a bit at the start where the Doctor is talking to himself in order to get the exposition across, but that's not a problem once he meets other people. This series is also significantly cheaper: £2.99 per story (for a download) rather than £8.99.

I also liked his new companion (Charley). When Big Finish pull in existing Doctors/companions (i.e. the original cast) it's easy to visualise what they look like, and I can do that for Paul McGann, but it's a bit tougher for a brand new character. However, she came across as "spunky" (for want of a better word), describing herself as an Edwardian adventuress.

This story was divided into four chapters, then each chapter was split across multiple tracks. Each chapter also started with a recap of the previous chapter: literally, the first minute or two was the same dialogue I'd just heard. That makes sense if these were originally broadcast on the radio, with a new chapter each day/week, but it was a bit pointless in this format. Still, that's only a minor annoyance.

There are a couple of references thrown in to other British stories, which I liked, e.g. the Doctor quoted Tony Hancock at one point. If you recognise the quote then it reminds you that he is a British character, unlike the American cast/writers in a lot of sci-fi; if you don't recognise the quote then it's plausible as something that he'd say on his own, so you wouldn't feel that you were missing out on anything.

So, I'm glad I listened to this, in spite of my previous reservations.

I want to hear more, but I'm still a bit confused about how the different Doctor Who ranges fit together. As far as I can tell, there's a main range, which has a new release each month. "Storm Warning" was released in January 2001 (#16), and the following month had "Sword of Orion" (#17). That's another story with the 8th Doctor and Charley, so I assume that it follows straight on, and I'll read that next. Similarly, #18 and #19 both follow them, then #20 has the 5th Doctor. I haven't looked through the whole range, but I gather that it goes back and forth between the various incarnations, and "Army of Death" (December 2011, #155) was the latest story with the 8th Doctor.

Meanwhile, there's a separate range for Eighth Doctor Adventures, running from January 2007 to March 2011. I thought that maybe they just moved him off into his own range so that he could get lots of releases and still give other people a turn in the main range. However, I see that he was also in Absolution (October 2007, #101), so the two ranges overlap. Then there's Dark Eyes, a 4-part story: they released part 1 in November 2012, then parts 2-4 are due in 2014 and 2015. Gah!

So, I really do think that Big Finish could make all this a bit clearer. In fairness, they do have a New to Big Finish? page. However, that doesn't actually explain anything, it's just the equivalent of a greatest hits album, with stories from various different series. So, that may be a good place to start with each series, but it doesn't tell you how things fit together.

For now, I'll just hop through the main range, picking out the stories with the 8th Doctor in them, and hopefully that will all be (relatively) self-contained. Once I've finished that, I'll take another look at the rest.