Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Old Friends (Big Finish Review)

Wrapping up his first (pre-series one) series of adventures, Christopher Eccleston returns as the Ninth Doctor for three more stories at Big Finish, and this time there’s a reunion with Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, brought to life by the vivacious recasting of Jon Culshaw in the role.

Old Friends certainly has that series finale feel invoked by the endings to each run of the Russell T Davies’ series. A classic monster appearance mid-season leading to a dramatic return and a high-stakes adventure that pushes the Doctor to the very limits. With a thematic tie to the opening story, we head into a bold, thrilling two-parter that offers plenty of emotional reunions with characters from Doctor Who and the wider Big Finish universe.

You can check out our reviews of the previous three volumes below:

The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Ravagers

The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Respond To All Calls

The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Lost Warriors

Joining me to review this latest release is my son Ben, who just also happens to be my co-host on Doctor Who podcast The TARDIS Crew here at the We Made This Network.

Fond Farewell

Baz Greenland

The first story this volume serves as a thematic prequel to the two-part finale. Exploring the ideas of death, memory and reuniting with love ones, Fond Farewell is the impetuous for the Doctor to revisit Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stewart (something we were denied in ‘New Who’). But it is far more than just a steeping stone to that reunion; David K Barnes’ script has some fascinating ideas at play.

Resurrecting the ‘soul’ of the deceased so that they can attend their own funeral and make their goodbyes is something so wonderfully Doctor Who, I am surprised the idea hasn’t been done before. It’s macabre  while still feeling wholly believable. If you had the money and resources to pay for your lost love, friend or family member to be resurrected for one more day, would you do it? If anything, I would have preferred more exploration of the moral ambiguity, horror and emotional trauma that might bring, but it is still presented with something of an insidious edge that makes the listening experience distinctly unsettling at times.

There’s also a compelling mystery for the Doctor to get his teeth into. Why doesn’t the recently-deceased (and resurrected clone of) Professor Flynn Beckett (James Doherty) remember his last adventure with the Doctor or his assistant Sasha Yan (Emily Taaffe)? In addition to the exploration of death, Barnes plays on the idea of subjective memory, all with a big sci-fi twist.

Fond Farewell is a solid opening act to this final set of adventures. It might not be the highlight of the 12 episodes with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor at Big Finish, but there’s enough mystery and fascinating ideas to keep the listener hooked, backed by a strong cast for Eccleston to play off.

 

Ben Greenland

Given David K Barnes’s track record of previous stories (The Dalek Occupation of Winter and Daughter of the Gods being highlights), I was sonewhat surprised that this episode came off as very ‘middling filler’ for the series. That isn’t to say it’s bad, but it could have been more.

The idea behind it is such a simple yet brilliant pitch and it was certainly done justice. To see Flynn get to reunite with friends and family one last time is sure to draw out sad memories of listeners who may well have experienced a loss and who wish they could have this opportunity. That’s where the story works best, the emotional core.

Other than that it slightly drags. There’s good moments and twists even if I half tagged what was up with the robots fairly early on, and the supporting cast are serviceable. As always, Eccleston brings his A-Game to his return as the Doctor. It’s the type of story that very much fits this iteration of the character, even if they could have done a bit more with the Doctor feeling the loss of his people after the Time War (although I’m well aware Chris wanted to steer away from that a bit for this run) and he injects the comedy into an otherwise quite serious and sombre tale.

It plays with the idea of a perfect partner and the cost of what that might bring and overall it was certainly handled to a respectful level even if, again, there could have been more of it in the story. But in the end it’s a perfectly decent story and a palate cleanser before the big bombastic Cyberman (!) finale and even has a nice little tie in at the end.

Way of the Burryman

Baz Greenland

Way of the Burryman is a very strong set-up for the climatic battle that rounds off Eccleston’s latest ‘series’ as the Doctor. Writer Roy Gill clearly has a love and knowledge of the area in which the historic Forth Bridge is built and the cold wilderness of this part of Scotland is a nice change to the more urban settings in which Doctor Who usually stages its invasion stories.

There’s a lot to cover in this first half, not least the long-awaited reunion between Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stewart and the post-Time War Doctor. For the first time, they can both understand the trauma and horror of what war is really like, and indeed Alistair is quick to ascertain that all is not right with this new Doctor. We’ve seen Jon Culshaw bring to life Alistair in multiple time periods at Big Finish and his old, wider Brig is just a joy in this story. Not only does it feel like we’re hearing Nicholas Courtney in his later years, hearing the Doctor and Brig banter like old makes this a particularly special release. Understandably, Russell T Davies wanted to separate much of his modern Doctor Who from the classic era and allow the show to stand on its own two feet, which meant we were not afforded a reunion with the Brig on screen before the actor’s death. So, if nothing else, Way of the Burryman and The Forth Generation certainly make up for that missed opportunity.

But there’s also plenty more to Gill’s script, not least the origin story for Warren Brown’s Sam Bishop, who has been a staple of several modern UNIT stories with Kate and Osgood at Big Finish. This was my first experience of this character and Brown certainly made his mark. There’s a real tragedy to his relationship with Elinor Lawless’s Fiona McCall, a local historian who eventually falls foul of the Cyberman menace to come. In Way of the Burryman, she is a key ‘companion-lite character’, offering insight into the local legend, negotiating what is to come in her relationship with Sam and assisting the Doctor. Sam and Fiona are as much the heart of this story, as the Doctor and Alistair are.

With the added military trappings and the haunting mystery of the Burryman, Gill creates a rich landscape in which the Cyberman menace is evolved. With ties to the highlight of The Ninth Doctor Adventures so far – Monsters in Metropolis from last November’s Lost Warriors – the way the enemy is seeded in is creepy and atmospheric and packed with tension. You know what is coming, but that doesn’t undo the heightened drama of what unfolds when the Cyberman plan is finally unleashed.

It’s a great opening gambit for a thrilling two-part finale.

 

Ben Greenland

I can’t have been the only one who did a double take at the updated cover art for Old Friends on release day. ‘But we’ve just DONE Cybermen,’ I thought. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The drive of this set and finale was the inevitable meeting between the Ninth Doctor and the Brigadier (something that has been done in a comic but only in a very minor way) and it was just as good as hoped. The joy in Eccleston’s performance in reuniting with his old friend is infectious and yet not even the best part. As the beginning of a two-part finale it’s very much atmospheric setup before the climactic conclusion and that plays to the scripts strengths. Most of the story is ultimately a four hander with a little bit of good old bridge exorcism thrown and it was a much better experience than I anticipated.

The core of this story ends up being between Sam Bishop and his girlfriend Fiona. I’ve heard Sam before in the UNIT range and the Lady Christina sets, but I was intrigued to see what they would do with a younger version meeting the Doctor and it went against expectations. They rub off each other with hostility at times and add a new dynamic that keeps you engaged throughout. But ultimately the star here is Fiona, who injects the history lesson into the tale with a teacher-esque tone and comedy throughout (her disdain at being mistaken for the Doctor’s companion).

The performances are fantastic, as the Doctor would say, and all dovetail in to the Cyberman introduction and a cliffhanger reminiscent of Human Resources Part One back in 2007. It is a shame that the voice isn’t authentic Mondasian as the cover tantalisingly promised, but it’s more than made up for by its connection to the brilliant Monsters in Metropolis two stories prior, a link I hadn’t made. And hey, who doesn’t love a Harry and Sarah reference?

The Forth Generation

Baz Greenland

With such a brilliant set-up as Way of the BurrymanThe Forth Generation wastes no time in raising the stakes for the final battle. The Scottish setting makes for a refreshing change an there’s certainly a real sense of menace and danger that permeates this story, be it the Cyberman attack on a submarine (very The Seas Devilsto the assault on the train on the Forth Bridge. There are some great set pieces, brought to life by Gill’s tense script and taught direction by Helen Goldwyn.

The tragic nature of Sam and Fiona’s love story is the real crux of the tale. Sam, a solider that Alistair takes a keen interest in and Fiona, battling cyber-conversion as she struggles between her human and cybernetic sides. There are plenty of great twists and turns as events unfold, particularly Nicholas Briggs’ ‘character’, meaning that this is far from a straight-forward Cyberman invasion story. There are moments where, as a listener, you genuinely don’t know where the story will land.

And of course, it goes without saying that Christopher Eccleston is nothing short of fantastic. The actors and crew talk about his energy in the behind the scenes discussions and you really feel that in his performance as events spiral out of control and he seeks to save the day. Again, Jon Culshaw brings heroism, strength and courage to the role of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stewart, who certainly proves he can still lead the charge against whatever the human race is faced with.

And it’s that Brig-Doctor relationship that really comes to the fore in the story’s closing moments, offering that proper reunion we were denied on screen. It’s a fitting end to a thrilling, fun and thought-provoking set of stories that have brought the Ninth Doctor to life once more. It’s like 2005 never went away.

 

Ben Greenland

After the slower and more relaxed first episode, The Forth Generation jumps right into an action packed survival story that keeps the listener on their toes. The pre-titles scene offers us some intriguing backstory to Kreel before we’re right off to where Way of the Burryman left off.

The Cybermen are full on here, in a way The Invasion might have been had the budget allowed and truly reminds us how much of a threat the metal nasties are – their attack on the submarine being a highlight. Fiona holds the true tragedy of the story as they set in motion a set of circumstances that tear her away from Sam and bring to the light the mental horror of Cyber-conversion as opposed to the usual body horror. Lawless pours her heart and soul into her performance and the story is all the greater for it, as she fights for her humanity and the lost humanity of the Forth Generation.

Sam and the Brigadier get a wonderful pairing and sew the seeds of Sam’s employment at UNIT, seen at the end, as the old soldiers clash in their decisions, one driven by experience and the other by love. Eccleston is clearly having a blast here, in full on Doctor mode to save the world especially in the train attack scene near the start. There’s even a lovely little Invasion reference that will make most fans grin.

The resolution is ultimately a sombre affair as Sam and Fiona have to depart and the Doctor and the Brigadier get to have a proper tentative moment. Culshaw’s Brigadier is once again on point and his scenes with Eccleston radiate a string of ‘What could have been’ on the TV show and provides a heartfelt moment for all fans.

 

The Extras…

Almost an hour of behind the scenes discussions make up the release on disk fou. Christopher Eccleston talks being drawn to the loneliness of the Doctor and the fleeting relationships he has with characters across the stories. Script Editor Matt Fitton notes that the scripts had to be challenging enough for Eccleston and the cast to get their teeth into, looking at pitches to follow from Nicholas Briggs’ opening three-parter in volume one Ravagers and develop those fleeting relationships with the Ninth Doctor.

David K Barnes draws on the feelings of loss experienced in Doctor Who stories like Father’s Day as a basis for Fond Farewell and reflects on the joy of getting to writer for a Doctor he remembers watching on TV. Ecclestone is very appreciative of the deeply philosophical nature of the story in relation to other stories in the The Ninth Doctor Adventures, something that is shared with the cast and crew as they debate the ideas brought up by Barnes’ story.

Director Helen Goldwyn draws on the shift of atmosphere writer Roy Gill brings to the two-part finale, as the discussion moves across to Way of the Burryman and The Forth Generation. Gill and Fitton delve into the folk-tale horror and atmosphere, before moving into full on action and drama with the Cybermen. Like Barnes, Gill also chats about the nerve-wracking opportunity to explore a Doctor who only had a single season of screen time, drawing upon the untold timeline before series one and a satisfying reunion between the Doctor and the Brigadier.

Jon Culshaw, who has wonderfully brought to life Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart in multiple Big Finish stories, draws upon playing a more elder version of the character, bringing a mellowed edge to the voice work and how the experience with the Doctor will have changed his viewpoint. There’s some delightful insights in drawing on the late Nicholas Courtney in later years and finding the energy and spark playing alongside Eccleston.

Gill and Goldwyn also talk making this two-parter an origin story for Sam Bishop, played by Warren Brown, who has featured in several modern UNIT stories. While Brown was able to observe Ecclestone in action from a socially-distanced booth, he also shares his original encounter with the actor, working as an extra with Eccleston on The Second Coming. And Brown is joined by the rest of the cast, who share their passion for the story, finding their voices, tapping into history and exploring character relationships. Nicholas Briggs gives a wonderful breakdown of what it takes to play a Cyberman, while Eccleston shares his memories of watching them on TV (having never faced them onscreen).

Finally, there’s a lovely look at the legacy of the Ninth Doctor as producer David Richardson, Gill, Briggs, Fitton, Goldwyn and Culshaw talk the Ninth Doctor’s broken story, finding his path again as a prelude to the 2005 series and the energy of Eccleston’s performance recreating his Doctor at Big Finish. As Eccleston himself states in the closing moments of this release, he clearly loved his time return to the role and certainly seems hopeful for more – the fact that a second series of The Ninth Doctor Adventures has since been announced, therefore comes as no surprise…

Some Final Thoughts…

Baz Greenland

The quality of these stories offers some of the very best of the Ninth Doctor – on screen and off. Fans never thought we would get any more stories with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. And while a return to TV is unlikely (despite rumours of a 60th return), at least The Ninth Doctor Adventures have delivered on year’s of anticipation.

From a morally interesting, thought-provoking high concept sci-fi story to triumphant character reunions and an interesting take on an enemy that has been used many, many times, Old Friends is a triumphant ending. If this was it from Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, I would be happy. Fortunately the announcement of more stories to come ensures there’s plenty of greatness to come from this Doctor yet.

 

Ben Greenland

Haven’t we come a long way since that amazing announcement in August 2020? Two years ago we could barely have dreamed of getting more Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and now here we are with a whole second series of it. It’s been a brilliant ride and the most fantastic thing of all? It starts all over again with more stories in May. Fantastic!

 

Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Old Friends is available to purchase from the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 30th April 2022.

Synopsis

4.1 Fond Farewell by David K Barnes
Fond Farewell is the intergalactic funeral parlour with a difference: the deceased attend their own wake! Invited by celebrated naturalist Flynn Beckett to his memorial, the Doctor finds he’s not quite the man he was. But who would steal the memories of the dead?

4.2 Way of the Burryman by Roy Gill
Young Sam Bishop is at a crossroads with girlfriend Fiona: she’s staying in Scotland, he wants to travel the world. As the Burryman celebrations begin, ghosts haunt the Forth Bridge. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart arrives to investigate – and so does the Doctor…

4.3 The Forth Generation by Roy Gill
The Forth Generation have emerged. The Doctor, the Brigadier, Sam and Fiona are at their mercy. Is there a way to defeat them? Has UNIT learned from the past? And can the enemy’s nature be changed for the future?

Cast

Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor)
Nicholas Briggs (The Cybermen )
Warren Brown (Sam Bishop)
Alexander Cobb (Foreman / UNIT Courier / Sergeant Lowe)
Jon Culshaw (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart)
James Doherty (Professor Flynn Beckett / Other Flynn)
Amanda Drew (Commander Jane Wardie)
Sienna Guillory (Idara Beckett)
Charlie Hamblett (Thomas / Attendants)
Elinor Lawless (Fiona McCall)
Martin Quinn (Cameron Lawther)
Juliet Stevenson (Winifred Whitby)
Emily Taaffe (Sasha Yan)

Production Credits

Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Helen Goldwyn
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Howard Carter
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor Matt Fitton
Sound Design by Iain Meadows
Written by Roy Gill & David K Barnes

Recommended Listening

The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Lost Warriors

Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Adventures: The Annihilators

UNIT: Silenced

 

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