on 19 October 2010
Spin-offs. Love 'em or hate 'em, Big Finish sure has made a lot of 'em. Nicholas Briggs' 'Dalek Empire', two series of Sarah Jane Smith, UNIT, Iris Wildthyme, Cyberman, I Davros and now Jago & Litefoot and Simon Guerrier's 'Graceless'. Add to that Bernice Summerfield, the Eighth Doctor range, the stage plays, the lost stories, the eight Unbound stories and the Companion Chronicles and it all adds up to a whole lot that one could spend one's money on. 2005/6 was the time when Big Finish were at their most productive (if that's the right word) and, not entirely coincidentally, was the time when the quality across all their ranges started to drop. Most of us have heard at least one or two of their bewildering array of extra-Who titles and I suspect many sooner or later had the same response: "Not another one!" Some ranges have their moments: a few of the Sarah Jane Smith stories are pretty good and the Bernice Summerfield range still has its flashes of brilliance. But look elsewhere and you will find monumental self-indulgence (Dalek Empire, Cyberman) alongside outright dross (the top prize for that has to go to the four-and-a-half excruciating UNIT stories). Taking advantage of Who fans' love of continuity and interconnection, this plethora of spin-offs just dilutes and cheapens the brand. If one perseveres and tries to keep up with it all, after a while one is less likely to bother with any of it, the more it is taken for granted that you will shell out for anything even vaguely Doctor Who related.
For the most part, Gallifrey seemed to have escaped the quality rift. Its first two series may have been camp and over-the-top at times, with some less than enthralling alien races and the odd annoying character or two, but in general the standard was high. That is, until that ending... The range as a whole would have been much more highly thought of if they'd called it quits about five minutes before the end of 'Imperiatrix'. It is at this point that Gallifrey effectively ceases as entertainment, never to recover.
So, is there anything to salvage from Gallifrey Series Three? Well, however bad things get, David Darlington's music and sound design are first class, one of the constants of the Gallifrey stories as a whole, as are Lee Binding's gorgeous cover designs. They at least never lost their touch. Louise Jameson continued to give an impressive recreation of her performance as Leela (from 30 years ago, need I remind you) while John Leeson is impeccable as K9 (though Lalla Ward, with much the harder acting job, fares less well as the series progresses).
Okay, so a desperate civil war is now underway. As if the first few minutes weren't confusing enough (and not in a way that is resolved later, much of the dialogue being less than clear), the whole Gallifrey saga then spirals off into completely new territory. Instead of being thrilled at the prospect, there's much more a sense of "Here we go again". Nor does the plot really hold water. Why is Romana still free and how, if things are going so badly, is she able to ground all Tardises? The Anomaly Vaults are a great idea, intriguing and strange, but just seem a tacked on plot contrivance and don't sit well with everything else. On the plus side, Lalla Ward puts in her best performance of the series and the overall sound of 'Fractures' is at times, breathtaking. It isn't a bad story, just not good enough to get one excited about the new series. For all the new directions, one feels one has heard it all before.