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It has been 20 years since Big Finish Productions released The Sirens of Time, the very first of their long-running range of Doctor Who audio dramas. Since then, they have released audio adventures every month, featuring one of the actors to have played the Doctor on TV. In this special list, I'm taking a look back at some of the strongest audio adventures to feature the Fifth Doctor, as played on TV by Peter Davison. We begin with:
1. 'Loups-Garoux' (2001)
The first title on this list comes from Big Finish's earliest days, and was the first story that Ghost Light writer Marc Platt produced for the company. The Doctor and Turlough (Mark Strickson) are holidaying in Rio de Janerio, when they come across a long stretching conspiracy involving an elderly, reclusive lady, the last member of an extinct tribe... and werewolves. This is a phenomenal story, with some beautiful imagery and some wonderful character work. This story really deep dives into the psychology of both the Doctor and Turlough, and opens up both characters more than the TV show ever did. I love the way that both Turlough and the Doctor get the chance to have a deeper relationship with the guest characters than in other stories, and Peter Davison and Mark Strickson have great chemistry with the guest actors, particularly Eleanor Bron. Loups-Garoux is a very enjoyable release that manages to do something very different to the norm, and is an early Big Finish highlight.
2. 'Spare Parts' (2002)
Of course, no list could be complete without Spare Parts, the story which tells the genesis of the Cybermen. Arriving on Mondas, the Doctor and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) find themselves caught up in a desperate battle for survival. With Mondas a dying world, the only way for its inhabitants to survive is to convert themselves... into Cybermen. So good Russell T Davies borrowed from it when bringing the Cybermen back in 2006, Marc Platt's second story on this list brings the menace of the Cybermen as close to the listener as possible. The scenes of various characters we've come to care about being converted and changed beyond all recognition are genuinely moving, and the bleak tone that pervades the story never lets up for a moment. The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa are at their most desperate, and all the pent up emotions regarding the death of Adric are released in one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the show's history. The original Cybermen are cold and chilling, their sing-song voices never better employed than here. The whole thing is topped off with stellar performances and sound design that manages to convince us of the plight of this world and its people. Spare Parts is breathtaking, and well deserving of its reputation as one of the all-time Big Finish greats.
3. 'Creatures of Beauty' (2003)
When you start this story, you may be initially surprised. You may feel lost. You may feel disorientated. You may not have any clue what is going on. And that is precisely the point. Creatures of Beauty takes some time to play its hand, but, when it does, it's like a smack in the face. Told out of order, this story twists and turns, with each twist revealing more about the Doctor and Nyssa's involvement in the society they have found themselves in. The use of the non-liner narrative actually really works here, as it keeps the audience in the dark at to what is really going on. There are some brutal moments in there for Nyssa as well, and the Fifth Doctor is at his most powerless and desperate too. This is something very different, taking the typical Doctor Who story structure, and completely re-writing it into something much different and darker.
4. 'The Council of Nicaea' (2005)
Gripping and involving historical adventure, The Council of Nicaea is an interesting subversion of the usual historical format. After all, normally, historicals feature the Doctor and their companions walking around in history. But Council of Nicaea features the character of Erimem (Caroline Morris), an Egyptian pharaoh who travels with the Fifth Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant). Therefore, whereas what we think of as a part of history (the Council of Nicaea) is, to Erimem, the future. So why can't she change it? It poses so many moral issues, and allows Peter Davison and Caroline Morris to sink their teeth into some really meaty material. The history itself comes across as lively and interesting, despite it not being a particularly well recorded bit of history, and the characters are diverse and bring many different viewpoints to bear. The Council of Nicaea is a very different historical adventure that shows that new things can still be done with the format.
5. 'The Kingmaker' (2006)
To describe the plot of The Kingmaker is nearly impossible for two reasons. One: it is all over the place, with so many elements you'd think that this couldn't possibly work. And second: there are so many twists and turns that to say any of them would spoil the experience. By a bizarre sequence of events, the Doctor, Peri and Erimem find themselves investigating how the Princes in the tower died, and run into Richard III, and... well, "spoilers." The Kingmaker is laugh-out-loud funny. Throughout the story, writer Nev Fountain hits you with joke after joke, until you wonder if there is no humour left to milk from the situation. It keeps pilling improbable event upon improbable event, and the end result is a comedy of disguises and errors to rival Shakespeare—plus a giant robot. What more could you want? It also helps that several fine comic actors, including Jon Culshaw and Arthur Smith, feature in the cast, and they bring the characters to life wonderfully. The Kingmaker is a wonderful story, that manages to turn Doctor Who into a broad comedy with a sense of humour and style.
6. 'Circular Time' (2007)
Back in 2007, Big Finish tried experimenting with a new format for their main range releases. Instead of one four episode story, some releases would be four one episode stories. The first of these, Circular Time, remains, to this day, one of the most highly regarded and successful, and it's not hard to see why. Written by Paul Cornell and Mike Maddox, Circular Time take the four seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter) as its linking theme, and examined the Doctor and Nyssa's relationship in great depth and detail, perhaps more so than any other stories, before or since. There's some great ideas in here as well: a Time Lord regenerating into a bird, Issac Newton guessing the whole future history of the world, the Doctor taking charge of a cricket team and a story that ties back into a key moment in the show's history. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are amazing in this set, and are backed up by phenomenal guest stars like David Warner, Hugh Fraser and John Benfield. Circular Time is something very special, and earns its spot on this list.
7. 'Son of the Dragon' (2007)
Another standout historical on this list, Son of the Dragon is a dark, gritty tale that brings the true story of the real Dracula to life. There's so little that has been written about this period of European history dramatically, and that helps the twists and turns the story takes be that bit more surprising. Putting the normally placid Fifth Doctor into this story is a great idea as well, as this story brings out a bit more of the grit that ran through this incarnations' last handful of stories. Both Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant give fantastic performances, but the real standouts are Caroline Morris and James Purfoy, who manage to sell us the slightly tricky concept of Erimem and Dracula getting married with consummate skill. Morris, in particular, gets some wonderfully meaty material that foreshadows her departure in a few stories time wonderfully. Son of the Dragon is one of the darkest historical stories the show has ever attempted, and its a testament to the skill of writer Steve Lyons that he manages to pull it off. A standout classic.
8. 'The Eternal Summer' (2009)
Nestled right in the middle of the Stockbridge trilogy is this gem from the pen of Big Finish regular Jonathan Morris. Thrust into a time-twisting world, where the inhabitants of Stockbridge live the same days over and over again, the Doctor and Nyssa must try to work out what has caused time to fracture, find the TARDIS and deal with the sinister Lord and Lady of the Manor... At first, this may seem, on paper, very similar to Creatures of Beauty. However, whereas that story focuses on deconstructing the narrative of Doctor Who, The Eternal Summer is much more interested with the emotional resonance this loop has, and how it affects the people trapped within it. There's a tragic beauty in this story of lost chances, actions coming back to haunt you and tragedy replayed over and over again, and Morris makes sure this element is front and centre throughout the tale. That's not to say that he scrimps on the sci-fi elements either: this one is packed to the rafters with clever concepts and neat twists. One such twist even allowing Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton the chance to get their teeth into some really juicy material, and to play parts very unlike the Doctor and Nyssa. Together with some amazing performances (particularly from Mark Williams as DWM comics character Maxwell Eddison), this is a fantastic Doctor Who audio, and is one that makes for compulsive and compelling listening.
9. 'Ringpullworld' (2009)
While not featuring Peter Davison, I couldn't resist leaving off Ringpullworld, which is one of the most fervently creative Doctor Who stories ever written. Stuck with one of the famous Novelisors of Verbatim 6, Turlough finds himself on the wrong side of the Doctor, Tegan and a race of rapacious warlords, trapped in a pocket universe and about to be sentenced to death. Like a number of stories on this list, this release messes around with story structure, but, like Eternal Summer, Creatures of Beauty and Circular Time, Ringpullworld finds an original angle to take, and exploits it to its full potential. The first episode plays out, at points like Turlough is arguing with Terrance Dicks during the process of novelising "Warriors of the Deep," and sets up an intriguing premise for the rest of the story. However the second episode is where this story really takes off, as Turlough gets the chance to narrate three possible ways the story could actually end. The final scene is such a cheat, and yet such a clever way to end that you can't help but smile. Mark Strickson and Alex Lowe make a wonderful double act, and the end result is a very different Companion Chronicle that not only examines story structure and narrative style, but also examines Turlough's character with consummate skill.
10. 'The Five Companions' (2011)
While this may only be available to subscribers of the Doctor Who Monthly Adventures range, this is a little gem that is well worth seeking out. Featuring four of the First Doctor's companions meeting Peter Davison, this story is simply a joy from start to finish. As expected with a story like this, it is chock full of continuity references and call-backs to previous stories, but they are very elegantly done, and don't detract in any way from the story being told. Even the placement of this story ties heavily into a TV story (which, like with Circular Time, you are going to have to listen to to find out), and yet it never overburdens the story. All the characters get plenty to do, and hearing Peter Purves, William Russell, Anneke Wills and Jean Marsh taking on Sontarans, dinosaurs and Daleks together with Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton is simply sublime. The Five Companions is basically inessential, but who cares, when it's this much fun?
11. 'The Elite' (2011)
Originally submitted to the Doctor Who team in 1983, Barbara Clegg's (writer of the TV story Enlightenment) The Elite never saw the light of day until nearly 30 years later, when John Dorney took the idea and turned it into one of the finest Lost Stories Big Finish have produced to date. When the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan (Janet Fielding) arrive on a world dedicated to war, its up to the TARDIS crew to find out what is going on, and stop the fighting. However, there's more going on than the Doctor realises, and his presence may just bring this planet to destruction... If this had been made at the time, The Elite would have been hailed as a standout Davison story. It takes all the elements you recognise from that era, and gives them an added boost. The TARDIS team are in deadly danger from the moment they step from the TARDIS, and only their wits will keep them alive. The guest characters are all fascinatingly obscure, and you're never quite sure who you can trust, especially Joe Coen as the deceptive Aubron. And then, there's the twist at the end of episode two, which I genuinely did not see coming, and which changes the whole frame of the story. Topped off with the most authentically 80s score ever composed for a Big Finish audio, The Elite is the standout example of Peter Davison's Lost Stories and proof that the Lost Stories range isn't just the odds and ends the production team never got around to using.
12. 'The Emerald Tiger' (2012)
I can't deny it, this one came out of the blue for me. On the surface, it looks your fairly standard, run-of-the-mill Monthly Adventure. However, The Emerald Tiger turned out to be a very special, exciting Fifth Doctor release that has the spirit of adventure, fun and drama that Doctor Who is well known for. Set in India in 1926, the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, and Nyssa find themselves caught up in a hunt for the fabled Emerald Tiger, only to find that there is more to the legend than it first appears, and that there are those who will do anything to prevent it from being discovered... The one thing that strikes me most about Emerald Tiger is the story's pace: it moves breathtakingly quickly, and covers a vast distance and time. If this was in the Classic Series, it would take at least seven episodes to cover the same amount of story. The cast is brilliant, and the sound design and music are phenomenal. Overall, The Emerald Tiger is an exciting, thrilling Doctor Who story that manages to transcend its seemingly average status, and becomes something standout.
13. 'The Butcher of Brisbane' (2012)
Big Finish have done many sequels and prequels to classic Doctor Who stories: The Invisible Enemy, The Robots of Death, Inferno, all of these and more have been mined in Big Finish stories. One of the best examples of this format is The Butcher of Brisbane, which acts as a prequel to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and builds upon the backstory that Talons merely hinted at. But like the best sequels, this builds upon the original with some new and interesting ideas, that manage to stop this story feeling like a rehash. We get a lot more examination of the delicate political situation in the 51st Century, and we get to see the Zygma Experiments at their very beginning. There's so many extra elements included in this story that means that it doesn't have to even tie that closely into Talons. This has a global feel, with the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, and Nyssa moving from country to country, and continent to continent, in an attempt to survive in this dangerous world and bring down Magnus Greel (brilliantly played in this story by Angus Wright), and the tension is at boiling point, particularly in the last episode. The Butcher of Brisbane is simply a fantastic example of Big Finish taking elements of Classic Doctor Who stories, and building on them to great success.
14. 'Prisoners of Fate' (2013)
Like The Emerald Tiger, Prisoners of Fate came out of the blue. But not for the same reason that Tiger did. This is a very special story that does something totally unexpected, and is a glorious example of Doctor Who's legacy and history being used to enrich a story. This is a complicated story, that manages to keep the audience clear as to what's going on throughout. Dealing with time paradoxes, alternate timelines, different versions of the same character and different versions of the same events, Prisoners of Fate twists and turns in on itself, but totally makes sense at the other end. Like the best Jonathan Morris tales, however, it isn't just about sci-fi elements and time paradoxes. It features a genuine emotional dilemma for Nyssa, and allows us to touch slightly upon the Doctor's decision to leave Gallifrey, thanks to one massive twist half way through. Seriously, the episode two cliffhanger is one of the best in the show's history, and completely blew my mind on first listen. It is completely unexpected and it actually manages to enhance the mystery of the Doctor's departure from Gallifrey. Prisoners of Fate is an amazing Doctor Who story, and, together with stellar performances from Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton, it makes for a compulsive listening experience.
15. 1963: 'Fanfare for the Common Men' (2013)
Back in 2013, Big Finish released a trilogy of adventures to mark the 50th Anniversary, featuring Doctors five, six and seven, all of which were set in November 1963. All three stories were exceptional, and Fanfare for the Common Men is no exception. Taking the slightly obscure reference to the Common Men in the very first Doctor Who episode, writer Eddie Robson builds a fascinating story of The Beatles being removed from time, and replaced with The Common Men. And yes, that is very similar to the premise of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle's recent movie Yesterday. Fanfare has a wonderful sense of the musical heritage that it is riffing on, and it doesn't attempt to hide its roots and its inspiration. Mark, James and Korky (the members of The Common Men) are thinly veiled parodies of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr respectively, but they are imbued with enough character depth to work outside the construct of the parody. Peter Davison gives one of his strongest performances as the Doctor, possibly because he has a personal connection to some of the material here, and it's clear he's having a whale of a time. And Howard Carter's musical score is something very special. The songs The Common Men perform sound just like Beatles songs, to the point where you wonder if these aren't demos that were never released on A Hard Day's Night or Magical Mystery Tour. And it's that level of detail that makes Fanfare for the Common Men such a joy. Like a modern Doctor Who episode that just happens to feature the Fifth Doctor, Fanfare is something very special, and is one of the very best Fifth Doctor Big Finish stories.
16. 'The Fifth Doctor Box Set' (2014)
Back in 2014, Big Finish finally, after many years, secured the services of Matthew Waterhouse as one of the Fifth Doctor's first companions Adric, and, to mark the occasion, Big Finish released a special box set of two stories set during Season 19. Both "Psychodrome" and "Iterations of I" are wonderful: they both feel of the era that they hail from, and they add so much to that era of the show's history that was, perhaps, missing on TV. "Psychodrome" is set directly after "Castrovalva," and sees the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan arrive in a strange landscape that seems to be based on impressions of their homes. While the basic plot may be slight, writer Jonathan Morris really digs deep into our characters here, and makes us totally believe in them as people, much more than the TV show did. We get to hear the companions' reactions to the Doctor's regeneration, Tegan and Nyssa coming to terms with the losses they suffered in Logopolis, Adric's loneliness and the Doctor's insecurities in his new incarnation. "Iterations of I," on the other hand, is a good old-fashioned horror story, mixed with a dash of the mathematical science that was championed by previous script editor Christopher H Bidmead. It's perhaps one of the cleverest scripts from Big Finish in terms of the amount of ideas that it has going for it, and each episode twists and turns the story in a different direction. It also allows for Adric to come to the fore in a way the TV series rarely allowed for. The monster is properly scary, and the ending doesn't quite answer all our questions, but that's okay, because it helps it feel more like a classic horror tale, with a threat that feels Lovecraftian in its mystery. And then there is the music, which, like "The Elite," is the closest Big Finish has ever come to recreating the work of the Radiophonic Workshop in the early 80s. It is absolutely of the period, and helps to make the story's feel absolutely authentic. The Fifth Doctor Box Set is an amazing release for a number of reasons, and it's one that I can heartily recommend to all fans of the Fifth Doctor.
17. 'Equilibrium' (2015)
The middle story in a brand new E-Space trilogy, Equilibrium is a perfect example of a clever idea, compellingly told with some fantastic and acting and sound design to compliment it. Set on the world of Isenfel, where everything must remain in balance, the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, and Nyssa find their very existence in Isenfel must come at a cost... one that the Doctor is not willing to pay. The idea of a world that must remain in a state of perfect equilibrium is hardly a new one, but rarely has it been so interestingly presented as it is here. Writer Matt Fitton focuses upon the difficult choices that must be made in order to maintain balance, and the effect that it has on those left behind. There's no attempt to circumvent the issue, but approaches it head on, and it makes for compulsive listening. While it may sound a little dry on paper, it is packed full of incident, action and wit. I love the way the story brings idea upon idea to the fore, exploring them in interesting ways and examining the consequences of them. It really nice to put the Fifth Doctor in that situation, as it shows that, despite the powerlessness that people criticise him and his era for, he is actually able to have an impact upon the worlds and the societies that his adventures are set in. Peter Davison gives an impassioned, spirited performance, and is ably backed up by the guest cast and his other regulars, especially Sarah Sutton as Nyssa. Equilibrium might seem to be the middle story between two heavyweights, but, in actual fact, it is a wonderful story that stands out for its groundbreaking ideas and standout delivery of them.
18. 'The Entropy Plague' (2015)
The final story in both the Second E-Space trilogy and the Older Nyssa arc, The Entropy Plague has its work cut out right from the beginning. And it is testament to writer Jonathan Morris and the cast and crew that it is such a success. As the universe of E-Space is swallowed entropy, the many races of the universe, including the Doctor and his friends, flee to Apollyon in an attempt to escape through a portal into another universe. But, each time, a sacrifice must be made. And the TARDIS team will have to sacrifice something very dear to them if they ever wish to return to N-Space... Although the ending may seem obvious from the very beginning, I love how The Entropy Plague integrates that into a part of its story. Although still a full-cast audio drama, each episode is narrated by a member of the cast, and it therefore gives each episode an ominous sense of foreboding. There are so many great ideas, and I love the way that they interweave together to form a very involved story, without any of them feeling under-explored or underutilised. The Sandmen, the pirates, the portal, all of these are given ample time thanks to the format, and they add to the doom ladened feel of the story. But the highlight of the story are the performances of the regular cast, who carries each episode with aplomb, especially Sarah Sutton, who has so much meaty material to get into. It's hard to sum up The Entropy Plague without spoilers, but what I will say is that it is a wonderful story with genuine emotional resonance and a fantastic sense of finality. Simply divine.
19. 'Aquitaine' (2016)
Another surprise that came out of nowhere (I'm sensing a theme with these Fifth Doctor releases...), Aquitaine is an intriguing Doctor Who story, with some wonderful characters and ideas. The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan arrive on a spaceship in orbit around a black hole, and find that time is twisting around the ship and affecting its crew. One of the most interesting characters in Doctor Who's history features here, in the form of the ship's computer, Hargreaves. I love Hargreaves, and his many different avatars, as he presents himself as something very different in comparison to other computers that have featured in the show's history before. He's polite, gentile and is quite happy to make you a cup of tea, unlike the vast ranks of evil, snarky supercomputers that litter science fiction films and TV shows. It's a marked contrast, and somehow suits the tone that the story is going for. It's not about the end of the universe shenanigans that Doctor Who is usually known for, yet it still manages to contain as much danger and excitement as a normal Who story. But its gentile tone and very unusual setting and characters are the standout aspects of this fantastic tale.
20. 'The Peterloo Massacre' (2016)
Yet another dark historical adventure, The Peterloo Massacre is a fantastic Doctor Who story that shines a light upon the darkest day in my home city's history. The Peterloo Massacre is an area of history that, until a few years ago, was rarely talked about, possibly due to its connotations about class and identity. However, this audio really shines a light on the events, and presents them in a form that brings the reality of what happened into sharp focus. There's no beating around the bush, it's a genuinely hard listen because of it, and its kudos to writer Paul Magrs that he doesn't try to soften the brutality of it. The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan are forced off course, and end up crash landing a couple of days before the massacre. They then become caught up in the tragic events, and must try to survive and get back to the TARDIS. The Peterloo Massacre is a wonderful story that really makes you feel sympathy with those caught up in the tragic events, and you get an understanding of how those events actually happened. There are some moments that are incredibly difficult to listen to, especially in part three as the massacre takes place. The guest performances are all stellar, and this story gives our regulars a chance to rail against the injustice of the time. Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding have rarely been better: Sutton, in particular, shows just how under-utilised her talents were on the TV show with a powerful and emotive speech that will move you to tears. The Peterloo Massacre is a groundbreaking historical story, and one that deserves a place on this list for bravely tackling some very dark subject matter.
The Mutant Phase (2000), The Eye of the Scorpion (2001), Primeval (2001), The Church and the Crown (2002), Omega (2003), Singularity (2005), The Bride of Peladon (2008), The Haunting of Thomas Brewster (2008), The Children of Seth (2011), The Jupiter Conjunction (2012), The Burning Prince (2012), The Secret History (2015), The Waters of Amsterdam (2016), Classic Doctors New Monsters: Fallen Angels (2016), Cold Fusion (2016), Alien Heart/Dalek Soul (2017), Time in Office (2017), Kingdom of Lies (2018), The Diary of River Song: Series 3 (2018), Ghost Walk (2018) and Serpent in the Silver Mask (2018)
Join me next time, when I'll be looking back at the top 20 Sixth Doctor Big Finish releases!