21 May 2015

BF: The Worlds of Big Finish

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The Worlds of Big Finish is, in my mind, an undoubted success. It's very ambitious, but when you've a production team capable of creating a set as good as this, that's not a problem. Cleverly, with the seven protagonists he has to play with, writer David Llewellyn allows this saga to spread far and wide in both space and time. We get adventures in the past, present and future, but it should be noted that the earliest we go in the whole set is 1843, and even that's extremely briefly. It would've been nice to delve a bit further into the past, but I appreciate that there are no Big Finish series set very far into the past. The future, however, is positively littered with original characters, and this is perhaps interestingly reflective of Big Finish's audience's interests.

Tieing the whole thing together is the end of the universe, or at least Kronos Vad's telling of it. Thanks to Iris Wildthyme though, the book is now wrong. The threat of the Gomegog is present throughout, despite their relatively skant appearances. Some have suggested this is little more than a glorified version of the promotional CDs that came with Doctor Who Magazine in the 2000s, where you used to get a taster episode of a series or two. While it's true this may have been pitched partly as a vehicle to attract customers to some of the company's more neglected ranges (as Nick Briggs admits in the extras) I believe the finished product is far more than that. Between them, Llewellyn and producer/director Scott Handcock have come up with a storyline that manages to allow each episode to remain true to its parent series' identity whilst working perfectly well by itself, which is much harder than it sounds.

There are of course stronger and weaker moments across this mini-series, but in my humble opinion Worlds never drops to 'average' quality, let alone below it. The greatest entertainment for me came on the second disc, consisting of the Confessions of Dorian Gray and Iris Wildthyme tales. It says a lot about the writing and production that these are such wildly different stories but both are thoroughly excellent and enjoyable. Strictly speaking, the arc of the set could probably be understood well enough from The Archive, Kronos Vad's History of Earth (Vol. 36, 379) and The Phantom Wreck but Llewellyn wisely links the tales together into a more tight-knit storyline. The Adventure of the Bloomsbury Bomber and The Feast of Magog form a loose two-parter, for example. And Iris' episode ties back (and forwards, of course) across the majority of the stories. 

This is my first experience of all the protagonists in these roles, and I was thoroughly impressed all round. Alex Vlahos clearly has as much of a handle on the untrustworthy Dorian as Lisa Bowerman does on Benny (as you might expect after seventeen years in the role) and as Hugh Skinner has on the excellent Captain Turner. Katy Manning is brilliant as fruitcake Iris Wildthyme and Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington show they're both excellent, adaptable performers in the roles of the Graceless twins. Chase Masterson seems to have completely nailed the genre Vienna inhabits and Nick Briggs clearly knows what he wants to do with the role of Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to make an original and interesting point about five of the seven returning protagonists being female (and the others existing literary creations) but unfortunately I was beaten to it by the set's fourth disc - Round the Worlds. It's still an impressive statistic though, and in a demographic-conscious age like this I think it's quite an achievement.

This really is a gem and the icing on the cake that is Worlds. It's one of the most enjoyable behind-the-scenes features Big Finish has put out, and is far more engaging than the occasionally bland and formulaic main range Doctor Who interviews. The chemistry host Handcock has with his cast is tangible and electric. The best segments are those concerning episodes one and four - what a fun day in studio that must have been! Janson, Manning and Doddington are such fun; I doubt I'll ever think of the word 'Gomegog' in the same way again. The introductory interview with David Llewellyn is interesting too, as we gain a little insight into the development process Worlds went under. I think it's safe to say the format we ended up with works.

This set serves perfectly well as an introduction to all of these characters, and the careful production means you can pick up each series' shorthand with ease. I'd also recommend this to veterans of all included ranges too though, as these are all great stories in their own right. There has inevitably been talk of the possibility of a second set on the BF forums, but I'm not entirely sure which ranges might be involved in a follow-up. Briggs jokingly labels this the 'unlicensed characters boxset' and scanning the ranges page, I can't see many other possible inclusions. Mervyn Stone, the Scarifyers and Charley Pollard seem to be the only options. If there is a second set, it might be interesting to visit some of the best-loved characters who don't have their own series for second helpings. If BF choose to tie in any future stories to this, although I think it's unlikely, there's plenty of gaps to explore.

So in short, this is very much recommended. It collects together six very different character and manages to tie them into one coherent narrative. The explanation for events is pleasingly intelligent and there's lots of little moments to enjoy along the way. I must just give the Iris story one more mention - you can really sense Llewellyn having fun and it's one of the best things Big Finish have put out over the last few years. In fact, as a complete product, I think that's true of the whole of Worlds. I've really enjoyed going through this at the pace of one episode a day. Just a quick mention for the production - Steve Foxon's music and sound design is excellent here and there are several extremely catchy tunes used. Foxon gives Worlds an enjoyable fluidity and the work displayed here is clearly that of a talented performer.

 The boxset model that Big Finish seem to be leaning towards increasingly saddens me a little bit because it makes things like this less of a series when you can listen to the whole lot in one go. Something like the Dorian Gray or Bloodlust model of making downloads steadily available before releasing the physical set would probably be my preference nowadays. But, returning to the product itself, this is a fantastic, three-hour epic that I'd happily recommend to Big Finish fans, no matter their vintage. 

At the amazing price of £20 for the four CDs, I don't think you can go wrong with this digestible yet thoughtful release. There's something for everyone.

Handcock and Llewellyn are magic together and I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

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