The current run of the Tenth Doctor Adventures at Big Finish draws to a close with three stories revisiting old friends
Big Finish, as they used to tell us on a weekly basis, love stories. And David Tennant, it appears, loves Big Finish. As he reflects in the accompanying interviews for Tenth Doctor ● Classic Companions, it’s only his ceaselessly busy schedule that’s kept his audio adventures relatively sporadic for several years. After all, he is one of the most demand actors on British television.
But like most actors, Tennant found his diary suddenly rather empty looking in 2020 thanks to a certain global pandemic. So in the months when he was supposed to be romping around the globe filming the delayed Around the World in 80 Days, he instead joined the small legion of former Doctor Who stars sitting under blankets in makeshift home studios across the world. It’s natural then to use this rare opportunity to scratch some items off of mutual bucket lists.
As the rather prosaic name tells you, Tenth Doctor ● Classic Companions lets Tennant out to play with some of the actors that he used to watch on TV growing up. It begins with the Doctor finding K9 Mk II adrift in space. This gives Tennant and Doctor Who veteran John Leeson a chance to finally work together in real time. Leeson, after all, recorded his dialogue for previous team ups in post-production. Together, the Doctor and K9 encounter three other former companions – Leela (Louise Jameson), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), and Ace (Sophie Aldred). The Doctor finds them all decades after their original time travelling in the TARDIS, and much changed by the years inbetween. But can old friendships be reignited, or have they grown too far apart?
Splinters brings the Doctor and K9 to an enchanted forest where Leela has spent decades trying to save one village
Stumbling across K9 in deep space, the Doctor discovers the late Romana had given their faithful old tin dog one final Time War mission. He’s standing guard over a fracture between dimensions caused by the War. But now the two must track down the flotsam and jetsam falling through until it can be closed forever. This quest to track down the lingering dangers of the Time War brings them first to medieval Cornwall, where they meet their old friend Leela. The one time Sevateem warrior has been standing a vigil of her own. She’s devoted three decades to guarding over a village besieged by the evil arboreal forces of the Spriggon.
But this is a Leela who has been beaten down by the weight of constant failure. Every time one of the village’s children turns eighteen the Spriggon comes to claim them, every time Leela opposes him, and every time she fails. But her familiar spirit still shines through. After all she still fights, even as she places little hope on the Doctor winning the day. Splinters is a story built on fairytale logic, and follows the rhythms and patterns of the genre. As a result it’s a story that holds few surprises, and even the climactic revelations feel curiously weightless despite coming out of left field.
As such Splinters rests largely on Louise Jameson’s capable shoulders. She gives a thoughtful, layered performance of a Leela far removed from her savage roots, but undeniably grown from them. Intriguingly, too, the ending consciously opens a door to further post-Time War exploits for Leela, regardless of her ultimate fate in Gallifrey.
It’s Nyssa’s turn to meet the Tenth Doctor in The Stuntman, though this is not Nyssa as you’ll remember her
Next, the Doctor turns up at a movie studio claiming to be a big fan of rising stunt star Kasey-Ann Frost. It’s clear from the start though that he has an ulterior motive. After all she not only has a striking resemblance to a certain former companion of his, but her name is an anagram of “Nyssa of Traken.” She’s also accompanied everywhere by her protective father “Kent Novum” as played by John Leeson. So there’s not much mystery as to what’s going on here. So The Stuntman concerns itself chiefly with why Nyssa and K9 are living out this fantasy life, and how in the world the Doctor’s going to get them out of it.
There aren’t many suspects for our villain either. It means a lot hangs on the mechanics of exactly how Nyssa and K9 awaken their original memories. And with characters trapped in a dream world not even knowing that they are a pretty familiar subgenre, there isn’t a lot of room to say anything novel or unexpected there either.
It’s only the final scenes that bring the trio together in a recognisable way, but they’re rich in unanticipated emotion
So again, we’re in the hands of the performers. For his part, David Tennant doesn’t get an awful lot to go outside of fast talking, loud exclamations of excitement and making that exasperated noise (y’know, the one where you can practically picture him scrubbing his hair with his hands in frustration.) But writer Lizzie Hopley smartly seizes on the fact that Nyssa and K9 have never actually met before. It leads to some sweetly emotional moments between the pair. Sarah Sutton pitches these moments beautifully, with its reflection on an underexplored aspect of Nyssa’s past. Meanwhile, John Leeson shows again just how underrated he is as a voice actor. Here he fills K9’s familiar tones with deeper meaning without ever breaking character. We’re familiar with the supposedly unemotional machine’s sardonic and prideful streaks, but a melancholic tin dog is something new and special.
The Quantum of Axos provides Tenth Doctor ● Classic Companions’ high point, as Ace gets her School Reunion moment
Final story The Quantum of Axos is the highlight of the set. The previous two entries served up versions of our classic companions far enough removed from how we remember them that they don’t quite deliver the reunions you might expect. But we finish up on a story that gives you everything you could want from the concept. Ace has long been a character with a foot in two worlds, both the last of the classic companions, and in many ways the prototype for the ones who followed her. So she’s perfectly suited into this kind of story. Both a menace and emotionality of Quantum of Axos would have sat comfortably anywhere in the RTD1 era.
Ace has had many potential futures over the years. But recently timelines seem to have settled down to the one where, as Dorothy McShane (“not ‘Dot?’,” grumps the Doctor, “I could have worked with ‘Dot,'” before launching into a series of dot related puns) she heads up the NGO A Charitable Earth. But as with the 21st century reintroduction of Sarah Jane, she’s still completely the same woman. A tad mellower, perhaps; more responsible, maybe; but still as headstrong, quick witted, and passionate as ever. And still as willing to jump, Doc Martens first, into trouble.
Like a classic episode of the first Russell T Davies era, Quantum of Axos has a great hook, sparkling dialogue, and insightful character work
The Doctor and Ace’s shared history is also fertile ground for this kind of story. David Tennant’s Doctor might be an open book compared to some. However, Dorothy is understandably wary that he may have some master plan he’s keeping secret from her. While Axos’ nostalgic angle of attack against the Doctor is an image of an Ace not yet wounded by his previous self’s manipulations. (Not that Big Finish haven’t turned Ace on and off again to restore her to factory settings before).
The same great ear for the Tenth Doctor era writer Roy Gill previously displayed in The Creeping Death helps everything along. The notion of Axos spreading itself around the Earth via a Reface style app on people’s phones is pure Davies. While David Tennant delivers a quick flowing stream of whimsy and intelligence like it’s 2008 all over again. The Doctor and K9’s relationship really sparks to life too. It’s a lovely update of the subtly passive aggressive banter and humour of the 1970s.
In many ways, it feels like a setup for the Ace Adventures spin-off we didn’t get. (The ‘Roy Gill for Showrunner’ campaign start here.) All in all, Quantum of Axos should leave you very excited about Sophie Aldred’s television return next month in The Power of the Doctor. There’s even a continuity escape hatch for Ace’s claim about not having seen the Doctor for thirty years…
Tenth Doctor ● Classic Companions seldom reaches the idea’s full potential but it’s still a unique chance to hear favourites old and new together
Quantum of Axos may be the stand out entry here. But any opportunity to spend time with David Tennant’s Doctor is an absolute must. And with Tenth Doctor ● Classic Companions the last Big Finish have planned for the moment, it’s your final chance to indulge in some slim jim, spiky haired goodness. Well, until the 60th Anniversary, at least.
Doctor Who: Tenth Doctor ● Classic Companions
The Tenth Doctor revisits his companions K9, Leela, Ace and Nyssa long after their time-travelling adventures have finished. Because they all need help, and when people need help, the Doctor will never refuse…