Guest contributor Kieran Brennan takes us on a journey through the Eighth Doctor’s early adventures at Big Finish, starting with Storm Warning by Alan Barnes!
Though listening to Storm Warning in 2021 may have it appear as a standard, but good, Big Finish story, there should be no doubt it’s perhaps one of the most important stories in their entire catalogue. Releasing about a year and a half after The Sirens of Time, Paul McGann‘s return to the role of the Eighth Doctor was arguably the biggest thing to happen to the franchise since he made his first appearance in the 1996 TV movie. More than just a quick side adventure for an older Doctor, or a new companion to fill in a gap, Storm Warning and the three other Eighth Doctor releases that followed it were an actual continuation of the series.
Even here, we can see the seeds planted of future overarching stories and relationships. A new sense of continuity running through the stories adds so much more tension. Obviously now with the Night of the Doctor minisode we know how this Doctor’s story ends, but in 2001 there really weren’t any limitations to how big, small or explosive Big Finish could get. So how did they choose to open this bold new era of Doctor Who? A simple, tropey, humans scared of aliens and trying to harm them story. Brilliant.
Yes, it’s this simple, classic formula that almost seems quaint in Doctor Who’s wider context that creates the perfect reintroduction to the Eighth Doctor. Stuck onboard the famous airship the R101, which history says is destined to crash only a few hours after taking off, the Doctor discovers there may be more to the ship’s tragic ending than meets the eye. It’s classic Who stuff, but it gives McGann the manoeuvrability to play with the role and material he’s given with and to find his feet with this character once again.
Accordingly, he brings a much more concrete vision of the character than seen in the TV movie years earlier. He keeps that same aloof nature, but plays it in a much more mature and reserved way than before. This Doctor seems as though he’s about to burst at any moment, through pure fascination with the universe around him, but just about manages to keep it together so he can function how he feels he’s supposed to. McGann of course does this excellently and is helped by the wonderful direction by Gary Russell and script by Alan Barnes.
Newcomer Charlotte “Charley” Pollard, played by India Fisher, also shines as the Eighth Doctor’s first long term companion. She of course gets less play in this than I can only assume she’ll get in future adventures (this is my first time going through the Eighth Doctor’s adventures) but she’s performed well enough that you get a sense of her character, and perhaps more importantly for a first adventure, why the Doctor likes her.
Unfortunately what lets down Storm Warning is its second half, where the focus shifts more towards a slightly more routine Doctor Who plot and further away from letting McGann and Fisher explore their characters. Without getting into spoilers, the third and fourth parts of the adventure take a turn that seems to halt the momentum and fun characterization that had been building up until that point. Even the side characters go from fun, light background characters, to a slightly boring side cast you’d expect to find in a random episode of the original show.
It’s the downside of having such a massive task at hand, that being restoring faith in McGann’s Doctor and continuing the legacy of the show, you usually have to play it safe. It’s fair and expected, but just a little disappointing to see something start really well and fizzle out just a bit by the end. Well, no, that’s a little unfair. The last ten or so minutes are quite good, they pick up fast and the very ending of this is lovely, but there’s just that matter of the forty minutes that seems to drag the story down a bit.
Storm Warning is a remarkably solid opener for the Eighth Doctor’s adventures at Big Finish. Paul McGann effortlessly slips back into the role, even if the script isn’t always at the same quality as his performance. A natural jumping on point for new Big Finish fans, this should of course be one of your go-to listens if you’re at all interested. Plus it’s available on Spotify basically for free!
Storm Warning is available as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com