I’ve been gone for a long, long time, but I’m gearing up for a big comeback.
Over the next several weeks I will be running a series of articles on the strange history of the Faction Paradox audio dramas, featuring a critical overview of the series, transcribed interviews with directors, and audio excerpts. Faction Paradox isn’t a typical sci-fi audio serial. While it isn’t flawless or easy, however, it is as beguiling as it is bewildering. If working your way through a dense thicket of rich characters, intricate ideas, and surprising touches of genuine emotion sounds enticing, I highly recommend you tune in.
Faction Paradox originally started as a supporting player in the Dr. Who novel Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles. In later years, Miles would wean this anarchic, time-traveling voodoo cult / criminal organization away from its Dr. Who roots. Although Miles retained some concepts from the show under new names and auspices (the Time Lords became the Great Houses, timeships replaced Tardises, etc.) and reintroduced licensed villains (the Sontarans, Sutekh), Faction Paradox has since emerged as a genuinely unique and self-sustaining fictional creation. Miles and other writers have advanced and expanded that creation through a line of novels, comics, and audio dramas.
The next several weeks will be devoted exclusively to the Faction Paradox audio dramas, but today I want to ground that in a brief primer on commercial Dr. Who audio drama spin-offs. In particular I want to introduce the “Big Three” spin-off companies to readers: BBV, Big Finish, and Magic Bullet. Again, this is just to provide a context for the articles that follow: it is not an exhaustive account. I will in all likelihood discuss these companies and their works in more depth later.
The British television series Dr. Who is currently enjoying a renaissance on television. But before its rebirth it was off the air for well over a decade, and passionate Who fans were eager – even desperate – to consume the adventures of their hero in any form they could, be it books, comics, or yes, audio drama. Old series writers and new ones from fandom filled the television vaccuum with off-air stories, which they published however they could: through the Virgin or BBC book lines, via independent business ventures, or with zines or audio tapes circulated informally among friends. While there remain many amateur producers of Dr. Who audio drama, three British companies define(d) the scene with professional, licensed work featuring the original television actors: Big Finish, Magic Bullet, and the now defunct audio drama branch of BBV. (I don’t want to leave a snobby impression with this amateur / professional distinction. Both Big Finish and BBV had significant roots in the amateur fan audios produced under the “Audio Visuals” name. If there is one lesson for amateurs here, it is to persevere and hone your craft. Amateur work can be the foundation of later professional careers.)
BBV was the first of the three companies to market Dr. Who inspired audio dramas. Coming on the scene as a producer of Dr. Who-related fan films in 1991, BBV primarily focused on producing sci-fi adventure videos starring Dr. Who analogues and monsters. BBV began publishing audio drama spin-offs in 1998 and continued until 2004. As with the films, BBV’s Audio Adventures in Time and Space line consisted mostly of serials starring thinly-veiled analogues of the Doctor (The Stranger, The Professor, The Dominie) and his companion or of one-off adventures featuring popular Dr. Who monsters. BBV audio productions were often on the raw side, with variable success in sound design and casting. At their best, they had a crazy energy and a darker tone than the show that inspired them.
Big Finish locked up the actual Dr. Who license and began publishing official Dr. Who adventures with the original series actors in 1999. They are easily the largest of the three operations, producing 12 new mainline Doctor Who releases every year (starring the original Doctor actors) and numerous spin-off series, as well as serials derived from other t.v. properties like Dark Shadows, Stargate, Sapphire and Steel, and the Tomorrow People. Although small by book publishing standards, they may well be the largest privately owned producer of new, full-cast / full-script audio drama in the world. (Although there are probably a couple of German companies that could challenge that.) I will be covering their productions at a later date. Big Finish keeps a remarkable standard of quality considering the amount of work they publish per year, and their best efforts are classics. The relentless pace of production and the variety of hands working on each release means that there have been a fair share of lukewarm releases as well, and probably of necessity a “House style” has developed that, while solid enough, could stand some creative shaking up.
Magic Bullet established itself in 2000 as a small, sporadic boutique publisher of audio drama of the highest standard – the old cliche “quality, not quantity” applies here. Instead of focusing on the entire parent Dr. Who series, their line coalesced around a small corner of it: the characters, settings and concepts from Dr. Who / Blake’s 7 series writer Chris Boucher, particularly his classic Tom Baker arc, The Robots of Death and the later book sequel, Corpse Marker. Their impressive Kaldor City audio drama serial blended Blake’s 7 and The Robots of Death to create a dark future manipulated by intriguing bastards. There have been some mind-twisting releases, but as yet no duds from Magic Bullet. They just don’t do shoddy work.
Still another company, Cosmic Hobo, came on the scene in 2006 with their supernatural serial,The Scarifiers. The Scarifiers has no connection to Dr. Who content, but as with the productions mentioned above uses actors from the television show to lure fans. In this case Nicholas Courtney (Detective Inspector Lionheart, the Brigadier on Dr. Who) and Terry Molloy (Professor Edward Dunning, Davros on Dr. Who) create an endearingly quirky, gentlemanly atmosphere. These good-humored Lovecraftian serials are best listened to in an attic on a rainy night, but in pleasant company with comfy chairs, good tea, biscuits, toast and jam.
If you are already a Dr. Who fan, you most likely are already aware of these companies. (And if not, have at them!) If you aren’t a fan, you might dismiss anything Dr. Who-related out of hand. But the notion that Dr. Who is inherently second-tier on any level – creative, technical, or performance – is ill-considered. There are few ghost stories as well-crafted and haunting as Rob Shearman’s The Chimes of Midnight or as funny, moving, and horrific as the archetypal Shakespearean nightmare at the center of his The Holy Terror. I have yet to hear or read any circular narrative as compelling as Jonathan Morris’s existential black comedy, Flip Flop, an inventive 2 CD story that can be listened to in either CD order. No American audio sci-fi serial is smarter, slicker, or meaner than Kaldor City. While some match him, there are no sound designers in American audio drama superior to Alistair Locke. That’s no slight; he’s just that good.
Yes, many Dr. Who audio releases are flaccid and uninspired. This is true of anything. But many other works in the genre demonstrate intelligence, passion and creativity that can’t be denied.
Faction Paradox boasts plenty of all three. Do you need to be a Dr. Who fan to appreciate it? It definitely helps, but if you invest a little time in it, I’d say no. Tune in next week for a series overview and sample tracks that will allow you to judge for yourself.