As part of our ‘Beginners Guide’ for those new to Doctor Who and its related media, today we are delving into the question of whether or not the Big Finish Audio adventures are ‘worth it’.

Back in the early 2000s, when I was first getting into Doctor Who as a poor student, I was hesitant to delve into the already growing Big Finish audio adventures. I was happily watching the show on UKGold thinking that one day, when I had a better job, I’d get into the audios eventually. I talked to other fans, some of whom enjoyed Big Finish, others who were skeptical. “Is it worth it?” they’d say.

It’s a question that I’ve heard less and less, but slowly as the catalogue of audio adventures has grown and grown beyond measure, I feel it creeping up again. Indeed, when I was at a local Comic Con recently, I had a conversation with a group of fans who said they weren’t sure if getting into Big Finish and they used the phrase ‘is it worth it’.

War doctor Big FinishThe answer has to depend on what people mean. Is it worth the time? Is it worth the money? Is it worth the effort? Why are these the considerations people have with Big Finish but not, say, with the DVDs? Do people consider the audio adventures somehow on a lesser level than other media? If so, why? Is it canonicity? Or is it something else? Do people assume up front that the audios won’t be as good as the tv show?

The audio dramas that I have listened to (and I’ve listened to quite a lot of them) have been, for the most part, superb. I would recommend anyone who is interested in hearing the brilliant performances, the great writing, and challenging concepts to give them a go. Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor Adventures are my own personal favourite, but every Doctor has a chance to shine in all of the ranges. But I don’t think the worries expressed to me were based on the perceived quality of the plays themselves.

The full catalogue can be somewhat daunting. If you got every CD of every audio adventure and placed them in a line next to one another, they’d probably reach all the way around the world. Probably. I’ve not done the math. So for many the hopes of fully comprehending the series and the mythology may seem like an impossible task.

Part of the question may boil down to ‘do I have to listen to them in order to know what’s going on?‘ Or, to put it another way, ‘are the audio dramas canonical‘ (meaning, are they part of the official story)?

The audio adventures exist to expand on the characters, the concepts, and the legends of the show. They sometimes introduce new characters, delve into the past, present, and future, and explore ideas often on a deeper level than the show tends to. This is, perhaps, because the audience for the audio adventures is a little more niche, where the show has to appeal to a wider populace.

Fans have been known to argue over which audio adventures are ‘canonical’, and which are not, or if all of them count. Based on the 8th Doctor’s final words, I’m tempted to lean towards at least his adventures being ‘canonical’. But that is an argument for another time.

8th doctor doom coalition big finishDoes the show contradict this play, or that one? Do the audios present the characters in a way people don’t agree with? Does it fundamentally change your view of this or that event? These discussions come up now and again. Most of the time, the audio adventures knit into the show with very little difficulty and there is no reason to really discount them as part of the legendarium.

There is a general rule of thumb that the broadcast episodes that you see on television will, for the most part, be designed for regular viewers, rather than experts. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of every episode that was ever broadcast in order to understand what is going on, and you shouldn’t be expected to have the back catalogue of audio adventures memorized, too. Especially as the audio adventures are ones you need to purchase, it seems pointedly unfair to expect everyone to be able to afford to buy even the most significant and essential ones, just to make sense of the show.

So, are the Big Finish audios ‘worth it’? Well, it depends on what ‘it’ is, ultimately. The number of times I’ve heard this question had diminished over the years as people have discovered the quality of the stories. But there will always be those who ask. It’s up to us to present a good argument, in that case. Until Big Finish start some sort of streaming service, I think a lot of people in these tough economic times might think twice before investing too much in too many plays.

As a result, I think it’s important that we fans who have listened to a good chunk of them do not judge those who have not. We don’t all have the same resources, we don’t all have the time, or the money, for the catalogue. We need to be a fan community that invites others to join in the fun, rather than being ‘competitive fans’.

Alas, I think that when people ask the question of the Big Finish audio adventures, they are asking ‘do I need this in order to understand the Doctor Who universe’? ‘Do I have to listen to them in order to be a “real” fan’?

And no, you don’t. If you like Doctor Who, you are a real fan, whether you’ve seen one episode, or eight hundred and twenty-six episodes, plus every audio drama there ever was. But getting into Big Finish, while costly (depending on how many you buy), can only increase your enjoyment of the franchise.

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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.