The audio drama, I feel, is an underrated format these days. Video killed the radio star a long time ago, I guess. I walk very nearly everywhere, and I need something to keep my brain occupied while my feet move; this is absolutely vital because, left unsupervised, I quite frequently wind up chattering to and with myself while I move. Not out loud, you understand -- I am mad, but not ostentatiously so -- but the internal monologue can go weird and suddenly depressing places without something suitable to prime the pump.

There are a variety of podcasts that I use for that, and for blocking out obnoxious roommate noises when I'm trying to sleep, and the obvious assortment of audiobooks from Librivox, but there are also pieces of purpose-produced fiction that help pass the time on the train. One of the go-to collections are the various ranges of audioplays from Big Finish Productions, a British company who specializes in such.

Big Finish is apparently run by nerds who are genuinely fans of this sort of thing, and when they scraped up the wherewithal to ask the BBC if they would consider outsourcing some DW radio plays, they were rather surprised to get an answer of 'oh, sure -- while you're at it, did you want the rights to some of this other stuff we bought off ITV ages ago?' You could say they took this and ran with it in much the same sense you could say that the Olympic torch-bearers set out for an idle jog with their favorite stick. They're responsible now for not only Doctor Who audioplays, but also for the spin-off series centered on Gallifrey, the Daleks, Sarah Jane Smith, and a Seventh Doctor companion named Bernice Summerfield from the Virgin Publishing novel range, but also some unrelated properties whose fandoms tend to overlap, like Dark Shadows, Sapphire & Steel and Blake's 7.

If you ever find yourself wondering what the actors from old Who have been up to since leaving the show, in many cases, the answer is usually 'more Doctor Who'. There have been a few outright refusals that I'm aware of; for a long time, Tom Baker turned down flat any work associated with the property, and Anthony Ainley was apparently just not interested in doing the audios. Other than that, the rare 'no, sorry' sems to have been followed immediately by, '...I just cannot figure out how to get myself from [other continent where I now live] to the UK in time for your recording sessions,' and sincere expressions of regret. The audio range has now been running long enough that most everyone who wanted to participate has gotten their chance. Very nearly everyone still alive, in fact, and with a little clever editing, a few people who aren't.

Science fiction works particularly well in audio format. Much of it involves building up strange settings and alien worlds, something which can often be done quicker and more effectively -- not to mention far more cheaply -- in words than in a TV studio. You need never worry that your rubber monster suit looks too much like a rubber monster suit on the radio. Not that the general rubbery suitness of the things ever really bothered Doctor Who. It started out as a series for kids, and their policy seems to have remained firmly at 'if you know what we're going for and it crosses your mind to hide behind the sofa, the effects are fine'.

Radio dramas have narrative conventions, the same as film and TV do. They actually share a number of rules, such as the one about conservation of motion. In film, if your actor is walking from left to right in the close-up shot, he'd better also be walking left to right in the long shot as well; likewise in radio, if you pan your actor's voice from left to right in one scene to indicate movement, then you can't randomly switch the direction of the pan, or your audience is going to get dizzy. They also share a number of assumptions about things that are happening out of 'frame'. If a character in shot is conversing calmly with a character out of shot, then the audience is led to assume that there's nothing unexpected happening where they can't see it -- the character we can see is supposed to give some sort of reaction if something surprising has taken place. The audience furthermore assumes that the visible character's idea of unexpected things is roughly the same as theirs, and you can play with this as effectively on the radio as you can on TV, especially on a show where the lead routinely does six impossible things before breakfast.

A lot of the Big Finish audios take full advantage of the narrative conventions of radio. Several of the stories would be difficult to do properly on video; a significant part of Embrace The Darkness, for example, takes place in pitch black caves, for entirely plot-relevant reasons. It could probably be filmed with a lot of creative framing and lighting, but most of the point is that no one, including the Doctor and Charley, can see what the hell is going on, and if the viewer can it would destroy a lot of the suspense. You could probably work out some way to film ...Ish as well, but it would be highly surreal and probably very difficult to follow, not to mention extremely dialogue-heavy; the entire story, and most of the "action", is word-based, to the point where there is almost no physical description at all.

Some of them would be outright impossible. Whispers of Terror couldn't be worked at all on video, I don't think. The Sixth Doctor and Peri aren't among my favorites, but that story is -- it takes unfair advantage of the "don't dump wadges of exposition on people" rule of describing things in audioplays in much the same way that The Sixth Sense takes advantage of the "don't show the boring stretches of time to the viewer" rule of film. It's subtle, and despite the fact that the plot revolves around the metatextual act of people telling and editing stories for their own ends, Rashomon-style, the reveal comes as a genuine surprise. Obvious in hindsight, so to speak, but before you're told, you have no reason to even guess that anything odd is happening, much less what it might be.

For the anoraks among us -- including me -- some of the audios also fill in continuity gaps in the old series. Someone finally remembered to explain what the hell Turlough got up to back on Trion, that he manages to be the only companion who ever responds to "But where are we?" by just looking over at the console and reading the damn display, a skill none of the others ever mastered, judging from the frequency with which they make the Doctor do it. I still don't think they've explained how the Doctor picked up Mel, though, and poking at the regeneration of Eight into Nine is apparently verboten by the new DW production crew.

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