Yeah, yeah, okay, we all know I love Doctor Who. Big surprise. But one of my favourite parts of the fandom that I’ve especially been falling in love with over the past few years is Big Finish. I could write a whole post just about Big Finish Productions, but for the sake of time I’ll just say that they create fantastic audio dramas (yes, it is an important distinction from audiobooks), most often spin-offs of popular stories/fandoms. While their biggest claim to fame is their extensive list of Doctor Who stories starring actors from the show, they also do Sherlock Holmes, classic novel/play adaptations, original Big Finish series, and other shows like Blake’s 7 and Callan.
I’ve been listening to Big Finish for about 6 years now, but I think I can safely say that Gallifrey, originally headed up by Gary Russell and Alan Barnes, is one of my favourite things to come out of Big Finish. Not only that, but it’s also one of my favourite “shows” of all time. Now, you may think I’m biased because of my love for Doctor Who, and you’re probably right. But even putting aside the fact that this series is related to Doctor Who, it has so many incredible storytelling elements that I’ve found myself blown away time and time again (and running to my notebook so that I can take notes for my own writing). Gallifrey isn’t just a fantastic Doctor Who series; it’s a fantastic series on its own.
What is Gallifrey, exactly? If you’re a little familiar with Doctor Who, you’ll recognise Gallifrey as the name of the Doctor’s home planet where the time lords reside. However, this series isn’t about the Doctor. Instead, the show highlights the goings-on of Gallifrey while the Doctor’s away playing with the rest of the universe. There are a few characters who lovers of the classic Doctor Who series will recognise, namely Romana, Leela, and K-9. Some original characters are created as well, such as Narvin, the Coordinator of the Celestial Intervention Agency. And then there’s Braxiatel, a character whose background prior to Gallifrey is almost as confusing as his dubious morality.
Apart from a few familiar faces and concepts, however, most of Gallifrey is fresh and brand new. It borrows a little from Doctor Who while still being able to stand alone as its own series. Oh, and did I mention? It’s a political drama. That’s right: a science fiction, time-travelling political drama.
And it’s awesome.
Gallifrey began back in 2004 with its first chapter, Weapon of Choice. It now has 23 chapters within the original six series, as well as three standalone stories, Intervention Earth, Enemy Lines, and Erasure, and a subsequent series called Gallifrey: Time War that’s been released in the form of three boxsets, with the fourth and final boxset on its way in February. The whole series comes in at about 40 hours total, but (ironically) time will cease to exist while you’re listening. I’ve binged through an entire boxset in a day, and if it weren’t for money and not wanting to get through the stories too quickly, I probably would have listened to the entire series within the span of a few weeks. With long series, a lot of times issues can arise where conflicts start repeating themselves or characters start to backslide in their development; or, worst of all, there is no character development at all! Not so with Gallifrey, and this brings me to my first reason why you should listen to this amazing series.
While time is rather a relative concept on Gallifrey, the overall story from Weapon of Choice through Time War 3 seems to span many, many years in the story universe. Many important characters come and go, empires rise and fall, and the main 3-5 characters (depending on where you are in the story) go to the ends of the universe and back again…and again…and again. Trouble is never-ending on Gallifrey. In fact, once on returning to Gallifrey after an absence and immediately being presented with world-ending threats, Leela comments, “Nothing has changed here, then.”
Yet, though the bulk of the stories takes place on the same planet with the same people (or at least the same sort of people), Gallifrey never feels like it’s repeating itself. Every individual story brings something brand new to the overall narrative. While there are some lighter episodes, nothing is ever just “filler.” Because of this, the story is always building on itself. Even in the newer Time War boxsets, there are plenty of callbacks to the original series.
Another issue I’ve seen a lot in long series is that there’s a point where everything “resets” and all the characters and circumstances go back to how they were in the beginning. Oftentimes, writers do this to try and get new people on board with the show. And while Gallifrey does have a sort of soft reset with Enemy Lines and then the Time War series to draw in new fans, it very cleverly continues to build on the foundation that’s been set in the original six series even though it’s the beginning of a new storyline. This makes it exciting for the longtime fans and easy to follow for the new people!
And one of my favourite things about Gallifrey? Not only is it just as fun to listen to a second (third, fourth, fifth…) time, but sometimes it’s even better listening to it again once you have the context of later stories. There aren’t many other series I can say that about.
This is where Gallifrey truly shines. I can say with certainty that I’ve rarely ever seen better handling of characters in any series I’ve ever watched/read/listened to. That may sound like a stretch, but I’m telling you that as I’m sitting here writing this, I’m still mind-blown at these characters. The entire story mainly revolves around Romana, Leela, and Narvin. Braxiatel pops in and out, but I would still consider him a main character as well. To a lesser extent, you have Ace and K-9 as more minor main characters at different points in the series. And then there are plenty of other minor characters as well. For the sake of this topic, I’ll be talking about Romana, Leela, and Narvin, who pretty consistently remain the main characters throughout the series.
First of all, there’s nothing like seeing well-written friendships, and Gallifrey has plenty of them, mainly between these three characters. The relationship that really stands out is between Leela and Romana, two characters who travelled with the same Doctor but never met each other. They’re two completely different species and have contrary worldviews; Leela is concerned with emotions and mindful of the world around her and how it’s all spiritually connected, while Romana has an analytical mind and wouldn’t know feelings if they slapped her in the face (which they have…on several occasions). They are absolute polar opposites, and yet somehow, they understand each other. Their friendship is beautiful and goes through many trials throughout the Gallifrey storyline.
The same goes for the relationships between Narvin and Romana as well as Narvin and Leela. Narvin himself has some of the best character development I’ve ever witnessed, as he gradually evolves from pretty much an antagonist to one of the main protagonists. (The series creator has even said that in his mind, Narvin is the main character of Gallifrey.) While I want to avoid spoilers for the sake of this post, I will say that as I’ve gone back and relistened to the first chapters of Gallifrey, it’s astonishing to see how far Narvin comes throughout the series. And yet, it’s believable without sacrificing any of Narvin’s core character. This character development is one of the things that makes Narvin’s relationships with Romana and Leela so wonderful.
Bottom line: the characters make this series. I’d pay just to hear a story of them sitting around in the CIA Tower doing absolutely nothing. Not only are all of the major and minor protagonists great, but the antagonists are fantastic and truly make you want to pull your hair out (yes, I’m looking at you, Darkel).
Even though Gallifrey is wonderful in its own right, it’s also really fun for Doctor Who fans who have travelled quite a bit around the Whoniverse. Some will recognise Irving Braxiatel, one of the (sort of) main characters, from the Virgin New Adventures novels. Events from other Big Finish stories like The Apocalypse Element, Neverland, and Zagreus are brought up occasionally. Of course, both Romana and Leela talk about their travels with the Doctor from the classic Doctor Who series. Narvin makes appearances in some non-Gallifrey Big Finish stories. The Daleks show up. Even the Master makes an appearance in Gallifrey, as well as some other famous time lords that longtime fans of the show will get excited about.
So yes, Gallifrey is a great independent series, but the writers have also recognised its important place within the entire Doctor Who universe. This makes for some great surprises you’ll never forget and lots of fun cameos to enjoy.
To be completely honest, I could go on forever about Gallifrey. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into when I started it, but I wasn’t expecting to hear one of the best series I’ve ever listened to. And yet, that’s what I got. Gallifrey is wonderfully different from the action-packed adventures in the rest of the Doctor Who universe. Just because it’s a political drama doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting and fast-paced. By the end of the fourth chapter, you’ll be ready to binge the entire rest of the series.