Doctor Who: what does UNIT Extinction mean for continuity?

Big Finish is finally entering current Doctor Who continuity with the UNIT Extinction adventures, but what does that mean?

During Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary celebrations, everybody had their own favourite moments. Maybe yours was seeing Matt Smith and David Tennant sparring with each other. Maybe it was the “all thirteen!” moment on Gallifrey, seeing Tom Baker turn up at the end to say “Hi! I’m Tom Baker! How cool is that?”, or watching Peter Davison and Colin Baker try and break into the BBC. There was no shortage of punch-the-air moments for fans. But as someone who spent nearly every moment of the anniversary bouncing up and down and literally clapping my hands with glee, the highpoint came towards the end of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor short, The Night of the Doctor. Just before he regenerates, he utters the words “Charlie, C’rizz, Lucy, Tamsin, Molly, friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you.” With those words, the Big Finish audio plays became canon (Even though we’ve all agreed with Paul Cornell that there’s no such thing as a Doctor Who canon, and don’t obsess about the minutiae of such things at all).

Or, in the eyes of some fans, the TV series became canon. For many fans, particularly those who grew up during the long, dark years of the nineties, Big Finish is Doctor Who. Many of the actors who have played the Doctor have now spent more time playing the character for Big Finish’s plays than they ever did on telly, while the line has also spun off new series based on Jago & Lightfoot (two minor characters that appeared in a single Tom Baker story), Counter Measures (Britain’s pre-UNIT alien fighting agency that feels more like the old Avengers series than Doctor Who), Sarah Jane Smith (long before she was running around on CBBC) and Gallifrey itself, among many others. It makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe look small by comparison.

However, all this time Big Finish has had to operate under one cast iron rule – they can take whatever they like from the original Doctor Who series (subject to approval by the BBC), but they aren’t allowed to use any of the characters or ideas from the 2005 series onwards, until now. Last week Big Finish announced a new series of audios based around UNIT: UNIT – Extinction. Big Finish has done stories starring UNIT before, but this time it will be led by Kate Stewart, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s daughter who started out in a barely official 1990s fan film, but who is now mainly known through Jemma Redgrave’s performance in several Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor episodes. With this, Big Finish is finally entering current Doctor Who continuity. But what does that mean?

Sly Crossovers

Of course, when we say it was a “cast iron” rule, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. Big Finish hasn’t been afraid of sneaking in the occasional crossover with the new series, and the BBC has allowed a fair amount of leniency. Actors such as Bernard Cribbins, Noel Clarke and Arthur Darvill have all had roles in Big Finish stories as different characters. The Peter Davison story The Kingmaker included a sly off-screen (if you can use that phrase for an audio) encounter with a “Nothern chap with big ears”. Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor stories have been getting progressively darker as conflict heightens between the Time Lords and the Daleks and it looks like they may break into all out war. Maybe some sort of “time war”.

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Indeed, the cover of Big Finish’s Gallifrey series recently featured some familiar looking Daleks, and they weren’t from the old series. And when Big Finish decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary by telling the story of how the Doctor fled Gallifrey in The Beginning it made room for the First Doctor’s encounter with Clara in The Name Of The Doctor.

And it’s only fair, as the new series hasn’t been above cribbing from Big Finish when it feels the urge. When the new series wanted to reintroduce the Daleks as a serious threat, they asked Robert Shearman to write a story that shares more than a couple of similarities with his Sixth Doctor audio adventure, Jubilee. When Russell T Davies brought the Cybermen back, the credits included an acknowledgement of the inspiration they drew from Big Finish’s Mondasian Cybermen origin story, Spare Parts. Who TV writers Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell, Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell, Matt Jones and Robert Shearman all started out at Big Finish, and the voice of the Daleks is none other than Nick Briggs, Big Finish’s own executive producer. Oh, and David Tennant’s first role in Doctor Who? It was a Big Finish audio.

So once McGann actually acknowledged his audio companions on screen, the idea of Big Finish moving into the modern continuity didn’t seem so far-fetched, in fact it looks like the BBC and Big Finish have been heading this way for a while.

The Big Finish Universe

The question, in fact, might not be “How much of the Big Finish Audios can be included in the new series continuity?” but “How much of the new series continuity can fit into Big Finish?” Big Finish’s back catalogue currently features over 14 different series set in the Doctor Who universe, not including all the series, limited series, and special releases that actually star the Doctor himself. Lots of these take place in the distant future or far flung galaxies where they’re unlikely to get in UNIT’s way, but it’s not always the case.

For instance, in their Tales From The Vault stories, we discover that UNIT keeps a stash of alien artefacts under the Angel of the North (as well as at the Black Vault in The Sarah Jane Adventures, and underneath the Tower of London), with one of those artefacts being the imprisoned Master. Are we going to hear what Kate Stewart thinks about the fact the Master became Prime Minister at the same time he was supposed to be locked up somewhere near Newcastle? Or that there are two sinister, secretive organisations within the UK Government dedicated to stealing alien technology for British imperial interests- Torchwood and Big Finish’s own “Department C4”. Better yet, will we see present day Big Finish UNIT characters such as Charlie Sato, Ruth Matheson and Elizabeth Klein (okay, technically she’s 90s, but she could still be around!) mingling with characters who think the Doctor looks like Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi?

We asked Nick Briggs whether the new UNIT audios would be using characters and ideas from the established Big Finish universe, and he responded “We don’t have any announcements to make on who will be joining Kate Stewart’s team at the moment, but the finished product will be as much a part of the Doctor Who universe as the other spin-off series Big Finish has produced.”

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Which is definitely not a no.

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