Den Of Geek meets Doctor Who: The recording of Leviathan

Stephen drops into the Big Finish studios with Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant...

In 1985, Doctor Who went on hiatus for eighteen months. When it returned, the original plans for Season Twenty Three were scrapped, and stories such as The Nightmare Fair (featuring the Celestial Toymaker), Mission To Magnus (with Sil and the Ice Warriors), Yellow Fever And How to Cure It (scripted by Robert Holmes and featuring the Autons) fell by the way side, never to be recorded.

Last year, Big Finish – the audio arm of ‘Classic’ Doctor Who that produce stories featuring Doctors Five through Eight – set themselves the task of finally recording this missing Season. Along the way they picked up a couple of other Colin Baker stories that had been considered during his tenure. One of these was Leviathan, seemingly scrapped due to budgetary restraints.

Last month, we attended its recording.

There is a, hopefully understandable, nervousness about entering Big Finish HQ in North West London. Not only have these people now been producing ‘Classic’ Doctor Who for the past ten years, not only have they recently unearthed and begun recording the lost stories of the aborted Season Twenty Two, not only is one of these stories – the previously almost entirely unknown Leviathan – being recorded today, but the good Doctor and his companion Peri are in attendance and, almost immediately, we’re ushered into the recording of the story.

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The first thing to note is that, during the recording, minor script editing takes place upon consultation with the actors. The most obvious way in which this occurs is during a battle sequence in which the Doctor and his protagonist, the Baron, are supposed to start attacking each other. Baker states that “The Doctor is not an attacking person,” and explains that although the Doctor would fight, he would only do so out of self defence. The scripts were duly tweaked. I found it strangely moving how dedicated the actor still is to maintaining the ‘correct’ personality and morals of the Doctor.

The scripts are often recorded out of sequence in order that the actors aren’t left waiting around in vocal booths, and on one occasion director Ken states that they will be working ‘backwards’ when the play moves to the next scene, which will be a ‘rare experience’, to which Colin replies, “Not for a Timelord it isn’t.”

One surprise is to find Big Finish regular Beth Chalmers playing two characters – Althya and Maude – in the same scene. Althya is the easier of the two to play, as Beth is required to drain most of the breath from her lungs for the part of the older Maude. At one point, she somehow manages to play a scene in which the two characters have a conversation with each other. It’s fascinating to watch!

It’s also wonderful to watch everyone being so interested in quite what they’re recording. From the use and etymology of words in the script such as ‘jackanapes’ and a reference to Hereward the Wake having tutored the Doctor at fencing, we see Wikipedia being booted up each time so that all references can be duly researched.

Upon the advent of the first tea break, we head back into what is effectively the green room and we find that Colin wants to know quite what it is that Den Of Geek is, and what we do. Having explained this, he jokes that he wants to know how many hits the site gets, stating that “if it’s less than three, then frankly I’m not interested!”

I feel lucky at this point that, prior to conducting this interview, my research has shown time and again that Colin has a somewhat, let us say, bellicose sense of humour. Fortunately, your intrepid reporter is no shrinking violet and resolutely intends to stand his ground.

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Colin removes his laptop from its carrying bag, logs on and heads for our home page. “A review of the season finale of Heroes? No, I won’t have the ending of the finest show on TV spoiled for me!” he laughs. Colin doesn’t like spoilers – not for Heroes, and certainly not for Doctor Who finales, either, as will become apparent later.

Colin next clicks onto the “Any questions for Colin Baker?” article and begins to read. “If you were offered any part alongside Matt Smith, what would you want to play?” grabs his attention firstly, as does “How many pints did it take to do ‘Doctor in Distress’?” In answer to the latter, he states that he had never wanted to do the song on the grounds that, given his job at the time, he thought that his involvement in the record would be unfair given his “vested interest” in the continuation of the series. However, apparently a ‘three-line whip’ from John Nathan Turner ensured his involvement.

Skimming through Den Of Geek’s non too charitable review of Attack Of The Cybermen the actor remains sated by the fact that our reviewer states that his role was “played with some gusto” and, eventually, he clicks onto some of my own work (with regards to, usefully, the Lost Season that we’re to discuss) and indicates that he will, apparently, be happy to consent to the interview.

“I bet you were quaking in your boots, weren’t you?” he jokes.

Nicola Bryant arrives shortly after this, her entrance having been delayed due to her character, the Sixth Doctor’s long term companion Peri not being required until this point in the day. Not long after her arrival, my first interview, with Nicola, takes place. Initially, Nicola seems slightly wary about the interview. Earlier she had, it seems, taken the opportunity to look into my previous work and had, mistakenly, made the assumption that a derogatory comment on the ‘Questions for Colin Baker’ story had been written by me. I assured her that it had not been written by me, although this desire to protect Colin was, like Baker’s own protection of his character earlier, really rather touching. A transcript of this interview will be available on Den Of Geek shortly.

With Nicola released back into the studio, it’s Colin’s turn. We started off discussing the Lost Season, before branching into the wider area of the Big Finish audios in general and finally onto lots of questions in relation to his own role in the television series. He is patient, very informative, and disarmingly honest. Again, I look forward to presenting the interview for your enjoyment shortly.

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One of the areas that the interview touched on was Colin’s prolificacy in the role of the Doctor. He had been informed a short while ago that it appeared that, thanks to the Big Finish audios, he was now the Doctor with the most stories under his belt. He seemed very pleased with this and together we pieced together the number of TV and audio stories. Happily for him, it appears that, with the release of the final ‘Lost Season’ story, he will have notched up 62 turns as Doctor Who (if we count Trial Of A Timelord as just one story). This pushes Peter Davison into second place with a perilously close 61, then Paul McGann with 58, Sylvester with 46, Tom Baker with 41, David Tennant with 34, William Hartnell with 30, Jon Pertwee with 25, Patrick Troughton with 24 and Christopher Eccleston with 10.

It will be interesting to see how this list changes as Doctors Five, Six, Seven and Eight take turns to battle it out in future Big Finish productions, but for now, Colin is happy to reign triumphant.

My third interview, with writer Paul Finch, takes place shortly after another trip to the studio. Paul seems just about as elated as I am to be here, as the day marks not only his first experience of working on Doctor Who, of which he is quite a fan, but it also marks the first time that he has worked on a script alongside his (recently deceased) father, the Tomorrow People and Goodnight Mr. Tom writer, Brian Finch. It was Paul who adapted his father’s script for audio having found out, quite by chance, Big Finish’s plans for the ‘Lost Season’. In the supermarket one day, he chanced to flip through Doctor Who Magazine and, on discovering that the lost stories of Season Twenty Three were to be recorded, remembered that his Dad had written one of these. It eventually turned out that ‘Leviathan’ had, in fact, been a candidate for Season Twenty Two, but lost out, presumably due to budgetary restraints. Still, David Richardson loved it and duly haggled for enough Big Finish budget to fund its recording. Having heard so much of it being recorded on this day, I feel sure that any followers of the Doctor will similarly love this story.

This interview, like the following interview with David himself, in which we undertook a further wide-ranging discussion on the Lost Season and his aims for future Big Finish projects, will also be at Den of Geek soon. After the interviews, it was time to go back to the studio for Leviathan’s finale and the appearance of The Herne.

Being unfamiliar with Leviathan’s script, I had no idea of quite what The Herne was or what it was about to do until the (hidden from view) actor playing it began to bellow, roar and snort the creature’s lines. I was ready to dive behind the studio’s sofa, but Paul Finch was smiling broadly at the creature’s realisation.

After chasing our heroes up a corridor or two, the actor playing the ferocious animal stopped and, in classic ‘luvvie’ mode asked, “What’s his motivation? Does he have respect for the Doctor?” to much laughter.

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As time ticks on, producer Ken asks whether “we’ve got room for this?” to which Nicola replies, “Give us another 200 pages. We’d never say ‘No’!”

Finally, as the last scene wraps, Nicola emits a celebratory “Grrrrrrrreat!” Baker looks surprised and tuts, “What?” Nicola repeats herself.

“Do you want some breakfast cereal?” he quips.

And, with that, the recording is finished and your intrepid reporter retires to the pub with the cast and crew. The main theme of the day has been that of genuine excitement and enthusiasm. The excitement of Paul at seeing his script come to life, the enthusiasm of David for the continued production of the Lost Stories (and Big Finish in general), and both Colin and Nicola’s delight at being a part of such an excellent and engaging tale.