The BBC logo appears on Big Finish CD cases, signifying that Big Finish is licensed by BBC Worldwide to produce Doctor Who. What exactly does that entail?
Vetted by Cardiff (TV Who’s Production Team)
Well, for starters, it means that all Big Finish audio scripts are “approved by Steven’s team at Cardiff” (@BigFinish tweet). Now and then, Big Finish scripts do not get passed:
‘Originally, the Rutan story was supposed to be a sort of Home Guard 1940s in Stockbridge, in World War II. And that actually had Churchill in it. And when we put this idea to Cardiff, they came back and said, “NOOO, you can’t use Winston Churchill, because we’re using him in the next series of Doctor Who!” And there was an entire story that went out the window…’
— writer Alan Barnes on the CD Extras for Big Finish Heroes of Sontar
Since then, Big Finish has been licensed to play with the TV Churchill character, and produced The Churchill Years with Ian McNeice reprising the role.
Again, the Big Finish Paul Spragg memorial Short Trip Competion rules stipulate that:
‘The BBC have to approve our usage of a winning story. Should there be unforeseen issues with the work, the writer will be invited to submit a new idea.’
In short, the BBC has veto power over Big Finish Doctor Who, and the BBC Wales production team in Cardiff checks each audio script to make sure it won’t clash with TV Who.
Big Finish’s Debut: “official Doctor Who canon”
Even before the TV reboot required coordination between audio and TV productions, all audios were BBC-vetted. This has been true since Big Finish was first licensed:
‘To ensure that the plays remain faithful to the Doctor Who TV series in terms of style and content, BBC Worldwide has understandably insisted the right to approve all storylines and scripts. To this end, Stephen Cole — consultant to the Doctor Who book and video ranges at Worldwide — has been appointed executive producer for the BBC for Big Finish’s Doctor Who output.
‘Cole commented: “As far as the BBC is concerned, these new stories are seen as part of the official Doctor Who canon. A great deal of responsibility comes with that status, and Worldwide did not assign this license without careful thought.”’
— from Doctor Who Magazine’s original announcement of Big Finish being licensed to produce Who audios, which was subtitled ‘EXCLUSIVE! Doctors unite for “canonical” drama’
Since the beginning, BBC4 radio has intermittently broadcast their audios on air and online as part of its programme. (Here’s current listings.)
Originally, Big Finish was only licensed for classic Who characters not appearing in the modern TV series. Sadly, that meant they had to pause their Sarah Jane Smith series on a cliffhanger when she returned to TV.
BF’s consistent quality has now earned them the right to produce new (post-2005) Who as well. So far, new Who audio series have included the Tenth Doctor and Donna (and, soon, Rose), River Song, Torchwood, the War Doctor, Churchill, Strax, Kate Stewart and Osgood. [ETA: I asked Jason Haigh-Ellery for clarification in Feb 2017, and he told me they are now licensed to use new Who elements up through the end of Matt Smith.]
Cross-Pollination Between Audio and TV Who
In fact, there’s been a two-way relationship between Big Finish Doctor Who and TV Doctor Who ever since the new series was revived.
2015’s Big Finish audio The Toy includes a Russell T. Davies interview reminiscing about Big Finish and enthusing about their new adaptation of his novel Damaged Goods. He owes a great deal to the audio studio he helped save.
In Doctor Who Annual 2006, Russell T. Davies described the Time War as springing from events first presented in Gallifrey and other Big Finish audios with President Romana:
‘It’s said that under the Act of Master Restitution, President Romana opened a peace treaty with the Daleks. Others claim that the Etra Prime incident began the escalation of events. But whatever the cause — and it is certain the full story has yet to be uncovered — the terrible War began.’
— Russell T. Davies explaining the origins of the Time War, Doctor Who Annual 2006, p. 20.
Most of Big Finish’s Gallifrey stories take place during Romana’s presidency, and the Etra Prime incident occurs in The Apocalypse Element.
There are many other ways in which audio Doctor Who has contributed material and team members to new Who. Mark Gatiss, Gary Russell, Rob Shearman, and numerous other Big Finish mainstays came over to help the new show get off the ground. Dalek was Rob Shearman’s rewrite of his Big Finish story, Jubilee. The voice of that Dalek, as well of the majority of the Daleks, Cybermen, and many other aliens on TV Who is Big Finish executive producer Nicholas Briggs. Joining him as one of the main Dalek operators on TV is Barnaby Edwards, Big Finish writer, actor and director. So there is a lot of overlap between the audio and TV studios.
Big Finish According to Steven Moffat
The 50th anniversary officially placed Big Finish continuity before TV audiences when the BBC aired The Night of the Doctor, in which Eight recited his Big Finish companions up to the time that scene was filmed. Moffat was confirming the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures as canon with a deliberate callback to the Seventh Doctor reciting his companions’ names in The Curse of Fenric. And yes, The Night of the Doctor is canon too:
‘And we don’t call them prequels, we don’t call them minisodes, we just call them Doctor Who.‘
— Steven Moffat on The Night of the Doctor
Moffat has also eulogised Big Finish Doctor Who at the BBC Audio Awards, in which the BBC recognised Big Finish for their outstanding work:
‘I am completely thrilled, I am air-punching. In the wilderness years, when Doctor Who was off the air, Big Finish did so much to keep the legend alive in the hearts and minds of the fans. Now, in this time of Who abundance, it is beyond exciting to see their excellent work recognised. Hopefully this award will bring the Big Finish audios to the attention of an even wider public. Recently, on TV, we saw how the Paul McGann Doctor died – now it’s time to find out he lived.’
In that quote, Moffat draws no distinction between TV and audio Who.
‘Of course, Paul [McGann] is not only known for the telemovie but for all his wonderful audio adventures. I’m always telling the Doctors and companions, as they come through the show, that they’ll never be quite done with it – Big Finish is expecting them.’ — Steven Moffat
The relationship between TV and audio is obviously a friendly one, especially since the executive producer of Big Finish is on set so often.
Here’s Steven at the 2014 London Film and Comic Con:
‘I’m always telling Nick Briggs I’m writing Big Finish gaps so that he can put some more stories in and [I] say, “Right, there, he’s on Trenzalore for ages, go in there. We don’t know how long he was messing around before he goes on the cloud in The Snowmen. You’ve got your chance.” And I tell the Doctors as they come through, as far as I’m concerned, I’m very happy for them to have their Big Finish afterlife.’
But Doctor Who Canon Isn’t Canon
For the first few decades of Doctor Who’s existence, “canon” was not a concept in the TV industry. Who serials were ephemeral. Those making the show didn’t expect they’d ever be seen again after their initial broadcast. That’s why many of the early episodes were wiped. There was no canon Bible or reference for writers to refer to. There was no easy way to rewatch old episodes. Continuity simply wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
Fans remembered serials they’d seen, of course. They’d argue about major changes, such as the introduction of the twelve-regeneration limit or the very different presentations of Gallifrey in The War Games, The Three Doctors and Invasion of Time. Nevertheless, as you can tell from the TV movie and books in the 90s, continuity was not a major concern, not until… Big Finish, really, since it was trying to produce Who that felt authentic.
New Who has no compunctions about contradicting classic Who. It’s a little more careful not to contradict itself. Even so, after fifty plus years of TV, audios, books and comics, the show would collapse under its own weight if writers were required to adhere to everything that came before.
So Who canon isn’t really canon so much as a big ball of… you get the picture.