By Gustaf Behr.
In fiction, canon refers to material that is officially accepted as part of a particular franchise’s universe. Another term in canon is continuity, which Doctor Who often plays fast and loose with, depending on the showrunner (looking at you, Chibnall). Canon is difficult to define within the Doctor Who franchise as there are multiple licensed works in production at any given time, such as the TV show, books, comics and audio.
Within fandom we solve this problem by assigning different levels of canonicity to different media, but it’s generally accepted that the TV series comes first, then the Big Finish, then either the comics or the novels. BBC, as well as several producers doctor who Tends to avoid making decisions about canonicity. Although in recent years, Big Finish has surpassed Doctor Who in terms of quality and quantity, the ‘don’t buy the audios, they’re not canon’ argument hasn’t swayed the legions of fans. For someone like me who has heard hundreds of Big Finish headlines over the years, this is a bit disturbing because it simply isn’t true.
“The Night of the Doctor” isn’t the only time the television series makes direct reference to the Big Finish. This has been happening since 2002. There are so many elements of television references (directly) that the only excuse is if ‘Big Finish isn’t canon because it’s never mentioned or affects the television series in any way’. , we need to talk.
Here are some direct examples of television series peeking into the playbook of the Big Finish…
1. The Stones of Venice (original range) – 19 March 2001
The Eighth Doctor reveals a conventional reason why he left Gallifrey. He claimed that it was his belief that ‘good will always triumph over evil’. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is. The exact same reason the First Doctor gave ‘Bill’ during the events of “Twice Upon a Time”.…Sixteen years later.
2. The Eye of the Scorpion (main series) – 17 September 2001
One of the skills the Doctor continues to demonstrate in the new series is the ability to tell a period by smelling the air or certain parts of the environment. It first appeared in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”, but it was the Fifth Doctor who first used this technique, making it, but not the only instance where the TV show adopted a skill introduced in the audios.
3. Colditz (main range) – 22 October 2001
It could go either way, but like most of the entries on this list, how well it fits into the overall continuity of Doctor Who is highly questionable. Towards the end, Feldwebel Kurtz dies while half inside and half outside the TARDIS when it dematerializes. Vision traumatizes Ace to a degree. Fast-forward to “The Husbands of River Song” and the TARDIS now has a security feature that prevents it from dematerializing when someone is in and out of it. I wonder where the Twelfth Doctor got this idea from.
4. Comeback (Sarah Jane Smith) – 7 March 2002
The K9 Mark-III stops working during this story and is eventually left in a box in Sarah’s attic. When “School Reunion” aired four years later, K9 was still broke and Sarah mentioned retiring to her attic. New Who, intentionally or accidentally, adapted this very specific plot point introduced by Big Finish years ago into their stories. How direct is it for that?
5. Master (Main Range) – 31 October 2003
The new series continues to depict the relationship between the Doctor and the Master as childhood friends turned adult enemies. However, in the Classical period, this relationship was almost always shown as antagonistic, implying mutual respect. This ‘friendship’ that makes Newcomer so fond actually stems from Big Finish. The Doctor tells the Master, as well as Death later in the story, that he wants his old ‘friend’ back. This is the first time in franchise history that the two have referred to themselves as friends. Missy echoed the sentiment in the Series 8 finale. In fact, his entire three-season arc revolves around his redemption and the Doctor ‘saving’ him. It was also what the Seventh Doctor promised to do at the end of the audio, and it’s a significant plot point that has been carried over into subsequent incarnations in multiple stories from Series 3.
6. Zagrias (main range) – 23 November 2003
Since Series 1 first aired in 2005, fans have been speculating about what the Doctor had in the series of photographs Clive Rose showed. One of those pictures shows the Ninth Doctor in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But you don’t have to guess why he’s there when you know the Eighth Doctor claims he was once accused of murder. Maybe Nine just wanted to clear his good name?
7. Axis of Madness (Main Range) – April 2004
In “The Name of the Doctor” we learn from the Eleventh Doctor that TARDISes die when the Time Lord pilot dies. However, this part of the Doctor Who mythos pre-existed until 2004 when the Fifth Doctor explained it to his companions. Like the other entries on this list, this proved to be an important plot point.
8. Unchanged (main range) – June 2005 [Recorded Nov 2004]
One of the most memorable scenes in “The Parting of the Ways” involves Rose’s conversation with a hologram of the Ninth Doctor. This concept was never present in the Classic Era, but shortly after his regeneration from the Sixth Doctor, the Seventh Doctor recorded a non-interactive TARDIS hologram of himself, so that Mel could be informed of what was happening. Very familiar indeed. This TARDIS feature would continue to be used in other stories such as “Blink” and “Let’s Kill Hitler”, as well as a variation on it in “The Power of the Doctor”.
9. Circular Time: Winter (Main Range) – 20 January 2007
Although this is a sticking point for some fans, the Tenth Doctor’s explanation of how being resurrected feels like death is exactly the same comparison he made during the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration to the Chameleon Lazarus in “The End of Time, Part 2”: that the Doctor every time he Dies during rebirth.
10. The Girl Who Never Was (Main Range) – 3 December 2007
Although the Doctor has demonstrated psychic powers before in the Classic Era, he has never shown the ability to erase a person’s memories. It’s a skill he’s used continuously in his Tenth, Twelfth and Thirteenth incarnations, but the Big Finish shows this technique long before when the Eighth Doctor tries to wipe Charlie Pollard’s mind. Yet another specific skill that is now part of the TV series ‘canon’.
And there you have it. Long before television series showed us, Big Finish made their debut. I think it’s easy to argue that these are all coincidences, but are they? So many of them?
If I had a nickel for every time a television series that Big Finish years ago significantly referenced/adopted in their stories or chose to include something like that, I would have at least Ten nickels, which isn’t much, but it’s odd that it happened so many times.