By Matthew Kresal.
You were expecting Christopher Ecclestone?
Picture Courtesy Big Finish.
When Doctor Who returned to BBC One in 2005, it marked a number of changes for the series. Not only in terms of production values and a new Doctor in the form of Christopher Eccelston, but also a new emphasis on the Doctor’s fellow travellers in time and space. Though derided by some as showrunner Russell T Davies bringing soap opera elements into their beloved science fiction series, fleshing out the companion character would prove to be one of the cornerstones for the show’s 21st Century regeneration being a success. Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper) would set the standard across the two series she starred across 2005 and 2006, something that would see her anchoring her own spin-off series of audio dramas from Big Finish Productions that would send the character across alternative Earths, starting in 2019.
That spin-off series, The Dimension Cannon, would be built upon elements introduced around the character both during her tenure as a companion and during her brief return to the show during the 2008 season. Among them would be the TARDIS being thrown into an alternative Earth in the two-parter Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel. A world where not only was Rose’s father Pete Tyler (Shaun Dingwall) still alive, but a version of the Cybermen would have their genesis, attempting to conquer the British Republic and later the world.
Having been foiled on their own, that season’s finale Doomsday would see the Cybermen cross the void between dimensions thanks to experiments conducted by Torchwood, setting the stage for a battle between them and the Daleks. Pete and his Torchwood, meanwhile, built the Dimension Cannon with its associated travel disks, allowing them to cross dimensions in time to rescue Rose and her mum Jackie (Camille Coduri), but leaving them trapped on the alternate Earth as the hole punched by the Cybermen and Torchwood healed forever more. The last time the Doctor and Rose see each other being after she declared that she loved him and his words being lost as he faded away.
Ah, Cybermen. They never get old. And if they do, you can build your own, courtesy of BBC merchandising. World domination is not included in the kits.
Except, being Doctor Who, it wouldn’t be forever. Partners in Crime, which opened Doctor Who’s 2008 season, saw Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) interact briefly with a blonde-haired woman that turned out to be Rose. Following a series of cameos across the season on various screens, Rose appeared alongside a Donna trapped in an alternate timeline in the episode Turn Left. Rose, it would transpire, had been using the reactivated Dimension Cannon to scour the multiverse for the Doctor, only to discover someone had altered his timeline and Donna’s to prevent the events of the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride coming to pass as they should.
Helping Donna to realise that the version of history she was in where the Doctor had died needed to be set right, Rose’s message to Donna would alert the Doctor to a universe-ending threat soon to be taking place. That threat being a Dalek plan to use stolen planets as the source for a reality-destroying device. Having played a role in defeating that plan, Rose, her mum, and a half-human version of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor returned to their alternate Earth to live out their lives (presumably making quarter-Time Lord babies) while Tennant’s Doctor continued onward.
Like Robert Holmes during Doctor Who’s original run, Russell T Davies showed a knack for sparse but effective world building in his scripts during his first tenure as show runner of the modern series. Perhaps most notably with the Last Great Time War, the conflict between the Time Lords and the Daleks that intrigued fans as the immediate back story for the Doctor in the revived series. The Dimension Cannon and Rose’s journey would serve as another example, offering hints of how the lovelorn young woman on that beach had become the confident, take-charge figure in Turn Left. It was such world building that opened a door for Big Finish to explore, bringing back Piper for her own spin-off series 11 years after her return in Turn Left.
The first set was released in 2009 simply as Rose Tyler: The Dimension Cannon. Acting in essence as an extended pilot, the set would re-introduce fans to not only Piper as Rose but also to her parents, Jackie and Pete, in both their established characters from the TV series but also alternative versions. It would also present its premise, to tell the story of Rose’s trips to numerous alternate Earths in search of the Earth she’d left behind so she can contact the Doctor. As such, it would lean heavily into characters and tropes from the era of Doctor Who that had introduced Rose, including some unexpected faces turning up.
The set opened with Jonathan Morris’ The Endless Night. Having arrived on her first alternate Earth, Rose does what she did in her first episode way back in 2005: she seeks out the conspiracy theorist Clive, played once more by Mark Benton. With this Clive not having been killed in one of the series numerous alien invasions, she set out with this version at her side and, with a perhaps less than convincing cover story, she seeks out the equivalents of her parents on this Earth, trying to see just how far off it is from “our” world. This moment, naturally, is when the sun goes out, and the end of the world suddenly becomes very, very nigh.
The Endless Night follows in that wonderfully British science-fiction tradition of playing the uncanny alongside the mundane, something which was also a hallmark of the TV era from which Rose originated. Morris’ script is a full-on pastiche of Russell T Davies writing, capturing emotions running high in a terrible situation with all the good and bad that comes with it. It provided a solid opener for the set and one that set the standard for the three stories that follow.
The set’s second story, Lisa McMullin’s The Flood, moved from apocalyptic drama to a thriller. Rose, now travelling with Clive, arrives in an alternate world where it’s not only raining but has been doing so for years and years. World governments are doing their best to cope, going so far as to outlaw technologies we take for granted in our world, but are they hiding the true scope of the catastrophe? Well, that’s what Rose and Clive set out to reveal. Only they run into some faces they hadn’t expected, including Caroline (Elli Garnett), the woman Clive married in Rose’s world.
Rose meets not only another version of Pete, but also a young man named Rob, which leads to some minor hilarity thanks in part to the obvious chemistry between Piper and actor Joe Jameson. The three of them get involved in a conspiracty thriller that leads to Rose having a very Doctorish confrontation with the Prime Minister (Julia Hills). Clive, meanwhile, gets involved in a quick whirlwind romance that can only end one way.
Listening to Benton and Garnett, reunited for the first time since the making of that first episode fourteen years before, is one of the treats of this release. Add in some Easter eggs for fans of Modern Who, and the result is perhaps the best story of the opening set.
AK Benedict’s Ghost Machines moved away from the apocalyptic for something rather different. Arriving on a very different and quite morbid Earth with very different attitudes towards death, Rose and Pete find themselves face-to-face with this world’s Jackie after Pete gets mistaken for this world’s version of himself. The timing couldn’t be worse as the technology at the heart of this world, where the downloaded minds of the recently deceased are inside everything from juicers to lawn care robots, starts breaking down.
There are some fascinating ideas in Benedict’s scripts, ones which, unfortunately, never quite work as well as they should as they find themselves inside a plot that’s part soap opera and part base under siege.
Rounding off the first set was Matt Fitton’s The Last Party on Earth. With her mother Jackie in tow, Rose drops in on a parallel version of the Powell Estate that she once called home. Checking on the differences between realities, they discover that not only do they and Kevin Bacon not exist here, but also that there’s an asteroid soon to bring life on Earth to an end. So, the Powell Estate is going out in style with the block party to end all block parties. During their time here, Rose and Jackie run into familiar faces (particularly to those who had encountered Davies’ own recent novelisation of the episode that relaunced the series), and romance blossoms between two young men as the world stands on the edge of destruction. While on the lower end of the scale for science fiction and even apocalyptic elements, The Last Party on Earth was an effective drama to close the set on, one that recalled the best of Davies’ character writing as well as some of his non-Who work.
The debut Dimension Cannon box set established what the spin-off could and would do. Its format of a new Earth each episode and interactions with alternative versions of familiar characters gave it a feel not unlike that of the 1990s series Sliders. It combined that format with an empahsis on the characters inhabiting those worlds that came frpm the writing of the Tyler family’s creator but which that aforementioned TV series lacked. Despite its success, it wouldn’t be until Valentine’s Day 2022 that Big Finish would confirm a second and third set were in production. Set to come out in the autumn of 2022 and 2023, respectively, the follow-ups had been recorded within weeks of each other in December 2021 and January 2022.
Clive, Jackie, Rose. The Other World - it's behind you.
Picture courtesy Big Finish.
The second set, given the subtitle Other Worlds, would offer three episodes continuing the “new episode, new Earth” format. Alison Winter opened the set with the episode Saltwater which, having quickly reestablished the premise of the series in its opening minutes, wastes little time dropping Rose and the listener into one heck of a thriller. One that combined Cold War tensions with a hint of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes with a series of incidents leading to sinking ships and a missile crisis threatening two different kinds of disaster. Much like The Flood in the first set, Winter put Rose into something akin to the Doctor’s shoes as she sets about making sense of this world, trying to save it while seeking out any opportunity to try contacting the Doctor. Winter crafted an intriguing Cold War thriller supported by some strong world-building, getting the set off to a strong start.
Having contributed Ghost Machines to the first Dimension Cannon set, AK Benedict returned to the series with an engaging whodunit that put their previous script to shame. With Now is the New Dark, Benedict takes Rose and Clive to a London where progress came to a halt half a millennium before. Stuck in a London where very old-fashioned views of medicine and psychology reign supreme, they meet another Jackie, a man with a familiar name, and get caught amid a set of gruesome murders by a serial killer. Benedict’s use of tropes of elements from the mystery and thriller genres once more prove how well they lend themselves to serving alternate history, such as the stories in Dimension Cannon. The need to investigate and make sense of events can do much of the heavy lifting of world building that can otherwise strangle a good story in its cradle. It’s something that Benedict makes the most of that here, with suspects and references to the larger city that makes this perpetual Dark Ages London come alive even as Rose and Clive struggle to get to the heart of the mystery. If there’s a quintessential episode of this series, it’s Now is the New Dark.
Rounding off Other Worlds would be The Rogue Planet. Penned by Emily Cook (who took over producing the series for Big Finish from David Richardson after the first set), it would be another episode that would find a mix of genres to play with. Namely, Cook starts of with a comedy of errors that escalates into personal drama as Rose and Jackie discover the lives the alternate versions of themselves are living. With an alternate Clive entering the story, things inevitably take a turn for high stakes SF as the titular planet makes its presence felt. It’s a mix of tones and plot twists that would have been too easy to either get lost within or not find the right balance. Cook, to her credit, crafts a strong script while finding that balance, taking on themes of guilt, nostalgia for what might have been, and asking how we might act if we suddenly discovered the world might end. All building up to a cliffhanger that sees Rose trying to escape Earth as major natural disasters hit at once.
A cliffhanger that led into Trapped, released in September 2023. From its outset, the third set would prove to be a different creature than its predecessors. Where previous sets had taken a “one episode, one story” approach with each episode offering a different alternate Earth, this third box set would be set on a single Earth in a trilogy of episodes. Not one on the edge of a potential apocalypse like so many of the others Rose had visited. Instead, the world of Trapped would be one where that apocalypse had not only happened but far enough in the past to be just on the edges of living memory. A world where the mysterious, electric-like Anti-Life has wiped out much of civilisation and rendered many electronics inoperable. It’s into that world that Rose lands, out of the frying pan of one world’s end and into the fire that is this one’s aftermath.
What do you do after an Apocalypse?
Picture courtesy Big Finish.
And with Lizzie Hopley’s Sink or Swim, the set wastes no time doing so. Set aboard a former cruise ship turned floating colony of survivors, it serves as an introduction for both Rose and the listener to what this world has to offer. Without her travel disk, Rose strives to make the most of the situation, particularly when she realises that there is a version of her mum Jackie and an alternate sibling in the form of Danni (Em Thane). This isn’t a happy family reunion, however, and amid the assaults on the ship by pirates and mutated creatures and the unpleasant aspects of life onboard ship, Rose also deals with what’s happened to this alternate version of her family. It’s something that offers some new material for both Piper but especially Coduri to play with. Coduri’s appearances, sparse as they are effective, strip Jackie of the no-nonsense attitude that’s been a trademark since the character’s debut in 2005. Being trapped on the ship becomes almost a metaphor for Rose’s own predicament, seeking her lost disk while also trying to make the best of an increasingly bad situation. As an introduction to the world of Trapped and to Thane’s Danni, Sink or Swim succeeds.
Tim Foley’s middle episode, The Lower Road, takes Rose back to a housing estate, but not one like she left behind. The people of The High Road, as its new inhabitants have dubbed it, have put down roots amid a ruined world, living next door to another tower full of Anti-Life. Astute listeners will see Foley’s twist coming from some distance, but that doesn’t make the journey that Rose and Dani go on any less effective. Thane’s Danni comes into their own here with the chemistry between them and Piper becoming increasingly central to the narrative as the episode unfolds. The moral dilemma at the heart of the episode is a classic one that Doctor Who has explored a number of times in both its Classic and Modern incarnations, with Foley using the absence of the Doctor and Rose taking his place to explore it from a new angle. While the segue into the final episode of the set feels incredibly abrupt (something which might be down more to Matt Fitton as script editor than Foley as the episode’s writer), The Lower Road is an engaging episode with a new angle on a classic moral dilemma.
Helen Goldwyn’s The Good Samaritan would act as the culmination of the arc that began with The Rogue Planet’s cliffhanger. Goldwyn (who also directed The Dimension Cannon series as a whole) brings the themes of the set’s preceeding episodes of communites that aren’t what they seem and moral questions at their heart come to a head with her episode. One that brings Rose and Danni into a domed city in southern Britain, one ruled over by a scientific elite and seemingly built on the principle of being nice to one another.
Except, as prior episodes of Trapped have taught the pair and listeners, there’s something ugly underneath this surface. Goldwyn’s script packs a lot into its 50 minute runtime, from Rose making one last effort to get her disk functional to the community inside the dome, what Anti-Life actually is, and Danni’s ultimate fate. Within all of that, The Good Samaritan also explores what makes us act decently to one another and what happens when that comes not out of decency but from a need to be rewarded. In true Davies fashion, the closing minutes of the episode are an emotional roller-coaster that offers Piper some of best material of the entire Dimension Cannon series. Something that helps to make this a worthy send-off to the set and, from the hints in the final scene, potentially the series as a whole.
Somerthing that The Dimension Cannon as a series accomplished was to showcase Piper as an actress. The version of the character that viewers saw in Turn Left and much of The Stolen Earth in 2008 was a more confident figure than the weeping, lovelorn young woman left on that beach at Doomsday’s emotional climax. With that destination in mind, Big Finish tossed Rose into impossible situations, learning what she can, and making the best of them, often with a companion by her side. Something that is particularly clear in episodes such as The Flood and Saltwater but especially in Trapped which, in leaving Rose without the likes of Jackie or Clive to count upon, shows her essentially taking on the role of the Doctor. Piper proves more than up to the task here, with the sibling chemistry between her and Thane’s Danni making the younger (and alternate) Tyler the questioning companion to Rose’s seasoned traveller. If there’s a reason to listen to The Dimension Cannon as a series, it’s for Piper as an actress and how Big Finish have filled in some of the gaps in Rose’s life from Doomsday to Turn Left.
It also helps that each of the three sets are all well done. Those returning actors playing either their TV roles or their counterparts given a chance to shine, perhaps none more so than Coduri as various versions of Jackie that showcase her range as an actress. The various alternate Earths (well, Londons, in proud Doctor Who tradition), are all wonderfully brought to life by the sound design of Joe and Aiden Van Lier Kraemer, with Joe Kraemer offering music scoring for each episode while also hinting at Murray Gold’s Modern Who TV stylings, with downloadable music suites on the later sets being highlights of their releases. All brought together under the thoughtful and watchful direction of Goldwyn, the sets are showcases for Big Finish’s current work both in front of and behind the microphone.
More than that, they offer tales set on countless alternate Earths. Ones where history took a number of turns, some small enough to affect the Tyler family, others to cause them to face destruction. The Dimension Cannon is a different kind of Doctor Who spin-off, even as it showcases one of its most popular characters. One that also presents the compelling power of alternate history and parallel Earths, showing how they can be used to tell stories great and small.
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Matthew Kresal is the author of the SLP book Our Man on the Hill.
His numerous books and anthologies he has contributed to can be found Here.