Rye is a trans genre writer, podcaster, and media critic. Here's their brain.

Why Nine is My Doctor and A Ranking of Eccleston's 10 Best Episodes at Big Finish

Cover art for Back to Earth cropped to cut out the lettering and center Christopher Eccleston

“You were going to spend a hundred years being pedantic?” -Fred

We're ten sets and thirty episodes into Christopher Eccleston's run with Big Finish — back as the Ninth Doctor. It's a sentence that feels like a bit of a miracle. If you're reading a niche ranking of Doctor Who audio plays, you probably know about the drama surrounding Eccleston and his tenure on the BBC television show for series 1 of NuWho (which has always sounded to me like a sort of Linkin Park-styled Whovian band). Even up to a couple of weeks ago, he called for specific heads of the show, including Davies, to be sacked. He's been increasingly brazen since his departure in speaking about mistreatment by higher-ups and refusing to return while they're still around.

Even with the circumstances of his departure and only one somewhat uneven series, his broody but playful Doctor was always kind of my favorite. I had some engagement with classic Doctors, but Nine was my first time sitting down to watch the series actively. And, even with my love for every actor to take on the role ever since, I always had a feeling if he had been around even just a little longer he'd have shined as my all-time favorite. The potential is just off the charts. Imagining him starring in “The Impossible Planet” & “The Satan Pit” gives me chills. Alas, his run ended short. Not without leaving behind some bangers, namely “Dalek” and “The Empty Child” & “The Doctor Dances.” I'm also partial to the two-part finale. It beautifully paints a picture of the pacifist Doctor living under the weight of committing genocide with a final confrontation that leads to the villain cawing “What are you, Doctor: coward or killer?” and the Doctor boldly stating: “Coward, any day.” That first series came at a pivotal point in my life and helped instill a vision of goodness that has stuck with me until today. As a recent pacifist myself, at the time, this was mind-blowing and spoke to me deeply.

That's when he became My Doctor.* Unfortunately, that's also when we lost him.

Neil Patrick Harris as The Toymaker saying: “Well, that’s all right then!”

So, as a lifelong fan of audio fiction, my dreams were kind of made true when they announced his return in a new Big Finish series. All episodes are set before Rose and tend to be standalone adventures that have a new companion each go. This is because Eccleston is a die-hard believer that there is no other companion for Nine than Billie Piper’s** incarnation. While I disagree overall with his conclusion and think it does weaken these sets a little, I love that it's coming from an earnest, character-driven place. While his time on the show was marred by unfortunate dealings, he seems to genuinely enjoy being the character again. Maybe even more so. He never stops with his praise for the writing, or having fun banter in interviews, and seems engaged with fans at events. And he isn't wrong about the writing. While this run hasn't been as ambitious as it could be and the start-and-stop nature of not having a real through-line gets in the way of its consistency, my favorites match and sometimes outright top the televised run. I’m not sure why people have been hard on this run, but sometimes it feels like people are prepared to dislike it from the start.***

Now that you understand how much this feels geared toward ME, let’s get to a ranking of the ten best stories this has offered so far.

Cover art for “Below There”

10. “Below There” (4/5 Stars)

When you look into the pure blackness of space, you never know what might look back. Vyx Leeson (Kelly Adams) is on a relay station, the sole operator, and increasingly paranoid. You’d probably say for good reason when the communication channels hold static-like, ghostly sounds, nightmares plague her sleep, and there are shapes out in the dark, outer limits of her ship. Vyx is fairly functional given everything, but there’s more to her situation than what she implies. While she isn’t as engaging as other one-time companions and its plot is lean, “Below There” has just enough depth to make her sympathetic and for the creepy sound design to suitably set in. Eccleston kind of just pops in and out of this, but writers Mooney and Pringle (a pairing that sounds wonderful and I’ll be keeping an eye out for as I see they often write together) understand his voice splendidly. He’s quick-witted and exuberant but can be deeply serious on a dime. I love it when Big Finish does these small, emotional stories driven by character. Plus, it’s kind of a haunted house story in space which is always a rad place to start a set. A little meaner than the franchise tends to get, but I like them that way when it feels thoughtfully done. I know some people wanted it to be a straight-up monster story, but I prefer where this goes.

Cover Art for “The Forth Generation”

9. “Way of the Burryman” & “The Forth Generation” (4/5 Stars)

It’s a two-parter, but, in some ways, it’s a soft sequel to the episode preceding it. That gives the set, Old Friends, a sense of thematic cohesion. You don’t need to check that out to listen to these, you should — it’s quite good in its own right, but After attending the funeral of a friend, the Doctor had decided to check in on another old mate: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Jon Culshaw). Since my only experiences with the character were “Minuet in Hell” (which I don’t recommend) and “Zagreus” (which isn’t even him, just an evil projection) and I still enjoyed the emotional beats here, I think any fan could jump in and be fine. Similarly, I liked Sam Bishop’s (Warren Brown) exasperated vibe with the Doctor. He has a history in Big Finish with the Unit audio plays, but I didn’t know about that until I started research for the episode. The first part of this is a decent slow-ticker with a nasty little twist that is kind of ruined by the art and marketing telling you what kind of story it is. So I won’t be coy in saying it’s Cybermen! Part two takes full advantage of that and swings for a 5-star epic and it’s kind of like they batted a double. Which is really good, but it was dragged down by a thin romance at its core. I do think these are cleverly linked to another episode, “Monsters in Metropolis,” and something I like and want more of is how a lot of the tension hinges on the Ninth Doctor having made a mistake. This should be uninteresting because the characters aren’t as strong as the others here, but it’s a good story with great dialogue that pulls together for a great finale.

Cover Art for Girl, Deconstructed

8. “Girl, Deconstructed” (4/5 Stars)

When I sat down to put this list in order, I was surprised that “Girl, Deconstructed” ended up so low. Don’t get me wrong, these are all wonderful, but this was always held up as a top-tier episode for me; in fact, it would fit perfectly in the first series. Maybe a little too snuggly. If you’re looking for something to fill that classic, crowd-pleasing, Russel T Davies hole in your heart — this is the one! As a fan of The Twilight Zone, I’ve gotta assume “Little Girl Lost” was a huge inspiration. Kurt (Forbes Masson) and Marnie McDonald (Mirren Mack) are a regular family. They have their arguments and Kurt especially feels a rift, but they love each other. So it didn’t make sense when she went missing without any real lead-up. We know from the beginning that she’s still in the house, but it’s a lot of fun to watch the Doctor, her dad, and the pseudo-companion of the week, Detective Constable Jana Lee (Pearl Appleby), figure stuff out. The characters feel a bit like caricatures. Worried Dad. Sad Daughter. Honest Cop Just Doing Her Job. They’re all serviceable and pretty earnest. Sometimes it works. But I think it’s fine for this to be a light ghost mystery. Especially when it does it so well. Some of the reveals here are intense and pretty cool. I don’t think this fully grapples with the weight of all the implications of plot stuff, but this works so well as an introduction to the Ninth Doctor. He’s cocky, sassy, and brilliant. I’d say this is a better pilot than “Rose” in a lot of ways and would make a good companion episode.

Cover Art for Station to Station

7. “Station to Station” (4.5/5 Stars)

You have to want to like this one. Which shouldn't be as damning as it sounds. Speed Racer by the Wachowskis is like that and a near-masterpiece. It’s just that when the villain is perpetually rhyming and saying things like: “Doesn’t matter what you do. You can't escape the Grimminy-Grue” during the introduction, I understand it can be hard to take seriously. But, I urge you to let it work its magic because this is surprisingly creepy and has my favorite of the almost companions.**** Saffron Windrose (Indigo Griffiths) is funny, doesn’t want to mess around, and is so very earnest. She’s perfect for this bizarre play space. The Doctor and Saff play off of each other so well that you can see the same potential you could get from the best of Ten and Donna in them. Griffith’s performance is personable and anchored in the journey to see her parents so she can come out to them and tell them she’s getting married to a woman. This episode continues a trend of defiant and energetic performances by Eccleston (it’s pretty hilarious that this journey starts with an attitude of “you can’t tell me what to do” from the Doctor), but it’s nice to see him slow down and be supportive of someone in the queer community while Robert Valentine scripted it as to feel relevant for the themes of the episode. The ending warmed my heart, specifically as someone who hasn’t been able to feel safe telling my parents about myself in that way. This is a near-home run from the writer who scripted another favorite “The Lost” from Dalek Universe (following the Tenth Doctor). “Station to Station” was a blessing and a curse: Wonderfully fun but highlights the potential for Nine to have other long-term companions than Rose.*****

Cover Art for Break the Ice

6. “Break the Ice” (4.5/5 Stars)

It’s time for Nine’s first Christmas episode! I tend to not love these, to be honest; so I wasn’t expecting much. I even fell into the trap I warned about earlier, thinking it was a bit corny at first (in fact, this is quite similar to the last episode). Now, it’s my favorite holiday special including the televised series. This is my chance to remind you that listening with headphones is usually ideal. Most car/home speakers can’t usually do this kind of mixing justice. And wow does it shine! Music, sound design, performances . . . this is cooler than a Christmas special has any right to be. It follows a spacefaring scientific outpost as a God from another dimension who treasures others’ suffering seizes operations. Once the villain takes over, it’s his show. Pip Torrens is enrapturing. At times, it’s horrific. While many holiday episodes can feel frivolous, this is intelligent and sharp. It has a great sense of humor to balance it out, but my little horror-loving heart felt catered to here. And even when the monster just turns into a scary, somewhat uninspired chase, the writer, Tim Foley (who shows up again a little further down this list), delicately handles an anxiety attack with the main companion. Traveling with Nine has started to seem like the best possible therapy given how reassuring and insightful he is without spouting backhanded compliments or straight-up insults that characterized Moffat’s Doctors. I'm a fan of a good ol’ timey wimey sci-fi story, but I adore it when Who plays in a fantastical space. The ending is glorious too. Just when you think it’s not going to hit you in the heart . . . it goes for it and lands splendidly.

Cover Art for Flatpack

5. “Flatpack” (4.5/5 Stars)

Bah! Humbug. I wanna tell you exactly why I love this story so much. But the mystery is part of the prize here. Simply put, it’s an unsettling and clever bit of weirdness that I cherish. Plus, it’s arguably the best performance we’ve been given from Eccleston in these episodes so far. I admire him as an actor and it’s fun to see him stretch here. Do you need to know anything about Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker) and Tania Bell (Rebecca Root)? No. You can get by fine. I think the series has gone on for so long and keeps pulling on old threads enough that fans are used to a degree of “uh huh, sure” when something they don’t understand but has obvious history comes up. You’re missing out on the intricacies of the characters by not having that context (plus, Stranded is wonderful and a possible jumping-in point if you just care about them two; however, Liv shows up MUCH earlier and has a very fun run so up to you), but you mostly just need to know that they’re in love, used to travel with the Eighth Doctor but stopped and settled down, and Tania is the first trans companion in Doctor Who. John Dorney, a prolific and talented storyteller for Big Finish, expertly crafts a scenario where Liv and Tania run into the Doctor at some sort of ever-changing, twisted Ikea-like. It’s consistently funny without feeling like a quip-fest and never loses sight of the sinister undertones of their surroundings. There are many, vague, mentions that the Ninth Doctor at this phase seems lonely and (understandably) sad. He tends to brush this off. It’s occasionally annoying because he has so many good choices for companions. But this is my favorite handling of that so far. From a dear, close friend giving him a firm heart-to-heart. A reminder: He can’t do this alone forever.

Cover Art for Salvation Nine

4. “Salvation Nine” (4.5/5 Stars)

If you’re only here because you liked the ninth Doctor and nothing else, you could be forgiven for not knowing what a Sontaran is. Besides the regular (and very true) assessment that they look like potatoes, they’re a militaristic race that wouldn’t bat its eyes at killing or genocide. They just can’t get enough of killing. The way this starts as a generic attack sequence in a space station, it makes sense if you already have an idea of how this will be going. You’re wrong. In the first handful of minutes, the Doctor teleports into the station to interfere and keep a human fleet from firing upon a moon and killing a bunch of Sontarans. As this is a centuries-long war with unforgiving people, it makes sense why they’re a little hot on the trigger. But the Doctor tells them a story of what he found when he went down to that moon: An isolated group of Sontarans who have long abandoned their violent mindset and become a peaceful agrarian society. They don’t even know what a Sontaran is. What follows is one of the funniest episodes of Doctor Who. Comedy is almost as important to me as horror. Doctor Who is often funny, but can struggle when making that its main verb. What makes it work so well here is that it still takes itself seriously. There are many interesting surprises here beyond the initial conceit. And this might be my favorite characterization of the Ninth Doctor so far. He’s so funny and intimidating. Eccleston truly shines playing off of the Sontarans — going from silly bewilderment to dispirited rage. There’s even a quite poignant take on forgiveness for generational trauma. It’s the easiest of these to enjoy.

Cover Art for Monsters in Metropolis

3. “Monsters in Metropolis” (4.5/5 Stars)

This is neck-and-neck with “World Enough and Time” and “Spare Parts” for my favorite Cyberman story. As a film nerd, this is an absolute treat, starring behind the scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with a Cyberman temporarily taking the place of Brigitte Helm as The Machine Man. I love it whenever it’s implied that The Doctor is a media buff. If I had that kind of lifespan, I’d also spend a lot of time vegging out. You can practically hear him brimming from ear to ear as he checks out the film set. Just like the other script written by Dorney, this is very smart in how it balances its history, plot, and well-drawn characters.

Art’s powerful, Fritz. You know that. It’s the conscience of society. The right film, the right story, it can change the world. -The Ninth Doctor

You don’t need to have seen Metropolis (even though I think everyone interested in silent film should); it just helps a little. This remains a quite terrifying story which is my favorite kind of take on the Cybermen. While unlikely to happen, it could even function as your introduction to this classic villain because often what’s scarier about them isn’t what they’ll do, but what they are. It’s a story that’s tragic in a way this run usually shies away from. The story doesn’t forget to have fun, though! Eccleston’s delivery of the classic: “Go ahead punk . . . make my day” is gold. But it’s at its best when dealing with its unique setting. This is only the first time the Ninth Doctor has run into a Cyberman in this series, but it’ll be hard to beat.

Cover Art for Planet of the End

2. “Planet of the End” (5/5)

Timothy X Attack’s (the writer of “Salvation Nine”) first episode for this series is probably my favorite plot up for offer. Dense and weird in a way that speaks to me. The Doctor comes to a lovely graveyard planet to fix its historical records and finds himself caught up in the schemes of an ancient race of capitalists trying to return from the dead and befriends an artificial intelligence that is charged with petrifying and guarding his body shortly after he names her Fred (Margaret Clunie). God, I love Fred and Clunie is stellar the whole time. She’s funny, thoughtful, and willing to be wrong and learn. One of my new favorite AI characters in audio drama. She isn’t quite as human as Hera from Wolf 359, but I could have similarly spent an entire series with her. A lot of the run-time is spent with Fred narrating while the doctor is immobilized and imprisoned in the cosmic cemetery. When the Doctor is on focus, it’s a veritable war of words and torture. Of the villains from this list, the money-loving Incorporation isn’t as viscerally threatening, but they’re sleazy and unfortunately smart. An antagonist who knows how to talk back, on your level, can be more daunting than simple threats of bodily harm. Pulling off both? Even better. The terror of his conscious mind trapped over many years is palpable, but it’s tempered by Fred’s journey to realizing she’s had her own opinions and desires for a long time. It’s a strong case for the strengths of audio too. Tree branches made of tentacles, enormous floating eyes in the sky, or zig-zagging through geometric tombs — to do this justice, it would simply be too far out of budget for a visual medium. This is what I love about the Ninth Doctor: rebellious, a bit screwball, and so implacably hopeful. “Planet of the Dead” is everything I wanted from a Ninth Doctor story that we didn’t have time to get on TV.

Cover Art for “Auld Lang Syne”

1. “Auld Lang Syne” (5/5 Stars)

If the last one was everything I wanted then what’s this? Everything I didn’t know I wanted. It’s funny to me that my favorite episode is kind of Doctor-lite. He’s still heavily featured, but he’s kind of doing a lot of his work in the background while we take a slow, deep focus on a family renting out a house every New Year. He’s acting as a mysterious caretaker and takes a liking to our main character, Mandy Litherland (Leah Brotherhead). She arranges the shindig, but nobody seems to appreciate her efforts and her great aunt even finds the house creepy . . . there are noises. It might be most absorbed with Mandy, but the Ninth Doctor shows a wide and subtle amount of range in the episode. It’s easy to just see the exuberance, but his performances feel layered in these scripts. Speaking of, writer Tim Foley is back on the list with the most delicate and deeply realized story so far in Eccleston’s return. The family feels realistic. Cute interactions, passive-aggressive remarks, secrets, small kindnesses, and unsaid words that pass them by. A ghostly presence and possible monsters threaten to peek their heads, but, for once, they feel like the set dressing. There’s weird sci-fi stuff going on that I’d usually eat up (and I do!), but the core of this is character. That stuff ramps up by the end, but it doesn’t speed the pace up very much. It feels well-considered. In the end, The Doctor wants Mandy to come along but she refuses. It’s not the first time they've pulled this trick, but it especially hurt here. They were so fun together and I just want to get to know her even more. I’m not going to say what the thematic center of this is because it’s worth getting to on your own, but it’s smart and cathartic. “Auld Lang Syne” is not only a high point for this range or Big Finish but for the entirety of Doctor Who.

Let me know what your favorite episodes have been! Do you want me to cover more Big Finish? More lists? How about the television show proper? Tell me who YOUR Doctor is and why. I’d love to hear from you.

*maybe i’ll write more about this someday. idk. i’m not a pacifist anymore? it’s tough for me to figure out how many of my moral things are holdovers from my religious days. i think that made sense for me then, but now i’m more of a fan of Capaldi punching the racist. he’s still my Doctor, but honestly, my FAV doctor to like watch would probs surprise you. 👀

**instinct leads me to think that (hopefully) with how friendly they are at conventions and Rose Tyler: The Dimension Cannon concurrently running, it’s only a matter of time before Piper and Eccleston reunite for new stories.

***some of the fans don’t like Eccleston’s attitude of treating Doctor Who as just another job, but i don’t think every Doctor needs to have adoration for the gig. and it’s unfair to say he doesn’t appreciate the show, honestly. i do think people in fandoms get hung up on plot holes for this kind of ancillary stuff when already upset and a common bit of finger-wagging i see involving this comeback is that it’s obvious the Ninth Doctor had just regenerated before “Rose” and it doesn’t make sense. i’m not sure that’s true. he is shown by Clive Finch to have been seen in that form throughout history. so it’s easy for me to headcanon that he had an injury and was checking on the results in the mirror.

****i haven’t forgotten Callen and Doyle! he’s a fav and doggo is good friend. they’re a very close second. i’ll say their return isn’t as good and it’s a waste to lose them because the story potential of a partly blind teenager companion and his talking dog is bonkers. and if you’re curious why “Red Darkness” didn’t make the list: there are a handful of great episodes that just missed out. this wasn’t one of them. it’s mid. (give it a listen yourself, though. i’m in the minority. lots of people looooove it!) also, look at this terrible photoshop of the actor for Callen in the episode.

A beautiful Border Collie. One stock photo of Eccleston broodily brooding. And a basic white boy looking awkwardly straight into the camera with his shoulders in a strange position

*****this one wins for best artwork from all of these, but “Planet of the End” is a close second for how absurd it is.