Review: Justyce Served - A Small Start with a Big Finish / Author: Alun Harris, Matthew West / Publisher: Miwk Publishing / Release Date: September 5th
Having very little interest in the Doctor Who expanded universe beyond a mild curiosity (I’ve always considered the show first and foremost a television programme), Audio Visuals was something that completely passed me by at the time, and I’m probably therefore among the least qualified of people to review this book. Justyce Served, however, is a damn fine read, whether you’ve listened to the audio plays in question or not, and doesn’t require a foreknowledge of them any more than, say, a second Doctor era programme guide.
In fact, perhaps the finest thing about Justyce Served is that it serves as a snapshot of a time and a place, a reminiscence of something rather uplifting and hopeful, that while it might be long gone is still reflected in the wider Doctor Who universe today – especially as these unofficial audio plays were running in parallel with a television series that was, as it proved, dying. Back in 1984, Bill Baggs persuaded Gary Russell to join him in an adventure that would ultimately last for decades, in one way or another; and far beyond the four seasons comprising 29 unlicensed, unbound and amateur audio plays featuring their own, alternative Doctor Who (Nicholas Briggs), the groundwork that was laid by Baggs and Russell would eventually lead to the formation of Big Finish Productions, and feature any number of names that would go on to successes in the wider worlds of Doctor Who. If, during the 1990s, you read Doctor Who Magazine or the Virgin New Adventures novels – hell, if you’ve seen any story featuring the Daleks in modern Doctor Who – then you are acquainted with the work of the people who came together to produce the Audio Visuals plays between 1984 and 1993.
This volume exists as first and foremost an episode guide to these audio plays, with each story synopsised and accredited, and with the production process detailed through the accounts of the people who worked on them. But there’s so much more to Justyce Served than that (and beyond all the appendices detailing unmade plays, further projects and retellings of the stories under alternative circumstances, I mean); Alun Harris and Matthew West have tracked down pretty much all the major players in the life of Audio Visuals, and it’s clear from the testimonies they have given not only how much love they still have for what they accomplished, but also that the plays were a huge amount of fun to work on, and tremendously exciting too – even if at the time it was impossible to imagine where all this might lead.
The major players in the story are undoubtedly Gary Russell and Nicholas Briggs, but the personalities of Jim Mortimore and Richard Marson, John Ainsworth and Heather Barker – and others too numerous to mention – shine through. You can feel friendships (and the kind of friendships that would last a lifetime) being forged, and beyond that there’s an excitement and an inspiration about the scripts and their realisation that leads directly into what Big Finish would be able to produce a decade and more later – and are still producing today. From Russell’s foreword to Mortimore’s afterword, you can’t help but get drawn into the creative lives, as well as the relationships, of the main players. As a recollection of Doctor Who fandom in the late 1980s it’s unparalleled. An absolute must-read, in fact.
It’s also a huge and beautifully constructed book (and Robert Hammond’s delightful cover is the perfect example of that), clearly laid out (as all good programme guides need to be), but filled with photographs and drawings and other ephemera, the kind of bric-a-brac that thrust you right into the heart of what was being created and the method that was used in order to do so; if you’ve ever been involved in anything creative yourself, you’ll recognise the processes at work here, and further than that, Justyce Served will even make you feel like you’d been involved – or wish you’d been involved. It’s that thorough and that evocative.
And in an odd kind of a way, it’s also a rather melancholy read. For while the spirit of Audio Visuals undoubtedly lives on, the period invoked and the creative energy that produced them are now a thing of the past. Justyce Served really makes you pine for the past, in quite an unexpected way.
It turns out that not being acquainted with the Audio Visuals stories wasn’t a barrier to my enjoyment of this book at all (indeed, it has instead made me determined to seek them out!). It’s a glorious story of a glorious endeavour and gloriously told, and makes for quite simply a glorious read – Justyce Served comes thoroughly recommended whether you have any interest in or knowledge about the subject it covers or not.
Indeed, the only problem is that it seems to have arrived a year early; the amount of devotion that has gone into this book’s production (which mirrors the devotion that went into the production of the Audio Visuals themselves, in turn reflecting the level of enthusiasm and dedication that goes into making – or even just being a fan of – the programme) means it would be the perfect volume for the show’s fiftieth anniversary year.