Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Churchill Years - Volume 01

This is a bit of a landmark release for a couple of reasons. Yes it isn’t the first “New Series” box set that Big Finish have released but it is the first to contain the post 2005 Doctor’s (albeit narrated by McNeice as Churchill) and it is the first to have the post 2005 versions of the theme music, four different versions if my ears serve me well – The Series One Eccleston theme, Series Four Tennant theme, Series Five Smith theme and Series Seven Smith theme – a different theme for each of the four stories in the set -which is apt as they are all thematically different in tone and in approach to story-telling.
The box set takes its lead from The Early Adventures in that the stories are part full cast and part narrated, in this case narrated by Ian McNeice who reprises his roll as Winston Churchill and throughout this set we hear tales of his encounters with the Doctor in various incarnations at various points in Churchill’s career – from early World War Two when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, to the height of the blitz when he was Prime Minister, to the post-war years when he was no longer Prime Minister, to his later years when he was retired to Chartwell House – McNeice takes us on a journey through Churchill’s secret history…
The Doctor had always boasted about knowing Churchill, but it was only in Victory of the Daleks that we finally got to see this meeting on-screen, despite several documented meetings in Novels, audios and comic strips. Churchill was not surprised that the Doctor had changed his face and was used to different incarnations of his friend turning up at different points in his life, and usually at points when he was most needed.
If there is one genre that post 2005 Doctor Who has made its own it is the “celebrity historical” and this box set is a celebration of that sub-genre of Who story, so sit back relax and enjoy four tales of Churchill and his meetings with The Doctor…
 The Oncoming Storm by Phil Mulryne
The Ninth Doctor in A Big Finish Story? Surely you jest? And a year or so ago I would have thought this was a great big hoax – but no, it is real, and although Christopher Eccleston is absent from proceedings his Doctor complete with “wolfish grin” and “battered leather jacket” is all present and correct. Now being a bit of a Doctor Who fan I can only assume that this story takes place in the time at the end of “Rose” where he dematerialises after Rose has turned him down and he returns seemingly seconds later to tell her that the TARDIS also travels in time because Rose is absent throughout the story. Taking the place of the companion is the wonderful Emily Atack as Hetty Warner, Churchill’s secretary. The story is in many ways like The Empty Child – a damaged and psychologically traumatised Doctor stalks London in the blackout looking for some lost Time Lord technology whilst mechanical soldiers do the same. This is an excellent opening story that builds and builds to a frantic base under siege ending – McNeice’s narration will have you on the edge of your seat as he recalls the events, not yet Prime Minister, but relishing his role as First Lord of the Admiralty. Its also incredibly reminiscent of the all too brief Eccleston era, gritty, no nonsense and ever so slightly melancholy.
 Hounded by Alan Barnes
It is 1941 and Churchill is Prime Minister – but the burden of duty weighs heavily on his shoulders and he is plagued by self-doubt, anger, bad temper and depression – a state that he referred to as his “Black Dog”, but when Churchill encounters a real Black Dog, a giant salivating ghostly monster at Chartwell, his secretary Hetty thinks it is time to get the Doctor involved again – and is puzzled to be invited to tea by a member of the intelligence service who has intercepted her letter, a tall thin man in a “spiv suit” who calls himself John Smith…
This story is pure RTD – it has intrigue, horror, comedy and tragedy – again everything you would expect from a Tenth Doctor story. The story examines how we personify the very worst parts of our psyche and how that can be used against us. It also examines how the Doctor affects all those around him, how he can inadvertently cause them harm – as Rory put it in “Vampires of Venice” – he makes people want to impress him. And no more so than in the shocking ending to this story… If it were on TV it would be hailed as a classic.
Living History by Justin Richards
And so we come on to the Matt Smith era – and we get another sub-genre of post 2005 Doctor Who, well actually we get two in one – a “Doctor-lite” story and a celebrity historical within a celebrity Historical. Churchill has ceased to be Prime Minister and is semi-retired writing a history of the English speaking people. He is invited aboard the TARDIS for a trip and asks the Eleventh Doctor to take him to meet Julius Caesar. But the Eleventh Doctor is not alone, this story takes place within the story “A Christmas Carol” and the Doctor is accompanied by Kazran Sardick with Danny Horn reprising the role. The Doctor accidentally strands Churchill and Kazran in ancient Britain and as Churchill meets Caesar, Kazran meets up with the Celts and their Bronze God – a God who is giving them alien technology – a god who is actually a Dalek!
This is the most straightforward story in the set, but is no less enjoyable for it – and again it could fit very easily in to Matt Smith’s first season as a Doctor-lite episode.
The Chartwell Metamorphosis by Ken Bentley
Now elderly Churchill has retired to Chartwell House and fills his days keeping butterflies. He is nursed by a certain Lily Arwell (from The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe) reprising her role is Holly Earl – but is it a coincidence that two old friends of the Doctor have been placed together and what exactly is being bred in the butterfly house? A body horror story that reminds me of The Seeds of Doom with alien butterflies feeding on the bodies of Churchill’s staff – an alien invasion or an experiment gone wrong? This story has one of “those” New Who moments, one of the “punch the air the Doctor is on the way” moments – it happens at about twenty-five minutes in and even though I am not a fan of Smith I cheered when Lily finally found his number to call him in. A really gruesome tale to end the set.
How do Big Finish get it so right so often? Ian McNeice is pitch perfect as Churchill – and any worries you may have about none of the Doctor actors actually appearing in the set are dispelled seconds into the first adventure. McNeice is a fantastic actor and his performance as Winston Churchill easily carries the entire set. The sound design is pure post 2005 Who with all the orchestral pizazz of the TV show, and like the TV series this is very character based, no more so than Hetty Warner – because like the TV show Big Finish makes you care deeply about the characters and build a life around them. Hetty could quite easily have been an adequate cypher to get the plot moving along but she is so much more, a real person with a real life and a real background. A great box set and a triumph of character based story telling.
10/10.