Tony keeps buggering on.
I’m not a Churchill fan.
I was uncomfortable with Churchill’s inclusion in Doctor Who, and his promotion into one of those regular ‘friends of the Doctor’ who kept popping up in the Matt Smith era, partly because the Churchill of Who is the Churchill of legend, rather than the Churchill of reality, but also because he felt overused, thrown into scenes in stories beyond Victory of the Daleks where he had little place.
As such, I wasn’t looking forward to the character’s translation into Big Finish audio as the anchor to a whole box set. I very nearly didn’t part with the £20 to get the first set, deciding it could happily pass me by.
There’s an argument there, if you want to make one, for replacing the TV showrunner, because I’m here to tell you that in the hands of Big Finish, Churchill really, really works. In fact, much to my surprise, he works better in his box set than River Song did in her first foray into audio Who.
The framing device for the first Churchill Years box set is the simplest thing you could imagine – Churchill, at the end of his life, decides to write the secret memoirs of his encounters with the Doctor. You don’t need anything more than that to let you tell stories of Churchill and the Doctor from across the whole course of their lives.
Here we get four stories with the New Doctors – one with the Ninth, one with the Tenth, and two with the Eleventh, each taken from a distinctly different point in Churchill’s life. With McNiece called on to do overarching narration as ‘Older Churchill,’ alongside these four very different versions of the man on his journey through his life, and even to drop in Churchillian approximations of each Doctor’s speech and accent, it’s a fairly Herculean task for the actor at the heart of the box set, but McNiece rises to the challenges of each episode with a gusto befitting Churchill himself, and makes each different time period and tone ring true.
We start the set with Churchill as the man whose hour is approaching, as First Lord of the Admiralty, at the dawn of the war in the appropriately-titled The Oncoming Storm by Phil Mulryne. Mulryne gives us a solid cast of characters around Churchill, including Lt Commander Sandy McNish and Professor Frederick Lindemann (played by Derek Riddell and Michael Gould respectively), both of whom, though Lindemann moreseo, mix the respect due the man and his office with a solid dose of reality-checking for the politician keen to prove his exceptionalism and defeat the Nazi menace through any means necessary. It also introduces us to Churchill’s secretary, Hettie Warner (played by Emily Atack), who becomes the Ninth Doctor’s way into the story. This is a pre-Rose Ninth Doctor, terribly scarred by his experiences in the Time War, and not inclined to get mixed up with humans and their horrible petty killing sprees again. But when a Time War weapon ends up on Earth and a race of acquisitive artificial life-forms start putting the squeeze on Hettie to get it, the Ninth Doctor is drawn into events. Crucially though, it’s actually a speech from Churchill himself that finally makes this war-sickened Doctor step forward and do what’s necessary to end the violence and remove temptation, reminding him of why he likes human beings so much in the first place.
As an opening act, it’s everything it needs to be and more besides – energetic, threatening, tempting - showing a comparatively young Churchill and the passions that drive him to be the man he becomes, as well as his role in bringing the Ninth Doctor in a little way from the cold of his post-Time War pain.
The second story, Hounded, written by Alan Barnes and featuring the Tenth Doctor, is a play on Churchill’s phrase to describe his occasional depressive moods – he called them his ‘black dog.’ In a tale of MI5, hide and seek, a soupcon of the Baskervilles and quite a lot of eastern mysticism, we discover the truth about a gigantic dark hound that’s following the Prime Minister everywhere he goes. Jo Stone-Fewings as Major Wheatley (an appropriate name for a story that centres on conjuration) gives a stone cold performance that actually raises the stakes of danger for the Doctor, while Amerjit Deu as ‘The Swami’ delivers a sensitive portrayal of a man bullied into the schemes of darker forces. Really though, this episode belongs to Hettie Warner and Ian McNiece, the relationship between Churchill and his secretary strained as she calls in the Doctor the only way she knows how, and opens up the Prime Minister to accusations of mental instability. Atack in particular is superb here, and plays Warner’s two major moods in the episode – energetic and resigned – with equal conviction. And when McNiece is called upon to channel David Tennant’s Angry Tenth Doctor, you can practically hear the fury of the man who gave no second chances reach out to grab you by the throat.
Story three, Living History by Justin Richards, would be my pick for best episode of the box set, but here’s a tip. If at all possible, play this one before you look at the cover art for the episode, as I managed to do. I say that because there’s a whacking great spoiler on the cover which, if you don’t know, allows it to take you by fantastic, shiverworthy surprise when its secret is revealed in the course of the episode.
There’s little not to love here – the Eleventh Doctor finally lets Churchill on board the Tardis once the war is done, and the former Prime Minister is busying himself with his history of the English-speaking peoples. He asks to go and meet Julius Caesar, and finds himself in the company of a young man named Kazran Sardick. Yes, that’s Richards’ clever conceit here – while the story is told from Churchill’s point of view, we’ve already seen the surrounding framework of the adventure inasmuch as it’s one of Kazran’s Christmases from A Christmas Carol. Kazran’s played by Danny Horn, as he was in A Christmas Carol, so what you get here is Churchill, Kazran, Julius Caesar (played with a voice to knock buildings down by Alistair Petrie), a Welsh queen resistant to Caesar’s armies (played by fellow Christmas Carol alumni, Laura Rogers) – and a fantastic surprise, so long as you haven’t seen the cover art. The point is, anyone can write an ingredients list like that and smash them together. It takes a writer of Richards’ skill to bake them into something as tasty as Living History. A real high point of the box set, this one brings a Churchill whose glory days are behind him, but who still has an appetite for living, face to face with one of his greatest heroes.
Finally, The Chartwell Metamorphosis, by veteran Big Finish director Ken Bentley, takes a step down from Living History and gives us a story of bugs and butterflies, of skulduggery in the servant’s hall and who wants to live forever. Perhaps most notably, McNiece shifts the dynamism of his Churchill again, this time to a man in a despised dotage, reliant on servants to help him with the most basic challenges of life. One of those servants is Nurse Lily Arwell, the girl from The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. Holly Earl, the original Lily, reprises her role, with Lily now a grown woman looking after the great statesman. The metamorphosis at Chartwell, Churchill’s country house, is a dastardly alien plot, naturally, but it’s one in which the former Prime Minister seems to have been initially complicit. But when you bring in actors of the calibre of Carolyn Seymour and John Banks to play servants, alongside Stewart Scudamore as Danvers, Churchill’s butler, you know things have gone beyond the statesman’s grasp. As a way of illuminating both one of Churchill’s passions, and the fears and frailties of an old man, it works really well, though as a story, it could have done with another episode, as there’s a sense of the development of the threat being rushed.
Overall, the first Churchill box set is a marvellous surprise, and not just because my personal expectations for it were low. It’s a set you’ll return to time and time again, both for the sheer quality of the storywriting, the joyous interconnections with on-screen Who through Kazran and Lily, and the performances, most particularly from Ian McNiece, who manages to shift Churchill through time, changing the performance he gives while still maintaining a consistency of character, and showing us what about the multi-talented Prime Minister would warrant the friendship of someone like the Doctor. There are reputed to be more Churchill box sets in at least the planning stage. Based on the evidence of this first set, Churchill could KBO at Big Finish for many years to come.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk