Rapidly changing. Unpredictable. But enough about Tony.
Do you like old black and white spy movies?
If you’re a sucker for The Third Man and its oeuvre, Quicksilver is going to be right up your alley. Mrs Constance Clarke, a Wren from Bletchley Park and the Sixth Doctor’s latest friend, goes home to face all the things from which she was aiming to take only a sabbatical when she stepped on board the Tardis. After a frisson of wrong-headed and one-sided romance in Absolute Power (Constance not allowing herself to get entangled in anything so messy while her husband was missing in wartime), she’s determined to find out what’s happened to the man with whom she chose to make her life.
No sooner does she get home though – a few months after she left in the Tardis, thanks to the Doctor’s erratic steering – than there’s a telegram waiting for her. Her husband, Lieutenant Commander Henry Clarke, has been lost in action while on a classified operation. The Doctor’s about to leave, but he gets a plea for help from an alien that keeps him in Constance’s life a little longer. An alien fleeing from the horrors of war.
War, and the terrible things it makes us do, is a theme throughout this story, as Constance finds out exactly what was so classified about her husband’s work, and why it didn’t end with the telegram. It’s a story that takes us from wartime England to post-war Vienna, a city of spies and double-crosses, of uneasy truces between the Allies as England and Russia begin to draw the battle lines for what will eventually become the Cold War.
But there’s another war beneath the surface – a war intertwined with our own, between two alien species, and much of the action that propels Constance’s plot along revolves around the Doctor’s conscientious objector to that war. It’s a clever element that will make you examine everything you think you know about the rights and wrongs of armed conflict in our own world, especially when the wars intersect and the beginnings of the Cold War threaten to heat up quickly into an arms race for alien technology that could give superiority to one side or the other.
In essence, Quicksilver, written by Big Finish stalwart Matt Fitton, is a story of war and spies, truth and lies, deceptions, double lives and what we do to make our peace with a world going increasingly mad. The storytelling is tight, the story gripping, but gripping like a waltz, a whirl around a world of falsehoods, friendships and desperate gambits. It feels like a fast dance, Fitton never letting the pace slacken despite the layers of story he’ll spin you through. You won’t see the twists and turns in Quicksilver coming, and on a second listen, you can appreciate how intricately the story is constructed to make that so.
Miranda Raison as Constance gives a stand out performance here. Raison plays Wren Clarke with a little of Celia Johnson’s stiff upper lip, but here, she also shows us the reality of a woman of the war years, her genuine stoicism and optimism mixed with an ability to look unpleasant realities in the face as what they are, be they the broad horrors of war itself or the more personal punches that come with the death (or, just possibly, the not-death) of her husband. Many 21st century people would crumble when the wounds inflicted on them became personal, but Fitton and Raison together show us something genuinely to be admired in the grit of a bygone generation.
The contrast is made particularly apparent for us by the welcome return to the Big Finish fold of a thoroughly 21st century woman – Philippa ‘Flip’ Jackson makes an unexpected return in this story, for complicated reasons. Lisa Greenwood, who plays Flip, gives us an equally strong performance, and as a former friend of the Sixth Doctor’s, she’s no shrinking violet either, but the contrast between the middle class wartime properness of Constance and the distinctly working class modern attitudes of supermarket deli counter meat-wrangler Flip delivers enjoyable sparks as the two companions find ways to accommodate each other’s oddities. Greenwood’s Flip had something of an odd exit from Big Finish; she was last actively heard hurtling towards the surface of a planet from an unfeasibly high vantage point, and then, when Constance was introduced, she ‘did a Peri,’ her seemingly imminent demise being rewritten into a daring rescue by the Doctor in Greenwood’s absence, Flip being deposited back home and going off to marry her generally quite hapless fiancée, Jarrod. For a companion who showed a strong learning curve, compassion and what, were she of Constance’s generation, would be called pluck, it seemed a curiously ignoble ending, so Flip fans will rejoice not only in her return (now as a married woman), but in Greenwood’s familiar portrayal. The sequences in which Flip and Constance come to an understanding with one another in post-war Vienna are both very funny and delineate the differences in their characters, so there’s no chance, going forward, that this increasingly full Tardis team will ever feel bland or samey.
Matthew Cottle (who you might remember as Martin from the sit-com Game On) is vocally almost unrecognisable from those TV days, but as Henry Clarke, he has a foot in both storylines and both wars. That means he’s pivotal throughout, and Cottle delivers if not a gentleman spy, then at least a middle management spy that also stands as the living embodiment of the terrible things war can make us do.
Quicksilver’s a rollicking black and white spy movie with a solid, sobering moral and an ever-intensifying set of stakes, both general and personal, but with aliens, time travel, and a 21st century deli counter girl thrown in for good measure. While you might think the science fiction elements should detract from the point, they actually work in harmony with it and deepen it for us, by giving us additional takes on war that would otherwise be beyond the reach of a straightforward spy story. The story’s tight, some of the characterisation will have you blinking eyelashes out of your eyes, and overall, Quicksilver’s an elevated earful of top class Doctor Who. Released simultaneously with Absolute Power, if you only have the money for one, we’d say go for Quicksilver, as it’s more pacy, and the combination of Constance and Flip sets out the stall for a formidable Tardis team in stories 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