Big Finish: Doctor Who SCORCHED EARTH Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who SCORCHED EARTH Review

Tony’s getting hot.

War is a flame, that burns up life, hope, plans, love, everything good and everything bad as well. It’s a state where human emotions are heightened, stretched, pulled taut as bowstrings. A time when hate is all too easy, forgiveness hides its head, where enemies are everywhere and trust is hard to find.

But what happens when you’ve been at war, when you’ve lost people you loved, and people you liked, and people you didn’t really care about but who lived on your street. And then the fury officially dies down. What happens when you’ve been at total war, and then peace breaks out.

Can you find the way back to how things were before?

Can you find a way forward to something new?

Or do you stay locked in the mode of war? The mode of hatred and pain and suffering and vengeance.

Errrm…yes, we appreciate this is a very strange beginning for a Doctor Who review. But it’s the territory into which Chris Chapman takes us in Scorched Earth. The Second World War is over, and the Sixth Doctor, Chief WREN Constance Clarke and Flip Ramon (nee Jackson) are in France.

The thing about Scorched Earth is that it exists to look at all the issues of war, peace, reactions to suffering and the utter changing of what a country is and can be. In some sense, while it’s a story based just after the Second World War, it’s also a story that will become increasingly resonant in the years to come in both the US and the UK, as both countries come to terms with horrifying periods of civil division.

Of course, both the war and the outbreak of peace are very different things for Constance, who lived in it and helped to fight it, and for Flip, who knows it as history, as taught to the sons and daughters and grandchildren of the survivors, a thing remote, that needs a work of creativity, a book or a film, to bring out the pure empathy you need to make it real.

That means they have very different takes on the emotional issues of the day, and Chapman brings them into stark and agonising contrast in this story.

But this time and place is dangerous for this Tardis team on a whole lot of levels – it’s a positive lasagne of dangers, Chapman layering his threats from the straightforward human to the alien to the intensely personal – and by the time they leave France, this Tardis team may never be quite the same again.

The set-up is pleasingly straightforward. It’s July, 1944 in a small village outside Rouen.

The village is crammed to bursting point with Resistance fighters, trying to re-learn and remember how to be anything else. There are some British troops coming through, not so much on a liberation tour as a Johnny-Come-Lately effort to catch the last of the fighting and the hard work still to do. And, just so we can get the other major power into the picture, there are a couple of captured Nazis.

Captured Nazis?

Ah, well, there’s a story behind that – a story of strange, living fire that consumes material with gusto, but with a very limited menu. It’s a living fire that seems to only attacks Nazis.

Our time travellers come into this environment with very different outlooks – Constance and Flip are more or less in sync, determined to see France at the end of the war, to feel the relief, the hope, the determination to rebuild and rid itself of the marks of Nazi occupation. The Doctor is deeply worried about the effect of such close future knowledge on Constance.

The human dilemma of Scorched Earth though isn’t so much about any knowledge that Constance gains, but about the shockingly different reactions of Constance and Flip to acts of revenge.

Because there’s a woman in the village.

Clementine, played with good emotional layering and backbone by Katarina Olsson. Clementine’s a traitor. A collaborator. And the village is out for its own form of rough justice.

That’s where Constance and Flip start to really differ in their mindset, and the divide gets wider as the story rolls along.

The alien story here is fine as far as it goes, a handy monster-as-metaphor tale of a stranded life form that feeds on something of which there’s a lot about in immediately post-war France. The monster is mostly non-vocal, so it’s not by any means a carrier of great dialogue, but needless to say the destruction it brings with it is a stand-in for something rather more philosophical.

You can listen to Scorched Earth as a straightforward historical story that poses interesting intellectual and visceral questions about good, evil, shades of grey, retribution, punishment and how you rebuild after a cataclysm. Or you can bring it closer to home, in which case, the answers you think you know get less certain. France after the war. Britain after Brexit. America after Trump. America after George Floyd, even.

How do you rediscover the way to bring communities, to bring nations back together in a way that works, in the wake of an angry conflagration, where you know – you know – that your neighbours backed the other side. The horse you know with everything in your being was wrong. When they did things that hurt you, not so much personally or physically, but emotionally, intellectually, even if you want to get fanciful, spiritually, so the place you thought you lived can never quite be the place it was for you again.

How do you do it?

There’s an answer here, but it may be a sign of the times that it feels the stuff of pure science fantasy, complete with a fairly shameless Peter Pan riff – which means it works within the context of the story, but doesn’t give you a takeaway solution to the problems of the present day. (To be absolutely fair to poor Chris Chapman, if he could deliver an answer to healing or reuniting a country, he should probably be in Downing Street).

But those questions linger at the end, resonating through the relationship between Constance and Flip, and while it doesn’t shatter that relationship utterly, the things that are revealed along the way as they all find a solution to the hungry sentient Nazi-stalking fire monster from outer space (complete with a Sixth Doctor variant of the on-the-fly planning lately shown on screen in 13’s fight against the Cybermen) will make the two women aware of differences they didn’t know were there. Differences which might yet be irreconcilable. Differences which seem irreconcilable in our here and now.

Scorched Earth is a solidly plotted, extremely well layered Sixth Doctor story, with plenty of alien action, some dark decision-making and at least one wartime plane ride, while chasing after a hungry fireball searching for its next big meal. It’s also an immensely effective, affecting study of two people, and the friendship they thought was secure, possibly split by revelations, possibly on a road to being mended by shared peril and hope.

And it’s a manifesto for how a nation divided might begin to rebuild its friendships and its lives. How much that manifesto depends for its viability on the progressive side having won, it’s difficult to tell, but it’s a story that ultimately offers hope in a world which both needs it, and yet might not particularly recognise it any more.

Doctor Who: Scorched Earth is available to purchase from the Big Finish website now.

Tony 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 day, he 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

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