Inevitably for a show that crosses as many media and decades as Doctor Who, everyone has their own favourite time periods. I’m delighted to see one of mine show up in the new brace of Big Finish novel adaptations, this time with Theatre of War and All-Consuming Fire.
Theatre opens with, well… a theatre. The Doctor, Benny and Ace go to Menaxus where they run into an old colleague of Benny’s and a very unusual theatre. Firstly because it’s a ruin, secondly because the acoustics are perfect and thirdly, well….it all looks a spot familiar.
Theatre of War is a story about stories. Also theatres and wars and the various different meanings both those words have. It’s an immensely clever, complex book that pulls no punches. It’s not unadaptable but it’s certainly very difficult.
This makes it look easy.
Everything you want from this time period is here. You get some cracking Doctor/Ace/Benny banter and a gloriously byzantine, complicated strategy that only unfolds in the closing moments and is absolutely not the Doctor’s idea. It’s one of the rare occasions where one of the greatest game players in fiction is completely outclassed.
And that brings us to Irving Braxiatel. One of the characters that Big Finish made their own makes a very welcome return here, Jack Deth style, for the first time. This is the first meeting between Benny and Brax and it’s gripping stuff. Bowerman’s Benny is noticeably more ebullient, and younger, than we’ve heard her recently. She’s cheerfully good-natured, mildly in awe and has no idea of the incredible adventures and horrors waiting for her at the Braxiatel Collection. It’s a really subtle, nuanced performance from one of the best voice actors on the planet and also oddly poignant. This Benny is lighter and happier and it throws Bowerman’s work on recent audios into an even more impressive light.
Miles Richardson’s return as Brax could only be described as triumphant. He’s got that same feline, languid quality he’s always had, but this is a Brax we’ve not heard for a long time. An active participant in galactic affairs he’s charming, urbane and more than a little disturbing. Given the path the character took it’s fascinating to see that begin here, with a performance again younger than what we’re used to. He and Bowerman were always a great double act and that’s definitely true here too. Even better there’s a shot of genuine poignancy to their interactions that gives their plot a welcome darkness.
Elsewhere the script does a great job of exploring the weaponisation of theatre and the archaeological puzzle of Menaxus. This is a book that unfolds on a huge scale but Richards’ script, and Handcock’s direction are always crystal clear. Plus the voice cast is hugely impressive, especially Ramon Tikaram’s Marlock and Kirsty Besterman’s Lannic. Together, they create an adaptation that’s absolutely the equal of the original book and has a light touch and energy that benefits the story hugely and creates another really impressive adaptation.
And speaking of impressive, let’s talk about All-Consuming Fire. Like Theatre of War this is an opportunity to cross over a couple of Big Finish characters. However, where Theatre of War does it subtly, this positively jumps up and down with glee about what it’s getting away with.
And that’s brilliant, because it gets away with a lot. From the opening narration by Watson to the hand-off to Benny it’s a story that’s, again, fascinated with stories. However this time it’s less about structure and more about the sheer mad pulp glee of being able to say ‘He’s The Doctor! He’s Sherlock Holmes! They fight Lovecraftian crime!’
That glee fizzes through every episode of this story, and Guy Adams’ script is chock full of the sort of stylistic tricks and wit that all his work demonstrates. Every episode opens with an increasingly sarcastic field report from Ace for example, and the cold open is easily one of the best the show has ever done, in any media. Better still, there’s a sense of clever, playful fun to the whole thing. Briggs’ Holmes being completely dumbfounded by the Doctor is a highlight, as is his cockney undercover work in later episodes. Better still is Bowerman, doing superbly dry, laconic work as Benny here. The relationship between her and Richard Earl’s John Watson is delightful too as the two long suffering sidekicks wrangle their respective super geniuses.
Best of all though is the scope. This is a Sherlock Holmes story and a Doctor Who one and also something much more. Starting with the wonderfully nasty conceit of the Library of St John the Beheaded it spins out into a crime thriller, a race across the globe with very personal stakes for one of the two detectives and then hits a very surprising left turn. It’s immensely ambitious, successful, and most of all vastly entertaining from start to finish. Scott Handcock, again, directs a complex, huge scale story with a light touch that gives his excellent cast room to breathe and, again, it pays off massively.
Verdict: Big Finish are now four for four on excellent adaptations of excellent books. These two are amongst some of the best work they’ve put out this year and serve not only as a celebration of a particular period in Doctor Who’s history, but proof of the incredible versatility of the concept. Here’s hoping these adaptations become a part of regular rotation…
Theatre of War 8/10
All-Consuming Fire 9/10