Big Finish’s Doctor Who boxed sets seem to be defined by two increasingly dovetailing trends. The first is a much closer relationship with the TV show than there was a few years ago. The excellent River Song boxed set speaks to this in particular, as does the upcoming run of 10th Doctor and Donna stories. This set, anchored by Ian McNeice’s take on Churchill always fits that pattern.
The second trend is narrative audacity. These sets, as well as the excellent first Prisoner series, are defined by the way they run towards challenges instead of away from there. There’s a sense of unfettered glee at getting to play with these toys, a freedom to experiment that hasn’t always been there in the past. This series of four plays takes that to extremes its predecessors haven’t and for the most part is very successful.
The idea here is simple; the stories are narrated by Churchill, recalling various encounters he’s had with several Doctors over the course of his life. It’s a gutsy move, reliant entirely on both McNeice’s ability to nail the mannerisms of the Doctor and the writer’s ability to find their voice.
That’s never more apparent than in ‘The Oncoming Storm’ by Phil Mulryne. Opening with the discovery of a very odd stone in the sands of the Thames, it finds Churchill at the Admiralty but not quite PM yet. And strange mechanical soldiers wandering the streets of London…
This is classic 9th Doctor territory so it’s not surprise that’s who we meet here. McNeice’s 9th is surprisingly good too, avoiding Eccleston’s flamboyance but nailing his laconic Northern informality. It’s also a great story for Hetty Warner, Churchill’s secretary. Emily Atack plays the Wakefield native with the same pragmatism as McNeice approaches the Doctor and their scenes have a very fun spark to them.
The story’s smart too, Mulryne combining an alien menace with a Churchill desperate for any intelligence he get on his enemy. There’s a welcome streak of ruthlessness, not to mention ill temper to him that the show never quite covered. Here, McNeice gets to really cut loose and the dark side to his Churchill gives the story the extra bite it needs.
That brings us to ‘Hounded’ by Alan Barnes, the highlight of the series. Set in 1941, with the war at its height it again draws from Churchill’s life. Here, it’s his ‘black dog’ the depression he struggled with during some of the darkest years the country has ever faced. Barnes’ script makes that black dog manifest, or at least seems to…
What follows is a complex, fast moving story that combines Churchill’s history with a critique of the British Empire, wartime paranoia, political ambition, the awful sacrifices countless people had to make and an ending which stands with every finest moment the 10th Doctor had. This is a complimentary story to The Doctor Dances, thematically similar but stylistically more solemn. The ending is intensely moving and manages, like the rest of the story to do five difficult things at once, all of them well. Again, McNeice does a great job with the Doctor, and, again cleverly avoids his accent. Just as 9 was laconic and Northern, 10 is light on his feet, talks fast and is a little too chipper for anyone’s good here.
‘Living History’ by Justin Richards is a lighter piece and, honestly, needed to be.
Then the TARDIS gets stranded out of phase.
And then Churchill and his new friend notice the water wheels and turbines. The one that shouldn’t exist yet…
This isn’t quite a romp but it’s certainly romp-esque. Danny Horn is great as Kazran Sardick and the reveal on what’s going on again cleverly mixes Churchill’s hobbies and life with a Doctor Who story. The Doctor is essentially absent but the two leads are so charming, and the ending in particular so lovely, you don’t really notice.
Unfortunately, with ‘The Chartwell Metamorphosis’ you do. Written by Ken Bentley, it sees Churchill retired and ready to live out his final days at his home in Chartwell. Little realizing that something awful is quietly growing outside…
The story is never less than entertaining and there are moments of absolute brilliance, including a completely leftfield and subtle cameo that ties the story to the Doctor far more closely than it first seems to be. Holly Earl as Lilly is especially great and McNeice does a lot with the growing dissatisfaction of a man used to working suddenly having very little to do. There’s some fun stuff with Churchill being blind to the alien menace too and that tying in to the idea of a titanic figure in his twilight years.
But for all that it doesn’t quite work. The menace is interesting, McNeice is on good form and the supporting cast are great but it never fully coheres as a story. The near total absence of the Doctor, aside from one major scene, feels a little odd as well and McNeice’s take on 11 isn’t as strong as his 9 or 10. The end result is a story that’s got real gems in it but never quite hits the mark.
Verdict: This is another audacious set that connects very closely to the TV show. It’s a little more uneven than the River Song set but it’s still an amazing collection of stories that manage to honour Churchill, tell four different stories and mimic three separate eras of the show. On its own those would be reason enough to buy it. But with McNeice’s indomitable Churchill at its heart, this is a smart, brave collection of stories that deserves a place in your home. 8/10