1 out of 2 found this review helpful.
When Big Finish first announced The Churchill Years, I wasn't completely sure if it would work. After all, while Churchill is a huge part of British history, in the modern show he's only made a few appearances, two of which were cameos. It seemed like Big Finish were just trying to plum out another series because they wanted to work with Ian McNeice. And while I'm not sure that that reason hasn't been dismissed by this first episode, I did enjoy it more than I was expecting to. Certainly, I'm not completely sold by the format of the stories, and I did think that this release could have been tightened up in a hell of a lot of places, but overall this story was better than expected.
One part of this series that I was concerned about was how the Doctor was going to be involved in these stories. After all, there was no indication that Chris, David or Matt had recorded lines for the episodes, and the idea that Ian McNeice would be recounting them was something that worried me a little bit. After all, McNeice had only worked with Matt Smith, and even then I still wasn't sure how that was going to play out. And I did think if McNeice was going to struggle with any Doctor, I expected it to be Eccleston. After all, Eccleston does have a distinctive voice, and I think that you have to work really hard to capture him. Nicholas Briggs managed to do it in Night Of The Whisper, but I suspect that voices that are hugely different to McNeice's are perhaps not his forte. Certainly, I could recognise that this was the ninth Doctor, but I did think that it was quite possibly in Phil Mulryne's characterisation, which played out like a much more pricklier version of the character in Rose, rather than in McNeice's voice. I don't know about anyone else, but I hope that when the next box set comes along in 2017, Big Finish stick to using Doctors that they have on their company's roster. This opinion may change across the box set, but I just think that, here in particular, the narration element covering the Doctor's absence didn't come off quite as I was hoping.
The basic story of this first part is the discovery of an alien stone that affects a soldier's mind, creating duplicates of him that terrorise London in 1939. I think that when this box set was announced, this was one of those ideas that springs immediately to mind, as it seems perfectly placed to fit in with this time period. After all, both Allied and Axis forces would be desperate to try and take any advantage that they could get, and I really like the idea of pushing a pre-Rose ninth Doctor into the mix. However, I did think that these ideas perhaps were more subverted than I was expecting. After all, I had thought that it would have been more focused upon the dangers of altering history, rather than the inherent dangers in the stone itself. I did think that that was an excellent choice, as Big Finish have quite often been concerned with the dangers of alien technology altering the timelines, so by giving the tech itself a powerful and palpable danger was really interesting. It's nothing new if you've seen pretty much every historical episode of new Who, but for Big Finish to tackle that format was something very different. I did think that some of the pace was really off, as after the initial scene, the story seemed to progress very slowly until about the half-way mark. That may have been down to the way Churchill's narrative was written, I couldn't be sure. But it was a shame, because one thing that Phil Mulryne managed to absolutely nail was the form of the piece. It felt like I was listening to an alternate version of Rose: one that perhaps had had the bravery to go in different directions. For example, the Doctor stays in the shadows throughout this episode, leaving us a mysterious, lingering impression. The way that he is kept out of the limelight is something I really like in this story.
I quite liked the action/adventure pace that this story had. I just liked the way it felt like a slice of classic Who: simple, straightforward, well-told, sci-fi storytelling, rather than forcing the story into universal stakes that it doesn't need or deserve. However, the flavour of the new series was there, not just in the music and the sound design (which sees the use of the original Murray Gold theme, probably the only time I've been excited to here it, bar Night Of The Whisper), but in the way the story feels, as mentioned above. The shape of the thing is undoubtedly new series, but the story has the feel of an action romp, the sort the classic series did so well. I really liked the way this could have opened a brand new series of Who, with Hetty Warner acting as the Doctor's new assistant. I really like the way that she got focus, because she was a great character. Confident, feisty, but not annoying, she was really well played by Emily Atack too. The way the story acted as a mirror to Rose, and everything that it could have been was really, really interesting, and something a little surprising, particularly coming in a format like this. I also was glad that Big Finish allowed this release to be an hour long, as unlike some of the TV episodes of recent years, the conclusion to this story didn't feel rushed at all. It came naturally out of the events that were going on, rather than feeling like two different bits of script were stapled together, and they decided that it constituted a story. That's one thing that really pleased me about this episode: that the ending was solidly strong.
The one thing that was really binding this episode together was Winston Churchill. While in Victory Of The Daleks, he was merely seen as a bit of a walking cypher, here I was pleased to say that Big Finish have really added depths to his character. There is a lot more of his own history brought in, which I think was something they really needed to do if they were going to bring us a whole series of Winston Churchill audios. I also liked the way that they highlighted perhaps a few more of his more 'difficult' qualities as well, because that's something that was present, and it becomes rather hard to ignore the more you go on. But that doesn't mean that he isn't a sympathetic narrator, and that's a quality that Ian McNeice really brings to the part. After all, he just owns the part of Churchill in the programme now, and he brings all of that vigour into the role. While I think some of the narration was a little bit awkward and clumsy, McNiece kept it along the right lines. I did think that the rest of the guest cast did fade a little into the background, however. This was perhaps a little unfortunate, as they could have had a great deal of potential, but, bar Phil Mulryne as the alien opponents in this, I was slightly underwhelmed. I thought the work of Ken Bentley and Howard Carter was as excellent as usual, Bentley pitching the performances perfectly (despite their unmemorable nature), and Carter really delivering some excellent sound design and music.
I just want to touch upon a couple of other elements: namely the nature of the stone and the very end. I think having the stone being Gallifreyan tech is a cool idea, namely because it still reinforces the shadow of the Time War without explicitly referencing it. I'm not quite sure of the purpose that it was meant to play, but I'm sure that if I go back, I'll find that for myself.. I wasn't quite taken with Churchill's sudden determination that he could handle it at the end either. I thought it felt a bit tacked on, in an attempt to show Winston's fearless spirit, but it just didn't come off. for me. It just felt forced, and rather odd, considering that Churchill has seen how it affected both the Seaman and Hetty.
Overall, this first part of The Churchill Years is rather odd. As a story, it's as good an opening as one could hope for. However, there are elements to this story that don't quite come together as they should, and as a result this story comes across as a bit of mixed bag. The format of this story is probably my only major complaint, just because it feels sloppy and badly handled, which is odd considering that Big Finish have become adept at using narration to enhance a story (e.g. The Companion Chronicles and The Early Adventures, to name but two ranges). However, there is still promise here, and if the next three stories can overcome these hurdles, all will not be lost!