Susan’s War

Posted in Audio by - April 21, 2020
Susan’s War

Released April 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

When Doctor Who introduced the notion of the Time War that put reality and creation itself at stake, it was easy to imagine the likes of legendary figures such as the Doctor, the Master, and Rassilon all engaging in plots- aggressive and violent or not- against the might of the Daleks. A figure more likely to be overlooked, however, was Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter who had departed his company off of Gallifrey so very long ago. In a war that requires all available hands, though, Susan has answered her summons in Susan’s War, returning home to join in the fight against the foes that she knows all too well.

In ‘Sphere of Influence’ by Eddie Robson, Susan finds herself on a diplomatic mission for the Time Lords, hoping to gain the allegiance of the peaceful Sensorites. She, of course, has a personal history with this race, and it’s only fitting that her erstwhile companion Ian Chesterton should rejoin her for this momentous reunion that holds such import for the entire universe. To that effect, Carole Ann Ford and William Russell perfectly recapture the essences of their characters who have each lived rich lives since their last adventure together on screen. The two have, of course, featured in numerous stories set within the early years of the franchise for Big Finish, but the fresh perspective that each is able to imbue to their beloved companions here helps bridge the unabashed nostalgia their presence allows with the more modern threat that the inescapable devastation of the ever-present Time War presents. Indeed, it’s the moments that Ian slips back into his role as teacher that are some of the most endearing, and the knowledge he gains here about just who the Doctor is in relation to his people who remained so shrouded during his tenure is a thrill that firmly entrenches Ian within the true goings-on he could never have known otherwise.

As a more methodical and subdued race than most, the Sensorites present a unique challenge for the audio medium and the necessary urgency that the Time War as a backdrop necessitates. Cleverly, Robson has devised a means of perfectly blending the danger of the Daleks with the stylings of the Sensorites, and it’s Susan’s own telepathic aptitude that again provides insight into the true machinations at play behind the growing unease that the Time Lords’ arrival on the Sense-Sphere has caused. Paranoia was a hallmark of the 1964 classic, and that same motif perfectly integrates into the story on hand here to once more integrate a sense of familiarity into Susan’s new trajectory. With the vocal stylings of the Sensorites ably recreated, ‘Sphere of Influence’ is a loving homage to Doctor Who’s earliest days that deftly shows how well even the seemingly most disparate eras of the franchise can seamlessly integrate.

Despite never featuring on screen, the beautiful and peaceful planet of Florana that always leaves the Doctor feeling a hundred years younger after visiting has always been one of the most referenced and visited worlds throughout various media. In Simon Guerrier’s ‘The Uncertain Shore,’ the Time War is on Florana’s doorstep, and Susan and Commander Veklin must go undercover to find a spy within the trapped and weary masses awaiting the inevitable as they attempt to carry on with their normal lives. Within this concept, Guerrier allows plenty of time for the world and people of Florana to develop, and a journalist’s interviews certainly give a direct avenue of character exploration and introspection that quickly makes the oppressive situation all the more relatable and engrossing. Including the previous story, Beth Chalmers has played Veklin on multiple occasions in stories set within the Time War for Big Finish, but the espionage angle here allows a new side of the character to come to light, and Susan and she both when together and separated for their mission capture the uncertainty of the situation and their relationship that perfectly underscores the constant and very pressing danger into which they could be walking at any moment.

As a base for the Anti-Dalek Force, Florana naturally presents an area of intense interest for the Daleks, and their efforts are made all the more intriguing by the choice to deploy Ogrons- or Robogrons- with enhanced intelligence as an invading force. Without overusing the Daleks themselves, this allows the war and espionage angles to intersect well, and the plot with its core secrets unfolds with a natural progression that makes each of its steps and revelations essential and earned. ‘The Uncertain Shore’ is a little bit of a slower burn initially, but the end result is an intriguing look into a region of the Time War that has remained unexplored to this point that highlights a much more proactive and decisive Susan than could ever be shown on screen so many years ago to definitively prove the unfettered potential of a series such as this.

In Lou Morgan’s ‘Assets of War,’ Cardinal Rasmus hopes that Susan’s special abilities will help him assess his new weapons project, bringing Susan’s War away from diplomacy and espionage and directly into one of the Time Lords’ many plans and experiments designed to help them take the fight back to the Daleks. Following a fairly straightforward setup, Susan finds herself witness to experimentation on the Orrovix, carnal hunters who feed on temporal energy and seem capable of becoming nature’s greatest weapon with some intervention. Naturally, things don’t go to plan as the apparent control over these creatures proves to be less total than initially thought, and amidst the necessary discussions about morality and how these creatures are changing behaviourally as much as physically, it’s the story of why the creatures have gained freedom that intriguingly takes precedence.

Gallifrey as a planet and a society has quickly become a well-developed entity within the Big Finish universe, and ‘Assets of War’ is unafraid of at least partially turning away from the impending conflict to focus on how members of Gallifrey and its different castes have fared in the leadup to and during the Time War. Doing so is a bold move, but it integrates well into the dubious ethics on display within this military base to highlight the oft-overlooked divisions at the very core of the Time Lord war effort and the world they hope to protect at all costs. Naturally, Susan provides the perfect medium through which to bridge the different thoughts on display, her own experiences with her grandfather and since affording her a unique perspective and open-mindedness that is a welcome breath of fresh air as long-standing mantras continue to become more set in stone. Indeed, just as the Orrovix allow ‘Assets of War’ to seamlessly integrate into the overall Time War saga Big Finish is crafting across its many ranges, it’s Susan who keeps it firmly grounded in the long-standing traditions of morality, decency, and even optimism that Doctor Who has always been founded upon, providing hope for a better future as the darkness of the Time War continues to grow.

Alan Barnes concludes Susan’s War with ‘The Shoreditch Intervention’ in which Susan accepts a clandestine mission to return to where it all began as her grandfather and she arrive in 1963 London with the powerful Hand of Omega ready to be hidden. Naturally, this is designed to be a momentous serial tying together well over fifty years of continuity, and the audio cameo of David Bradley only enhances the overall sense of import of this adventure that boldly proves just how far Susan has come since she traveled in the TARDIS while also exploring the hidden doubts and remorse that any decision can cause in retrospect. The Hand of Omega, of course, would go on to become an integral component to the saga of the Time War long before such a concept came to be known, and so it makes perfect sense that its use and consequences should likewise become a focal point to shifting the war’s very foundation and trajectory. Strangely, the overall tone of the story is somewhat too light to fully accomplish what this tale sets out to achieve. Even with mods and rockers on the streets, the feel of the 1960s isn’t really attempted to be recreated here, and the mixture of these sixties figures with the Daleks is a bit jarring despite the chilling implications that Dalek human control continues to pose. Nicholas Briggs is brilliant as the Daleks as should be expected, and the audaciousness of the scheme must be commended, but everything about its setup to get Susan in place as well as its eventual foiling just feels a bit too easy to fully resonate.

Of course, the main feature of this release is the reunion of Susan and the Doctor, here in his Eighth incarnation as befitting of the Time War and as a figure who has crossed paths with his granddaughter on several instances before. This works both to the story’s benefit and detriment, however, because although Carole Ann Ford and Paul McGann have an undeniable chemistry that brings out the very best in their characters, especially when they inevitably slip into brief granddaughter-grandfather roles, the drama and tone here don’t really match the truly momentous and emotional occasions in which they have met. There’s a tremendous amount of drama referenced, of course, and the fate of Susan’s son by necessity remains a major narrative driving force, but it does seem like there’s a far deeper story than what is presented waiting to burst forth at all times. ‘The Shoreditch Intervention’ is technically a strong story and will absolutely sate the appetite of long-term fans in the short-term, but long-term it’s lacking that extra bit of gravity to fully resonate.

It seems all but inevitable that Susan’s War will mark the beginning of an ongoing journey into otherwise-overlooked corners of the Time War, and these stories expertly lay out the potential that such a series could achieve. Though the scope of every story doesn’t necessarily match the immense scope of this eternal conflict, the heart and emotion at their cores provide a variation of Doctor Who that remains true to its roots while subtly shifting the focus to something that is simultaneously slightly more human and Gallifreyan than the Doctor typically presents.

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