The Barbarians and the Samurai

Posted in Audio by - July 31, 2018
The Barbarians and the Samurai

Released July 2018
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

The pure historical genre of Doctor Who is alive and well thanks to the tireless efforts of Big Finish, and just as ‘The Great White Hurricane’ in The First Doctor Adventures Volume One sought to explore the distinctly non-British blizzard of 1888 New York, ‘The Barbarians and the Samurai’ in this second volume takes the travelers into Earth’s past beyond Britain’s borders once more as the TARDIS lands in nineteenth century Japan where Westerners are forbidden. With the daimyo’s Samurai in quick pursuit as they appear near Lord Mamrou’s castle, the Doctor and his companions soon find themselves caught in the middle of secrets and treachery amidst the backdrop of a burgeoning battle regarding the ideology of the land.

Just like with ‘The Invention of Death,’ ‘The Barbarians and the Samurai’ rightly presents its setting as completely alien to the heroes, and writer Andrew Smith’s apparent research and the large cast help to flesh out the complexities and nuances of this era of Japan and of the moral greyness that pervades so many of the actions throughout the story. This is the isolationist era of Sakoku in which Japanese citizens are confined within the country’s borders and foreigners are all but barred from entering that has been in place for some two hundred years, but when Lord Mamrou mistakes the Doctor and Barbara for important figures with certain items he requires, it’s clear that this notion is not quite as steadfast as might be believed. Indeed, the true identity of the famed Red Samurai who must hide his identity at all times from everyone but his lord intimates that this policy has been fraying on all levels to some extent for some time.

With Eastern history being far less explored within the history of Doctor Who and filled with novel terminology, the sheer complexity of the power structure and the many plans in motion for power have the potential to become overwhelming, but Smith does well to keep the action and multifaceted plot as streamlined as possible while still fleshing out this web of intrigue for full effect. The samurai are the heart and soul of this Japan, following the code of honour known as Bushido, and they serve their daimyo in times of war in return for land. The daimyo, in turn, rule their own land but show loyalty to the shogun with his physical power and emperor with his symbolic power. With the practice of Sankin-kōtai in place in which the daimyo’s wife and heirs are held to ensure loyalty, it’s intriguing to note that the honour expected is not reciprocated with implicit trust, and Lord Mamrou is beginning to amass his forces with an ingenious plan that will bring outsiders’ modern weaponry into the traditional battlefield of his time.

Given this story’s placement in history, it’s unsurprising but nonetheless shocking to hear just how ill-regarded women are in this society, amounting to nothing more than property in the word of law. With even Lord Mamrou’s daughter Keiko earning no rights or privileges, Barbara finds her own choice limited to becoming a concubine or being beaten with no principle to stand upon that will hold up in this age. Given just how central the love story featuring Keiko and disgraced Samurai Okada Shumei is to events, this is a firm reminder of the difficulties the two face with one man holding so much power. To this effect, Susan Hngley and Dan Li given powerful performances both together and a part to ensure this bond remains integral throughout, and the inclusion of a diverse cast to lend authenticity to the voices of this locales gives a certain immersive quality to the tale that many adventures outside of Britain fail to achieve.

‘The Barbarians and the Samurai’ is a story of survival and love in a difficult time as Japan neared the end of its isolationist ways, and it demands its audience’s attention to as it develops its many layers and shades of morality. It is a bit of a slower burn with the focus often more on dialogue than action or non-voiced sound through necessity, but Andrew Smith has crafted a fine addition to the historical genre in the vein of Marco Polo and in a location where the Doctor and his companions are less than fully knowledgeable and where appearances- both through what is seen and what is hidden- and loyalty to self can be the most dangerous aspects of all.

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