The Churchill Years Volume 1

Posted in Audio by - February 07, 2016
The Churchill Years Volume 1

Released January 2016

Ian McNeice gave a masterful performance as Sir Winston Churchill in both ‘Victory of the Daleks’ and ‘The Wedding of River Song,’ and the character was cannily set up as a longtime friend of the Doctor’s, opening the door for further stories both before and after each of his televised outings. In January 2016, Big Finish released The Churchill Years Volume 1 comprising four stories set throughout the life of the Prime Minister- reprised again by McNeice- and winding throughout the post-2005 series of Doctor Who. This release is very much in the vein of The Companion Chronicles or The Early Adventures, featuring a guest actor alongside the McNeice in multiple roles as Churchill, the Doctor, supporting characters, and narrator.

The first offering is ‘The Oncoming Storm,’ a Ninth Doctor tale set in 1939 with Winston Churchill the First Lord of the Admiralty. As of now- alongside ‘Night of the Whisper’- this may be the closest Big Finish comes to releasing a Ninth Doctor adventure, but the tone and plot are absolutely in line with the Eccleston era. When a mysterious ‘stone’ is found alongside the Thames, a group of ruthless robotic soldiers (RATS) are soon found to be in pursuit. This is actually quite a dark tale, with the Doctor at his most foreboding, but the mannerisms and synonym-laden speech patterns of the RATS help to lighten the mood a bit. Rose is nowhere to be seen in the story, and so the companion role is admirably filled by Churchill’s PA Hetty Warner, a strong woman who is not afraid to go above and beyond to do her part.

Writer Phil Mulryne perfectly captures the essence of both recurrent leads; Churchill is resolute and patriotic and the Doctor is seemingly reviving a sense of compassion under his outward fury and admonishment. As an opening story to the set or taken as a standalone adventure in its own right, ‘The Oncoming Storm’ is a remarkable success. Even though this is the earliest adventure in Churchill’s timeline, it is clear that he and the Doctor already have a long history together, perhaps setting up even earlier tales.

‘Hounded’ comes next, set in 1941 amidst war with a Churchill who is battling self-doubt and melancholy as he fights against a shadow in his own psyche, something he calls ‘The Black Dog.’ Quite interestingly, ‘Hounded’ at the beginning foregoes the more overt science fiction component that was so successful in the previous story, with equal effect instead focusing much more on a single character undergoing a very human dilemma. It is because of this change in Churchill that Hetty Warner has reached out to the Doctor, although the Doctor who answers is not the one she is expecting. Even though she knows of the Doctor’s ability to change faces and seems quite open to more audacious concepts, it’s still quite amusing to hear the obvious initial dissatisfaction with the Tenth Doctor’s appearance.

While the story is not solely about Churchill, the Black Dog is certainly the driving force of the tale as it seems to be taking a physical manifestation. A visiting swami seems to hold the answers to Churchill’s troubles, and he actually ends up playing a very significant and emotional role as the story takes a bit of an unexpected turn midway through. The Doctor is sidelined for much of the first part of the story as well, but when he finally makes his appearance with Hattie he is full of the usual vivacious vigor and inquisitiveness that made his Doctor so unique, eventually running about London to solve the mystery at hand.

This is not a negative as such, but it seems a missed opportunity- even as more of a character piece- not to have the War more directly affect the story until towards the very end when an air raid adds a real sense of urgency to the proceedings. Scripted by Alan Barnes, this is another great tale from the mouth of Churchill, one that quite poignantly discusses the effects of mental illness within the framework of a monster story without ever slowing down the tempo or atmosphere.

Justin Richards’s ‘Living History’ is the third story, and this time the Eleventh Doctor, accompanied by Kazran Sardick from ‘A Christmas Carol,’ offers Churchill the opportunity to travel in the TARDIS. Churchill chooses to meet Julius Caesar in 55BC Britain as research for his book, but when a time disturbance at that time causes the Doctor to disappear in the TARDIS, Churchill and Kazran are left to their own devices to explore. Instantly apparent is a sort of mutual respect between the two even as both make references the other does not understand.

Much like the characters in the preceding stories, though, Churchill and Kazran are soon separated, each becoming entwined in the Roman/Briton conflict as the former is taken to his idol Julius Caesar and the latter is taken to Queen Tristahna, a leader who is following an ominous Bronze God’s orders. It’s unfortunate that the cover so brazenly revealed the identity of the Bronze God as being a Dalek, but it’s still a joy to hear Churchill’s reaction to the ‘Ironside,’ bringing an added sense of dread and respect to the scene.
While the concept of a lone, damaged Dalek trying to repair itself is nothing new, the addition of Kazran and Churchill as the main protagonists adds a fresh new angle. Churchill’s ongoing commentary of the Dalek battling the Romans and Britons is quite moving and sometimes amusing, and the tension with the Doctor nowhere to be found is certainly palpable. Though it’s a shame that the Eleventh Doctor is absent for so much of the events, Kazran and Churchill fill the void by quickly becoming a dymanic-if unlikely- double act.

The final story of this set, ‘The Chartwell Metamorphosis,’ has Churchill living out his days of retirement at his house in Chartwell, attended by two nurses, Mrs Whitaker and Lily Arwell, the latter of whom appeared in the television serial ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.’ This quickly turns into a mystery of sorts as Churchill’s attending staff keeps disappearing, one that he and Lily are determined to resolve, and eventually his interest in butterflies comes full circle in a most unexpected fashion as Mrs Whitaker begins a metamorphosis to a carnivorous butterfly-like creature. It’s a bit disconcerting to hear Churchill occasionally berate the well-meaning Lily, but it’s also a good reminder that this is not a perfect man, prone to fits of irritability especially in his later days.

Eventually Lily and Churchill realize that they are out of their depth, and Lily is able to call the Eleventh Doctor for help. For reasons unexplained, he does not show up until the last possible moment to save the duo. Staying true to himself, the Doctor offers a peaceful compromise- apparently the TARDIS has a butterfly room as well- but the story quickly devolves into a rather dramatic scene of violence, perhaps one too extreme to be done anywhere but audio. It’s a shame that, even though the Eleventh Doctor is featured a little bit more than the preceding story and is actually relevant to the resolution and explaining the alien aspects, he’s really not essential to the overall progression of the storyline until the very end. Even as arguably the weakest story of the set, on display is an intriguing glimpse into the man that Churchill will become, proving that he is still a resourceful and intelligent man even in his advanced years.

Overall, then, The Churchill Years Volume 1 offers four fairly strong tales, all aptly brought to life by the interminable Iam McNeice and excellent guest casting (with some surprising characters brought back for a curtain call. Of the Doctors, the Ninth and Tenth receive far better treatment than the Eleventh who is completely disparate from the main storyline for the vast majority of both stories in which he takes part. As a character study of Churchill and a revisitation of different modern Doctor Who eras, however, this box set succeeds tremendously and hopefully is successful enough to warrant another installment.

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