Released December 2015
At first glance, ‘Theatre of War’ seems like a bit of an odd choice for Big Finish to adapt from The New Adventures range. The original novel is immensely enjoyable as it meshes space opera and intrigue wonderfully amidst the backdrop of an interplanetary war, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the trajectory of the leads or franchise in any meaningful way when taken in isolation even though it does put the manipulative Seventh Doctor in the odd position of not necessarily being several steps ahead of everyone else. However, given that ‘Theatre of War’ represents the first chronological meeting between Bernice and Irving Braxiatel, a figure who would become immensely important to Bernice and eventually Big Finish itself in her own ranges, it makes perfect sense to fill in that piece of continuity within the audio medium as well.
What’s instantly apparent in ‘Theatre of War’ is the scope of the production, opening on the rain-soaked Menaxus in the ruins of a mighty amphitheatre and quickly shifting to galleries, capitals of empire, and even the insides of a machine that can reproduce a vast number of plays from throughout the ages. The truth behind the supposed lost masterpiece play ‘The Good Soldiers’ and the events leading up to its revival are audacious and shocking, even though the story logically presents its facts and presents little doubt of what the ultimate outcome will be. The narrative woven is wonderfully straightforward yet complex, and the character of Bernice truly steps into the spotlight as her archaeological expedition leads her in completely unexpected directions. Her scenes at the Braxiatel Collection are among the strongest in the story, the great camaraderie between Lisa Bowerman and Miles Richardson shining through, and they spur on the narrative even as what she uncovers goes directly against what the Doctor does back on Menaxus. Although the Doctor is meant to be the hero and it’s understood that he will always emerge victorious, it is strangely satisfying to hear him told that the facts he has been presented alongside the audience have led him to draw false conclusions.
Original writer and audio adapter Justin Richards captures the voice of all of the characters, primary and secondary, wonderfully, and each performance befits the given role perfectly. Given his appearance here, it’s easy to see why Braxiatel would come to feature so prominently in future spin-off tales. It’s just a shame that the long-standing relationship between the Doctor and he is not explored more thoroughly as this may have given the battle of wits a greater subtext. The only other slight issue with the tale is with Ace, though this by no means Richards’s fault. At the time of the original novel’s release, there were only a few tales between ‘Survival’ and ‘Theatre of War,’ and so her characterization closer to the television series Ace as she continues her personal growth and development is understandable. However, given the immense number of stories featuring Ace as the sole companion from Big Finish and other media now available that have taken her closer to the edgier persona she would adopt towards the end of her tenure in The New Adventures alongside Bernice, it is slightly more difficult to reconcile where she is as a character at this point.
Nonetheless, with plenty of plot twists that question the reality of the environment itself, ‘Theatre of War’ comes to life wonderfully as an audio adaptation. It’s complex without ever becoming confusing, a long game and a longer war providing ample atmospheric backdrop for this vast space opera that nicely closes up an open piece of audio continuity.