The Doctor Who Companion

Get your daily fix of news, reviews, and features with the Doctor Who Companion!

Reviewed: Big Finish's Theatre of War

As a franchise Doctor Who is, and I colour this statement with contemptable coinage, decidedly “timey wimey”. Since 2001, I have (re)seen the entire classic television series – bar a couple of missing episodes (their spools licked clean by the BBC’s errant and imaginary archive dog, presumably). The last time I read the Doctor Who New Adventures range of books, printed throughout the 1990s, was thereby prior to re-watching the entire television show (I read nearly all of the New Adventures bar a couple of books my errant and imaginary dog licked clean, obviously). For me, listening to Big Finish’s adaptation of the 1994 New Adventures book Theatre of War by Justin Richards relates to a story further back in my memory than An Unearthly Child. I have more vivid memories of The Chase than I do Theatre of War. Poor me. Timey Wimey.
For those who don’t know, or perhaps need a little contextualising, Russell T. Davies’ rekindling of Doctor Who in 2005 isn’t really the first “nuWho” in terms of tone and format. Before Davies’ show, before even McGann doffed a wiry wig in 1996, the Virgin range of New Adventures novels became the official canonical, BBC sanctioned continuation of Doctor Who. It bridged the more classic storytelling of the ’80s and the more complex television narratives of the twenty first century. Through the New Adventures, the procedural, family-orientated world of Doctor Who was challenged, re-conceptualised, and integrated into literary narrative forms that took it beyond the simplicity of family entertainment. Certainly, the last two seasons of Doctor Who in the 1980s carried the embryonic beginnings that lead to Davies’ vision (Survival and Rose certainly have some close parallels in tone and content) but it wasn’t until the New Adventures that we saw ideas break free from the constrictions of family drama. Doctor Who grew within the New Adventures, expanded outwards and onwards as Who writers (Terrance Dicks, Marc Platt, and Ben Aaronovitch) met a new wave of talented authors (Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Justin Richards, Kate Orman, Gareth Roberts, and erm, Russell T. Davies to name a few).
The New Adventures were a renaissance to Doctor Who, breathing new life into a show that had arguably found itself tied to its legacy, format, and corporation redundancy. Why is this important? Because historically and critically, the New Adventures are an important part of Doctor Who. In a rare twist of cultural standards, being a “book” lends less value to Doctor Who fans than being “television”. This has led to the New Adventures becoming a lost –and often dismissed– cluster of vibrancy for the franchise. Regardless of subjective opinion to their stories, they are important historical footnote, and it is great to see Big Finish look to adapt them for a new market.
Theatre of War Ace Sophie Aldred Justin Richards
Theatre of War is a story centred on an excavated device found on Menaxus that realises, quite literally, theatre; the audience can live and breathe the greats and not-so-greats, be they Hamlet, Look Back in Anger, or Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure. This unusual artefact perks the curiosity of the Doctor, Benny and Ace who find themselves in the centre of the Heletian war, and destined to (re)encounter a manipulative archiver from the Doctor’s past and Benny’s future.
It’s a funny thing listening to the Big Finish New Adventure adaptations. I remember when I read those book in the barren land of Doctor Who hiatus, I would imagine where the television intro and outro themes could be inserted. I’m sure I’m not the only one who did/does that. Not always easy to portion a book (bar Robert’s The English Way of Death where he deliberated adopted a four-act structure), so it’s very weird (and wonderful) to listen to Theatre of War framed in Big Finish’s four part format.
McCoy is very strong in this adaptation, and very comfortable in his role as the Doctor. He saunters through, gifted from the experience of many, many Big Finish stories. Aldred applies her television persona to Ace rather than the more volatile version from the books (though by this stage, if I recall, Ace had simmered down a bit in the book chronology).
Interestingly from a cast perspective, Miles Richardson returns as Irving Braxiatel after countless Big Finish appearances, and enjoys rich scenes with Bowerman’s Bernice (not for the first time). However, Theatre of War marks Braxiatel’s first appearance in Doctor Who lore (inspired by the referenced Braxiatel Collection in City of Death). This landmark “first encounter” makes the tale pertinent to Big Finish listeners as much as New Adventures fans (if they’re not one and the same).
Theatre of War was a good read as my faded, jaded memory recalls, but I found it a brilliant Big Finish adventure. Whether this is to do with the audio being better than the book, or the difference between personal preferences born from over twenty years, I cannot say. However as a Big Finish play it flows flawlessly, feeling both modern and classical in its Whoiness. It sits somewhere triangulated between a feel of book, play and television show. The set pieces aren’t giant, you could imagine them produced for classic Who, the concept and gentle pacing fits that of a novel, yet the structure and tone befits Big Finish. Richards notes in the included interview that he didn’t simply gut the novel to script it for audio, he turned to his original story outlines and adapted the broader work for the Big Finish drama. I think that is perhaps why it feels such a gestalt. With his years of experience as a writer and part of Who production, I would expect time has helped Richards so effectively adapt his original novel to befit another format. You could say Time was his guide. How apt.
This is a very strong adaptation, and Theatre of War feels a more cohesive and confident translation of form than Love and War – which itself was a good adaptation. It is a re-energised landmark of Who’s own theatre, well-crafted and perfectly performed for a new medium.

James McLean

Reviewed: Big Finish's Theatre of War

by James McLean time to read: 4 min
%d bloggers like this: