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Reviewed: Big Finish’s Doctor Who – Susan’s War

Susan Foreman/Cambell has never had the best of luck when it comes to the Daleks, has she?

She was there when the Doctor first met them on Skaro in The Daleks and later was left behind by the Doctor after they had stopped the Dalek invasion of Earth. Then in his eighth incarnation, the Doctor and Lucie Miller met Susan again, just as the Daleks were about to begin their second invasion. People the Doctor and Susan cared about died.

We later heard from Susan in All Hands on Deck, a story from Big Finish’s Short Trips range which saw Susan get her call-up papers from Gallifrey, and despite the Doctor pleading with her not to go, she answered the call and left for the war effort.

That’s where Susan’s War picks up, with her arrival on Gallifrey and her first mission: head to Sense-Sphere and see if the Sensorites’ telepathic abilities can help in the Time War.

Eddie Robson gives us a tremendous first episode, Sphere of Influence which manages to play with the different eras of the show – a story that feels at home in the 1960s as it does in the 2000s. With references to the original 1964 story as well as mentions of the Ood-Sphere, Robson does a tremendous job of bringing the two eras together.

The other thing you may have noticed from the cover and news coverage is that William Russell also joins the adventure, back as Ian Chesterton, albeit an Ian from modern day. Robson does a great job of weaving the much-loved companion into the story, not shoehorning him in, and it feels very natural to hear Ian and Susan back together again.

It’s also excellent hearing the pair bonding again, now that they are both much older. If you believe in the book continuity, Ian and Barbara had a son, and although Susan doesn’t mention her own son, you do get the sense it’s a link between the two old friends and Ian doesn’t push the subject. But it does give you a pang of nostalgia for those early days of the show and made me want to go back and watch some of those stories again.

The Sensorites is a serial that I’ve come to love over the years and Sphere of Influence easily lives up to it, conjuring that same sense of intrigue and paranoia that the original did, only this time its amplified ten-fold because of the looming war on the Sense-Sphere. It hammers home the scale of the Time War, if the Time Lords want help from such a little-heard-of Doctor Who species.

Sphere of Influence is a great way to open the series. The fantastic reunion of Ian and Susan (though I was a little dismayed to learn he wasn’t in the rest of the boxset) and the inclusion of the Sensorites are both excellently handled. It’s a nice listen: a sense of panicwith characters getting ready for the coming war, and Carole Ann Ford steps up brilliantly to lead.

With Sphere of Influence all about gaining allies, then the second story, The Uncertain Shore is about making sure you can trust them, examining the propaganda that comes with wartime.

Simon Guerrier’s tale certainly feels the most ‘war-like’ out of all in the set, with its heavy espionage angle. I normally like stories that look at the moral aspects of war – is anyone ever really on the right side? – and Guerrier certainly makes sure that this story has plenty to keep it interesting.

Susan and Commander Veklin, played by Big Finish mainstay, Beth Chalmers, are on Florana looking for a Dalek spy. They’ve narrowed the suspects down to a small few and it’s exciting hearing it unfold. It’s also nice to see the action taking place on another established planet (the Third Doctor wanted to take Sarah Jane there at the beginning of Death to the Daleks).

Guerrier rightly focuses on the human aspect of war and the people caught in the middle. All the characters here have reasons why they can’t or won’t leave Florana and it’s heart-breaking to see those things getting ripped away from them when the robotised Ogrons arrive.

Yes, you read that right: robotised Ogrons! Long established as servants of the Daleks, it’s surprising that they’ve never really been included in the Time War range, apart from an Eighth Doctor adventure in Time-War: Volume 2. It makes sense that the Daleks would use them again when they don’t want to get their hands/plungers dirty. Plus it’s always nice to hear Ogrons on audio; Gurrier even makes us feel sorry for them.

The Uncertain Shore is an interesting story. It doesn’t challenge the listener, though it will keep you guessing right until the end as to the identity of the spy, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It continues the strong storytelling in this set, its strengths lying in its handling of characters rather than any ongoing battles.

I like war stories that focus on the moral aspects of conflict and that’s exactly what we get from the third story, Assets of War. With Susan, Commander Veklin, and Cardinal Rasmus arriving at a secret base breeding Orrovix to use as a weapon against the Daleks, they discover that they have enemies a little closer to home.

Assets of War, written by Lou Morgan, is very much a Time Lord-focused tale and wouldn’t be out of place in the Gallifrey range, especially as she continues to develop her own creations, the aforementioned Orrovix. In its first act, it isn’t hard to see where the story is going, especially if you’ve seen Jurassic Park. But Morgan keeps a few surprises up her sleeve.

It’s not the creatures escaping that they need to worry about; more why they’ve escaped. The Gallifrey range has explored the class system on the planet before and it’s nice to see that continue here, with a story of a man whose family has been deeply effected by the actions of the Time Lords. It’s a story of revenge and the need some people have but Morgan also makes sure Susan represents common sense.

Susan understands that no one is innocent in war and that everyone, in some shape or form, contributes to it, whether they’re soldiers, or the governments, royal families, volunteers, generals, or commanders. Everyone plays a part and everyone should be held accountable. It’s interesting to hear Susan bringing her more enlightened opinions before Veklin and Rasmus, both of whom don’t want to hear them, perhaps because they know she is right. It also shows that Susan isn’t someone to be trifled with either. She might be nice and sweet, despite all the terrible things that have happened to her, but she handles the main baddie well, a man who doesn’t deserve the punishment the Time Lords have planned but is too dangerous to be left running around.

While it might be a little predictable in places, Assets of War makes you think about the conversations that come with any conflict and the moral stances that come with them. And for that, Assets of War is an absolute triumph.

It all comes to an end with The Shoreditch Intervention which sees the Daleks take a lead from the Time Lord playbook and send an agent to Susan, convince her said agent is Gallifreyan, and get her to release the Time Lock around Earth, particularly in the 1960s, a setting which has seen a lot of Dalek activity over the years.

The final sees Susan reunited with her Grandfather, once again in the form of the Eighth Doctor, as we delve into the mystery of the Hand of Omega, the legendary device from Remembrance of the Daleks (1988). There’s a gorgeous surprise cameo that sheds some light on An Unearthly Child (1963).

Sadly, some aspects of Alan Barnes’ story didn’t really hit the right note with me. I can see where they were going with the idea of Dalek-influenced Mods and Rockers but I would have liked to have some more Dalek action. I suppose that is one of the stronger things about the Time War: the Daleks are much more calculating, willing to use others to get what they want, rather than just exterminating their way around the story.

Perhaps the main reason why this story didn’t take off with me was because it doesn’t quite reach the heights of previous Eighth Doctor/Susan stories. Then again, it’s hard to match Lucie Miller/ To the Death. Also, All Hands on Deck was supposed to be the last part in Susan’s story, with the Doctor never knowing what happened to her – that was much of the emotional hook, so her reuniting with the Doctor here does undermine that.

Where this story shines though is in its final act, with the Doctor doing something not entirely unprecedented (which, interestingly, Susan initially sees as a betrayal).

The Shoreditch Intervention isn’t bad by any means and there is plenty to enjoy, especially in its final act. But it’s a story that could have been so much more. It ends nicely though on a hook for a future series with Susan going to meet Rassilon. With a tease like that, we are hopefully in for more…

Lisa Bowerman is one of the strongest directors at Big Finish’s disposal and she manages to make this boxset really rattle along. I normally don’t like four-part sets; I think three-episode sets work better because the quality normally drops somewhere in the middle. But Bowerman effortlessly leaves me hanging for the next story and there isn’t a moment I felt the series slows down. Bravo!

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate Carole Ann Ford here too. Her love for the show clearly shines through her performance and I always look forward to anything with her from Big Finish. It’s also clear how much fun she is having here, once again getting to play opposite the Daleks and reuniting with William Russell. It’s been great to hear her develop Susan over the years. She’s certainly come a long way since she was a student at Coal Hill!

The Time War is really being explored with Big Finish and so far, they’ve done no wrong. It’s still got that mythical sense about it but I think that, although it’s sets in the heart of the battles, Susan’s War will always stand apart from the rest of the Time War range. And rightly so.

You can order Susan’s War from Big Finish now.

Jordan Shortman

Reviewed: Big Finish’s Doctor Who – Susan’s War

by Jordan Shortman time to read: 7 min
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