Big Finish Review: Doctor Who – Harry Houdini’s War

It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for. Sort of. Harry Houdini’s War brings to an end the recent Sixth Doctor and Peri trilogy to a close and while we’re getting a boxset with this duo next year, Harry Houdini’s War feels like a conclusion of their story altogether. A bit more of that as we go on.

The glorious cover for Harry Houdini's War
The glorious cover for Harry Houdini’s War

I wasn’t too sure what to make of this story when Big Finish announced it. It certainly has a strange title, playing on the 1980s Target book, Harry Sullivan’s War. But thanks to the stunning cover from Lee Johnson, I decided to pick it up and boy am I glad that I did!

Another factor that played heavily into me picking this audio up was that it was written by Steve Lyons, someone whose writing I really enjoy, I have yet to meet a story from him that I don’t like, in fact, Son of the Dragon is one of my favourite Doctor Who adventures all-together and this story will probably be up there too. Lyons usually does a time-travel story of some sorts and while this story is set in America and Germany in WW1, there aren’t any timey-whimy elements to be seen at all. Instead what we get is a fun run-around with plenty of action, mystery and aerial-battles.

For someone we’ve heard the Doctor mention having met lots of times before, it’s surprising that no-one has ever brought Houdini into a story like this before. I think there was another Lyon’s script from The Destiny of the Doctor range a few years back but this is my first real encounter with the great escape artiste. And Lyon’s doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Doctor has met Houdini before. Indeed a lot of their great dialogue from the first episode comes from the fact that Houdini is trying to work out if this is his old-friend or not because he’s changed his face yet again.

Playing Harry Houdini is John Schwab and it is clear how much fun he is having here. His performance makes this story feel like a lost-television adventure, so clear does he make things. He has great chemistry with the entire cast and his performance is almost in the same vein as John Barrowman’s as Captain Jack. He is naughty and cheeky but serious at the same time. He doesn’t like what his home-country has done and he is trying to distance himself from it while they are trying to drag him kicking and screaming back into the fold. It’s a great place for a character to be and leads to a number of serious moments that Schwab plays to perfection. I felt quite sad at the end that he doesn’t leave with the Doctor at the end so that they can get a trilogy of future adventures!

What also feels different is that this isn’t a story told in the same vein as other Sixth Doctor stories. Actually, this one feels a lot more like a Seventh Doctor adventure with the Sixth Doctor getting to be the manipulative one and playing his cards close to his chest. You genuinely don’t know where this tale is going to go the whole way through the runtime and that was a great feeling.

The cast for Harry Houdini's War
The cast for Harry Houdini’s War

The main cast is also excellent with Colin Baker proving once again why he is such a great incarnation of the Doctor. I liked his manipulative side getting to be front and centre here and again, for the first time in a long time, you genuinely didn’t know what he was going to do next. Baker clearly enjoyed that dynamic too as well as the script because he sounds like he is having a blast here.

Nicola Bryant is still great as Peri too. But is she really Peri here? Well, you’ll have to listen to the story to find out because it was a great twist and secondary mystery that unfolds as the story rattles towards its conclusion. Peri has always been one of my favourite companions and this story proves yet again why she is so great. She’s funny and sarcastic but clearly enjoys her travels with the Doctor and she shares a great dynamic with Houdini, especially when they find themselves trapped in a WW1 plane together with no other option but to fly. It’s great stuff that is played superbly by Bryant. I can’t wait to hear Blood on Santa’s Claws at the end of the year!

Rounding out the cast are Fiona Bruce, Mark Elstob and Glen McCready as Helen, Oberst Brandt and Professor Winter respectively. All of whom manage to add plenty of humanity to their characters be it as goodies or baddies and it really added to the story, with their going the extra mile helping to elevate the script to even higher heights.

Ken Bentley knows how to get the best of his casts and one of the best directors at Big Finish and here he delivers another cracking adventure with some terrific sound design from Joe Meiners, that really keeps the listener engaged throughout.

As you might have guessed, I really enjoyed Harry Houdini’s War and its a nice oddity. Steve Lyons always delivers the goods with his work at Big Finish and this is another hit and certainly one of my favourite releases from them this year. But on a more emotional note, it is a story that sees the Doctor say goodbye to Peri in a way that sets this story apart from the trilogy it is part of. To say any more would spoil this experience but you should definitely check this story out, I’ve a feeling it might just be one of the strongest Sixth Doctor stories told of all time.


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