Earlier this year, Star Trek: Picard allowed us to revisit a character whom we’d last encountered 18 years ago. Jean-Luc Picard was physically frailer but that didn’t stop the writers from flinging him across a thoroughfare, over a desk, across the galaxy on a rickety old spaceship, the list goes on.
And yet, underneath all the explosions, gunfights and space battles, this was a story about ageing and a man making peace with himself as he approaches the end of his life. I bring all of this up, because there are similarities to be drawn with Big Finish’s latest release in their Time War range – Susan’s War.
We last saw Susan Campbell on-screen in 1983, since then she’s had some (rather bleak) adventures in expanded universe fiction and is now called upon to save the universe – meeting old friends along the way. The first of those old friends is Ian Chesterton, recruited by the Timelords to assist Susan on a diplomatic mission back to the home of the Sensorites in Eddie Robson’s Sphere of Influence. The Timelords believe that, since he convinced the pacifist Thals to take a stand against the fascist Daleks, he can convince the soft-shoed whispering telepaths to join the Time War. If you were crying out for a Daleks v.s Sensorites smackdown then this is the audio play for you, my friend! It’s essentially a flimsy excuse to have the two surviving members of the original cast back together, with Ian’s incredibly meta-textual speech on how the Second World War influenced his actions on Skaro sounding more like it’s come from the pages of an Elizabeth Sandifer text than spoken and believed by the character himself.
Having Ian and Susan together again is a strange experience – for a lovely moment like Ian remembering he’s no longer the teacher, there’s also a clunky moment that doesn’t land. For example, Susan catching Ian up on the incredibly bleak backstory she’s had during the Eighth Doctor audios feels at odds with the post-war optimism and positivity of the early days of the show. It’s not all bleak though, there’s an excellent running joke about the Sensorite’s noise sensitivity. A gag which will soothe the ears of listeners like me who find all those explosions and Dalek rasping a bit grating. That said, it builds to a climax centred around old men and their mobile phones, it’s funny and very “Doctor Who” but it highlights a larger issue. Namely that the casting of a clearly elderly William Russell and the inclusion of various references to his advancing years muddies the “haven’t aged a day since 1965” romanticism of The Sarah Jane Adventures‘ nod to Ian and Barbara.
A small niggle perhaps, but as we’re dealing with one of Russell T Davies’ finest creations – The Time War and eventual destruction of Gallifrey – the muddied continuity does distract. We’re on safer ground in Simon Guerrier’s The Uncertain Shore, as Susan and her Timelord handler Veklin arrive on a world with a looser connection to established mythology. Posing as keen painters, the pair are on the formerly peaceful paradise world of Florana to root out a Dalek spy. It’s here that Susan’s strengths in a Time War hone into view – her empathy allows her to easily inveigle her way into the lives of Florana’s colourful range of visitors in their attempt to identify the spy.
There’s a strange mixture of Rosemary & Thyme and Casablanca at play here, which is by no means a criticism, Guerrier balances the tonal differences well. The first half’s breezier tone of a cosy ITV whodunit emphasises the darkness and high-stakes jeopardy in the second. Ultimately, this is a story about the innocent people caught in the crossfire and of how their stories can lay the groundwork for a resistance movement. It’s easy to accept the older Susan, who left to rebuild the Earth, as a keen founder member of such a group but the Timelords have other uses for her.
Lou Morgan’s Assets of War finds Susan’s empathy, telepathy and morality put to the test as she’s sent to a Gallifreyan weapons facility to approve the latest addition to the Timelord’s arsenal. The Orrovix are a race of deadly predators torn from the time vortex and bred for the battlefield. Susan understandably finds the whole thing abhorrent and warns of the obvious dangers with such a scheme leading to a good old fashioned base under siege story. Running underneath such a tried-and-tested Doctor Who format is a more interesting story about class inequality and of those we expect to sacrifice themselves in our name. The class structure on Gallifrey has always been something sketched out rather than filled in but Assets of War goes further to explore what it means for the recruitment of front-line soldiers.
Susan’s empathy for those that are caught in the crossfire between the Timelords and the Daleks leads to some distrust from her senior officers, not helped by her own Grandfather’s refusal to take part in the conflict. Whilst he helps out in his own way on the fringes of the conflict, Susan believes that she can actually help on the front-line. This dichotomy between grandfather and granddaughter’s approaches leads to the final entry in the set – Alan Barnes’ The Shoreditch Intervention.
Caught up in a Dalek plot to change the course of history, Susan is reunited with the 8th incarnation of her Grandfather in London 1963. The Dalek plot and the various timey-wimey shenanigans involved in averting the fateful journey of the Hand of Omega occasionally feels less like a story needs to be told and more like an excuse to get to the Doctor and Susan’s family argument over the Time War. Paul McGann and Carole Ann Ford play their scenes together beautifully, reverting back into their roles as chastened child and irascible curmudgeon. There’s still a warmth and a love there, too, and references back to the losses that both experienced in the emotionally devastating fourth series finale To the Death remind long-term Big Finish listeners of just how far we’ve come.
And yet, far though we’ve come, there’s a nagging sense that we’re running out of road. The Time War was such a great creation by RTD because it left a massive gap in established continuity for our imaginations to play around in. In the execution though, it appears that there’s only a finite number of stories to tell about the conflict. A diplomatic mission with an old friend, a peaceful planet about to be ravaged by conflict, a deadly uncontrollable weapon and an attempt to change the course of history. They are all plots dealt with comprehensively by the other sets in the range – The War Doctor, Time War, Gallifrey: Time War and The War Master.
There’s certainly a fresh perspective lent to proceedings by the inclusions of the Doctor’s empathetic granddaughter and her hope that the Timelords don’t lose sight of themselves in pursuit of victory against the Daleks should lead to interesting character conflicts in future sets. There’s promise here, and the hope is that this conflict and Susan’s unique perspective will be enough to raise material that is often overly familiar.