Thursday, 15 May 2014

The War to End all Wars written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Years after he gave up travelling in the TARDIS, Steven Taylor is the deposed king of a distant world. From the confines of his cell, he shares his story with a young girl called Sida. And one story in particular – a visit to a whole world at war, which will mark Steven for life…

Aggressive Astronaut: Steven is not longer King of the planet of the savages. This bombshell is dropped in the first scene and he links the reason to a moment of his life with the Doctor, encouraging us to listen to his narration of a tale. To know that we will be rewarded with the answers for the framing device by listening to the central narrative gives the audience an extra motive to push on. Steven is very protective of the Doctor, considering him an old man but he knows in his heart that he can look after himself. He scoffs at the thought of Dodo being his girlfriend and admits they didn't travel together for long. However he named his youngest daughter after her and she was his favourite which tells you something about what Ms Chaplet meant to him (even if he tries to brush away any suggestion that he had a favourite). His time in the military is mentioned once again and he knows who to take care of himself in the rigorous training procedure. He thought he had escaped the bullying orders and passive aggression of the military and resented falling back into that lifestyle. He knows that the best way to escape would be to get his head down, train with the other soldiers and learn about this world and its conflict. In the military you become the uniform and Steven found it was frighteningly easy to step back into the role. Steven set up schools on the savages planet to teach the history of the planet, to avoid the population making the same mistakes. Poor Steven has to suffer the indignity of being squirrelled away in a dark and stinking latrine. As soon as he realises the terrible game that is being played Steven understands that there is only one way of changing things - to run for election. Steven had learnt from the Doctor that sometimes the best way to get noticed by those you are opposing is to stand on the rooftops and shout subversive platitudes. When Steven's daughter Dodo died, he stopped fighting and accepted his political fate. Steven learnt on Comfort that if you want to make a lasting difference to a world then you can't just leave after one night once the society has been fundamentally changed. The planet of the savages was a life's work, the challenge he had been looking for and a chance to find some roots after suffering so much loss in the TARDIS.

Dead as a...: Dodo comes bursting out of the TARDIS full of enthusiasm and bravado, it instantly feels like an accurate interpretation of the character. She doesn't do too badly during her assessment stages but naturally doesn't have the physical aptitude of a natural fighter like Steven. The thought of being split up and sent to fight in a war alone terrifies her.  Dodo had a way of getting on with everyone. There are some people out there who might smirk at the though of Dodo being placed in front of a firing squad. Had she appeared in more stories of this calibre that might not be the case.

Hmm: He thinks he has a statesman like bearing but tries to pass himself off as an ordinary citizen. Much like the first Doctor from the third season he has learnt a great deal from his adventures and recognises when he shouldn't stand out in a crowd. The Elders knew who the Doctor was before he had arrived, they had studied his wanderings. He destroyed the machines and set the people of the savages planet (I wish they had given it a name) free.

Standout Performance: Peter Purves has mentioned how he would like to do more acting and given his multitude of superb performances throughout the companion chronicles it is a crying shame that he isn't being used more elsewhere. This is an intelligent actor, who can take a script and wring every nuance out of it. He gets to the heart of the story that Simon Guerrier is trying to tell simply and effectively and delivers every line with emotional honesty. I genuinely think he is one of Big Finish's stalwarts.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'A lot of people think so' 'A lot of people can be wrong.'
'The more time you face war up close and intimate, the worse it is to go back.'

Great Ideas: There is an impressive extra feature interview between David Richardson and Simon Guerrier discussing not only The War to End All Wars but also the companion chronicles in general. They are, not undeservedly, celebratory about the range and look back over seven impressive seasons worth of stories and discuss the flexibility of the format, their successes, where they were criticised and what emerged as the stronger stories. I don't think anybody can deny that the range was a massive success, that the prolific number of stories are generally very strong and that there was a great deal of experimentation and sense of creative freedom that has perhaps vanished from the main range, certainly of late. One element of the companion chronicles that they discussed was how very early on they decided to play about with the framing device for these stories. You take a look at the two truncated seasons at the very beginning of the range and they all seemed to take place years after the selected companion left the Doctor and featured them looking back on their lives in the TARDIS, how it affected them and impacted their lives since. Had that formula been regimented the range might have grown stale quite quickly (there were a finite number of companions for a start). However The War to End All Wars does return to that format for one last hurrah and is the only story that features Steven in his post-Savages life and fills us in on his life since. It's lovely to see the series come full circle like this on it's last recording (mind you there are two more releases). It's a great idea because Steven's fate has been left unresolved for decades and if there was anybody up to the job of sketching in the details, it is companion chronicle maestro (he admits it himself) Simon Guerrier. Cleverly, Guerrier brews a potent image of the world Steven was left on and leaves the audience hanging on a disquieting cliff-hanger pondering it's fate once again. Will we ever find out if the Doctor (although not the Doctor) managed to stage a coup?

On the planet of the Savages there is a copy of the Doctor's mind in a jar left over from when the contents of his brain were drained in Steven's final story. It's a guiding intelligence for the people now. Imagine being caught up in a war where you cannot get any sense of the bigger picture? Of who is fighting who and why. All Steven knows is the war allowed the citizens to escape the humdrum existence of a life in factories and plants and the threat of death brought them to life War gave these people a purpose. It was institutionalised warfare, a stick to keep you on the path and a carrot if you stayed there. If people dared to question or rebel they were taken out and shot. The suspense that Guerrier and Bowerman manage to generate when Steven makes his way across the lines to the enemy trenches is extraordinary...you just know that he is going to discover something horrific and still the danger feels very real. With such a tight control on the population you can make them believe anything, even in a enemy that doesn't exist. In war you are no longer an individual but part of a machine. In this case it is a propaganda machine. The twist that there is no enemy, that the war is the work of the establishment having one section of population fighting another to give them something to do, to balance money sheets and boost morale, is terrifying. The evaluation tests that were performed were to ensure that both sides would be equal, so the conflict would continue. No side had the advantage. Although he is good man trying to change things for the better, the way Steven's voice is heard because it is a new one amongst the old fossils says a lot about how political hotheads (even idiots such as Nigel Farage) manage to get themselves noticed. The latest fad. His competitors consider him a novelty but one that might just change their world. Steven finds that when he spouts information that opposes what the public understands to be true they manage to twist his meaning until it fits the facts as they see them. Or have been drip fed. Never underestimate human naivety. When he refuses to stop spreading propaganda he is soon arrested - sometimes a society would rather live a lie than be forced to face up to the truth. Embracing reality would fundamentally change the world. It turns out this is an old penal colony set up for prisoners of certain personality types. Intelligent, driven prisoners. A computer devised roles for them suited to their nature but in a way that was centralised and hidden from view. No prisoner could see the overall system. A war created by a computer with impeccable logic, keeping these people busy and out of the rest of society's way.

Audio Landscape: Door opening, Steven on the treadmill, marching feet, trudging through puddles, explosions, screaming soldiers, feet slapping on mud, enemy gunfire, heart monitor, banging on the door, smashing through, cheering.

Musical Cues: Simon Robinson's music was deliberately electronic sounding and all pervading, two things that you couldn't say is true of the Hartnell adventures on television. I have to say it distracted me from the narration at times which probably wasn't the intention.

Standout Scene: How like the Doctor to take on the visage of the leader of the enemy, to accept defeat and put an end to the conflict. Such a simple, selfless way to end the conflict.

Result: Was Steven characterised this well on television? Probably not, but Peter Purves was such a strong actor that you might be tricked into thinking he was always written for by the deft hand of Simon Guerrier. The writer has had the chance to explore the character in a number of companion chronicles now and despite some strong competition has got under his skin better than just about anyone. Listening to these audios Steven is a living, breathing person with strengths and flaws, humour and depth. And Purves is still phenomenal, going above and beyond what every script asks of him. I hope this strength of characterisation and performance continues in the early range because the first Doctor companion chronicles have been a revelation in the first person. There is an astonishing amount of plot to The War to End All Wars, easily enough to fill up a Hartnell six parter given the amount of develop both Steven and the society he finds himself trapped in develops over the hour. Had this story been told in real time it would need much more time to breathe but the narration allows for huge swathes of development (Steven's induction into the army, his first time on the battlefield, his election campaign) to take place in a couple of lines. Simon Guerrier uses Steven to make comments on the futility of war and how easily a conflict can be brewed if the populace is fed the right stimulus. The fact that this story talks so eloquently about the inanity of fighting a war where the little people are just a statistic, a cog in the machine on the centenary of the First World War only serves to strengthen the power of the points it makes. A gripping central narrative, meaty characterisation and a chance to find out what happened to Steven when we left him in The Savages - this is another story in this series with an abundance of substance. Only the music jars: 9/10

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