Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Churchill Years: The Oncoming Storm written by Phil Mulryne and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Late 1939. Britain faces the might of Germany. Winston Churchill serves as First Lord of the Admiralty. But Churchill soon finds himself facing a more immediate threat than the looming Nazi menace. A ‘Stone’ with the most mysterious properties is discovered in the Thames’ sands, and soon oddly spoken soldiers are creeping round London ruthlessly trying to acquire it. Who are they? Can Churchill and his new secretary Hetty Warner defeat them? And what about the man in the battered leather jacket that Hetty meets? Churchill feels sure they can rely on the Doctor to help them! Except that this Doctor seems to want to stay hidden in the shadows…

Northern Adventurer: Well well well, a way of slipping in a new story for the ninth Doctor without the presence of Christopher Eccleston. Will wonders never cease. He bursts into the story, sonic waving and brave and saving the life of Churchill's secretary. He leads away the villain, sonic screwdriver held high like the pied piper leading away a rat. The mechanical soldiers are here because the Doctor is at war. Since the Time War is something that is being openly explored now, on both television and audio, it is surprising to remember a time when it was a mythical conflict in the genesis of the new series. Something to be whispered about in awe. In many ways I would have preferred for it to stay that way but I suppose you cannot keep promising more information, building up a picture and then never follow through and reveal what actually happened. The trouble is that the imagination of collective fandom is bigger than any one writer. How can it fail to disappoint? Although the moment where they meet is triumphantly realised, there is no welcoming smile from the Doctor. He's damaged and it is immediately apparent. Keeping in step with series one, the Doctor only has a peripheral involvement in the climax of this story. It is left to Churchill to save the day. It was an intriguing approach to the new Doctor, to have him so war torn that he encourages others to help themselves because he is too afraid to take action himself. At first it made him look ineffective but once the context arrived it made perfect sense. When it comes to saving Churchill's secretary the Doctor needs to live up to his name again, after an entire incarnation of trying to forget it.

Bulldog Politician: The calm patience for what Churchill is renowned is non-existent as revealed when he barks at his staff when things are not performed with ruthless efficiency. There's talk that Churchill will be PM by the end of the war, a position that the people seem in favour of. He thinks he will be able to handle the power of the sphere because he is exceptional, always one with his ego in check. He's not entirely sure that he approves of the idea of going teetotal - I rather like how he's a man of repute but he enjoys a vice or two. He's delighted to hear that the Doctor has arrived in their hour of need...and wouldn't expect anything to the contrary. He's not as healthy as he should but that doesn't stop him jumping into action when needed. Churchill refuses to back down even in the face of a terrifying alien menace, it's the kind of bollocks he is renowned for. It's that Blitz spirit that he injected into an entire nation. Winston is not above utilizing alien technology to help fight the Nazi menace, even if it means exposing himself to it to gain a tactical advantage.

Standout Performance: Ian McNiece is a really engaging narrator, dramatic and full of life. I'd say these stories were worth devising just to discover that.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Hitler's war effort will not be resting so why should we?'
'You'll fight and you'll Winston Churchill, nothing more!'

Great Ideas: An alien sphere that has fallen to London and upon contact with one of the inhabitants plants technical information in their brain. The soldier that the Doctor is pursuing through wartime London is a rudimentary artificial intelligence. The purpose of the sphere is IA - Intelligence Augmentation. It has the ability to turn you into a demi God.

Audio Landscape: An air raid, sirens, waves lapping, seagulls, stepping in water, electric shock, footsteps on cobbled streets, the sonic screwdriver, an army vehicle on the streets of London, striking a match, birdsong, crowds, a crackling sphere of energy,

Musical Cues: Hearing the Eccleston theme tune is something of an anathema these days, albeit a very welcome one. It's not often that Doctor Who related products surprise and I truly expected this story (and series) to have a theme tune all of its own. Eccleston's era is kind of seen but not heard now in the wake of the three very popular Doctors that have come since (well two very popular Doctors and one who is at arms length with the public but gaining momentum) and so to enjoy a story set in that hugely exciting time for the show is a massive novelty.

Result: 'I will stand! I will stay! I will not move!' Slight but highly engaging in how it is presented, the opening salvo of The Churchill Years gets a thumbs up from me. I wouldn't want this to be the strongest story of the set because I started listening unconvinced that I was going to enjoy this set and thus I needed persuading about the whole Churchill approach before they started doing their best work. Fortunately that is exactly what The Oncoming Storm is, a perfectly confident piece of ephemera, a bit of fluff that allows the greatest politician this country has ever seen and a war damaged Doctor to come together and defeat an alien menace. Nothing more, nothing less. But with Ian McNiece providing sterling narration, some sturdy performances backing him up, atmospheric sound design and strong direction the whole piece crackles with self-assurance. I was helpless in it's wake. The story of the alien sphere that has the ability to turn you into a demi God of hyper intelligent proportions is neither here nor there for me, that's the sort of tenapenny Doctor Who tale that you can listen to in any range at any time. What works is the setting, the central character of Churchill and the fascinating idea of hopping from Doctor to Doctor in each story. It gives me great hope for the rest of the set. Colour me impressed, it proves that how a story is presented can absolutely take priority over the narrative. And contrary to my initial belief this is absolutely a Doctor Who story, not a Churchill story featuring the Doctor. It's all in the theme music. Bravo for pulling off what appeared to be a cash-in concept with so much audacity: 7/10


Matthew Goodacre said...

Great review, I think you might have convinced me to buy this set.

Dan Lee said...

Oh my god, thank you! I don't know if this was due to my suggestion in the Sonomancer comment section(I can certainly hope) but a great review as always!

Ed Azad said...

By the time Chris finally agrees to do these, we'll either be at war with aliens (for real) or watching Big Finish holograms.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe he does a Tom Baker and comes in 10 years time XD
He didn't have a problem with the show itself, he didn't get along with some people at the BBC I think, so if Briggs and co could tempt him with good stories...

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