Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Harry Houdini's War
Wrapping up the latest trilogy of adventures featuring Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor and Nicola Bryant's Peri at Big Finish, Harry Houdini's War sees the TARDIS duo encounter the infamous illusionist and stunt performer - a veteran of a number of written and audio Doctor Who stories - in World War One.
Written by Steven Lyons and directed by Ken Bentley, Harry Houdini's War is available at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st October. Here's the synopsis...
The world is at war, and Harry Houdini wants to fight for his adoptive country. He might get the chance, when an old friend crashes his New York show.
The Doctor is on the trail of a Central Powers spy ring, which has somehow acquired unearthly technology. But he is also keeping a dangerous secret...
Finding himself on the run behind enemy lines, the world's greatest escape artist has to work out who he can trust - and fast.
Spoilers below as I delve into this latest Doctor Who release, alongside my fellow Big Finish reviewer, my 13-year old son Ben...
Baz Greenland (aged 38)
Harry Houdini's War is another strong entry, proving that the Sixth Doctor can do no wrong at Big Finish. From the dark streets of New York to a gothic fairytale castle in war-torn Europe, there is a real sense of grandeur to this tale. As a listener, you have to pay attention from the start as we are thrown into the action without any hint of set up. It's a move that adds a real pace and energy to the story and keeps the twists and turns in the final part a well preserved secret to the very end.
John Schwab makes an immediate impression as Harry Houdini and is very much a Captain Jack archetype , not just in the similar twang of his accent but his swagger and passion too. As a version of Houdini that has already encountered the Doctor before (albeit with different faces), his relationship with the Sixth Doctor is a complicated one; the story makes use of this Doctor's more ruthless nature - while we know he would never so openly work with the Nazis, the possibility that he could so brazenly betray Houdini adds some real conflict throughout.
Nicola Bryant - like Baker - gets more to do than her TV version, very much driving the narrative as she works with Houdini to escape the enemy. The stealing of the spy plane and the subsequent pursuit through the skies towards the front line adds plenty of thrills, backed by Joe Meiners' exciting, almost cinematic score to make the most of the audio setting. Likewise, the final experiment and defeat of the enemy is a real movie blockbuster ending. It would have been hard to imagine 80's Doctor Who creating some of the big set pieces of this story.
Director Ken Bentley not only lifts Steve Lyons thrilling script to deliver an exciting, action-packed global affair, but he also gets the most out of his actors to. For all his swagger, Schwab often excels in his quitter, reflective moments, particularly when facing up to the fact the Doctor is not the man he remembered. Baker too veers between heroic and righteous to a somewhat morose figure, drawn out significantly in his relationships with both Houdini and Peri. Fiona Bruce flits between the line between American Helen Smith and her German counterpart while Mark Elstob's Brandt makes for a great foil for both Houdini and the Doctor.
Harry Houdini's War has everything - great spy drama, evil Nazi scientists, aerial battles and an alien threat that, once exploited, could change history and doom the whole planet. It's setting in the Sixth Doctor's history is a clever choice; there are enough hints to suggest that this isn't a straightforward Doctor Who tale set between the stories of season 22, while the pay off - particularly when it comes to the traditional alien involvement - is an inspired, surprising twist.
Ben Greenland (aged 13)
Harry Houdini's War has the big task of rounding up the new Sixth Doctor and Peri trilogy, and certainly does its job. This story is another WW1 tale, but the setting itself does little to impact the story. It draws interesting parallels with The Avenues of Possibility, the fifth story in The Legacy of Time box set, with portals leading to Berlin, Germans and the Sixth Doctor featuring in both stories.
The Doctor is once again on fine form, with Colin Baker once again proving his might, although it starts as another 'Doctor is actually working for the enemy' story which isn't fully explained until part three. That said, he is brilliant all the way through. Harry Houdini himself was a great character, dripping with sarcasm and entertainment all the way through, and he was the highlight of the story. Usually, I get a little annoyed when the Doctor and companion become side-lined to the guest star, but here is an exception, with Harry carrying the story all the way through, told through his eyes. The supporting cast are passable, if not a little forgettable, but Mrs. Smith, the only one I remember, worked for the story and even gets a little character arc of sorts, ending with a redemption.
I've left talking about Peri for here, as there is a lot of material to discuss. For parts one and two, and the majority of part three, it's all business as usual, and I will say Nicola Bryant is always amazing as Peri. But part four delivers a brilliant twist. There are hints at what is happening throughout, One was the theme used that was created in The Trial of a Timelord and used for most Colin Baker releases. It was different from the Davison arrangement used in Memories of a Tyrant and Emissary of the Daleks, which is used for post-Peri stories. Secondly, the cover portrayed Peri in her Twin Dilemma outfit, with the previous two releases using her Revelation of the Daleks and Mysterious Planet outfits.
The comedy in this story was toned down a little from usual, and that works, but when it is there ("Doctor? Which Doctor? You're supposed to say Doctor Who?) it is on fine form. This story succeeds in what it was aiming for, and it was a joy to have the Sixth Doctor and Peri re-united, even if only for three months.
A trailer for Fifth Doctor Who story Tartarus, also released in September - you can read our review of that story here.
The twenty minute music suite from composer Joe Meiner is a real highlight of this release. From the playful percussion of the opening, to atmospheric heavy chords and slow strings to creat a sense of menace, the mournful cello solo and the short, sharp string movements leading into the dramatic climax, there is a bold, cinematic feel to the score.
Finally, the behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew offers great insights into the making of Harry Houdini's War from the exploration of the performer's role in other Doctor Who stories, to actress Fiona Bruce deciding between the accents for her duplicitous character. Essential listening as always.