Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Scorched Earth
Colin Baker, Miranda Raison and Lisa Greenwood return for the second of three new Sixth Doctor, Constance and Flip stories, this year. Scorched Earth sees the TARDIS arrive in Paris in 1944, where mysterious events are afoot in occupied France.
Scorched Earth has been written by Chris Chapman and directed by John Ainsworth. It is available to purchase exclusively through the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 30th June. Here's the synopsis...
July 1944. The TARDIS materialises in a small village near Rouen, where celebrations are in full swing. A joyful France is in the midst of liberation as the local population welcome a battalion of Allied soldiers – along with a colourfully dressed Doctor and his two rather excited friends.
But there are screams amidst the celebrations as an angry crowd dish out their brand of justice to one of their own that they have branded a traitor. While Constance and Flip find themselves on opposite sides of a war beyond a war, the Doctor has other concerns. The local community is used to the fires of battle, but a new type of blaze is burning – leaping from aircraft to aircraft, man to man – and this fire seems to be just as eager for revenge as the village mob.
Once again, I'll be joined by son Ben to review this latest Doctor Who main range release from Big Finish...
Baz Greenland (aged 38)
After the high antics of last month's Cry of the Vultriss, this second main range release with the Sixth Doctor, Constance and Flip is a far more grounded and emotional affair. While there is an alien threat involved, it takes a back seat for much of Scorched Earth, only really coming into play the latter half of part three and serving as the big climax for the story in part four.
Instead, Scorched Earth offers a deep and insightful exploration of the nature of good and evil, collaboration with occupying forces and the anger of the oppressed coming out of the end of the war. It is very much a morality play, setting the two companions against each other; despite their different backgrounds, Constance and Flip have had such a strong bond to date. Seeing them at odds as Constance embraces the anger of the French people, people of her own time, while Flip argues from a modern perspective, adds the real meat of the drama unfolding, with the Doctor caught between them; understanding Contsance's anger, even if he falls on Flip's side of the argument.
The abuse Clementine suffers, daring to fall for a Nazi officer, is harrowing. The hair cutting scene is powerful, if difficult to listen to, with Constance and Flipp at opposites, leading to the bigger cliff-hanger of part two that sees Flip trapped in a burning building for daring to help the poor woman. It's a brave thing to show the usually collected, pragmatic Constance embracing the hysteria of the situation, tapping into the circumstances of her own time; it offers plenty of depth to her character, perhaps demonstrating the differences between the two companions more than ever before. Both Raison and Greenwood live up to the challenge that the conflict provides.
The supporting cast are all strong; Philip Delancy brings plenty of odious charm to Lucien, a man seeking justice by embracing the hatred within. Christopher Black stands out the most; full of innocent optimism as Walter, an Allied solider regretting missing out on the action of war, while is Nazi officer Jurgen is the polar opposite, without becoming a ham-fisted villain. Likewise, James Boswell succeeds as both the heroic Harris and Nazi Klaus. Rounding off the cast is Katarina Olsson, who gives a deeply sympathetic performance as Clementine.
If there is one fault with Scorched Earth, it is the alien threat; a fire demon of sorts that is summoned by Lucien's lighter to reek havoc upon his enemies. I liked the idea that it was fuelled by hate, making France coming out of the throes of Nazi occupation a perfect setting. But I wonder if it would have been braver to make the story a pure historical. The raging fires that the Doctor races to stop in the climax serves more as a distraction to the deeper storytelling at play.
There are some solid ideas at play and Chris Chapman's script treats the subject matter with the respect it deserves. It certainly gives Miranda Raison and Lisa Greenwood plenty to get their teeth into as Constance and Flip side against each other, with the Doctor caught in the middle. It doesn't quite have the high thrills of Cry of the Vultriss, but the quitter, more focused drama certainly succeeds in telling a great story.
Ben Greenland (aged 14)
Scorched Earth is the best Doctor Who main range release of the year; not just because of the great TARDIS team and decent monsters, but for the emotional drama and its focus on character, which serves as the backbone for the tale.
Having the TARDIS crew land in Constance's time, provides unique opportunities for the characters, and hear we have Flip and Constance conflicting over ideology and morals. The fact that during this time in France people who were deemed traitors were attacked by the public is a bleak event to show, but one that is necessary and make the story stronger. Having Constance in her own time means that this justice system and these views are the same as her own, and yet completely alien to Flip who, with her caring attitude, tries to end this brutal attack on Clementine while Constance believes it's right to do this. This ultimately leads to Constance and Flip fighting over the whole story, which brings a lot of drama.
There isn't just one monster in this story, there are two. The fire demon who feeds on hate is an interesting idea and almost the perfect threat in wartime (And the subtle touch of the Doctor sending it to Skaro at the end for a feast of hate), but is actually not the main focus. The real monster here is Lucien, who commands the creature. Because it's not just enough for him to have been liberated from the Nazi's or to make shame of the so called traitors, but he has to actively burn them alive and kill them despite the freedom he now has. He already brutally attacks Clementine (whom Flip spends much of the story with and comforting ), but then feels it's his duty to burn her to death. This a man who has no compassion in him at all, and practically rejoices in the nasty deaths he gives his victims. Although when he realises his mistake and the fact that he had already won, it's fitting that he does claim he should be arrested for what he has done.
The performances here are as good as ever, with Colin Baker on top form especially balancing stopping the Furio and Lucien while trying to keep his companions together to help stop lives, while Lisa Greenwood and Miranda Raison really get the meat with their characters and what they go through here (notable is when Constance, who believes the Doctor has sentenced all the innocents of Berlin to a fiery death). The cliff-hangers are also surprisingly effective, although Part Two, where Flip and Clementine are trapped in a burning house, is somewhat reminiscent of the Part One cliffhanger to Cortex Fire back in 2017. Overall, this is a strong, emotional story, that puts the TARDIS crew at odds with each other and delving into new territory for the companions.
The eight minute music suite from composer Simon Power at the end of disc 1 is full of bombastic energy; racing strings and thundering percussion adding a real sense of danger, followed by some delightfully atmospheric scoring - a mix of string and synth - that captures the ominous mood of the piece. It certainly doesn't feel like something we might have heard in the Sixth Doctor televised era, but it still packs a punch, full of tension and drama interlaced in the racing percussion beats and slower, haunting melodies running throughout.
A trailer for the final Sixth Doctor, Constance and Flip story of 2020, The Lovecraft Invasion, heads to Rhode Island in 1937, to an encounter with HP Lovecraft and an alien threat that looks certain to influence his weirder sci-fi tales...
The release rounds off with fifteen minutes of interviews with the cast and crew. Writer Chris Chapman, a self-proclaimed World War II nerd and his desire to examine the anger towards collaborators in the aftermath of the war along with the exploration of the differences between Constance and Flipp as two companions from two different time periods. Miranda Raison and Lisa Greenwood are full of praise of Chapman's writing for their characters, while actors Christopher Black, James Boswell and Philip DeLancy tap into the battle of good and evil in the varying characters they play, taking on roles as Nazi officers and French / English characters within the story. Katarina Olsson is equally full of praise for the character of Clementine and the impossible circumstances she finds herself in.
Particularly insightful is Chapman, Raison and Colin Baker's is discussion of the Doctor's reaction to the hair cutting scene and his decisions protecting Constance and Flipp in light of the harrowing circumstances that unfold. The very real circumstances of how collaborators were treated is discussed with compassion and understanding, everyone involved recognising the impossible circumstances people found themselves in.