Big Finish Review: Doctor Who – Subterfuge
Big Finish's March release in the Doctor Who monthly range takes us back to “a very sensitive year” - 1945. Luckily, the Second World War is over, and Britain is ready for change: quite a seismic change, in fact. Subterfuge reunites Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor with old friend Winston Churchill (Ian McNiece) and a familiar enemy.
Subterfuge has been written by Helen Goldwyn and directed by Samuel Clemens. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 30th April 2020. Here's the synopsis...
London, 1945. Winston Churchill campaigns for re-election. His new strategic adviser assures him that Britain has a bright future under his continued leadership. It’s a vote he can’t possibly lose. But the Doctor knows that he must.
The Monk is meddling, altering history for his own selfish ends. With spies and aliens in the mix, Winston realises victory may not be so simple. But at least he can trust his old friend... can’t he?
The Doctor arrives just a few days before the general election in which Churchill is voted out of office. History buffs might remember an infamous line in one of the PM’s campaign speeches, in which Churchill likens his opponents to the Gestapo, which contributed to his downfall. However, the Doctor finds that history is about to be derailed when Churchill’s new adviser Simon Saunders (Rufus Hound) convinces him to take a more softly-softly approach, focusing on domestic affairs and investment in public services, and to nix the Gestapo line - all but guaranteeing his reelection.
Wait, Rufus Hound is back? Yes, it’s the return of The Meddling Monk! Hardcore fans will thrill at the return of Hound to the role, and he’s on fine form here as a perfectly pantomime villain. Taking the Doctor to one side, he confides that he’s planning to get Churchill back into office - and to take more deadly measures if he doesn’t get his way.
Elsewhere is London, bombs are being planted and threatening to cause chaos, while priceless works of art are going missing. The PM also suspects that there’s a mole within MI5, leaking national intelligence. Churchill puts the Doctor on the case, as well as Alicia Dhowan (Mimi Ndiweni), a highly capable Agent Carter-esque operative. It emerges that her brother is one of the team of workers aiming to find and defuse the bombs. A young man with a talent for finding bombs, and a sister with a talent for defusing them? If you’re thinking that’s a mighty coincidence, and there’s something unusual afoot there, you’d be right.
It’s a jolly adventure, with blackmail and spycraft to spare, recalling Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Hitchcock’s Saboteur. In true pulp fashion, the whole thing climaxes with a run through London’s sewers, and a rally in Trafalgar Square. Writer Helen Goldwyn is clearly borrowing from the best here, but adapting the formula to accommodate the best of Doctor Who.
The cast are also in fine form, seizing the material with both hands. Hound’s characterisation of the Monk is truly detestable, nasal and wheedling, although it’s tricky to see why anyone would want to be in the same room as him, never mind in the same government. Ian McNiece’s depiction of Churchill is as terrific as usual, although his character is one of the few criticisms I have with this story. The PM is hopelessly in thrall to the whims of the last person he speaks to, and blissfully oblivious to what's really going on - it’s what the plot demands, but it’s hard to square with the fictional Churchill we all recognise, fierce as a lion and stubborn as an ass. Mimi Ndiweni as Alicia is perfect, steely and badass, and it’s a shame when she’s temporarily sidelined late in the story.
For all of the double-crosses and loud bangs, there’s a melancholy note running through Subterfuge, peaking when Churchill and the Doctor have a truly frank conversation about the future of their friendship. It’s a bracing example of the Doctor’s terrible burden, choosing the greater good over the personal fortunes of a companion.
All in all, this is an excellent Doctor Who story with which to pass the time in quarantine - comfortably retro, well-played and with a perfectly knotty plot that demands your full attention.
The trailer for next month’s story, Cry of the Vultriss, promises a return to the future. The Sixth Doctor is rudely ejected from the space-time vortex for an adventure with false flag attacks, stolen crystals and Ice Warriors!
In the behind-the scenes interviews, Rufus Hound offers a great insight into the political intrigue at the heart of this story - pointing out astutely that most politicians aren’t the Machiavellian manipulators that we assume they must be, but rather just muddling through and trying to get to the end of each day intact. Ian McNiece, in his return as Churchill, remarks that with his pairing with the Seventh Doctor, the stage is set for his incarnation of the legendary PM to appear with any Doctor.
Brian Capron of Coronation Street (Richard Hillman!) infamy talks about his casting as the mysterious Kulcade, observing that “you’re not quite sure about him”. Mimi Ndiweni discusses her character, the “literally out of this world” Alicia Dhowan, and notes that she's already a Doctor Who alumnus - meeting Peter Capaldi in the Twelfth Doctor episode Oxygen.