Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Warzone / Conversion
New companion Marc (George Watkins) concludes his adventures with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa in the latest Doctor Who release from Big Finish. Once again, Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding and Watkins feature in two two-part stories.
Warzone has been written by Chris Chapman and Conversion by Guy Adams, with both stories directed by Scott Handcock. This release is available to purchase exclusively on the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st December. Here's the synopsis.
Warzone by Chris Chapman
At Warzone, competitors gather from across the galaxy to test the limits of their endurance and achieve their personal best. So, when the TARDIS materialises in the middle of a racetrack, the Doctor and his friends must literally run for their lives.
Conversion by Guy Adams
On the fringes of the galaxy, techno-pirates and research medics fight for the secrets of advanced extra-terrestrial technology. For the Doctor, however, a more personal battle awaits as he confronts his own guilt and the creatures that killed a friend: the Cybermen.
I'll be joined by my son Ben, the world's biggest Doctor Who fan and regular reviewer of Big Finish at The Digital Fix. Potential spoilers as we delve into this latest release...
Baz Greenland (aged 38)
Unlike last month's release, Warzone and Conversion act as one larger story, separated by two distinct narratives. The threat of the Cyberman and the death of Adric hangs over story, his sacrifice in Earthshock opening up some deep wounds, particularly for the Doctor himself. Given the relatively stand alone adventures of the classic era, there wasn't a great deal of time devoted to the death of the companion before the season 19 finale Time Flight, so it's nice to see the impact of that event treated so well here.
Warzone is an interesting take on keep fit culture and humanity's attempt to achieve physical perfection, no matter what the cost. Chapman's script presents a human colony striving for greatness in what has to be the worst attempt at a cross country run ever. Every time a runner gets injured, they gain a physical upgrade, courtesy of electronic monitors and android helpers ready to repair damaged limbs.
The big twist around Warzone might have worked better had we not known what was coming in the following Conversion, but there's something to be said about being one step ahead of the Doctor as the talk of human upgrades takes a decidedly darker path. Fortunately, Warzone doesn't keep the twist until the very end, instead using it drive the second half of the story as the Doctor attempts a warning of an enemy that has already caused him so much loss.
The fate of Marc, teased at the end of Tartarus, is the real driving force behind this story and the next and as we head into Conversion. The biggest surprise is that this isn't a bombastic, action-driven tale like Earthshock, but a tense, emotional journey to save one person's life.
The mental battle against conversion owes more to Star Trek's the Borg than the more standard Cybermen fare, allowing for a more insidious, introspective look at cyber conversion, while the Doctor and Tegan walking though the powered down Cybermen complex reminded me of many a Starfleet visit to a Borg ship. But there are still plenty of classic Cybermen tropes here, particularly in the return of Ian Banks and the booming voice of the Cyberleader, along with Mark Hardy's Cyber Lieutenant. Both have resurrected their Doctor Who characters for Big Finish previously and provide a nice bit of continuity here.
The ruthless characters of Herb (Angela Bruce) and Creasey (Liz Sutherland-Lim) are straight out of 80's Doctor Who and provide an entertaining foil for the Doctor before the real threat emerges, though I'm not sure what they added to the story overall. But when the action final ramps up, it's the fate of one single life that provides the meat to the story. The ending is somewhat of a surprise too, leaving the door open for more stories to follow, while ending this current run of adventures on a somewhat bleak note.
Warzone/ Conversion don't quite play to expectations. This isn't a big, world-ending drama and there are some interesting ideas at play. The linking of two stories works better than one four-part adventure, providing plenty of pathos without dragging out the conclusion beyond necessary. They won't top the ranks of Cybermen stories, but they do offer something a little different to the all too familiar race and play as an thought-provoking epitaph to Adric as much as a conclusion to this new TARDIS team.
Ben Greenland (aged 13)
Here we are then, at the end of yet another trilogy. For the past two months, we have been treated to the Marc arc, and it culminates here, with the return of an old favourite. Just like last months Interstitial / Feast of Fear, the two stories did exactly the opposite of what I thought. I really need to stop judging them by synopsis...
I'll admit that I didn't think Warzone would engage me, as I'm not a particularly active and sporty person, but it most certainly delivered. Setting a whole story on a race track was an interesting move, and one of the more unique plot devices to split up the TARDIS team. Like a lot of stories, it is Nyssa who gets the least to do here, barely featuring really, until she is needed for the final act. In part one, it's the Tegan and Marc's show, as together they face the dangers of the race track; Marc being from Rome, he knows how to handle them. That is until he gets too cocky. By the cliffhanger I was gripped, especially since I knew something would probably happen to Marc after the worrying Coda to Tartarus.
Part two looses the race themes a little and isn't as gripping as part one, but it is a lot more emotional. I guessed the Cybermen were involved in Warzone too from the words '200 percent'. The Doctor's slow realisation of what is happening on this planet is quite tense. By the time the crew reunite and the Doctor desperately tries to not let a repeat of Adric happen, it was really emotional, with the sad music, the Doctor's fear of what might happen to Marc. There's not even really a goodbye to their new friends, as Marc's conditioning kicks in strong.
Conversion is an atmospheric piece of drama. However, rejoining the crew midway through trying to save Marc at a space hospital, and Tegan and the Doctor elsewhere killed the mood for me somewhat. Part one mainly focuses on the Doctor trying to download information from the Cybermen to save his new friend, while two rather tacked on space pirates confront them. Part two is where the action happens, as the Cybermen get hold of Marc and the Doctor, Tegan and the surviving space pirate flee back to the hospital, trying to break Marc's conditioning. The ghost of Adric looms heavily over this story, and indeed the end of Warzone, to the point that the Doctor basically kills to save his friend, despite them being in a lot of pain; an unusual act for Davison's Doctor (If you discount Warriors of the Deep of course...)
The acting, especially from Davison, is phenomenal in these stories, in what is certainly one of his best performances. It seems that emotional and angry is when he can bring out the best performance for the Fifth Doctor. Again, Nyssa is short changed in both stories, although she did get a lot to do last month in Feast of Fear, and Tegan is (verbally?) distressed for both Marc and for the Doctor, confronting him over how they truly felt about Adric and his death. And while he was out of action for much of this story, I welcome Marc's return. All in all a really thought provoking, emotional and tense piece. Well done Big Finish!
Extras can really make a release, and there are some brilliant treats in store in addition to the stories above. The 16 minute score between Warzone and Conversion is simply sublime. I love how Doctor Who stories from Big Finish make the effort to capture the music of the era and the suite of Warzone / Conversion is pure 80's soundtrack at its very best. From the stunning euphoric synth to the thundering racing beats, this is a celebration of 80's electronica from composer Robert Harvey and worth the price of the disk alone.
The trailer for next month's Christmas-themed Blood on Santa's Claw and Other Stories, featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri sound an absolute delight and had me laughing out loud with a dead Father Christmas, designer babies, gun-toting elves and plenty of nibbles.
Finally, the behind the scenes interviews with the cast and director / producer Scott Handcock are a fascinating listen. Peter Davison and co. are reunited with Earthshock's Ian Banks (the Cyber Leader) Mark Hardy (Cyber Lieutenant) as they reminisce about their time making that story.