Big Finish Review: Susan's War
Susan’s War is a labour of love, woven seamlessly into the lore of Doctor Who and exploring fascinating new tangents in the Who-niverse. Here, Carole Ann Ford makes a triumphant return to the role that has defined her career, the Doctor’s granddaughter herself, after several one-off reappearances with the Eighth Doctor.
A four-part story, Susan's War has been co-written by Eddie Robson, Simon Guerrier, Lou Morgan and Alan Barnes, and directed by Lisa Bowerman. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 30th June 2020. Here's the synopsis...
Gallifrey needs every Time Lord to fight the Time War. A summons has been issued across the universe to its prodigals. Whatever their skills, the war effort can use them.
Susan’s call-up papers have arrived, and, unlike her grandfather, she is willing to join her people’s battle and finally return home.
Because Susan knows the Daleks, and she will do her duty...
Including four full-length stories and extensive cast interviews, the entire Susan’s War package runs to nearly five hours of content. With plenty of free space in my schedule, I rolled up my sleeves, engaged the time rotor, and began at the beginning.
Sphere of Influence by Eddie Robson
We join Susan as she is picked up by the Time Lords, who are as surprised as she is to learn that she’s an important part of the Time War - the reason for which is not immediately apparent. Her first mission takes her to the Sense-Sphere, home of the Sensorites, in order to recruit their help in fighting the Daleks. But the team find that Sensorites haven’t remained entirely untouched by the ramifications of the War, and Susan is soon fighting for their survival.
She isn't alone - Ian Chesterton, Susan and the Doctor’s former travelling companion, is surprised to find a refrigerator rather than a police box collecting him for an intergalactic adventure. The Time Lords reason that having encountered the Sensorites before, he’ll aid with the charm offensive. William Russell is just as spry and committed in his nineties as he was back in 1963, and he’s a wonderful addition to this story - this is most certainly not just a cameo.
Susan quickly makes an enemy of the hotheaded Commander Veklin, who’s a good foil for Susan’s level-headed and diplomatic approach. Beth Chalmers as Veklin, already a stalwart of Big Finish, is a highlight through these stories - vexed and tetchy where Susan is calm and collected.
A tale of diplomatic intrigue and low-stakes drama, it’s a welcome re-introduction to beloved characters and a fine kickoff for the four-part story. You’ll have to listen carefully, though - with several competing RP accents in the mix, and not much in the way of environmental audio cues for context, this is a story that rewards close attention.
The Uncertain Shore by Simon Guerrier
Following some days after the conclusion of the previous story, The Uncertain Shore sees Susan and Veklin land at a deserted holiday resort on Florana (Third Doctor fans won’t miss the allusion), and we learn that they’ve spent their time… painting watercolours. They’re on the trail of a Dalek spy, undercover on the planet, and are similarly keen to keep a low profile while they make their investigations. The Time War is raging in the near distance, actually visible from where they are, and is edging ever closer - hence the evacuation of their fellow guests on packed ships, prior to the start of the story. You can almost hear the clock ticking, and it’s a nifty storytelling device.
Among the few remaining staff and guests are Faith, Lootsa, Monty and Yeorgi. The agent eventually makes an appearance, but actually capturing them proves more complicated than expected. There are fake-outs aplenty, and the story moves at a spry pace, especially once a little-seen enemy from the Who-niverse makes a surprise appearance. And Dan Starkey, practically Doctor Who royalty at this point, makes a welcome appearance.
Assets of War by Lou Morgan
The morally flexible streak running through the history of the Time Lords has always been one of Doctor Who’s most fertile sources of inspiration, and so we join them here at a research facility for weapons development - biological weapons which their creators are desperate to unleash on the Daleks to turn the tide of war.
The Orrovix are the creatures in question, and while the name might suggest a remedy for bad breath, they’re much scarier. They’re from the Time Vortex, and they hunt by following time energy - with claws that can tear metal. These new and improved specimens have been bred to kill. Susan has been summoned by Cardinal Rasmus to assess their suitability for deployment. She gets a frosty reception, and is told upon arrival that “your family connection won’t do any favours here”. She’s needed simply to look inside the beasts’ heads.
It doesn’t take 20 minutes before things inevitably go awry. It’s a standard monster-on-the-base story, and while it’s hardly a failure - and despite a late-in-the-game twist - it’s simply quite conventional, and doesn't make the best use of the outstanding talent involved. The sound design however is terrific, and Big Finish veteran Howard Carter does sterling work here.
The Shoreditch Intervention by Alan Barnes
Finally, Part Four brings us back to where it all began: 1963. Whereas Assets of War paid homage to Aliens, The Shoreditch Intervention is a story which is heavily indebted to both the DNA of Doctor Who and the spirit of The Terminator.
Susan attempts to prevent the Doctor striking Skaro, in order to prevent the war. But the Daleks are in hot pursuit, tracking her through time and utilising some truant rockers (leather boys) as their boots on the ground. Susan gets a great moment wrecking a scooter using her sonic wand - purely by accident, of course.
Her enquiries eventually lead her to the Doctor (Paul McGann) himself, and they share a very tense reunion before the deception which brought them there is revealed.
Writer Alan Barnes, also the writer of the story which reunited Susan with the Eighth Doctor in the Big Finish universe, works in some great period detail - the Krays, Matt Monro and the mods and rockers all get a shout-out. It’s a much more sly, silly affair than - for example - An Unearthly Child, and the detours from silliness to seriousness are perfectly handled. Without spoiling it, there’s also a very funny morse code joke.
Altogether, Susan's War stands out as one of the finest original stories that Big Finish has produced in recent months. Even if these adventures don't shake the very foundations of Doctor Who lore, they're entirely engaging and lovingly produced, and worth taking the time to delve into. As Susan, Carole Ann Ford showcases the effortless charm that helped to build an unforgettable character more than half a century ago, and it's wonderful to see.
Extensive interviews with the cast and crew of each story fill in the gaps between the adventures themselves, and there are plenty of fascinating tidbits. We learn that Ian Atkins, the writer of the rapturously received Short Trip ‘All Hands on Deck’, pitched the idea of a box set illustrating Susan’s activities during the Time War, following the success of that story’s reunion between Susan and the Eighth Doctor. Carole Ann Ford interprets her character’s motivations in each story, offering particularly poignant insight on the ethical ramifications of changing the past.
Beth Chalmers returns as the newly empowered Veklin, explaining that she’s more fun to play, as “it’s always more fun being in charge.” Interestingly, Louis Davison (son of Peter!) contributes, talking about his role here and his very early introduction to the role of The Doctor.
The extras show what a huge effort it is to wrangle several talented actors, writers and behind-the-scenes into producing a cohesive, sprawling work like this, and add an enormous amount of value to the project.