The Churchill Years Volume 1 Review

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Gustaff Behr gives his spoiler-free verdict on the first audio boxset featuring Ian McNeice’s historical character.

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Originally scheduled to be released after The Diary of River Song, The Churchill Years ends up batting first in Big Finish’s New Who line-up. When news broke that Big Finish was producing New Who content, I will admit that my first thoughts reading the synopsis for The Churchill Years were: A spin-off too far. While I try to keep an open mind, like UNIT: The New Series, I didn’t have that much faith in this particular series.

Analyzing the structure of the box set, these are full cast audio dramas, but the format borrows a little from The Confessions of Dorian Gray, not only featuring narration by the main character to the audience (think Torchwood: The Conspiracy), but also taking place in different times in Winston’s life. There is no overarching plot, instead standalone episodes. And I know there are a select few who hoped that Chris, David and Matt would be providing the voices for the Doctor since Big Finish acquired the rights and surprising fans by withholding their involvement feels right up their alley… sadly I must inform you that Ian McNeice in fact provides the voices for the Doctors. Better luck next time.

The Oncoming Storm

churchill-years-oncoming-storm-big-finishArguably the greatest highlight in not just this story, but the whole box set, is Ian McNeice’s narration. Every word feels as if the man has dug it up from deep within his soul and his delivery on even the most mundane line sounds utterly fantastic. Like John Hurt, he is one of those actors you can listen to all day even if they are reading out loud the most humdrum thing under the sun.

The Oncoming Storm at its heart is a simple story. It’s not too complicated, but also not too simple. It is fun. This three letter word is the best way I know how to describe it to you. It’s just fun to listen to. It’s engaging and it feels like one of those stories you can just listen to at any time of the day, in any mood and as many times as you want without getting bored with it. Stories like these are in my opinion the best kind of Doctor Who tales and because I don’t want to repeat myself, almost every story in the box set feels like this.

Praise has to go to the unique characterization of the Ninth Doctor. From the very first lines of dialogue, it’s clear when in his timeline this episode is set. This is a Doctor fresh out of the Time War. He is constantly angry and insulting. You can feel the self-loathing and desperate desire to lash out at the closest somebody dripping from his words. It’s similar to his no-nonsense, sardonic portrayal in Rose, but exaggerated to an acceptable degree.

While the villain isn’t a particularly new Doctor Who creation (to be honest it feels somewhat lazy), it does attempt to recreate itself, thereby making the audience feel as though they are listening to something new-ish. The villain is fun/funny to listen to and the script juggles that expertly by making them necessarily threatening when the scene calls for it.

This story isn’t without its flaws though, the degree of which varies. There isn’t enough of the Ninth Doctor for my taste, which is perhaps a good thing as McNeice’s impersonation of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is dreadful. The supporting cast is also somewhat forgettable.

Rating this story: 8/10

Hounded

churchill-years-hounded-big-finishFollowing strongly from The Oncoming Storm, Hounded not only features the Tenth Doctor, but it also provides us with a unique insight into the psyche of Winston Churchill, specifically the manic mood-swings he was known for. As with other stories featuring Churchill, Hounded manages to add to his friendship with the Doctor, but approaches it from a different angle.

The mystery surrounding the shadowy black hound that is plaguing Churchill is well-developed and as with The Oncoming Storm, the pacing feels just right. A particular highlight was the traditional capture and interrogation scene Doctor Who is known for, though I must admit that I principally enjoyed this one tremendously more as it felt like one of the most realistic ones we’ve ever had.

Hounded also fixes the issue I had with Hetty Warner (Winston’s secretary) in the previous story by giving her much needed focus and also doing so without diminishing the role of either the Doctor or Winston. She feels more 3-Dimensional here even if the plot doesn’t dig into her past too much.

Special mentions also go out to the Tenth Doctor giving a very Seventh Doctor-like speech that is emotionally super charged. The Curse of Fenric is strong in this one. The resolution in this tale also feels the most satisfying and organic in the whole box set.

While Hounded’s supporting cast is better than its predecessor, they are still pretty forgettable. Ian McNeice’s impersonation of the Tenth Doctor is also just as bad as his impersonation of the Ninth Doctor. Seriously, I can understand not being able to get Christopher Eccleston in, but not being able to get David in when he’s due to make his return later this year? Disappointing

Rating this story: 9/10

Living History

churchill-years-living-history-big-finishWinston Churchill, in the TARDIS, with the Doctor and Kazran Sardick, meeting Julius Caesar…what could possible go wrong?

Another strong installment as the box set finally breaks away from World War II, deciding to instead adopt a more traditional Doctor Who tone. Unfortunately, the Eleventh Doctor’s role is reduced to that of taxi driver as he is quickly locked out of the plot, but his absence allows for a very Laurel & Hardy feel adventure that I feel would’ve been ruined had he stuck around.

It is so welcoming having Kazran back and Justin Richards nails his characterization perfectly, even managing to give us a little something extra. Danny Horn has fantastic chemistry with McNeice and their scenes together, as well as apart are highlights in my opinion. The brief scenes with the Doctor and Kazran have also convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Big Finish needs to make a whole box set featuring the adventures of the Eleventh Doctor and Kazran. I wouldn’t mind a Churchill/Kazran spin-off either. If any character deserves to come back its Kazran!

One criticism I have is that the resolution is quite predictable, but given everything that precedes it, this can be forgiven I believe.

Rating this story: 9/10

The Chartwell Metamorphosis

churchill-years-the-chartwell-metamorphosis-big-finishAfter three utterly brilliant and fantastic installments, The Churchill Years draws to a close with The Chartwell Metamorphosis, a story so incredibly frail and unfortunate that it escapes this author’s imagination how this story ever made it into the recording booth.

Whereas Kazran’s return and chemistry with Winston in the previous installment resulted in many entertaining scenes and an overwhelming desire for me to see Danny Horn and Ian McNeice paired up again, Holly Earl’s return as Lily Arwell adds nothing to the plot and falls flat even at the best of times, which isn’t very often as it is. Her personality can be summed up as “scared girl trying to act brave”, but most of the time, Lily just feels annoying and there doesn’t seem to be any chemistry between her and Churchill at all. This is a case of bringing a character back just for the sake of it.

Worse than Lily, Winston’s characterization is absolutely butchered in this final installment. I can accept the senile old grump persona as this is Winston near the end of his life, but his actions and overall behavior completely betrays the character of the man we’ve been listening to for three hours.

The plot starts off engagingly enough, but soon devolves into a convoluted mess that continuously reminds the listener of what it did to Winston’s characterization. If it not for the fact that I had to review and provide my thoughts on this story, I would not have bothered listening to the whole thing, instead giving into my desire to abandon this story halfway through.

By the fourth story, I’m convinced McNeice isn’t even trying to impersonate the Doctor, regardless of incarnation and to be honest, it’s about the only thing about this story I can forgive. After three episodes, I’ve grown to accept this element, but if Big Finish chooses to renew The Churchill Years for a second season – and I hope they do – then it’s imperative that they use either the older Doctor Who actors (4-8), or make it a point to kidnap and force Chris and the newer actors to provide the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor voices.

Rating this story: 3/10

Final Thoughts

Every season has its Sleep No More’s. As Doctor Who fans, we’re used to one or two duds in our favorite seasons, and even if the final story I feel ranks as low, if not lower than Sleep No More, the three-quarters preceding it I feel more than makes up for it. I said I wasn’t going to repeat myself, but here I am doing it twice over: These Winston Churchill stories are pure fun. Imagine you’re favorite Doctor Who episode which isn’t arch heavy and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It might even be that one guilty pleasure episode…well this entire box set feels like watching one of those episodes. I for one do look forward to a second box set exploring the life of Winston Churchill as he fights to protect the world not only against the Nazi menace, but whatever else comes knocking at planet Earth’s door.