Doctor Who: Short Trips: The Darkened Earth – Performed by Miranda Raison & Written by John Pritchard. Directed by Lisa Bowerman – Download (Big Finish)
One of the Sixth Doctor’s most recent audio companions, Leading WREN Constance Clarke, was plucked out of Bletchley Park during World War II. As such, writers of stories for her, and Miranda Raison who plays her, have been keen to balance all the characteristics that go into making a good companion – curiosity, compassion, feistiness and fun – with something of the stainless steel backbone of the time and place from which she comes. That whole ‘wartime spirit’ is a thing too easily assumed to be inherent and unique to the British because they both fought an air war against the Nazis, and suffered from regular bombardments from the Luftwaffe, pulling together to survive, to rebuild, and to win. The reality of course was rather messier.
It’s also too easy these days to look back on that ‘Blitz spirit’ and the determination to win whatever the cost as a kind of hopeless naivety, a country placing its faith in its leaders and believing in an absolute right and an absolute wrong. In our world, moral relativism would always make us point out that Britain was not some saintly nation whose influence was entirely benevolent in the world. But back then, they needed that sense of self-belief to – if you’ll excuse the phrase – keep calm and carry on.
Constance is a model of that spirit, a believer in goodness and evil, and of working to make the former victorious over the latter as a kind of moral duty. In The Darkened Earth, though, without especially challenging the concepts of good and evil, she certainly gets a new perspective on the wartime propaganda image of ‘our brave boys, flying off to beat the Nazis.’ Because John Pritchard takes us to Germany during the war, to a night time full of blackouts and fear and huddling together against a threat from the skies, as British planes circle, ready to drop death on people who are, to all intents and purposes, innocent victims of the politics of their national leaders. It’s a historical reality that the air war was fought in both directions, and families in Germany took the same precautions as those in Britain, denying the enemy the chance of a target in the night. Constance has a moment of world-flipping realisation in this story, as she comes to care for a family with whom she and the Doctor join forces against an altogether more dangerous enemy.
There are some good quality scares in Pritchard’s script, and Lisa Bowerman can always be relied upon to pull them off the page. Without giving too much away, there’s a bogeyman stalking the town in the hours of darkness, who leaves people dead, and with shrivelled, useless eyes. Finding it, finding ways to communicate with it and hopefully stop it from feasting on the town, the country, and possibly the world, Constance and the Doctor have a series of logical problems to deal with, all while safeguarding a family understandably disposed to fear rather than common sense. It’s a game of blind man’s buff with a killer in the dark, and as such, there are sweaty, heart-thumping moments throughout, and Constance gets to show the goodness of her heart and the bravery that’s inherent in her by putting herself in the way of the danger to protect a family she doesn’t know, and particularly some children she comes to like, and see not as the enemy but as a hope for the future.
Is The Darkened Earth especially memorable though?
Actually yes, for a few reasons. Firstly, there’s some solid structural underpinning in Pritchard’s story, so it develops as it rolls on. Secondly, Bowerman’s direction is crisp, taking the material and pulling the maximum emotional investment out of it. There’s enough for the Doctor to do to prove himself – and the very particular Sixth Doctor quality of a fierce burning need to communicate with aggressors, to try and talk a way through to solutions, comes through strongly. But mostly, there’s Miranda Raison as Constance, giving one of the most crisp and distinctly ‘wartime English’ performances so far in her tenure as a companion, while showing her very human compassion, her empathy, her bravery and what, back in the day, she might have called her pluck. You come out of the other side of this story with either a newfound or an intensified respect for Constance Clarke, who keeps her head while letting her heart beat for the lives of others, and opening her mind to a broader way of seeing the conflict with which she’s so intimately involved.
All for under £3! The Short Trips range frequently punches way above its price point, and in The Darkened Earth, John Pritchard, Lisa Bowerman and especially Miranda Raison deliver another cut-price cracker. Tony Fyler