Doctor Who: Subterfuge

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Doctor Who: Subterfuge – Starring: Sylvester McCoy, Ian McNeice & Rufus Hound Written by Helen Goldwyn & Directed by Samuel Clemens – CD / Download (Big Finish)

The Seventh Doctor.

Winston Churchill.

The Meddling Monk.

In a story written by Helen Goldwyn.

It’s not often I entertain the notion that I must have been a really nice person in a former life, but just once in a while, the stars align in such a way as to make me think ‘Well done, you. Enjoy your reward.’

Subterfuge is one of those times.

First of all, in terms of a disclaimer, I love the Meddling Monk. Have loved him since I first saw Peter Butterworth play him. Loved the Graeme Garden incarnation. And frankly, he’s a role that makes sense of Rufus Hound’s entire life and career. The moment he gives his voice to that venal, self-amusing, self-revolving meddler, it’s like both Hound and the Monk make more sense than ever they did before. Like Olivier and Richard III, like Connery and Bond, like Tom Baker and the Fourth Doctor, some things just go instantly together and become more than the sum of their parts. So endlessly, endlessly more Rufus Hound as the Monk, oh hell yes please, thank you kindly, that’ll do.

Second of all, in equal terms of a disclaimer, I’m a historian by trade and a frustrated liberal by inclination. So while I appreciate the need in Doctor Who to sometimes print the legend rather than the reality, the notion that Winston Churchill was always on the side of the angels has always irked me, and the idea of showing, as this story does, that he had occasional instincts and inclinations that made him sometimes seem like a dangerous, fanatical fantasist pleases me enormously.

Thirdly, and moving past disclaimers, this is a story that seems appallingly current for all its immediate post-war setting, because it deals with a Prime Minister seeking election, with some views that were hateful and wrong, and his chief political advisor, one Simon Saunders no less (feel free to twirl your moustache at this point. Or anyone else’s you can reach while maintaining appropriate social distancing), and it just feels hugely apposite for the situation in both Britain and the UK that the political advisors to our leaders might well wield undue influence over the fate of the nations.

And then…well then there’s the extra special joy of what the Monk is actually upto. And what the Doctor’s forced to do in order to stop him. And what that means for the history of Britain as we know and understand it. It’s utterly, utterly sublime.

Helen Goldwyn has chosen one of those tipping points in history, much like the Viking shenanigans and the Norman invasion from The Time Meddler, which work perfectly for the Meddling Monk. It’s in his nature to pull the short-to-middling length con, all to focus on one moment, one absolutely priceless perfect moment on which history turns. Give him his druthers and he’d give Julius Caesar a stab vest on the morning of the Ides of March. Left to his own devices, he’d equip the British with laser rifles to put down the Boston Tea Party. Or more to the point, he’d counsel George III towards leniency, so rebellion never raised its head in America in the first place.

That’s the Monk. Irrevocably drawn to turning points, eternally itching to tinker with them.

And so we find him, after the end of the Second World War, with a Prime Minister who’s a national hero to many, the face of a universal struggle, despite himself being a blue-blood with little time for the working poor (Can’t imagine why that rings a bell or two), who threatened striking miners with being shot, advocated gassing Kurdish rebels, didn’t admit anything wrong had been done to the Native Americans or the Australian aboriginals…you get the picture. Not by any means a universally nice human being, but he was riding on the wave of being ‘the necessary man’ in the war against Nazism, and seemed guaranteed to be returned as a peacetime Prime Minister.

And then, famously, he messed it up. Big time. The truth is that with hindsight, its not certain he could have done anything to win the election, but in one key speech at the start of the campaign, he accused the sheep-faced, mild-mannered leader of the opposition of espousing policies that would have to be enforced by a kind of Gestapo. He conflated gentle, well-meaning socialism with brutal Communism…and he lost.

He lost the unlosable election.

As a result of which, Britain gained a welfare state, and that staggering jewel in its crown of fundamental achievements, the National Health Service.

And that’s the story in which we find ourselves here – the secret war for Churchill’s words.

You’ve absolutely got to love the thought that went into that, or I’m afraid we can’t be friends.

Yes, it’s probably putting too much importance on the speech to say it’s an absolute tipping point in history – but it’s dramatically irresistible to imagine that it was.

You probably don’t need me to tell you what the Monk’s plan is in all this toing and froing, and that’s just as well, because I’m not going to be the one that spoils it for you, but it’s simply glorious – McCoy and Hound snarling and sniping at each other, sotto voce, while political history unfolds one of two ways around them, each trying to fight the other’s influence, the trusted advisor and the long-term alien friend, albeit in a body that Churchill’s never seen before.

There are other elements to this story too – there’s a spy plot, someone at the heart of government is planning to blow up big chunks of the capital on the day of the election, and there are a couple of additional aliens dotted around the place, at least one of whom is busily stealing portraits from Downing Street. So it’s not by any means as thing and point-focused as ‘Make Churchill say some words or don’t, so as to determine the course of future history’ – there’s absolutely plenty going on in this story, because of course Helen Goldwyn’s not just writing for me and my love of the Monk-Doctor growl-offs. But nevertheless, she doesn’t neglect to give me my growl-off fix either, and what you end up with is a lot of fun wartime plotting – spies, bombers, subversives, all that action comic stuff – a political satire of the highest order, showing the power of advisors to move the bar of history, some fabulous Churchill action, taking at least some of the simplicity off his character within the world of Doctor Who…and a fabulous Doctor-Monk stand-off with the fate of our version established British history at stake. Oh hell to the yes a thousand times and more.

In particular, while Rufus Hound’s Monk has worked well every single time he’s been written (Fight me!), there’s something absolutely special about hearing him go up against the McCoy Doctor, because of course the McCoy Doctor could probably be said to be the closest to the Monk – the arch-manipulator, the mover of pieces, the player of games. That’s pretty Monkish behaviour and there are moments here when the Seventh Doctor is called on it, retreating behind the notion of the ‘greater good’ to excuse himself and accuse the Monk. The fact that the Monk has his own version of the greater good actually makes him perhaps a better foil for this particular Doctor than the Master ever could be.

Now there’s a thought with which to conjure.

There is no bad about Subterfuge, or if there is, you need someone else to find it for you, because I can’t. It’s going straight into my Top 5 main range stories, and if you want to knock it out again, I very much suspect you’re going to need another match-up between Hound and McCoy, because holy moly, give those chaps a script like this and they can bring the lightning.

They bring it to Subterfuge. Tony Fyler

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