Doctor Who: The Early Adventures: The Home Guard – Starring Frazer Hines, Anneke Wills, Elliot Chapman & James Dreyfus Written by Simon Guerrier & Directed by Lisa Bowerman – CD / Download (Big Finish)
The black and white era of Doctor Who has a greater potential for totally tonto mysterious tomfoolery than the colour era. There, I’ve said it, come at me with your Talons of Weng Chiang.
I only say this, inviting scorn, ridicule and a tweetstorm of #NotMyMassMovement anger, because The Home Guard by Simon Guerrier is absolutely bonkers in its initial set-up, and doesn’t get particularly more sane and balanced as events unfold. But it’s absolutely bonkers in precisely the way Classic Doctor Who fans will eat up with the biggest sonic spoon in their cutlery drawer.
It’s wartime in rural England. Jamie and Polly McCrimmon (you’re free to start going doolally at this point) are in the local Home Guard, the force of domestic anti-terror designed to repel the Nazis house to house if need be, to stop them conquering the green and pleasant land. Their friend, Able Seaman Ben Jackson pops by on leave to see his old…
…Wait…how does he know them again? Did they…did they travel together or something?
No-one can quite seem to remember, but anyway, he pops by to visit. The Home Guard is run by the doddery old doctor whose mind seems to be going, and whose scruffiness is clearly a sign that he shouldn’t be in command of anything as responsible as a prescribing pad, let alone the defence of the village from the Nazi hordes. And the local vicar is a terribly nice, terribly persuasive chap who’s not at all keen on that doctor…
The thing is, there are things about a set-up like that which make you think you understand what’s going on. The Doctor being the leader of the Home Guard is curious, but it runs vaguely in time with his record of mounting resistance to a bullying invading force. What the Early Master (yes, damn it, if no-one’s called him that yet, I’m having it) is doing there, stirring up trouble, re-running scenarios of invasion against a small village full of Brits is by no means as straightforward as you might think – of course it isn’t, it’s a Simon Guerrier script, it’s more or less mandated to be odder than you can initially imagine.
What it certainly delivers is plenty of neighbour-against-neighbour semi-apocalyptic tension, akin to anything Big Finish has delivered in the Survivors range, but also strangely topical in a world where divisions over the likes of Brexit and Trump have been absorbed down to the bones, in a strange parallel of the black-and-white realities of England during wartime. When everyone is watching everyone and loose speech can be fatal at the hands of mob rule (albeit terribly genteel mob rule), there’s a hair-raising febrile atmosphere in which to move the elements of a Doctor Who plot around.
I can more or less guarantee that what’s going on is not what you think is going on. Take absolutely nothing for granted in a Simon Guerrier script at the best of times. These are among the best of times, because the reality is mad, the cliffhangers occasionally shocking, making you wonder if you can even actually trust the Doctor you think you know, and Dreyfus’ Master is in delicious form, pitching this first encounter with the Troughton Doctor somewhere between his diabolical grandiosity in The Destination Wars against David Bradley’s First Doctor, and the easygoing chicanery of the Delgado incarnation when he arrives on Earth in Terror of the Autons, with perhaps just a dash of Five Doctors Ainley to sweeten his snarl. The relationship between he Troughton trio, Ben, Polly and Jamie is rather more grown-up and complicated here than at any point on screen, because of the switch-around in what seems the usual order of things, with Polly and Jamie together and Jamie, allegedly, ‘knowing there was never anything between us.’ Murky emotional waters – certainly murkier than would have got on screen in the Sixties, but a great anchoring element for this science fiction story in human realities.
What actually is going on, it would be a crime to spoil for you, but it too has a certain cultural resonance with our day and age, and in particular the notion of a small group of very particular people, culturally speaking, aiming at separation, isolation and self-determination. While the atmosphere is a hundred percent pure black and white era Doctor Who, Guerrier manages to tap into the worries of our era, creating a story that pleases on many levels at once, while absolutely doing its job and confusing the bejesus out of listeners in its first act, only to strive, through action, reaction and eventual necessary explanation what the hell is actually going on quite close to the end.
Sign up for The Home Guard, and it’ll absolutely draw you in with its Dad’s Army-meets-Private-Army mysteries, its murky sense of imminent threat, its hat-tips to the likes of War of the Worlds, and its strong performances from the regulars, the guest cast, and in particular from Hines and Dreyfus as the Doctor and the Master, not yet as implacably opposed as they would become, but getting there fast in adventures precisely like this one. It’s mysterious black and white Who in the best traditions of the era, but with twists that are both timeless and shockingly relevant to our time. Tony Fyler