The Churchill Years: Volume Two – Starring Ian McNeice , Neve McIntosh, Iain Batchelor, Melody Grove, Owen Aaronovitch, Leighton Pugh, Gyuri Sarossy, Bethan Walker, James Joyce, Ken Bradshaw, Emily Woodward, Hywel Morgan, Roberta Taylor, Mark Elstob, Nicholas Asbury, Alisdair Simpson, Susan Tracy & Simon Chandler. Written By: Paul Morris, Iain McLaughlin, Alan Barnes, Robert Khan, Tom Salinsky. Directed By: Ken Bentley – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
I have to hold up my hands before we begin. Before Volume One of The Churchill Years was released, I had very little enthusiasm for the idea. It felt to me like a spin-off too far. Ian McNeice’s Churchill on screen had been one of only a few highlights of Victory of the Daleks, but turning him into the anchor for a series of Doctor-adjacent stories felt like stretching his capabilities as a character within the world of Doctor Who beyond the point of diminishing returns.
Then the first volume came out, and I was utterly, utterly wrong. Doesn’t happen often, but there you go. Where Big Finish brought a stroke of genius to play was in making Churchill’s whole life an open book through which stories could be studded, creating an anthology series that, while not claiming the British wartime leader was an active companion of the Doctor’s, allows him to have been dogged with alien interventions in his life, and to have counted on the Doctor popping up from time to time. That approach gives a scope and a freshness to the idea that made the first volume one of the top listens of 2016.
So with Volume Two, what we have is a much stronger sense of instinctive reliability on approach to the box set – but does it deliver?
Yyyyyyes. Yes, it does. Next question?
This box set has for the most part a tighter timescale than the first, focusing for three of its four stories on Churchill’s war years. Nevertheless, it must have been irresistible to kick off the set with Young Winston, a story from Paul Morris that, like the movie of the same name, takes us into the life of the young son of a renowned father. Morris gives us a tale of magic jewels, historical legends, and the volatile background of Cuba, with its turbulent predilection for wars and uprisings. Set in 1985 and 1899, it follows Churchill on a trip to Cuba to get a taste of war, and then, as he begins to make his parliamentary way in the world, the ghosts of hot-blooded nations and people surface in his life.
Oh and there’s Madame Vastra. Sorry, did we not mention that? Vastra and a young Churchill. Working together to crack the mystery of a stone with mysterious, appalling, amazing powers, and all the people who want to get their hands on it.
Don’t be looking all coy and like you couldn’t be bothered – we know you just pretty much wet yourself.
It’s a story that kicks off with star power and crossover potential, with Churchill and Vastra swapping narration duties in the different tones of the Churchill Diaries and the Chronicles of the Great Detective, but it delivers far more than a star pairing and a jewelled MacGuffin – there’s an enormous well of tenderness in the story of the young Winston (Iain Batchelor) and his mysterious Cuban friend Carmen, played with sensitivity by the gloriously-named Melody Grove, and it leaves you wanting more crossover stories between the Paternoster Gang and the future Prime Minister. Churchill and Strax for box set 3, anyone?
Human Conflict by Iain McLaughlin is a story that highlights, in a way similar to but harsher than Victory of the Daleks, the dichotomy between Churchill’s drive to win total war at any cost and his friendship with the Doctor. It’s harsher because this is a story in which the Doctor with the big ears and the leather jacket is advisor, judge, jury and rescuer as Churchill explores the potential of alien weaponry in the early years of the war.
Advised not to get involved in an arms deal that could potentially win the Allies the war, Churchill, like Harriet Jones in later years, goes against the wishes of his taciturn Time Lord friend, leading to a solid story of derring-do, stand-offs, a terrible price, and perhaps most remarkably of all, a portrayal of Churchill from McNeice that shows why, even with his war-hawk intuitions, Churchill was a man inherently good enough to earn the Doctor’s friendship. It’s moderately romanticised stuff of course, but the Churchill of Doctor Who has never been the Churchill of real life. Nevertheless, Human Conflict brings good performances to the fore, especially from Bethan Walker as Bragnar, and feels like a Sunday afternoon black and white war movie, only Doctor Whoed up.
I Was Churchill’s Double, by Alan Barnes, romps home with this box set’s ‘complicate the living bejesus out of a plotline’ prize. Into what sounds like it should be a straightforward tale of deception, doubles and associated tomfoolery, Barnes brings fairy tales, parallel dimensions, self-hypnosis through a howlaround TV interference pattern (a lovely touch, that), secret plans, two Churchills, John Logie Baird, undercover Nazis and a whole lot more. Oh, and the Ninth Doctor again, popping up having lost his Tardis somewhere. It’s a storyline you don’t want to try and follow while, for instance, operating heavy machinery, because you won’t stand a chance of working out what’s going on. You won’t if you give it your full attention either, but it will unfold for you better if you dedicate your lugholes to it for the space of an hour. McNeice is on top form in this story – which is just as well, given its double dose of Churchill – and he gets to slightly vary his performance to differentiate between the two. Compelling stuff, but you might like to have a cup of tea and a biscuit ready at the end, so as to untwist your brain.
Churchill Victorious shows us the man who led the British war on the day of its effective completion – with London, with the whole country celebrating on what rations it can scrape together, Churchill feels himself alone, and under faintly ridiculous Dad’s Army cover, he goes out looking for, if not trouble, then at least an honest communion with his people. Naturally of course, he runs into power cuts, a populace less grateful than he might have expected, an alien aggressor and a prisoner with familiar puppydog enthusiasm and demented hair. Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky are rarely writers to rush to their point, but here they give us a story that’s seemingly innocuous but eventually builds to a test of Churchill’s soul – how far will he go to ensure his personal victory, his legacy, his immortality among the British people?
There’s a line of balance to be drawn with Churchill – on the one hand you don’t want to overstud his life and career with incidents with the Doctor. For those who like him in the real world, it could potentially take away from the man’s own greatness. For those who don’t, it could feel like the Doctor’s trust was misplaced. And the ending of the second box set, coinciding with the end of the war, could work as the moment to fade out on Churchill. But there’s no real reason why it has to – McNeice is clearly in great form, and Churchill’s life was long and studded with real incidents which lend themselves to a Doctor Who treatment. On the strength of this box set and its predecessor, a third set would be no hardship at all, and with the dramatic returns showing no signs of diminishing yet, there’s no reason why Churchill himself shouldn’t KBO for years to come at Big Finish. Tony Fyler