❉ This pure historical is a joy from start to finish!
The new series of Doctor Who: The Early Adventures (the successor in many ways to Big Finish’s The Lost Stories range) kicks off with The Night Witches by Roland Moore. Set in the heights of World War II, it’s a pure historical adventure starring Polly, Ben and Jamie alongside the Second Doctor, and it’s a joy from start to finish.
By now, the format for this range feels familiar: scenes are acted out as per a standard play with narration provided by one of the regulars in neutral tones (Anneke Wills takes the reins in this case), whilst Elliot Chapman plays Ben and Frazer Hines doubles for Patrick Troughton’s Doctor.
Much is often made of Hines’s take on the Doctor but I’d argue that it has rarely been better than it is here. Aided by some clever stereo mixing and separation, and undoubtedly by a very strong script also, there are moments when you’d be hard pushed to tell it’s one and the same actor speaking. This is up there with Katy Manning in Find and Replace it’s that good (still the golden standard), and unlike some more recent releases where the joins between Hines as Jamie and Hines as Doctor (Who) have shown a little, this feels much more like the earlier, celebrated performances.
Chapman continues to bring home the goods as Ben meanwhile. I really enjoy his take on the character, which has nods to Michael Craze without ever trying to imitate or emulate him. Chapman has rightly taken the character as written on paper and gone his own way with it, with Craze’s original providing nice signposts but never firm stopping points and it’s a more relaxed, free and satisfying performance because of it.
Wills arguably gives the most impressive performance of them all, giving us a clear distinction between narrator and actor. Some fall at this hurdle, leading to narration which feels overly performative or acting which feels less acted and more simply read aloud, but Wills is more than up to the challenge and always makes it look effortless.
It helps that this story is a very strong one for Polly, especially in the final episode. Indeed, this feels more like Polly and Ben’s story than anyone else’s at times, and that is no bad thing. Often overlooked in the pantheon of companions despite being present for one of the most chaotic times the show ever saw, Big Finish have tried to address this in the past, but the additional focus in this play only emphasizes how good a pairing they were and how lucky we are now to have that celebrated.
As for the script for The Night Witches itself? Pure historical adventures can sometimes been seen as a bit dry or lacking a hook, which I always find an unfair and untrue assumption. Nevertheless, a monster of the week is sometime perceived to be the way forwards, but I’m glad that route was not taken here. Yes, there is a hook/gimmick, and, yes, it is a familiar one, but without wishing to spoil the twist, it’s done well here and, more importantly, done differently (at Anneke Wills’ own insistence, if the interviews at the end of the play speak the truth).
As well as being an enjoyable and informative play in its own right, The Night Witches feels like a really fresh story, as if other plays have been sleeping and this wakes them up after a long rest. Helen Goldwyn’s direction is spot on, the guest casting feels authentic and well handled, the regular cast give us the brightest and most energized performances for a long time, and the fact it’s been written by a new pair of hands is no bad thing either, showing once again that a new face to Big Finish works wonders (and once again that more variety in staff is highly welcomed).
If this is indicative of the high quality across this new series, then I for one cannot wait to see what’s round the corner. If not then even so, it stands up strong in its own right and is worthy of praise and attention.
When Big Finish hit well, they knock it out of the park and The Night Witches is as good as it gets.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The Early Adventures: The Night Witches’ was released in September 2017. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until October 31st 2017, and on general sale after this date.