ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – The Churchill Years, volume II

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the return of Winston Churchill (and Madame Vastra!) under the Big Finish banner. Blood, sweat & spoilers after the read more tag.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts

TIBERE: As per all things involving Who’s version of Winston Churchill, I feel like a huge caveat should be place ahead of any kind of thoughts about that boxset – Churchill, as a person and historical figure, is very much questionable, to say the least, and to use him as the frontman for a series of Who adventures is an incredibly weird and misguided idea, especially in a day and age where the brand is trying to provide representation and shelter for marginalized group. It’s not okay – if you want more details, I can only refer you to Jack Graham’s Victory of the Icon essays, which tackle the topic with precision. But, if we are to accept that The Churchill Years are to be a part of our cultural landscape, well, this is as good as it gets – bar the first story, which offers some extremely negative stereotypes as far as race and gender are concern, there has been quite an effort made in order to avoid offense and to present a nuanced, and not especially positive, vision of Churchill. It’s not perfect, but the stories here show a level of care, imagination, and attention to plotting that I did not expect from the range. All in all, it’s a good surprise, and an example of the Big Finish writers successfully doing their best with a fundamentally flawed premise. I wouldn’t blame anyone choosing not to listen to it or buy it, and I’d personally quite like the company to move away from Churchill; but I think it does manage to justify its existence. And that, well, that wasn’t an easy win to score, so I guess I shall offer half-hearted kudos.

SCRIBBLES: As a rule, I listen to every story we cover twice before responding on here. And that’s a good thing. When I first listened through this set, I found myself responding quite bitterly, which, frankly, is something I don’t like to do or be. And I do still have some substantial criticisms about this set, particularly, as my cowriter noted, with the first story. But, and I’m very pleased to say this, a lot of this set works. There are two stories here that I think justify the existence of using Churchill as a focal point in Doctor Who fiction in of themselves, and the set in general lays off hero worship in favor of trying to tell new stories set in and responding to a time period defined by Churchill. As a result, while I have to say I don’t see this as a range with much sustainability, what we get here is a perfectly decent new series set and I feel less anxious about the future use of Churchill in Big Finish stories. And I can’t deny, there is still a fan thrill to be had in these. Eleven and Ten, but especially Nine, get their voices captured well here, and it’s always a joy to hear stories opening with the new series themes. I would not call this the most highly recommended of the new series of audios, but I’m pleased to say that you won’t hate spending a few hours with this for a bit more content with some wonderful Doctors.

 

1) “Young Winston”, by Paul Morris

SCRIBBLES: Again, I want to stress, I don’t like being bitter about things, and I don’t really blame the people involved in this story for much more than ignorance working with a flawed premise with not a critical enough eye.

TIBERE: I don’t harbour any special bad will against Paul Morris, who’s a perfectly fine writer – his Jago & Litefoot work, especially, is very good -, but this was a really, strikingly misguided story on basically every single level. The premise is rather appealing, though – seeing young Winston Churchill interacting with aliens for maybe the first time, discovering new life and having to challenge some of his opinions? That sounds, if not amazing, at least like a pretty decent starting point. Alas, Churchill already knows the Doctor and isn’t phased in the slightest by Vastra, and what we do get is a thriller with pretty damn terrible race dynamics.

SCRIBBLES: I think it says a lot that Paul Morris mentions doing a lot of research for this story. Because yes, it is well researched. It fits in multiple real historical events. But, as is often said, history is written by the victors, and the victors are generally privileged white guys. The world we are shown in this audio is the sort of world you can expect to be extrapolated from a rich, upper-class white man who is treated as though the world revolves around him. Women fall for him, glories await him, and every character in this understandably is intrigued because he’s the main character. And so a lot of problems emerge. The handling of the Cubans in this story is rather perturbing. The vast majority of their presence here is as a criminal group, which produces dialogue like “I shall use my own methods to take the fight to these Cubans. I wish to see London free of their menace.” It sounds concerningly like the writer has a vendetta against Cubans, which I’m sure isn’t the case. The story just feels like it’s inches away from having Churchill talking about building a wall to keep Cubans out and endorsing it. Meanwhile, the one “good” character from Cuba doesn’t really show much of herself. We know her backstory isn’t really connected to the indigenous people; she’s a Spanish woman who merely settled there and became immortal, so really that’s a bit awkward, making the one good Cuban the whitest one. But more than that, her motivations are bizarre. Churchill meets her looking to fight people and shed blood, and understandably she’s a bit unnerved by that, but her overriding motivation seems to be a desire to join him in bed! Throughout the story she’s constantly mentioning good qualities in him that he never really gets the chance to show. It’s a bizarre bit of racial and sexual politics that I’m sure are just the product of a writer not stepping back enough to see the unfortunate implications, but nonetheless makes for a terribly uncomfortable experience.

TIBERE: It’s made a lot worse by bringing Vastra into it, too – the first Churchill set had some pretty touchy moments as far as the politics went, but it kept itself largely self-contained. It’s easy to ignore and brush away. When you’re introducing a character that’s very much part of the modern Who ethos, in all it has of feminist and queer-positive, though, things get way more complicated – especially when this character approves of and enables your racist, problematic lead. She kind of acts like Churchill’s best black, well, green, friend – he can’t be a bigot, look how tight he gets with the lizard woman! And sure, I can kind of see an explanation that makes sense, with how Vastra has settled into the class dynamics of her time period – there’s that bit of dialogue in “Deep Breath” where Jenny points out that she acts as her maid and that it’s a bit weird – but like, if you’re really going on that angle, you need to do a lot more than that. Churchill’s status as Churchill is its own justification, its own reward – he is great because he is Churchill, not because of any actual quality he could demonstrate. And Vastra just accepts it at face value, which lets her character down tremendously.

SCRIBBLES: It’s a lot to take, the use of Vastra here. The dialogue I quoted earlier that sounds bigoted against Cubans, for example, comes in the exact same scene where she exposes her face without the veil to Churchill and lauds him for not judging her. It’s basically a whole sequence that feels built to say Churchill can’t be racist for hating Cubans because this fictional species is fairly normal to him. Vastra gets a few good digs, about how her coloring means she’s healthy, but Churchill is largely lauded as a progressive figure by her. I can’t really get comfortable with that given the stuff coming out his mouth throughout this story, and, what’s more, his actions in real life.

TIBERE: I guess that kind of characterization problems can all be traced to the fact that the version of Churchill we see here, above all else, comes from “Victory of the Daleks” – and that is an issue. Not because “Victory of the Daleks” is a bad episode of television or anything, but just because it’s interested, as Jack Graham pointed in the essay I quoted, in opposing two British icons, two symbols. The good one, Churchill, and the bad one, the Daleks. He’s literally build as a Good Cultural Figure before being a character, so, when taken outside of the very narrow context of his original episode and replaced in actual, messy, history, it’s extremely difficult to navigate these waters without hurting the reefs of Problematic Stuff. I guess that, given the choice, I’d rather praise the other stories for not falling into that trap than condemning this one for doing so. It’s an all too understandable misfire, and I think, a good case for, as Scribbles noted earlier, the unsustainability of the range.

SCRIBBLES: I think, in general, this is just a reminder of the need to call for more diverse voices in Big Finish. Matt Fitton, the script editor here, is one of my favorite audio writers ever. And Paul Morris, as we’ve mentioned before, is quite good himself; I’m so, so looking forward to being emotionally devastated by “Jago and Litefoot Forever“. But the thing is, well-meaning white men can only go so far. I mean, hell, I am one, and I know I have my limits. A series as progressive and wonderful as Doctor Who needs the voices of the most oppressed and most hurting to be on side at all times, because that’s where the heart of the series lies. There needs to be someone to tell the more privileged among us when to dial things back. This is what happens when that isn’t there, and it’s really uncomfortable.

TIBERE: To bounce off what you just said, I think part of the problem might be Paul Morris’ work on Jago & Litefoot – which is a range that takes place in the same time period, but which has a very different kind of ethos, which tolerates much broader strokes. This kind of feels like a Jago & Litefoot story with the serial number filed off – except that, when you’re that close to real, raw events, you can’t just call forward the ironic distance of the stage and of elderly gentlemen trading witty banter.

 

2) “Human Conflict”, by Iain McLaughlin

SCRIBBLES: Ooh, this is magnificent. This is really, really good. I mean, this in retrospect is the most obvious beat to use. To balance the morality of the Time War with World War II. I adore the dedication here to letting nobody off the moral hook. Not Churchill, obviously not the Nazis, and not even the Doctor to a degree. It’s basically using all those ingredients to use Doctor Who as a pedestal to speak about how terrifying arms races are and the remind of the horror of nuclear weapons. And though this is a story being written about events many years ago, both in the second World War and 2005, it feels written for today, with cautionary overtones toward situations like with Korea. It’s blisteringly political, and does an amazing job of juxtaposing so many time periods to comment on where we are now. It’s easily the best Churchill audio yet, the best Ninth Doctor audio that isn’t Retail Therapy,” and generally, I think, one of the best new series audios so far.

TIBERE: I think the surprising thing about this story, and the next one as well, really, is how fantastically spot on they get the Ninth Doctor. There’s some incredibly pointed beats, and I could truly imagine it being a lost Eccleston story – I mean, his aesthetics are already tied to the period, with “The Empty Child” and all that. There’s a real commitment to the historical period, you can feel the details and texture of it – bringing back Iain McLaughlin, who has been rare these past few years but was responsible for the creation of Erimem, a companion of the Fifth Doctor coming from Ancient Egypt who allowed for some very interesting perspectives on history, was clearly a good move. I do have some minor quibbles with it, granted – focusing the ending on a “let’s all come together and unite against a greater enemy” is quite lovely (and quite visionary, considering the shades of “Twice Upon a Time”), but the monstrous nature of the Nazis seem oddly absent, or at least left unspecified. Maybe it’s because it’s just taken for granted that they are evil, and you know, quite rightly so, but I do feel like it muddies the waters of what basically constitutes the story’s emotional climax quite a bit. I do wonder if it wouldn’t be better suited to the narrative of World War I, which was mostly engineered for nationalistic and money-related reasons.

SCRIBBLES: I actually find that reading of the ending a bit too facile. McLaughlin takes things a step further into more cynical and interesting territory by having Churchill order the deaths of the Nazis he just worked alongside anyway, which makes the whole thing feel a lot stronger. I mean, you’ve kinda got to kill Nazis, that’s a necessary thing to say. But the drama comes from first acknowledging the way ordinary people are manipulated into becoming Nazis and the way they are also human beings. That’s what’s so terrifying about them. They’re people that do this. McLaughlin even has the Nazi genuinely believe the “just following orders” excuse, even when Churchill challenges him with all the right arguments. I loved that, I really did. This is what human monsters look like, and I like that it even troubles Churchill to kill them in the end. I mean, it is troubling. Of course it is. But it’s handled so, so deftly, I think.

TIBERE: And I feel like part of the success of the story comes from the fact it allows these different voices to exist within the story. Churchill, or at least the Who version of him, is just kind of ill-fitted to being the one and only core of the story. Having multiple characters, multiple perspectives on history, and having him challenged, is just a really good move that makes the story all the more interesting and compelling. I mean, there are entire stretches of the audio where Churchill doesn’t show up, instead devoted to following the soldiers carrying out his orders.

SCRIBBLES: I think we have to take a moment to reference how inspired the idea of an alien arms trader trying to play up the second world war into an even more volatile and devastating arena is. It’s delicious. Though the Ninth Doctor merely goes around saying humans can’t have nuclear technology “yet,” there’s a definite sense of him wanting it to be “not ever.” War profiteering seems to be a pretty big subject in fiction right now. It was a great part of the most underrated side of The Last Jedi, and on the Doctor Who side of things, The Destination Warsrecently played quite cleverly with the idea. This is a great take on it. Capitalist exploitation as a machine driving human injustice, even when ideals of one side are in the right place. That’s good. That’s meaningful. And that’s not something I’d expect to be said in a series about hero worshipping Winston Churchill.

TIBERE: You know, it’s really surprising that the “alien weapons’ dealer in the Second World War” story in the set isn’t the one written by Alan Barnes, considering what he did with Arkadian in the Gallifrey range … But yes, it’s just such a good fit for Nine – and so are the way he handles the situation, really. He’s not negotiating with Churchill or sharing information – he doesn’t trust humans and take matters into his own hands, alone. It’s just really solid characterization – which culminates in some really good moments, with him wishing Churchill never has to unleash the kind of weapons he himself had to use in the past. It’s a low-key, powerful little World War II story, really, I think that’s the best way I can sum it up.

 

3) “I Was Churchill’s Double”, by Alan Barnes

SCRIBBLES: God, this is an inspired concept, isn’t it? This story is easily the most rompy Churchill audio, and I found that surprisingly welcome. Using Churchill to subvert the cliche of “what if Germans won the war” parallel universes is delightfully inspired. I mean, how has nobody thought of asking that about the first World War before? I can’t believe I never did! It’s gloriously, gloriously cheeky, and that alone was enough to get a chuckle out of me.

TIBERE: There are two really strong structural gambits here, that really carry the audio through – making the story about Imperial Germany rather than the Nazis, first, as you pointed out; and then the later twist, that this whole Mirror Universe is actually nothing more than that, a mirror, a distorted reflection coming from the jingoistic mind of a nationalist. I mean, it’s a pretty great metaphor, isn’t it? We often describe parallel worlds and the like, in fiction, as biased visions of our own universe – and that’s exactly what blind nationalism is, at the end of the day, not the love of your country as it is, but of a fantasized version of it, where all is great and tall and powerful and where the citizens are probably a little bit more uniform in race, creed, and sexual attraction.

SCRIBBLES: Also delightful is that yet again the story takes an anti-nuclear/WMD stance. I mean, two Ninth Doctor stories in a row about that, what a lovely coincidence there. I think that’s a remarkably effective angle for his character in the setting of World War II. The closest thing we humans have as reference in comparison to the horror of wiping out two entire species is the sort of destruction an atomic bomb can offer, and the parallel holds up both times. Barnes and McLaughlin both manage to keep things entirely fresh and make the stories not feel repetitive, but instead both tremendously enjoyable.

TIBERE: Not to mention modern – I feel like it would have been easy to have this set feel like it was stuck in the past, in a slightly archaic and problematic vision of Who, but just as the previous story had echoes of “Twice Upon a Time”, this kind of nabs the whole simulation angle off “Extremis”, with the key to the whole mystery even being the Doctor being shot and realizing the whole thing is a massive, elaborate, nonsensical fake. Which is not a bad way to go about the Churchill range, really, I think – having it playing around this sort of simulations, of altered realities, allow you to distance yourself from the political stakes and problems and actually enjoy what’s happening.

SCRIBBLES: Speaking of modern, did I catch an understated little gag about images of gay sex between fauns decorating the mirror? That was delightful. “Playing chase,” indeed. If there’s one shortcoming of this story for me, I think the John Logie Baird subplot about television was rather extraneous and detracted from the frothy, and, like you mentioned, political fun of the mirror universe. Indeed, I was rather disappointed that that was the gag the story went out on, with the Doctor switching the audio off. Throwing a ton of ingredients at a story is a good way to keep the listener from getting bored, and it certainly keeps things lively, but I think this particular thread would have been better saved for another day. The mirror shenanigans were enough, and I found myself preferring to see more of that.

 

4) “Churchill Victorious”, by Robert Khan & Tom Salinsky

TIBERE: I couldn’t help but be a little perplexed by the announcement that Khan & Salinsky were writing a Churchill story – for all their qualities, the other writers on that set aren’t especially politically-leaning in their stories, whereas this duo has proven in the past, especially with their Counter-Measures tale, “My Enemy’s Enemy”, and with their various non-Who plays, that they have a commitment to political storytelling. The result, well, on one hand, doesn’t fit at all in the range, because it very radically refuses to celebrate Churchill in any way, shape or form, and instead savagely trashes him for most of the runtime. On the other hand, it’s one of the most delightful listening experiences I had in a very long time, and when the time of the final calling-out monologue the female lead throws at him came, I was so enraptured I basically quoted the text of the story to my friends line-by-line. There’s a sort of barely contained loathing running through this, and, if you’re following that political line, it’s just a blast to listen to. But it goes beyond a exercise in snark, and I admire the writers for going this extra mile – they actually bothered to tie the historical circumstances of Churchill’s life to their critique of him. Churchill’s very considerable flaws as a politician and a person could be, in a way, forgiven as long as the War raged on. But once it’s over? He’s left without purpose, and has no possible recourse when faced with the consequences of his actions. The collapse of the range’s storytelling, and the historical collapse caused by the shift in political paradigm, used as a new ground for storytelling. Oh, I do love that one.

SCRIBBLES: I think the really striking thing about this story for me is how much mileage it got out of throwing the Doctor out of events. He’s barely in it. He’s the McGuffin. This is very much a story directed to interrogating Churchill, situated right at the ending of the thing he’s known for at the time his relevance ends. It’s quite wonderfully cynical and very human. The comedy about how ineffective he is at ordinary life lands well. His disguises are terrible and his cooking even moreso, but it’s all written with conviction from his perspective in a way that makes it never feel like it’s sending itself up too much, even while it tears his world apart piece by piece.

TIBERE: I remembered hearing a reviewer complaining about “Victory of the Daleks” constantly using soundbites of Churchill’s best known speeches – there’s actually a great subversion in this, where he keeps trying to quote himself only to be undercut and interrupted.

SCRIBBLES: Everyone knows his speeches and anecdotes here already, too. When he mentions his story of escaping being a prisoner, after stumbling a bit in telling it, the lovely couple he’s spending time respond along the lines of, “yeah, I think we’ve heard that before.” Same goes for his big speech about everyone pitching in, which everyone finishes for him. And, of course, at the climax, we get her beating to the punch with the “home in time for Christmas” rhetoric. He’s empty words at this point.

TIBERE: What really sold me on this audio being kind of a hidden masterpiece is the last line, I think. Confronted with the life of the real people, a life that’s defined by hardship and survival, what does he do? He comes back to try and cook a dinner, probably throwing away more expensive food while other people have do make do with scraps. It’s an incredibly cynical and powerful move, that – because no, we all know Churchill didn’t learn or grow from his experiences.

SCRIBBLES: I was just talking about this, but it’s great that this is the third consecutive story about saying, “no, Churchill, alien weapons are bad.” I didn’t even realize that at the time. It feels like the range has come up with a coherent political position to take on Churchill, and it’s a very different one from the first set, which mostly had the Doctor and whatever important figure of the week coming up to him and saying how brilliant he is. It’s refreshing, and makes me feel a good deal more charitable about the storytelling here. Barnes, McLaughlin, Salinsky, and Khan all find new ways to express that in Churchill while still making him feel like a character rather than a stereotype.

TIBERE: Putting him in parallel with the Tenth Doctor is a pretty interesting move, too. I mean, “Churchill Victorious”? You can’t really get more obvious with the parallels.

SCRIBBLES: I love, love, love how Churchill called Ten’s suit “Tory blue.” What a brilliantly uncomfortable moment played straight but self-aware.

TIBERE: Oh god yes, that was absolutely fantastic. But yeah, much like “The Waters of Mars”, it’s kind of a story about how it’s necessary that the main character, and all its problematic aspects, disappear and fade away. Except of course, Churchill doesn’t have access to regeneration or anything – so it’s not a course correction aiming for a better future, but just a sad resignation to irrelevance.

SCRIBBLES: I suppose, in a way, an election is like a regeneration, isn’t it? The old person goes, but the position remains the same. That’s what happens to Churchill, here, if we’re going with your reading. He gets recast. He gets dumped.

TIBERE: The fact that such an audio exists, an audio that acknowledges the class issues inherent in putting Churchill, Lord and heir, in a position to be worshipped, an audio that acknowledges that he’s not some kind of figured blessed by the Doctor but an incredibly flawed man that cannot really fit within the Who narrative … Well, it’s such a breath of fresh air – that’s all the more violent because of how sudden and unexpected it is. This might be the only single Churchill audio that I think truly adds to the Who canon, that corrects and enriches what “Victory of the Daleks” had set up. It’s a genuine wonder, and Khan & Salinsky continue to prove that they are some of the best new talent Big Finish has recruited.

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