Review by Michael Goleniewski
Harry Houdini’s War concludes the most recent trilogy of Sixth Doctor stories begun with Memories of a Tyrant in July and Emissary of the Daleks in August. When the Doctor crashes one of Houdini’s shows in September 1917 asking for help, the pair are brought together in search of a spy ring who have captured Peri and the TARDIS. But this particular group has somehow gained access to advanced technology as well as tears in the fabric of space-time that will go a long way in helping the Central Powers win the Great War. But most shockingly of all, it appears they’ve gotten some extra help….from the Doctor himself!
The script by Steve Lyons is an engaging globe-trotting thriller with aerial dogfights, daring escapes, betrayals and distractions galore. The pacing is a tad all over the place with the first half being setpiece after setpiece before slowing things down to put everything in motion for the tense finale. But it’s easy to forgive that just for how exciting the plot ends up being and the production effort from all involved in this one are exuberantly grand. The narrative also throws in some decent twists that pay off like gangbusters once they come out in the story and just like its title character, you are never 100% sure of exactly where things stand until the final moments when it all comes together.
The main cast is great; especially with the addition of Houdini as a second companion of sorts for this adventure. It’s not a particular spoiler saying that this is another piece where Colin Baker’s Doctor has seemingly gone evil on the surface with an ulterior motive hidden underneath his actions. It makes some of the bigger narrative twists fairly obvious in the second half but in this particular case, it doesn’t ruin the adventure or take away from what’s going on. You still want to know why he’s so thoroughly cooperating so much with the Powers as much as he is and Baker’s incarnation is always brilliant at playing both sides of the coin with his words and motives. Nicola Bryant is great as Peri following along with things as best she can, oftentimes with relatable exhausted exasperation especially in some of the crazier situations she’s thrown into. This is another adventure where she really gets put through the wringer and is forced to use her strength and wit to improvise as best she can.
The big highlight though is John Schwab’s Harry Houdini who is egotistic but incredibly grounded and likeable. It’s obvious within minutes that this is far from his first encounter with the Doctor and he has a brilliant rapport with both Six and Peri all the way through. With how good he is in this adventure, you are left absolutely begging for more and the teases we are left with leave things wide open for future tales to come. While the villains are the mostly over the top Central Powers officers and leaders, Fiona Bruce’s Helen Smith is a rather nice change that shakes things up considerably. Smith feels a lot like Elizabeth Klein albeit in that she’s initially on the enemy side believing what she does to be right but is still open to discussion and perspective changes if pushed in the right direction. She does have a much warmer personality though and you do come to like her considerably even as she struggles with her actions and motives with Six’s guidance helping her along.
Though it chugs along predictably in places and there aren’t too many gigantic things about it that you won’t see coming, ‘Houdini’s War’ is still a major delight and another great entry into the Sixth Doctor’s canon. It’s not as cerebrally interesting as ‘Memories’ was and it’s hard to say it challenges you or gets you to think much about its underlying premise. But as a well-executed thrill ride with a great cast and some sci-fi elements thrown in for good measure, it’s an excellent final story of the trilogy that leaves things on another high for ‘ol Sixie. 8 / 10
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