Review by Jacob Licklider
During David Tennant’s run as the Doctor there was a mention of the character once being a father and a grandfather, but now he was neither due to the Time War. Of course fans are already familiar with the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan Foreman, who apparently had a part to play in the Last Great Time War; and once allowed to use elements of the revived series Eddie Robson wrote ‘All Hands on Deck‘, a Short Trip to begin to show Susan’s story in 2017. Now, three years later, Big Finish Productions have given Carole Ann Ford a real chance to shine in her own four story box set exploring the character during the Time War. Beware, this review contains some spoilers 🤫.
‘Susan’s War’ is one of those sets which allows four writers to give their own interpretation of the character and develop Susan beyond her previous appearances against the Daleks with Lucie Miller in To The Death where she lost her son and in All Hands on Deck where she actually is on the outs with the Doctor which is an interesting start for the set. Susan is determined to act against the Daleks and it is with that premise that Susan’s War can begin.
The set opens with Sphere of Influence with Eddie Robson picking up where he left off in All Hands on Deck. Susan has been chosen by Cardinal Rasmus and Commander Veklin, played by Damian Lynch and Beth Chalmers respectively, to act as an ambassador to the Sense Sphere; hoping to get the Sensorites on the side of the Time Lords during the war.
Robson actually makes a stroke of genius by using the Sensorites as they were already developed in their classic series appearance as a highly intelligent race of telepaths with their own cultured and peaceful society. The Sensorites is also one of the few classic stories in Susan’s original run where the character was really allowed to shine, and Sphere of Influence picks up on that incredibly well.
Susan already has a connection with the Sensorites and understands how to get them on their own side. They are a pacifist race, but their telepathic abilities would give whomever they side with an edge in the Time War, and Susan wants them on the Time Lord’s side because while there aren’t any good guys in the War, the Time Lords at least have the more noble goals. Of course the Daleks eventually invade, but they do it in such a crafty way that as you see it mount, the listener cannot help but enjoy what Robson does. Remember in ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ where the Master and the Doctor bribe an architect so they each have an advantage in that story? That sort of happens here, though played straight, as the Daleks and Time Lords have both infiltrated the Sense Sphere to create their own advantages.
The Daleks bring up quite a large amount of body horror as they create crossbreeds with the Sensorites which are sound designed excellently by Howard Carter. While the story is pretty standard it’s the character moments which really does an excellent job of making the story. The most is the reappearance of the great William Russell as Ian Chesterton who is brought in due to his experience with the Sensorites on his travels with the Doctor. Russell is the highlight of the story as he has excellent interactions with Carole Ann Ford and the rest of the cast, bringing a human element to the story. Ian is also basically the most important human in history as his actions in The Daleks was a turning point in their history. Overall, the story is an excellent start to the set and actually uses the time aspect of the Time War really well. 9/10.
Simon Guerrier’s The Uncertain Shore is next and while great is perhaps the weakest story in the set. The premise is just really standard and unlike Sphere of Influence which did a good job about making a character piece around a standard story, The Uncertain Shore really just establishes the relationship between Susan and Veklin as they are on a reconnaissance mission to Florana to find a spy. There are plenty of good ideas in this story: a shapeshifter on the planet, Robotized Ogrons working once the battle on Florana kicks off, and just some great character work between Susan and Veklin. Beth Chalmers is excellent as the Time Lady and Guerrier does a great job of contrasting the characters. Susan shows that she notices quite a few things that Veklin would not because Susan has the experience of the world and the universe at large. There are also some great plot twists and turns as you are known to get in stories with shapeshifters involved, however, there isn’t much in the story on the level of the others in the set. Florana is also an odd choice to set the story at as in its appearance in The Elite there was peace, but then why doesn’t Guerrier really juxtapose the peace with war? However, The Uncertain Shore is still a worthwhile listen with some excellent performances from Chalmers, Ford, and Dan Starky as one of the Ogrons, it just isn’t as good as the rest of the set. 8/10.
Assets of War is the story with the most emotional core of the set. Lou Morgan’s script is the only story that actually does some real reflection on what the Time Lords have become as Rasmus brings Susan to assess a weapons project for the war effort. This already starts the story on this morally ambiguous idea about what the Time Lords are doing as the Orrovix, the creatures which have been bred for the war, are incredibly dangerous and something that nobody should be breeding. Of course, they eventually escape their cages, something that Susan says from the beginning is inevitable, and the story becomes a base under siege story with a small cast and a mystery about who let them out. There is such a small cast that Morgan doesn’t take much time with her script to get the culprit revealed, and once he is revealed there really becomes an emotional core added to the plot. Rennis played by Roly Botha is a Gallifreyan who despises the Time Lords for the death of his family, including his brother. He wants to use the Orrovix against the Time Lords to end the war and almost give the Daleks their own advantage. Rennis is a character who the audience through Susan can sympathize with. Susan Foreman has lost so much including her own son to the Daleks there is a real connection between the two characters. Morgan allows Ford to reflect on the death of Susan’s own son and her own actions throughout the set. Susan from the beginning of the story serves as the voice of reason while she’s telling Rasmus and Veklin that the entire plan to use these creatures is going to fail and it is going to fail. The story leads to a catharsis for both characters and like many of the other works by Morgan, Assets of War is thematically deep and an overall emotional listen. 10/10.
Susan’s War is rounded out with The Shoreditch Intervention which sees Susan sent back to the very beginning, where everything started. Susan is sent to Shoreditch in 1963 before the events of An Unearthly Child to retrieve the Hand of Omega which was hidden in a pawn shop by the Doctor when they arrived. On Earth she gets embroiled with two street gangs including Becky Wright’s Alex and Tom Mahy’s JP, and of course the Daleks aren’t far behind. So that makes three groups of Daleks on Earth in 1963, the Imperials, the Renegades, and the ones from the Time War. Luckily Alan Barnes only references Remembrance of the Daleks and doesn’t actually bring the Renegades and Imperials into the story. That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of references to the show’s past, there are (Alex’s identity is fascinating to fans like me who adore a certain era of the show), but they don’t intrude with a few surprises in store. The Shoreditch Intervention is a story that becomes a complete chase around the area by Dalek agents, while Susan’s contacts (part of the disbanded CIA) are revealed to be Dalek agents. The Daleks are incredibly crafty here, working from the shadows to achieve their goals and find the Hand of Omega. The story really gets going once Paul McGann is revealed as the Eighth Doctor, following a Space Time Telegraph sent from Susan in the future which is simply allows for some fascinating interactions with the characters. McGann and Ford once again have an excellent chemistry with each other as their views towards the Time War clash. Susan has lost her own son to the Daleks and the Doctor’s stance against the war, while admirable, does not comfort her on her own loss. The Doctor has no right to claim the moral high ground when Susan is involved, but Barnes’ script does an excellent job at patching their relationship overall. By the end of it Susan has a new perspective on the war, yet is still willing to fight which leads into a potential sequel. The Shoreditch Intervention, like Assets of War, is a story with Susan as the emotional center and everything about it revolves around them. There are quite a few references and it caps the entire set off with the best story of the lot, which is no easy feat amongst the competition it shares. 10/10.
Overall, Susan’s War is a rousing success and is going to be one of the Big Finish box sets of 2020 which is remembered for its mix of creativity, emotional storytelling, and good old fashioned fanservice. 9.25/10.