One of the quirks of Big Finish’s recent Doctor Who output is that they’ve made up for their limited or non-existent access to new series cast members by building series around whatever recurring or guest characters happen to be available. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, though when carried to extremes (a whole box set for Lady Christina? two box sets for Ian McNeice’s one-note caricature of Winston Churchill?) it can seem desperate. The real challenge, though, is developing stories that feel appropriate for their lead characters, so it doesn’t feel like (or is less obvious that) they’re just surrogates for the Doctor. With the death of John Hurt in 2017 after only one series of War Doctor box sets, Big Finish had to find new ways to tell Time War stories. They expanded the Eighth Doctor’s Time War exploits from one box set to four, but given his refusal to participate directly in the war, other options were needed. Released in April of this year, Susan’s War is a box set of stories about the Doctor’s granddaughter in the Time War. How effective is it at telling stories that feel specific to the character of Susan? Well, I suppose one out of four ain’t bad…
They get that one out of the way early, with Eddie Robson’s “Sphere of Influence.” No sooner has Susan joined the war effort than the Daleks capture her TARDIS. To rescue it, she’ll need to negotiate a Gallifreyan alliance with the Sensorites. And who better to help her with that than her old teacher, Ian Chesterton? Well, probably a lot of people, but I’m not going to begrudge Big Finish this bit of nostalgia casting. The story itself isn’t terribly complicated– something is sabotaging the negotiations from both sides, Susan must find out who, etc– but I do appreciate the way it follows up on one of Susan’s TV stories and makes use of her psychic abilities. I wish the sound design had done more to evoke the psychic landscape in which Susan and Ian spend much of the story; a slight echo effect every now and again doesn’t really do the job.
The middle two stories, “The Uncertain Shore” by Simon Guerrier and “Assets of War” by Lou Morgan, are perfectly fine, but neither one particularly needs Susan to be in it, and neither one comes anywhere near making interesting use of the Time War. In the former, Susan is hunting down a Dalek spy on the planet Florana; in the latter, a weapons test Susan is invited to observe goes horribly and predictably wrong. Simon Guerrier is one of Big Finish’s better writers, and he’s done great things with Hartnell-era characters, but I think he falls short of the mark here; there’s potential for an atmospheric story about a population living in the eye of the storm of war, but neither the characters nor the setting do it justice. “Assets of War” is one of those dutiful morality-of-war, the-Time-Lords-aren’t-great-either stories the Time War ranges feel obliged to do every now and again. It would be better if they delved more consistently and substantially into moral questions rather than offering the same superficial take every other box set or so, but a solid script and strong performances from Carole Ann Ford and guest actor Roly Botha make this one of the better versions of the concept.
Things wind down with Alan Barnes’s “The Shoreditch Intervention.” Susan goes on what she thinks is a secret Time Lord mission into her own past: Earth, London, 1963. But she’s actually being manipulated by the Daleks, and the only one who can save her is her grandfather, in his Paul McGann incarnation. Susan and the Eighth Doctor have a long history at Big Finish; I haven’t heard any of those stories, but I know what happens in them. The problem is that “The Shoreditch Intervention” doesn’t have anything to add. The Doctor and Susan disagree about fighting in the war… but that already happened in the Short Trip “All Hands on Deck,” and the discussion of the subject here is so superficial that it’s literally not possible they’re covering ground that story didn’t. A guest character is named Alex, a hamfisted and patently unnecessary way of bringing up Susan’s son, who died in a Dalek attack on Earth; given the circumstances the Doctor and Susan were obviously going to talk about him anyway, so why over-egg the pudding? I suppose it’s an easy way of getting the listener invested in this Alex… who becomes irrelevant to the story anyway as soon as the Doctor shows up.
Even the Doctor’s arrival feels cheap; he comes because Susan summoned him, but with time travel involved he arrives before she summoned him, meaning she only summons him because she has to in order to complete the causal loop. When a clever story like “Blink” does this sort of thing, it works because the overall structure is elegant enough, and the entertainment value is so high, that it doesn’t really matter that none of it makes sense; it’s like a big delicate piece of candy floss. Here, all the use of the ontological paradox does is underline that the Eighth Doctor is only in the story because having him on the cover will sell more copies. Once he shows up he takes over the plot, making Susan a bystander to the finale of her own box set. The Doctor confronts some Daleks and foils their plans, just like he would if this were part of his own Time War miniseries, or Dark Eyes, or the New Eighth Doctor Adventures, or one of his monthly range stories, or… you get the point. Paul McGann sounds bored most of the time, as he usually does these days; I expect that’s just a (dubious) acting choice for a world-weary war-era Doctor, but I wouldn’t blame him if he really was just going through the motions.
Part of what’s disappointing about the vacuousness of “The Shoreditch Intervention” is that there’s actually quite a lot to be said about the Doctor and Susan’s different ways of participating in the war. Seeing them directly opposed to each other and debating the merits of a particular military action would be a lot more satisfying than having him swoop in and save her from herself in a straightforward Dalek plot. (I suppose we should be grateful she doesn’t ever twist her ankle.) And that’s part of a larger failure to make this a box set about ~Susan’s~ war, and not just any random Time Lord’s. Although it makes sense, given what she’s lived through and lost, that Susan would want to do her part to stop the Daleks, being a soldier would be contrary to the nature of such a warm and empathetic character. There are hints here, particularly in “Assets of War” and in a final scene that seems to be setting up some further story, that this tension will come to the foreground eventually, but it’s the kind of thing that should have been front and center all along.
For all that I’ve emphasized the limitation of Susan’s War, I think it’s actually one of Big Finish’s better recent Time War sets. The Eighth Doctor boxes have been remarkably uninspired, and while the first couple Gallifrey boxes have their moments they’ve mostly lived down to the image of Gallifrey as a boring planet full of boring people the Doctor was right to run away from. There’s no antidote here to the lack of imagination that has been the single biggest letdown of Big Finish’s approach to the Time War, but these stories, however derivative, are well-acted and (with the exception of “Sphere of Influence,” which drags a little) tightly-scripted. It may be that after nearly five years I’ve simply lowered my expectations for Time War releases to an appropriate level; it may just be that I’ve always had a soft spot for Susan. Whatever the reason, I’d say that if you’re looking for an entry point into Big Finish’s Time War output, you couldn’t do much better than this.