ith its gripping plot and retro feel, DOCTOR WHO: QUICKSILVER – the latest Doctor Who audio drama release from Big Finish featuring Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor – is ideal for fans of 1940s spy thrillers like “The Third Man”, albeit with sci-fi twists.
It’s wartime, and the Doctor’s companion, Mrs Constance Clarke, a Wren from Bletchley Park, has gone back home to try and find her husband. No sooner does she get there though – a few months after she left in the Tardis, thanks to the Doctor’s erratic steering – than there’s a telegram waiting for her: her husband, Lieutenant Commander Henry Clarke, has been lost in action while on a classified operation. The Doctor’s about to leave, but he gets a plea for help from an alien that keeps him in Constance’s life a little longer – an alien fleeing from the horrors of war…
War – and the terrible things it makes us do – is a theme throughout this story, as Constance finds out exactly what was so classified about her husband’s work, and why it didn’t end with the telegram. It’s a story that takes us from wartime England to post-war Vienna, a city of spies and double-crosses, of uneasy truces between the Allies as England and Russia begin to draw the battle lines for what will eventually become the Cold War.
But there’s another war beneath the surface, a war intertwined with our own, between two alien species, and much of the action that propels Constance’s plot along revolves around the Doctor’s conscientious objector to that war. It’s a clever element that’ll make you examine everything we think we know about the rights and wrongs of armed conflict in our own world, especially when the wars intersect, and the beginnings of the Cold War threaten to heat up pretty quickly into an arms race for alien technology that could give superiority to one side or the other…
In essence, Quicksilver is a story of war and spies, truth and lies, deceptions, double lives and what we do to make our peace with a world going increasingly mad. The storytelling is tight, the story gripping, but gripping like a waltz – a whirl around a world of falsehoods, friendships and desperate gambits. A fast dance, writer Matt Fitton never lets the pace slacken, despite the layers of story he’ll spin you through, and the multitude of twists and turns you won’t see coming.
Miranda Raison as Constance gives a stand out performance here. Raison plays Wren Clarke with a little of Celia Johnson’s stiff upper lip, but she also shows us the reality of a woman of the war years, her genuine stoicism and optimism mixed with an ability to look unpleasant realities in the face as what they are, be they the broad horrors of war itself or the more personal punches that come with the unknown condition of her husband. Many 21st century people would crumble when the wounds inflicted on them became personal, but Fitton and Raison together show us something genuinely to be admired in the grit of a bygone generation.
The contrast is made particularly apparent for us by the presence of a thoroughly 21st century woman – Philippa ‘Flip’ Jackson, one of the Sixth Doctor’s previous companions. Lisa Greenwood, who plays Flip, gives an equally strong performance. Again, she’s no shrinking violet, but the contrast between the middle class wartime properness of Constance and the distinctly working class modern attitudes of supermarket deli counter meat-wrangler Flip delivers enjoyable sparks as the two women find ways to accommodate each other’s oddities.
Constance’s husband Henry Clarke has a foot in both storylines and both wars, which means he’s pivotal throughout, and Matthew Cottle as Clarke delivers if not a gentleman spy, then at least a middle management spy that also stands as the living embodiment of the terrible things war can make us do.
In short, Quicksilver is a rollicking black and white spy movie with a solid, sobering moral, but with aliens, time travel, and a 21st century deli counter girl thrown in for good measure. While you might think the science fiction elements should detract from the point, they actually work in harmony with it and deepen it, by giving us additional takes on war that would otherwise be beyond the reach of a straightforward spy story. The story’s tight, some of the characterisation will have you blinking eyelashes out of your eyes, and overall, Quicksilver’s an elevated earful of top class Doctor Who.