Men of War is the second in a new series of Doctor Who audio short stories from BBC Audio (the first being The Thing From The Sea, by Paul Magrs). In many ways though, it feels like it should be the first, demonstrating as it does an energetic new beginning for this ambitious new range. That’s partly down to it being a First Doctor story, and partly the scale of its storytelling, which is at once contained and satisfying, but strongly hints at a larger arc which will no doubt develop in later stories in the range, across the Doctor’s various incarnations.
Justin Richards, an established writer of both novels and audio stories in the Doctor Who universe, sets the story in a particular period during the 1960s epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, when the First Doctor was accompanied by space pilot Steven Taylor and space security officer Sara Kingdom, but don’t that put you off – it’s really just the Doctor, with his companions, turning up somewhere and finding something terribly wrong.
Given the First Doctor’s recent TV return in last year’s Christmas special, which saw him (and Peter Capaldi’s Twelth Doctor) witness the Christmas Armistice of World War I, Men of War has something of a companion-piece feel to that story, as it takes the First Doctor to the battlefield of the Somme, where, curiously, nothing is happening.
According to history, a million soldiers died on the Somme, and when the First Doctor, Steven and Sara arrive, they should have been dying for four long, awful, devastating weeks. But this time, there’s no fighting, a whole month after one of the bloodiest engagements in one of the world’s bloodiest wars should have begun…
Something else is happening though: the mud of the trenches moves at night. Ghastly, muddy hands seems to reach for the night-watching soldiers, pulling them down, pulling them under. And they’re never seen again.
Justin Richards, ladies and gentlemen – writer of creepy stuff extraordinaire!
Unfortunately, the set-up lends itself to listeners correctly guessing what’s going on without too much difficulty in at least one direction pretty early on, but there are still a solid handful of mysteries to ponder as we go through this story. Why has the Battle of the Somme not started when the Doctor thinks it should have? Will whatever is empowering the mud of the Somme be stoppable, and if so, how? Who or what is behind the non-battle?
And later, the story reserves a whole other level of punch to hit us with, making use of the First Doctor’s complete inability to accurately pilot the TARDIS, meaning that just knowing a problem exists somewhere isn’t enough to let him go there and deal with it. Major Who-fans will get a shiver or two of possibility when they hear what’s happening, but even casual fans will be hooked by the questions this story poses, and the dangling threads it leaves for other Doctors to pick up later in the run; there’s very definitely a resolution to the immediate problem in this story, but there’s also a sense that something bigger is afoot, and that the Doctor is as yet powerless to confront that larger scheme.
Peter Purves, who played Steven Taylor on TV, has been playing both him and the First Doctor on audio for some years now, and he’s a joy to listen to here. There are a few moments of disconnect at the very start of the story, because Richards’ story is told in the first person, but not the first person of either Steven or the Doctor, so having Purves tell the story leads to a jump in the groove of your brain when he names his viewpoint-character as Captain Mark Steadman, and you could easily assume that Steven has gone undercover on the front line until Steadman recounts his meeting with the pilot. However, Purves’ reading style is inviting and inclusive, and soon it’s easy to forget that Peter Purves the reader exists, as he draws you into the characters’ voices and their story on the Somme.
Doctor Who: Men of War is a cracking listen, and sets us off on what feels like a multi-Doctor adventure that could well build to some enormous consequences later in the run. A definite reminder of the charms – and the occasional necessary bleakness – of the First Doctor. The original, you might say.