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Audio Drama Review


Doctor Who
Harry Houdini’s War


Starring: Colin Baker
Publisher: Big Finish Productions
RRP: £14.99 (CD), £12.99 (download)
ISBN: 978 1 78178 859 2 (CD),
978 1 78178 860 8 (download)
Release Date: 31 October 2019

The world is at war, and the renowned illusionist and stunt performer Harry Houdini wants to fight for his adoptive country. He might just get the chance to do so, when an old friend crashes his New York show. The Doctor is on the trail of a Central Powers spy ring, which has somehow managed to acquire unearthly technology – but he is also keeping a dangerous secret. Finding himself on the run behind enemy lines, the world’s greatest escape artist has to work out who he can trust – and fast…

The final release in the latest Sixth Doctor and Peri trilogy marks a rather sudden and unexpected change of direction. Still, as I’m sure the great Houdini would have agreed, the quickness of the hand deceives the eye – or, in this case, the ear.

Writer Steve Lyons throws us straight in at the deep end. His story opens with the Doctor already on the scene, approaching Houdini for the kind of help that only he can provide. The two men have met before (see below), which helps to keep the introductions short and snappy. Meanwhile, the Time Lord’s travelling companion (Nicola Bryant) has already been captured by the enemy, in the form of German sleeper agent Helen Smith aka Helga Schmidt (Fiona Bruce – not the television presenter). Adding to the sense that considerable time has passed since we last tuned in, Dominic Glynn’s version of the signature tune is used (rather badly cued in at the beginning of Parts Two and Three, it has to be said), whereas we heard Peter Howell’s arrangement on the previous two releases, Memories of a Tyrant and Emissary of the Daleks.

The title of this tale is a spin on that of the 1986 Companions of Doctor Who novel Harry Sullivan’s War, while the plot is partly a variation on an unmade Second Doctor serial called Operation Werewolf, in which the Nazis were to have developed a way to teleport troops behind enemy lines. Lyons has changed the time period from the Second World War to the First, and, as if the prospect of wartime portal travel were not exciting enough, he also throws in Harry Houdini. The legendary escapologist has been name-checked several times in the television show, though his only full-length encounter with the Time Lord prior to this was in the Fifth Doctor Destiny of the Doctor audio book Smoke and Mirrors, also written by Lyons.

Tim Beckmann played Houdini on that occasion, though he wasn’t available this time (as is explained during the ten minutes of interviews at the end of Disc Two). However, I had no difficulty accepting John Schwab in the role. Such is the assuredness of his performance that there was never any doubt in my mind that he is Harry Houdini. Also joining Old Sixie is another Number Six – Big Finish’s very own Prisoner, Mark Elstob, whose voice is unrecognisable in the role of über-baddie Oberst Brandt.

Heightening the drama is the incidental music of sound designer Joe Meiners, whose contribution frequently reminds me of Murray Gold’s invigorating early Who work.

Why, then, haven’t I rated this production more highly? Well, the second episode and a fair amount of the third follow the old ‘escape, get captured, escape again’ formula – but then we are dealing with Houdini, so we should expect a degree of escaping. Aerial combat, as we hear during Part Two, is much more exciting on screen than it is on audio – but then a First World War adventure wouldn’t feel complete without a dogfight, would it? During this time, Peri seems to regress to her former whiny, argumentative self – and this is after I had said, in my review of The Flight of the Sun God, that she had matured in the Big Finish releases. However, Lyons has a trick up his sleeve that makes up for that in the final episode.

I wouldn’t be at all averse to John Schwab making a return appearance as Houdini at some point in the future (and it is clear from the interviews that he wouldn’t mind, either). In fact, that would be magic!


Richard McGinlay

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