Conflicts of Interest places the Doctor and his friends under the shadow of war, past and future, before battle and in the aftermath, for two small scale stories full of character and atmosphere
After Big Finish’s celebratory all you can eat buffet of Forty, The Fifth Doctor Adventures resumes Peter Davison’s more everyday travels. Or at least as everyday as it ever gets in the life of the most pointedly affable of Time Lords and his squabbling brood of travelling companions. The Fifth Doctor’s recent 40th anniversary celebrations followed the traumatising high drama involving Marc. So it’s appropriate that Conflicts of Interest settles down to two rather lower stakes stories.
The title itself promises a war setting to link the two. In reality these are two tales about those that live in war’s shadow. And like any shadow, it can fall in either direction. Friendly Fire contemplates the scars war leaves on a society’s soul long after the final shot is fired. While The Edge of the War deals with the tension and angst of watching the gathering storm clouds. But both linger on how, even in times of peace, people can be driven to be less than the best version of themselves by war.
Friendly Fire brings western tropes to deep space, where the Doctor’s arrival in a remote mining town lights a match under tensions ready to explode
The stories in Conflicts of Interest are three episodes apiece. In the case of Friendly Fire it results in a story that, paradoxically, has more room to breath than usual. It’s the result of writer John Dorney neatly cutting his cloth to measure. He crafts a fairly straightforward story that instead gives us clear, well choreographed action set pieces and time for our heroes to dwell on their predicament. It also lends an appropriate sense of the open air to proceedings. This, combined with some subtle sound design, means you can almost feel the hot sun on your face. While the Monument Valley style vistas appear easily before your mind’s eye.
Because Friendly Fire is a space western. Indeed, it’s so much a western even by the standards of that subgenre, it would only take a few nips and tucks substituting horses for a dune buggy here, a stagecoach for a space shuttle there, to relocate it 1880s America. If it had been, it would likely feature a long retired Union officer arriving in a small southern mining town. An arrival which sparks fresh conflict with a sheriff still bitter over the Confederacy’s defeat. As it is, the crux of the story is Velar, a member of the Armadillo-like Batearian species (and an old friend of the Doctor’s), and Sherrif Reno (Alice Krige). Reno’s long memory extends back to the Batearian-Human war a generation before, making Velar’s very presence provocative.
A carefully measured script and effective sound design creates a powerful sense of remoteness and vulnerability in this desert drama
The real key to the story’s success, though, is the palpable sense of isolation and vulnerability felt by our heroes. As they note, it would be cruel irony to survive all they have only to be killed by local ruffians. But as the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa criss cross open desert plains in a game of cat and mouse, always waiting for the sound of a fatal shot to ring out, they’ve rarely been this low on hope. The danger is small scale, really extending no further than our heroes’ own lives. But that means the listener feels that danger all the more keenly. Davison, too, gives a very affecting performance. Especially in the early scenes. wrapping a growing anger in a layer of feigned ignorance that anything’s amiss.
What doesn’t quite work is Tegan’s musing on how jarring it is for the humans to be the bad guys. She’s certainly encountered plenty of nasty enough humans before, both on TV and on audio. While Doctor Who as a show has certainly never shied away from using SF to critique the evils of humanity, in stories like The Mutants and, in Davison’s own era, Kinda. While the two cliffhangers are strangely weak fare that seem a homage to under-running episodes of the era. The end titles scream in just moments after we discover the Doctor didn’t die in a fiery explosion after all.
The Edge of the War lands our heroes in the firing line as the clock counts down to imminent German invasion. Except the clock has other ideas…
The second half of Conflicts of Interest, Jonathan Barnes’ The Edge of the War, brings Nyssa to the Maginot Line as the days dwindle ahead of the German invasion of France in World War II. But why can’t she quite remember how she got there? Why does everything think she’s a travelling painter on holiday? Why is Tegan the local pub landlady? And where on Earth or beyond is the Doctor? It soon becomes clear that time is out of joint in this sleepy little village. But who could be doing such a thing and with what design in mind?
There’s a lovely unsettling atmosphere built up across the three episodes. The calm, tranquil, satisfied existence of the locals as they drift through their days is punctuated by outbursts of bizarre and alarming behaviour. It’s an old motif, seen most effectively in recent years in Get Out, but no less disturbing for that. While the local Count (Alistair Petrie) oversees all from the high windows of his grand chateau, his untroubled manner as he fine tunes his world with the meticulousness calm of a watchmaker more chilling than any masterly bwa-ha-ha-ing.
The Edge of the War may hold few surprises, but it gives space to Tegan and Nyssa to become the story’s centre
Things truly kick up a gear when a famed big city detective inspector arrives. He’s on holiday in the countryside but open to getting involved in local mysteries. His name? Why, bien sûr, it can only be… the Doctor! Of course the Doctor has very particular ideas about what exactly is going on, and a very dim view of it all indeed. Doctor and Count are naturally immediately set on a collision course, where secrets are revealed and battles of wills fought. Both Davison and Petrie give these moments their all. However, Blogtor must admit those secrets are pretty much exactly what you’d expect them to be. The Doctor’s solution falls back on Standard Doctor Who Operating Procedures too, and the fallout, while touchingly bittersweet, is again very familiar stuff.
Meanwhile, Tegan is given even more fuel for later therapy sessions. At times lately it’s felt that if most people have recommended daily intakes of calories and vitamins, Tegan’s has a special addendum for 2000 units of trauma a day. Famously she left in Resurrection of the Daleks claiming “it’s stopped being fun.” But with Big Finish’s extension of her time in the TARDIS you’re left wondering when was it fun. Perhaps it would be a nice idea to let her have a genuinely good time for a bit in future Fifth Doctor Adventures. Maybe give her a puppy to play with and not throw a grand piano at it in the final act.
Bonus audiobook Gobbledegook moves back in time to the days of Doctor and Velar’s friendship and a cosy mystery full of tea and cake
Conflicts of Interest finishes with a bonus audiobook read by Dan Starkey, Gobbledegook. Friendly Fire was true to its 1980s roots by having the trigger for the story be the Doctor’s spontaneous decision to visit an old friend he happens to have never, ever mentioned before. But Gobbledegook takes the almost unprecedented step of flashing back to fill us in on the Doctor and Velar’s friendship. Although, really, it feels like a connection made rather late in the day of the earlier space western, simply by changing a couple of names and descriptions.
Gobbledegook, however, isn’t their first meeting. Rather it’s one of a series of encounters between the two across their lives (and in the Doctor’s case, faces). As with the rest of this set, it’s all feels rather low stakes, as a kind of word virus spreads through the world of books, turning their pages unreadable. Yes, the entire contents of the biggest library in this civilization is under threat, which is quite bad enough.
But it all feels rather jolly and delightful, with the characters regularly pausing for a good strong cup of tea and a long think about their next move. Starkey’s Velar, in particular, is a lovely cosy character. The armoured academic is equal parts grumpy old librarian, and deep eyed lover of knowledge and the universe. He’s a lovely character to spend time with, and well suited to the Fifth Doctor. Hopefully we’ll here more from him again.
Conflicts of Interest sees Davison, Fielding and Sutton on top form, for some of their most fun adventures yet
Conflicts of Interest provides a suitable pause for breath after some epic storylines for the Fifth Doctor Adventures. It keeps a tight focus on our heroes themselves, with a very modern mode where their adventures are a way to examine them as people. That sense of the Doctor and Tegan’s banter coming from a place of deep friendship has never been finer. In fact, as is often the case with this Big Finish range, the accompanying interviews are almost worth the price of admission alone, as Davison, Fielding, and Sutton joyfully tease each other.
Simply lovely stuff.
Doctor Who – The Fifth Doctor Adventures: Conflicts of Interest is now available to own as a collector’s edition 3-disc CD box set (+ download for just £19.99) or digital download (for just £16.99), exclusively from Big Finish.