A Woman Scorned (A review of the Big Finish Doctor Who  audio play The Wrath of the Iceni )

Posted: March 19, 2012 by Brian in Audio Review, Doctor Who
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The Wrath of the IceniWith a couple of straight-up sci-fi stories under their belts, Big Finish Productions continues its long-awaited series of Fourth Doctor Adventures with something different from the Doctor Who toolbox: the historical adventure; more specifically, the historical adventure in which an injustice from Earth’s past leads to a debate about the ethics and desirability of changing history. The Wrath of the Iceni drops the Doctor and Leela into first-century England, where a wronged warrior queen sought to force foreign invaders from her land and, in the process, sets our time travelers at odds with each other.

My review of the resulting drama is below the cut.

Around the year 60 C.E., while Roman armies still occupied much of the British Isles, a tribe of Britons called the Iceni (pronounced eye-seen-eye), led by the legendary warrior queen Boudica, attacked the Roman city of Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester, in Essex). It was an event with a profound impact on British and world history, for reasons that were unknown to me before I heard this audio drama and which affect the outcome, so I won’t spoil them here. It is on the eve of this historic battle that the TARDIS deposits the Doctor and Leela in the British countryside. The Doctor recognizes where and when they are and, unwilling to risk changing Earth’s history, tries to make a quiet escape. But Leela is moved by Boudica’s sad story—her husband Prasutagus had collaborated with the Romans to keep the Iceni relatively free, but when he died the Romans reneged on their promises to him, instead flogging Boudica and raping her daughters while summarily annexing the kingdom—and offers her service to the warrior queen.

Thus is set up a delicious problem for the Doctor. It’s clear he has to extricate Leela from her disastrous decision to serve Boudica—it can only end badly, either with Leela dying along with the rest of the Iceni, or with her being the factor that allows the Iceni to emerge victorious, changing history in the process. But Leela cannot discern a difference between this injustice and all the other injustices that she and the Doctor have fought.

Leela: Well, if they invaded, we must fight them.
Doctor: Not this time, Leela, no.
Leela: But it is what we always do!

That conflict is the core around which the rest of The Wrath of the Iceni revolves. While there is some lovely other business going on, such as the Iceni serving girl Bragnar and what she does when she overhears the Doctor explaining the tribe’s ultimate fate, the chief focus remains, throughout the story, firmly on the tug-of-war between Leela’s righteous fervor to help Boudica and the Doctor’s equally understandable big-picture reluctance.

I’m happy to report that to that end this is an entirely successful audio drama, and its success is completely attributable to two super-strong lead performances. As they showed in last month’s The Renaissance Man, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson continue to settle back into their old roles very nicely, with the result that by this audio the Doctor and Leela are very believably the Doctor and Leela. That makes a difference, because with the performances evoking these classic characters so completely and authentically, we the listeners get drawn in to their passionate disagreement—we’re emotionally invested in the conflict between two people we know to be heroic and honorable, both of whom appear to have right on their side. Jameson sells Leela’s simple, un-nuanced belief in right and wrong, while simultaneously (and equally effectively) portraying Leela’s internal uncertainty as she questions her split with her mentor. Likewise, Baker has finally shed the last of his vocal rust, nailing exactly the fourth Doctor’s mix of charm, disarming buffoonery, and deadly earnestness when the situation gets serious.

Next to such pitch-perfect leads, the chief guest stars (Ella Kenion as Boudica and Nia Roberts as Bragnar) do a fine job themselves, but are clearly relegated to second-banana status—they’re only really there to give the fuel and impetus to the Doctor-Leela drama.

That’s not a bad thing. John Dorney’s script is thoroughly convincing, and while the serious questions raised are perhaps not examined as thoroughly as they deserve, for a one-hour audio with a lot to accomplish dramatically, I can’t think of any reason to call it anything but a success.

Next month, the fourth Doctor meets the Daleks for the first time since 1979. Ooooooooo…

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