THIS STORY TAKES
"ENEMY OF THE DALEKS"
AND "PROJECT: DESTINY."
& THE SIEGE OF
BIG FINISH CD#122
RELEASED IN JUNE 2009.
October 1854: As the
British Army charges
into catastrophe in
the Crimea, the
Minister for War
sends Miss Florence
Nightingale to take
charge of the field
an angel of mercy
working with the
sounded at Scutari. A
who's turned up out
of the blue. Goes by
the name of
Ace lost in the siege
of Sebastopol, Hex
has rediscovered his
calling. But there's
cannon to the left of
him, cannon to the
right of him - and a
on his case.
The Angel of Scutari
Much to the annoyance of our oh-so sophisticated adult palettes, somewhere inside most
of us there’s still a childlike part that causes our eyes to be drawn towards any story title featuring the word ‘Dalek’, and away from any story that even hints at being remotely historical or educational. And so, most probably for this reason, I never bothered to find out anything about The Angel of Scutari prior to its release, let alone listen to any of the trailers for it. Yesterday morning, as I listened to the first two episodes on my iPod on the way to work, I couldn’t even call to mind which writer’s name adorned the front cover.
Funnily enough though, within just a few minutes of the first episode Paul Sutton’s earlier works were brought to the forefront of my mind, chiefly his introductory Arrangements for War - a politically-charged, romantic bloodbath of an audio drama with which The Angel of Scutari has much in common. I find this particularly interesting having now listened to the CD Extras, as in there Nicholas Briggs states that he wanted this four-parter to feel every bit as alien as a tale set on another world; something that I think Sutton really pulls off remarkably well here.
Indeed, there is much to set The Angel of Scutari apart from the traditional historicals that we were bombarded with during William Hartnell’s tenure, and of course on a few notable occasions since. Most prominently, rather than take the hackneyed ‘you can’t mess with history’ route, Sutton creates his own self-contained temporal conundrum - not only is his spliced Pulp Fiction-style narrative a-linear, but his plot is too! The first episode opens with the Doctor and Ace a good few weeks ahead of the time that they had just arrived from; ahead of the time where Hex is stranded (and when I say ‘is’, I of course mean ‘will be’!); ahead of the time where they learned that they were destined to become a part of earlier events...
“They are only daring while they’re alive. After that they’re just dead.”
Further, the whole story has an astonishing sense of urgency about it that isn’t really commensurate with most wholly historical stories. In fact, offhand I can’t recall any other historical where the writer so successfully maintains a near-unbearable level of suspense across four episodes. The whole affair is wrought with such danger that I was half-expecting one of the regulars to be killed off, and the way that the story is constructed it just had to be Hex…
That much said, Sutton does employ certain tried and tested ‘historical’ devices – most notably the loss of the TARDIS and the splitting up of the regulars – but he does so in such an original way and with such panache that The Angel of Scutari can’t reasonably be tarred with the same brush as, say, The Reign of Terror or The Crusaders. Indeed, these four episodes fly past at a speed that is utterly anathema to most purely historical stores in the canon.
“Let him go. Hex knows exactly where he is and when...
If any period from Earth’s history needed a nurse from the future, then this is it.”
Evidently chosen by Nicholas Briggs and Alan Barnes, the Crimean War serves as a fascinating backdrop for Sutton’s story, allowing the writer to combine elements as diverse as the Charge of Light Brigade; Brigadier-General Bartholomew Kitchen’s infamous fall from grace; and even the good works of Florence Nightingale. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is perfectly at home in the troubled setting, frantically trying to juggle his - for once - good-natured scheme (to make Hex feel useful again, after the events on Bliss in the preceding Enemy of the Daleks); preserve the continuity of his own timeline; locate both Ace and his lost TARDIS; and, most entertainingly of all, escape the clutches of the British Army’s increasingly unhinged spycatcher-in-chief, Barty Kitchen, who is sublimely brought to life by Alex Lowe.
“It’s like a package deal. You don’t get one without the other.”
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Sutton story without a brace of twisted romances at its core. The lighter of the two sees Ace captured in the siege of Sebastopol by a young ensign by the name of Lev Tolstoy, who immediately takes a shine to his prisoner. Whilst relatively little time is spent following the pair, Sophie Aldred and John Albasiny share a sparkling chemistry; a chemistry that is made all the more enticing thanks to Sutton’s remarkable depiction of Tolstoy. Never having read anything by or about the man, I was surprised (and even a little bit impressed) by his propensities for gambling and womanising.
The real weight of the piece though is borne by Hex, and vicariously by Florence Nightingale. Over the course of this story, we learn that Nightingale was Hex’s inspiration for becoming a nurse (he read a Ladybird book on her at school, it seems) and so when he finds himself working at the field hospital at Scutari in October 1854, and thus face to face with his heroine, he turns into a jabbering schoolboy. Nightingale being “really hot” doesn’t help matters.
As I presume Sutton intended, Hex’s thread of the story is by far the most compelling. Once again Philip Olivier turns in an exceptional performance as Hex; the scenes that he shares with Jeany Spark’s Florence and John Paul Connolly’s William Russell (what a name) are particularly absorbing.
“I always had the idea of travelling with the Doctor as this temporary kind of thing;
that it’d end. It’s not like that for Ace though. Maybe it was once, but not anymore”.
Very early on I had the feeling that this story was going to be Hex’s swansong; the whole thing is sated with that awful sense of inevitability that many of the best exit stories have. There’s even one scene towards the end - Hex lays dying from Kitchen’s gunshot wound, yet against all the odds he manages to pull out a laser scalpel from his pocket that he can use to treat his wound. Listening to it, you just know that the scalpel is going to be taken
from him and destroyed; that the fates are conspiring against him.
Right at the death, on some level I think that I wanted Hex to die. Now this is not because I don’t like character or because or I want rid of him (which couldn’t be further from the truth), but because I don’t see how another story is ever going to come along that would make for a better swansong than The Angel of Scutari. It’s comparable to David Tennant’s Doctor being gunned down by that Dalek at the end of The Stolen Earth – how on Earth is Russell T Davies ever going to top that?
Whether The Angel of Scutari will prove to be Hex’s denouement is far from clear, however, given the story’s ambiguous ending. The final episode closes with the dying Hex being rushed to Saint Gart’s Hospital in 2021, but from Ace’s concluding wail I take it that we are meant to assume the worst. Nevertheless there are still stories to be told – Hex just has to learn about his mother, and about the Forge – and so I think that it’s a pretty safe assumption that the titular Angel of Scutari will be back for another season.
“If anyone asks, just say the Angels took him.
On a final note, credit has to be given to both director Ken Bentley and his sound designer, Toby Hrycek-Robinson. This story covers such an incredible amount of ground (both literally and figuratively) and never once is the listener’s disbelief stretched too far. Additionally, for an aural drama The Angel of Scutari really does a phenomenal job of conveying some truly inspiring images - the heavenly white shell of the TARDIS exterior, for example, as it comes to snatch Hex away from the jaws of death. Exquisite.
And so in summary, The Angel of Scutari is without a doubt my pick of the seventh Doctor’s 2009 run, not to mention my favourite Big Finish historical to date (unless you count The Kingmaker, which isn’t really of the same ilk). ‘Edge of the seat’ many not be a soundbite that you often hear bandied about in relation to pure historicals, but it certainly encapsulates this one. An absolutely unremitting classic.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2009
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