As far as historical settings for Doctor Who stories go, the Second World War is undoubtedly one of the more overused. But these stories tend to focus on the western theatre of war; The Night Witches, the latest instalment in Big Finish’s Early Adventures range, instead plunges the Second Doctor, along with companions Polly, Jamie and Ben, into the chilly climes of Russia – it’s 1942, and German tanks are advancing towards Stalingrad.
But the Russians have a line of defence out in the wilderness – our travellers meet the ‘Night Witches’ of the title, that being a nickname for the 588th Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces, a regiment made up entirely of female volunteers. Yes, that’s right – Who fandom may be talking about one particular gender flip at the moment, but Big Finish have upped the ante by giving us a Second Doctor story with an entirely female guest cast.
The Night Witches were a real regiment, and it’s a fascinating slice of history that writer Roland Moore has uncovered. This is a ‘pure historical’ story with no sci-fi elements, other than the Enemy of the World-esque twist that one of the pilots happens to be a doppelganger of Polly, and is filled with conflict and distrust between our travellers and the pilots they meet, as well as some thrilling wartime action. The focus on the deceptions and distrusts of the plot does mean that the audio doesn’t go as deeply as it could into the gender politics at play, but we nevertheless get to know and like various characters within the regiment and it does feel like a refreshing twist on the format to have female characters getting to take part in the action and hold positions of authority in a story otherwise faithful to the tone of ‘60s Who.
However, this is Polly’s story more than anyone else’s, as coming face to face with her mirror image thrusts her into the middle of various schemes; she plays a bigger role in the unfolding action than she tended to in the TV serials, and comes across all the better for it. Anneke Wills impresses in that important role, while the other leads have a lot to do, too; Frazer Hines’s Troughton impression continues to be good enough to make us forget it’s not the man himself we’re listening to, and the same applies to Elliot Chapman’s take on Ben.
Not only is The Night Witches a solid continuation of what’s great about the Troughton era of Who, then, but it also adds some progressive twists to its style of story and allows all the companions to shine; a very solid Big Finish debut from Roland Moore.
DOCTOR WHO – THE EARLY ADVENTURES – THE NIGHT WITCHES / AUTHOR: ROLAND MOORE / DIRECTOR: HELEN GOLDWYN / STARRING: ANNEKE WILLS, FRAZER HINES, ELLIOT CHAPMAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW