Unfortunately my experience with Big Finish has been spotty; like most people I can’t afford to buy a subscription. Jamie bought me Angel of Scutari, which I’d been eyeing anyway, as it relates to one of our projects. I hadn’t gotten around to listening to it until now, not due to disinterest, but due to lack of time and wanting to listen to it on a long coach journey. I just had a long coach journey so I managed to listen to it! In the past I haven’t done very good Big Finish reviews because I haven’t taken good notes. Ta-da—good notes!
I have to admit that the very first scenes did not impress me, which is a shame as I really liked the play by the end. Reflecting on it, I don’t see how Paul Sutton could have written the first few scenes any other way—they were necessary for the way the story panned out—yet I wonder if another writer would have handled it differently. The introduction sets the scene: it’s 1853 and William Russell (not the one who played Ian!), the London Times’ correspondent, writes about the Charge of the Light Brigade from the Crimea. Back in London, General Kitchen (Alex Lowe) gives a rather heavy-handed appearance of desperation and cynicism: “Sebastopol should never have happened.” Also in London is “Miss Nightingale,” demanding from her friend Sir Sidney Herbert “when are you sending me to the Scutari?” The whole interaction between the two is kind of clunky; Florence wants to go nurse, her friend wants her to get married, “I can live without love—I cannot live without my work.” Intriguingly, she will be joining Thomas Hector Schofield—the “angel of Scutari.” Cue theme music!
Audio conventions are found in abundance, though they can be forgiven. “This is it, then?” asks Ace, giving the Doctor the chance to tell us where they are (the Crimea). “This is a ship,” Ace tells us, too. Unfortunately they seem to have landed in the middle of action on a Russian ship. Poor Ace keeps getting badly injured, and the Russian soldier who first threatens to shoot her, then helps to save Ace (as the “blue box” goes over the side), is almost annoying. Until we find out that he’s a young Lev Tolstoy (John Albasiny). The Doctor is separated from Ace, who ends up in hospital with the amusing, bet-making writer. “Are you trying to chat me up, Lev?”
This is when the time travel comes in, and while it takes a lot of concentration to keep up, it is worth it. A few months earlier (in the Crimean timeline) Hex, the Doctor, and Ace land in the British army barracks. The Doctor lets Hex wander—“he knows exactly where he is and when.” However, in the later timeline, the Doctor gets attacked by William Russell who wants to shoot him—even though from the Doctor’s perspective they’ve never met. End part 1.
Part two consists of Hex wanting to muck in and help the soldiers in the Crimea, before Florence (Jenny Spark) gets there—Ace lets him use her spare key to get supplies from the TARDIS. In the other timeline, Russell has the Doctor, Ace is still with Tolstoy, and we don’t know where Hex is. The Doctor debates with Russell over the ethics of the war. In the earlier timeline, Ace is flabbergasted Hex has turned into “St Francis of Assisi .” In the later timeline, Hex sees the TARDIS chopped up for firewood! He’s tongue-tied when at last he meets his idol Florrie. “Your implication is lascivious,” she retorts to William Russell, who has insinuating that she and her traveling companion, Kitchen, who was meant to have killed the Doctor as a collaborator way back in the first few minutes of the play, is her sugar daddy. (“You are pretty hot,” Hex says.) There’s another slightly anti-climactic cliffhanger.
In part three, in the earlier timeline, the Doctor is imprisoned in a Russian dungeon and meets a thoroughly grey Nicholas I. Meanwhile Ace is still with Tolstoy and overjoyed that the TARDIS hasn’t been destroyed because she can still read Russian. In the later timeline Hex escapes from Russell by giving him tea that “tastes like the inside of a Muscovite’s britches.” He finds Nightingale and confesses his doubts about traveling with the Doctor and Ace—confesses his feelings for Ace but “I’m not so sure anymore.” “You kiss her . . . a lot?” “She’d break my arm if I tried!” Ace is also being a bit romantic with Tolstoy, too, helping him win his bet with a kiss—before she knocks him out and tries to make a getaway.
Part four sees Tolstoy and Ace as an impressive double act, the Doctor escaping with the help of a golden spoon, a hug that saves the day, a shameful secret revealed, and the phrase “I’ll explain later” used! Ace is also charmingly jealous of Nightingale—“if you stay out of my face, mush”—rather like the fact she and Rose didn’t get along in “The Ten Doctors” comic.
The plot in Angel of Scutari is necessarily complicated because of the timeline issue, and though I can’t explain it in a way that makes sense, it does. Make sense. As this is a radio play, the entire Crimean War has to be distilled into a handful of recurring characters. This is easy with Tolstoy and Nightingale since they’re in the action all the time, and particularly with Tolstoy, are charmingly written and a lot of fun—they hold our attention. Nightingale as written is a bit of a wet noodle, but probably true to life. I think the last audio play I heard with Sophie Aldred in it was The Settling, similar to this in several ways, including it being about a brutal war, the fact it was all historical and no aliens, and the way the Doctor and the companions got separated along the way. The play, though dark, was not quite as hard-hitting as The Settling. On the plus side, however, the Ace here seemed much brighter, younger, and I could see her uttering each line. Sylvester McCoy is a wonderful radio actor and, as in The Settling, he was often in situations where he didn’t know whether his companions would live or die.
There is no romanticism of war in The Angel of Scutari, with the trivialities of the Crimea presented solidly against the desperate conditions of the hospitals, which Hex tries so hard to ameliorate. Nevertheless it is quite funny in parts and contains many a witty line. As ever there are fantastic soundscapes and editing, and hearing this particular theme tune really takes me back to my childhood.