“The Night Witches”
Directed by Helen Goldwyn
Written by Roland Moore
Starring Frazer Hines (The Doctor/Jamie), Anneke Wills (Polly/Narrator), and Elliot Chapman (Ben)
When people think Doctor Who they think Daleks and Cybermen, time lords and aliens. A free association on the topic would bring up monsters galore. They’re what make the show iconic but they’re not what make the show work, and some of the best episodes of the series don’t involve monsters at all.
“The Night Witches” is a historical Doctor Who story set during World War II. The characters are fictitious but the Night Witches were real, a female air force regiment that fought the Germans for the Russians using crop duster bi-planes (and if you think there isn’t a scene that works in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, you’d be greatly mistaken).
The Doctor, Polly, Jamie, and Ben run into the Night Witches at Stalingrad, where they’re accused of being German spies. To add mystery to the question of why the Tardis dropped them off there, instead of the Winter Palace where they’d been aiming to go, Polly is the spitting image of the team’s star pilot, Tatiana (Anjella Mackintosh), in every way except their different accents.
How writer Roland Moore incorporates the doppelganger angle is smart. There’s a lot of war strategy going on, by the team’s commander, Nadia (Wanda Opalinska), most of all. Her one-track dedication to what needs to be done for battle never wavers and the story upholds how far she is willing to go. Her leadership style was born from harsh conditions and this story gives a full account of what it means to survive where nature’s unforgiving and resources are low. The Doctor himself disappoints in how poorly he can handle this at times. I’m specifically thinking of his reaction to the soup they’re consuming. Making a joke out of needing bread to improve the taste is insensitive, and sounds worse coming from him.
The music by Toby Hrycek-Robinson is a tinny piano that could play in a western saloon or a silent movie. It’s easy on the ears and creates an atmosphere of distrust, where, at any moment, someone could pull a gun.
This is the first Big Finish audio drama I’ve listened to with a narrator. Since I haven’t had a chance to listen to all that many yet, there’s nothing you can really take from that, but having gone without a narrator in the past, I’m not sure why this story called for one, and the others didn’t. Anneke Wills has a wonderful voice for storytelling, and it’s not as though the story overdoes it, but there’s not a clear reason why one is needed.
Another thing this story could’ve done without is Lilya (Kristina Vasney), one of the Night Witch pilots, having a crush on Ben. Her character makes a major comeback in the end but then the story short shifts her, by having the others be too absorbed with helping Polly to remember she needs assistance, too.
For a bit of trivia that’s not too obscure, Diana Gabaldon named Outlander’s Jamie after Jamie McCrimmon. It’s not a stretch, then, to find out Doctor Who’s Jamie’s a fun guy to be around. What is a shame is we don’t get to see more of him this story. His lines are so colorful and alive, and they all come from a very specific perspective. Having Scottish heritage is important to his character. Right in the image of him wearing a kilt through a Russian winter, a character starts to unfold, but he also speaks to being from a certain place and time, more than his fellow companions do, coming from the 60’s.
Something that didn’t register until I’d listened all the way through is that Frazer Hines voices Jamie and the Doctor. When they have separate scenes together, that is Hines talking back and forth with himself, and you can’t tell! The Doctor’s voice isn’t as simple as Jamie’s without a Scottish accent, and this could’ve been a risky dual role. There’s no risk with Hines.
A Doctor Who adventure that makes humans cope with the worst kinds of man-made pressure, “The Night Witches” is war at its coldest.
Doctor Who: “The Night Witches” is available to purchase from Big Finish.