“Harry Houdini’s War”
Directed by Ken Bentley
Written by Steve Lyons
Starring Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri Brown), and John Schwab (Harry Houdini)
In the middle of escaping a water torture cell is probably not the moment to be hearing the outcome of WWI depends on you, but nobody said Time Lords had the best timing and most people don’t make a habit of pulling off dangerous stunts. Harry Houdini is the exception to that rule and in “Harry Houdini’s War” that’s exactly how he’s recruited for a mission to rescue Peri from the hands of a German spy ring.
This isn’t the first time Houdini’s crossed paths with the Doctor at Big Finish (another Lyons penned story, “Smoke and Mirrors,” saw him work with the Fifth Doctor and Tegan) but it is the first time he’s met Colin Baker’s Doctor. Quick to recognize him, despite the new appearance, it’s only later that Houdini questions whether he acted too soon, and whether the Doctor might have changed more than his face since they last saw each other.
Other companions have had similar trouble adjusting to regenerations (Clara and Rose immediately come to mind) but Houdini’s relationship with the Doctor is something of an anomaly – not quite a companion but they are friends, who’ve met many times outside of ones we know about.
What’s neat about this story (and it took listening to Schwab’s interview at the end to put my finger on it) is that pairing the Doctor up with Houdini comes with its own, unique challenges. He’s not like Peri who, while resourceful, is in a bit of a bind when it comes to escaping the Germans alone. Escape isn’t an issue for Houdini. He can figure his way out of anything. What takes effort for Harry is not escaping, and that’s why the Doctor asks for his help.
“Harry Houdini’s War” (rather appropriately for a spy ring) is a story about trust, but trust further complicated by Harry’s trade, the Doctor’s alien-ness, and the whole WWI thing. For the most part Lyons plays the story straight, with some sci-fi elements and a small cast. The crux of the drama is whether Houdini can believe his old friend, when he’s acting so peculiarly and no longer looks like himself.
Writing this review as someone less familiar with the Sixth Doctor, you grow to enjoy his bumbling, stuffy manner, especially since it usually masks how abreast he is of the situation. Joe Meiners’ music plays up the sense that he’s more of a Maxwell Smart than a James Bond – the kind of spy a professional would scoff at before scratching his head, when he shows him up.
Not knowing Peri too well, either, I love that she’s able to stand her ground and voice her disapproval. She’s not nagging because she’s going to give in. She’s going to fight (though, similar to Liz Shaw in The Third Doctor Adventures Volume 5, there are reasons this might not be the best place to start, if you’re new to her character).
Lyons had enough faith in Schwab and Baker to streamline this episode around their dynamic. It works because his faith was well-placed.
Harry Houdini’s War is available to purchase from Big Finish.
“Harry Houdini’s War”