Council of War (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 22 June 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty
Council of War
Council of War
Big Finish Productions
Written by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released June 2013
Poor Sergeant Benton. Eight years as a recurring character in Doctor Who, but always in the background, always the butt of his UNIT colleagues’ jokes. Until now that is, in this final regular series of The Companion Chronicles Benton finally gets to take centre stage in a tale of his own.

Rather appropriately for a second rate character like Benton, the perils he faces in Council of War are decidedly second rate themselves. The grandiose sounding council of the punning title is in fact nothing more than the humdrum town council of Kettering. After Mike Yates is unavailable to take the assignment, Benton is dispatched to investigate ghostly apparitions plaguing the council chambers and uncovers a bizarre alien incursion.

Full of bathos, the tone of Council of War is gently mocking, and never turns cruel or nasty. With its collision of the mundanity of local politics and absurd space opera the clear inspiration here is The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, with a dash of Bedknobs and Broomsticks thrown into the conclusion.

The story is almost Doctorless, with he and the Brigadier putting in only cursory appearances, almost as if they don’t deign to be part of such a trivial adventure. This means the action is squarely focused on Benton and the guest narrator, Margery, which gives both characters a chance to shine. Benton gets to be the hero for once, showing off an intelligence that was rarely glimpsed onscreen and Margery is a great character, and a good foil for Benton. She’s a seventies feminist in the same vein as Sarah Jane Smith, but depicted without the slightly mocking tone which crept into the early scripts featuring Sarah. She’s excellently played by Sinead Keenan, who joins Hayley Attwell and Laura Doddington as two of the best young actresses working at Big Finish. Hopefully we’ll be hearing more from her in the company’s future output. Keenan has an excellent grasp of the light hearted tone of the play, handling the comedy and drama of it superbly. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of John Levene who seems to take the whole thing very seriously, which is a shame given the good comic scenes he often shared with the UNIT regulars back in Benton’s TV days.

The first episode builds a good sense of mystery around the events in Kettering and the early scenes conjure up the small town feel familiar from seventies comedies like The Good Life. The pace dips a little in the second episode, with the plot needing to be wrapped up, and the denouement, which hinges not on Benton or Margery but an outside force, is a little disappointing. Despite these niggles Council of War is a great deal of fun, and one of the better Companion Chronicles released so far this year.

Writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris will be familiar to some from their previous work on The Scarifiers and Bernice Summerfield audios, and their first Doctor Who script marks them out as a pair to watch in future. I’m less sure about future adventures for Benton. With both the character and the actor seeming quite limited it would be wise to keep Council of War (good as it is) as a one off.