I remember there was a lot of hype around this story when it was being released. It didn’t wow me then and it almost didn’t now. However, active listening is very different from passive listening and that may have saved this story. Arrangements for War borders on not being a Doctor Who story at all, but a story set in another land filled with political intrigue, romance, and life lessons. And that changed my opinion of the story quite a bit.
It didn’t start off great. Evelyn was still upset with the Doctor having recently seen Cassie killed in Project: Lazarus. This leads to some great dialogue about what she wants out of “the time she’s got left”. But then she acts petulantly with the Doctor and runs off and somehow the Doctor has a hard time keeping up with her, calling after her like a lost puppy. I don’t necessarily disagree with her reaction but more because the Doctor spouts those stupid lines about “my old friend Schrodinger”; I really do hate those name-drops. I’m get so bothered by them because it comes down to a general annoyance of ruining future stories. No writer will ever be able to write about their first meeting now, because it’s already happened somewhere in the Doctor’s past! Then the Doctor meets two people who are in love but have some reason for not being together. Our wise old Time Lord ignores any information, making assessments without knowing what’s going on, only to realize that he may have started a war. Does the Doctor not learn? Isn’t he based on Sherlock Holmes, who never jumped to conclusions without facts?
But as the story progresses, it begins to focus on the end of childhood, growing up and accepting responsibility. Even the Doctor will learn that he has to be comfortable with the consequences of his actions. The Kingdom Alliance, an alliance between the two mightiest nations on the planet, is jeopardized by the Doctor’s indiscrete words. He knows that in the near future an alien race will attack the planet but he interferes anyway. While the political side of the story grows, it’s also what makes this so different from the standard stories; this is very much a regular place, not a science fiction world. People have names like Christina (spelled Krisztina), Vincent, Victor and Marcus. Their titles are earthly as well; corporal, commander, minister, governor. But as I said last week, Doctor Who works in multiple formats and this story does work. The political intrigue became as interesting to me as any alien race. The news casts, done to indicate a passage of time, are superbly achieved. In fact, the sound design in this story is marvelous, barring when Marcus first speaks to the princess due to the synthesized voice. (I had to crank the radio volume up to 60!)
The story is a heavy one and the very light comedy around Evelyn’s “nice boots” serves only to make the listener smile. The troubles are just too great for that to be a source of true amusement. The story culminates around unity between nations; it’s reminiscent of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, in that it helps us realize that nations are stronger working together. They can come together to fight a common enemy. Unfortunately, madmen still make an impact and just like their last story, the Doctor and Evelyn see another friend die. Colin Baker’s performance is stellar, having actually given me chills with his anguish. Evelyn realizes that the Doctor is not as flippant as he sometimes makes out and the two grow closer from the tragedy. There’s a special connection between the Doctor and Evelyn that gets stronger with this story. The Doctor says Evelyn is more well-rounded than his other companions, and I’d be hard pressed to find a listener that disagrees. Which means this is the second story in a row that might offer a hint for the television series: we need a companion who is different from all the modern, young companions. Give us someone who is from another time, or maybe a bit older and more mature. (Oh, wait, they did that with Graham, and he was the strongest of the new TARDIS crew… That should tell us something!)
If there’s one thing that didn’t work well for this story, it’s the cliffhangers. Two are just comments. One is the realization that an attack has happened, but the former two consist of the Doctor realizing war might be his fault and Rossiter asking Evelyn not to go back to the Doctor. Why that doesn’t matter or even hurt the story is because those are effectively breaks to say “Mike, you arrived at work and can stop listening now.” They are little more than auditory notes on when to stop the story for a little while. The story is otherwise strong enough not to need cliffhangers for any traditional purpose.
Colin and Maggie make a great team and I look forward to more of their stories, but I am glad to be back in the main range now, because I really do enjoy the diversity. The Arrangements for War is just another example of just how diverse Doctor Who can be. Let’s hope that’s one thing in the series that never changes! ML