As we know from multiple name-drops through the years, Harry Houdini is a friend of the Doctor. However, he never appeared onscreen and his rumoured status as a spy during WWI makes an excellent starting point for this story.
The tale begins in the middle of Houdini’s famous illusion, “The Water Torture Cell”, with the Doctor arriving recruit him. The pair promptly begin a mission to track down alien technology, a task set to employ Houdini’s unique skills. However, mindful of his historical importance, the Time Lord keeps his friend at arm’s length.
Houdini is more than a celebrity cameo though, as the chief villain’s obsession with his preternatural abilities drives the plot. Said villain, Oberst Brandt, is played with relish by Mark Elstob. As Lee Johnson’s dramatic cover depicts, this is a tale of two cities featuring espionage, betrayals and even a biplane dogfight!
Writer Steve Lyons characterises Houdini as self-assured and more than a little arrogant; with a showman’s swagger he is dissimilar to the Doctor himself. He also provides historical context, from Houdini’s family background to the wartime fate of German citizens in the USA. Amusingly, the TARDIS is passed off as Houdini’s vanishing cabinet too.
John Schwab plays Houdini here, but it is not the character’s first audio appearance. Tim Beckman portrayed a slightly older version of the illusionist in 2013’s Destiny of the Doctor tale ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, encountering the Fifth Doctor in the 1920s. Schwab’s version offers a youthful vigour and makes an entertaining foil for Colin Baker’s Doctor. He also pairs well with Nicola Bryant’s deeply reluctant Peri in a terrific escape sequence. Director John Ainsworth keeps the action flowing and the production features terrific sound design and evocative music by Joe Meiners. He also provides his score as a twenty-minute music suite too.
We would certainly be keen to hear other adventures with Houdini, either the Sixth Doctor or other incarnations. He could certainly occupy a similar place to Winston Churchill as an occasional ally.
The Sixth Doctor and Peri
‘Harry Houdini’s War’ rounds out a solid trilogy of adventures for the Sixth Doctor and Peri, following the thought provoking ‘Memories of a Tyrant’ and the terrific ‘Emissary of the Daleks’. They may have been a long time coming, but we look forward to a shorter wait until next year’s ‘The Sixth Doctor and Peri’ boxset.