We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Colditz, the twenty-fifth entry in the Main Range, which introduces recurring character Elizabeth Klein. Written by Steve Lyons, this story features the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred), and also includes an early appearance from future Tenth Doctor actor David Tennant. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
An anomaly in the Time Vortex forces the TARDIS to land on twentieth-century Earth, but it’s unclear where exactly. The Seventh Doctor and Ace find themselves in an oddly familiar castle courtyard. The Doctor realizes where they are, but too late; they are apprehended by German soldiers, led by one Feldewebel Kurtz, and the Doctor is shot in the shoulder. They have arrived at the Nazi prison camp known as Oflag 4-C—Colditz Castle. Now they are prisoners, and the TARDIS is in the hands of the third Reich.
The camp brings out the other prisoners to watch Ace and the Doctor being taken in, under the watchful eyes of an officer, Hauptmann Julius Schafer, and his prisoner friend Bill Gower. Ace gives Kurtz her real name, but refuses to show him any respect; the prisoners are impressed by Ace. Kurtz finds the explosives and supplies in her backpack, and takes it as further evidence that they are there to rescue prisoners; he is confounded by her CD player, but he takes it and her other possessions for study for the war effort. He sends Ace for delousing. Elsewhere, Schafer takes the Doctor into his custody, and warns him that he won’t be able to get proper medical care until morning. He also warns the Doctor that the camp commandant has taken an interest in the TARDIS after watching it materialize. The Doctor accepts the warning, but gets Schafer to promise to care for Ace. Kurtz arrives to report on Ace’s “amazing technology”, but is displeased to see Schafer caring for the Doctor. Schafer exposes Kurtz’s real issue: the lack of respect from the newcomers. He refuses to let Kurtz force Ace to strip naked for delousing. In retaliation, Kurtz keeps the “technology” secret, and returns to question Ace. Ace tries unsuccessfully to escape; he takes it as an attack, but opts not to shoot her, instead informing her that she owes him a favor now.
In the morning, as the prisoners report for roll call, the Doctor presents Schafer with the bullet, which worked its way out of his wound. Schafer sends him to the camp physician anyway, and warns him that the German High Command already knows about the TARDIS, and is sending a Gestapo soldier to torture its secrets out of the Doctor. The Doctor makes Schafer feel his double heartbeat, shocking the man badly; but Schafer insists on waiting for orders. Meanwhile, Ace joins the other prisoners for roll call, meals, and recreation, and meets Bill Gower, who assumes she is a valuable prisoner on a secret mission; he introduces her to another prominenter, or valuable prisoner, Tim Wilkins. Ace mentions her escape attempt, and Gower explains that this prison exists specifically to hold prisoners who have already escaped elsewhere. No one has escaped for over a year. Kurtz goes to question the Doctor, but what becomes obvious is that he is being kept in the dark by his fellow officers. This feeds the man’s paranoia that he is unimportant. The Doctor plays on this fear and calls him a coward to provoke him, and Kurtz beats him. He is interrupted by the arrival of a woman named Klein, who takes charge of the Doctor and sends Kurtz to bring Ace. She knows the police box is a TARDIS, and demands the Doctor’s key, threatening to shoot Ace if he doesn’t surrender it.
Tim Wilkins meets with Ace. He believes that Gower is withholding the truth—that escape plans are being made, but they only include those they favor. He intends to escape before the Nazis, who are being pushed back by the Allies, begin using the prominenter as bargaining chips. She is picked up by Kurtz, who takes her to the Doctor’s cell; the Doctor is trying to probe at Klein and find out how she knows what the TARDIS is. She knows there is no record of their existence in this year, therefore she ignores his questions, and orders Kurtz to shoot Ace. The Doctor surrenders the TARDIS key. Klein takes him to meet Schafer at the TARDIS; she orders Kurtz to kill Ace if the Doctor doesn’t cooperate. The Doctor tells Ace to work on Kurtz’s paranoia. At the TARDIS, he opens it for Klein and Schafer; overwhelmed, Schafer refuses to do any more, and leaves to make a report. Klein admits that she isn’t here for the TARDIS, but for the Doctor. Meanwhile, Ace starts to mock Kurtz, who has dismantled the CD player; she says that Klein will take credit for his work. He finds it hard to restrain himself, but manages it, and takes her to mealtime, where she sits with Wilkins. Gower joins them, and talks with Ace, who lets slip that the war will be over by next year. This persuades him to take her into his confidence. Tim cautiously agrees to create a distraction, allowing Gower to take Ace to view the prison’s weaknesses. Kurtz catches them in the kitchens, and strikes Ace, threatening to take out the favor she owes him. Ace shoves him, and he takes this as an assault, and drags her to solitary confinement.
Klein returns the Doctor to his cell under the pretense of waiting for his transfer papers; but he has picked her pocket, and obtained the real transfer papers, so he knows she is lying. He also obtained her identity papers, and knows they are forged; she is impersonating the Reich’s representative, who has yet to arrive. He destroys the papers, horrifying her, until her reveals that they were blank; he still has the real papers. He gives her the real papers, and orders her to hurry up, thus subtly establishing his power over the situation. She gets the Commandant to release the Doctor to her, in exchange for the TARDIS; on the way out of the castle, they pass Ace en route to solitary, and the Doctor assures Ace that he will be back. Ace’s situation, meanwhile, angers the captive British officers, who—via Gower—ask Schafer for help. He can’t directly countermand Kurtz, but he is able to get Ace released from solitary, though she is placed on a punishment detail. Ace learns that there is no official record of the Doctor or Klein existing. Fearing what the Doctor may give up for her sake, she goes to Wilkins and agrees to help him escape…if they go tonight instead of waiting. Meanwhile, Klein takes the Doctor into the forest, where she has another form of transport waiting…but an indentation in the ground reveals the truth. Her transportation is the Doctor’s TARDIS—coming from some point in the future—and it is missing.
Klein now intends to take the version of the TARDIS that is in the castle. As the Doctor and Klein return to Colditz, he pieces the truth together. The TARDIS is lost to the Germans in this year, 1944, and retained by the Nazis until 1965, the year from which Klein hails. In that year, she finds its flight logs and figures out how to get it back to its last landing point, at which she uses it to travel here. She intended to capture the Doctor and force him to explain the workings of the machine. He insists that she has actually created a causal loop—that is, by taking his key, she caused the TARDIS to be lost to the Germans in the first place—and now she will make the paradox worse if she takes the earlier version of the TARDIS, preventing it from ever being in 1965. She doesn’t care; she insists she can correct it later, and that her companions in the Reich in 1965 can interrogate him for the necessary secrets.
With Tim Wilkins, Ace gets into the castle’s medical bay, where he has nearly sawed through the bars on the window. It’s the beginning of a plan, but needs more work to escape the guarded courtyard beyond. Gower catches them, and explains that this is why he won’t incorporate Wilkins into any plans; the man didn’t even set a lookout on the sickbay, indicating he doesn’t have what it takes to properly escape. Still, Ace insists she only needs to escape temporarily, to take away Klein’s leverage over the Doctor and allow him to outwit Klein. Gower agrees to help, even if it means taking Wilkins; Wilkins and Ace must fake food poisoning after the evening meal, so that they will be sent to the sickbay. However, before she can brief Wilkins on the plan, Kurtz arrives and sends Wilkins out so that he can deal with Ace. She is forced to claim food poisoning early; Kurtz allows her a small victory in seeing another officer regarding the poisoning, but assures her he will have his chance eventually.
Klein’s admission about the Reich in 1965 has cued the Doctor in to a problem. Klein, it seems, is from an alternate future, in which the Reich won the war, a future precipitated by his arrival here at Colditz. She isn’t actually German, just of German descent; she was born in Britain, but welcomed the Nazis, and was fortunate enough to have Aryan features and hair and a Germanic surname. She argues with him about the validity of her timeline, and about his own refusal to change certain aspects of history. She refuses to give him anything to work with, but does tell him that history records that Ace dies tonight in a botched escape attempt, betrayed by a co-conspirator. Having heard enough, he slips his cuffs and captures Klein, shackling her to a tree, and leaving the handcuff key in sight but out of reach. He returns to Colditz.
Gower threatens Schafer to get him to remove the guard from the sickbay that night. However, it’s for nothing, as Wilkins betrays the group to Kurtz, in exchange for being removed from the list of prominenter prisoners. Kurtz questions Schafer about removing the guard, but is unsatisfied by Schafer’s excuses, and watches the sickbay himself. Meanwhile, Gower puts on a fake German uniform, and insists on knocking out the sentry outside the window, but Ace insists on taking the risk instead, as Gower has more to lose. Tim is set to watch the second sentry, out of view of the window, and take him out when it’s clear. Later, Schafer meets Klein returning alone, and tells her that the Doctor was arrested in Leipzig while trying to steal a car, and will be returned in the morning. At the same time, the ill-fated escape is beginning. Tim back out, and Kurtz arrives and intercepts Gower and Ace at the fence. He sends Gower to solitary, but prepares to shoot Ace.
Ace name-drops Klein to stop Kurtz from shooting; killing her in direct defiance of Klein’s orders would destroy his career. He is angry, but returns Ace to solitary confinement. In the morning, when the Doctor arrives and learns of Ace’s survival, he knows that Klein’s future is changing; it may already have changed enough to eliminate her timeline. Klein decides to correct it by killing Ace, and orders Kurtz to do so as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Gower is in solitary, but Kurtz is overruled regarding Ace, and she is returned to her regular cell. She is confined there except for mealtimes. At mealtime she meets Wilkins, who is bragging about having backed out in a timely manner; she is not convinced, and accuses him of betraying her and Gower. Schafer stops the resulting disturbance and returns her to her cell, but Tim is left to the mercies of the angry prisoners. The Doctor is put in the cell beside Gower; when he learns that Gower’s window overlooks the courtyard, he passes a message via Gower to Ace. It contains information that Ace can pass to Kurtz at their next encounter, which exposes Klein as a traitor.
Kurtz checks Klein’s identity papers, which the Doctor has changed to more obviously expose their forged nature. Kurtz returns them without comment, but the Doctor knows he will verify them later, and act accordingly. Klein now has a deadline, and fears returning without the Doctor, as she took the TARDIS without permission from her superiors, and with the help of her assistant, Schmidt. The Doctor reminds her of the paradox she’s creating if she takes the earlier TARDIS, but she dismisses it; history already records that the Doctor escapes Colditz, only to return to Germany in 1954, and be subsequently shot and left for dead; she can use the TARDIS to locate her own version, then return the earlier version to the castle in 1954, and paradox will be averted. She takes the Doctor to the command center, but is intercepted by Kurtz, who tries to arrest her. Meanwhile the Commandant wants to question Ace and Gower, and sends Schafer for them. En route, Ace hears Tim in pain in his cell, and gloats over him, saying he got what he deserved for his betrayal; this prompts an outburst from Schafer, who is now cold toward Gower. They hear gunshots in the command center between Klein and Kurtz, and the Doctor intercepts them as he escapes from Klein. He reveals that he has discovered it isn’t the TARDIS that changed history, but Ace’s CD player, which contains lasers that could be studied by the Reich. This led to early uranium refining, allowing the Reich to win the atomic race. Now they must recover the player before they can leave. Schafer tries to stop them, but gives up when the Doctor reminds him of what he saw inside the TARDIS. They search the command center and recover the CD player. Ace suggests that Klein may not be all she seems, and her admission of the truth may not have been an accident; the Doctor concurs, and reveals that she has an assistant named Schmidt who helped her figure out the TARDIS enough to come here. If her claims are true, the Doctor left Ace’s body and the CD player here, then realized his mistake and returned in 1954, as he couldn’t change his own timeline; he allowed them to kill him and capture the TARDIS, but then regenerated, and became the “Schmidt” who would work with Klein. He would then have set the TARDIS to dematerialize after Klein arrived, breaking the chain of events which led to her timeline in the first place.
With the CD player in hand, the Doctor and Ace prepare to leave. She uses her recovered Nitro-9 to cause a distraction, and head for the TARDIS, but Kurtz is waiting there. He says that Klein escaped in a car, but he knew they would come here. The Doctor assures Kurtz that the TARDIS is safe in the hands of the Allies, but it isn’t really Kurtz he’s talking to; it’s Schafer, who is listening. Schafer orders Kurtz to stand down, but Kurtz shoots him in the shoulder. Gower takes the opportunity to attack Kurtz, allowing the Doctor and Ace to enter the TARDIS; Kurtz breaks free and follows, but is caught in the closing inner doors. He shoots the console, which causes the ship to dematerialize, killing him gruesomely. Shaken, Gower promises to testify that Schafer did his duty, should it become necessary. After all, after a fashion, they are both prisoners here.
Meanwhile, aboard the TARDIS, Ace is also rattled by her experiences, and by Kurtz’s death. While she may not be responsible for that, she has some guilt toward Wilkins, who was beaten. Although the timeline is restored, Klein is still at large, with dangerous knowledge. Ace decides she needs to grow up, and she’ll start with her name…Ace is young and childish, but Dorothy McShane will be more mature.
Colditz Castle, World War II
I have been looking forward to this story for some time. It bears some similarity in setting to the New Adventures novel Timewyrm: Exodus; and also I had recently listened to the audio drama UNIT: Dominion, which involves an alternate version of Elizabeth Klein, who debuts in this story. (I say listened, but not reviewed; that story, at four hours, is the longest audio I’ve yet encountered, and I didn’t have the background or the time to do it justice, but someday I hope to revisit it—it’s quite good.) The story delivered; it’s very good, and has a lot going for it.
Elizabeth Klein is the real prize here, although it’s not obvious yet, as this is the only piece of her story available at this point. She has since appeared in several more stories, in both her original form and in the alternate-history form that I mentioned regarding UNIT: Dominion. (This makes the Doctor Who Reference Guide’s entry out of date, as it states that she has yet to reappear.) While she is sometimes counted as a companion of the Doctor—I myself tend to include her in such lists—she spends more time as an adversary, or sometimes an ally by obligation. She has an acerbic wit which is heavier on the acerbic and lighter on the wit; and she backs it up with a clever brain that very nearly gives the Doctor a run for his money. It’s worth noting that her alternate version—with a similar educational background—becomes UNIT’s scientific advisor in the Doctor’s absence; she’s that good. Here, however, she’s clearly not a companion, but a villain, being absolutely devoted to the Third Reich.
We also get an early appearance from David Tennant, who would land the role of the Tenth Doctor in 2005. Here he plays Nazi officer Feldwebel Kurtz, who meets a particularly grisly end. (He’s an equivalent to Hemmings in Timewyrm: Exodus, and ends just about as badly.) This was his first Doctor Who role, a few years prior to his often-noted walk-on role in Scream of the Shalka. Tennant’s command of various accents is highlighted here; it’s well-known that his accent in his television appearances is different from his natural Scottish accent, but here he uses a German accent to great effect. I can’t comment on how authentic it is, but my point is that you can’t tell it’s him; I would not have guessed, had I not known from research prior to listening.
This story marks a turning point for Ace. Until now, she’s been the younger, more impulsive, less rational version that we see for the most part in her television appearances. Now, she realizes what that lifestyle sometimes costs, and she makes a conscious choice to change; she marks it by giving up the nickname of Ace, and choosing to be called Dorothy McShane instead. This is consistent with events in some of the later New Adventures novels, although I don’t think it correlates exactly; we’ll see when we get there. While placing all of Ace’s stories in order is something of a challenge, we know that she has gone by Ace in every audio until now, and that this story explicitly takes place sometime after The Fearmonger, as she mentions the events of that story. It’s also worth mentioning that although I mentioned Timewyrm: Exodus, Klein’s Reich-dominated future is not the same as the similar timeline seen in that novel. The two timelines originated from different points. Therefore it doesn’t matter as much if this story follows that one (though for what it’s worth, she’s still going by Ace in the novel).
I can’t elaborate on it much, due to serious spoilers, but this story demonstrates that even in situations that seem totally unpredictable, the Seventh Doctor usually has a plan in place. In this case it’s interesting, because he actually hasn’t put it in motion as yet; within his personal timeline, this appearance is the earliest point of said plan. However, the Doctor here accurately deduces what his future self will do, even given that the timeline is being altered. It’s impressive to watch, and makes him a bit scarier, in my opinion.
I always feel a little odd about stories set in World War II (or World War I, for that matter). The wars, being as bloody and violent as they were, with so many abuses perpetrated, are certainly nothing to be taken lightly. Colditz Castle is a real location, and was genuinely used as a POW camp—making this a pseudohistorical story, incidentally—and it still stands to this day. However, I have to say that this story treats the events with respect. While it makes no excuses for Nazi Germany, it doesn’t cast all the German soldiers as villains individually, and makes them seem quite human. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just caught in a bad situation. It does the same for the POWs, who aren’t all saints by any means—there’s a betrayer in their ranks, and an entire group savagely beats the man at one point. This story wisely leaves Klein’s altered future unseen; it would have been harder, I think, to be so evenhanded about a world where the war was already lost (for comparison, see Timewyrm: Exodus).
Continuity References: Ace mentions Paul Tanner (The Fearmonger), who gave her the CD player to replace her lost stereo. She uses it to listen to Danny Pain, who was also mentioned in No Future and Happy Endings. The Doctor mentions an alias (again, spoilers!) which also appears in Timewyrm: Exodus and Storm Warning. Ace will mention Kurtz’s death again in The Rapture, in which she also reverts to going by “Ace”. She hates Nazis, which she first mentioned in Silver Nemesis. The story of the Doctor’s escape here will be repeated in Zagreus. Klein will have numerous future appearances, mostly audio, which we will cover when we get there; she also briefly encounters First Doctor companion Polly Wright in a Short Trips: Past Tense short story, That Time I Nearly Destroyed the World Whilst Looking for a Dress, which gets the awkward title award, and which I mention because I may not be able to obtain a copy for review.
Overall: A grim story, but for once not a particularly bloody one, and a nice introduction to a fascinating recurring character. Not a bad outing for the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and I’m curious to see where we go from here.
Next time: We join the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa in Primeval! See you there.
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.