Audio Drama Review: The Wrath of the Iceni (take two!)

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Wrath of the Iceni, the third entry in series one of the Fourth Doctor Adventures. Written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley, this story is a notable and rare Fourth Doctor historical. I’ve reviewed it before, but it was only the second audio review I posted, and I hadn’t really worked out a format yet; nor did I have much background as to the audios from which to work. We’ve come a long way since then, and so I’ve decided to post a new review here, in the midst of series one of the Fourth Doctor Adventures; but you can still read the original review here if you are interested. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

Wrath of the Iceni 1

The TARDIS materializes in a vacant field. The Doctor and Leela emerge and head toward a nearby wood.  The Doctor declines Leela’s suggestion that they return to the TARDIS, and explains that he intends this journey to be a part of her education; he wishes to track her ancestry via the local natives and gain information for her.  Nearby in the wood, two Romans are tracked down by the local warrior queen, Boudica of the Iceni tribe.  The Romans discover her, and kill her horse before threatening her.  They are interrupted by the Doctor and Leela, and Leela takes arms to assist Boudica; Boudica takes advantage of the situation to kill the two Romans.  She introduces herself; when the Doctor learns her identity, he changes his mind and tries to persuade Leela to return to the TARDIS.

Leela refuses, and Boudica supports her in it. To thank Leela for her loyalty, Boudica takes them back to her tribe’s encampment and offers them shelter and food.  When they at last obtain some privacy, Leela asks the Doctor why he was suddenly anxious to leave.  He explains the era in which they have landed: seventeen years ago, the Romans invaded the land that will one day be England, and bought off several local tribal rulers in order to ensure a peaceful conquest.  Boudica’s husband, Prasutagus, was one of those rulers; in his will he divided his domain between the Roman Empire and his own daughters.  The Emperor, Nero, disregarded the will and claimed the entire kingdom; when Boudica raised objections, her daughters were taken and publicly raped, and she herself was flogged.  Now—if the Doctor has correctly pinpointed the date, and he is certain he has—Boudica is preparing to lead her tribe in an attack on the nearest Roman town.  History records that her campaign will end in a massacre of her tribe.

Leela insists that they must prevent the deaths of the Iceni, but the Doctor explains that history has fixed these events, and they cannot be changed. Leela doesn’t understand; they are here, now, and the events have not yet happened, and therefore she believes they can and should be changed.  When the Doctor insists, she refuses to listen; instead she goes to Boudica and offers her loyalty and assistance.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is approached by a servant girl named Bragnar. Having overheard his conversation, she believes him to be a seer; now, she wants him to save her tribe.  He explains that he cannot, as they are destined to fail; but perhaps he can save her.  To that end, he decides to take her to the TARDIS, and also to recover Leela if he can.  However, their conspiracy is overheard, and Boudica is informed.  She takes this as a sign of betrayal, despite Leela’s insistence on the Doctor’s good faith.  She heads into the forest on horseback with Leela, and intercepts the Doctor and Bragnar.  Boudica threatens to kill them, but is stopped by Leela, who insists that the Doctor can see the future; she explains that he has predicted that tomorrow’s battle will end in destruction.  Boudica decides to let him live; but she holds the Doctor and Bragnar prisoner instead, planning to extort from him the information she needs to win the battle.

Boudica and Leela overlook the targeted Roman town, Camulodunum; Boudica is confident it can be overrun. She insists that the Doctor can be made to give her more information.

The Doctor and Bragnar are tied up in a tent at Boudica’s orders, and lamenting their situation. Bragnar doesn’t wish anyone dead; she just wishes for peace.  Boudica returns and checks in with the guard, Caedmon, regarding the progress of the situation; he wants to torture the Doctor, but Boudica again forbids it.  Instead, she intends to use Bragnar to get the Doctor to speak.  Inside the tent, Bragnar has grown tired of the Doctor’s banter, when Boudica and Leela arrive; Leela has him untied, but Boudica keeps Bragnar bound.  Boudica demands answers about his prophecy of destruction, and how the Iceni will be defeated.  When he won’t elaborate, Boudica says she will find her own omens…in Bragnar’s entrails.

The Doctor gives in to save Bragnar’s life. He explains that Camulodunum is sparsely guarded, but that it is a decoy; though the attack there will be successful, Governor Paulinus is laying a trap for the Iceni, with his armies held to the north.  When the city is taken, he will return and hem in the Iceni inside the city, then destroy them.  Satisfied, she leaves him in the tent, bound again, and orders a reinforcement of her army’s rear guard; she orders the army to prepare to ride.  Leela is appalled that she won’t release him, but she insists she has many battles to fight, and will make him serve her for all of them.

Leela returns and confronts the Doctor, but leaves him in the tent. She insists that Boudica is a good woman, and declares that she will ride with the army.  To Caedmon’s satisfaction, she tells the Doctor that he must stay and give up his old life and serve as Boudica insists.  However, when Leela leaves with Caedmon, the Doctor tells Bragnar that it’s not what she said, but what she did—and what she did, was slip him her knife.  The Doctor laboriously cuts his own bonds, then Bragnar’s; he comments that Leela was really telling him to abandon her, not his own life.

The army gathers near the Romans encampment, and prepares to charge, though Leela expresses her doubts. Boudica gives a speech to rally her troops, and leads the charge.  The armies engage, and the battle begins.

The Doctor and Bragnar locate a pair of horses, and hurry toward Camulodunum; Bragnar is alarmed, but the Doctor insists he is going to rescue Leela, despite what she asked of him. Meanwhile, Leela is becoming more and more distraught at Boudica’s bloodthirst; she is ashamed to see the Iceni killing the aged, sick, women, and even those who had surrendered.  Boudica orders her troops to destroy the city’s temple and the final survivors inside, which include British slaves—Leela protests, as Boudica plans to kill them as well.  Leela confronts Boudica, and insists that the woman is fighting not for her country, but for revenge.  She declares that the Doctor was right—Boudica is not a good woman, and her battle is wrong.  She reveals that she released the Doctor, which Boudica takes as a betrayal.  Boudica attacks Leela, declaring that she has “scarce fought an equal”.

The Doctor and Bragnar arrive in the last of the battle, where they meet with Caedmon, who chases after them. Caedmon kills the Doctor’s horse; the Doctor sends Bragnar away for her safety, and confronts Caedmon.  Caedmon intends to defy Boudica’s order and kill the Doctor, blaming it on the Romans; but Bragnar doubles back and attacks Caedmon, unintentionally killing him.  They set off again to search for Leela.

Leela and Boudica are still battling, as the Doctor arrives. Boudica manages to strike her while she is distracted, but she is not badly hurt.  She orders the Doctor not to interfere; and moments later, she gets the advantage.  She refuses to kill Boudica, instead leaving her behind.  Boudica is undeterred; she refuses to consider herself defeated, and continues the larger battle.

On the road back toward the TARDIS, Leela and Bragnar discuss the battle. The Doctor admits that he didn’t tell Boudica the truth; there was no army coming from the north, and no defeat today.  Instead, it was a Roman massacre that took place, just as history had recorded.  However, in the future, Boudica will go on to fight other battles, which will lead to her ultimate defeat—not today, but on a day to come, when her pride and arrogance will leave her own army hemmed in to be slaughtered.  Leela admits that she may no longer have the stomach for slaughter, leading the Doctor to comment that her education may be progressing after all.  At the TARDIS, the Doctor explains how Boudica dies: facing death in battle, she kills her daughters, then poisons herself.  Violence brings its own end, it seems.  As the TARDIS departs, the Doctor considers that Leela has had enough education for now; it’s time for something different.

Years hence, Bragnar passes on her story to her own daughters as the sole survivor of her tribe.

Wrath of the Iceni 4

Historicals may have become rare in Doctor Who over the years, but at least they’re familiar, for the most part. Perhaps in part because of the programme’s origins in children’s television, it tends to stick to well-known parts of history. This one, however, covers a corner of history which I knew nothing about, and indeed had never heard of prior to my first time listening. That probably says more about the difference between American and British education than it does about Doctor Who; but still, it came as a rare surprise to me.

For any other American fans like me, who may not be familiar with the particulars of distant eras of British history, the titular Iceni were a British Celtic tribe, with this story—and presumably much of their history—ending around AD 60 or 61. Boudica was queen of the Iceni by necessity; her husband, Prasutagus, ruled the tribe, but of necessity become a partially independent ally of the invading Romans some seventeen years earlier. He intended for his daughters to rule after him and continue the alliance; but after his death the territory of the Iceni was claimed fully by Rome. Boudica protested, and was subsequently flogged; her daughters were publicly raped. Boudica then led the Iceni and some of their allies in revolt against the Romans, destroying Camulodunum (modern Colchester, according to Wikipedia) before moving on to Londinium (modern London), and in the process killing about eighty thousand Romans. However, they were eventually defeated by the Romans and practically wiped out, with Boudica either committing suicide or dying of illness (there is some debate). This story takes place in the earliest days of her campaign, just before and during the attack on Camulodunum. The Doctor and Leela fall in with Boudica quite by accident, but Leela is taken with her warrior ways, and chooses to help Boudica’s cause. The Doctor, meanwhile, knows how history plays out, and knows that helping the Iceni is futile; nevertheless, his knowledge slips out, and he is held prisoner as a seer. Toward the end, Leela realizes her mistake, but is in too deep to back off; therefore the Doctor, upon escaping, is forced to rescue her. He tells Boudica what she wants to hear, but cleverly hides the ultimate outcome, causing her to commit to her original plan without changing history. In the end, Leela cannot save the Iceni, but with the Doctor’s help, she saves one person—a woman named Bragnar, who survives to tell the story to her own daughters.

Over five decades, we’ve seen nearly every possible take on the idea that history cannot be changed. This episode is nothing new; it’s just very tragic. Then again, history itself is often tragic; and this story, at least, reports it as accurately as can be done when adding the Doctor to a story. We don’t watch or listen to these stories in order to see how the Doctor changes things; we listen to them to see the clever lengths to which he must go to prevent changing things. In that regard, this story is very reminiscent of The Fires of Pompeii with the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble; the Doctor would find it exceedingly simple to change things, but that change would most likely have catastrophic repercussions throughout the future. Therefore he has to work at not changing anything; and his task is made that much harder by a companion who wants more than anything to save everyone. The only answer that will allow him to maintain his identity as the Doctor, and yet preserve history (even with its tragedies!) is to do what he does in both stories: save someone.

As a reminder, this is still very early in Leela’s story. As far as can be told, this is only her seventh adventure with the Doctor. Thus he is still on his quest to educate her about her own species’ history. Boudica’s era is familiar territory to Leela, as she is also of a “savage” tribal background; therefore the Doctor is far less condescending toward her here than in most stories, because he knows he is surrounded by people just like her, who won’t put up with it (or understand it, probably). He does take the opportunity to give her the lesson about history being unchangeable, although without the level of technical detail he gives to more technically advanced companions. This is truly Leela’s story, not the Doctor’s, even though the screen time is about equally split between them; for the first time, she is the confident one, and she makes her own decisions. She may be wrong in the end, but seeing her take charge is practically majestic; and even the Doctor seems to acknowledge that.

Continuity References: Leela expressly says that history can be changed, despite what the Doctor says; this is a reference to The Foe From the Future, which, though an audio, is set immediately before The Talons of Weng-Chiang (and notably was originally written to be the series 14 finale, but was not produced). The Doctor’s observation (regarding Bragnar) that one person is unlikely to make a difference is also a reference to that story. He hates Morris dancers, which nearly killed him in The Daemons. He makes reference to the Morovanian Museum, and Leela mentions Reginald Harcourt (The Renaissance Man). He mentions his earliest encounter with Houdini (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the extinction of the dodo (The Last Dodo–Doctor Who has a story for everything). A few future references are noteworthy, although I usually try to avoid them until we reach the stories involved and can look back: Leela claims her name has no meaning, contradicting several future audios (notably, The Catalyst); The Tenth Doctor and Donna will meet Boudica again in The Lonely Computer; the Doctor plans a trip to the 21st century (the next entry, Energy of the Daleks). Iris Wildthyme claims to have been at the siege of Colchester (or Camulodunum in this case; The Elixir of Doom). Boudica and the Iceni get a mention in Byzantium!.

Overall: It’s worth noting that this is the first pure historical for the fourth Doctor in any performance medium (and possibly still the only—I haven’t looked ahead at later series of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, but we’ll find out as we get there). While it’s fairly straightforward—as I said, there are no great surprises here—that’s all it needs to be, being the first historical for him. The conflict between Leela and the Doctor is not new, and isn’t going away anytime soon—all in all, they are a bit of a one-note duo—but it’s done well here, and this story does more than any other I’ve encountered to make Leela’s point and make it sympathetic. Her way of life is valid; it’s just not always applicable. She’s a moral and noble and valiant character, and all of those strengths get showcased here; she just happens to be lacking a piece of relevant knowledge about history. It proves to be a hard and bitter lesson for her, but learn it she does.

Wrath of the Iceni 3

Next time: Energy of the Daleks! 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.

The Wrath of the Iceni

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