The Tennant of Colditz Castle

Big Finish Folly, Part 147 – Colditz, by Steve Lyons

ColditzOctober 1944: As World War II draws towards its conclusion, a Nazi defeat begins to seem almost inevitable. But that might be about to change…

Two intruders are captured in the grounds of Colditz Castle, the most secure POW camp in Germany. At first, the guards think they’re dealing with British spies. But the strangers arrived in an advanced travelling machine, the like of which they’ve never seen before.

With this TARDIS in their hands, the Third Reich might triumph after all.

Colditz gets talked about a lot on the forums I dip into. It’s one of the classics of the early years of the Main Range, apparently. Plus, the guest cast features one David Tennant, who seems to be famous in Who circles for some unknown reason… Yeah, it’s easy to look back and think it was meant to be! but that pendulum swings in both directions and it’s just as possible that Tennant’s presence, viewed through the prism of his tenure as the Tenth Doctor, lends extra weight to Colditz that it doesn’t quite deserve.

So, coming at it fresh as a daisy, what’s it all about? Essentially, this is a time paradox story dressed up in the trappings of a World War 2 escape movie. What would have happened if the Doctor and Ace landed in Colditz, got captured, and Germany won the war because of the anachronistic technology that Ace had brought into the castle? What if this future, counterfactual Germany sent a scientist back through time to capture the Doctor, to ensure that he would reveal the Tardis’s secrets to them? Would attempting to escape from Colditz – every officer’s duty is to escape! – halt this future or make it happen?

The first couple of episodes are dark enough even before Klein’s full reveal and the Doctor’s brilliant, incisive realisation of how the future must pan out if he is trapped in this time. Colditz is no place for strangers, especially not for Ace. The bluff, fatalistic humour of the British officers immediately sets up a stark contrast with the more frenzied authority of the German warders. Stifled by the regimen and unwilling to stomach Kurtz’s attentions, Ace falls in with a young prisoner who has set his (faint) heart on joining the Escape Club. Meanwhile the Doctor has been hauled out of the castle by Klein, on what she has convinced Hauptman Schafer is high-level official business.

It’s not unremittingly dark, by any means, but the atmosphere is tight and tense even in the quieter scenes, and when Tennant’s Kurtz enters the room it’s never quiet. Tennant’s character is viciously overwound and not a little over the top, and that’s actually a bit unbalancing when placed next to the main plot of the paradox and alternate timeline.

Sylvester McCoy and Tracey Childs, meanwhile, play out a more convincing game on a much broader board, with the fate of two timelines at stake. Klein is most definitely the amateur in this match, but even she doesn’t realise exactly who has sent her back through time, or why, and as ever the Doctor is one step ahead of everybody (including himself). If Ace is uncomfortably out of place in the male-dominated environment of Colditz (you could imagine Turlough slinking through the corridors and kitchens, entirely in his element), then only Sly could make such capital from the scale and manipulations of this story – it might work as a Despairing Davison tale, but neither Paul McGann nor Colin Baker could make it work convincingly (and Genesis of the Daleks is enough of a Nazi parable for Tom Baker’s Doctor).

A harsh finale – as harsh and sudden as Kurtz himself – also fails to quite clear up Klein’s fate. She exits without being pursued by the proverbial bear, left to her own devices with the Doctor strangely unconcerned over her fate. Of course this is the Seventh Doctor we are talking about – Time’s Champion, the Manipulator, the Schemer – and I think it’s pretty certain that we’ll be seeing Klein again at some point down the line…

Tennant’s wild acting aside, Colditz is a very good time paradox story with suitably dark storytelling elements. Not as ultimately memorable as, say, Spare Parts, but definitely a superior entry to the Seventh Doctor’s chronology.
****¼

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