Across seven years from 2007 to 2014, UK based company Big Finish Productions produced a most remarkable series of Doctor Who audio dramas. Created to utilize characters and elements from the first four Doctors eras at the time, the Companion Chronicles range did exactly that. More than that, it went a long way to putting underused companions to better use, resulting in some remarkable stories. Coming in as the last story recorded for the range (though the third to last from being released), The War To End All Wars is a prime example of the range and what it was capable of.
For one thing, it's written by arguably the best writer for the range. Simon Guerrier's script for the range produced one highlight after another, including a celebrated trilogy of stories featuring Jean Marsh's First Doctor companion Sara Kingdom (Home Truths, The Drowned World, and The Guardian Of The Solar System). Stories that showed not only his range but also gifts for not only working well within the two-hander format of the range and to bring underutilized characters from Doctor Who's first TV era superbly to life. Given his work on a previous set of stories featuring the character of Steven Taylor (played by Peter Purves), it is perhaps no surprise that he is able to bring those same gifts to bear here.
He does so through both his plot and the manner he uses to tell it. There are two separate strands to The War To End All Wars which, despite surface appearances, are actually linked. The first is the framing device of an older Steven as a deposed king of the planet the Doctor left him on decades before (picking up on his exit in the sadly wiped 1966 TV adventure The Savages) talking to his granddaughter Sida (played by Alice Haig). He relates to her one of his adventures with the Doctor, telling the story of the pair and fellow traveler Dodo ended up on the planet Comfort in the midst of a war, forced to fight and potentially die in the name of a dystopian society at war with some enemy.
As the title may suggest, there's First World War imagery at play here. Indeed, upon the first announcement of the story and my own first listen back in 2014, I went in assuming it was likely going to be a historical story in the First Doctor tradition (as recently demonstrated by The Great White Hurricane). Instead, Guerrier crafts a tale that works in the imagery and horror of that conflict into a context that owes as much to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as to All Quiet On The Western Front. The exploration of a society at war and its effect upon Steven in later life right up to the moment of the story's framing device is played nicely as well. It at once fills in what happened to the character after viewers last saw him in 1966 (and everyone since has heard via the surviving soundtrack) and expand nicely on a never quite fully drawn character. The icing on the cake might be the cliffhanger for the first episode which is every bit in classic Doctor Who tradition, further cementing this as another triumph for Guerrier.
It is also a triumph for its leading man. Peter Purves may not have had the greatest chance to shine during his tenure on the show in the 1960s, but he has made up for it with his performances at Big Finish, with this story being no exception. Speaking in the CD extras, Guerrier notes an interview he had conducted with the actor where he had spoken of wanting more chance to act and show his range and duly obliged. Purves is able to bring to life both versions of Steven: the older, deposed king and the young time traveler caught up in the middle of a war he's struggling to understand let alone survive. As a result, his range is on display throughout from an old man trying to impart hard-won wisdom to his granddaughter to surviving training and battles. He also nicely captures in spirit both William Hartnell's Doctor and Jackie Lane's Dodo with her never nailed down accent as well as a myriad of other characters. Paired with Haig as his questioning granddaughter and the result is one of his best performances at the company.
The War To End All Wars then might not be the historical tale its title may suggest, but it is far more than that. Guerrier's script combines the imagery and horrors of the First World War with more Orwellian elements and yet along the way also explores one of the more underutilized characters of the First Doctor's era. Add on a performance from a performer getting to explore his range and you have everything that made this range what it was at its height. While it may not necessarily be an instant classic in the vein of Guerrier's Home Truths, for example, if you want to hear what all the fuss about the Companion Chronicles is about, you could do a lot worse than take in The War To End All Wars.