The War Doctor – Only The Monstrous (Box set 1)
War! What is it good for?
Some kickass audio adventuring, says Tony Fyler.
It’s been some years since Big Finish was as entirely free to invent as it is going into this box set. Not really since its ‘Unbound’ range of stories of Doctors who never were, or events that were deliberately outside that increasingly mystical and mythical universe, ‘the canon,’ has the company been able to practically invent a Doctor from scratch.
But with the War Doctor, the whole point up to now has been that he’s an enigma, a mystery – the New Who Doctors try to forget him, don’t acknowledge him until The Day of the Doctor, and likewise, he doesn’t acknowledge himself as being ‘one of them.’ He is what and who he is, born to help fight, and maybe to end, the Time War.
The Time war too has long been thought of as time-locked, secretive, whispered in New Who only in a few enigmatic phrases here and there, and the idea that the Doctor did a thing so dreadful it killed all the Time Lords, all the Shobogans, every life on Gallifrey and every Dalek with them. Except of course, now we know it didn’t.
The Time War has been getting less and less secret since The Day of the Doctor, and now, with Gallifrey back in the TV sky, the time is right to pop back and examine it. To examine the man the Doctor was when he wasn’t the Doctor.
The trick Big Finish has gone for in this first War Doctor box set is to make the first story intimate, so that we have an access point to the mad cause-and-effect breakdown of the Time War, and then spool it out and ramp it up from there to something massive and devious and depressing and brave.
That means the first of the three stories in the set, The Innocent, sees the War Doctor, played, as on screen, by the fantastic John Hurt, injured and close to death on the planet Keska after operating a Dalek weapon and obliterating much of their time-fleet. A young woman, rather fabulously named Rejoice, and played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, cares for him and nurses him back to health, despite the planet being under attack from its own enemies. The Time Lords think the Doctor has died, and he’s content to let them labour under that misapprehension for as long as possible while he recovers, but gets drawn into the local war by virtue of the fact that the Keskans don’t ask for his help – they earn his respect. When he helps save the Keskans from the aggressive Taalyens, the Doctor gives his hand away and is recalled to the battle. This is the small, intimate beginning of a story that will swirl wildly upward into a major front in the Time War. Hurt plays the War Doctor almost as we’ve seen him on screen, but with less in the way of resignation, and more active emotion. It’s a difficult path to tread, because the War Doctor is essentially a vacuum in our minds, but Nicholas Briggs, who writes all three episodes here, takes baby steps with the War Doctor, giving us a little insight into how he squares the contradictions of his existence – the warrior born of a sickness of war, the Doctor who disowns the name, the man who’ll do the things his other selves can’t, not because he wants to but because he knows that’s why he was born. And a man who won’t make decisive choices for other species, even whether they live or die, because they’re essentially outside his remit.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the scheming purveyor of a Machievellian truth on Gallifrey, Cardinal Ollistra, played by Jacqueline Pearce. While Pearce does what’s asked of her, delivering Ollistra with a crisp and tangy contempt in her voice, if you write a character like this and get Jacqueline Pearce to play it, you’re going to end up inevitably making the Servalan connection, and indeed that’s how Ollistra sounds. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – the history of the Time Lords is littered with Machievellian men, so adding a dash of Servalan to their ranks feels good and juicy.
Episode 2, The Thousand Worlds, spools us forward in time, Ollistra enlisting the Doctor with extreme prejudice to do a job for Gallifrey – to rescue a high-ranking Time Lord from an area of space-time into which, all of a sudden, time-craft cannot pass: The Null Zone. The Daleks have isolated around a thousand worlds from time-travel, creating a zone the Time Lords can’t simply Tardis into, and now the high-ranking Seratrix, who apparently has plans of the final Gallifreyan push to end the war, has been kidnapped by the Daleks and is being held in the Zone. Ollistra sends a team with, or, this being the Doctor we’re talking about, after the War Doctor, and Nicholas Briggs admits in the extras, the idea from there is to do Where Eagles Dare with Time Lords. Except the War Doctor doesn’t play ball – the very nature of the man is to not play ball with heroic rescue plans. Soon, the rest of his team are trapped in ventilation shafts and blowing up Daleks, while the War Doctor finds out what’s really going on – and it’s absurd, and wonderful, and terrifying all at once, bringing an old Dalek plan back to life with a dark new purpose.
Episodes 2 and 3 are more immediately connected, a distinct two-parter, with Episode 1 acting as a kind of prologue. Needless to say that things are a whole lot more complicated than the War Doctor and his team have been led to believe, Seratrix is not quite what he appears to be, and Ollistra, back home on Gallifrey, is leading everyone a much merrier dance than it first appears. The second and third part take the small scale of the first episode and blow it up, as Keska turns out to be a major planet in the Daleks’ thousand world Null Zone. And the Daleks are drilling. Nothing good every comes of the Daleks drilling.
Briggs delivers something very clever in Only The Monstrous – a way of having our cake and eating it. Yes, it’s the War Doctor, and yes, he’s brilliant – perhaps most brilliant in Episode 3, The Heart of the Battle, where he channels some of the previous Doctors’ ingenuity and inventiveness – but he’s brilliant in both his initial emo ‘leave me alone to die’ phase, when responding to the Time Lords and their demands (listen to Hurt have tremendous fun up against Pearce’s Ollistra, and also the officious Time Lord commando, Veklin (played with gusto by Beth Chalmers)), and when faced with an enormous, horrifying Dalek idea, where he rather dances through his interactions with the Prime Dalek (yes, apparently, Amazon does Daleks now too). He’s great in terms of the small and intimate first episode, but the script when it broadens out into something vast and scary only shows him off to greater advantage, Hurt being an actor who can deliver on any level at which you pitch him.
One to buy?
Who are you kidding? It’s the War Doctor, of course you should buy it – it’s the filling of that thing most abhorrent to Who-geeks everywhere, a gap in what we know. Who-geeks bought a monstrous recreation of The Underwater Menace to fill a gap like that. Fortunately, this is no Underwater Menace – Only The Monstrous, the first War Doctor box set, is a perfect storm of skills, delivered in a way that makes you want to listen to it, then go right back and listen to it all over again, simply for the richness of the storytelling, the joy of the banter, and the performances from the likes of Hurt, Pearce, Chalmers, Carolyn Seymour and plenty more besides.
Go away now – you have a date with the Time War.