John Hurt (The War Doctor) +
Jacqueline Pearce (Cardinal Ollistra)
Neve McIntosh (Lara), Honeysuckle Weeks (Heleyna),
Timothy Speyer (Kruger), Helen Goldwyn (Professor Crane),
Gunnar Cauthery (Kavarin), Matthew Cottle (Leith),
Dan Starkey (General Fesk/Sontarans), Josh Bolt (Kalan),
Barnaby Edwards (Vassarian), Andrew French (Muren) +
Nicholas Briggs (Dalek Time Strategist/Daleks)
Written By: David Llewellyn, Andrew Smith + Ken Bentley
Director: Nicholas Briggs, Sound Design/ Music: Howard Carter
Producer: David Richardson, Script Editor: Matt Fitton
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery + Nicholas Briggs
Cover Art: Tom Webster
Duration: 250 Mins
Product Format: 4-disc CD (slipcover box set)
Released October 2016
BIG FINISH PRODUCTIONS
He was once intended as just a one-shot player in The Day Of The Doctor. But over the ensuing four or so years, the War Doctor has garnered plenty of new material. He had his own full length novel in the shape of Engines of War (written by George Mann), and also was designated the opening short story in the Heroes And Monsters anthology, as well as popping up in The Shakespeare Notebooks. (All three of these were published by BBC Books). More recently, this most destructive, but no less noble incarnation of the title hero was instrumental in the timey-wimey contortions of the Year Two arc in Titan's Eleventh Doctor comic book line, (having already featured in The Four Doctors 'event' of 2015).
Although when first introduced in the Series 7 finale, there was a sense of shame and terrible wrongdoing connected to him, Who followers quickly came to bond with the War Doctor, and have a firm investment concerning both his wellbeing, and his effectiveness in saving the day.
We now have sadly lost the main force behind this character being so enduring, as John Hurt passed away in January of this year. However, he obviously leaves behind a considerable legacy owing to his many years in TV and film, as well as radio and theatre. This is the third box set from Big Finish to afford Hurt the primary starring role, and was released last Autumn. A fourth and final one is due to come to the market soon.
As with the first and second miniseries, there is both standard adventurous narrative, with twists and turns typical of most Doctor Who, but also a vein of dark comedy and satire; one example being the standard under-estimation of how Dalek armour can withstand standard 20th Century Earth handguns. Also persisting, in terms of the thematic core behind the storytelling, is the sense of war time chaos and suffering, which underlines the long history of human conflict in real life on our planet.
In comparison to how he was portrayed in the Eleventh Doctor comics, this War Doctor embodies perhaps a little more typical humour that we associate with the 'regular' Doctor of any given TV era, and he also is quick to bond with strangers, too. But then again, such is the tempestuous nature of war, and the effects it has, there should be no surprise that can be more open to accepting others' company at different points in this (unofficial) regeneration than others.
Regarding the other major starring performer of these original stories from Big Finish - namely Jacqueline Pearce - this set offers the character of Ollistra the most audio time so far, and therefore also the most character development. Pearce is quite incapable of a dull and phoned-in performance, and like Tom Baker, or Hurt himself, has a richly unique voice.
The Shadow Vortex is a fun romp, if perhaps the least successful in overall impact of the three plays. It is set in the Cold War - 1961 to be exact - and involves the British, Germans and Russians .. plus of course the Daleks themselves. It is also yet another adventure where the Daleks have a ruthless and duplicitous agent working on their behalf - namely Lara Zannis (Neve McIntosh).
There is also some fine development for one of the Stasi officials, who initially tries to subdue the (English-accented) War Doctor. Kruger, however, is outwitted by a man he thought he could break, before going onto assume the perennial - yet always intriguing - 'pseudo companion' role. Added into the mix, are some internal political tensions running amongst the British scientific establishment, not to mention threats to causality, time lines, and planet Earth. It all comes together into making a season opener that will engage and surprise enough, thus leaving the listener wanting access to the next story - and in double-quick time.
The second entry - denominated The Eternity Cage - is arguably the jewel in the crown of the set, and one of the best stories altogether in the War Doctor's saga. It offers the possibility of the brutal Sontarans becoming a viable faction in the Time War. There are some great plot twists and revelations. It also is welcome to see the mutually captive Dalek Time Strategist and Cardinal form an alliance; however temporary and involuntary in nature that may be. The Doctor acquires a motley crew of would-be rescuers to help him in extricating Ollistra from the clutches of the squat and brutal warmongers from Sontar, who are led by the uncompromising General Fesk (Dan Starkey). Chief amongst his new allies is a boy called Kalan, who is native to Rovidia (where the action mostly takes place). He reminds one of Leela, in that he is technically primitive but loyal and proactive. This supporting character also features in the ensuing finale to the box set.
It of course helps that so many TV viewers will know the Sontarans. This may be in connection to Strax, who was part of the recurring Paternoster Gang, or owing to one of the stories to feature them as out-and-out foes. They always have made for a worthy antagonist, but some degree of humour is always involved too. In this middle episode, we do get a pretty emphatic reminder that sometimes their ambitions are simply a little too bold.
It also is an asset that Andrew Smith is behind the play's script. Smith first broke into the Doctor Who business, when the program was still in its 'classic era' phase, all the way back in Season 18. He has more recently done a good number of these Big Finish audios. Knowing just how to merge with the house style, but also to offer something that typifies the show in having a mesmerising 'hook' or conceit behind the narrative, he paces this story to perfection. Consequently its 'cliff-hanger' works to the very best effect.
The third and final story is primarily set in the TARDIS itself, but makes full and profitable use of the Eye Of Harmony aspect. Despite having the story take place in one location, the TARDIS is never a dull place - such is its endlessly changing and infinite nature. And by having a small cast, all concerned get their chance to contribute in a meaningful fashion. The main point of interest is the extent of Ollistra's involvement in the final outcome. She displays some more overt heroism, as well as seemingly genuine concern for others' wellbeing. However, the coda, which is brilliantly executed, reminds everyone of just how fickle and opportunistic high-ranking politicians can be.
With this particular box set being released, the Time War mystery is slightly less opaque. However, there are some more questions raised along with the answers: Just how confined was it in terms of space and time, despite the assertions of the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors? And how many other races tried to muscle their way into the aeons-old conflict between the children of Davros, and the Gallifreyans?
These three stories can all stand on their own, but together in this set they all resonate stronger. The initial story in mid 20th century Europe is more separate, in the sense that it barely qualifies for Time War status, but still offers jeopardy in terms of changing history and its effect on the wider Web of Time. The other two entries are rather more traditionally located back in the broader war occurring across the cosmos. Yet, clearly a lot of careful work has been done by script editor Matt Fitton to make the trinity of Time War episodes feel suitably cohesive.
The theme of a traitor (or two) in the ranks is well-utilised, as is the major new Dalek character. The Dalek Time Strategist is unrelentingly sure in its abilities to forecast what is come, and for much of the trilogy this clairvoyance appears to be a most formidable tool in the Dalek's arsenal. Nicholas Briggs does fine work with the Dalek ‘foot soldiers’, but his main achievement as a cast member is breathing life into the strategist. Chilling, loathsome and yet also arresting, this thorn in the War Doctor's side can be ranked amongst some of the best villains.
Compared to Only The Monstrous and Infernal Devices, there is a little more mellow side to the Doctor here, that complements his moral outrage and consternation at the horrors he comes across. His "Not that old chestnut" retort, when threatened with either the "easy" or "hard way" interrogation method, shows much of the more 'normal' Doctor of years and decades gone by. Also, his confidence in leading a team, or issuing orders shows how much he welcomes slipping into his 'old shoes', and becoming a somewhat standard hero - at least for the time being.
But still, at times difficult choices are required of him. And the very ending of the third story sees him powerless to save all he would have intended to.
Where the fourth and final set of adventure - Casualties Of War - will take Hurt's Doctor is still open to speculation - especially given his mixed fortunes in overcoming opposition, and keeping the Time Lords' chances of triumph as strong as he possibly can.
The supporting cast here are generally strong, with several exceptional performances. Kalan - portrayed by Josh Bolt - is consistently engaging, and helps to give his two stories some emotional heart and soul. As good as the plots are, there is much sci-fi technobabble and large scale action, that require some serious 'mind's eye' work on the part of the listener. Bolt manages to diminish the conscious effort involved. Dan Starkey is also tremendous fun as Fesk, as well as the Sontarans that serve under him. Whilst Kevin Lindsay set a high standard in the 1970s as Linx and Styre, Starkey is the definitive modern Doctor Who clone warrior - much in the same way Briggs encapsulates latter-day Daleks. Out of the guest female cast, I would say that Honeysuckle Weeks is more memorable than Neve McIntosh, but it also helps that she is given more to do, and that her character has a fuller back-story that is linked to previous adventures for the War Doctor. Elsewhere, Timothy Speyer, Helen Goldwyn, Matthew Cottle, Barnaby Edwards and Andrew French all authentically portray the given attributes and drawbacks of a particular character.
Music is first-rate yet again, thanks to the creative gifts of Howard Carter, and also makes for a welcome separate track, that can be enjoyed in isolation from the sound and fury of the plays themselves. This bonus feature allows the listener to recall the most stirring moments of the three tales, and is just as welcome as the standard inclusion of cast and crew interviews.
Carter also is again at hand to provide some convincing audio effects, amongst them are various weapons firing, as well as unusual devices such as The Eternity Cage itself, not to mention the startling portrayal of the War Doctor drifting away (potentially endlessly) - thanks to the actions of someone who is not all they appear to be. Whatever the punctuation of sound needed to make these stories feel fully alive, the appropriate effect is invariably selected.
Whilst the loss of John Hurt will resonate for a long time to come, this CD/ Digital Download release is yet another example of us being able to celebrate all the great skill and magnetism the man was capable of. From the (typically revealing) behind the scenes material, there is a clear sense of how others put their all into collaborating with him, and make a strong, firm effort to raise their own bar so as to match his sheer class and artistic integrity.
Furthermore, out of the three box sets released thus far, this works best in offering straightforward, easy-to-follow entertainment. Perhaps less new ground is broken here than in some of the earlier stories of Sets One and Two, but regardless there is a palpable sense of a cast and crew totally in synch with the material that they are working on.
David Richardson, alongside Jason Haigh-Ellery, has once again assembled a top-notch original production, which does justice to the core idea that sprung from Nicholas Brigg's seemingly boundless creativity.