Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs
Produced by David Richardson
Big Finish Productions, 2015
Stars: John Hurt (The War Doctor), Jacqueline Pearce (Cardinal Ollistra), Lucy Briggs-Owen (young Rejoice), Carolyn Seymour (older Rejoice), Beth Chalmers (Veklin), Alex Wyndham (Seratrix), Kieran Hodgson (Bennus), Barnaby Edwards (Arverton), Mark McDonnell (Traanus), John Banks (Garv), Nicholas Briggs (the Daleks)
“Isn’t that a testament to what a sick place the universe has become? A man harbours a hope for peace ... That should be a good thing, a noble thing ... But instead, that hope could have led to the destruction of everything good in the cosmos ...”
The War Doctor, Only the Monstrous
Going back less than three years, it’s amazing to think how unlikely it was that there would ever be tales about the Great Time War. The mysterious temporal-celestial conflict had underlined so many adventures since Doctor Who’s return in 2005, with the multiple appearances of the Daleks and the Master adding some flesh to bare bones. Even the Time Lords’ triumphant return in The End of Time still only gave us a tantalising glimpse of what the war was like (and how monstrous the Time Lords had become), and of the Doctor’s role in its climactic events.
Of course, we finally saw the climax to the war in the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, and even then the Doctor who fought in the war – in the guise of legendary thespian Sir John Hurt – was not the version of the Time Lord we would ever have expected (Hurt as the Doctor would have been the stuff of fantasy by Whovians in the dark decade of the 1990s, although this is precisely what motivated Steven Moffat to cast him!). As brilliant as he was in The Day of the Doctor, it seemed pretty clear that this would be Hurt’s one and only foray as the Time Lord. It seemed highly unlikely he’d ever reprise the role, especially as he recently overcame a cancer scare.
It’s therefore a massive coup for Big Finish that not only can it now tell stories that are set during the Time War but that Hurt has reprised the War Doctor on audio. Again, three years ago, the prospect of BF doing any material based on modern Doctor Who was remote - as was the sheer impossibility of someone of Hurt’s stature ever playing the Doctor on TV and audio. How time makes fools of us all!
The War Doctor - Volume 1: Only the Monstrous retains all the moral themes, intrigue, action and adventure that we associate with Doctor Who but with an edginess, darker tone and sometimes black humour that arises from telling what is effectively a war story. Prolific script writer, director and resident Dalek voice artist Nicholas Briggs admits in the CD extras that he is a wartime history buff (he previously touched upon the subject in the first volume of Dark Eyes, when we were first introduced to First World War nurse Molly O’Sullivan) and he uses his extensive knowledge of wartime politics and psychology to great effect in this boxset.
In particular, Briggs explores the values and dilemmas of pacificism and appeasement, both in the broader context of the Time War itself and the more “domestic” example of the planet Keska, whose peace loving and gentle inhabitants find themselves under siege from their ancestral adversaries the Taalyans. In many respects, Briggs explores themes that date back to the very first Dalek TV serial in 1963, in which a similar race of people – the Thals – find themselves at the mercy of their perennial rivals but are reluctant to resort to violence to defend themselves.
The Doctor, who has traditionally opposed violence as a means to an end throughout his incarnations, is thrust into circumstances where he can see how pacifism and appeasement is simply lost on implacable, warlike enemies. Indeed, it all becomes a “no-win” scenario, with our hero having to implement a remedy that is utterly distasteful to him and which only entrenches the self-loathing that will plague him in his subsequent incarnations. As the 12th Doctor so beautifully put it in Doctor Who’s most recent TV season: “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones but you still have to choose ...”
Only the Monstrous comprises three one-hour episodes that, like other boxsets across BF’s range, form one greater story. The first episode, The Innocent, has a very different style of pace to the later instalments, as the Time Lord formerly known as the Doctor (“Don’t call me that! It’s not me!”) crashes on Keska after an initial stoush above Gallifrey with the Dalek time fleet. Much to his confusion and disapproval, he is cared for by a young Keskan woman Rejoice (Lucy Briggs-Owen), whose gentle, almost childlike and naive outlook on life is refreshing and comforting for the aged, weary and embittered warrior.
The tone of the story also gives John Hurt a chance to develop the War Doctor’s character. Hurt’s initial dialogue with Rejoice, which is cranky, dismissive, bad-tempered and cynical, is very reminiscent of William Hartnell’s First Doctor. But whereas the First Doctor often hid a more mischievous and kind-hearted persona behind his veneer of impatience, discourtesy, distrust and arrogance, it becomes clear in this episode that the War Doctor’s reasons for putting up his guard are more psychosomatic – he is traumatised and disgusted by the terrible things he has seen and done so far in the Time War. This is exemplified by the intensity of Hurt’s performance in one scene when Rejoice suggests that the Doctor isn’t a monster. As Donna Noble once remarked, the Doctor needs companions to keep him in check and level-headed – and while Hurt’s rendition of the Doctor may prefer to work alone so that others remain safe from harm, it is clear that he could benefit from the counsel of a travelling companion.
The implication in The Day of the Doctor was that the War Doctor was prepared to abandon the Doctor’s traditional moral code and do what his other incarnations would not. Yet, when you hear Hurt’s masterful performance, you realise his interpretation is not that far removed from his predecessors and successors. Far from being immoral, the War Doctor is the most ethical character amongst the Time Lords we meet, if not the most principled protagonist full stop. At one point, he admonishes his people: “We’re better than this! We’re not Daleks!” He remains true and faithful to the Doctor’s core values throughout the saga and especially in later scenes with Rejoice in the serials The Thousand Worlds and The Heart of the Battle he shows compassion and empathy (Hurt’s scenes with an older Rejoice, played by Survivors veteran Carolyn Seymour, are amongst the most touching scenes in the three plays). Hurt’s also not without plenty of moments of humour – some of his lines in the three plays you can imagine were delivered with a twinkle in his eye, again aligning the War Doctor closer to the Doctor’s other incarnations than we previously thought.
The War Doctor has an intellectual equal in the Time Lord hierarchy who is sure to become a fan favourite and memorable antagonist in future boxsets. Jacqueline Pearce brings gravitas, clout and mischief to the devious, scheming and hardnosed Cardinal Ollistra. Although Pearce says in the CD extras that she tried hard to deliver a performance that was not too similar to that of her Blake’s 7 alter ego Servalan, the parallels between the two characters are unavoidable. It is not just Ollistra’s crafty behaviour that echoes Servalan but even some of her dialogue – when Ollistra tells the Doctor at the climax that it is her responsibility to ensure the Time Lords are protected from the “contagious virus of fear and appeasement”, she expresses a sentiment not too dissimilar to Servalan’s famous remark in B7 that “Where there’s life, there’s threat”. Whether it is deliberate or inadvertent on scribe Nick Briggs’ part, Pearce’s character brings an element of B7’s “realpolitik” to this Time War era of Doctor Who. Ollistra’s determination to preserve the Time Lords’ power base at seemingly any cost also illustrates how treacherous and dangerous the Time War-era Time Lords have become (and why they were so feared in The Night of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor).
The other Time Lord characters we meet are by comparison to the War Doctor or Ollistra typically arrogant, cold-mannered and ruthless or at the very least morally compromised and craven. BF regular Beth Chalmers shrugs off (as she describes it) her more “wholesome” demeanour as the frosty, abrasive Time Lady operative Veklin, a woman who makes Mary Tamm’s initial portrayal of Romana in The Ribos Operation look positively cuddly! Chalmers has played numerous parts across BF’s Doctor Who range over the years (most notably as Seventh Doctor companion Raine Creevy) but Veklin by far is her most memorable performance. She deserves to reprise the role in future War Doctor instalments, as Veklin is precisely the type of “companion” the War Doctor needs!
Barnaby Edwards’ Arverton and Kieran Hodgson’s Bennus are virtually the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” of the saga. Unlike Veklin, they do not strike you as fearless, battle-hardened soldiers at all, but hapless stooges, especially the more timid Bennus (although it becomes clear late in proceedings why Bennus behaves as he does and why he and Arverton have been selected for the mission to Keska). Alex Wyndham also delivers a plausible, sterling performance as Time Lord official Seratrix, the apparent holder of vital strategic secrets that could decide the outcome of the Time War. As noble as Seratrix originally appears, it becomes all too clear in The Heart of the Battle that this dignity hides a selfish, heartless and unsympathetic streak that seems inescapable in all of the Time War-era Gallifreyans.
The other supporting characters in Only the Monstrous are well written by Briggs and ably realised by the respective actors. Both Briggs-Owen and Seymour excel as prospective companion Rejoice at different stages in her life. Dalek Empire veteran Mark McDonnell makes the most of a limited, two-dimensional part as the Taalyan warlord Traanus (as Dalek henchmen, the brutish Taalyans don’t seem altogether much brighter than their predecessors the Ogrons!) and John Banks injects dignity into an even smaller but no less important role as reluctant scientist Garv.
Briggs, of course, continues to excel as the Daleks, using his voice to delineate between the regular drones and the sector-controlling Prime Dalek. Strangely, though, the Dalek threat in this trilogy of plays tends to be more abstract. There is a “grand plan” at the heart of the Prime Dalek’s “null zone” empire that could tilt the balance in the Time War but Briggs prefers to focus on the immediacy of that threat to the countless populations of more than 1000 worlds caught up in the Daleks’ machinations; in doing so, he holds up a mirror whose reflection barely distinguishes between Time Lords and Daleks.
If you’re a long-term listener of BF’s Doctor Who range and its assorted spin-offs, then you will not be surprised by the high quality of the production, whether that be Howard Carter’s outstanding incidental music and sound design (eg crashing TARDIS engines, Dalek and Time Lord weapon discharges, the motorised whirring of Daleks on the move) or Briggs’ direction and editing. Carter’s rendition of the Doctor Who theme for the War Doctor’s adventures is particularly inspired – heavy metal sounds and drumbeats underscore a fast-paced theme arrangement that effectively conveys a wartime atmosphere. Carter even has some fun in The Thousand Worlds when he devises the Taalyans’ war music – a cacophony of metallic beats that prompts the Doctor to dryly remark that the Taalyans are both “genocidal – and tone deaf!” It’s a delicious irony then that the Daleks are routed after being “deafened” by a premeditated burst of sound!
In all, The War Doctor – Only the Monstrous is a fantastic start to what promises to be an epic series of boxsets over the next two years. Briggs has certainly set a high standard for other writers to follow in future volumes. Coupled with a magnificent cast led by John Hurt and Jacqueline Pearce, and with veteran David Warner also set to join them in Volume 2, there is every reason to be optimistic that the War Doctor saga will become one of BF’s most popular and acclaimed Doctor Who spin-offs. Who would have picked that when the War Doctor was just a gleam in Steven Moffat’s imagination three years ago?