Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Eighth Doctor - The Time War Series Vol 2
The second box set release for Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor this year, sees him continue his adventures in the early days of the Time War. It's an event that Big Finish has explored in style, from the late John Hurt as the War Doctor over four box sets to a special release of Derek Jacobi's War Master (you can check out that review here) and Gallifrey: Time War this year. The first Time War boxset, featuring the debut of new companions Bliss (Rakhee Thakrar) was released in late 2017 year (check out our review here) and this set picks up right where that one left of.
The series has been directed by Ken Bentley and written by Jonathan Morris, Guy Adams, Timothy X Atack. The Eighth Doctor - The Time War Series Vol 2 is available to download at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 30th September.
Here are the synopses for the four stories that make up the set.
2.1 The Lords of Terror by Jonathan Morris
When the Doctor takes Bliss to her home colony, they discover that the Time War has got there first. Bliss finds her world altered beyond recognition, and the population working to serve new masters.
No dissent is allowed. The Daleks are coming. The planet must be ready to fight them.
2.2 Planet of the Ogrons by Guy Adams
Avoiding the Time War, the Doctor and Bliss are found by an old acquaintance: the latest incarnation of a criminal mastermind the Doctor knows of old. But unlike her predecessors, the Twelve has a handle on her previous selves’ unruly minds.
There is a mystery to solve involving the Doctor’s TARDIS and its unusual occupant – and answers will be found on the Planet of the Ogrons.
2.3 In the Garden of Death by Guy Adams
In a prison camp like no other, the Most Dangerous Man in the Universe is held in isolation. The rest of the inmates have no memory of who they were or what they might have done.
No memory even of their captors. Until the interrogations begin.
2.4 Jonah by Timothy X Atack
In the depths of an ocean world ravaged by the Time War, the weary survivors are pressed into service by Cardinal Ollistra.
Something is hidden beneath the sea: the Twelve knows the truth, if only she could drag it from her jumbled mind. And when the Doctor becomes the captain of a submarine boat, all omens spell disaster…
Paul McGann's noble, passionate, morally-driven Eighth Doctor is the perfect foil for both the Daleks and his own race, The Timelords, as this box set explores. After the narrative string of the four stories in volume one, this feels much more of a series of standalones, linked by recurring characters and in doing so expands the scope of the Time War through the Doctor's eyes. He isn't the broken self that will choose his next War Doctor self yet, but the effects of what happens here are keenly felt in his character.
Moral duplicity is at the heart of this set, each story raising the question - who are worse - the Daleks of the Time Lords? Indeed, the metal pepper pots have less presence this time round (though they remains a dangerous thereat on the peripheral), and its the actions of the Doctor's own people that add the greatest drama and perhaps the greatest villainy this time.
The Lords of Terror
The opening story is perhaps my favourite of he opening set, revealing the true impact of the Time War as the Doctor takes new companion Bliss home to visit her family and finds a world that has been irrevocably changed. Gone are her family and the city she grew up in, replaced instead by a militaristic state facing twenty years of Dalek bombardment, while the populace have been turned into slaves as they build rockets capable of defeating the besiegers.
It's a great story for Bliss, who made a strong impact in volume one but didn't get her own central narrative. The heartbreak of having her family wiped from existence gives Rakhee Thakrar something to get her teeth into, made worse by the revelation that it is the Timelords that have caused this suffering. The story plays a number of double bluffs; suggesting at first that the Daleks are the cause of all the misery, then revealing that Simon Slater's Timelord Carvil is behind the changes, first as a way to fight the Dalek attack before the real horror is revealed.
The idea that the Daleks had not invaded Deralobia and that Carvil had simulated the attack continually for twenty years makes this tale all the more fascinating. Fuelled by revenge over the death of his family, he used an entire planet's population - and most importantly its unique resources - to build weapons capable of destroying his enemies. He's only had to eliminate an entire planetary population to do it. The Lords of Terror poses the question - who is worse, the Daleks of the Timelords. Arguably the Doctor's people are the greater of two evils this time.
Nikki Amuka-Bird also debuts as a regenerated version of Major Tamasa from volume one, towing the line between what needs to be done to win the war and what is too far. In this story she largely sits on the Doctor's side; when Carvil's actions are discovered she is quick to separate herself from his cause, though she retains a sense of self-entitlement, escaping at the moment the Daleks discover the weapons and obliterate the planet. It's a shocking climax to the opening story; the Doctor claims he will find a way to revert the loss of Bliss' people, but she is right to call him out on it. His people have stepped too far and she has lost everything as a result, making her another 'orphan of the Time War'.
Planet of the Ogrons
Picking up some time later (I presume given that the Doctor and Bliss appear to be on better terms), the second part reintroduces a terrific Big Finish Doctor Who villain. The Eleven, a renegade Timelord with every regeneration's personalities sitting in is head at the same time. He was featured in Eighth Doctor box sets Doom Coalition and this year's Ravenous and makes his return in the next regeneration; Julia McKenzie's lovely old lady The Twelve.
Planet of the Ogrons is a fun, action-packed affair, lighter in contrast to the other stories in the set. Not only is McKenzie brilliant as the multiple personalities of twelve (the psychopathic six is a particular delight) but it also has a great mystery in the Ogron (played superbly by Jon Culshaw). This is not the simple foot soldier seen in the Pertwee area, but a cravat-wearing gentlemen who goes by the name of the Doctor and carries a sonic screwdriver.
Talking of Pertwee's Doctor Who, there a terrific bit of continuity, with the inclusion of the Ogrons into the Third Doctor stories Day of the Daleks and Frontier in Space. The revelations that the Daleks, led by the maniacal genius of the Overseer (with whom Nicholas Briggs found inspiration in Second Doctor villain Tobias Vaughan), inserted them into old Doctor adventures is an ingenious twist. Technically the Ogrons weren't part of those stories from the 1970s until this 2018 adventure used Timey Wimeyness to retrospectively add them to those adventures.
Culshaw does a brilliant impersonation of the Doctor in Orgron form, in a rip-roaring adventure that take the Doctor, Bliss and The Twelve to the creature's home planet where giant crabs have eaten the rock creatures that hunt (and are worshipped by) the Ogrons. Guy Adams packs a lot in and it is one tale that requires plenty of attention to keep up with the ever-changing plot.
In the Garden of Death
Also written by Guy Adams, In The Garden of Death is a much darker affair as the Doctor, Bliss and the Twelve find themselves prisoners of the Daleks on a deadly jungle world. The twist here is they have had their memories wiped between interrogation, meaning they will never be able to use their wits and knowledge to fight back.
The hero having amnesia is a story we've seen many times before - and indeed with the Eighth Doctor on more than one occasion and the inevitable lead up to them recovering and escaping, renders this the weakest story in the box set. But Guy Adams is also able to use that premise to do explore something quite interesting; the idea that our base instincts will always win through even if you don't know them.
It's the strongest story for The Twelve, her personalities no longer contained enabling her to plot her escape even where she doesn't know who she is. Bliss' earnest nature and intelligence enables her to navigate the dangers of this jungle prison. But the Doctor's wisdom is perhaps paramount here; imprisoned in his own cell, he believes that his segregation from the rest of the prisoners must make him the most dangerous man in the universe. Which of course he must be, from the Daleks' point of view.
Their eventual escape does allow for the returning (but frustratingly sparingly used) Cardinal Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce) to scoop them up for a mission of her own agenda, setting the scene for another strong entry to wrap up volume two.
The final tale is a full of claustrophobia, paranoia and danger as the Doctor and Bliss form part of a submarine crew navigating Dalek excavations beneath the surface of an alien water world. Under the supervision of Major Tamasa, The Doctor (AKA Captain Jonah) battles Dalek machines amid the depths, trying to locate the possible weapon the enemy is searching for.
This very much feels like the 'real world' scenes from The Matrix mixed with classic World War II submarine dramas and the intensity of this setting marks a stark contrast for the big, sweeping events of the previous tales. It's also the most emotionally driven story too; every member of the crew has faced the loss of loved ones to the Daleks and their desperation is as keenly felt as the Timelords'. Only The Twelve holds any reprieve, the bad timing of her multi-personality outbursts providing some much needed humour in moments of grim silence.
The alien creature the Daleks are hunting is a fascinating creation too; an omnipotent being that can see into all aspects of time; the ability to see the future is an advantage both sides need and the climax returns to the ideas of The Lords of Terror, with the creature determining that the Daleks and Timelords are as bad as each other. The Doctor is faced with an impossible choice and allowing the creature to die rather than be used was a grim but right choice in the end.
Supporting characters Ensign Murti (Anya Chalotra), Chief Panath Tania Rodrigues), and Executive Officer Omo (Surinder Duhra) provide a terrific guest ensemble, bringing to life an embittered set of characters, many of whom are forced to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Like volume one, each story is accompanied by full music suites, enriching the world of the Time War though some dramatic, emotive pieces. The six music suites for The Lords of Terror are full if atmosphere and tension, the use of heavy percussion mixed with gorgeous piano makes for something that is both beautiful and unsettling, while the 'Bliss' theme is particularly special and incredibly emotional, given the impact of the story on her.
The six music suites for Planet of the Ogrons are gothic and grandiose in style, suiting the sweeping nature of this tale, while the Dalek tracks have a fantastic funky synth vibe to reflect the menace of the alien race. There are a full eight tracks for the In The Garden of Death music suite, all rather dark and forbidding in tone as suits the prisoner of war storyline. But there are still moments that shine, from the gently beauty of 'Needle and Thread' to the thundering synth of 'Interrogation' and bold brass beats of 'Dalek attack Squad'. Finally there are another eight tracks for the Jonah music suite. The opening 'Incoming' is dramatic and unhinged, with heavy percussion and strings, while the rest of the suite is filled with softer, emotionally-driven tracks, full of gorgeous strings and wind that suit the more intimate setting of the tale.
There is also a terrific set of interviews with the cast and crew, giving a comprehensive look at the making of volume two. There is some great discussion on the decision to cast Julia McKenzie as The Twelve, the decision to expand the Time War series and the character of Bliss and some lovely insights from the actors, the writers and even the sound designer, who discusses the darker contrast between this set and chronologically earlier Eighth Doctor tales in Ravenous.
These interviews give some terrific insight into the making of these stories, behind the scenes anecdotes and the general passion that goes into their development and remain an essential listen as much as the stories themselves.
Some Final Thoughts...
The Eighth Doctor - The Time War Series Vol 2 is another terrific box set, delving into the untapped potential of the Time War with very little hindrance from Doctor Who's chronology or mythology. The four stories are not as intrinsically tied together like volume 1 and as such, it doesn't carry quite the same impact as the first. But volume 2 does make great use of a broader scope of storytelling, from the dramatics of the opening The Lords of Terror to the intimate, quieter moments of Jonah.
Paul McGann is superb as always, continuing to prove that he might be the best Doctor on Big Finish. But this set also gives Rakhee Thakrar's Bliss moments to shine in a way that volume 1 didn't always allow. There are some terrific players here too, particularly Julia McKenzie's The Twelve, Jun Culshaw's Ogron Doctor and a new version of Major Tamasa in Nikki Amuka-Bird.
There's not enough of Jacqueline Pearce's villainous, ruthless Cardinal Ollistra for my liking, but I'm hoping she'll get more to do when she and the Eighth Doctor inevitably cross paths in future instalments. These Time War sets seem to be an annual event now for Big Finish and I look forward to seeing these rich events unfold year after year...