Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Short Trips: Battle Scars
While 2013's Day of the Doctor gave fans some answers about the trauma of the Time War upon the Doctor, there's been very little information about the Ninth Doctor's history before he met Rose.
The end of July saw the release of the latest short trips Battle Scars, which gives listeners some context to the mental state of the Ninth Doctor in that time between The Day of the Doctor and Rose. Written by Sellm Ulug, directed by Alfie Shaw and narrated by Nicholas Briggs, Battle Scars is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here. Here's the synopsis...
Nightmarish memories of the Boer War. Crippling debts. An unconscious stranger in the garden. Arthur Daniels is beset with problems. Little does he know that his proposed solution could be the biggest problem of them all: a voyage to America aboard the RMS Titanic.
I'll be joined by my fellow Big Finish reviewer son Ben Greenland to discuss this latest short trips. A warning of potential spoilers as we delve into the story...
Baz Greenland (aged 38)
The joy of Big Finish's short trips are their ability to tell stories in a more traditional audio book setting featuring characters that could never be voiced by their original actors. January saw the Brigadier meet Leela, and August features a new story with Harry Sullivan, despite both Nicholas Courtney and Ian Marter no longer being with us. While still very much alive, Ninth Doctor actor Christopher Eccleston has expressed no desire in returning to the role, making a Big Finish appearance (like fellow 'Nu Who' star David Tennant) very unlikely.
Fortunately Battle Scars works around that to tell a story about the Doctor's state of mind after the Time War. Believing himself to have erased the Timelords from history, he is very much a broken hero who is yet to find a sense of adventure with future companion Rose. Encountering Arthur Daniels, a man with his own battle scars from the Boer war and finding some measure of comfort in his family, acts as the perfect narrative vehicle to begin the Ninth Doctor's rehabilitation. Certainly there are bigger sci-fi elements in a strange alien device that destroys ships and is complicit in the fate of the Titanic (though never overly stated), but these play second fiddle to the emotional journey of the Ninth Doctor and the Daniels family. Removed entirely and Battle Scars would still be an effective story.
Arthur's teenage daughter Connie acts as the companion to the Ninth Doctor in this tale. Discovering him unconscious in her garden next to the crashed TARDIS invokes memories of the Eleventh Doctor's debut in The Eleventh Hour. This is no bad thing, Battle Scars serving as the earliest entry into the Ninth Doctor's life. While it isn't explicitly stated that he has just regenerated, he is still broken, as explored through that despairing speech about saving the mouse from the cat and what he could possibly do if there were hundreds of cats and thousands of mice. This isn't the hero we all know and love, off saving the galaxy. He believes himself complicit in the genocide of the Daleks and the Timelords.
And so saving the lives of not millions, not thousands, but a small family that gave him shelter, feels like the perfect point at which the Doctor becomes that classic hero once more. The origin of his trademark 'fantastic' is a nice touch too and in Connie he finds that connection to that leads to Rose, Adam, Jack in his adventures around the galaxy. Connie is a lovely one-off companion, full of wit and intelligence and full of heart. I would quite happily see more adventures with her and the Ninth Doctor together too, though perhaps that might take away from the importance of Rose later on.
Arthur's former friend and comrade serves as a solid villain for the piece and there's certainly some groundwork laid for future tales but the alien device is far less les interesting than the more grounded, emotional darkness that comes from the trauma of war and the greed of business and power in the world that follows. The investigation the Doctor and Connie undertake in the shipyards is more a tool to get the Doctor back to business.
Battle Scars is a low-key and emotional resonant tale. Nicholas Briggs brings the story to life well, though I did find his Ninth Doctor northern accent a bit broad and thick for my liking. Still, he captures that drama of the piece well and Sellm Ulug's prose is strongly written, capturing the rebirth of the Doctor and delivering an nuanced story of the trauma of war and the Doctor's struggle to reacclimatise. An essential little tale for anyone curious about the Ninth Doctor's life before he met Rose.
Ben Greenland (aged 13)
It is very satisfying that Big Finish are trying to give every Doctor some stories, leading nicely to the short trips range embracing stories for Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and most importantly of all, Capaldi. After a few quick detours from February's Twelfth Doctor adventure, we return to a story about the Ninth Doctor. Interestingly, it draws lots of parallels with the same month's Lies in Ruins from The Legacy of Time, with the theme of the trauma the Time War inflicts onto the Doctor.
On TV, Nine was always the Doctor in a state of shock, freshly out of the war, right through to his regeneration in The Parting of the Ways. Here we see that shock in what's possibly its rawest state; a Doctor who's very recently gone through committing the genocide of his own people (or so he thinks), and feels lost. It feels like destiny that coming out of this he encounters the lives of a family who has a member who is scarred by their own war. It's a shame that we don't hear the emotional conversation between Arthur Daniels and the Doctor, as that would have been a very heartfelt moment, and is the only missed opportunity of the story.
While Rose was his first proper companion, his paring with Connie still feels perfect, enough so for them to have conversations about war together and go off investigating on a mystery,. But the best touch with her is that she gives the Doctor the phrase Fantastic. And the strength of an analogy of war trauma being a fight between a cat and a mouse was really interesting to listen too.
Eventually the investigation and mystery gets underway, very late in the game for a Doctor Who story, and it feels right for the villain to be a human, which is more effective for the Doctor finding himself again, rather than facing an alien threat, after coming out of the war with the Daleks. The alien tech involved, albeit tech with origins are never actually explained, strongly hints at coming out of the rift. The only wrong thing with this, is the fact that this might have been used to sabotage the Titanic, which might work in other stories, but here it feels out of place.
By the end of the adventure the Doctor starts to find himself again. The strengths of Battle Scars stays to the end, end with the Daniels family opting for a second chance after being spared the fate of the Titanic. It feels good to have a story based off of a throwaway line in Rose. How about that line about him being present at the Krakatoa explosion being his next adventure at Big Finish?