Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Eighth Doctor - The Time War Series Vol 1
The Time War is getting a decent outing on Big Finish recently. We had four excellent War Doctor box sets featuring John Hurt's War Doctor before the actor's untimely death and now The Master that never was, Derek Jacobi, is coming back for the first of many 'War Master' adventures at the end of the year.
But first it is Paul McGann's turn. His stories have grown gradually darker over the years as his on-going story builds up to the Time War; we had his first taste of this in the first volume of Classic Doctor: New Monsters and then again in this summer's Classic Doctor: New Monsters Volume 2, with the terrific Day Of The Vashta Nerada, which featured Jacqueline Pearce's Cardinal Ollistra. And now fans are getting the first set of four stories - with a new companion in tow - with more to follow.
The Eighth Doctor - The Time War Series Vol 1 wasreleased on digital download and CD boxset exclusively though Big Finish at the end of October and goes on general release from December 31st.
Here are the synopses for the four episodes that make up the set...
1. The Starship of Theseus by John Dorney
The Doctor and his companion, Sheena, land the TARDIS on the glamorous luxury space-liner Theseus just as it’s about to leave the Jupiter space-port. An opportunity for a holiday presents itself – and it’s one they’re very glad to take.
But when a disturbance catches their attention, they realise sinister events are taking place on board. Passengers are vanishing on every trip. And unless they’re careful they may be next.
Can the Doctor and Emma solve the mystery? Or is there something else they should be worrying about?
2. Echoes of War by Matt Fitton
Colliding with the full force of the Time War, the Doctor crash-lands on a jungle world with a ragtag band of refugees.
To stay alive, they must cross a landscape where time itself is corrupted. A forest which cycles through growth and decay, where sounds of battle are never far away, and where strange creatures lurk all around.
Luckily, the Doctor has friends: not only plucky scientist Bliss, but another, much more unlikely ally. Its name is ‘Dal’…
3. The Conscript by Matt Fitton
Cardinal Ollistra has a new tactic to persuade the Doctor to join his people’s fight. With his friends locked away, he has been conscripted alongside fellow Gallifreyans to train for the front lines of battle.
Commandant Harlan has a reputation – his camp’s regime is harsh. He believes the Time Lords must adapt to win this war, but the Doctor is not easily intimidated.
Can there be any place for dissent when the Time War looms so close?
4. One Life by John Dorney
As the full force of the Time War crashes down around the Doctor and his friends, a desperate battle for survival ensues.
But not everyone is playing the same game. Ollistra is after a weapon that could end the war in a stroke and she’ll sacrifice anyone or anything to take it back to Gallifrey. Even the Doctor.
Surrounded by Daleks, and on a tortured planet, only one man can save the day. But he doesn’t want to fight.
All four stories are directed by Ken Bentley and produced by David Richardson.
The Starship of Theseus
The Time War Vol 1 kicks off in fine fashion with The Starship of Theseus, which has plenty of twisty timey-wimey turns to keep the listener on their toes. It's a great concept; the Doctor and new companion Sheena finding themselves on a standard Doctor Who adventure involving a luxury space liner with a dark secret before the effects of the Time War warp everything around them.
In the interviews, writer John Dorney talked about how he had the idea for this story floating around but that it probably didn't have enough meat to the bones to create a full story. Here the tale works because of how the Time distortions affects it. There's an intriguing mystery as the Doctor and feisty, intelligent new companion Sheena (a strong performance from Olivia Vinall) investigate a troll at the heart of the spaceship, being used to fuel the Starship of Theseus. It's a solid tale, nothing dazzling, but that's the point. We don't need a resolution because we're not going to get one.
The sudden shift, as Sheena becomes Emma and the vanishes entirely as the luxury cruise liner becomes a refugee ship escaping the Time War, is a bold move. Suddenly it becomes clear why Big Finish jumped forward in time from the recent Doom Coalition boxsets. To unceremoniously dump a character like Liv Chenka from existence would have done these hugely important characters a disjustice. So creating a new companion and then removing her so suddenly works, particularly when she is given depth and charisma in such a short space of time.
The Time War literally crashes into the starship in the final act, rapidly introducing new companion Bliss (Rakhee Thakrar) and major characters from the boxset, Rupa Maguire (Nimmy March) and her husband , Quarren Maguire (David Ganly). The Dalek assault is a thrilling climax, with characters like Captain Darvor (Sean Murray) and Hywel Morgan's Koloth going out in a blaze of glory. The crash towards a nearby planet transforms this simple mystery into the horrors of war and sets up the rest of the box set nicely.
Echoes of War
My personal favourite episode on the boxset, Echoes of War sees the Doctor and fellow refugees from the Starship of Theseus trapped on a jungle planet ravaged by the effects of a time weapon. On screen, the glimpses of this conflict were largely standard warfare, the battle of Gallifrey little more than a planetary siege, as dramatic and exciting as it was. In this box set we see what the effects of Time War weaponry would be.
A planet rapidly aging and regenerating makes for a hostile environment and certainly ups the tension as the Doctor, Bliss, Rupa, Quarren and the other survivors fight to stay alive with no TARDIS and a jungle that will literally drag you to your death. We see the effects of one character horribly aged (think Sara Kingdom in The Dalek's Masterplan). Worse still are the indigenous life; monkey-like creatures that have been forced to age and devolve over and over again. The episode also has great fun with the 'good Dalek' theme, a surviving pepperpot with amnesia named Dal that helps the refugees and the Doctor survive in this hostile and ever-changing environment.
Already, there is great chemistry between Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor and Rakhee Thakrar's Bliss. She's another strong companion, a scientist who understands temporal physics and can provide a competent partner for the Doctor to bounce off (a sort of Romana without the haughtiness if you will). This is the only story where Bliss gets something decent to do, but she is set up well for future Time War audio stories.
The sudden appearance of Jacqueline Pearce's Ollistra and the revelation that the Time Lord infected the planet is another bold move. We've seen how dark the Time Lords dared go, with Rassilon and the resurrection of the Master (to be explored at the end of the year), but in the War Doctor audios it has been Cardinal Ollistra that has been one of the biggest morally grey characters in Time Lord lore. She went head to head with the Eighth Doctor story Day of the Vashta Nerada, but her presence here raises the stakes further.
The Conscript examines what happens when the Doctor is forced to fight in the trenches of the front lines. While there are some strong ideas, there are also some elements that don't quite work for me, making this a rather mixed affair.
On the positives, the idea that the Doctor is considered a coward for not fighting is an intriguing premise, mainly because when the rest of his people are struggling to keep the Daleks at bay and preserve freedom, the Doctor is running away. There is an element of truth in what military characters like Nick Brimble's Commander Harlan and Karina Fernandez's Captain Tamasan say. But his pacifism is just too; he is a man of peace, fighting to protect those people affected by the horrors of war, too small to stand against it. The Conscript explores these themes in depth and forge a fascinating exploration of war.
On the flipside, the military training and the Doctor's small rebellions against the establishment feel rather...mundane. Just adding the word Gallifrey to the recruits' training song doesn't take away from the fact that this could easily be a story of the Doctor recruited into an Earth-based war. While some ideas, like the Time War weaponry explore the premise in style, the military training feels simple in nature.
It also doesn't give companions like Bliss, Rupa and Quarren much to do, though their interrogations at the hand of Ollistra certainly explores her ruthless nature. The Conscript is also a hugely tragic tale too; when all hell breaks loose at the Daleks eventually attack, all the military training comes to naught. Ever the villain, Ollistra abandons her soldiers to their deaths and good people like the idealistic Veeda (Katy Sobey) march to their deaths as the Doctor escapes in a battle TARDIS with Ollistra, Bliss, Rupa and Quarren, setting up a smaller but equally tragic tale in the final installment.
As good as Bliss, the heart of this box set is not her or the Doctor but the tragic love affair between Rupa and Quarren and their story takes centre stage in a satisfying wrap up to The Time War Vol 1. It was always going to be tragic; the moment it opened with a flashback to how they first met in a club, their chances of a long and happy life together were doomed.
But Quarren is more than just an innocent bystander as the story throws in its big twist; the traitor that hid from the war and has now been pursued by the Daleks since the Theseus is not the Doctor, but Quarren, a Timelord with incredible abilities that could use his powers to manipulate reality itself. Through him we see the utterly villainy of both sides - the Daleks who wish to use him as a weapon and Ollistra who demands his subservience in fighting this war as another part of her mighty arsenal. It's a great reveal, acting not only as a predecessor to the hiding of the Doctor and Master's identities in 2007 Doctor Who tales Human Nature and Utopia, but also continuing to explore the moral ramifications of war.
Nimmy March and David Ganly do a fantastic job, delivering a heartfelt, believable couple who are fighting for each other. It makes his ultimate sacrifice, returning to his Timelord self and wiping her memories, all the more heart-breaking. These seemingly ordinary people are at the heart of something extraordinary and isn't that what Doctor Who does best?
And of course there are some great Time war concepts too, from the rapidly evolving planet they find themselves on to the Dalek field that allows its one ship to be in infinite places at once, blocking their escape. Without the constraints of TV budget, Big Finish is doing the Time War justice. One Life is another strong, action packed story, full of moral dilemma, brutal exploration of war, phenomenal performances and a heart-breaking ending that ends The Time War Vol 1 in style...
There are an abundance of extras in this box set, marking it as one of the highlights of this year's Doctor Who Big Finish range for that reason alone.
First up is the trailer for The War Master Vol 1, that see's Derek Jacobi reprise his role from Doctor Who episode Utopia, in a set of stories that looks set to explore his villainous potential while offering a different perspective on the Time War
We also great 11 tracks covering interviews with the cast and crew. There is a great insight into the making of the box set. The writers share their thoughts on how they approached the Time War and just what it means to explore the horrible truths about conflict. There's some interesting discussions with Paul McGann too, about his approach to taking his Doctor into the conflict and the struggle between duty and pacifism. Actor Nick Brimble shares his amusing Paul McGann story, Olivia Vinall has a lot of passion as she talks about her one-off companion Sheena and there's a delightful final discussion with Nimmy March and David Ganly about playing the doomed lovebirds.
But the biggest treat on the box set is the amazing score by Jamie Robertson and after each story, audiences are given a whole host of tracks to listen to. This box set is as much a full Time War musical soundtrack as it is the collection of stories themselves.
The Starship of Theseus
The opening track Aymor is a bold, dramatic opening, full of awe, majesty and tragedy. This is followed by The Luxury Space Cruiser with its heavy synth and cheesy 80s feel. The third track Lower Decks is atmospheric with a heavy, synthesized percussion beat and that continues into Distorted Reality with its sinister build up. The first standout is The Time War is Here, which starts slow with a sinister build up and ominous tension before ending on a gothic, grandiose note. The Daleks Hunt has plenty of dramatic percussion beats, full of relentless danger and gothic choir, while Lower Than Ever plays heavily on the terrific main Time War version of the Doctor Who theme. Finally, the distorted heavy beats of Crash Down make for a dramatic ending full of danger and menace.
Echoes of War
Frozen opens the soundtrack to Echoes of War with intense, frenzied, screeching sounds, heavy beats and gothic sound, while Salvage has a terrific jungle rhythm mixed with a distorted, urban sound and a heroic theme rising over the dark, gothic tones. A Missing Blue Box is short but uplifting, while DAL is another short, atmospheric piece with distorted synthesized beats. Another highlight, The Forest of Eyes is pure monster movie magic, full of tension, heavy beats, creepy sounds and an overwhelming sense of danger and darkness. Echoes of the Time War is dramatic and gritty in tone with a melancholy, enchanting orchestral centre mixed with chaotic movements and beats. The Wreckage is a short sombre piece and is followed by Battle Echoes is a creepy atmospheric tracks that ramps up a gritty, urban 90s chase sequence style sequence. Time Corruption continues the intensity, adding a grander, atmospheric sweeping tone, while Arrival has an eerie opening, building to a grandiose bombastic orchestral score full of majesty and darkness; it ends on a ballsy version of familiar doctor action themes. Going to War concludes the score with a a short, dramatic track that feels reminiscent of Murray Gold' s scores for the Eleventh or Twelfth Doctors.
Things kick off with the military march and sombre tones of The Gallifrey Training Camp, with the solo horn making for a grim, morose start. Get Some Rest feels like the opening to a horror movie; short, sweet and atmospheric in tone, while The Training Grounds opens with a thundering beat and some eerie, synthesised sounds. Human Error is dark, reminding me of a grim, sombre Howard Shore score before building into something grander, majestic and sorrowful, full of beauty, menace and atmosphere. It's one of the most powerful tracks on the entire box set. Foot Fight is, as the title suggests, a much more whimsical,almost jazzy affair, before A Problematic Doctor returns to the sombre notes with a low, ominous orchestral score and a sinister string movement which is creepy as hell. Reconnaissance feels more playful at times, with elements of danger and twisted, synth sounds building the tension, before A Sudden Extermination opens with a jarring clash of sounds and a grandiose, mystical feel. A World of Destruction/Across the Stars is short but stunning with a beautiful, heavenly sound and a powerful emotive core. The Oncoming Storm/Friendships Revealed builds on that same sinister string movement, broken by bombastic drum beats take over and ending on a emotional, beautiful, sweeping orchestral that is full of passion; it's another standout track. The final score from the third story, Space Flight, is another big, bold ending that accompanies the brutal ending to The Conscript.
The Hidden Scar is another sombre, emotional opening, the horn solo rising amidst the forbidding score. A New Interior is more dramatic with an epic sweeping score and bombastic, synthesized drum beat. There is a lot of darkness and synth to the score, from Dalek Commandment with its menacing beat and eerie synth sounds and Dangerous Doc with a distorted, cacophony of offbeat sounds. Precious Moment has some melancholy emotion before launching back into the relentless beat, while Lovey Dovey and All the Reverse as as soapy as it sounds. For the Love of Time follows, with an almost dreamlike equality with twinkling score before transforming into something distorted and eerie; the relentless clanging beat and dark orchestral backing full of danger and tragedy. Life is a beautiful piece full of emotion, light soaring strings and ethereal quality before the score concludes in The Ghost of a Name with its dramatic military beats.
This is a superb collection by Jamie Robertson and one of the best musical suites I have seen on Big Finish.
Some Final Thoughts...
Rarely has Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor gone wrong on Big Finish and that is absolutely true here. Given some truly meaty material to work, he proves just how wonderful a Doctor he really is, while the supporting cast delivers the goods too. There are some delightful ideas at play in this boxset; even the weakest of the stories is still of a high standard and combined with the superb musical suite extras, this is surely the best Big Finish box set of the year to date.