Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Eighth Doctor: Time War Volume 3
Having already popped up in Time War-set adventures The War Master: Rage of the Time Lords and the opening story of The Legacy of Time, Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor returns for another set of adventures with regular Time War companion Bliss, played by Rakhee Thakrar.
Time War Volume three picks up after the revelations of volume two (you can read our review here) in four stories written by John Dorney, Lisa McMullin, Roland Moore, Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley. This set is available to purchase exclusively at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st October. Here are the synopses...
The Time War rages through space and time – two powerful enemies in a fight to the death. The Doctor keeps to the fringes of the conflict, helping where he can. He is not a warrior. Not yet. But this war takes no prisoners, and friends and enemies are drawing the Doctor ever closer to his destiny…
3.1 State of Bliss by Matt Fitton
Bliss has lost her home, her family, and her friends – an orphan of the Time War. The Doctor attempts to find out where things went wrong. Across a multiverse of possibilities, Bliss discovers the many paths her life could have taken – but do they always lead to the Time War?
And if Bliss can save her past, will she destroy her future – and the Doctor’s?
3.2 The Famished Lands by Lisa McMullin
Trying to make a difference far from the front lines, the Doctor and Bliss arrive in the Vale of Iptheus, where the Time War is starving populations out of existence.
The inhabitants have taken matters into their own hands – but are now on course for something worse. Bliss discovers exactly how the robot Enablers are helping the people, while the Doctor uncovers a terrifying secret...
3.3 Fugitive in Time by Roland Moore
Returning a favour for Major Tamasan, the Doctor and Bliss accompany her to extract a dangerous fugitive from an isolated medieval world.
Shonnath is the last of her kind and has her reasons to be wary of Time Lords. What’s more, the Daleks are also on her trail – and when the Doctor and friends arrive, the enemy is already closer than they think.
3.4 The War Valeyard by John Dorney
The Valeyard has returned to the universe amid the Time War – and the Time Lords see his potential to end the conflict for good.
When the Doctor discovers that his twisted future self has been conscripted, he sets out with Bliss to find him, braving a planet ravaged by Daleks.
But in a world where he can finally be a hero, will the Valeyard want to leave?
The third volume of Time War adventures featuring the Eighth Doctor offers the best range of stories yet. Potential spoilers as I delve into each story...
State of Bliss
The opening story deals with volume two's revelations that the Time Lords were responsible for the destruction of Bliss's home planet. The Doctor's attempt to understand what happened - and Bliss's involvement in all this - leads to an intriguing tale of alternate realities as the Doctor probes his companion's mind. Writer Matt Fitton offers a complex story that fleshes out the character of Bliss by offering up multiple realities in which she - and her friends Calla and Ryall - all experienced their lives, studying together, leaving their world and experiencing the horrors of the Time War.
Rakhee Thakrar really makes the most of the material offered, offering different nuances to her character as the Doctor explores - through her mind - the different realities in which she existed. She has great chemistry with Anjli Mohrindra's Calla and John Scougall's Ryall, delivering a wholly believable friendship that builds on the companion's past. We saw the effects of loosing her home planet in Time War Volume two, but in these past connections you truly get a sense of where she came from.
If there's one fault in the story, it's the idea of traversing through different realities becomes a little repetitive after a while. While there is plenty of nuance to each version of Bliss's life, it only becomes more than just a theme late in the tale, as the villain emerges. The revelations around Bliss's professor Deepa (Nina Wadia) are terrific though, raising the stakes for Bliss and the Doctor himself.
Given the events of the final story in volume three, the revelation that the enemy is a future version of Bliss makes for a strong bookend to the set, while giving us more of an appreciation for the companion. Bliss has been a strong presence in the first two volumes, but with State of Bliss she really emerges as a great Big Finish companion.
The Famished Lands
The theme of Time Lords being indistinguishable from the Daleks runs through this set and The Famished Lands, explores the continuing devastating impact the Time War. It's a disturbing concept - the war forcing a world dependant on trade routes into starvation - with the end result a truly horrific twist, even for Doctor Who.
The Famished Lands is a much more introspective tale then those that follow it, Lisa McMullin's script delving deep into the darkness of humanity and how far people will go to survive. In the modern era of refugee crises, the imagery of a starving population is something we can all visualise and the open aggression towards them is not an easy listen. But it carries with it a lot of emotional weight, with plenty for the Doctor and Bliss to engage with.
The horrors of the undead army as the fate of the world is revealed to the Doctor, is nasty stuff, showing just how desperate the planet Ipethus has become in its attempts to survive the horrors of the Time War. While there's plenty of drama in the continued fight between the Time Lords and the Daleks, it's the fallout of planets like this one that make for the most fascinating stories.
Given the Eighth Doctor's final dark and desperate steps in Night of the Doctor it's easy to imagine incidents like this one that drove him to his path as the War Doctor. Big battles aside, it's tales like The Famished Lands that show the real horrors of war.
Fugitive In Time
After two stories of the Eighth Doctor acting on the fringes of the Time War (as he is want to do), Fugitive in Time gets back to the heart of the action with the return of the Daleks and Major Tamasan, regenerated once more and this time played by Adelé Anderson. Tamasan continues to be a formidable presence in these Time War sets, filling the void left by the passing of Jaqueline Pearce as Ollistra.
Older and more ruthless, Tamasan continues to be a great foil for the Doctor and Bliss, as they are recruited to find the last member of an alien race wiped out by the Time Lords. Make no mistake, the Time Lords are the true villains of this story, even with the presence of the Daleks and it is hard not to feel for Wendy Craig's Lady Shonath, who experienced her race vanish from existence. The flashback scene where she looses her husband is particularly painful.
It makes for an interesting moral conundrum for the Doctor as he is forced to lie about his identity while trying to help her. When the Daleks inevitably show up and offer Lady Shonath aid in getting revenge against the Time Lords, there's an element of support for her actions, even though they might be devastating for all involved.
The torture of the Doctor, the Dalek assault and Tamasan's betrayal all make for dramatic listening, but the success of Fugitive in Time is the moral ambiguity at play. The line between hero and villain is blurred more than ever, making it increasingly harder for the Doctor to find his role in the chaos of the Time War around him.
The War Valeyard
Having returned to Big Finish for Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor regeneration set, Michael Jayston delivers a fascinating new take on the Valeyard in this final tale. In a time where heroes and villains can no longer be clearly defined, the Valeyard strikes out as a genuinely compassionate and good natured character. Jayston brings plenty of gravitas to the role; not as the villain but the hero of the story.
The War Valeyard is a fascinating story, providing new insight into the Valeyard as he is resurrected to help fight in the Time War. We genuinely get a sense of what Jayston's Doctor who have been like before he took a darker path, complete with a delightful young companion Nim, played by Venice Van Someren. And the world around him is steeped in tragedy, the reveal of the Valeyard's fate genuinely disturbing and leaving the character in a wholly new sympathetic light.
McGann's interactions with Jayston offer up some powerhouses, with Anderson's Tamasan certainly holding her own. And mixed up in this is a wonderfully timey wimey tale; John Dorney's script leaving audience's scratching their heads at times, with a cliff-hanger that left me genuinely shocked for where McGann's Time War Volume Four would take us next year.
The War Valeyard is a head scratcher and a delight, ending Time War Volume Three in bold fashion. It brings the Time War to a thrilling precipice, one that I suspect may result in the Doctor's path to regeneration in volume four...
A fifteen and a half minute music suite rounds off the third disc, covering music from the first two stories. Abandon Ship is a brassy, grandiose piece with a mix of racing strings and percussion to raise the tension, while Unoccupied is a haunting, atmospheric track, composer Jamie Robertson making great use of gothic choral tones and brash beats. The longer Older Younger delights with heavy chords and racing techno beats, in between some gorgeous, emotional orchestral flairs. Vale of Iptheus is a short but stunning little piece, with big romantic soaring string movements before spiralling into a melee of heavy synth chords. The Truth Beyond Iptheus carries a similar, romantic tone, while Gallifrey has a Plan ends in a bold, dramatic fashion with its use of brassy chords and thundering percussion.
The end of disc four has a further sixteen and a half minutes of music from stories three and four. Lady Shonath has a majestic mix of big organ music and soaring strings, ending on a dramatic choral wail. Helixara opens with gentle string movements and piano before Robertson mixes in heavy chords and techno beats that add a real sense of menace. The rising choral ending is sublime. The New Allies of the Daleks is a really atmospheric piece with lots of heavy chords. The World of Pain is another moody piece, but doesn't quite stand out from the others. The Oldest Enemy is more distinct; racing strings, dark choral tones and heavy chords and percussion creating a real sense of danger and death. The final track, I Am The Valeyard, has a haunting, melancholy feel, gentle string movements, heavy chords and piano mixed with a grand use of percussion to create something truly memorable.
Finally, disc five has over an hour of behind the scene interviews with the cast and crew. There's some great insight from producer David Richardson, director Ken Bentley and writer Matt Fitton as they explore the development of Bliss in State of Bliss. The actors bring a lot to the discussion, Rakhee Thakrar's nervousness and excitement at living up to the challenges of the story, Anjli Mohindra reflecting on her big acting break in The Sarah Jane Adventures and John Scougall on his time at Big Finish working on this year's Missy box set, while they all attempt to get their head around the different timelines of this tale.
Discussion turns to the evolution of the character of Tamasan, with the latest actress Adèle Anderson reflecting on the ruthlessness of her character and her relationship with the Doctor, while sharing her own experiences of watching Doctor Who all the way back to the Hartnell era. Writer Lisa McMullin and the cast of The Famished Lands delve into the darkness of the story, escalation of the Time War and the very human nature in display. Paul McCann's adoration for actresses Wendy Craig and Venice Van Someren is delightful; Craig's appreciation for working on Doctor Who for the first time is lovely to listen to.
In the interviews for The War Valeyard, writer John Dorney's insight into identity offer a fascinating reflection on the tale, while returning actor Michael Jayston exudes a huge appreciation for the scripts at Big Finish, while reflecting on his time on Trial of a Time Lord and his continuing friendship with Colin Baker. Sound designer Benji Clifford gives a real insight into the behind the scenes challenges, particularly the difficulty of matching up dialogue when actors records their lines separately and months apart. It's these moments that really demonstrate how important these behind the scenes interviews are in understanding the work and passion that goes into making these audios. The final tracks, where Thakrar and McGann talk about the power of stories, is a really great conclusion, to the interviews and the set itself.
Some Final Thoughts...
Time War Volume Three is the strongest of the three McGann sets yet. It offers some strong development for the companion Bliss, sheds new light on how we see the Valeyard and offers plenty of moral drama for the Doctor to face off against. The devastating effects of the Time War are thrilling and emotionally wrought, with all four tales offering a unique perspective of this devastating conflict and setting up a bold cliffhanger for volume four.