For something that was designed to restore a bit of mystery to the character of the Doctor ahead of the show’s regeneration in 2005, the Time War is at risk of losing its own mystique. As an ever-expanding range of wartime audio spin-offs is released by Big Finish, Mark Donaldson reviews the most recent, Time War 2 and ponders how much narrative scope a multi-dimensional war outside of normal space-time actually provides.
“I’m not part of the war, never was” the Doctor tells Cass as her gunship hurtles towards Karn in The Night of the Doctor. Later, as Ohila tries to convince him to regenerate and bring an end to the Time War, he admits “I help out where I can”. Two slightly contradictory statements, but as Steven Moffat has told us before, the Doctor always lies. Whatever the truth, these statements are sure to provide Big Finish with plenty of fuel for Time War boxed sets in the years to come.
In The Time War 1, the Doctor found himself attempting to rescue a group of refugees from a stricken starliner, stumbling into the battlefronts as he escorted them to safety, being conscripted into the war and assisting a loving husband and wife who harbour a universe-shattering secret. The Time War 2, available now, offers a similar structure, giving us the Doctor and companion Bliss, directly and indirectly, involved with the events of an ever-present conflict.
The following review contains some spoilers, it’s mostly things already on the artwork or mentioned on Big Finish’s Twitter account but do be warned. There’s a spoiler free summary right at the bottom of the page.
The opening story is Jonathan Morris’ Lords of Terror, which takes the Doctor and Bliss to Capital City, Derelovia. Capital City is Bliss’ hometown, but things have changed since her last visit, the populace lives in fear of the Daleks and the house she grew up in no longer exists. What begins as a fairly standard Dalek plotline soon becomes something much more interesting, a story about the oppressive power of fear, the lies that are told to both sides of a war and how they can be used for subjugation and a strategic advantage.
It’s also the only(?) Doctor Who story that bases a key plot point around how smelly a Dalek is. Meanwhile, the developing plotline about Bliss and her constantly changing personal history looks to be a key part of future boxed sets. These Time War ripples also handily explain why the Eighth Doctor forgets to mention Bliss (and Liv, and Helen) at the moment of his regeneration. As interesting as many of the themes Morris sets up in his script, the story eventually sacrifices them to do its Doctor Who thing. It ends with battles and explosions, which livens up your daily commute but provides an abrupt climax to an intelligent and compelling morality play which could have benefitted from an extra 50 minutes.
Taking a respite from the previous instalment’s events, the Doctor and Bliss are sitting by a pond when they’re approached by a kindly old woman with an intriguing mystery. This is the new incarnation of Big Finish villain The Eleven, now The Twelve, played brilliantly by Julia McKenzie and beautifully described by the Doctor as “The Dirty Dozen in stately tweed and shawl”.
The intriguing mystery at the heart of Guy Adams’ Planet of the Ogrons is one of the best pre-titles sequences in all of Doctor Who. The TARDIS materialises in the Gallifreyan Capitol and out steps an Ogron who believes he’s the Doctor. The Ogron “Doctor” is played by impressionist Jon Culshaw, tremendous at aping some of the Doctor’s most familiar lines. The relationship between Doctor Ogron and the Doctor himself is reminiscent of the badinage and bickering expected in multi-Doctor stories as well as the initial dismissiveness of The Doctor’s Daughter. The mystery takes them, Bliss and The Twelve to the Ogron homeworld, where they come up against “The Overseer”.
This Dalek geneticist is an odd creation, played by, who else? Nicholas Briggs. Whilst Briggs’ performance is idiosyncratic and individual enough to convey something the Daleks themselves mistrust, it is tempting to ponder what might have been achieved if the role had been given to a different actor. The score and the script suggest to us that it should be a shock that the Overseer is a Dalek but the sound design and, admittedly less obvious, ring modulation immediately indicate its origins to the listener.
Planet of the Ogrons could have been a hugely enjoyable “body swap” adventure which explores themes of heroism and the dark sides of genetic engineering. For the most part, the story is that, but the need to both involve the Daleks and position our heroes for the next story necessitates a rushed conclusion which short-changes the best aspect of the story, Doctor Ogron.
The Daleks continue to undermine the following story, In the Garden of Death, another Guy Adams script, set on a prison colony where the prisoners can’t remember who they are or what they’ve done. It’s an intriguing sci-fi premise which explores the connection between freedom and identity and calls to mind certain aspects of the seminal Heaven Sent. Whilst the identity of the inmates might be a mystery, the identity of their jailers is never in doubt. There’s always something unsatisfying about being ahead of the Doctor, waiting for him to catch up with you.
And yet the scenes where the Doctor, Bliss and The Twelve use what they do know to logically work out why they’re imprisoned are entertaining and there’s something refreshing about the Doctor having forgotten what a Dalek is. Aside from that, this is the weakest story in the set, and only really functions to get the Doctor, Bliss and the Twelve onboard a submarine.
Which brings us to the highlight of the set, Jonah by Timothy X Atack, a story which calls to mind Moby Dick, Watchmen, The Call of Cthulhu and Paul the Psychic Octopus from the 2010 World Cup. Deep underwater, in an ocean which makes both time travel and the use of blaster weapons impossible, the Daleks and the Timelords are in search of something hidden in the depths. The Twelve knows what it is, but following her imprisonment by the Daleks, no longer has control over her past selves’ voices in her head rendering her a danger to herself and others.
Much like the other stories in the set, Atack’s script has a strong sci-fi concept at its core. Unlike the other stories, it makes imaginative use of the Daleks. The Dalek depth charges are an eerie proposition, whilst their approach to “silent running” manages to both elicit a wry, meta-textual smirk and make complete sense. The added ten minutes to the runtime allows the story to breathe too and gives us some wonderfully Doctorish scenes such as his moving speech about a fallen crewmate. The climax of the story, where the Doctor quickly works out the meaning of an ominous message in order to save the life of the Twelve is a strong Doctor Who moment which demonstrates what these Time War audios are capable of achieving.
In moments like this, when The Time War 2 is strongest, it feels like a bold reimagining for the show which would have sat comfortably alongside Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on BBC2 in the late 1990s. Much like the Dominion War in the Star Trek universe, the Time War offers writers the possibility to extrapolate the essence of Doctor Who to the theatre of battle. How would that character act within a wartime setting? For how long would he be able to resist becoming cruel or cowardly? That’s the internal conflict that will plague the 8th Doctor until he dies alongside young Cass in a crater on Karn. It’s that struggle, and the mystery around the terrific Bliss and her constantly shifting personal history that will see us through the next two boxed sets in this series. There’s no point in arguing the point that the most exciting thing about the Time War was the images conjured in our imaginations, rather than experiencing it first hand when we have, at least, eight more stories confirmed.
Future boxed sets might want to rethink how much they involve the Daleks. Barry Letts once lamented that every story in Jon Pertwee’s second series had the Master as the main villain. At least Roger Delgado was a charismatic presence. The Daleks can often be incredibly one-note, especially in what is the seventh boxed set to take place during the Time War. As capable as Nicholas Briggs is of providing subtle shifts and interpretations of new Dalek characters they still feel quite limited as antagonists when they appear in every story.
The Time War 8th Doctor made his first Big Finish appearance in The Diary of River Song episode The Rulers of the Universe, where he stated that he was assisting on the fringes of the Time War, mopping up the mess left by the Daleks and the Timelords. Focusing on this period would really liven up future boxed sets, reinstating the freedom that the Doctor Who format allows whilst still being able to play in the Time War sandbox.
Spoiler Free Summary: Brimming with ideas, shame about the Daleks!
The Time War 2
Written By: Jonathan Morris, Guy Adams, Timothy X Atack
Directed By: Ken Bentley
Paul McGann (The Doctor), Rakhee Thakrar (Bliss), Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks), Jacqueline Pearce (Cardinal Ollistra), Julia McKenzie (The Twelve), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Tamasan), Amanda Root (Lendek), Rakie Ayola (Pollia / Lambda Epsilon), Guy Adams (Rendo), Simon Slater (Carvil / Shaler), Jon Culshaw (Doctor Ogron), Victor McGuire (Borton), Anya Chalotra (Ensign Murti), Tania Rodrigues (Chief Panath), Surinder Duhra (Executive Officer Omor). Other parts played by members of the cast.