Where Palindrome was a story about how the Daleks deal with being erased from creation by the Valeyard, Lisa McMullin’s Dreadshade is about the confusing universe that’s been created by their abrupt absence. Nature abhors a vacuum, and an old enemy of the Doctor takes advantage of the confusion to push their own deadly agenda.
How do you rebuild a society after a war? How do you come to terms with all the horrors you’ve witnessed, the horrors you’ve committed? How do you honour the sacrifice of those who’ve fallen in battle? How do you do all that when you can’t even remember being at war, or who you were fighting? This is the core idea at the heart of Dreadshade, a story that is very much about the fear and anger that follows conflict and asks how we can possibly move on from it.
It opens with the Doctor and Bliss arriving on post-war Gallifrey where no one can remember the events of the Time War. Worse still, the Doctor and Bliss can’t remember what it is they should be warning everyone about.
Long-term, multi-platform Eighth Doctor fans could be forgiven for feeling a bit daunted by yet another amnesia plot – incidentally, how many have there been since the TV Movie? Three? Four? I forget – but at least he still remembers that he’s the Doctor.
Memories and information are eked out as the Doctor teams up with the General (Ken Bones reprising – or should that be reprising? – his role from The Day of the Doctor and Hell Bent) to investigate a breach in the Omega arsenal. Meanwhile, Bliss is partnered with the brusque Rasmus to liberate a prison camp and begins to unlock her own memories of the cruelty of the Timelords. As fun as it is to hear about all the ludicrous weapons in the arsenal – Terror Ants anyone? – the highlight of the story is Bliss and Rasmus’ chilly partnership. She’s not shy about tearing strips off the great and powerful Timelords for the lives they’ve sacrificed and for their reprehensible, class-based military hierarchy. Rakhee Thakrar never overplays her hand, preferring an icily incisive delivery of her criticisms rather than grandstanding moral indignation.
It’s in these scenes, and in the dialogue between the Doctor and the General, that McMullin paints a vivid picture of a self-obsessed Gallifreyan society that hasn’t been chastened by conflict. A throwaway line about the Master and the Rani, for example, suggests that there is a rather self-aggrandising and naïve belief that, in a universe without Daleks, the only worthy threat to the Timelords are themselves. Disappointingly, this does leave us with a familiar central story about an opportunistic scheme by the Twelve at the heart of the Gallifreyan citadel. It’s how we first met their previous self, the Eleven and for a relatively new Big Finish character it’s disappointing to have them already retreading old ground. Still, retreading old ground never stopped the Master. The Twelve’s plot feels like it comes out of a need to tell a Doctor Who story with a proper threat and a villain when really this is more of a thematic piece. It’s got less of a thematic and emotional resonance than Palindrome but it makes a good fist of addressing some of the issues involved in telling stories about the Time War.
One of the main stumbling blocks of each of the Time War ranges has been how most of the stories (with some notable exceptions) have dealt with the conflict as a linear series of events. And yet, by providing an ending, of sorts, for the Time War Dreadshade gives us an idea of what a confusing and horrible mess is left by the aftermath. We’re used to things being wiped out of existence post-Moffat, but I don’t think we’ve ever felt the abruptness and the ensuing absence as keenly as we do in the stronger moments of this story.
You can buy Time War 4 from Big Finish.