We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! As many fans will already be aware, a few weeks ago, Sir John Hurt passed away at the age of 77. Renowned for many roles over his lengthy career, he was dear to the Doctor Who fandom as the War Doctor, the previously-unknown incarnation who fought in–and ended–the Last Great Time War. His later incarnations considered him the one who broke the promise; he considered himself to be only a warrior, unworthy of the name of the Doctor; but he was neither.
I had already written the upcoming review and its sequels prior to John Hurt’s death; I had been planning this series since about week four of my Destiny of the Doctor series, which I completed last week. Likewise, I had already written Tuesday’s review of Engines of War, the first War Doctor novel. It is with sadness that I acknowledge that it all suddenly became much more timely; and so I decided to go ahead with these posts as planned, and consider it a tribute to Mr. Hurt’s life and untimely death. (With that said, the content here wasn’t written as a memorial, and may not match that idea in tone–but I’ve chosen to leave it mostly unchanged from what I originally wrote.)
One more thing, and I’ll put on my moderator hat for a moment here: Our community Discord Big Finish Nights resumed last week, and currently we are listening to and discussing this series of audios. It’s a good time to join if you haven’t, as we check out the first War Doctor audios. Link is in the sidebar.
Today we’re listening to the first chapter of the War Doctor, Volume I: Only the Monstrous. This entry is titled The Innocent. Be warned; it’s a long one. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
The Daleks are massing for what they plan to be the final assault on Gallifrey. Massed in nearby space, they have brought their largest force yet: an entire fleet of time ships, accompanied by stealth ships. However, the Time Lords—under the command at the moment of the manipulative Cardinal Ollistra—are ready for them. Secretly, they have established an installation in space, and armed it with a devastating piece of equipment, ironically stolen from the Daleks themselves: a Time Destructor. Thanks to the First Doctor’s history with the Daleks on Kembel, its effects are known: it will age the Daleks and their equipment to the point of death and destruction by advancing local time. Unfortunately, it’s a suicide mission; the two Time Lords on the installation, Arverton and Bennus, must activate it manually, but that means it will kill them as well. Ollistra, then, is shocked when the victory is announced…by Arverton and Bennus, in person.
According to the soldiers, they were interrupted just before activation by an incoming TARDIS. The man who was once known as the Doctor—but has now foresworn that name—met them, and volunteered to take their place. Sending them away in their own TARDIS, he stayed to activate the destructor himself…and died in the process. Ollistra castigates them for this occurrence, telling them the Doctor is worth a hundred of them.
The War Doctor, though, is not dead. Caught in the destructor’s field, he managed to enter his TARDIS and escape; his previous experience on Kembel had shown him that a Time Lord can survive it for a time, though they are harmed in the process. He awakens on a strange, sunny world, and finds himself in the care of a young woman named Rejoice, on the planet Keska. He immediately passes out, and sleeps for about fifty days, before awakening again. Rejoice is alarmed by his lengthy sleep, but it appears to be an induced coma, which will help him recover from the effect of the time destructor.
Rejoice tells him that she knows nothing of the Time War, as it hasn’t touched Keska. However, Keska has its own war, against a race called the Taalyens. He tries to return to the TARDIS, but passes out again, and again sleeps for fifty days. While unconscious, he dreams of his recent encounters in the war.
When he awakens, the building is under attack, being bombarded by the Taalyens. Rejoice escorts him into the basement; he is still unclear on the nature of the war, and mentions the Daleks, but she has never heard of them. She explains more; Rejoice’s people and the Taalyens both originate on a world called Traan, but Rejoice’s people fled oppression and came to Keska. Now the Taalyens have tracked them here, adopting rocket technology left behind on Traan to create ships and weapons.
To Rejoice’s amazement, the TARDIS is unharmed; she had believed it destroyed. The Doctor intends to leave and return to his own war, leaving the Keskans and the Taalyens to sort out their own problems. However, he overhears a communication between Rejoice and her father, which indicates that the Keskans are woefully unprepared to fight the Taalyens; they have been a peaceful people until now. Afterward, the Doctor chooses to stay and help. He takes Rejoice via TARDIS to the governmental citadel, where the Keskan Collective—the governing body, of which Rejoice’s father is the chairman—are meeting. They are debating non-violent options, which include surrender and the concealing of a core group of survivors, until the Doctor interrupts.
The Doctor describes the likely battle plan of the Taalyens, and concludes that it will end in genocide. Rejoice suggests that he is only doing this to persuade them to join his larger war; he doesn’t deny that possibility, but also says that he is offering because they didn’t try to force him to help. He then reveals that he can use the communication satellites in orbit to save them.
Thran, Rejoice’s father, says that any decision taken must be made by the collective; the Doctor chastises him for waiting. He then enters the satellite control center, and begins to work—but then passes out again.
When the Doctor awakens, he reprograms the satellites to create a defensive shield around the planet, but he refuses to press the button to activate it; he insists that it must be the Keskans’ decision. Then he passes out again, and has another flashback to the time destructor station. He is only out for a few seconds this time, but Thran has still not pressed the button; his indecision and usual reliance on the collective have stayed his hand, and he refuses to do it. Impulsively, Rejoice presses the button, activating the shield.
Thran thanks the Doctor, and offers to repay him. He offers to celebrate and make the Doctor the guest of honor. The Doctor declines, and tells him not to celebrate; the Doctor also refuses to give his name, which he has never given them until now. He then goes to rest.
Elsewhere, a high-ranked Time Lord named Seratrix contacts Ollistra from his TARDIS, stating he is returning to Gallifrey. She bids him a safe journey. As soon as the communication ends, he and his aide are interrupted by a Dalek ship in the vortex—not a time ship, but a real-space ship which has only momentarily jumped into the vortex. In that moment, it attacks, and knocks Seratrix’s TARDIS out of the vortex to coordinates unknown.
The Doctor remains on Keska for 134 days, during which Rejoice visits him several times (seventeen, in fact). His recovery is proceeding well, though he thinks he is not strong enough yet to leave. Rejoice takes pity on him for the war and for his nightmares, but he becomes angry about it.
A Time Lady appears on Keska, having located the Doctor. She is Veklin, a servant of Cardinal Ollistra, and she has come to bring the Doctor back; he responds badly, especially when she calls him the Doctor. He rejects her orders to return, and goes out in a boat with Rejoice to get away from Veklin.
Rejoice asks him about his refusal to be called the Doctor, and why he won’t return. He dodges the first question, and then says that he wants to help only on his own terms—he doesn’t take orders. He mentions his past mission to prevent the rise of the Daleks, and admits that it may have led to the Time War. In return , Rejoice recounts some history of the Taalyen war, but admits that she had not been born yet, and doesn’t know much. He blames himself, and calls himself a monster, to Rejoice’s horror. “War is very simple, and all you have to do to wage it is become a monster. That’s what I am.” He loses his temper and knocks Rejoice from the boat, but instantly regrets it, though she handles it better than she should.
The Time Lords intervene, trying to extract the Doctor back to Gallifrey. Rejoice insists on going with him against his orders, insisting that he needs someone to help him. He and Rejoice make it into the TARDIS, but it is not enough; Ollistra authorizes use of extra power from the Eye of Harmony, and the TARDIS is pulled back to Gallifrey. The Doctor speculates that this indicates some desperation on the part of Ollistra, as diverting power from the Eye would weaken Gallifrey’s defenses. Rejoice is discarded by Ollistra, and safely returned to Keska; the Doctor assures her she will be safe, and apologizes to her. As she vanishes, she assures him he is not a monster. Ollistra remarks on Rejoice’s faith in him, and welcomes him home. “Home,” he says with disgust. “You’re welcome to it.”
Although this story stands fairly well on its own, it’s very obvious that it’s the first part of a longer story. The entirety of volume I, Only the Monstrous, comprises one long story involving the planet Keska; we’ll see that the later parts depend more heavily on this story and on the overarching narrative, and my reviews will adjust accordingly. In the meantime, we get a good introduction to several recurring characters, mostly Time Lords: Cardinal Ollistra, her agent Veklin, the soldiers Bennus and Arverton, the Time Lord strategist Seratrix, and of course the Keskan would-be companion Rejoice (her father also appears, but I suspect he only appears in this part of the story—time will tell). We get an overview of the war between the Keskans and the as-yet-unseen Taalyens, and a status update on the Time War.
As is typical for events in the Time War, obtaining a precise date is impossible. We really only have one effective date for the Time War, and that is the Fall of Arcadia on the last day, as seen in The Day of the Doctor; and even that can’t effectively be matched to a date in the outside universe, let alone in Earth chronology. Everything else within the war is subjective, and I expect this to be the case with every War Doctor story. On the other hand, we do know that within Keska’s history, this story is at least a full generation after the arrival of the Keskans on the planet, as their arrival was prior to Rejoice’s birth. It’s suggested, as well, that the events on Keska are not concurrent with the use of the Time Destructor at Omega One; the Doctor seems to have escaped through time, and connecting the two time periods is an exercise in futility.
I can’t say I like Cardinal Ollistra—of course, we aren’t meant to like her—but I like her portrayal. Of all corrupt Gallifreyan politicians, she seems to be possibly the most corrupt; or perhaps “corrupt” isn’t the right word, but “opportunistic”. Certainly she is manipulative, and looks down on the Doctor even while acknowledging his worth and skill. While she isn’t evil per se, she is utterly self-centered even while serving the needs of her world; and I gather that she can be quite cruel, though we haven’t seen it yet. (I can’t help feeling there is a lot going on behind the scenes with her, so perhaps I should reserve final judgment.) She does beg the question: Where is the rest of the High Council? Where is the War Council? She is a Cardinal, as opposed to President or any military rank, and yet she exercises prerogatives that should belong to the military. It’s a curious situation.
Ollistra’s agent, Veklin, doesn’t get a very complimentary image here, although I know it improves somewhat in the next installment. She’s portrayed here as a thug, and little more, sent to bring the Doctor back to Gallifrey. She’s balanced a bit by Gallifreyan soldiers Bennus and Arverton, who are the comedic “straight men” in this story—although there’s precious little comedy to be had. They are being played by Ollistra, and it’s not clear why; the Doctor suggests that she meant them to die, and is vengeful because they did not.
Rejoice is the interesting character here, and the point of relation for the audience. If this were any other Doctor, she would be a new companion; the Doctor even says as much, commenting that “in another life…well, this would have been the start of a new adventure.” The story even baits us a bit, making it appear that she will travel with him—and then Ollistra interferes, sending her home (slight spoiler there, but it will pay off in the next installment, so don’t kill me). But Rejoice voices a very common sentiment among the Doctor’s companions: He can’t safely travel alone. He needs people—in this case, to show him that he is not the monster he thinks he is.
Although this is a Time War story, the role of the Daleks is greatly reduced. They provide a frame for the story, giving us the opening with the failed assault on Gallifrey, and the conclusion with the loss of Seratrix from the vortex. Otherwise, they only appear in the Doctor’s flashbacks. They will have a greater role in Parts Two and Three.
References to other stories are a motley collection here; being the Time War, there will be many references to past Dalek stories, and occasional references to other incidents. The elephant in the room is the Time Destructor; this was first used on Kembel in The Daleks’ Master Plan, the First Doctor serial that saw the entrance and the death of Sara Kingdom; the destructor also featured in the novel Natural Regression. The Doctor refers to the events of Genesis of the Daleks, and states that he believes it is what sparked the war, which was a common fan theory prior to this story; this is another item he uses to blame himself for the war and call himself a monster. Dalek time ships first appeared in The Chase; stealth ships appeared in the War Doctor novel Engines of War. He states that it is hard to tell the difference between Time Lords and Daleks sometimes; this harks back to the doomed Cass in The Night of the Doctor, who said the same thing to the Eighth Doctor. He repeats often that he is not to be called the Doctor, and in fact grows quite angry with those who use the name (there’s a great sound effect for his voice every time he yells about it, reminiscent of Gandalf looming over Frodo with the One Ring); this is in line with his statements in The Day of the Doctor and the Eleventh Doctor’s statements in The Name of the Doctor. Rejoice, in typical companion fashion, comments on the TARDIS being bigger on the inside; this has appeared in many episodes, most recently The Husbands of River Song, where it was the Twelfth Doctor who made the remark. Overall, the War Doctor is taken with the question of whether he is a good man; he will still be wrestling with this as the Twelfth Doctor, as late as Death in Heaven.
I am very pleased with the new theme music for the War Doctor. It’s still the traditional Doctor Who theme, of course, but set to a militaristic march tempo; as soon as you hear it, you know this is not your father’s Doctor. It’s very fitting for the war, and for the War Doctor as well; he is not a nice man anymore. He has his good moments, but he is a much harder man than in any past incarnation; only Six comes close, and I remember reflecting that this is the man that Six may have grown into, had he lived long enough. I’ll leave the question of whether he is a good man for another time; but he is a practical and pragmatic man, and he is perhaps at his most efficient and cunning, even while he keeps his personal demons at bay. The Sisterhood of Karn knew their business when they created the Elixir that brought him into being; he is definitely the right man for the job.
Some low points: I was very thrown off by the incident I mentioned above, where he passes out in the satellite control room. It’s very unclear whether he sleeps for a hundred days here, or whether Rejoice is referring to time already past. [Edit: As per some Discord discussion last week, it seems the consensus is the latter, which is good–but it’s not phrased well in the audio.] It jarred me out of immersion for a bit while I tried to piece it together. As well, there’s a scene where it appears that he’s assaulting Rejoice; the audio without video makes it hard to tell. Even as the War Doctor, I think that that is out of character for him. He may think he’s a monster, but personal cruelty is not in his bag of tricks, I think.
All in all, it’s a decent first outing for the War Doctor. When I first prepared this review, I hadn’t yet read the novel, Engines of War, which was released prior to this story; so my only point of reference for his character was The Day of the Doctor. He’s very weary in that story; here, he has not yet reached that place of giving up hope, but you can see how he is beginning to move in that direction. It’s sad, but inevitable.
Next time: Only the Monstrous, Part Two: The Thousand Worlds! See you there.
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this audio drama’s purchase page is linked below. Please note, this story is only available as part of the noted box set.
The War Doctor, Volume One: Only the Monstrous