Audio Drama Review: The Heart of the Battle

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re finishing the first War Doctor box set, Only the Monstrous; we’ll be listening to part three, The Heart of the Battle. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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As with the preceding story, we open with a flashback: During the Taalyen invasion of Keska, Rejoice tries to argue her father out of going to negotiate with the Taalyens and Daleks.  We’ll learn his fate later.

In the present, we pick up right where we left off, inside the command center.  Veklin and Bennus, still navigating the service shafts, hear the Daleks chanting “Peace in our time”.  Upstairs, Traanus confronts the Doctor and Seratrix (and Rejoice with them) and mocks them for trying to make peace with the Daleks.  Sratrix gets them out of the room; Veklin finds that the Doctor, Seratrix, and Rejoice are on the move.  She begins to prepare demolition charges as well.

Seratrix, the Doctor and Rejoice meet in what used to be Rejoice’s father’s quarters; she gets emotional, but reins it in.  Seratrix won’t let the Doctor stop the drilling mechanism; there is about an hour til it reaches the planet’s core.  He is quite serious about trying to make peace with the Daleks; he believes the Time War cannot be won.  The Doctor is appalled by the plan;  Seratrix does make a compelling case, but it’s not a sound plan given what the Doctor knows about the Daleks.  Meanwhile, Veklin and Bennus climb a service shaft to get to Seratrix’s group.

In arguing their points, Seratrix points out that the Doctor was involved with the very beginning of the war, and fought the Daleks long before the war.  Rejoice tells the story of how the Taalyens killed her father and his diplomatic team by shipping them into the sun, and she castigates Seratrix for his plan.

Seratrix reveals that the Time Lords gave the Daleks the weapom that created the Null Zone, in response to the Doctor’s use of the Time Destructor to destroy the Dalek time fleet.  This was a gesture of good faith toward their peace intentions.  Veklin breaks in with Bennus and tells Seratrix she is there to rescue him, but he doesn’t want to be rescued.  Seratrix insists Ollistra supports the plan, but that isn’t what Veklin and company were told; the Doctor wonders why they’ve all been sent there.  However, they are interrupted by the explosion of Veklin’s charges, which temporarily disrupt the Dalek sensors and communication.  Bennus reveals the (with the deceased Arverton) is on Seratrix’s side, and pulls a gun on them.  Seratrix admits he is going to turn them all over to the Daleks for the sake of the peace efforts.  Seratrix orders Bennus to shoot Rejoice to stop Veklin from extracting him, prompting Veklin to say she will kill Seratrix if he does, but the Doctor intervenes (despite Rejoice’s willingness to die to stop Seratrix).  The Daleks send another squad to destroy the Time Lords.

Seratrix explains that the plan of the Daleks is to put hyperdrives in all the thousand worlds and move them to create a defended border around the null zone.  The Doctor counters that the Daleks don’t do defensive; they only attack, because they irreversibly believe all life to be inferior to them.  The Doctor suggests he can prove the Daleks are up to something worse.  Seratrix gets Bennus to stand down; he and Veklin agrees to give the Doctor one chance.  A Dalek break in, and Bennus shoots it.  They flee toward the old council chamber, which is now the Dalek control center, fighting Daleks and Taalyens along the way.  Traanus gets a report about the Time Lords, and goes to interfere.

Near the Control Center, they manage to cut communications with the drill apparatus, which is approaching the core.  The Doctor and company walk into the control center and face the Daleks and Prime Dalek.  The Doctor bluffs that the attacks weren’t made by them, but by other Time Lords; he says they are there as part of Seratrix’s team, to help restore communications with the drill.  He calls himself John Smith.  Seratrix is forced to play along.  The Doctor and Veklin start to work, and restore communications, then the sensors; unknown to the Daleks, Veklin is also strategically placing demolition charges.  With that done, Seratrix asks for clarification of the Dalek plan.  The Daleks call the plan as Seratrix said, but the Doctor elaborates that the surfaces of the planets will be destroyed in the process; the Daleks say the inhabitants will receive alternate living arrangements.  Meanwhile, Traanus approaches the control center.

The Doctor pulls up a schematic which shows that the real plan is to launch the thousand worlds at fifty times the speed of light at Gallifrey, utterly destroying it.  The Daleks don’t want this plan revealed, of course, but it’s too late.  Seratrix still tries to plead for peace, but the Daleks exterminate him.  Before they can fire on the others, Veklin sets off carefully placed charges, which destroy the pathweb that lets the Daleks communicate; the relevant overload deafens and overwhelms the Daleks, knocking them out.  The Doctor says this allows the Keskans to retake their world and destroy the Daleks; however that will still leave the Taalyens to deal with.

The Doctor re-establishes communication with the drill again, and contacts Garv, who—with others—is onboard the drill.  Traanus breaks in and confronts them.  He is willing to kill them, even at the cost of his life, but when Rejoice points out the Daleks’ real plan, he rethinks his willingness to sacrifice all the Taalyens.  He lets the Doctor proceed.

Garv knows that there’s only one way to stop the drill—to blow it up now, before it reaches the core.  It will cause surface disruptions, but most of the population will survive.  However, it requires a signal from the control center to release control to the onboard crew.  The Doctor wants to save Garv and his crew, but he knows he can’t.  Traanus mocks him for his indecision, but the Doctor states that he’s known he is a monster already, and only a monster would make this decision.  Rejoice offers to do it and take the guilt—but the Doctor refuses, and presses the button.  Garv says his grateful goodbyes, and then blows up the drill.

The Doctor comments on Seratrix’s plan, and admits it was hopeful—but misguided.  Traanus mocks him again, and tries to kill the Doctor with a knife; Rejoice takes the blow instead.  Outraged, the Doctor orders Veklin and Bennus to hold Traanus, and he tries to kill Traanus, inciting more mockery; Veklin stops him.  As the Doctor’s anger fades, Traanus suggests the Doctor’s punishment for his weakness is to live.  However, it’s short-lived, as a Battle TARDIS appears around them, whisking them away.

It’s Ollistra.  She dismisses Veklin, who is outraged that she doesn’t understand how this was done; TARDISes shouldn’t be able to operate in the Null Zone.  She orders Veklin to forget everything, on pain of dematerialization.  The Time Lords are wiping out the relatively-underpowered Daleks and their Taalyen allies.  Without time travel technology, the Daleks are disadvantaged; Ollistra agrees it is a massacre, but not of the innocent.

Ollistra explains to the Doctor that she engineered all this because she couldn’t risk allowing Seratrix’s plans for peace to contaminate the rest of the population.  So she gave Seratrix the null zone weapon, with a backdoor built in, and sent him undercover for this purpose, so that he would ultimately be removed.  Bennus and Arverton were his agents; but when the Doctor prevented their deaths at Omega One, she was forced to think the Doctor may be, as well.  Therefore she arranged this mission to get rid of them all; now she has shut down the Null Zone weapon, and the Time Lords are mopping up.  Seratrix will be a martyr, and the Doctor’s real loyalties were proven; Veklin, loyal to Ollistra, would have been unfortunate collateral damage.  Still, the Doctor considers Ollistra bloodthirsty; after all, her plan, though successful, still wove death and destruction over a thousand worlds.

Ollistra takes him to a beautiful pastoral world; she tells him it is Keska, in the future.  The planet has healed, and the memory of the war is now mostly forgotten.  But a memorial to Rejoice stands, and she is considered a symbol of peace and hope.  Ollistra doesn’t know if she survived her stabbing, though.  Still, Ollistra chides the Doctor for thinking himself sympathetic, and forgetting that he—like all Time Lords—is a warrior.

His TARDIS is buried where they stand.  He summons it to the surface.  He tells Ollistra goodbye, and says he hopes he never sets eyes on her again.  Still, she is glad he is on their side, and will fight to the end.  He admits it, but says he doesn’t feel the need to enjoy it.  She wants to know where she can find him…“At the heart of the battle, where the blood of the innocents flows, and only the monstrous survive.”

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There’s a lot going on in this entry, despite its status as part three of a longer story. The cast of characters continues to be the same; but here we get the full story on each of them, and the final explanation of why the events of parts two and three take place. The series as a whole does a good job of playing up Ollistra as an adversary for the Doctor, then subverting that by having her prove to have masterminded the entire affair; usually when that sort of thing happens, the individual in question DOES turn out to be untrustworthy, but Ollistra isn’t like that. The story leaves the situation well set up for an ongoing rivalry of sorts between Ollistra and the Doctor; they’re uncomfortable allies, each with their own views on how to proceed, but with ideals that are similar enough to push them together. There are hints along the way as to the final outcome, but they’re fairly subtle; I, for one, figured out ahead of time that Bennus and Arverton were agents of Seratrix, and not to be trusted as such, but I completely missed the idea that Ollistra had a backdoor to the Null Zone weapon, and would swoop in with a TARDIS fleet.

I think it’s interesting that none of the significant Time War figures established in the television series are present here (with the exception of the Doctor, of course). In the interim between writing my review of The Thousand Worlds and writing this one, I was able to read George Mann’s Engines of War, which appears to be very near the end of the war, from the Doctor’s perspective. (As I write this, weeks before posting, I have completed a review of the book, but I’m not sure if I will post that review or this first, so some of this may have already been said.) That book does feature Rassilon, and also mentions that the Master has fled the War, which helps support the case for the book taking place later in the War. Here, however, we don’t see Rassilon or the General, which leads me to think this story takes place earlier (though not so early that the War Doctor appears young). It’s interesting, too, that a Cardinal is directly spearheading military operations; but then again, that seems to be common on Gallifrey—the High Council is known to have a habit of getting directly involved.

The Taalyens in general, and Traanus in particular, seem underused in parts two and three. It’s interesting to me that they play a larger role in part one, where they are never actually seen. Here, they play second fiddle to the Daleks—and what’s worse, they know it; they simply don’t care. Traanus is fascinating, though; he’s a lot like Davros, who famously boasted to the Fourth Doctor that he would willingly destroy all life, including his own, to prove his superiority and power. Traanus makes it clear he would sacrifice himself, his loved ones, and his entire race to destroy an enemy; he balks a bit when he finds out that the Daleks plan exactly that, but then he recovers and mocks the Doctor for weakness in that regard. He could make an interesting recurring villain—he’s low and vile, but he’s okay with that. It’s a stance we don’t see very often; he’s a thug, but an intelligent one, and he has a twisted form of integrity that could make him a challenge. And interestingly, we don’t know what became of him; he’s still alive when we last see him. We know the Keskans win back their world, but we don’t know how.

In the same vein, we don’t know what happened to Rejoice. Ollistra tells the Doctor she doesn’t know if Rejoice survived her wounds. I have yet to see if anything comes of it—and I don’t want to look ahead—but clearly the intention was to preserve the character as a possible companion, should the writers decide to take that route.

My biggest issue with this story, and the entire set as a whole, is that it really fails to live up to its name. The Doctor calls himself a monster—as has been implied since the War Doctor’s first appearance in The Name of the Doctor–but it’s patently untrue. This story tries hard to build up that aspect—it’s right there in the title—but at the end, when he pushes the button and lets Garv’s crew die, it does nothing to really portray him as monstrous. He’s not a monster; he’s a good man whose back is to the wall. We know that the Doctor tries to always take the choice that will allow no one to die; but sometimes that’s just not possible, and he has to take the route that saves as much and as many as possible. In addition, he’s further let off the hook here by Garv, who—with his crew—makes the choice to sacrifice themselves.  The Doctor doesn’t blow up the drill; he releases control so that Garv can do it.  Had he actually killed them himself, it may have added weight to his claim to monstrosity; but as it is, it falls short.  And overall, that’s not a bad thing; I would not want to be the writer who makes the Doctor truly monstrous, because that would imply that he is evil, and he is never that.  It’s possible that, in taking that stance, the entire course of the revived series has written itself into a corner; you can never live up to the hype of the Doctor’s actions being vile.

References: We get more of them here than in the last entry. The Time Destructor is mentioned again, having first been seen in The Daleks’ Master Plan, and of course used in The Innocent. Rejoice has another talk about the Doctor being a good man, which is debated in Deep Breath and many other episodes, especially under the Twelfth Doctor. The plan to drill out the core and install hyperdrives is reminiscent of The Dalek Invasion of Earth; crashing a planet into Gallifrey was first suggested in The Apocalypse Element, also by the Daleks. Gallifreyan sky trenches (The Last Day, The Day of the Doctor) and transduction barriers (The Invasion of Time, Engines of War, others) are mentioned. The Dalek Pathweb was mentioned in Asylum of the Daleks. The Null Zone weapon came from the Omega Arsenal (The Day of the Doctor). Seratrix refers loosely to the events of Genesis of the Daleks, which the Daleks in Engines of War state to be the start of the War. Seratrix asks the Doctor if he is a monster or a coward, which mirrors a line from The Parting of the Ways.

So, that’s it for the War Doctor, series one! With three more audio series ahead, plus a Time War set featuring the Eighth Doctor due in November, it’s a good time to be looking at the Last Great Time War. The War Doctor is quickly becoming one of my favorites, and I’m looking forward to more ahead.

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…But not just yet. Next time: We’ll take a brief break and do something different; we’ll look at a “what if” story from the Doctor Who Unbound range. Mel Bush meets an old enemy, the Valeyard, in He Jests at Scars! Afterward, we’ll be returning to the Eighth Doctor Adventures for Series Two. 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.  The Heart of the Battle is not available separately, and may only be purchased as part of the listed box set.

Only the Monstrous

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Audio Drama Review: The Thousand Worlds

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re continuing our look at the first War Doctor box set, Only The Monstrous. Last week we listened to the first entry, The Innocent; this week, we’re listening to The Thousand Worlds. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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After the Doctor’s extraction from Keska, Rejoice meets with her father, and tells him that the Doctor is gone.  She mourns his loss, but her father is glad she was left behind.

From the Doctor’s perspective, the story continues immediately.  He meets with Cardinal Ollistra, who orders him onto a strike team led by Veklin, the agent who came for him on Keska.  Also on the team are Bennus and Arverton, the two agents whom the Doctor rescued from the Time Destructor before landing on Keska.  Ollistra wants them to go behind enemy lines—that is, into an area of space called the Null Zone, which is held by the Daleks.  The area is so called because time travel is impossible inside it; only spaceflight can be completed.  They will be looking for a missing Time Lord strategist named Seratrix.  The Doctor—who still declines to be called by that name—insults Ollistra and Veklin, then summons his TARDIS and escapes, refusing to be part of any team.  Veklin, Bennus, and Arverton follow him in a Battle TARDIS.  Meanwhile, the Daleks are preparing to execute their plan.

The Doctor hits the border of the Null Zone, and is forced to land on Keska, although he doesn’t know that’s where he is.  He finds himself in a slave camp, and meets a man named Garv, who informs him of the planet’s identity, leaving him stunned.  The Taalyens have somehow conquered the planet; and now, a massive drilling machine is being built.  But why? And how?  Moreover, there are a thousand worlds in the Null Zone, and all of them have received the same treatment.  Meanwhile, Veklin’s team also lands, though not nearby, and finds several life signs: Keskan, Taalyen, Gallifreyan…and Dalek.

The Doctor promises Garv that he has fought the Daleks before, and will defeat them here.  When asked for a name, he calls himself John Smith.  He is separated from Garv’s slave group, who are sent down to the drill level.  The Daleks mention a pre-launch sequence, sparking the Doctor’s curiosity.  Veklin and her team pursue the Doctor—and, hopefully, Seratrix—into the machinery, carrying demolition packs.

The Doctor meets a Taalyen guard, and passes himself off as a slave elite.  The guard challenges him, but he is saved by a real slave elite, the woman in charge of that group of slaves.  Once free of the guard, she becomes emotional, because she recognizes the Doctor, though he does not recognize her at first…it is Rejoice.  They bring each other up to date, but Rejoice thinks he cannot save the planet this time, as the Daleks are supporting the Tallyens—in fact, it was the Daleks who helped them get inside the planetary shield.  The Doctor assures her that there is a connection between the situation here in the thousand worlds and the greater Time War…and he intends to figure it out.

Veklin’s team infiltrates via the fuel-pumping tunnels of the machinery, but they must hurry; periodically, fuel is purged through the tunnels, and will kill them.  They are detected by the Daleks, who send a Taalyen squad in after them.  They defeat the squad, but are caught by a fuel purge; Arverton sacrifices himself to get them to safety.  He refers to Bennus in his last moments as “brother”; this piques Veklin’s curiosity.  Bennus attributes it to a unit they served in, under Seratrix and Ollistra.  Meanwhile, the Daleks think they were all killed in the purge.

The Doctor and Rejoice help serve food at a celebratory feast for the Taalyen leadership; the Prime Dalek is also there, with the Taalyen commander, Traanus.  Seratrix is also there; the Doctor learns, to his horror, that Seratrix is working with Traanus and the Prime Dalek.  He is outed as a Gallifreyan, but Seratrix vouches for him and saves his life; he knows that if the Daleks recognize him as the Doctor, they will kill him.

The drilling machine is launched.  It will drill into the planet’s core, and destroy the core; it’s a plan the Doctor has seen before.  Seratrix insists that he is working for the greater good; this plan will lead to peace with the Daleks, who now rule the Null Zone.  The Doctor is shocked to silence, as the Daleks chant “Peace in our time”.

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It must be mentioned up front that this story, unlike The Innocent, can’t stand on its own. It very clearly represents only half a story; technically it’s the middle third of a three-part story, but parts two and three together can stand reasonably well as a unit. As such, it’s fairly short on action, and consists of a considerable amount of setup for what is to come; it relies more on dialogue than its sequel. Again, obtaining a precise date is impossible; in local terms, it’s a few decades after The Innocent, but in terms of the overall war, it’s impossible to say. From the Doctor’s view, only hours at most have passed since he left Keska, but from Rejoice’s perspective, it’s been many years. It’s a stark contrast, given that he spent nearly a year on Keska in the previous story; here, it all happens in hours at most. Keska itself is a study in contrasts; it was peaceful, sunny, and pastoral in the previous episode, but here it has been rendered an industrial wasteland. One gets the impression that this story takes place at night, but that can’t be confirmed.

My character sketches from the previous entry still stand, and I won’t repeat them here; however, we begin to get more information about everyone. There is more than meets the eye with the Time Lord soldiers Bennus and Arverton; there’s a shared history that we haven’t discovered yet, with only the barest hint given. (If I may be allowed a small spoiler: when the first of these characters dies, there’s no hint of any chance of a regeneration, which may indicate that they’re Gallifreyan, but not Time Lords–if, that is, the theory that common Gallifreyans don’t regenerate like fully trained Time Lords is true.) Their team leader (and Ollistra’s agent) Veklin, meanwhile, is not as shallow as previously presented; she’s still very straightforward, ambitious, headstrong, and rude, but she’s also clever, though not nearly on the level of the Doctor. We get a new character in the Time Lord strategist Seratrix, who only briefly appeared in The Innocent; we don’t get enough about him here to say much, but he has the air of a cult leader, charismatic and totally sold on his vision. What exactly that vision is…well, wait and see.

The Dalek chant at the end, “Peace in our time”–which isn’t much of a spoiler when taken out of context like this–would instantly trigger any history buff. It’s a misquotation of former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (the original line is “Peace for our time”), who used the line in a famous speech regarding the 1938 Munich Agreement. That agreement, of course, fell apart within a year when Germany invaded Poland, leading the UK to declare war. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement toward Germany, much ridiculed in history, is mirrored here in Seratrix’s peace efforts with the Daleks. We’ll have more about that in part three.

The Doctor continues to reject that name; throughout this box set, anytime he is addressed as “Doctor”, he has an angry outburst. Those moments are notable; they are played up with sound effects, and the effect is similar to Gandalf’s angry speech to Bilbo Baggins in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf seems to grow more imposing. The Doctor doesn’t comment on it much here, as he did in The Innocent; but he still believes himself to be a monster. Eventually, in Engines of War, he will come to apply that view to the Time Lords as a whole, considering them no different from the Daleks.

As with The Innocent, references are few and far between; this story refers back to The Innocent a fair bit, but not so much to stories outside the Time War. The “John Smith” nickname dates back to The Tomb of the Cybermen, and has been used in many stories since. The drilling plan was used by the Daleks previously in The Dalek Invasion of Earth; this occurrence is also addressed in audios Lucie Miller/To The Death and The Mutant Phase.

Overall, my only real complaint here is that this story feels very short. That’s to be expected, I suppose; after all, it is only a connector between parts one and three, where the real action takes place. Still, it seemed to go very quickly, with not much happening. Otherwise, it’s not bad; it’s a greater window into the character of the War Doctor, but doesn’t add much.

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Next time: We’ll wrap up the first War Doctor set with The Heart of the Battle! 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.  The Thousand Worlds is not available separately, and may only be purchased as part of the listed box set.

Only the Monstrous

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Audio Drama Review: The Innocent

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.

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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!

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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.”

 

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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.

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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

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