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!
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.”
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.
…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.