The War Doctor Volume 3 – Agents of Chaos begins with two stories that explore the ingenuity and sheer determination of the Daleks and the Time Lords’ desperate attempts to hold back the tide. And while most planets are keeping their heads down and trying in vain to avoid the crossfire, the third story showcases one of Doctor Who’s most essential alien races and their attempts to JOIN the Time War on either side. Most importantly tough, Agents of Chaos shows just how jaded and ruthless the War Doctor has become, incredibly close to going over the edge as the sacrifice of the innocent is rapidly becoming all too common for him.
John Hurt (The War Doctor)
Jacqueline Pearce (Cardinal Ollistra)
Neve McIntosh (Lara)
Honeysuckle Weeks (Heleyna)
Timothy Speyer (Kruger),
Helen Goldwyn (Professor Crane)
Gunnar Cauthery (Kavarin)
Matthew Cottle (Leith)
Dan Starkey (General Fesk/Sontarans)
Josh Bolt (Kalan)
Barnaby Edwards (Vassarian)
Andrew French (Muren)
Nicholas Briggs (Dalek Time Strategist/Daleks)
The Shadow Vortext – David Llewleyyn
The Eternity Cage – Andrew Smith
Eye of Harmony – Ken Dorney
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
Sound and Music: Howard Carter
Released: 6 October 2016
Cardinal Ollistra exploits the War Doctor’s affection for Earth to send him to East Berlin, 1961, on the trail of a Dalek agent. Lara Zannis has breached the planet’s quantum shield on a very special mission for the Dalek Time Strategist.
Caught between MI6 and the KGB, the War Doctor must first escape the Stasi before he can hope to stop Lara. Cold War scientists are about to make a breakthrough – the Daleks want control of the ‘Shadow Vortex’, and Agent Zannis can provide it.
The Shadow Vortex takes place in the divided city of Berlin in the early 1960’s. In most circumstances, this story would have been a perfect fit in any of the other Big Finish Doctor Who ranges (or even The Avengers range) as a solidly written, enjoyable-but-ultimately forgettable Cold War thriller. However, those pepperpot Daleks add a dash of the Time War to the story by sending one of their human agents, Lara Zannis, to Earth. The planet had been spared the ravages and destruction of the Time War thanks to a quantum shield erected around the planet by the Time Lords, but the Daleks plan to change all that. As the Doctor finds himself the “guest” of the notorious East German secret police known as the Stasi, Lara plans to radically chance both Earth’s history as well as the Doctor’s by giving an English nuclear project in West Berlin “stolen” “East German” “reactor” blueprints. Instead of providing the West with a powerful weapon or unlimited power, the blueprints create the Shadow Vortex, a portal that allows the Daleks to slip past the quantum shield and being their invasion of Earth nearly two hundred years early! And while mass destruction and extermination is always a priority to the Daleks, this time their plan has a different primary motivation – the death of the Doctor’s companions, to ensure they never cross paths with the Doctor and thus radically change not only the Doctor’s path but the path of the Daleks as well!
It’s a neat idea, though I wish they would have specifically mentioned Barbara and Ian in some capacity as they were the Doctor’s first companions and DID meet up with the First Doctor and Susan in the early 1960s. The Cold War setting does lead to a few neat moments, such as the Doctor managing to convince his captor to help him escape, the mention of Russia’s Torchwood equivalent which knows about the Daleks and send the local KGB agent to form an alliance with them, and the Dalek invasion of Berlin sounds as horrific as one might imagine. The acting is solid enough – Timothy Speyer, a well known and respect actor of the stage, brings depth to the Stasi officer Kruger, a man who serves his country while repressing the memories of child soldiers dying under his command during the final days of World War II. Neve McIntosh is best known to Doctor Who fans as Madame Vastra, lesbian, detective, Silurian, in that order. It’s good to hear her in a role outside of Vastra, and she does a fine job as Lara, Dalek time agent who is capable of giving the Doctor a run for his money. For most of The Shadow Vortex the Doctor is the one on defense, trying to escape from East Berlin as Lara tricks the leaders of the English nuclear project into helping her complete her mission.
The acting of the cast and writing by David Llewellyn is solid enough to make The Shadow Vortex enjoyable, but there’s nothing that really stands out about it. It doesn’t waste its premise as much as it does the bare minimum with it to tie the story into the greater Time War and leave John Hurt to do the heavy lifting. The solution to the closing of the Shadow Vortex is unique enough, standing out as something only the War Doctor would consider as an option as it threatens one of the fundamental rules of time travel. More importantly, it feels earned as it’s the only way to stop Lara and the Daleks from invading Earth and killing the Doctor’s companions, a high-stakes decision for a high-stakes problem.
Sontarans are the ultimate warriors – so they believe – and the Time War the ultimate conflict. Denied that glory by Skaro and Gallifrey alike, General Fesk of the Eighth Sontaran Battle Fleet employs a dangerous strategy to draw both sides to the planet Rovidia and prove his forces worthy…
Meanwhile, the War Doctor leads a rescue mission, aided by Rovidian street-urchin Kalan. Neither Daleks nor Time Lords expect the Sontarans to be so fearsome a foe, until they uncover the secret of the Eternity Cage.
I’ve always had a problem with the portrayal of the Sontarans in the revival series. Aside from The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, the Sontarans were more defined as well-meaning but bumbling buffoons as shown by Strax – a great character, but most certainly not a representative of the brutal and cunning Sontaran race that once invaded Gallifrey itself and gravely frightened no less than Sarah Jane Smith.
Thankfully, The Eternity Cage shows the Sontarans at their absolute “best.” The Sontarans consider themselves to be the finest military force in the entire universe. To be allowed to fight in the Time War, the conflict to end all conflicts, would be the highest and most glorious honor the Sontarans could possibly achieve. However the Daleks see the Sontarans as an inferior species and would not even consider an alliance with them, while the Time Lords believe the Sontarans couldn’t stand up to the Daleks in a fight. In an effort to prove them wrong, the Sontarans kidnap both Cardinal Ollistra and the Dalek Time Strategist. While the Doctor and a crack team of Time Lord commandos make an attempt to rescue the Cardinal with the assistance of a local guide who may or may not betray them, the two mortal enemies have a front row seat as the Sontarans demonstrate their might by wiping out an entire Dalek battle fleet. The Sontarans have a new weapon, something powerful enough to slice through the Dalek’s defenses with ease and something horrifying enough to give the Time Lords pause. And if neither side will ally with the Sontarans, than the Sontarans will simply declare war on them both.
The Eternity Cage does a great job of making the Sontarans great again. Much like the Eighth Doctor story The Sontaran Ordeal from Classic Doctors New Monsters Volume 1, the Sontarans are portrayed as cunning, tough, ruthless, honorable, pragmatic, and dedicated solely and utterly towards their goal of joining the Time War. Cost and sacrifice mean nothing to the Sontarans as long as the ends justify the means, and it shows as writer Andrew Smith (writer of several Big Finish stories involving the Sontarans) reveals the details of the Eternity Cage. Its very concept is enough to give Doctor Who fans a shudder, an absolutely horrible creation that gives the Sontarans their edge.
Dan Starkey once again voices the Sontarans in a Big Finish story. For General Fesk of the Eighth Battle fleet, the moral implications of the Eternity Cage mean nothing to him or the Sontarans. If it allows him to fight in the Time War, then the cost is worth the price. Starkey hits the right notes with a bombastic portrayal of a Sontaran leader, whose voice booms and carries the burden of both command and absolute obedience.
The Sontarans plan hinges around the kidnapping of the military leaders of both races – the Dalek Time Strategist and Cardinal Ollistra of the Gallifreyan High Council. The Dalek Time Strategist is, of course, voiced by Nicholas Briggs (as are all the other Daleks in the box set). Where most Dalek stories involved Daleks ordering other Daleks around in the same three voices, the Dalek Time Strategist has a very unique voice thanks to a good bit of reverb. The deep tonal quality of the Time Strategist’s voice gives him an aura of command that doesn’t resort to the stilted screaming that is a Dalek trademark. The creation of a centrally unified military command another example of how the Daleks are adapting to the Time War much faster than the Time Lords are. There are no schemes, betrayals, or backstabbing within the Dalek forces. The Time Strategist commands and the Daleks obey.
On the other side of the coin, Jacqueline Pierce’s performance allows listeners to observe the cracks beginning to form in Ollistra’s veneer. The last two box sets portrayed Ollistra as someone who was in control, always with a pragmatic plan and schemes within schemes, all to ensure that the Time Lords emerged victorious in the Time War even if it meant all the Daleks were destroyed and only one Time Lord was left standing, preferably her. This aura of confidence persists during Ollistra’s screen time in The Shadow Vortex, but come The Eternity Cage Ollistra finds herself discussing the Time War with the Dalek Time Strategist. It tells her where the Time War began – when the Time Lords “fired first” and tried to stop the creation of the Daleks in the Fourth Doctor serial Genesis of the Daleks. Faced with that information as well as being held hostage throughout both this story and The Eye of Harmony, Cardinal Ollistra finally comes face-to-face with the Time War and the damage its done both to the universe and to the lives of those who inhabit it, and the smooth, calm, scheming surface begins to wither and peel. Pierce does a wonderful job with this slow and well-earned realization that the immoral actions and desperate efforts of the Time Lords to win the Time War have done irreparable harm to the universe…and that it’s all been for nothing, as the Daleks are about to kick in Gallifrey’s back door.
In the aftermath of events on Rovidia, the Dalek Time Strategist is presented with a unique opportunity to strike a lethal blow to the heart of Gallifrey. A devastating power is set to be unleashed, and with agents in place ready to do the bidding of the Dalek Time Strategist, the future of the Time War could turn in an instant.
Trapped inside a critically-damaged Battle-TARDIS, hopelessly adrift in the Time Vortex, the War Doctor and his allies have a final desperate fight on their hands…
Eye of Harmony is all about big ideas boiling down to personal efforts and how one person, for better or for worse, can make all the difference. A traitor has taken Cardinal Ollistra hostage and hurled the Doctor out of a Battle TARDIS in mid-flight. The traitor has a long-standing grudge against not only Ollistra but all Time Lord, and the Daleks have promised her revenge. All she must do is make her way through to the room containing the TARDIS’ link to the Eye of Harmony, an exploding star trapped in a permanent state of decay whose boundless energy makes time travel possible. By the command of the Dalek Time Strategist, the traitor and a Dalek Time Assault Squad will do the unthinkable – use the Battle TARDIS’ link to the Eye of Harmony as a means to invade the heart of Gallifrey! Sowing death and destruction on the Time Lord homeworld is not among the Daleks’ plans however. Rather, their goal is something much bigger. The Daleks will ensure the erasure of the Time Lords from history by doing the unthinkable and allowing the Eye of Harmony to complete is collapse…
In my head, this is the moment where the Daleks begin their march towards victory in Time War. Writer Ken Bentley (director of numerous Big Finish audios) manages to balance the huge threat of the traitor Heleyna working feverishly to open a transmat portal to allow the Daleks access to the Eye of Harmony with the Doctor’s attempts to traverse the Battle TARDIS, as well as the traps she has laid, in order to stop her. Assisting the Doctor is Kalan, a refugee from the Dalek extermination of his planet who does his best to believe in the goodness of humanity even with the chips are down. Josh Bolt (The Be All and End All) does a fine job playing the hopeful but naïve Kalan, who nicknames the Doctor “Graybeard” and tries so desperately to act tough as he threatens Heleyna. Heleyna, aka Dalek Agent Prydon, is played by Honeysuckle Weeks, who aside from having an awesome name is best known for her role in the series Foyle’s War. Her character blames the High Council for the death of her grandfather who was killed during a campaign against the Daleks that Ollistra argued to undertake that eventually turned out to have no military worth or value. The Daleks take advantage of her grief and convince her to assist them in destroying the Eye of Harmony, ensuring Rassilon and Omega never develop the means to travel through time and thus preventing the development of Time Lord society. Without the Time Lords, there would have been no offensive and thus her grandfather would have lived. Of course, it’s a bluff (“HU-MAN WEAK-NESS. YOU CAN NE-VER LET GO OF YOUR PAST,” says the Dalek Time Strategist) and Heleyna breaks down as the Daleks invade Gallifrey. In some ways, the climax of The Eye of Harmony isn’t about the Daleks, but about Kalan trying to convince Heleyna that there’s still a chance for her to do some good even though she’s done something absolutely horrible. Weeks does a solid job, much like bolt, in getting across Heleyna’s grief, breakdown, and eventual redemption.
I mentioned earlier that Agents of Chaos shows listeners just how jaded and burned out the War Doctor has become. Upon finishing this box set and listening to John Hurt once again turn in a great performance at the War Doctor, I believe I’ve determined just what makes this incarnation of the Doctor one that his future incarnations tried to forget and deny ever existed. It’s not that the War Doctor did horrible things. The methods and solutions he utilizes throughout the box set are brutal and extreme, but they’re along the lines of the same types of methods and solutions that other Doctors have used when they had absolutely no other choice. What’s missing from the War Doctor, especially in the performance Hurt gives us this time out, is any sense of…enjoyment. That’s a poor word choice, but there’s very little pure mirth, glee, or excitement in the Doctor’s voice. Even in the worst of situations, there has always been a sense of “well, isn’t this fun” within the Doctor. After everything the Time War has thrown at him, the Doctor has stopped doing the one thing that has always defined him.
He’s stopped caring.
I don’t mean how the Eighth Doctor broke down and gave up. It’s more along the lines of when Eleven tells Amy why he takes on companions – “Because I can’t see it anymore.” All the wonders of the universe and the Doctor has seen them all. It’s his companions who provide the eyes for him now, his moral balance and emotional center. Without a companion, there’s no one to share his adventures with. No one to tell him that he did what he had to do. No one to tell him what’s wrong, or that he’s becoming someone who he isn’t. Without a companion, the Doctor isn’t the Doctor. All the actions he’s taken during the Time War and there’s no one around to help him put it in perspective except for civilians caught up in the crossfire, his fellow Time Lords who beginning to believe the ends justify the means, and the Daleks who just believe in the end. The Doctor has saved the day time and time again, but after seeing so much death and destruction no matter what actions he takes, he’s become numb to the consequences and the damage left behind. He WANTS to care, but he’s incapable of doing so anymore. The end of Eye of Harmony finds Hurt despairing about Heleyna, Kalan, and everything that’s happened, saying that it’s just one more battle in the Time War that will soon be forgotten when the next campaign begins. And he’ll go on and keep doing what he’s doing by reflex, because that’s what the Doctor does even if he can’t feel it anymore. He’s become the one thing he swore he’d never become – a soldier.
The future incarnations don’t disavow the War Doctor because of what he’s done. They disavow him because he was incapable of caring anymore. My friend said it best when I proposed this theory to him…
That would explain why they were actually afraid of him in the Anniversary Special. You can’t predict the actions of someone with nothing to live for.
And that’s why the War Doctor so dangerous.
Cobi’s Synopsis – Three solid stories about the widening of the Time War, including one concerning the Sontarans’ efforts to join the conflict, help Agents of Chaos shows the effect of the Time War on the War Doctor and how he’s finally burning out and risking becoming numb to the destruction around him.