Doctor Who – “The War Doctor Volume 1: Only the Monstrous”

Big Finish attempts the difficult with The War Doctor Volume 1: Only the Monstrous by trying to tell a story set during the Time War involving a Doctor with a minimum amount of screen time and characterization. To that end, Only the Monstrous veers away from the cosmic spanning conflict for a relatively more intimate story that focuses on developing the War Doctor’s character and personality. Big Finish’s creative choice allows for a story that features a gruffer and more bitter Doctor that still portrays all the familiar mannerisms and trappings of his other incarnation while laying the seeds for future stories where the Doctor may truly become a monster. This decision however means that those expecting a slam-bang action packed tale might walk away disappointed.

X X X X X

Cast
John Hurt (The War Doctor/John Smith)
Jacqueline Pearce (Cardinal Ollistra)
Lucy Briggs-Owen (The Nursemaid)
Carolyn Seymour (The Slave)
Beth Chalmers (Veklin)
Alex Wyndham (Seratrix)
Kieran Hodgson (Bennus)
Barnaby Edwards (Arverton)
Mark McDonnell (Traanus)
John Banks (Garv)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)

Written by: Nicholas Briggs
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
Released: December 2015

Trailer – https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-war-doctor-volume-01-only-the-monstrous-1380

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As the Daleks mass their time fleet for a final assault on Gallifrey, something ancient is waiting for them at Omega One. And a sacrifice must be made. Arch-manipulator and Time Lord strategist, Cardinal Ollistra receives shock news of the Doctor’s death.

Meanwhile, on the planet Keska, a parochial war has returned to plague a peaceful civilisation after decades of tranquillity. But how can such a war have any connection with the great Time War which, at any one moment in the whole of eternity, could threaten to tear the universe apart?

If only the Doctor were still alive.

The Innocent takes an unexpected turn to start off the first War Doctor box set.   The story itself opens with the Doctor (who refuses to acknowledge that title, preferring to be called “John Smith” when forced to provide a name) turning a Dalek superweapon against them to wipe out a massive fleet, saving the lives of two Time Lords who had volunteered for the suicide mission. The resulting temporal explosion knocks the TARDIS through the Time Vortex to the planet of Keska. Upon landing the Doctor is found by a young woman named Rejoice, who acts as his nursemaid as he convalesces over the course of six months, both physically (his body healing back to normal) and mentally (taking the time to enjoy a brief trip away from the Time War. The Innocent is a story that focuses much more on dialogue and characterization than action and war. With this narrative choice, Nicholas Briggs (who wrote and directed all three stories in this box set) allows listeners to ease into this incarnation of the Doctor. We’ve been told time and time again that the Doctor was not the Time Lord we knew during the Time War, and that he did monstrous, horrible things in order to fight the Daleks. Instead of dropping listeners into a situation with a Doctor who might be unrecognizable to them, Briggs instead gives us snippets of one particular moment where the Doctor tells the commander of a Time Lord battle TARDIS that the Daleks are using civilian ships as cover because they believe the Time Lords won’t open fire and risk hitting them, but that the commander should consider firing anyway. It’s a moment told through dreams and quiet murmurs without a proper conclusion, but it’s something against the Doctor’s very nature as he would never risk an innocent life if there was another way, including letting the Dalek fleet escape. Instead of giving us some big moment involving the Nightmare Child or the King-Who-Never-Was, Briggs gives us a smaller moment in the Time War that is much easier to relate to. But when the moment calls for action, in this case the arrival of an alien race hell bent on committing genocide upon the people of Keska, the true flashes of the Doctor are still there – chatty, inquisitive, and utterly brilliant in helping Rejoice save the day. This incarnation is still the Doctor but one where we get to see the emotional and mental scarring, but not the injuries that created them. Being a bit slower and “talky,” I feel that this story would have worked better as the second-story in a four-story box set, but is still works as an introduction to the War Doctor.

Rejoice, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen acts as nursemaid to the Doctor, so much that she’s actually listed as “Nursemaid” in the credits. Rejoice is played and written as a character who in any other story would have a very good chance of becoming a temporary companion – smart, quick with a word, and willing to call John Smith out when need be. Briggs-Owen does a fine job here, but doesn’t really stand out as anyone special. Aside from taking care of the Doctor and asking him about himself time and again, there’s little development given to Rejoice. This is evident during a key scene where the Doctor and Rejoice are in a rowboat on the lake and the Doctor roars at her about how he’s a true monster and will be happy to show her…and she gets dumped in the lake or dives in to escape his wrath. Aside from being poorly directed (for a moment I thought the Doctor was hitting her with how it sounded) there’s just no meat to it other than “the Doctor complains, Rejoice brushes it off,” which makes their separation at the end of the story comes off as a bit less dramatic than Briggs might have meant it to.

With the high-ranking Time Lord Seratrix behind enemy lines, the War Doctor finds himself assigned to a rescue mission. But any room for manoeuvre is severely restricted by an area of space known as the Null Zone.

Times have changed on Keska, and a countdown to destruction is beginning.

But who are the Taalyens and what is their part in the great and terrifying Dalek plan?

The Thousand Worlds is comprised of talking, sneaking, and running about.  It would make a good opening if combined solely with The Heart of Battle as a two-part story but as a middle story it provide a bit of a lull.   The Doctor is tasked by Cardinal Ollistra to lead a covert mission into the heart of the Null Zone, an area of space where time travel is impossible. It’s here that the Daleks along with their new allies the Taalyens are enslaving over a thousand worlds. And it’s here that a Time Lord named Seratrix has been taken by the Daleks. Ollistra is afraid of vital military secrets being spilled under interrogation and wants the Doctor, along with a Time Lord operative named Veklin, to retrieve him. But the Doctor doesn’t work well with others. While Veklin and her team infiltrate the Dalek base, the Doctor has gone right to the heart of the Dalek’s war machine on the familiar planet of Keska, where he finds out that there’s much more to the thousand worlds and Seratrix than he could possibly imagine…

The Thousand Worlds feels like one long setup for The Heart of Battle. There’s a lot of planning, exposition, pretending to be slaves, crawling through fuel pipes, tricking the alien overlords – all things that make up a fine story, but it doesn’t feel like a story that could only take place during the Time War. Any other Doctor could have been mixed up in this mess, especially since the Dalek’s plan to drill into the core of Keska goes all the way back to the First Doctor story The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It’s far from a bad story, it’s just one that feels just a bit off and a little slower than listeners would expect.

It’s in this story where the central cast for Only the Monstrous begin to interact with each other. Big Finish stalwart Barnaby Edwards and Kieran Hodgson play Arverton and Bennus, the two Time Lord soldiers who are sent along with Veklin and the Doctor into the Null Zone. The actors play the archetypical “soldiers who are just a bit over their heads on this assignment” role and do so in an enjoyable manner. Mark McDonnell is Traanus, the leader of the Taalyens who made an alliance with the Daleks to help enslave Keska, and he covers the “loud alien with just enough honor to be hypocritical” role with enough of an over-the-top air to his performance. The standout here is Beth Chalmers, another Big Finish veteran, who handles the role of Veklin with arrogance and determination. Veklin is the experienced covert operative who will drag Arverton and Bennus to the completion of their mission no matter what she has to do, managing to get off a few good lines along the way. And in a nice twist, the Doctor runs into Rejoice again, but a much older Rejoice who is now a slave under the Dalek administration, now voiced by Carolyn Seymour. Instead of bitterness and anger towards John Smith, she takes his reappearance decades after his departure as a sign of hope for her people that the Daleks might truly be defeated.

Trapped in a citadel swarming with Daleks, the Time Lord rescue force must find a way to overcome insurmountable odds. With the Daleks apparently planning to rule the Null Zone, perhaps their thirst for universal conquest and victory has been quenched…

The War Doctor doesn’t believe so — but how can he prove it without destroying any chance of peace?

As the countdown to the destruction of Keska proceeds, a deadly choice must be made… A choice that will define this Doctor, and perhaps forever cast him in the role of ‘monster’.

The Heart of Battle is easily the best out of the three episodes in this box set as it pays off the events in the previous episode. The Doctor discovers that Seratrix isn’t a prisoner of the Daleks – he’s a diplomat who has been sent by Cardinal Ollistra to make peace with them! The Time War will never be won, and the only chance for the Time Lords to survive is to convince the Daleks to sign a treaty. The Thousand Worlds, as well as the creation of the Null Zone, are gifts from the Time Lords as a sign that they’re negotiating in good faith. The fact that the Time Lords would sell billions of sentient beings into Dalek captivity on the impossible hope of signing a peace treaty is absolutely anathema, and it’s up to him to prove to Seratrix just how wrong he is…

There’s still a lot of running around and talking with this story, but it’s all handled in a much quicker and flashier style than it was in The Thousand Worlds. Briggs keeps the story moving by switching back and forth between the Doctor’s group and Veklin’s team, with brief asides to Traanus, as well as finally throwing in the Daleks. As usual Briggs does a superb job in voicing the menacing monsters, anger mixed in with every sentence they scream be it a command or a question. Alex Wyndham does a fine job as Seratrix, who goes from the deluded belief that the Daleks COULD be negotiated with to broken despair once the Doctor shows him otherwise. The standout performance here comes at the end via Jacqueline Pearce’s turn as Cardinal Ollistra. Known for her role as the cold but charming villain Servalan from Blake’s 7, Pearce plays Ollistra as a morally gray character. Listeners know there’s much more to what she is saying every time she opens her mouth and that she’s someone who will do anything, anything, to win the Time War. I’m hoping that there’s a long-term story arc across the War Doctor box sets for this character, if only to hear Pearce play her in this manner again.

Of course, it all boils down to Sir John Hurt. Landing an actor of his caliber for a series of audio adventures is one of the biggest coups in the history of Big Finish. While I feel it took a bit for Hurt to get used to the audio play format (there’s JUST long enough of a pause between the speaker before him and Hurt to become noticeable as opposed to, say, when Peter Davison and Paul McGann speak), listeners can tell Hurt is enjoying himself during the recording. Really all I need to say about John Hurt’s turn as the War Doctor is, “it’s John Hurt.” But to go further, Hurt (with Briggs’ scripts) seems to be taking the War Doctor in the direction of “crotchety grandfather” and I mean this in the best way possible. Imagine your grandfather, a man who’s seen so many decades and so many events and has become just a bit burned out and bitter towards it all. He’s grumpy, he’s not in the mood to take anyone’s gruff, and when you touch upon a subject very close to his heart(s), he WILL let you know about it. But put him in the same room as the engine block to a ’57 Chevy and he’ll light up, putting that sucker back together with the smallest of grins and ignoring everything else in the room until that piece of Detroit iron is purring like a kitten. The scene where John Smith is slowly going through the Dalek files, ignoring the screams of the Prime Dalek to stop by just casually and accidentally going along pulling up record after record, is a delight.

I mentioned earlier in the review that the Doctor really doesn’t do anything “monstrous” in this story. There are snippets of him telling a Time Lord commander that the Daleks don’t think he’ll open fire through a series of human shields, and at the end there’s an impossible choice that the Doctor makes – it’s the only choice that could be made in that situation, but it’s a very difficult one. A lot of people have said that Only the Monstrous doesn’t really show the War Doctor doing anything that would make him a monster. Thinking about it for a bit, this is probably for the best. A Doctor who does monstrous things to win a war isn’t a Doctor. He’s a Valeyard. The overall theme to this box set, to me at least, seems to be a discussion between peace vs war. When does one fight for peace, when does one realize war is inevitable, and what’s acceptable in both at any given point? The Doctor, a man who will grab onto the thinnest threads of hope and pull for all they’re worth, knowing that war against the Daleks is the only option, and responds by doing whatever he can to keep it under control. I don’t think we’re ever going to get a moment where the Doctor goes “screw it, put the villagers inside the church, lock the doors and burn the place down.” At that moment, he’s NOT the Doctor anymore. The entire point of The Day of the Doctor was that the War Doctor was STILL the Doctor. All it took was ONE time for the War Doctor to make the decision to kill millions to save billions to give him the trauma and survivor’s guilt that defined the Ninth Doctor…

The War Doctor: You’re about to murder millions of people.
Kate Stewart: To save billions. How many times have you made that calculation?
Eleven: Once. It turned me into the man I am now. I’m not even sure who that is anymore.
Ten: You tell yourself it’s justified but it’s a lie. Because what I did that day was wrong. Just wrong.
Eleven: And because I got it wrong, I’m going to make you get it right.

The War Doctor: Go back. Go back to your lives. Go on, be the Doctor that I could never be. Make it worthwhile.
Ten: All those years, burying you in my memory.
Eleven: Pretending you didn’t exist. Keeping you a secret, even from myself.
Ten: Pretending you weren’t the Doctor, when you were the Doctor more than anybody else.
Eleven: You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.
Ten: But this time…
Eleven: You don’t have to do it alone.
The War Doctor: Thank you.

I think, and this is just my prediction, what we’re going to get out of the War Doctor stories is a Doctor that takes things much harder than previous incarnations, especially when told by Velkin that the first shots of the Time War were indeed fired by him all the way back in Genesis of the Daleks. He’ll have a level of guilt and despair in his soul that will drive him to make incredibly difficult decisions down the line. Not amoral or monstrous decisions, but decisions where it’s nearly impossible to get it right. And the fact that he’s feeling this grief, this angst, about what he has to do gives him…pause? Justification? Acceptance? By beating himself up, John Smith is allowing himself to do the horrible. Perhaps he’ll be taking the burden of those decisions off of other people and placing them on his own shoulders, being the one to push the button/flip the switch/give the order instead of them?

While Only the Monstrous wasn’t what I expected, it is a box set that sets up a lot of potential in future stories involving the War Doctor. Nicholas Briggs and John Hurt give us a Doctor who is still familiar to listeners, but is just different enough to give them pause, with a series of stories that show a Doctor who is already wounded and scarred. In the long term, the success of Only the Monstrous depends on how well the next three box sets play out, and I will state my cautious optimism that they will turn out well depending on how they build off of this series.

Cobi’s SynopsisOnly the Monstrous isn’t the slam-bang Time War epic that one might expect, but John Hurt gives an exceptional turn as the War Doctor in a slower and introspective three-part story that shows where the War Doctor has come from and where he might be heading while still featuring a good bit of action and intrigue.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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