The original run of War Doctor audios from Big Finish was something special. The four-boxset saga, released from December 2015 to February 2017, represented an all-too-brief foray into the Time War for a character played masterfully by the late John Hurt.
It’s hard to believe now, with the current abundance of New Series material, but The War Doctor was part of the initial wave of content that followed the granting of the New Series license to Big Finish. It signified exciting new territory for the company to explore in terms of story, character and tone. And, on a personal note, it was one of the first ranges I started listened to on a regular basis – like, I imagine, it would have been for many other listeners raised on ‘new’ Doctor Who.
Much of the range’s success was down to John Hurt’s lead performance. Hurt, as I won’t need to remind anyone, was sublime in anything, and his oft-lauded vocal quality – praised by cast and crew on all four volumes – constituted a huge boon for Big Finish as purveyors of audio drama. Hurt obviously boasted a long and impressive career prior to taking on the role, but if any viewers were unfamiliar with his acting CV before appearing in The Day of the Doctor, he knocked it out of the park with an earnestness and versatility he also brought to the role on audio.
Hurt conveys the world-weariness felt by the Doctor’s forgotten incarnation with immense gravitas, showing a clear understanding of the role’s magnitude. Yet there’s also a lightness to his performance, alongside all the qualities you expect from any version of the Doctor: humour, bravery, resistance to authority, and a deep-set compulsion to help others. As was so brilliantly established onscreen, no matter what this incarnation thinks about being the Doctor “no more”, deep down he’s still the same, benevolent Time Lord.
In light of the [much younger] War Doctor’s return this month in The War Doctor Begins, played this time by Jonathon Carley, let’s recap the character’s original twelve audio adventures.
Only the Monstrous
“I don’t take orders. If I help, it’s on my own terms.”
As he had previously done for the Eighth Doctor with Dark Eyes and would later do for the Ninth Doctor with Ravagers, Big Finish Creative Director Nicholas Briggs took responsibility for crafting the beginning of a new era for the War Doctor. The result is an epic, three-part story that leans heavily into this incarnation’s rejection of his adopted sobriquet.
Briggs completely gets what Steven Moffat did in The Day of the Doctor, depicting the character dealing with complex motivations at a time when there are no easy answers. He’s rejected the mantle of the Doctor – refusing even to have others say the name – in favour of more a pragmatic outlook that closely resembles what we saw onscreen. It’s tempting to write off the War Doctor as a rogue anti-hero, but in reality, this incarnation is little different from those before or after. He doesn’t go around murdering innocents or committing outrageous war crimes – he only thinks himself to be so heartless a killer that he’s undeserving of his name. Hurt’s incarnation is, ultimately, defined by kindness as all the Doctors are.
In Only the Monstrous, we witness this inner turmoil play out on the planet Keska, where a Dalek invasion has exacerbated tensions between two warring races. The de-facto companion figure of Rejoice, played in youth by Lucy Briggs-Owen and in later life by Carolyn Seymour, proves to be a restorative influence on the Doctor, bringing out the best in him just as the war brings out the worst in others, such as the Time Lord Cardinal Ollistra, played with a sparkling cynicism by Blake’s 7 alum Jacqueline Pearce. Ollistra is a worthy equal for the War Doctor and her presence across all four releases ties the series together nicely.
As Briggs describes behind the scenes, Only the Monstrous was in part influenced by classic war films like Where Eagles Dare, and the set certainly conveys a tone of action and adventure, counterbalanced by science fantasy concepts and technology. It’s best embraced as a single, three-hour story heavy on character and morality – and is a solid start to The War Doctor range.
Infernal Devices, released barely two months after the first volume, boasts a different structure to Only the Monstrous: three mostly standalone adventures. The character focus is still going strong, but now the ideas and mythology of the Time War come to the fore, as the writers employ some fantastic worldbuilding and science fiction concepts. Each of the titular infernal devices – a resurrection stone, a psychic ‘anima’ device, and the Neverwhen time flux – prompt stimulating debate over the morality of super-powerful weapons being deployed in wartime.
Legion of the Lost is light on Daleks but rich in ideas; the simple but effective setup – a society of technomancers resurrecting fallen Time Lords in the early days of the universe – is low on action but full of spells, rituals and a healthy dose of technobabble. A Thing of Guile gives us another mission behind enemy lines as the Doctor investigates the machinations of a separate Dalek faction on a desolate asteroid; this time, pleasingly, Ollistra’s along the ride, giving both character and actor more to do, and the depiction of Dalek genetic experiments is more than a little horrifying. And The Neverwhen goes all-in with the high-concept Time War storytelling promised during the early years of the New Series, giving us more paradoxes and time distortions than you could shake a sonic screwdriver at.
Volume two of The War Doctor sees the series expand to cover more corners of the Time War canvas, and all the contradictory logic the conflict entails. If Only the Monstrous sketches out a framework for what Time War stories could sound like on audio, Infernal Devices fleshes out the details – a trend which continues in volume three.
Agents of Chaos
Agents of Chaos is similar to Infernal Devices in terms of setup, but with a stronger arc: the Daleks are pushing a keener, more ominous agenda for the War Doctor, Ollistra and fellow Time Lord allies to foil.
One of the best parts about this boxset is the Dalek Time Strategist, a fantastic creation with all the arrogance of regular Daleks but with added independence and an understated menace. We’re introduced to the Strategist in The Shadow Vortex, an atmospheric look at Cold War Berlin that charts the Doctor’s pursuit of Dalek agent Lara Zannis, played by Neve McIntosh. In bringing the Time War to Earth, the story marks a delightful change of tone and a rare foray into real-world history for the War Doctor.
It’s back into space for The Eternity Cage, however, and in another first this episode marks the only time the War Doctor meets a returning Doctor Who enemy (bar the Daleks) in the form of the Sontarans. The setup – a mission to rescue Ollistra before the Daleks get there first – is relatively straightforward but boosted by another fascinating concept: the eternity cage, a suspended animation chamber capable of keeping a regenerating Time Lord in stasis.
The expansive storylines of past episodes are put to one side for the finale, Eye of Harmony, which shifts all of the action to a single location, the interior of a TARDIS. Ken Bentley, who’s usually in the director’s chair rather than holding the pen, provides an ending that leads almost directly into the beginning of Casualties of War.
Casualties of War
The release of the fourth and final volume was a more solemn affair, coming a month after John Hurt’s passing at the start of 2017. Casualties of War delves into something that was explored more extensively in ranges like Gallifrey – Time War and the Eighth Doctor – Time War: the impact of the conflict on non-combatants.
The opener, Pretty Lies, depicts the War Doctor and Ollistra mounting a defence of a quiet, backwater planet from Dalek attack – only for the plan to eventually fail leading to the planet’s widespread ruin. The presence of a time-travelling war reporter prompts poignant questions about the manipulation of war imagery and messaging for propaganda purposes.
So far, Andrew Smith is the only writer apart from Nicholas Briggs to pen more than one script for the War Doctor, and his middle episode, The Lady of Obsidian, is the strongest in this boxset. We’re back on the fringes of the conflict, exploring the lives of deep-space smugglers and resistance fighters. This is also the tale to reintroduce Leela, and what an emotional tale it is – probably the most emotionally demanding of the entire range.
Leela continues over into the finale, The Enigma Dimension, an equally intimate adventure that brings the Doctor home to Gallifrey and puts its characters front and centre. This wasn’t the first time Louise Jameson returned to Doctor Who – she’s been a regular at Big Finish since 2003 – but it’s certainly been a while for Leela and the Doctor, comparable to the Tenth Doctor’s reunion with Sarah Jane in School Reunion. Both Jameson and Hurt are at the top of their game in a release that perfectly exemplifies the series remit of blockbuster science fiction.
With high emotional stakes and a lot of good acting, Casualties of War is a fitting end to the original run of The War Doctor. The listening experience proves bittersweet, given we’re hearing from two great actors after their death. But the series succeeds because the War Doctor is extremely well written, and John Hurt, unsurprisingly, proves a highly compelling lead.
Why is the Time War so appealing? It could have something to do with the nature of war and the way people change – or remain staunchly the same – under such demanding circumstances. Certainly, the conflict captures something in our imaginations as consumers of science fiction drama.
This month, over four years since the release of Casualties of War, the War Doctor returns to Big Finish with The War Doctor Begins – Forged in Fire, the start of a new, twelve-part saga featuring Jonathon Carley as a younger version of the character. Picking up directly after the end of The Night of the Doctor, the prequel series promises to shine a light on the incarnation’s early life, as he finds his feet no longer as a doctor but as a warrior.
If The War Doctor Begins stays close to the example set by The War Doctor – fascinating science fiction concepts, well-written characters and heady themes around the morality of warfare – then this new iteration of the Doctor’s forgotten incarnation should prove a big hit.
And be sure to check out our upcoming review of The War Doctor Begins – Forged in Fire, right here on We Made This.