On May 18, 2013, in the final seconds of “Name of the Doctor” at the end of the seventh series, something pretty extraordinary happened: We were introduced to an incarnation of the Doctor that we’d never met nor heard of before. Six months later in“Night of the Doctor” we saw how this extra incarnation came to be, and a week after that in the 50th anniversary episode “Day of the Doctor” we watched this incarnation interacting with his Tenth and Eleventh selves (or would that now be Eleventh and Twelfth?) in the final adventure of his life before regenerating into the Ninth Doctor. But what about all the stuff in between? We know that this incarnation fought for a pretty long time in the Time War, since we see him in the form of a fairly young John Hurt in “Night” and far older in “Day.” Now, thanks to Big Finish Productions, we get to hear the War Doctor in action, embroiled in the Time War, in three brand-new linked stories collectively called Only the Monstrous.
With the whole thing written by Nicholas Briggs, it has a very cohesive feel and works as an epic three-episode story rather than three individual stories, and the characters and story threads all holds together extremely well.
The first thing about Only the Monstrous that catches one’s attention is the new, slightly more martial arrangement of the theme tune. It definitely has a grand, epic feel to it, with its very punctuated “diggidi-dum [rest] diggidi-dum” rhythmic motif, a variation on the bassline of the original tune. In fact, the score throughout, by Howard Carter, is quite fantastic, as illustrated by a 10 minute suite of themes from all three stories. The music has a very cinematic feel to it, and it felt quite at home in my iPod playlist of Doctor Who incidental music (nestled chronologically between the suite from The TV Movie and “Rose’s Theme” from Series 1/27).
In short order we meet three characters who turn out to be major players throughout all three stories: Cardinal Ollistra, played by the fabulous Jacqueline Pearce, and two of her Time Lord underlings, Bennus and Arverton. Ollistra proves to be a very interesting and complex character: seemingly patriotic and loyal to Gallifrey winning the war, but a schemer and a manipulator also, not above pulling some questionable and underhanded stunts in order to coordinate the war effort. Is Ollistra in fact any different than the Daleks she’s fighting? It’s a question that persists throughout, as the motives behind her actions and her justifications for them shift like the sand in the Gallifreyan wastelands.
It should be noted that John Hurt is fantastic in this whole 3-part saga. He made such huge impact as the War Doctor in “Day of the Doctor,” stepping effortlessly into the role of the Doctor who couldn’t be the Doctor and making him instantly believable and instantly loved, and he easily recaptures that essence here. We find War at a point where he’s already renounced his name, and part of the fun of this story is in the number of ways he gets around such questions as “Who are you?” “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” But it’s a true joy hearing Hurt returning to this iconic role with such vigor. He’s a bit grumpy, even towards Rejoice, his rescuer in the first story, and shows a great amount of joyous irreverence and disrespect to his Time Lord “betters.”
The first story, “The Innocent”, drops the listener right in the thick of the action, with a Dalek time fleet about to launch it’s final attack on Gallifrey. The Time Lords have — somehow — gotten their hands on a Dalek Time Destructor (which probably sounds familiar to longtime Whovians). I was surprised at first to find that “The Innocent,” even though it opens mid-battle, ends up being rather quiet and talky. That’s not to say it’s boring; far from it. Following the opening battle, the Doctor ends up (somehow) on the lush, peaceful planet Keska and is in a bad way. A girl called Rejoice nurses him back to health. Their conversations lead us to learning a little bit about the Doctor and about her home people’s history. They have been harrassed by a race called the Taalyans, genocidal warmongers analogous to the Daleks, and they fled their home and came to Keska in hopes of evading the Taalyan, but at long last the Taalyans have followed them to Keska to attack anew. It puts the Doctor’s war in perspective for Rejoice, gives her a way to understand his experiences and his perspective. The Doctor’s reason for helping the Keskans fight off the Taalyans is really beautiful and nicely realized.
In “The Thousand Worlds”, the Doctor is brought home (as is Bennus and Arverton) to join an elite task force led by Veklin (voiced by Big Finish mainstay Beth Chalmers who has played, amongst numerous other roles, the Seventh Doctor companion Raine Creevey). Their objective is to go into Dalek territory in search “high ranking Time Lord strategist” Seratrix (briefly introduced near the end of “The Innocent”), who holds sensitive information about Gallifrey’s proposed final strike against the Daleks, and rescue him. The Doctor finds himself back on the planet Keska, two decades later, after it has been conquered by the Daleks with help from the Taalyans. Keska is one of 1,000 planets that the Daleks have occupied and are building massive machinery on. He re-encounters Rejoice as an older woman (now played by Caroline Seymour). While definitely the middle chapter in a larger saga, it is certainly more exciting than “The Innocent,” and not everyone makes it to the end alive. Additional details about Bennus and Arverton are revealed but more questions are raised, and there’s a surprise twist in the mission Seratrix is on. It’s political intrigue seasoned with a bit of espionage.
Picking up directly from “The Thousand Worlds”‘s cliffhanger, the final chapter in the story, “The Heart of the Battle”, reveals not only the Daleks’ ultimate plan for Keska and the other 1,000 planets, but also more about what Ollistra and Seratrix are up to, with discussions about wartime morality along the way that offer up as illustration comparisons between the Time Lord and the Taalyan mindsets. The action and tension ramp up considerably from the first two episodes and draw the affair to a pretty thrilling and satisfying conclusion. The Daleks in Only the Monstrous are dangerous, crafty and most definitely a threat to Keska, and even to Gallifrey and beyond. Sadly, they are also a tad gullible and are talked into revealing their plans to the Doctor a bit too easily. However, that aside, the third chapter is the strongest of the bunch and weaves character and plot threads from earlier in the arc together admirably.
In 2013’s “Day of the Doctor” we learned exactly what it is the War Doctor did to end the Time War and why he has been forgotten (repressed might be more accurate) by his subsequent incarnations. With Big Finish, we now get to hear of the battles that lead him to the point of committing the greatest atrocity imaginable. Does that make him a monster? The War Doctor certainly thinks so, though others would disagree. Only the Monstrous examines that question, along the way giving us allusions to some great 60s Dalek stories as well as making the long-assumed “first shot” of the Time War more or less official. In short, this is a solid and very enjoyable first foray into a Doctor that until now we’ve known little about, and I can’t wait for more.
Luckily, Big Finish has announced that the second volume of War Doctor stories will be released February 2016, and I’m thrilled to see that Cardinal Ollistra will be returning, though I do wish that at least Veklin would be joining her, as I found her to be a highly enjoyable character. Regardless, I’ve no doubt that the next volume will be just as entertaining as this one.
Coming up next: The Diary of River Song!
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