❉ The War Doctor series, starring John Hurt and Jacqueline Pearce, is back… And so are the Sontarans!
When Earth comes under threat, the War Doctor is drawn into Ollistra’s schemes once again. But the wily Time Lord Cardinal has not foreseen every move. The Dalek Time Strategist has its own game-pieces in play, and when volatile forces with their own agenda join the fray, no-one can predict how the war might turn…
Whatever one’s opinion of the ‘War Doctor’ as a concept, it’s undeniable that getting John Hurt to play the role for ‘Doctor Who’s’ fiftieth anniversary special was a big deal. More so than even Michael Gambon or Derek Jacobi, he was a guest star whose light elevated the show rather than the other way around. So it is with Big Finish Productions’ success in signing him up to reprise the role on audio. Of all their returning Doctors, the combination of his status as an actor and the brevity of his onscreen time in the role, not to mention a cancer diagnosis, made Hurt’s return seem more unlikely than even Tom Baker’s did a decade ago.
That backstory made the announcement of his Big Finish audio series last year cause for real excitement. It’s a testament to the degree of that excitement that it temporarily pushed aside the deeper question – one fans have debated frequently since ‘Doctor Who’ returned in 2005 – of whether depicting the Time War in depth actually a good idea. Three sets into the planned four-volume run, that question stands and the answer remains mixed.
After an initial set where, despite solid stories, Hurt seemed stuck in a grumpy, one-note performance, the series seemed to find a stride with the second set, ‘Infernal Devices’. Hurt’s performance was more nuanced and the stories – particularly Legion of the Lost – conveyed a stronger sense of the Time War being something truly monstrous. Unfortunately, the newly released ‘Agents of Chaos’ feels like a comparative step backwards.
The moral dimension that made each installment of ‘Infernal Devices’ feel like a perilous step along the path to this Doctor’s eventual moment of decision is largely lacking here. Without that element, the stories are largely just standard ‘Doctor Who’ adventures with some references to the Time War deployed to ensure we don’t forget about it. There’s certainly nothing wrong with standard Doctor Who adventures, particularly when they’re done well, but these sets are meant to be something special. In any case, the bigger issue with ‘Agents of Chaos’ is that the stories themselves are very uneven.
On the surface, David Llewelyn’s The Shadow Vortex seems promising. The series has yet to depict Earth being directly threatened by the Time War, and the idea of a mercenary working for the Daleks making mischief in the 1960s is intriguing. However, as the plot veers between implausibility and cliché, it becomes apparent that the Cold War setting guarantees a story devoid of consequences (and by extension drama), and two potentially interesting supporting characters are squandered.
Dalek agent Lara Zannis is played well enough by Neve McIntosh (Madama Vastra in the TV series) but is never sufficiently developed to feel like a compelling threat to the Doctor. The de facto companion character, Lieutenant Kruger, on the other hand is given an interesting backstory but is undercut by an overly broad performance. What little sparkle the story has is down to Hurt, who has some good moments that deserve a better context.
The Eternity Cage by Andrew Smith takes the saga back into a more typical setting for the Time War with better results. Though not outstanding, the story has an interesting setup with the Doctor called upon the rescue Cardinal Ollistra from a group of Sontarans using her as a bargaining chip to gain entry into the Time War, making it something of a companion piece to Smith’s 8th Doctor story from the recent ‘Classic Doctors, New Monsters’ set. It also benefits from some strong supporting performances. Dan Starkey approaches the role of General Fesk with his usual vigour, and while the character of Ollistra isn’t all that different from Servalan in ‘Blake’s 7’, there’s no denying it’s a role Jacqueline Pearce does exceptionally well.
Surprisingly, Honeysuckle Weeks as Ollistra’s assistant Helayna is not among the stronger performances. While she’s generally quite a good actress, especially in the program ‘Foyle’s War’, she sounds somewhat disengaged here. While that might work for a minor role, it undercuts the effectiveness of both this story’s cliffhanger ending and the set’s final episode, The Eye of Harmony.
Written by Ken Bentley, who’s directed some excellent stories for Big Finish, The Eye of Harmony aims to show the personal cost of the Time War while still operating on a universal scale. This is definitely the best of this set and, though not up the level of the stories on ‘Infernal Devices’, it gets tantalisingly close to the mark. As the Dalek Time Strategist gathers a strike force to crush an uprising on the planet Rovidia, the Doctor must also stop ‘Agent Prydon’ from helping the Daleks to destroy Gallifrey’s power source, the Eye of Harmony. Though the cost of victory is seemingly small, a moment that recalls Night of the Doctor makes it clear that the war-weary Doctor is well past such rationalisations.
As Ollistra’s pithy observation “Oh, Doctor; you’re all hearts” gives way to the closing theme music, the audience is left to wonder what comes next. Even if this set falls short of its predecessors, expectations for the finale are still high. The key, though, will be restoring a consistent balance between depicting the scope of the Time War and showing its cost not just to the universe but also the Doctor. While the audio format may allow for a form of unlimited spectacle, Doctor Who can and should be about more than that. With John Hurt as part of the arsenal, the sound and fury needs to signify something.
‘The War Doctor’ series concludes in February with ‘Doctor Who – The War Doctor Series 4: Casualties of War’, which brings back Louise Jameson as Leela…
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The War Doctor Series 3’ was released on 6 October 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until December 31st 2016, and on general sale after this date.