❉ As with many Eighth Doctor stories, the shadow of his inevitable future hangs over these events, writes Bryn Mitchell.
Big Finish concludes their Eighth Doctor Time Lord Victorious trilogy with Mutually Assured Destruction: a story pitched as ‘Die Hard on a Dalek timeship’. Though it does deviate from the potential of that one-line premise, it’s a nice opportunity to showcase the more chaotic side of the Eighth Doctor’s character, while serving as an effective epilogue to the Time Lord Victorious narrative, particularly regarding the fate of the Dalek time squad.
We can assume from the ambiguous opening that this audio picks up directly after the events of the novel All Flesh is Grass. This is an interesting choice given that All Flesh is Grass was released after this audio, and it does mean that this audio feels slightly disconnected from the other two in this trilogy by the large narrative hole that occurs between The Enemy of My Enemy and this story. But nevertheless the story quickly establishes its starting point: the Doctor has betrayed the Daleks, their timeship is sabotaged and stuck in the vortex, and the Doctor is fighting to get back to the TARDIS.
The story definitely benefits from its straightforward central idea. The plot can easily be summarised with a simple ‘Character A wants B, but first must deal with X, Y, and Z’ and there is something joyful in the Doctor running around the ship performing sabotage and setting traps. The Doctor identifies himself as “a rat in the skirting board causing havoc” and this is a lovely take on the character, which explores an element often overlooked in favour of his compassion and intelligence. The Doctor’s encounter with the Dalek Scientist is one of the most fun things I’ve heard in a Big Finish audio in a while, as the Paul McGann hugging Daleks meme is taken one step further when the Doctor dances with the Dalek in zero gravity while singing a tune. It’s an image I won’t forget anytime soon. Later in the story, the Doctor paints himself as being “an engineer” reflecting another side of the character not always as focused on in recent years, that of the inventor, working with limited resources to find a practical solution. It’s a small moment, but McGann brings it out well.
Lizzie Hopley (the writer) makes a particularly clever choice with the introduction of two other humanoid characters around a third of the way through, just when you are beginning to wonder how the plot will be sustained for the full hour. The story still has moments where it feels slightly bogged down in scenes of Daleks talking to each other, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the Doctor wasn’t the only non-Dalek character (as with the recent Defender of the Daleks comics). The humanoids (who were onboard the ship in cryo-freeze) are sketched quite broadly, but are efficiently brought to life by Big Finish regulars Samantha Béart and Wilf Scolding. It seems to me that their simply defined characters are a deliberate choice to put them in comparison with the very functional roles of the members of the Dalek Time Squad. Wilf Scolding’s Groff is a warrior of his species, obsessed with finding weapons and going on the offensive.. When he ends up one on one against the Dalek Executioner (who is at his most unhinged in this story) the parallel is clear. Both are motivated so wholly by bloodlust and the need to kill that they end up ignoring the instructions of the wiser people around them. Béart’s character Tiska is a scientist, much like the Dalek Scientist, and to extend these comparisons to the Doctor, he has a lot in common with the Dalek Strategist, as both formulate plans and are willing to make underhand deals while withholding information from their ‘allies’ as they see fit.
The Doctor and Tiska’s relationship is interesting, much like those between the members of the Dalek Time Squad, it is characterised by disagreement. The Doctor seems to warm to her on their first meeting as she’s someone for him to save and on top of that she’s a scientist. But as he learns more about the nature of her ‘science’ he quickly becomes appalled. The story raises the topic of eugenics by name, and the Doctor implicitly compares Tiska’s species with Daleks and Cybermen, and yet he still takes her with him, letting her go at the end to do as she wishes. There’s an argument the story has brought up issues it doesn’t have nearly enough time to unpack. However the Doctor’s reluctance to create consequences for her actions, actions that he has condemned, is perhaps informed by the fact she is the last of her kind.
As with the Dalek Strategist, the story positions Tiska as another dark parallel of the Doctor. There even occurs a moment where she asks him if he is the last of his kind, sensing a similarity in him. Of course he isn’t yet. Perhaps we are meant to draw a link between Tiska being a figure with an immoral past who is now the last of their kind, with the Doctor immediately post-Time War. As with many Eighth Doctor stories, the shadow of his inevitable future hangs over these events. Samantha Béart’s performance also really adds layers to Tiska. In the behind the scenes interviews at the end of this release, she draws a comparison between Tiska and her Torchwood character Orr: noting their shared scientific and logical natures, while contrasting Orr’s fantastic understanding of emotions with Tiska’s complete lack thereof. The extent to which Béart has thought through her character comes across in the audio, and adds conviction to my belief (formed from her work in Torchwood and Vienna) that she is one of the most talented vocal performers associated with Big Finish.
We’ve seen the Doctor and the Dalek Strategist’s relationship play out across multiple stories and two mediums now, and although it isn’t as much of a focus here as in the previous stories, there is a satisfying conclusion with one final fraught alliance between them. When the strategist betrays him it is ambiguous whether this is bluff or double bluff. I would say that this ambiguity isn’t effectively resolved, but maybe that’s part of the point. After hours of content we still don’t quite know what side the Strategist is on, other than his own. Although perhaps we may take something from the fact that when the Strategist figures out the Doctor is alive he withholds this information from his colleagues.
The continuing relationship that is more of a key focus in this story is the one between the Dalek Strategist and his Dalek Time Commander. Indeed the whole Dalek Time Squad gets an effective send off here, and for those who were disappointed by the non-ending of Daleks! this is the story I would direct them towards. Tensions in the leadership structure are present throughout all their appearances and they come to a head here, where the ideological debates between Strategist and Commander are brought to the fore. Put simply, the Strategist wants to exploit the resources of aliens and make use of the Doctor and TARDIS, whereas the Commander sees anything not Dalek as inferior, so why should they rely on aliens for advantage? The opening section has them bickering like an old married couple. The Strategist’s line “Why was I not consulted?” could apply just as much to a kitchen remodelling as to the Executioner’s attempts to break into the TARDIS. But as the story develops it comes to a dramatic final showdown for these two characters which was perhaps inevitable from the beginning.
When this story concludes, it does actually feel like a nice end point to Time Lord Victorious. However, it is only one of several ancillary elements set after the conclusion of the main event in All Flesh is Grass. Indeed it is not even the last Big Finish release, with Genetics of the Daleks being released shortly after, and the delayed Echoes of Extinction vinyl and download being some way down the road. The latter will feature the Eight Doctor again, but long before this, nearer to the start of the Time Lord Victorious timeline. So in a linear narrative sense, this is the end of the Eighth Doctor’s story in this multi-medium saga, and as such I can’t help but be disappointed that he has not had more of a character arc over the course of it. As an isolated bit of narrative, away from his ongoing Big Finish ranges, this would have been a good opportunity to play with what makes the character tick, as an introduction to him for a potential new audience brought in by the Time Lord Victorious event. But instead it feels like his character is there to serve the story, rather than the other way around. That being said, these audios are still a decent introduction to the character, showcasing his more playful side, and giving McGann plenty of rich characters to play off.
I’m a fan of Lizzie Hopley’s writing from some of her previous work for Big Finish, in particular Torchwood – The Dying Room, and between this and a couple of the Tenth Doctor box-sets, it’s nice to see her getting more work with the company. Based on this, I’d love to see what she could contribute to the Eighth Doctor’s ongoing narrative in Stranded or elsewhere. As with the previous Big Finish contributions, I have found this to be amongst my favourite parts of the Time Lord Victorious range, in part because of my preference for the audio drama medium. I would definitely recommend this to those who are interested in the Time Lord Victorious story, in particular the fate of the Dalek Time Squad and the conclusion of that narrative element that has been running throughout this event. Time Lord Victorious is almost over, and as it comes time to pick through the scraps, this story is one of the tastier morsels. It’s fun, thematically tight, and engagingly performed.
❉ Doctor Who – Time Lord Victorious: Mutually Assured Destruction is now available to own as a collector’s edition CD (at £10.99) or digital download (at £8.99) exclusively from the Big Finish website. Big Finish listeners can save money by purchasing a bundle of this adventure alongside other Doctor Who – Time Lord Victorious audio dramas from as little as £22.