Doctor Who – Once and Future: A Genius For War

❉ This is a showcase for Sylvester McCoy’s brooding Doctor and Terry Molloy’s prickly Davros, writes Kevin Burnard.

Terry Molloy’s Davros is the real star of the show. It’s very hard to go wrong with a good Davros story, because a genuinely intelligent and well-reasoned horrible fascist is a prickly presence to have the idealistic and good Doctor argue with and he gets a good amount of sparring with the Doctor here, so if you want your Davros content, eat up!

What makes an anniversary special? That’s the question I’m left with by the third instalment of Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary audio series Once and Future from Big Finish, A Genius for War, written by Doctor Who tie-in stalwart Jonathan Morris. What exactly are we here to celebrate?

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

So far, the goal for Once and Future seems to be to take a number of characters who don’t normally interact and tell a story with them, with some loosely overhanging arc the nature of which has yet to seriously impact these tales. Fan-wank can be a dirty concept among Doctor Who fans, but there can be surprising merit in these odd mashups and deep cut fan-service, I adored, after all, the previous month’s The Artist at the End of Time, a rollicking and weighty combination of old and new with surprising depth and things to say. I regret to say I didn’t feel as surprised by the combinations or results presented in A Genius for War, a solid but familiar combination of Big Finish Time War elements more interested in over-explaining the Hybrid arc from the television series than finding new emotions or meaning.

Ken Bones (Image credit: Big Finish Productions, August 2022)

To its credit, I was surprised it even went there. The Hybrid is a controversial plot arc from the ninth series of the modern television series, which teased massive lore concerns before ultimately resolving in intimate character drama. Personally, I adored that storyline, with its resolution making for some of my favourite Doctor Who ever, so following up to it in prequel fashion is going to inevitably face skepticism from me. I know some fans contend that the story arc was not properly resolved, but I think that comes from a preference of lore over appreciating the emotional truths the arc was always about. To that end, A Genius for War will likely win some favour. This is a story that squarely takes the set-up for the Hybrid arc from The Witch’s Familiar and essentially does the same thing, showcasing the evils of the Time Lords in the Time War by having them consider an offer from Davros to create the Hybrid together and end the war.

It’s a reasonable concept extrapolated from a wide range of Doctor Who mythology, with a substantial subplot revolving on the Skaro moon of Falkus, introduced in the 1976 Doctor Who and the Daleks Omnibus from Dalek creator Terry Nation, while also tying in Beth Chalmers’s Veklin from the Time War audio series and Ken Bones’s General from The Day of the Doctor and, of course, Hybrid arc resolution episode Hell Bent.

Sylvester McCoy is at home here, with his brooding, weighty, manipulative Doctor feeling like a natural fit for the Time War setting without ever being the Doctor it was designed for. It’s a lovingly made piece about Dalek lore. At one point it even makes space for the General to gratuitously quote a camp Nyder line from Genesis of the Daleks, there’s no doubting the fan credentials or love of the craft here. But it just isn’t my kind of Doctor Who. It feels more exciting for what lore it will fill in for a TARDIS Wiki article on the Hybrid and Falkus pages, moreso than for the emotional weight it carries, because it doesn’t have any to show.

Ken Bones, Nicholas Briggs, Sylvester McCoy, Terry Molloy, Beth Chalmers (Image credit: Big Finish Productions, July 2023)

It probably doesn’t help that this is the first story in the Once and Future arc without any companions or new series emotional anchors. We’ve had Sarah Jane, Kate Stewart, Osgood, and Jenny so far, all appealing and emotionally accessible characters to get a handle on.

Past Lives benefited from a prickly handling of Sarah Jane’s abandonment, while the father/daughter drama between the Doctor and Jenny greatly elevated The Artist at the End of Time. By contrast, Veklin may have appeared in, by the looks of things, seventeen audios now, but I’d be hard-pressed to say she was ever the emotional focus of any of them, or threatens to be a character who could hold up to that kind of scrutiny. She’s a programmatic Time Lord soldier who exists to drive the Doctor into plots, deliver technobabble, and shoot things. The General isn’t far off either, a character with no focus in either television appearance held together by the gravitas of the performance and the strength of the episodes generally. I regret to say I didn’t care for his usage here. For a Time Lord leader, he makes some awfully foolish choices here that don’t reflect well on the character or the material.

Ken Bones, Helen Goldwyn, Nicholas Briggs, Terry Molloy, Beth Chalmers, Sylvester McCoy (Image credit: Big Finish Productions, July 2023)

Which brings it all back to the real star of the show, Terry Molloy’s Davros. It’s very hard to go wrong with a good Davros story, because a genuinely intelligent and well-reasoned horrible fascist is a prickly presence to have the idealistic and good Doctor argue with. The strength of the character is in his sparring with the Doctor, something The Witch’s Familiar wisely prioritised. He gets a good amount of that here, and gets to come out looking like the cleverest person in the plot, so if you want your Davros content, eat up. This should pass an hour well.

Unfortunately, the villain’s plot hinges on coincidence and everyone else acting exactly the way he needs to, regardless of the logic. It feels a bit like the action figures are getting up in a nostalgic and comforting way to act out the old hits, without a grander point in the making. It doesn’t help that it invites comparisons both to The Witch’s Familiar and the previous Davros Time War audio, Palindrome, two incredibly intimate and structurally ambitious character dramas that push Davros and his relationship to the Doctor to new places. This feels like more of the same. Is that what an anniversary is for? I really don’t know.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy A Genius for War. It’s quite hard to point to anything it actually does wrong. It’s all executed tightly and competently, but it lacks a sense of purpose or special-ness to really showcase to me why it was worth doing as part of a high profile anniversary event. Its best tricks have been done before and in very similar ways, and it doesn’t spark enough joy in me to make me feel like I’m celebrating my favourite TV show in the world. Three episodes in and I’m increasingly convinced that the joys of Once and Future will be in how good the adventure of the month is, not the event it’s wrapped up in. 


Director: Helen Goldwyn
Writer: Jonathan Morris
Script Editor: Matt Fitton
Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery

Duration: 76 minutes approx.

Released: 20 July 2023, exclusively from the Big Finish website.

❉  Released 20 July 2023, ‘Doctor Who – Once and Future: A Genius for War’ is now available to own as a single-disc collector’s edition CD (+ download for just £10.99), or digital download only (for just £8.99), exclusively from the Big Finish website. Doctor Who fans worldwide can pre-order a bundle of all eight Once and Future audio adventures for just £72 (on collector’s edition CD and download) or £60 (download only).

❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.

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