‘Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor – The Time War’ Series 1 reviewed

❉ The Eighth Doctor battles for survival in the Time War.

The first set of the Time War series starring Paul McGann may be the most anticipated Doctor Who release in Big Finish’s history. After the TV series introduced the concept of the Time War, wondering whether the Eighth Doctor’s experiences during it would be depicted on audio became a constant refrain. As the Lucie Miller stories and Dark Eyes moved this incarnation’s story forward, the sense of getting closer became more tangible in both form and content. Time Lord and Dalek schemes unfurled in hour-long installments across seasons/sets that echoed the format of the TV mothership felt like foreshadowing, suggesting that hearing this Doctor fight in the war was just a matter of time.

Then came The Night of the Doctor. It seems unlikely there will ever be another story of any length, let alone seven minutes, that reshapes the program’s ongoing storyline so massively. Four years later, McGann’s onscreen reprisal of the role still feels as surprising as it did inevitable. In many ways, it was as Big Finish’s triumph as much as Steven Moffat and company’s, something tacitly acknowledged in the much-debated call-out of audio companions.

Even more so than Colin Baker, Paul McGann is the quintessential Big Finish Doctor. Their redemption of Baker’s Doctor on audio is quite rightly lauded, but the raw materials for that effort were all there in two seasons of TV stories. With barely more than an hour of screen time in the role, McGann had to write the recipe and bake it largely from scratch. In the hands of a less versatile actor, the end result wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying.

This versatility serves McGann well in the current release. It’s striking how effectively he transitions from the almost electric sense of joie de vivre that’s been his Doctor’s hallmark since his 1996 debut to the desperate acknowledgment that he can’t outrun the Time War. This makes the opening chapter The Starship of Theseus a particular highlight of the set. Big Finish regular John Dorney’s script starts off as a fairly light Doctor Who adventure – closer in tone to some of the post-2005 Christmas specials complete with ersatz companion Sheena (if that is her real name) – before careening into the war setting.

Once the Doctor and the war collide with literal and metaphorical bangs, the set is at its best exploring the implications of the war not just for the Time Lords but also the Daleks. The second instalment, Echoes of War by Matt Fitton, doesn’t just address the immediate cliffhanger from the opener – it actually manages a fresh take on an overused enemy. The third and fourth episodes, also written by Fitton and Dorney, likewise move the overarching storyline in some unanticipated directions.

In that respect, the set’s portrayal of the Time War is actually much more compelling than most episodes of the recent War Doctor series. So much of the setting and characterization was broadly sketched in those stories that there was rarely a spark beyond what John Hurt and Jacqueline Pearce as Cardinal Ollistra generated themselves. As good as they were together, over the course of a dozen episodes, the dynamic wore a bit thin.

Happily Pearce works well opposite McGann, which bodes well going forward. That said, the acting overall is surprisingly uneven. And while Rakhee Thakrar is fine as Bliss, the relatively limited role she has here leaves it an open question just how effective she’ll be in the companion role long-term. Of course, despite three more sets being planned, the long-term trajectory of this series is also a bit of an open question.

Potentially, this run of stories may itself yield diminishing returns over multiple releases. It’s fair to wonder how much more there really is to say about the Time War that isn’t repetitive of the television depictions or an exercise in fannish box-ticking. For this moment, though, this set is the Doctor many listeners have wanted. Though the circumstances may be grim, it would be churlish not to enjoy it.

❉ ‘Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor – The Time War’ Series 1 was released in October 2017. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until December 31st 2017, and on general sale after this date.

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