❉ John Dorney’s structurally daring epic ‘Palindrome’ is complex, tightly plotted, ambitious, and emotionally resonant.
“Rakhee Thakrar as Bliss is very rarely the focus, but Thakrar’s naturalistic delivery and the character’s willingness to pursue different moral standards than the typical Doctor Who character means there’s never a moment she’s anything less than fascinating, becoming the quiet triumph of this surprisingly long-lived series. “
As best as can be historically established in the shifting web that is causality itself at war, in October 2015, Big Finish Productions surprised the Doctor Who fandom by announcing the thing none of us ever dared hope for: a full dive into the legendary Time War of Russell T Davies’ new series mythos, starring John Hurt as the War Doctor. Naturally, this set fanboys into very happy tizzies, with fans thrilled to finally see the Dalek vs Time Lord smackdown across the timelines that had been teased for so long. Tucked into the penultimate paragraph of that announcement, however, was a little side-note: a single prequel set starring the Eighth Doctor would also be released. Well, it’s 2020 now, and we’ve reached the fourth Eighth Doctor Time War set, with more looking likely to come. So, five years on and more Time War stories than anyone ever dreamed possible under Big Finish’s belts, it’s time to once again ask: how are they doing with it?
Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: Time War 4, to use what I understand to be the most accurate and colon-heavy title, decides the best way to keep things fresh is to simultaneously go big and small. Much of the set is taken up John Dorney’s Palindrome, a structurally daring, emotionally ambitious two-hour epic that aspires to be an intimate tear-jerker about set selling point Davros, creator of the Daleks. And more than that, it defines the structure and plot of the surrounding stories; as behind the scenes interviews reveal, it was originally planned for the third set, but conflicting similarities with a War Master release caused the story to be postponed. As a result, Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: Time War 3 was designed to lead into this, and the rest of this fourth set is built around the aftermath. Palindrome is the make-or-break story for the box set.
And every idea that can be mustered is thrown in to make it the crowning jewel. I really can’t fault the things it’s trying to do. Davros actor Terry Molloy gets some meaty material, which is always the correct choice, playing a dual (and more) role between the classic, monstrous Davros and a parallel universe version who’s a loving husband and good-natured scientist. The structure is also inspired, and will satisfy fans who want temporal trickery from their Time War stories: the first episode covers a matter of days in reverse, while the second covers those same days in chronological order, giving it a shape much like, well, a palindrome. But through it all, the cast is kept minimal, with just the leads, Davros, his wife, Charn (Isla Blair), and various Daleks all played by Nicholas Briggs, excellently menacing as ever. It should be everything you want from a story: complex, tightly plotted, ambitious, and emotionally resonant.
The plotting is tight, but it’s also quite convoluted, devouring much of the space in the story even with the minimal cast just to explain itself. It took me two listens to fully grasp just how events all slotted into place, and a lot of dialogue and beats, particularly in the weaker second half, exist just to square off minor plot questions a listener might have. Meanwhile, the tragedy of the alternate Davros and his wife, Charn, never really gets started. There’s good choices in it—I particularly love making Charn a Thal, the native rivals to the Daleks—but she ends up factoring very little into the narrative, and is tremendously under-defined. There’s talk about her being a scientist of skill to rival Davros’, but it’s never put into action. She is a woman who exists in this story primarily to make people feel sad for Davros, and there feels something fundamentally lazy about that.
This would be a lot more forgivable if it were the first time we got a story like this, but it’s a type of story we’ve been surrounded by for decades. It’s also one that, looking back, has cropped up in every Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: Time War set. There are other ways to emotionally ground a cosmic war beyond men feeling sad about women, and it feels like a lack of imagination and diversity to fall back on the same tropes again and again. That makes the undercooked nature of Charn’s relationship to Davros feel all the more frustrating. At one point, looking into other possible timelines of their relationship, an Charn utters the totally stock “Davros, I’m sorry, I’ve found someone else.” Though the story spares us a full Davros adultery plot, I can’t help but feel like it’s more interested in a surface aesthetic of relationship drama than actually delivering on it. And as a result of the choice to build the whole set from this story, it doesn’t resolve the plot, just plays out the palindrome structure and ends abruptly in tragedy, an unsatisfying closing note.
The diversity problem, at least, is assuaged a bit by the following episode, Lisa McMullin’s Dreadshade. McMullin, who in the previous set was the first woman to write for McGann’s Doctor at Big Finish since Lloyd Rose in 2004, returns to become the first woman to write for the character of the Eleven, or in this incarnation, the Twelve (Julia McKenzie), a Big Finish original baddie with twelve personas all fighting for dominance. There’s a lot of irresistible ideas here: the Time War is seemingly over, but nobody can remember who the Time Lords were fighting. Meanwhile, the Twelve, the only one who remembers, manipulates a living weapon called a Dreadshade, which becomes more powerful the more afraid it is, destroying what causes it fright. The latter idea in particular seems a potent theme in this moment, when volatile politics and the swift communication of social media unite to create a time in which we’re all a bit of a dreadshade at times, terrified and lashing out.
Like Palindrome, however, I found Dreadshade to be a bit too full of ingredients to quite cohere. The two plot strands are fantastic, but though an effort is made to have Rakhee Thakrar’s Bliss merge them in a thematic resolution at the climax—and her arc of rediscovering herself makes for the strongest part of the episode—there isn’t an immediately clear cohesion between the many ingredients playing out, even on a subtle level. And speaking of subtle, more of it is needed in the performance of the Dreadshade itself. Actor Suzanne Procter does a fine job of playing a constant state of extreme anxiety, but when both the performance and the lines themselves are conveying maximum distress at all times, the whole thing goes careening over the edge into the land of over-the-top. It’s too much; the script could have been subtler, or the performance could have. Helen Goldwyn does a fine job taking over direction of the range from Ken Bentley, but there’s moments where I feel “less is more” might have been an appropriate note. It also doesn’t help that the Dreadshade spends most of the episode paired with the Twelve. While it’s refreshing to get a new voice writing the Twelve, I feel the character has worn out their welcome at this point, becoming a collection of ticks and personalities shouting at each other. A rest or an overhaul would be welcome.
The set comes to a climax in Matt Fitton’s Restoration of the Daleks, a more straightforward big action finale that’s chock full of continuity. Fitton talks in the behind the scenes interviews about starting from viewing Davros as a jilted parent, constantly trying to win his children, the Daleks, back. Having that as a core conceit works, and Davros’ mutually toxic family dynamic works as a source of drama, even as the plot ropes in concepts like cosmically destructive gestalt enemies and the resurrection of a certain Dalek God. It’s easily the least ambitious story in the set in terms of structure and ideas, but succeeds on those terms, making space not only Davros family drama, but also for Bliss to grow as a character and develop an intriguing dynamic with a Time Lord, Rasmus. Beyond that, it’s just fun to see the ideas and continuity at play, be it connecting the dots from classic comics to Christopher Eccleston’s series, or just an office building full of knights with lightsabers. And as we saw recently with Out of Time, Matt Fitton just writes a good Dalek. Sometimes, it’s the simple pleasures that most delight.
Overall, it’s little details and moments like that that really elevate The Eighth Doctor: Time War 4. It’s the choice to make Davros’ wife a Thal, or to have an alien that kills with “frightening bolts.” It’s every moment with Rakhee Thakrar as Bliss, literally, all of them; she’s very rarely the focus, but Thakrar’s naturalistic delivery and the character’s willingness to pursue different moral standards than the typical Doctor Who character means there’s never a moment she’s anything less than fascinating, becoming the quiet triumph of this surprisingly long-lived series. And it’s in hope for moments like those, not to mention a whopper of a cliffhanger for long-time Eighth Doctor listeners, that has me hopeful for the future of these Time War sets, in 2020 and beyond. I’ve not always been happy with the direction, and I think this set was a swing and a miss built on shaky ground, but I’m down to see where the journey goes from here.
Because really, what’s a war in time without a bit of mess?
DOCTOR WHO – THE EIGHTH DOCTOR: TIME WAR 4
Written by: John Dorney, Matt Fitton, Lisa McMullin
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 333 minutes approx.
Released: 16 September 2020, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
Director: Helen Goldwyn
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: Matt Fitton
❉ ‘The Eighth Doctor – The Time War volume 4′ is now available to own for £22.99 as a collector’s edition CD box set and £19.99 as a digital download, exclusively from the Big Finish website HERE. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until November 30th 2020, and on general sale after this date.
Big Finish listeners can save money by ordering a bundle of all four Eighth Doctor Time War box sets for £88 as a collector’s edition CD set, or £80 as a digital download, again from the Big Finish website.
❉ 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.