Friday, 21 July 2017

Audio Review 26: The War Doctor: Volume 1 - Only The Monstrous, written by Nicholas Briggs (2015)


Released: December 2015

Cast: 
The War Doctor – Sir John Hurt
Cardinal Ollistra – Jacqueline Pearce
Rejoice – Lucy Briggs-Owen
Keskan Slave – Carolyn Seymour
Seratrix – Alex Wyndham
Veklin – Beth Chalmers
Bennus – Kieran Hodgson
Arverton – Barnaby Edwards
Trannus – Mark McDonnell
Garv – John Banks
Dalek Voices – Nicholas Briggs 

Main Production Credits 
Producer – David Richardson
Writer – Nicholas Briggs
Director – Nicholas Briggs
Script Editor – Matt Fitton
Original Music and Sound Design – Howard Carter
Recording – Toby Hrycek-Robinson at Moat Studios
Title Music – Howard Carter
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery 

Story Placement 
Between unknown previous adventure (after The Night of the Doctor) and The War Doctor: Infernal Devices (Big Finish Audio). 

Favourite Lines:

Cardinal Ollistra: “What is War, if not the embodiment of hypocrisy”. 

Prime Dalek: “Peace in Our Time!” 

Cardinal Ollistra: “Where can I find you Doctor? When I need you again.” 
The War Doctor: “At the Heart of the Battle, where the blood of the innocents flows, and only the monstrous survive”. 

Foreword: 

The recent sad loss of Sir John Hurt came as a surprise to many, including me, who hoped his diagnosed cancer was in remission, and had several years left to enjoy. In truth, John Hurt is one of Britain’s greatest character actors, and many, including me, had become fond of his reassuring gravelly voice and sweet demeanour. I confess, while I only know of about a third of his rich and extensive work over the years, the conviction, gravitas and honesty of his performances always impressed me no end. As time goes by, it becomes increasingly clear that John Hurt was an absolute workaholic, whose contribution to the Arts of Cinema, Theatre and Television in recent decades, is matched only by a small number. On a lesser note, it was also sad that Sir John was taken away from us, not long after welcoming him into the great big happy Doctor Who family. I think it’s a huge shame that John, never got the time to experience and realise the affection present and future fans had, and would have for him. Nevertheless, I’m sure we’ll all cherish the magnificent material he's gifted us with, of which Big Finish’s War Doctor series is part. Steven Moffat and all of us were very lucky that John Hurt was cast in the fascinating character of the War Doctor, and after his short appearance in the Doctor Who TV series itself, it was only natural for fans to become desperate for more opportunities to experience and enjoy this mysterious incarnation of our hero. Nicholas Briggs and Big Finish audios clearly agreed, hence their hard work to bring the War Doctor to audio so quickly, and I’m very glad they did, but unfortunately especially now that John Hurt is sadly no longer with us. I confess, although I purchased the boxsets straight away at the time, its only now, after the great loss of this enormous talent, that I was compelled to seek out some of his work to enjoy, so I could remember him at his best. Not to mention, hear some more of John Hurt’s short, but unforgettable and momentous contribution to the World of Doctor Who.


Please note: Spoilers Follow!

Part 1: The Innocent


Review: 

The Innocent is an unusual and unique piece of Doctor Who; a fascinating paradoxical mix of being new and fairly radical, featuring striking action set pieces, while also having a low-key, broadly-written narrative. Then there’s the wonderful contrast between the Universe-encompassing Time War, and the often tranquil, rustic paradise of planet Keska. For the first story to introduce us to the War Doctor properly, it feels strange to have a slightly uneventful plotline, and yet that’s what makes it all the more interesting, because it allows for an introspective character study of this brand-new Doctor.

While we know Only The Monstrous isn’t the War Doctor’s opening adventure, the story knows it’s serving as the character’s main entrance, and throughout The Innocent, economically works in a series of clever flashbacks, which serve as a neat potted history and summary, of some of the actions this “cursed” of incarnations has performed during the hell of the Time War. So as the entrance for The War Doctor, this introspective, and quite laidback opener, is quite unlike any introduction we’ve had for any Doctor before. Yet it feels so right. The War Doctor creates and carries the most emotional baggage of any Doctor, so we, the listener, are still trying to make sense of how that shapes and defines his persona. In that sense, the War Doctor is almost a completely new character we’re experiencing for the first time. However, its more than that. The War Doctor’s insistence that he is no-one, nobody, and his tight-lipped secrecy about his recent past, also turns him into a fascinating enigma. The Doctor hasn’t been this much of a mystery since the Sylvester McCoy incarnation, but there’s deeper echoes that hark back to William Hartnell’s Doctor too, because for the first time since Doctor Who’s first TV episodes in 1963, The Doctor is completely unpredictable, a virtually unknowable force of nature, truly capable of anything, especially given the more amoral outlook forced upon him by the Time War.

Furthermore, it reinforces how new and fresh everything is. The idea of the fallen survivor from an alien war, is actually, a very old Sci-fi premise, but it’s the first time it’s ever been applied to The Doctor. In fact, the setup feels like an echo of the Ninth Doctor’s entrance in 2005, which plays on very similar lines, except minus featuring the Time War itself, and that the Ninth Doctor was clearly in recovery from the aftermath of the War, rather than in shock from coping with being in it. The Time War has been mentioned and represented countless times in Doctor Who since 2005, but it’s never been portrayed with any real dimension thus far, mostly because the TV series, even when it first raised the idea in 2005, didn’t and largely still doesn’t have the funds to do it justice on screen. So, to all intents and purposes, this is a separate and brand new version of Doctor Who, complete with its own backstory and supporting characters, a whole world away from any of Doctor Who’s televised series. The War Doctor series, brings with it an excitement and frisson, as to the new avenues and possibilities it can explore, just as the 2005 TV Revival did.

More like a film, than an opening to a series, The Innocent begins with an impressive set piece, as the Time Lords hoist a Dalek fleet upon its own Time Destructor. The sudden tonal shift, from that to the relaxed and domestic setting of Keska, and the gentle personal two-handed character drama between The Doctor and Rejoice, is both a welcome surprise, and a wonderful breath of fresh air from the usual melodramas of space battles we might have been expecting. While the stakes may not be very high at this stage of the story arc (the Taalyens feel like a mere distraction at the moment), this thoughtful study into the Doctor’s emotional turmoil, prove to create a charming little tale, which gives us a good early insight into the effect of the Time War, and acts as the “Calm before the Storm”, the prelude before the “Hell” of the Time War truly takes shape.

Rejoice and the War Doctor, make a great natural duo, and one wishes that perhaps Rejoice might have been a companion, given their obvious rapport. The Doctor’s head, caught between the horrors of the Time War and the personal trauma of coming to terms with his own actions during it, is soothed and healed significantly by Rejoice, who has an angelic level of patience and faith in the good, which she thinks The Doctor still has in his hearts. Despite his protestations and sudden violent outbursts, Rejoice proves to the audience, that under the surface, the old spirit and good nature of the Doctor still lies within him, and that he punishes himself too harshly. It’s a big shame then, that before this relationship develops into something greater, its snatched away by the Time Lords, who are desperate to drag The Doctor back into The Time War. I feel this is a clever signposting by writer Nicholas Briggs to show that this is unfortunately not business as usual, mirroring the all-pervasive and threatening Time War, by disrupting Doctor Who’s very own formula, so even The Doctor himself cannot escape the horrors that await him. Despite the clever script device, part of me hankers for a longer running time of this interlude, just so we, the listener, could peel back the layers of The Doctor and Rejoice’s characters, just that bit deeper. Briggs, like The Doctor though, is playing his cards very closely to his chest, and leaving us wanting more, and after this delightful and impressive opening, I for one, cannot wait for the next instalment.. 

Score: 7/10


Part 2: The Thousand Worlds


Review:
 
The sudden intervention of the Time Lords in the relative peace of The Innocent, strips the Doctor of the opportunity to truly heal and come to terms with his true self. For the Time Lords, the Doctor is considered, and treated like their ultimate weapon, a resource to be unleashed in dire circumstances; and so, will never give him up easily. The War Doctor being dragged back to Gallifrey, and employment in the Time War, has echoes of when the Third Doctor was occasionally dragged back to work for UNIT. He clearly doesn’t want to be there, openly mocking his rank superiors, but for far better, deeper and different reasons than before. He feels bombarded and straitjacketed by orders from Time Lords, who seem to act more like Daleks, one-track narrow minds, obsessed with victory to the point they have contempt for those not unlike themselves. For Veklin, this is certainly true, but I feel she’s far too unsympathetic and earnest to be taken seriously, and makes an easy target for the Doctor’s jibes.

Cardinal Ollistra is far more well-rounded and developed, performing the hard, stern, austere Commander of Time Lord military operations to her underlings; while being a ruthless, cynical, but smooth-talking politician in reality. Ollistra also holds a fascinating measure of respect for The Doctor, despite his contempt for all things military. She finds him amusing, but refreshingly sharp-witted and imaginative, especially compared to the more literal-minded Time Lords like Veklin, or the waffle of young innocents, drafted into the cause.
 
Speaking of the The Innocent, I had suspected Nicholas Briggs was going to reintroduce Keska and Rejoice, later into the story arc; but I didn’t expect the momentous and confident twist unleashed upon the listener, when the Doctor tragically finds himself in a Dalek-occupied Keska, devastated by Invasion and industrialisation, just years after he left it. The turn of events is another great piece of symbolism on the effect of The Time War. In better times, Rejoice would have been The Doctor’s companion, and Keska, another saved planet living in peace. The Time War though, continues to unravel all before it, including The Doctor, and everything about him. So, past victories become overturned by greater defeats, and The Doctor sees his would-be friends at their knees, his good deeds made null and void. There’s no certainties, or rules in the Doctor Who Universe any more…and sometimes that makes the possibilities all the more exciting.

Except, the calm eye of the Storm, The Doctor, remains a reassuring presence in these unpredictable events. For all his laments and shame, about not being the person he used to be, his kinder and warmer old self, still threatens to reappear from time to time. He’s clearly still very goodhearted, caring for the Keskan people, and keen to do the right thing. The reunion with, a now older Rejoice, is even just 60 odd minutes since her introduction, sweet and poignant. The Daleks may have brought weariness, hopelessness and the death of innocence to Keska, but Rejoice is still a warm and kind soul, who believes in the good heart of the Doctor. The Doctor is notably happier in her presence, and I love how the two playfully tease each other, like the best of friends.
The Daleks in contrast, are a fascinating contradiction. Their reliance and use of the Taalyens as less intelligent, militaristic allies is a very familiar gambit, and after being clearly diminished in their most recent conflict with the Time Lords, the Daleks are carrying out their intentions very coolly and cautiously. It makes a big change not seeing the Daleks as brazen and arrogant as on earlier occasions. The Thousand Worlds also gives us a rare opportunity to experience a successfully Dalek-occupied World close-up. I know Nicholas Briggs’ spinoff audio series Dalek Empire covered this in extensive detail, but it’s rare for us to come across it in official Doctor Who itself, and experience The Doctor operating within it. The atmosphere is predictably oppressive, bleak and intimidating; never-ending industrialisation and military installations, worked by a permanently enslaved civilisation. I would love the TV version of Doctor Who to attempt imagery of this type again, it really sells the horrific threat of the Daleks in a way reams of exposition and special effects just simply can’t. Nicholas Briggs has years of experience writing about the deeper nature of the Daleks, so he has their character, meaning, ideology and effect down to a Tee by this point.

Like The Doctor, we too think the worst of the Daleks, which makes the cliff-hanger of The Thousand Worlds so intriguing... 

Score: 8/10

Part 3: The Heart of the Battle 

Review:

The idea of the Time Lords making peace with the Daleks, is another great new fascinating concept to explore, especially under the backdrop of the Time War. Like the idea of Nazi appeasement in hindsight, sacrificing hundreds of planets and civilisations to unopposed death and tyranny under the Daleks is horrifying; and the hope of Seratrix that this callous selling out of a galaxy or two to satiate the Daleks’ bloodlust and terror, in order to enable the Time Lords to resume their naval-gazing unfeeling protectionism, is sheer naivety of the highest order. The Doctor thinks so too, and like us is highly sceptical that the Daleks will remotely honour their promises to Seratrix.

So, it’s no real surprise when the Doctor uncovers, without too much difficulty, that the Daleks have outwitted Seratrix, and intend another, more devious means to wage and win the Time War against the Time Lords. Turning just over a “thousand Worlds” into giant space projectiles to impact into Gallifrey, has to be one of the most audacious and ambitious Dalek schemes to date. The simplicity and gall of it is mindboggling, and Seratrix’s peace negotiations are enough to distract the Time Lords until it would be too late, or so the Daleks think anyway.

The Doctor makes short work of the Daleks, only to realise he can’t truly win and stop the Dalek plan without sacrificing Keskan lives. He resigns himself to the fact that he may continue to always be the “monster” he’s been fighting within himself all this time, if he’s to win against the Daleks. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, trapped in an endless purgatory, with no good decisions in sight; mired in loss and destruction; and without peace, eternally ashamed and self-loathing, for what he’s had to do.

The use of the Taalyens, and a deeper exploration into their nature, accentuates the Doctor’s inner turmoil; between his despair and weariness of the Time War, and his hatred of the Daleks, and their allies’ utter contempt for all life, and the innocents they lay waste to. However, they also highlight The Doctor’s true good nature, despite his shame. The Doctor takes it upon himself to take the worst decisions, so no one else has to suffer them on their conscience. The Taalyens are, like the Daleks, the real monsters, and their obsession with might and victory, is such that conscience and innocence are weaknesses to be reviled, not strengths. They’re more dangerous and intelligent blunt instruments than the Ogrons, so perhaps the Daleks are choosing their allies more carefully. However, in story terms, the Taalyens end up being instruments to frustrate the Doctor. I really didn’t like how Rejoice was seemingly despatched, as just another innocent victim to highlight the Taalyens’ obvious cruelty. I thought Rejoice was a fascinating idea for a character – the lost companion, which the Doctor never had; and a great concept to revisit in future storylines. To just throw the character away in order to tie up as many loose ends as possible, felt like a waste of her success as a concept so far, as well as the future potential Rejoice could have.

The real twist of the story though, is that the whole course of events we have witnessed, were set into motion by Cardinal Ollistra the entire time. Ollistra secretly sanctioned Seratrix’s Peace group, and their attempt to negotiate a settlement with the Daleks, just so she could infiltrate and thwart their followers in the long term. The Daleks’ Null-Zone Machine was donated by Ollistra to Seratrix, as a temporary sweetener to the Daleks, until she was sure Seratrix’s group were all revealed, and defeated, after which it was deactivated so the Time Lords could regain supremacy before the Daleks brought their plans to fruition. The Doctor is understandably horrified. The Daleks’ “Thousand Worlds” invasion, and their alliance with the Taalyens, the devastation of Keska; was all just to prevent appeasement in the Time Lord ranks, and it could all have been avoided. Ollistra, is the real Time Lord monster of the Time War, and worse, she feels it is her duty to be so, in order to achieve victory, her ruthlessness knowing little bounds. Veklin it seems, is another story device; both to give some scale, to the effect of the Time War on the Time Lords; and to be Ollistra’s very own blunt instrument, cleverly shadowing Ollistra’s influence until the final reveal. While Ollistra is far from the worst of the Time Lord villains encountered by the Doctor, there’s a strong argument to say that Ollistra is perhaps the cleverest and most calculating. 

Score: 8/10 

I’ve already mentioned the stellar acting of Sir John Hurt, and as I and many others suspected, he does an equally fine job revisiting the War Doctor. Hurt takes the weariness, dry wit, contrition and thoughtfulness introduced in The Day of the Doctor, and adds depth and in some cases, blistering anger, giving much more layers and colour to his portrayal of the War Doctor. Furthermore, he feels totally settled in the role, and clearly enjoys his time as part of the Doctor Who universe, as if he had been a part of it for several years before. Hurt leads this version of Doctor Who with great confidence and reverence, emanating gravitas, and portraying a calm and steely tenacity in the War Doctor, subtly demonstrating his determination to bring this Time War to rights, whatever side he finds himself on.

Jacqueline Pearce does a stunning and convincing turn as new Time Lord villain, Cardinal Ollistra. After her iconic Blake’s 7 performance as Servalan, Ollistra may seem like typecasting, but Pearce perseveres in creating a fresh new Doctor Who villain, substituting the theatricality and camp of similar villains, with the weariness and authoritarian calm of a wiser and senior official. There’s also an inner peace, and quiet self-assuredness that Pearce holds back until Ollistra is alone with the Doctor, reinforcing the private respect the Cardinal has for him. More importantly though, it subtly reveals the hubris and arrogance of her own convictions in a way that feels natural. It’s that inner calm and cool determination that helps add dramatic weight to the reveal of the true extent and scope of Ollistra’s ruthless and devious scheme.


Rejoice is played wonderfully by two actors, reflecting two points in the character’s timeline. Lucy Briggs-Owen brings a sincerity throughout, that really brings Rejoice to life. Her subtle and gentle performance of Rejoice’s generous spirit, and her quiet resolve and bravery, really sells her as a future companion we’d want to know. Carolyn Seymour’s interpretation is very warm, but very convincingly portrays the future Rejoice’s hardened and sceptical outlook, hiding a lifetime of loss and oppression. It’s just a shame that despite defeating the Daleks, we didn’t get to see Seymour and Hurt enact a happier parting between the two characters.


For perhaps the first time, I feel compelled to applaud the excellent Sound work of Howard Carter. Most of my reviews have been of Big Finish’s early years, and I’m far behind on listening to current releases, so skipping forward to this set has been something of a revelation to me. The Time War, offers a vast playground for any composer and sound designer, and Howard Carter has superbly rose to the challenge. From the very beginning, Only The Monstrous has better sound design than a multi-million pound movie, with an explosive opening that immediately brings the scale of the Dalek time fleet, and their demise into perspective. It also highlights the contrast with the beautiful and tranquil planet Keska, and its rural utopia with gently rippling lakes and birdsong. Then in future episodes, the war-torn Keska stands out again, with the rumble of loud and distant mining explosions, Dalek hover jets, and the groans of beaten and ill people enslaved by the stormtrooper-like Taalyens. In addition, the Taalyens’ tone deaf war music is an hilarious invention. Pure genius. Regular listeners to Big Finish’s current output may take this attention to detail for granted, but after years of re-listening to their early works, it’s clear that audio production at Big Finish has made huge advances in recent years. Howard Carter’s original music is pretty fine too. Very in-keeping with the tone of Murray Gold’s early incidentals for the TV series, with hints of John Debney’s 1990s style, and a very percussive sound in the mix suiting the War Doctor’s harder character. I’m a bit less sure of the new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme – it’s very bombastic and on the nose, but its growing on me. 

Only the Monstrous serves as a great re-introduction to the three major parties in The Time War: The Time Lords, the Daleks, and the Doctor himself. It’s a fresh beginning that features some good untested new ideas in Doctor Who – a low-key entrance, a new twist on “The Doctor as survivor” tale, the Companion that almost was, and Time Lords trying to make peace with Daleks. On top of all that, the Daleks (and the Time Lords for that matter) feature at their scheming, ambitious best, in an extended tale that goes some way to demonstrating how devastating the Time War is to other planets, and how even the most innocent of civilisations can never truly be safe while it rages.

Nicholas Briggs deftly directs this production, clearly creating fantastic chemistry between the cast, and encouraging great atmosphere and convincing performances throughout. From the first minute, I was immediately immersed in this new vision of Doctor Who, and I think it’s a wondrous thing Briggs has created.

Being an introduction, however good though, is as much its flaw, as its strength. Only The Monstrous is often clearly a warm-up, laying the groundwork for later and bigger storylines to come. Nicholas Briggs chooses to sacrifice some of his good invention to the overall narrative, and to emphasise the War Doctor’s inner conflict with his conscience; in many ways going over similar ground to that explored in The Day of the Doctor, albeit more expanded upon. Oddly, we finish this opening boxset, with very little having changed. We may have met Ollistra, and realised her lethal determination to win against the Daleks, at any cost; but overall the Time Lords seem to be winning the Time War rather well, perhaps preparing the stage for greater falls to come; and the War Doctor continues, still as conflicted as before. I also think it a shame, that this extended story (and I suspect subsequent boxsets too), weren’t as long as perhaps it could have been, to allow for more extensive supporting character development, particularly of the Keskans and Taalyens. While the concise plot didn’t curtail the ambition of the story, I think that more subtle and natural development, would have made them a lot more interesting, and more multi-dimensional.

While Only The Monstrous seemed only a tactical skirmish for the Time Lords though, the story holds great promise for the surely bigger and more complex tales to come…and I can’t wait to hear them! 

Overall Score: 8/10

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