The War Doctor: Only the Monstrous

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The Doctor is injured when he uses a Dalek weapon to deal the enemy a devastating blow. Assumed dead, he lands on the peaceful planet of Keska.

 

Big Finish’s ‘War Doctor Era’ kicks off with this first box set, entitled Only the Monstrous. This ‘new’ incarnation is granted his own version of the Doctor Who theme, which shares some soaring, orchestral elements of his predecessor’s TV Movie version, but is suitably edgier and dirtier. Much of the opening instalment, The Innocent, sees the Doctor recovering from a near-fatal encounter with the Daleks. This makes the story feel like a traditional Doctor-debut story, where we find his new body suffering with post-regeneration physical or mental trauma.

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John Hurt returns as the War Doctor, and it seems unnecessary to confirm that he is excellent; stepping effortlessly back into his gruff, war-weary portrayal. Jacqueline Pearce plays the cynical Time Lady Cardinal Ollistra. She manipulates the Doctor and his Gallifreyan comrades, her only interest is in winning the Time War by any means necessary. Their relationship emphasises the conflict the within the Doctor about being a soldier, and in particular in following orders.

The Time War has been an intriguing and mysterious period of the Doctor’s life since the first oblique reference to the conflict in Rose. Early on it was spoken of as an unimaginable conflict in which, “the whole universe convulsed. The Time War raged, invisible to smaller species but devastating to higher forms.” (The Gelth, The Unquiet Dead). In The End of Time Part Two the Doctor speaks of, “The Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been-King with his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres.” Even from episodes of the classic series we know that the Time Lords have at their disposal weaponry like the the De-mat gun (which can erase its targets from reality), Nemesis, the Hand of Omega, along with the ability to trap enemies in time loops and move entire planets. These kind of abstract scenarios are difficult to actually realise on screen, so you might imagine they would be best depicted in print. But the one BBC Books Time War chronicle, Engines of War, largely depicted straight-forward space battles, with the TARDIS used simply as a missile to smash into Dalek ships.

The Time War scenes in The Day of the Doctor neatly side-step the issue of showing impossibly advanced warfare with fantastic weapons: The War Council discuss the Omega Arsenal being empty of all but the sentient weapon, the Moment. The impression is of the Daleks battering their way to Gallifrey through sheer force of numbers. Only the Monstrous succeeds by mining Doctor Who‘s history to resurrect some Dalek super-weapons from the epic stories of the 1960s. This helps tie the Time War to twentieth century Who, Big Finish’s traditional stomping ground. Genesis of the Daleks is confirmed, as has long been suspected, as the opening salvo of the Time War.

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Nicholas Briggs has written all three parts of this boxset. He has a seemingly endless supply of excellent Dalek stories to tell, and it would be great to see him script a television story, as Russell T Davis has since said he would have liked to commission. Here Briggs tells a thoughtful story between two big maneouvres of the Time War, mixing dirty political machinations with exciting behind-enemy-lines action.

The man who was the Doctor arrives on Keska, battered and bruised from the detonation of one such devastating weapon. The Keskans are pacifists to the point where they have moved their entire civilisation rather than battle a technologically-inferior invading race, the brutal Taalyans. The Doctor befriends a young female of the race named Rejoice, at one point muttering, “You’re too good to be true.” The whole Keskan race seem like this, to the extent that the listener suspects they are faking it as a ruse.

When the former Doctor visits Keska several years later, they have been conquered by the Taalyans, backed by the Daleks. He has been sent on a mission to rescue the Time Lord Seratrix, who has previously been dispatched to sue for peace with the Daleks. On the excellent ‘Making Of’ disc writer Nicholas Briggs likens the scenario to the British Government’s policy of appeasement towards the Nazis in the build-up to World War Two. Usually the Doctor is the proponent for peace, but the Time War has so perverted the natural order that peace is the wrong path to pursue. But, like so much about the War Doctor’s storyline, it has to put into the context of him battling the Daleks. There could be no lasting peace, and it’s odd for him to feel any qualms about destroying them. In Genesis of the Daleks, even Sarah Jane can’t see any reason not to destroy the Daleks completely.

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When the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors meet their warlike predecessor in Day of the Doctor they react with fear. The character has kept this incarnation a closely-guarded secret. From that episode it seems that the main reason for this is because this version of the Doctor detonated the Moment, the weapon which destroyed every Time Lord and Dalek alike. There’s also the suggestion that even before this final moment the War Doctor acts in way that would be repugnant to any of his other selves.

“I’m steeped in the blood of it all. It’s my reason for being: to do the unthinkable. To do what is necessary to bring this whole sorry chapter of cosmic history to an end, one way or another. In short… I’m a monster.” The War Doctor, Only the Monstrous.

It’s an idea spoken about often, but never actually observed. Besides being prepared to activate the Moment, we are still waiting to see the War Doctor do something which any of the Doctors would not. We’ve seen him destroy Daleks in their thousands in non-Time War stories without judging himself monstrous. The situation between the Keskans and the Taalyans reminds the listener of the similar situation with the Thals and Daleks in The Daleks. Like the Thals, the Keskans are pacifists under threat from a warlike enemy. But whereas the First Doctor goaded the Thals into fighting the Daleks (for his own ends), this incarnation fights on behalf of the Keskans. In this way his earlier self was the more ‘monstrous.’

At the climax of the third episode, The Heart of the Battle, the War Doctor is called upon to make an impossible decision. It’s not so much that the others Doctors would not make the same choice in the same situation, as they would find an ingenious solution to avoid making the choice. It echoes the choice he will eventually face with the Moment. This could be a big clue to this version character; it seems to be this type of failure to win on his own terms, rather than any brutal actions he takes, that means he falls short of living up to his own title.

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Order Only the Monstrous:

Doctor Who – The War Doctor 1: Only the Monstrous

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