Sunday, 27 December 2015

REVIEW - THE WAR DOCTOR: ONLY THE MONSTROUS

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John Hurt leads the Big Finish New Who war on the masses in this first box set (well from the New Series Doctors at least) which looks at some of the atrocities committed by the Doctor of War that eventually led to this incarnation stealing the Moment and what drove him to cite double genocide as a valid reason to end the Time War.

But before we get into the stories, let’s first discuss the War Doctor’s opening theme. Yes, even if you don’t call yourself the Doctor, you still need a theme all your own.

In short, while the militaristic add-on to the famous opening tune fits John Hurt’s incarnation to a ‘T’, I frankly don’t like it. It’s not bad, but it’s not really one of the better renditions of the theme. I’d cite Colin Baker’s second opening as the worst so far and place this version right above that.

Secondly, this box set had a lot of competition. December saw the release of two Seventh Doctor novel adaptations, Theatre of War and All-Consuming Fire, the latter of which is Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes and we also had the superb You Are The Doctor and Other Stories. For this reason, my expectations regarding this box set were very high given the quality Big Finish put out not only this month, but in general regarding their New Who license.

The Innocent

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Ironically, the cover with the best artwork features the weakest story. 

Admittedly, the box set gets off to a bad start with this first instalment. I had three goes before I could finish it. But that isn’t to say The Innocent is a bad story, it just…it feels very awkward in that it’s more like that character piece filler episode following a very dark two-parter instead of being the actual dark two-parter fans are hoping for. The plot deals with the Doctor being nursed back to health after combating the Daleks in another adventure while juggling a seemingly more action-packed and interesting flashback plot. Unfortunately, the bits of the story you want to follow are told in flashbacks and the bits you don’t really care about is the main focus of the episode.

I can never find any fault with John Hurt’s non-Doctor. In fact, he is more not-the-Doctor than he claimed to be in the 50th Anniversary. Big Finish really has a tight grip on this incarnation and it shows. The War Doctor is at times just plain rude and unlikable (unlike Capaldi’s sardonic and funny-rude incarnation), a side effect of his lifestyle I believe, but Big Finish seem to be doing a variation of the “Am I a Good Man” arc from Series 8, though unlike Twelve, the War Doctor already knows the answer.

As mentioned, this instalment doesn’t really have an antagonist to deal with. Most of the action and threat is either in the background or easily dispensed with, choosing instead to focus on the mindset of the Doctor, which again, isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not the right time.

One thing Big Finish nailed though was not giving the Doctor any companions, but instead giving him the traditional pseudo-reliables. You know the guest stars who aid the Doctor and company in a story.

I don’t have a lot to say about The Nursemaid, good or bad as she seems like a genuinely nice person, but not much attention is given to her to make her unforgettable. Her attachment to the Doctor still puzzles me though as the story leans towards a romantic or a father/daughter relationship, though there are no absent daddies or likewise issues present in this story. The latter options feels unsettling as the War Doctor looks like he’s in his seventies while the Nursemaid sounds like she isn’t even in her thirties yet.

Rating this story: 6/10. Would have scored higher if it followed directly after showing us the whole of the great disaster it draws its inspiration from.

The Thousand Worlds

The second story is substantially better in both drama and quality, choosing to show us the Doctor’s relationship with the Time Lords and how close they’ve become to being indistinguishable from Daleks. It also sends the Doctor on a rescue mission behind enemy lines.

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I know. I know. Nick Briggs already mentioned that these stories were born from his love of war movies. A Behind-Enemy-Lines story had to be done. Better to get it out of the way now.

The second story ups the tension and drama exponentially and puts the Doctor between the Daleks and a hard place, though the setting feels somewhat shoehorned in and the same problems that plagued the first story are present in this one here, but to a less noticeable degree. It’s a step in the right direction, but we’re not quite there yet.

What this story does remarkably well is give us insight into what it means to be the War Doctor. The War Doctor Adventures is basically Doctor Who without morals. So putting the War Doctor up against someone who holds the same morals that he used to hold when he called himself the Doctor is just a fascinating notion. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t dig deep enough into that strange role reversal.
Rating this story: 7/10

The Heart of the Battle

war-doctor-big-finish-heart-of-the-battle-worldsThe trilogy ends on its highest note with this instalment. Going into detail is tricky as a lot of plot points from the previous stories get sorted in this instalment. There are also several noteworthy twists listeners probably won’t see coming which makes for a great listen.

One of the things I wanted from this box set was bad endings. I didn’t want any sort of happy conclusion. It either had to be a downer or a bittersweet ending. The whole point of the War Doctor is an incarnation forced to constantly do bad things for the greater good and The Heart of the Battle is a fine example of just that. The decisions taken and explanations given in this story will make you hate certain characters. You’ll respect them, but you’ll also hate them.

The one constant throughout this series is John Hurt, who sounds as though he is really enjoying the scripts. Jacqueline Pearce’s Cardinal Ollistra starts off a little bland, but eventually transforms into a character you love to hate. If you like the Seventh Doctor, you’ll love her. As does Beth Chalmers’ Veklin (known for playing Raine Creevy in the Seventh Doctor audios) who is another character that works your nerves with every fibre of her being, but you don’t mind because it makes for great drama.

Alex Wyndham’s Seratrix starts off sounding like one of the highlight characters of the box set, but quickly devolves into sounding more like a na├»ve fool, who fans will no doubt find themselves criticizing.
Rating this story: 7.5/10

Conclusion

This box set as a whole feels like the low man on the totem pole. Well, still miles ahead of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, but The War Doctor Adventures feels weak compared to all the other box sets Big Finish put out this year. This box set certainly ranked way lower than I hoped it would, though the blame could go to me for raising my expectations to an unrealistic bar.

Ending on a more cheerful note, it looks as though Big Finish is listening to the fans and not making the same mistake they did with Dark Eyes. While all four box sets need to be listened to in order to fully understand the plot, it looks as though The War Doctor Adventures will deal with self-contained trilogies, each time recounting different incidents in the Time War. Whether or not this is true is yet to be seen, but it is something of a hope for fans who want to skip this box set.

Doctor Who: Only The Monstrous is available on Big Finish's website HERE.
Note: If you liked this review, please like and share it. If you’re interested in getting into Big Finish or want suggestions on which stories are great, check out my ranking of them HERE

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