In light of the recent release of Volume 2 of Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor Time War series (review coming later this week), I figured I’d finally give the first set a listen. I really should’ve done this earlier, because it’s the first piece of Doctor Who that’s really made the Time War feel like a Time War. Written by John Dorney and Matt Fitton and DIrected by Ken Bentley, Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor – The Time War Series 1 is the first in a run of four boxsets that serve as a prequel to Big Finish’s four War Doctor boxsets. In Series 1, the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) is pulled into the events of the Time War, a war he has been avoiding as long as he possibly could. A terrible war is being waged through space and time, as two powerful enemies rip the cosmos apart in a final struggle to the death. The Doctor stands apart from this conflict: he is not a warrior, but a healer. But the Time War is snapping at his heels, and soon he will have no choice but to turn and face its horrors… (Warning: spoilers ahead!)
The Starship of Theseus by John Dorney
This first story kicks off the whole box set with a bang – or, perhaps more literally, a crash – as the Doctor ends up on a starliner named the Theseus with his companion, Sheena. From Big Finish Productions: The Doctor and his companion, Sheena, land the TARDIS on the glamorous luxury space-liner Theseus just as it’s about to leave the Jupiter space-port. An opportunity for a holiday presents itself – and it’s one they’re very glad to take. But when a disturbance catches their attention, they realize sinister events are taking place on board. Passengers are vanishing on every trip. And unless they’re careful they may be next. Can the Doctor and Emma solve the mystery? Or is there something else they should be worrying about?
The thing I like most about this story is how much it plays with time. A major part of the story is how time keeps rewriting itself. We see it most obviously in Sheena’s changing name – it goes from Sheena to Louise to Emma to her not existing at all. It’s such a clever way of getting the idea of a time war across to the audience in a heartbreaking way. We’re introduced to Sheena, having never met her before (her and the Doctor started traveling together sometime between the end of Doom Coalition and the beginning of this set) and then by the end of the story, she literally never existed. It’s heartbreaking in how casually it happens and even more heartbreaking when you realize the Doctor doesn’t even remember her existence, so he can’t mourn her. It’s also a perfect way to introduce us to the real new companion for this set, Bliss (Rakhee Thakrar). She appears towards the end of the story as one of the refugees the Doctor has to save from the – now under attack – Theseus. The way the story switches from Sheena/Louise/Emma to Bliss is really interesting and rather clever in its utter brutality. It’s just such an interesting way for a companion to be introduced. Near the end, a Time Lord arrives on the ship looking for the ‘Renegade’ – a Time Lord who’s betrayed his people by avoiding fighting in the Time War. Naturally, it appears this is the Doctor, but the Time Lord dies before we can find out for sure. This plot thread is built upon throughout the rest of the series and the way it’s introduced here (as the pre-titles sequence and the climax of the story) is really intriguing and engaging. The story, as a whole, is just really interesting. It’s a concept that works perfectly for a Time War and a story that features the Eighth Doctor that’s still identifiably the Eighth Doctor, but a bit harder than we’re used to seeing him. He’s very much the Eighth Doctor that would go on to appear in Night of the Doctor and less the Eighth Doctor of the TV movie. (4 out of 5 wands)
Echoes of War by Matt Fitton
Picking up directly where the previous story ends, this story finds the Doctor, Bliss, and refugees Jefferson (Hywel Morgan), Rupa (Nimmy March), and Quarren (David Ganly) stranded on a planet that’s been hit by the Time War. From Big Finish Productions: Colliding with the full force of the Time War, the Doctor crash-lands on a jungle world with a ragtag band of refugees. To stay alive, they must cross a landscape where time itself is corrupted. A forest which cycles through growth and decay, where sounds of battle are never far away, and where strange creatures lurk all around. Luckily, the Doctor has friends: not only Bliss, the plucky scientist but another, much more unlikely ally. Its name is ‘Dal’…
This story is the other major story that really utilizes the idea of a Time War to its fullest extent. Life on this jungle world is in flux as echoes of the past – or future? – plague the Doctor and friends as they struggle to reach the safe zone: a zone free from all of these temporal fluctuations. The most interesting part of this story, of course, is Dal the Dalek. Dal was damaged during the crash of the Theseus (at the end of the previous story) and has forgotten who it is and what its purpose is. Naturally, the Doctor uses Dal’s amnesia to his advantage and convinces him that he’s good and not like the other Daleks glimpsed in the temporal echoes. This story isn’t the first story to explore a “good” Dalek, but it might just be my favorite one to do so. Something about the way Dal is written (and Nicholas Briggs’ performance) is so captivating that it’s utterly heartbreaking when, at the end of the story, Dal meets a sticky end at the orders of a certain Cardinal we love to hate. Echoes of War is a really strong second story. It keeps the tension built in the first story and turns up a notch. It really helps show just how damaging a time war could be and uses that to its advantage. The Doctor ends up missing for much of the story, so it falls to Bliss, Quarren, Rupa, and Dal to carry the story, and they carry it with ease. Matt Fitton really crafts a strong story with Echoes of War; he quickly prunes the cast down to only the most important characters, he develops all of them really well, and the idea of using the planet as a trap to capture ‘the Renegade’ is a really ingenious one… (4.5 out of 5 wands)
The Conscript by Matt Fitton
Picking up from where the previous story ended, the Doctor, Bliss, Quarren, and Rupa have been captured by the Time Lords. Bliss, Quarren, and Rupa are being interrogated while the Doctor is being forced to attend a boot camp for new Time Lord soldiers. If that’s not a setup for an interesting episode of Doctor Who, I don’t know what is. From Big Finish Productions: Cardinal Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce) has a new tactic to persuade the Doctor to join his people’s fight. With his friends locked away, he has been conscripted alongside fellow Gallifreyans to train for the front lines of battle. Commandant Harlan (Nick Brimble) has a reputation – his camp’s regime is harsh. He believes the Time Lords must adapt to win this war, but the Doctor is not easily intimidated. Can there be any place for dissent when the Time War looms so close?
While the last story was somewhat Doctor-light, this story is very Doctor-heavy, and it’s much appreciated. There’s a lot of fun to be found in seeing the Doctor as a cadet in a boot camp, and Matt Fitton really helps make that fun by introducing Commander Harlan, a pretty hardass leader of the boot camp, and his underling, Captain Tamasan (Karina Fernandez). Both of them start out the story as characters you just love to hate, though, by the end of the story, Commander Harlan ends up being quite likable, going so far as to challenge the Doctor’s moral stance against the Time War in a really memorable scene. That scene – and the episode as a whole – does a lot to explain and explore the Doctor’s reasoning for staying out of the Time War. At one point, the Doctor even says that the reason he hasn’t helping people in it is that he doesn’t know where to begin, a stance which Commander Harlan finds cowardly and says the Doctor’s just avoiding it. It’s a brilliant scene which, frankly, is the highlight of the episode. The rest of the episode is lots of fun, but it’s also the episode that feels the most like filler in the set. Bliss, Quarren, and Rupa spend the episode locked in a detainment facility while Ollistra interrogates them to find out what they know about the Theseus and a certain weapon, but these scenes are all too rare and all too brief. Of course, the Daleks end up finding the planet this boot camp is on, and all hell breaks loose, leading to the Doctor finding and rescuing Bliss, Rupa, and Quarren, only to be confronted by Ollistra in one heck of a good cliffhanger. It’s a really fun story that does a lot to set up the finale of the box set, and it’s a story I really enjoyed. Paul McGann shines the brightest in this story as it gives him the most to play around with. It’s great fun. (4 out of 5 wands)
One Life by John Dorney
The final story picks up directly from the cliffhanger of the previous: Ollistra is threatening to kill the Doctor if he doesn’t work with her to find the weapon she’s looking for and stop the Daleks. The catch is… the weapon might just be a person. From Big Finish Productions: As the full force of the Time War crashes down around the Doctor and his friends, a desperate battle for survival ensues. But not everyone is playing the same game. Ollistra is after a weapon that could end the war in a stroke and she’ll sacrifice anyone or anything to take it back to Gallifrey. Even the Doctor. Surrounded by Daleks, and on a tortured planet, only one man can save the day. But he doesn’t want to fight.
Oftentimes, these final stories of Big Finish box sets don’t deliver the kind of conclusion you’d like them to. I’m happy to report that One Life is not one of those stories. It does a great job at tying up all the loose threads left scattered about throughout the box set. We find out in this episode just who the ‘Renegade’ is and why the Time Lords were looking for him (spoiler alert: it’s not the Time Lord you think it is). A familiar device from series 3 of the revived television series ends up being an important factor in the story, and everything ends in a rather bittersweet fashion. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody who hasn’t heard it, but John Dorney does a really good job at wrapping everything up in a satisfactory way while still leaving plenty of room for future box sets. Every story has given a different character the room to shine, and this one is no exception: David Ganly shines as Quarren in this episode. He delivers a truly moving performance and is really the MVP of the story. There’s a lot of deliciously shady banter between the Eighth Doctor and Ollistra and I am absolutely here for more of that please and thank you. One Life isn’t my favorite story in the box set, but like most of the stories, it does a great job at showing the damage a Time War can do to the universe and the people that inhabit it and it does a really good job at concluding the story that’s been told over the course of the box set as a whole. It’s entirely satisfying, often moving, and frequently beautiful. (4 out of 5 wands)
Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor – The Time War Series 1 is easily one of my favorite box sets from Big Finish. It’s one of the best Time War stories told so far and it’s a great showcase of how talented Paul McGann is and the range his Doctor possesses. It goes from being funny and whimsical to dark and emotional in the blink of an eye. It really explores just how devastating a Time War can be and how unimaginable the destruction from one would be. It features a lot of really well written and well-acted characters, some truly clever stories, and a lot of brilliant sound design and music. It’s a great jumping on point for fans of the new series who want to explore some of the Eighth Doctor’s adventures as it requires no knowledge of his previous Big Finish outings. I can’t say enough good things about this box set. Just do yourself a favor and listen to it. It’s great.
4 out of 5 wands.
Note: the cover image is from a Deviantart user by the name of PEJ72. I used this image instead of the official image because it features the new Doctor Who logo – like the image for Series 2 does – and makes it look more uniform. You can find the image here.