Tony plays with his devices.
Roll up, roll up, hear the MacGuffinfest of the Century, ladies and gentlemen. The second War Doctor box set from Big Finish takes us significantly on from the first, let there be no mistake about that. The first set was a semi-logical toe-dip, taking one planet’s story of the Time War and expanding it from the aftermath of something big to something quite small and intimate, then growing it up all over again to a major front as the War Doctor did what it’s clear the War Doctor always does, casting a plague on both the houses of the Daleks and the Time Lords, but acting as he, uniquely among all the Doctor’s incarnations, felt the freedom to do, waging a war, using his skills in the service of what he felt was a monstrous cause, a desperate dark sanity in the midst of madness.
But the first box set was very much Nicholas Briggs’ take on the War Doctor and the Time War. While by no means erring on the side of safety, he gave us stories with a solid narrative thread so that we could revel in having the War Doctor without necessarily feeling out of our depth in the tangled tapestry of the Time War’s monstrous consequences.
This time out, Briggs is still in the director’s chair and the ever-present screechbox of the Daleks, but the stories have been written by other writers, John Dorney, Phil Mulryne and Matt Fitton, with, it seems, a very definite manifesto to advance us into the madness of that conflict of cause and effect.
Dorney breaks the seal on the Infernal Devices box set and immediately, there’s a thrill. There’s a thrill because the device being tested in Legion of the Lost is the kind of technology that would explain something we heard on-screen back in David Tennant’s day, a detail of the war that has ended up having far-reaching consequences. What’s more, Dorney lands the ever-helpful presence of David ‘Makes Everything Almost Infinitely Better’ Warner in a lead role as Shadovar. Shadovar has a touch of Classic Who about him, a touch of The Horns of Nimon maybe, only never anything like as overplayed. And the War Doctor, trying to understand what’s going on, pits insane war device against insane war device, trying to frustrate Time Lord attempts to go beyond the science of regeneration and achieve eternal rebirth from death. The idea of Legion of the Lost is breathtakingly bold in the scope of its imagination, while allowing the likes of Zoe Tapper as Collis a genuine character journey by the War Doctor’s side, notsomuch a companion as the voice of an alternative philosophy to his furious, peace-spitting certainties. Jacqueline Pearce as the scheming Cardinal Ollistra is actually stronger all the way through this box set than she was in the first too, more a character in her own right, having shaken free the feeling of being Servalan-on-Gallifrey. That said, in the actual structure of the three stories of this box set, she acts in a very Servalan-like way, always looking out for the next superweapon, always prepared to do the unthinkable to achieve a total victory. And these three stories are connected in a way by that hunger of Ollistra’s for a victory whatever the cost. Victory in the first story of this box set looks like a kind of Time Lord zombie apocalypse, and is to be achieved by one of the Infernal Devices of the sub-title. In Dorney’s story, you get a sense of there being some sort of Attack of the Clones behind the scenes dealing going on, with races erased from history, and then the question being who erases the erasers – the timelines technically remain constant, but Legion of the Lost certainly gives the feeling that you’d really better strap in for this box set, because things are getting trans-temporal, and if you think you’re in for as easy a ride as you had in Only The Monstrous, you’d simply better think again or be erased from time.
Phil Mulryne’s A Thing Of Guile seems on the surface like the simplest of the three stories, and involves a degree of faffing about in tunnels which brings Classic Who and Blake’s 7 to mind, especially since Ollistra goes on the mission to the heart of a seemingly barren rockball in space along with the War Doctor and a couple of Time Lord agents. But what seems like a straightforward mission is actually anything but – and what lies at the heart of the asteroid is another element of scary invention, which again has resonances of the David Tennant era, though to a very different story. It takes some time to really kick in, this second story, but when it does, it leads to a fairly frenetic final third, as revelation after revelation change not only the nature of the story, but also quite possibly the nature of the Time War, and the nature of Dalekkind itself. A secret Dalek research project is buried away, working on something that even Dalek Central Command wouldn’t approve of. For Ollistra it’s a somewhat pointless decoy weapon. For the War Doctor, it’s a terrifying obscenity, but for both of them, it will take a thing of rare guile and cunning to get off the asteroid with their lives. Of course, Ollistra gets quickly ahead of the game, realising what the discovery they make in A Thing Of Guile means, and forcing the War Doctor’s Tardis to a place and time where it should be impossible to go. It’s a place of mind-melting complexity, and it’s the setting for Matt Fitton’s full-on story of the Time War that rages forever, troops dying and being reborn just to die all over again, as described on-screen.
Fitton’s story, The Neverwhen, has to take top honours for me this time round, because, just as for instance everyone’s always wanted to see the Sontarans and the Rutans really go at it on screen, so everyone’s always had a vision of the Time War that involves exactly that scenario – Dalek and Time Lord troops dying, and being reborn to fight and die all over again – it’s the acme of war-horror, and Fitton delivers it wholesale here, adding to the horror of it all with his own diabolical imagination, rendering a pocket of never-ending Time War, where both technology and biology keep evolving, forward and forward and then round in a circle back to primitivism. Just as Russell T Davies liberally threw effectively meaningless phrases around to give ‘details’ of the Time War – the Nightmare Child, the Never-Weres and so on – here, Fitton has enormous fun imagining the stages of Dalek evolution that we haven’t even seen yet. I’ll just leave the phrase Diamond Daleks here as a kind of a hat tip to Bowie, and leave your mind to explode.
Ollistra still has the ultimate victory on her mind, and plans to use the nightmare that is the Neverwhen in the wider universe, beginning perhaps the first campaign to show the Time Lord mindset that ultimately drives the War Doctor to destroy them all, the mindset that says the whole universe of time and space can burn in hell if it means getting rid of the Daleks. Pearce in The Neverwhen is superb and actually more frightening than she ever was as Servalan, the desperation of Ollistra’s plan bringing out the best in her now significantly older voice, and reminding those who are themselves old enough of Sian Philipps’ ageing Livia in I, Claudius, prepared to countenance any plan, any blasphemy, any amount of blood, if ultimately she wins.
It's a powerhouse performance, and proof, if proof were still needed at this late stage, that if you give Matt Fitton enough rope, he’ll deliver you the universe, neatly hog-tied in a bow.
The second War Doctor box set is a significant step forward from the first, and that was pretty special in itself. John Hurt sounds stronger, more confident than ever before in the role, channelling both rage and the Doctor’s cleverness into the action. The scripts are more demanding, more complex and each have a sliver of distinctive Time War thrill down their spines. Jacqueline Pearce too is fed with more nourishing character development here, and responds magnificently - as Jacqueline Pearce always, flawlessly will to good material. So the long and the short of Infernal Devices is a simple oh hell yes, and bring on the next.
As Ollistra might say, go away now – you have a box set to buy and listen to.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk