Matthew Kresal loves chaos.
Big Finish's War Doctor box sets have gone from strength to strength since they began last December. From the opening set featuring one planet in the midst of the war to a journey across multiple fronts in the second, it's been the look into the Time War that fans have been wanting since it was first alluded to in 2005. Even better, they've given the legendary UK character actor John Hurt the chance to play the role he had all-too-briefly on TV three years ago. Agents Of Chaos, their recently released third set, continues and takes on an interesting new theme: betrayal in the midst of the greatest war the universe has ever known.
The set kicks off by taking us to a setting we haven't seen yet in the Time War: Earth, more specifically the Time War's effect on one of the most dangerous times and places in history. The 1961 Berlin setting is a fascinating choice, a city divided in the midst of a long and undeclared war that brought out the best and worst in both sides. Bringing the Time War into the middle of it, with all of distrust and jockeying for position between East and West, is an inspired idea to say the least. Writer David Llewellyn's execution of it does bring in a certain amount of Cold War spy cliches but the Time War ideas help negate that somewhat, as does the presence of Neve McIntosh (best known to Who fans for her role as Madam Vastra on TV) as the treacherous Agent Zannis at the heart of the story. It's a solid kick-off for this release and one that helps separate it from the earlier box sets.
The second story, Andrew Smith's The Eternity Cage, brings another of the show's baddies into proceedings: the Sontarans. Fans might remember a reference in their New Series debut that they weren't allowed to take part in the Time War and Smith's script has fun exploring that idea. Smith's script also takes the war film idea of “team on a mission to save someone” and drops it into the Time War with the Doctor leading a group of Gallifreyian special forces, one with a potential traitor in their ranks. It brings to mind a Doctor Who version of the classic film Where Eagles Dare, with the Sontarans and Daleks taking the role of the Germans, and even a fortress on top of a mountain. The Sontarans get to do some interesting things in this story and it is a chance for Dan Starkey (best known for playing the comedic Sontaran Strax on TV) to show that his Sonatarans can be serious threats and not just comedic foils. The Eternity Cage also introduces a psuedo-companion for the War Doctor in the form of Josh Bolt as Kalan, as well as the Gallifreyian soldiers, which leads to some interesting moments as well. It's another solid entry and one that ends on a nice cliffhanger.
That cliffhanger leads to the big conclusion of the Agents Of Chaos box set: Ken Bentley's Eye Of Harmony. Like Matt Fitton's The Neverwhen that concluded the last set, the stakes are raised quite high for this final disc as an act of unexpected betrayal leaves the Daleks with a chance to strike the ultimate blow against the Time Lords. Bentley's script is a race against time, with the War Doctor and Kalan facing an enemy within their own ranks that could strike the final blow in the Time War. It's also a surprisingly contained story, largely told inside one setting, giving it a claustrophobic feel despite the cosmic scale of its potential consequences. Eye Of Harmony also explores the theme of betrayal that has run throughout the entire set and uses one particular character to do so. It's a big conclusion to the set and one that seems to set-up where the next set will go rather nicely.
As with the previous two releases, perhaps the biggest highlight of this is John Hurt's involvement. Hurt has a voice that is perfect for audio drama and he gets to show off his talents throughout, going from comedic to gruff, sorrowful to combative, a man who can't help but the man whose name he's revoked. Hurt handles all those aspects well, bringing the scripts to life beautifully and with full force. Never once do you get the feeling that Hurt is either reading off the page or phoning it in, something that makes Agents Of Chaos all the more special.
The supporting cast across all three stories is solid as well. Both of the aforementioned cast members better known from the TV series (McIntosh and Starkey) get the chance to show off something besides their roles in the Paternoster Gang. The real surprise of this box-set is Jacqueline Pearce's Cardinal Ollistra who, at last, finally stops feeling like she's playing (in the words of my fellow reviewer Tony Flyer) “Servalan on Gallifrey” and gets to do some rather interesting things which may well cause you to think about the character in a new light. Another surprise is Honeysuckle Weeks (best known for her role in the excellent period detective series Foyle's War) as Ollistra's assistant Heleyna who gets to do some intriguing stuff of her own across the final two discs. A number of Big Finish stalwarts return as well, including Helen Goldwyn and Barnaby Edwards, as does Nicholas Briggs of course playing the Daleks, including a new Dalek whose role in the overall events of the set is quite interesting. In short, it's another solidly acted box set from Big Finish.
Agents Of Chaos also features another highlight of these War Doctor sets: the music and sound design of Howard Carter. Carter's score continues to be nothing short of cinematic with some wonderful emotive pieces backing some of the biggest moments, especially in the final episode. The sound design continues to be first rate, capturing a number of different settings across time and space, giving the listener just enough to both tell the story and put images in their mind. My hat goes off to Carter for his continuing splendid work.
Agents Of Chaos is another successful entry into Big Finish's War Doctor outings. It's a sweeping, epic box set taking in various segments of the Time War, ranging from Earth to a fight for the fate of the Time Lords themselves. Like the best of Doctor Who, it's anchored by big ideas told in solid writing and through performances and production values that bring them to life so well. If this release is any indication, we're in for a big treat with the next (and potentially final) entry in this series.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.