Tony joins the Coalition.
There’s a defining moment in Paul McGann’s triumphant five-minute return to TV as the Eighth Doctor, The Night of the Doctor.
Dead already, but choosing to live, choosing to become a warrior and finally engage with the Time War, he lifts the regenerative elixir to his lips and pays tribute to the adventures that Big Finish had given him up to that point, naming the companions he has had and lost in this eighth body, and ending on Molly, heroine of the Dark Eyes story-arc. It’s a moment that unites the Eighth Doctor on screen with the Eighth Doctor in audio, but it’s also the point at which the Eighth Doctor’s timeline stops being potentially infinite, and loops in to a definitive Time War timeline – an eventual date with death and the War Doctor, and from there on to the point where we came in in 2005 with the Ninth Doctor, still emotionally scarred and in need of the rehabilitation embodied by Rose.
Before Big Finish got the license to create stories from the New Who era, bringing us the War Doctor box sets which so recently came to their conclusion with the death of John Hurt, we were happily hurtling along, with the Eighth Doctor dealing with the increasingly mystifying and convoluted Dark Eyes arc. But Doom Coalition is that moment when the Eighth Doctor begins to come in from the cold of his audio existence and weave back in to the on-screen chronology. You can see that much by the fact that the next time we’ll be having anything full-length to do with the Eighth Doctor in audio, it will be for the box set ominously titled The Eighth Doctor: The Time War. Every Doctor’s life is ultimately as infinite as Big Finish wants to make it – we can go back into their timelines, invent new companions, give them additional adventures, but in terms of the overall arc of their lives, for instance, the First Doctor’s life ended after his meeting with the Cybermen, the Second’s after he was hauled in front of the Time Lords to atone for his crime, the Third’s after Metebelis 3 and those wretched spiders…and so on. The Eighth Doctor’s life is leading him from Dark Eyes, on through the Doom Coalition, to the Time War, and to his end in The Night of the Doctor. His chronology now is somewhat set in place.
We say all this because Doom Coalition 4 is the moment at which the Eighth Doctor’s life starts really building the connections that will take him through his coming life as the War Doctor. The ultimate plan of the Doom Coalition has resonances with the on-screen plots of both The End of Time and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, but here the Coalition itself is revealed as the transition point in the journey of both the Eighth Doctor and the Doctor Who universe, from its more or less sacrosanct Classic era tranquillity with the Time Lords in Heaven and the universe a busy place somehow beneath them, to the New era of Time Lords going to war, committing the kind of crimes that justify their non-existence. If you want an idea of how Gallifrey falls, Doom Coalition 4 is a pretty good indication of what the beginning of that fall from grace looks like.
That said, the structure of Doom Coalition 4 is both quirky and clunky. In Doctor Who, if one thing is true, it’s that problems take as long to solve as writers have to fill. Sometimes a locked door can take an episode to get past, sometimes barely a second with the twiddling of a screwdriver. The first episode, Ship In A Bottle by John Dorney, exemplifies that – to maintain the cleverness of the Coalition, the pickle in which the Doctor, Liv and Helen found themselves at the end of box set 3 takes more or less the whole of this episode to escape from, and eschewing easy options, Dorney makes it extremely difficult to find a way to reverse their plight, as an exercise in character and coping mechanisms, the Doctor taking the role of fatalist. It’s Liv who absolutely refuses to accept their fate, and Helen who gives them the idea of how to stay alive. The story’s suitably complex while allowing for bursts of excitement and energy and also the torpor of acceptance, the hopelessness of fate. It allows us more insight into the time travellers and their approaches to life, death and always winning.
There’s a point in this episode where you realise this is what it’s going to be about and have to shift gears. Stop expecting the quick twiddle-of-a-screwdriver solution, and focus on the conversation – especially the seeds of discomfort in Hattie Morahan’s Helen at being the newbie, not fitting in and doing the wrong thing.
Matt Fitton takes the reins for the mid-section, and his episode 2, Songs of Love is remarkable for the focus-flip it pulls. We catch up with the Coalition and their plans advance in the absence of the Doctor and his friends. There are more important seeds sown here too, especially in terms of the relationship between the Sonomancer (Helen Cunniffe) and Padrac (Robert Bathurst really coming into his own after playing a stealth game in box set 3). Joining the Coalition for this episode, because it may now be one of the Laws of Time that she’s in things, is River Song, Fitton and Alex Kingston managing to extend the duality of the whole Doctor’s Wife/Doctor’s Killer thing far more successfully over an hour than was managed over the length of a series. Episode 2 is the Attack of the Clones of this set, with lots of politics as Padrac tries to play both sides of Gallifreyan society and Big Finish making the Coalition feel sufficiently epic to be, if not the first shot in the Time War, then definitely the rumblings that wake the universe up to an opportunity.
In episode 3, The Side of the Angels, Padrac’s actions lead to the Time Lord equivalent of a counter-revolution, which is to run away and hide. As a standalone episode, this is by far the most fun of the box set, for reasons that even the Big Finish website will tell you: change of scene, use of the Angels, and in particular the combination of Cardinal Ollistra (she who goes on to make the War Doctor’s life such an intriguing misery in his four box sets) and the ‘Reverend Mortimer’ – a role that continues to validate Rufus Hound’s career. It’s the most New Who, television-friendly episode of the set, for all it feels loosely tied in to the ongoing story. That of course is the point – Gallifrey, more than most societies in Who, isn’t simple. Time Lords squabble, quarrel and have superbly political differences. This is what they do when they have them.
John Dorney returns to close not only the set but the arc in episode 4, and blimey it’s busy. We see the conclusion to the Sonomancer’s arc, and a circularity at least to Helen’s, with Stop The Clocks being at least a partial sequel to The Red Lady story that introduced her. We see Padrac as a blinded, arrogant isolationist (Padrac equating isolationism with ‘there being nothing outside the wall’), and we see that stance turned inward, so everything and everyone in his mind is secondary to his personal security and power (Sound familiar at all?).
But we also get a ‘Rebel Alliance’ storming of the gates, a Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane, with the Doctor, Liv, Helen and some allies from along the way doing what they can to make the Coalition miss a critical window. The episode feels busy but by no means rushed, and overall gives a juicy, satisfying conclusion to sixteen hours of storytelling.
The Doom Coalition, when it was first announced with the idea of the Eleven (the Time Lord whose incarnations all strive for dominance at the same time) seemed like it would be an interesting new direction for the Eighth Doctor. There have been some staggering high-points along the journey – Voord, Absent Friends, The Side of the Angels and more – but at the end of sixteen hours, it feels intensely satisfying, like a journey you’d regret having missed out on, and like it’s more than fulfilled the initial promise of its idea. Finishing this arc though also feels like the gathering of dark clouds around the Eighth Doctor, and like the sound of martial drums beating. The Time War is coming. It’s not here yet, but it’s telling that what drives Padrac to do what he does is the sure and certain knowledge that his path is the only way to keep Gallifrey safe from an ungovernable Time War that plucks it from the skies. Padrac’s pathway is denied here by ‘good guys’ who can’t imagine the darkness that’s coming.
We can. And it’s coming soon.
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