Matthew Kresal checks out the final War Doctor box set from Big Finish.
There's the old saying that goes that all good things must end. Even for Time Lords, that's the case. John Hurt's passing at the tail end of January has meant that the fourth of Big Finish's War Doctor box-sets was to be the last. Throughout the first three box-sets, the company took Hurt's Doctor across the Time War and gave listeners they're first real look into the conflict. How would this last set, subtitled Casualties Of War, fare both as part of the series and as the swan song for Hurt's Doctor?
The set kicks off by picking up from the slightly cliffhanger ending of the previous set with Pretty Lies by Guy Adams. Stranded far away from the front lines of the Time War, the Doctor and Time Lord Cardinal Ollistra (played once again by Jacqueline Pearce) find themselves on the planet Beltox where war reporter Schandel is there to cover an oncoming Dalek assault on the planet. Pretty Lies is an interesting tale set on the sidelines of the Time War that explores the nature of war, how innocents become targets, and the role of propaganda and the media within war. That Adams is able to do all that within what is effectively a sci-fi war story without becoming repetitive or preachy is to his credit, creating a compelling opening salvo for this set.
Long time Who fans though will likely be more interested in the latter chapters as they feature the return of a past companion. The fate of Leela within the Time War has been a much speculated item among fans for years now and this release answers those questions with the middle story written by Andrew Smith. The Lady of Obsidian puts the War Doctor and Leela together as Ollistra's tries to hold off a Dalek fleet baring down on a nearby world. Smith's script is rich in character moments as two old friends are reunited, Ollistra makes a potential last stand, and we discover what Leela has been through. As well as the Daleks, there's another threat at play which brings to mind a throwaway reference which David Tennant's Doctor made in The End Of Time and is brought to life menacingly here. Indeed, this may well the best of the three stories in this set for what it does all around.
The set, and Big Finish's War Doctor audios, concludes as they began: With a Nicholas Briggs script. The Enigma Dimension returns us to Gallifrey where the Daleks are engaging a new strategy aimed at ending the Time War once and for all. The final act takes Hurt's Doctor in the titular dimension to encounter a mysterious race whose affinity with Leela may hold the key to saving Gallifrey. Despite the alien setting, there's time when this closing story feels quite run of the mill for most of its length, with strong echoes of the end of the first Dark Eyes box-set coming to mind. Yet the final minutes of it are what makes this whole set worth hearing as Briggs' sets up the man we encounter in the novel Engines Of War and The Day Of The Doctor, the man who will ultimately come to feel that he is the only one left who can finish the war. It's a fascinating piece of character exploration of just who this man is and what he might be capable of. Yet there isn't the sense of finality perhaps warranted by such a scene, the sense of an ending despite the haunting nature of those closing minutes, and the last line especially. It's a solid concluding chapter but not perhaps the one that was necessarily wanted or needed.
With his passing, a lot of attention will be focused on this release because of John Hurt's performance. Hurt does well across all three tales, capturing once again all the different shades of this most unusual Doctor. There's levity, an almost smart alec sense of humor and great moments of compassion (especially when it comes to scenes with Leela on the second disc). There's also anger, frustration, guilt, and ultimately a self-loathing streak which shows that for all the talk some make of him being too much like the Doctor of old, this is a man with plenty of darkness in his hearts. Hurt excels at all of these but especially in the latter moments of darkness, right down to the haunting final line. It's a fine parting performance from perhaps the most high profile thespian to have ever taken on the role of the Doctor.
Beyond Hurt, the casts are solid. Jacqueline Pearce, having firmly stepped out of the “Servalan on Gallifrey” role she played in early sets, gives her best performances of the War Doctor run as we see her not just as conniving and manipulative Time Lord Cardinal often far away from home and with only the Doctor at her side. Joseph Kloska (who gave a memorable series of performances in the Lost Story, The Masters Of Luxor) plays war reporter Schandel nicely, acting as a wonderful foil for Hurt and Pearce, while Mark Elstob (better known to Big Finish listeners for the title role in their re-imaging of The Prisoner) plays a number of supporting roles. There's also solid performances from Lizzie Roper, Chris Porter, and Jane Slavin as well as a couple of cameos along the way that will delight listeners of this range especially. The real star of the supporting cast though is Louise Jameson's older Leela, with Jameson playing wonderfully a woman who has suffered terribly when we first meet her in the second disc and who becomes a full-on companion again in the last, something made even better by the excellent chemistry shared by her and Hurt. It's as solid a cast as this range has ever had and one which brings these tales to life nicely.
My last piece of praise goes out to someone who is something of an unsung hero of the range: Howard Carter. Carter's music and sound designs have always been a highlight of the War Doctor sets and this one is no exception. From battles and alien monsters to an entirely different dimension, Carter takes the listener across time and space on a aural canvas that might even dwarf his previous work on the series. The music suite prepared for the release is well worth a listen, capturing a sense of scale and emotion that some film composers could learn from and is something else that makes this release worth a listen.
Despite finding elements of the final disc especially to be a tad underwhelming, Casualties Of War is a solid conclusion to Big Finish's War Doctor run. It tells once again an epic tale of a battle across time with a view of the victims of the universe's greatest conflict and the man caught up in the middle of the fighting. They're told with the same quality of performance and presentation that have been a hallmark across the entire range and so many of the company's productions over the years.
The War Doctor's last battle has been fought and it was a pleasure to listen.
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.