The Eighth Doctor: The Time War 1 Review
Gustaff Behr gives his verdict on the latest audio boxset from Big Finish.
A title I have been waiting years for. Literally this series was announced so long ago that it still doesn’t quite feel like reality.
2005: Fans first hear of the mythical Time War from Russell T Davies, but apart from sprinkled tidbits and one awesome anniversary special (several years later), fans only had their imagination to fall back on if they wanted to know more. 2013: Steven Moffat elects not to have the Eighth Doctor be the incarnation that fought in the Time War, citing that it would go against the Doctor’s ‘nature’. 2015: Big Finish releases the War Doctor Adventures, featuring the taboo incarnation behaving EXACTLY like the Doctor, except repeatedly complaining that he wasn’t. 2017: Big Finish answers the call and finally gives fans what they want: The Time War + the Eighth Doctor. There is a lot riding on this new series people. A lot!
The Starship of Theseus
I’m a little disappointed that the series doesn’t show us how exactly the Time War started, instead following in the footsteps of The Sontaran Ordeal and Day of the Vashta Nerada by dropping us into the early years. The Doctor arrives with brand spanking new companion Sheena aboard the star ship Theseus which is on course for anywhere that is not the Time War.
The box set gets off to an interesting start by not giving us a proper explanation of how the Doctor and Sheena met, but justifies this oversight by making it part of the story. And it works on multiple unnerving levels. This is also a good decision as Sheena is a fairly generic companion which is quickly done away with à la Jemima from The Two Masters.
We’re also introduced to Rupa and Quarren Maguire, played by Nimmy March and David Ganly, just before all hell breaks loose on the Theseus. So far the Time War has been portrayed inconsistently in Big Finish, which come to think of it might be intentional due to the beyond-imaginationness (that’s a word now) which is the Time War. The Starship of Theseus highlights just what it feels like to be caught at the centre of it and how you can’t even trust your own mind once that happens, especially if you’re a time sensitive individual. This is a fantastic way of showcasing the complexities of the Time War and serves to raise the tension not just for this adventure, but subsequent ones as well.
We’re also introduced to the Doctor’s next companion Bliss, played by Rakhee Thakrar, but she isn’t as involved in the story as Sheena, nor is she given much focus after she is introduced.
Rating this story: 8.5/10
Echoes of War
After the events of the last story, the Doctor finds himself leading a small group of survivors on a planet that is constantly changing, cycling through its evolution in rapid succession. This is very reminiscent of Matt Fitton’s previous Time War story The Neverwhen, which featured people and weapons evolving and devolving instead of their surroundings. Not only that, but Echoes of War partners the Doctor and company with a Dalek which imbues the story with a unique emotional connection not too dissimilar than Into The Dalek, but without all that story’s necessary narrative pitfalls. Kudos Matt Fitton!
Identity, choice, control and fate are powerful themes running through this story and it’s beautifully handled, as well as showcasing how differently the cast react to these ideas. There’s a clear, horrifically accurate message about how despite free will, most of us are actually powerless in real life, our existence largely depended on important (sometimes stupid) choices someone else makes for us. It’s these different reactions which enrich the story and makes it work, even when nothing particularly interesting is happening.
Also noteworthy is the fact that this story is rather unique amongst Dalek-themed stories and therefore there is a sense of originality and freshness to it. This is a welcomed decision as the majority of Dark Eyes (12/16 stories) featured the Daleks as antagonists. Even if we count the 16 episode series that was Doom Coalition, this is still a relatively short time ago.
Rating this story: 8/10
The Doctor is captured by Cardinal Ollistra, separated from his TARDIS and forcibly sent for training so he may fight on the front lines. It goes as well as one might expect.
Being a Doctor-heavy story, The Conscript takes quite a few cues from the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge with the Doctor rebelling against wielding arms, refusing to fight, being bullied, being blackmailed both morally and physically should he not comply. It’s pretty easy for this story to leave its listener with a bad taste in their mouth that won’t go away unless these ‘soldiers’ get their comeuppance by the time the credits roll. The Conscript is also perhaps one of the best showcases of why the Doctor as a hero without a gun works. Every step of the way the Doctor explains how the military mind works, the tactics they use to shape soldiers, as well as highlighting the dangers of war and what it means to actually see combat.
The Conscript features very little of the Maguire family, as well as Bliss, but also highlights just how ruthless and frankly amoral Cardinal Ollistra can be. Despite her motivations, she has no redeemable qualities and at this point feels like a Creator’s Pet for Big Finish as she is allowed to do whatever she wants without suffering even the slightest consequences.
Joining the Doctor at bootcamp is Veeda (Katy Sobey), a naïve elitist eager to die fight in the Time War, as well as Norvid (Okezie Morro), a rather nice fellow who sees the Doctor as a hero (Norvid has the right idea). Determined to break the Doctor is Commander Harlan (Nick Brimble) and Captain Tamasan (Karina Fernandez), the latter of whom could easily be mistaken for an earlier incarnation of Ollistra given her callous and amoral behaviour. The story tries to paint her into a more sympathetic light, but by then opinions have cemented.
Rating this story: 8/10
The Doctor and company set their sights on escaping the Daleks in this final chapter and protecting an extremely powerful Time Lord weapon, unfortunately One Life doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Despite this, this final story does go out of its way (and rightly so) to feature an enormous link to New Who lore which should make fans very very happy. I know I was. And to have it as a prominent part of the plot is even better. It’s little things like this that make Big Finish so popular. They know exactly what will make the hairs on the back of their listeners’ necks stand on end, be it deciding to give us the Time War with the Eighth Doctor or multiple Masters just for the heck of it.
Despite the rough landing, there is no arguing that the final reveal of what this series has really been about really hits an all time high. The fragments needed to be pieced together are beautifully sprinkled throughout the episodes in splendid Steven Moffat fashion.
One Life also features a subplot which aims to provide the audience with an emotional connection to the Maguire family, but this idea falls flat because unlike Scenes From Her Past, another John Dorney story which successfully utilized a similar concept, the scenes presented here come off as bland and generic.
Rating this story: 7/10
While memorable and fun for the most part, one of this box set’s biggest failings is unfortunately the character of Bliss. Despite appearing in all of the stories, she isn’t featured or explored nearly enough for listeners to care about her and if I’m honest, I kept confusing her with Rupa throughout the series so she might have featured even less than I initially assumed. This should speak volumes about how memorable she comes across and while this is only part one of four box sets planned with the character, it is imperative that the next instalment goes the extra mile to make Bliss feel like an actual character as opposed to a cardboard cut-out.
Putting Bliss aside, this box set highlights everything that is wrong with Moffat’s decision not to make the Eighth Doctor the incarnation which fought in the Time War. The Eighth Doctor is the perfect Doctor for this kind of war precisely because he is so passionate about not fighting in one. Hopefully Big Finish extends the order beyond the initial four series box sets. There is a lot of potential and fun to be had and so much further they can take Eighth Doctor.