When Doctor Who returned to television, the “Time War” was a masterstroke; side-stepping years of continuity, it allowed new viewers to learn about the Doctor’s past alongside his die-hard fans. Through a drip feed of titbits, passing references and old enemies in subsequent years, this backstory built inexorably towards Gallifrey’s climatic return in time for the Tenth Doctor’s final bow.
When we finally visited the conflict for the 50th Anniversary special however, Steven Moffat chose to create an embittered, lost incarnation in the War Doctor rather than place Paul McGann’s ebullient Eighth at its heart. Briefly reprising his role for ‘The Night of the Doctor’, McGann did appear long enough for us to both connect the regenerational dots and imagine his Doctor’s role on the fringes; this is where Big Finish’s new Time War adventures come in.
The Starship of Theseus
Writer John Dorney places the Doctor on a seemingly regular adventure before the temporal conflict comes crashing in. Visiting a luxury star liner with his companion Sheena, plans for relaxation are put aside when a mystery presents itself; a stowaway claims his sister travelled on a previous voyage, after winning her way on board, but has not been heard from since.
Sheena, played by Olivia Vinall (Apple Tree Yard), is pitched as somewhere between Rose Tyler and Donna Noble. She’s a streetwise, funny and modern companion who enjoys some lovely, gentle banter with the Doctor and is suitably impressed by the view.
When they arrive, the Daleks do so with gusto and some terrific sound design makes the battle whoosh around your head when Theseus comes under attack. We also loved the nod to 1967’s ‘The Faceless Ones’.
During the story, we get to meet some of the characters who will endure through the set, most notably the Doctor’s new companion, astrophysicist Bliss (former EastEnder Rakhee Thakrar), as well as married couple Rupa and Quarren Maguire.
Echoes of War
From a cliffhanger ending the action moves planetside as, in full-on survival mode, the Doctor leads a group through jungle terrain awash with temporal instability, growing and decaying around them.
As well as Bliss, who soon proves her worth, the Doctor also gains another companion of sorts – a jumpy amnesiac Dalek whose abilities may hold the key to survival all the time it does not recall its true purpose.
The good Dalek concept has been played with before, most recently for ‘Into the Dalek’, but Matt Fitton offers a far more subtle exploration of the notion here and Nicholas Briggs again shows his uncanny ability to grant personality to Skaro’s finest as “Dal” becomes the group’s protector.
Removed from the front lines, Fitton’s second tale brings the Doctor and friends to the moon of Tenacity where he is drafted into a Time Lord military boot camp. All the while, Bliss, Rupa and Quarren are detained by Jacqueline’s Pearce’s manipulative Cardinal Ollistra to ensure his compliance.
Billeted with fellow recruits, the aristocratic Veeda (Katy Sobey) and the impressionable Norvid (Okezie Morro), the Doctor is thrown into route marches, weapons assembly drills and exercises like temporal orienteering.
As well some amusing scenes involving the Doctor’s disruptive antics, as he chafes at being forced to comply, there is a terrific debate with the Time Lord Commander Harlan (Nick Brimble) on the Doctor’s moral stance against the war, as contrasted to Harlan’s more pragmatic approach.
Finally, John Dorney returns to writing duties as both the Daleks and the Time Lords vie for control of a powerful temporal weapon. Escaping in his damaged TARDIS, with his friends and Ollistra, this is a dramatic and emotionally rich story which plays out simultaneously on both an epic and an intimate scale.
John Dorney has form for writing stories which will break your heart, such as Doom Coalition’s ‘Absent Friends’ and this is another fine example, directed with sensitivity by Ken Bentley.
These stories walk the tightrope of involving the Eighth Doctor in the Time War and yet keeping him on the fringes as he resists it, despite the best efforts of both the Daleks and his own people. From temporal reversion waves to quantum causality generators, the writers bring some big ideas to the table and we loved the serial approach to the stories
It is not all darkness and super weapons though, with plenty of humour in the mix and a great rapport quickly established between McGann’s Doctor and Rakhee Thakrar’s bright and sparky Bliss. Despite her not grasping all the temporal technicalities, we loved her intelligence, which sparks the Doctor into action when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.
Returning to her role from the The War Doctor series, Jacqueline Pearce’s Ollistra is as delightfully ruthless as ever, bending the Doctor to her will with her aim of victory at any cost.
In the wider cast, Nimmy March and David Ganly who play married couple Rupa and Quarren Maguire, are simply terrific with their down-to-earth, realistic reactions to the madness around them. We also enjoyed the mismatch paring of the Time Lord recruits Veeda and Norvix, and will be thrilled if we are lucky enough to encounter some of these characters again in subsequent volumes.
From the opening burst of the martial version of the theme, to the thrilling battles sequences and detailed audio landscape, kudos must go to Benji Clifford for sound design and Jamie Robertson for his superb score (which is also presented as separate tracks.)
We are pleased that this Time War prequel series has been expanded from a single box set to a longer run, as there is clearly plenty of dramatic potential still to explore here and extra Eighth Doctor releases can never be a bad thing!