Once upon a Time (Lord), keeping track of all the different Doctor Whos (or is it Doctors Who?) was dead simple. Now, however, you need to have a series of flow charts to try and work out exactly how many there have been, thanks to the tinkering of each successive showrunner since the return of Doctor Who in 2005.
We had the Tenth Doctor, who was such a massive narcissist he regenerated into himself, and also created a half-human hybrid of himself as a byproduct. In an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Russell T. Davies had the Eleventh Doctor joke that Time Lords can regenerate 507 times, rather than the usually stated 12; over the last couple of series, however, Chris Chibnall has revealed a whole hidden life cycle, which means potentially dozens – if not hundreds – of previously unknown incarnations.
Even Steven Moffat got in on the act with throwing a Sonic Screwdriver in the works, after Christopher Eccleston had declined to return for the 50th anniversary, necessitating a new and unseen ‘War Doctor’ being invented, played by Sir John Hurt. Despite only having one outing on TV, Big Finish brought the character back for audio, to try and fill in some of the blanks, with Hurt returning to reprise the role. Alas, it was Hurt’s sad passing which seemed to bring to a close any further outings for this particular iteration.
However, Big Finish managed to find a way to bring back the War Doctor which was respectful of Hurt’s memory, giving us The War Doctor Begins, taking us all right back to the start, moments after his regeneration from Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, with Jonathan Carley taking up the reins. We would now get a chance to discover more of what happened after the Doctor had become a direct – but still rather unwilling – participant in the Time War between his own people and the Daleks, raging across all of creation.
Having shown us his genesis, Big Finish take up the story in this second set – ‘Warbringer’ – in which we get to see just how the Doctor has been adapting to his new role, fighting on the front lines in the ongoing temporal conflict alongside his Time Lord brethren. Here, we have another trio of stories, all of which are directly interconnected, and tell a single tale between them, but probably not in the order that you were expecting. That must be the inherent problem of being the Doctor – all manner of timey-wimey complications.
The opening chapter – ‘Consequences’, by Timothy X. Atack – introduces us to Case (Ajjaz Awad), a total amnesiac who awakes on an unknown world, and finds herself having been cybernetically augmented. Trying to get to grips with who she is, as well as where, and what the strange voice is in her head, she finds herself caught in a skirmish on the fringes of the Time War, taking place on a planet dedicated to total and perpetual combat. The appearance of a mythological figure – the Warbringer – complicates things even further.
Continuing with Andrew Smith’s ‘Destroyer’, the War Doctor finds himself in a desperate race against time to try and save the inhabitants of Tharius from total devastation. The clock is ticking, and he has to convince the warring factions of his good intentions, in order to rescue as much of the population as he can, before a terrible catastrophe strikes. The Time War is getting ever closer, which means the Daleks will not be too far away, but perhaps they are even nearer than anybody has actually suspected…
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Wrapping up the story with ‘Saviour’ by Jonathan Morris, we find out exactly what transpired to set this course of events in motion, and pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. In his effort to try and carry out an errand of mercy in amongst all of the horror and carnage of the Time War, the War Doctor soon finds that no good deed goes unpunished. Whatever he does to try and extricate himself, we already happen to know the outcome without realising it. Will the War Doctor be able to live with the consequences?
With the recent broadcast of mini-series Doctor Who: Flux, it seems that the TV series has started branching out into a more experimental style of storytelling, which can only be applauded for its efforts to try something a bit different to the norm. For Big Finish, however, they have been playing with the format of the show for two decades now, so what might feel bold, fresh and dynamic on screen is actually de rigeur to this bunch of pros. ‘Warbringer’ is a prime example of Big Finish’s inventiveness and creativity.
It gives us some glimpses of what the War Doctor has been up to since we last saw him, and showing his move towards becoming the blunt instrument that the Time Lords need, while all the while trying to hang on to the vestiges of what made him intrinsically the Doctor, with his moral compass and his compassion for others. Carley does a bang-up job of once again capturing the voice of a younger Hurt, and gives a convincing performance of giving us a deeply conflicted War Doctor, trying to fight so many battles, whilst also retaining his own sense of self at the same time.
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Not all of the turns are so strong, however, with John Banks’ Belus and Angela Bruce’s Oya both jarring rather badly, and feeling somewhat out of keeping with the overall tone of the piece. Although being perfectly fine portrayals in their own right, they tend do stand out as rather broad, in comparison to the straighter playing from other cast members. Clearly, certain creative choices were made here, misguided ones at best, as every time either character shows up, their presence tends to snap you out of the moment, which is a real pity, as it slightly weakens the end product.
Overall, though, ‘Warbringer’ is an accomplished production, and a strong continuation of the War Doctor’s story. One can only hope that after the relatively confused muddle that was Doctor Who: Flux, the TV series can attain the heights which are regularly being reached by Big Finish, as their audio spin-off is tending to be consistently far stronger than the parent show.
Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins – ‘Warbringer’ is out now from Big Finish.