Nowadays, it seems that nobody is anybody without a slice of that sweet, sweet multiverse action. After having done it for so long on the printed page, Marvel and DC have started to bring it to life on TV and in film. Even 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once has got onto the interdimensional bandwagon, via the medium of a sci-fi comedy flick.
While not really explored on screen to date, Doctor Who has already had its own brush with alternative takes on reality, courtesy of Big Finish’s audio series Doctor Who Unbound. Over the course of eight stories, Doctor Who Unbound gave us a series of altered versions of the series we know and love, freeing it up to endless possibilities by not being restrained with established continuity, and taking it into some territory previously unexplored in its life on television.
Despite having served some of the freshest and most radical Doctor Who adventures, the Unbound series has sadly lain dormant for almost a decade and a half. Thankfully, the idea has now been revisited, in Doctor Who Unbound: Doctor Of War, which gives us the series’ equivalent of Marvel’s What If…?, based around one of the most infamous moments in the programme’s long history, going all the way back to one Saturday teatime in early 1975.
Generally hailed as being one of the all-time classic stories, ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’ would see the Time Lords sending Tom Baker’s Doctor on a mission to change history at their behest. As the title indicates, he was dispatched right back to the very beginning of his arch foes, and given the task of either wholly averting their creation, or trying to influence their development in some manner, so they would become less aggressive creatures.
The Time Lords had foreseen a potential future when the Daleks became the dominant species in the Universe, and became fearful of what this would mean. When the series was revived by Russell T. Davies in 2005, he came up with the idea of there having been a great Time War that raged across all of reality between the Time Lords and the Daleks. ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’ was cleverly retconned as being the moment when the starting gun had been fired on the Time War, starting off this cataclysmic conflict.
Subsequently, Steven Moffat developed the notion of there having been an unseen incarnation who had fought on the temporal front lines, bringing us Sir John Hurt’s War Doctor. As well as messing up the numbering system of the Doctors for all eternity, much to the chagrin of some fans, it was also to provide a whole new strand to the show’s mythology, one which has subsequently been explored by Big Finish in their series of War Doctor-centric stories, even taking us back to his immediate post-regeneration experiences.
In Doctor Who Unbound: Doctor Of War, Big Finish ask us the ‘what if…?’ of how things would have changed had the Doctor made such a radically different choice back on Skaro, meaning that instead of the Daleks’ genesis. it had actually been their genocide. In this alternative reality, however, it transpired that things failed to turn out as the Time Lords hoped: the Daleks still somehow managed to exist, and as well as there being a Time War, there was also a War Doctor – but probably not the one we were expecting…
The set opens with John Dorney’s episode ‘Dust Devil’, which sees the fabric of time itself having been broken, splintered seemingly beyond all repair. A momentous decision taken by the Doctor on Skaro backfires in a most unexpected manner, leading to his premature demise, and in his place the arrival of the Warrior. With time being out of joint, a future Doctor finds himself being pursued, and all the answers seem to lie in the direction of the last place where he would ever want to be: his own tomb.
In Lou Morgan’s ‘Aftershocks’, the Warrior finds himself on trial. But who is really trying him, and why will nobody at all tell him about the terrible crime to which he is expected to confess? The balance of power across all of time and space has been radically shifted, and to make things even worse, one of the Warrior’s oldest friends – and, latterly, enemies – has been called on to testify against him. But why does the Master have a radically different face? And why does cause no longer precede effect?
Finally, James Kettle’s ‘The Difference Office’ sees a point in time when the Warrior is the Lord President of Gallifrey, and calling the shots in the Time War. However, out there in the wastelands of Gallifrey, there happens to be a wise man who wears the Warrior’s face, and calls himself ‘Doctor’. Given that all the paradoxes and aberrant versions of the Warrior’s future have been quashed, how can this Doctor still exist? And can the Warrior fight off an invasion of Gallifrey? It would seem time, as always, will tell…
One of the genuine triumphs of Big Finish has been the way in which they helped to rehabilitate the Sixth Doctor, after Colin Baker’s time on television as the Time Lord was sadly much-maligned. By giving his Doctor the kind of nurturing and development which it lacked on screen, fans have been able to see precisely what unfulfilled potential there was in Baker’s incarnation, and that it was down to the material he had been given, rather than in his performance.
Here, Baker has an opportunity to do something which is far removed from his Doctor, playing the Warrior – his version of the War Doctor – and you can see him firmly grasp all of the opportunity given to him here in being able to explore a Doctor who was capable of committing genocide, and is no longer the paragon of virtue and morality we know. Baker is an absolute delight throughout, particularly when afforded the chance to be a more familiar version of his character, and also play off against himself in a confrontation between the Warrior and the Doctor.
A delightfully surprising moment comes at the very start of the set, when we hear Tom Baker reprising that key scene from ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’, playing out just how it would have gone if the Doctor had chosen a much darker path. He gives an absolute barnstorming performance, so full of fire and fury, as well as melancholy and sorrow. The power and strength of Baker’s distinctive voice belies the fact this is a man approaching his ninth decade, and he manages to still bring everything to the table.
Doctor Who Unbound: Doctor Of War promises to be one of the most exciting things to happen to Doctor Who – be that on TV, or in audio – for quite some time. This first set invites a repeat listen, not just because of how much there is to try and take in due to the severely fractured nature of time and reality, but also to bask in an absolute gem, providing clear evidence that the creative juices at Big Finish show no signs of drying up anytime soon.
Doctor Who Unbound: Doctor Of War #1 – ‘Genesis’ is available now from Big Finish.