Kieran Brennan begins his retrospective of the War Doctor series from Big Finish, as he takes a look at the first boxset: Only the Monstrous!
Back in 2015, after Big Finish acquired the license to finally explore concepts and characters from the revival series, I don’t think anyone expected just how soon they would take full advantage of it. Even less would have expected Big Finish to somehow get the incredible John Hurt to reprise his role in an ongoing series of boxsets set in the previously unexplored Time War. It’s easily the biggest release from Big Finish since Tom Baker returned, and arguably the biggest release since Paul McGann returned. It’s undeniable that this boxset attracted a whole lot of attention to the company, from myself included, but does it live up to the enormous weight of its importance?
1. “The Innocent” by Nicholas Briggs
Following yet another battle in the never ending Time War, the Doctor is injured and stranded on a planet being threatened by a hostile race.
As I’ve said, Only the Monstrous definitely holds a special place within the Big Finish canon, representing not only their first steps into the Time War, perhaps one of the biggest events in Doctor Who history, it is also one of the first examples of the new series license gained from the BBC in 2015. Prior to this, Big Finish had explored the likes of Strax the Sontaran in Jago and Litefoot: The Haunting, and the characters of Kate Stewart and Osgood in the UNIT series, but this was the first release that truly took that step into post-2005 Doctor Who by featuring an actual new series Doctor, and John Hurt’s incredible War Doctor no less!
Nowadays, when we have four John Hurt boxsets, multiple David Tennant series (including a full 9 episode Dalek Universe series) and 8 announced Christopher Eccleston box sets, it can be easy to take for granted just how momentous this was when it happened. I know for me personally upon discovery of Big Finish, the War Doctor series was something I felt I needed to get as someone who has grown up with the new series, with this range inspiring me not only to become more invested in Big Finish as a company, but also to explore more classic doctors that I hadn’t seen much of before.
So, with all of this additional pressure put on Big Finish, it might perhaps be a fair expectation that they would want to release a more standard Doctor Who episode rather than something a bit more out there, and therefore potentially riskier. It’s much to my surprise then that this initial episode The Innocent is a very very low key outing for the War Doctor, someone who is being hyped up to be this incredible bombastic incarnation of the Doctor, who is constantly at War. For much of the story we see John Hurt‘s Doctor in a vulnerable position, injured and being taken care of by natives of a small village on a desolate planet. It’s a much more reflective and character-driven one may expect for the opening of such a momentous boxset, but really this is a strength of the story.
We are clearly joining the War Doctor at a later stage in his life, becoming closer and closer to that moment when he chooses to destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks. My understanding from internet discussions around this box set and the subsequent War Doctor series is that many fans may have been disappointed or surprised to see a War Doctor who is trying at the very least to be the regular Doctor again, even if he doesn’t forgive himself for his past actions, or view himself as the Doctor. But for me, having listened to this set once before, I knew what to expect going in and really really love the story because of this. I find it to be a really interesting character piece that shows John Hurt shine opposite Lucy Briggs-Owen, a new companion for this incarnation. They clearly have wonderful chemistry and raise up what was already an interesting and introspective script by Nicholas Briggs, who has written and directed this entire box set.
Overall, this is a fascinating story with incredible performances. The Innocent is not your standard opening to a box set by Big Finish, rather a character piece that excels in putting us within the headspace of the War Doctor and having us understand his motivations and feelings at every point. Not only was it one of my first exposures to Big Finish but it’s one of my favourite stories, an opinion only cemented by a second listen.
2. “The Thousand Worlds” by Nicholas Briggs
Having been reunited with his own people, it doesn’t take long before the Doctor is given his his newest mission by Cardinal Ollistra: to rescue a Time Lord from Dalek capture.
Picking up immediately from where The Innocent left us, The Thousand Worlds is very much the second half of a two-part story. For this reason, The Thousand Worlds and boxset finale The Heart of the Battle blend together in one’s mind upon reflection while The Innocent clearly stands out. I mean this not only in terms of story, but in terms of quality as well. This isn’t to say The Thousand Worlds is a weak story; it’s actually quite good and a suitable follow-up as it is more in line with what one would expect from a Time War series in terms of narrative, I just mean that on a basic level of what the story is trying to achieve, it is definitely weaker than its predecessor.
Given how separated this story is from The Innocent, The Thousand Worlds, despite being in the middle of the boxset, feels oddly like an opening story. We are properly introduced to Time Lords who made very brief appearances in The Innocent or just mentioned in it, which gives us the feeling of meeting a new group of people. Speaking of which, the cast once again stand out. John Hurt is the absolute highlight but Jacqueline Pearce is brilliant in her role and I particularly like Beth Chalmers as Veklin, a character I would love to see more of in the future.
Overall, despite being a more traditional story when compared to the innocent, The Thousand Worlds stands on its own as an intriguing and exciting espionage story that slowly reveals more and more from its deck of cards to us, and builds to a great cliffhanger for the next episode.
3. “The Heart of the Battle” by Nicholas Briggs
Reunited with old friends, and trying to protect new ones, the War Doctor knows he won’t be able to save everyone this time… but will he be able to save anyone at all?
It’s hard to get into the specifics of the Heart of the Battle without spoiling elements of the previous two stories, but that’s just a consequence of reviewing box sets rather than singular stories. To put it as vaguely as possible, The Heart of the Battle has the potential to be the most emotionally impacting of the three stories featured in this box set, but unfortunately I felt it failed to deliver on these promises. Easily the most action-packed of the three episodes, oftentimes The Heart of the Battle struggles to find its own identity, coming across as the standard big bombastic finales of which some Big Finish box sets have been criticised in the past.
Now, this isn’t at all to say this is a terrible episode or even a bad one; it’s actually quite good and is a mostly satisfying wrap up to the character dynamics set up in the first two episodes of the set. It’s just that much of the episode is filled with a group of characters just yelling plot points to each other and endless debates over what to do, which can, of course, be interesting, but in this case is just a bit monotonous and forgettable. The moment by moment drama of the situation is intriguing but leaves little impact upon reflection.
That being said, the heart of the battle delivers one of the War Doctor’s best moments yet. A single speech at the end of the episode completely nails what one would want from this incarnation of the doctor. It’s extremely well written and a satisfying conclusion to a box that may have peaked in its first episode but never dipped below enjoyable.
Overall, while this is the weakest of the three episodes, The Heart of the Battle is still a satisfying conclusion to the first War Doctor boxset. It ultimately focusing too much on impersonal stakes that fail to meaningfully connect to the listener instead of building upon the character dynamics set up in the first two episodes.
Though Only the Monstrous peaks in its first episode, I still regard it as one of my favourite Big Finish releases and one of the reasons I started listening to the company and I’m still a fan today. Nicholas Briggs takes the War Doctor in an interesting direction and John Hurt absolutely blows away the ridiculously high expectations one would expect of an actor of his calibre. Certainly worth a listen.
The War Doctor: Only the Monstrous is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com