For a man with no name, the War Doctor don’t half get around a bit. Yes, John Hurt’s grumpy soldier is back, joined once again by Jaqueline Pearce’s Servalanalike Cardinal Ollistra in a new Big Finish boxset: War Doctor Vol 3: Agents of Chaos.
This three-volume set continues the story of the Time War, and opens with David Llewlyn’s rather wonderful The Shadow Vortex: Ollistra sends the Doctor to cold-war Berlin to track agent of Skaro Lara Zannis, who is hell-bent on using the nascent post-war atomic science to usher in a new world order shaped like a million Daleks. Second is Andrew Smith’s The Eternity Cage, in which the Sontarans bluff and blackmail Time Lord and Dalek alike in an effort to grab a little Time War glory for themselves. And the set closes with Ken Bentley’s Eye of Harmony which has the Dalek Time Strategist basing his next campaign on a rewatch of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS essentially.
For a one-off gag, or at least a one-story device, as Steven Moffat originally intended the War Doctor to be for the fiftieth anniversary show, this incarnation of everyone’s favourite Time Lord has a surprising amount of depth and character. In part, of course, that is thanks to the fact that he is played by a superlative actor who lives and breathes characterisation; but it is also due to the care with which Big Finish amongst others have taken the skeleton provided by Moffat and added flesh to the bones. Despite being a soldier embroiled in war, the nameless one as interpreted by BF spends most of his time eschewing violence and yearning for a time when everyone gets on with one another regardless of race, creed or the ability to get up stairs without an ominously humming base unit. But this is no criticism: Hurt’s Doctor has every right to the name he refuses, since, just like all the others, he is a flawed guardian of morality and justice.
And the overriding narrative is strengthened further through a range of other characters of depth: Pearce’s wonderfully Machiavellian Ollistra, of course; Dalek agent Lara Zannis is played adeptly by Who royalty in the shape of Neve Macintosh; Honeysuckle Weeks’s Heleyna similarly plays a character whose true trajectory is well hidden until the appropriate moment; and Timothy Speyer’s Kruger, the Stasi officer who first captures and then aids War (as the kids have it) is a joy, with a journey that goes from traditional East-European intelligence officer stereotype through proper companion material to at last a sympathetic hero with a back story that actually justifies the choices he’s made.
It all sounds, as ever, great – the sound design, as professional as ever from Big Finish, creates totally believable environments; and a cast of fewer than fifteen delivers what feels like all of Berlin and most of the rest of the universe to boot. The writing is tight, taught and efficient, making for satisfying and unputdownable (now a word) listening. Overall, this is a joy and well worth adding to any BF collection.
There are those who thought the retro-fitting of the War Doctor into Who canon was a mistake that should never have been attempted. I was one of them. Well, I was wrong in 2013 when Steven Moffat did it, and I’m even more wrong now.