23 December 2015

Audio Review: Doctor Who - Only the Monstrous

Review by Ryan Wigley
“Throughout the millennia on countless worlds, people have bleated that war is complicated unfathomable As if it was some mystery disease without a cure, but it isn’t true. War is very simple and all you have to do to wage it is become a monster. And that’s what I am
The War Doctor, The Innocent

Right, so here we are then, just over two months after the initial announcement that Big Finish have acquired the rights to produce four sets featuring John Hurt as The War Doctor. It was rather evident that the acquisition was hotly anticipated by fans, who not only wanted to hear more from Hurt’s Doctor, but also to hear stories set during the Last Great Time War. Does ‘Only The Monstrous’ justify all the hype? Read on…

First of all, I’d just like to mention the fact that I am a huge fan of John Hurt. This is a bloke who read audiobooks to me as a young child and is someone who I have grown up with, seeing his rich filmography over the years. I was utterly thrilled to see him turn around in The Name of the Doctor, unaware he had already been confirmed to star in The Day of the Doctor, and as a Doctor no less! His one full television story whetted my appetite for more from this mysterious incarnation of our beloved hero. George Mann penned the fantastic Engines of War in 2014, but it mainly served as a prequel to The Day of the Doctor and obviously didn’t feature Hurt in person. Fast forward a year and enter Big Finish with ‘Only The Monstrous’.

Bias aside, I think it’s fair to say that John Hurt is quite easily the highlight of the entire set. He doesn’t put a foot wrong and effortlessly slides back into the role. It’s interesting to note that writer Nicholas Briggs doesn’t specify when the set takes place during the War Doctor’s incredibly long tenure. Personally, I would place it just over halfway through; long enough to capture the world weariness of the Doctor, but not quite the chap who has had enough. Briggs appears to have considered the characterisation of the War Doctor carefully, allowing Big Finish to plot their own character arc, but also adds a degree of weariness to the Doctor, which allows the listener to easily imagine the horrors he has faced and caused. Naturally, Hurt captures this well and carries the whole production. Not only is his portrayal of the War Doctor a highlight, but his rapport with Jacqueline Pearce is top notch. Special mention must also go to Lucy Briggs-Owen and Carolyn Seymour, who both stand their ground opposite Hurt.

With a new Doctor comes a new theme tune. The War Doctor’s theme is a surprising choice for this incarnation, with it being overly grand and bombastic. That said, the heavy emphasis on the middle eight in the opening theme connotes a feeling of victory, which seems oddly appropriate for the Time War. The theme itself is sort of a middle ground between the 1996 TV Movie and 2005 Christopher Eccleston themes; logical given the War Doctor comes smack in the middle of them. There are also some cool sound effects going on in the theme, which is reminiscent of the 2013 Matt Smith theme. Again, this is logical and appropriate given the War Doctor’s appearance in the fiftieth anniversary special, some arguing his era should go between The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor.

‘Only The Monstrous’ opens with The Innocent. Briggs takes a more unconventional approach with the set, electing to switch the historic three-act structure around. The typically low-key second act is instead applied to the first act. Beginning at the climax of a major battle in the Time War, we see the Doctor sacrificing himself, though miraculously escaping, the TARDIS taking him elsewhere. Whilst Gallifrey assume the Doctor dead, he spends the episode recovering over time on the planet Keska, which is somehow still untouched by the Time War. There the Doctor is found by a girl called Rejoice (Briggs-Owen) where they build a surprising friendship. Of course, Rejoice is soon viewed by the Doctor to be perfect companion material, though this incarnation doesn’t have those around. Ultimately The Innocent is a decent, if unremarkable, episode that explores the War Doctor in more depth and builds his relationship with Rejoice over the course of the hour. To give Briggs credit, it’s a surprising introduction to the War Doctor range, with it putting the Doctor outside of his comfort zone, the Time War. The Innocent is rather a hard one to judge on its own, as ‘Only The Monstrous’ is very much a three-part story opposed to a three story set.

The Thousand Worlds is a more “traditional” war affair and involves the Daleks enslaving a thousand worlds in order to proceed with their final assault on Gallifrey. The episode has some interesting ideas, such as the high concept Null Zone, but they do seem to be pushed aside in favour of a Nicholas Briggs mashup; WWII in space with Daleks. Not only do we have a combination of all Briggs’ favourite things, but the Daleks’ plan of drilling through the core of the thousand worlds is reminiscent of previous Dalek adventures, bringing nothing new to the table. There are some nice scenes throughout, such as the Doctor encountering Rejoice once again, albeit elderly and now brilliantly played by Carolyn Seymour. It is again a decent episode, but is more akin to a Doctor Who B-movie than a high concept attempt at portraying the complex Time War. The ideas, such as the Null Zone, are there but unfortunately they remain only as ideas.

The Heart of the Battle is another decent, straightforward B-movie type affair, but it does present an interesting idea in the form of a group of deluded Time Lords who genuinely believe they can negotiate peace with the Daleks. Jacqueline Pearce is a highlight in this episode, perhaps more so than John Hurt, and she gets some good material to work with, really showing what a nasty piece of work her character is. Her character, Cardinal Ollistra, also puts into perspective how some Time Lords could believe in peace negotiations with the Daleks due to the impact the Time War has had on the people involved, coupled with the sheer length and scale it has reached. It soon becomes understandable how insane it has driven some of those involved. The final 10 minutes of the episode, a heated conversation between Hurt’s Doctor and Pearce’s Cardinal, are brilliant, with the two leads on blistering form.

I don’t want to come across as too critical on ‘Only The Monstrous’ because I actually really rather enjoyed it, even if I didn’t think it was anything particularly special. The three scripts are probably Briggs’ best in a long time, but this range is capable of excellence. Big Finish really have a great thing in their hands: an unexplored era with a unique and unexplored Doctor (played by Sir John Hurt!), an opportunity to go above and beyond the traditional and straightforward. The Time War should be high concept and layered and I hope the following three sets will take advantage of this.

The second set, ‘Infernal Devices’, has three intriguing-sounding stories penned by three different writers, so I’m eagerly anticipating the release of that in February. I am also curious to see where Big Finish take the War Doctor next. As I said elsewhere in this review, Hurt carries off the world and war-weariness of what has already happened during this incarnations tenure. I only hope that Big Finish have their own character arc and put him in dark, new and unknown territory.

Ultimately ‘Only The Monstrous’ is a fun and enjoyable introduction for John Hurt’s War Doctor, if ultimately unremarkable and obviously inspired by generic war stories rather than taking a leap towards the high concept nature and vastness of the Time War we’ve learned of on television.

for the whole set and

for Sir John Hurt

You can order Only The Monstrous from Big Finish here.

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