Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: The Time War 2

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Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor: The Time War 2 – Starring: Paul McGann, Rakhee Thakrar, Nicholas Briggs, Jacqueline Pearce, Julia McKenzie, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Amanda Root, Rakie Ayola, Guy Adams, Simon Slater, Jon Culshaw, Victor McGuire, Anya Chalotra, Tania Rodrigues & Surinder Duhra.  Written by Jonathan Morris, Guy Adams & Timothy X Atack & Directed by Ken Bentley – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)

The Time War series from Big Finish is a brave attempt to do what was once thought impossible – to give colour to, and to at least a little personalise the Time War, a sequence of events and causes that it should be impossible to follow, a war between the universe’s two greatest, most dogmatic time travelling species, the Time Lords and the Daleks. More than that though, the Eighth Doctor Time War series exists to bridge the gap between the Eighth Doctor we have known since his TV Movie appearance – a Doctor full of bounce and fizz and Tiggerish excitement – and the Eighth Doctor we now know finally makes the choice we never imagined the Doctor could make, to become a warrior, and fight the Time War with the warrior’s conviction brought to the screen, and later to a series of audio box sets, by the wonder that was John Hurt. The box set arcs of recent years for the Eighth Doctor have seen him pushed further and further into dark places, from Dark Eyes, through The Doom Coalition and now into Ravenous, but there still feels like a distinct divide between the Doctor we know from those box sets and the Doctor who finally makes that warrior’s choice.

The Eighth Doctor: The Time War 1 box set felt, if anything, oddly slight and a little unprepared for the task ahead – particularly in the episode which showed us Time Lord troopers drilling like ordinary Earth-warriors. Immediately though, the second box set takes us away from any sense of flatness or ordinary chronology – in the opening story, The Lords of Terror by Jonathan Morris, we join Eight and his newish companion, Bliss, as he takes her home to her world, just to tell her parents she’s OK before they go hurtling off again.

But Bliss’ home world is…not the place it was. It’s been ravaged by the Daleks, till only one city remains. One city with a plan to retaliate.

The sheer culture shock on Bliss of this revelation would be enough to explore in a full story, but Morris by no means leaves a promising situation unpoked with sticks. Sure enough, as the title suggests, there’s more to this retaliation than meets the eye, and there are both layers of storytelling that confront the Doctor with what the war is doing to his own people’s psychology, and a handful of call-backs to Tom Baker’s early days – big rockets, cities with domes that must be climbed, and explicit references to the mission on which he was sent in Genesis of the Daleks. It’s a neat, throbbing undertone of guilt and association, but as with Bliss’ anguish, it’s not really given the time it needs to breathe and sink into us because there’s always something frantic happening – people are killed, people are revealed as traitors, people’s backstories of pain are unfurled, and reality shifts from minute to minute, culminating in a countdown clock that, in another Genesis call-back, brings the Doctor face to face with the responsibilities of the actions he might take.

In essence, The Lords of Terror is an expression of the Orwellian idea that if you have an enemy, and you use the same tactics as that enemy, you become almost indistinguishable from them, especially in the impact you have on others. That’s an idea which had its full TV flowering in the era of the Tenth Doctor, when the Time Lords themselves, hardened, blinded and ravaged by war, become a bigger danger to the universe than the Daleks themselves – this story is not by any means that wholesale fall of a society’s standards, but it is a gracenote on how such things can happen, one life at a time.

Planet of the Ogrons, by Guy Adams is somewhat lighter fare, as long-term fans will expect. The Ogrons, bless them, are burly ape-like creatures of very little brain but plenty of brawn, who worship carnivorous rocks and hire themselves out as muscle to any galactic bullies who can pay.

They’re not by any means the universe’s most interesting creatures, and there’s a sense in which the story they’re used to tell here feels like oddness for the sake of it – we meet a new non-Dalek Dalek who likes to tinker, and we meet one very particular Ogron that really feels like its story needs a resolution which fails to come within the scope of this box set. But put all that behind you, because this story also introduces us to the Twelve.

The Twelve is a ‘future’ incarnation of the main villain of The Doom Coalition and Ravenous, known with a certain numerical inevitability as the Eleven. A Time Lord whose regenerations are all permanently with him, the Eleven is a tortured creature, trying to drive the vehicle of his body with ten backseat drivers at any time trying to wrest the wheel from him.

The Twelve is Julia McKenzie.

For people who don’t know, Julia McKenzie’s a phenomenal actress, now of an age to dominate the ‘little old lady in whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt’ category of roles. She also has an absolutely audible eye-twinkle, and, when necessary, can deploy a voice like a stiletto. She plays the Twelve as an incarnation who finally has her other selves under control (at least to begin with), and working on the side of what can still loosely be thought of as good – the Time Lords. Casting McKenzie is one of those scarily frequent strokes of genius from Big Finish, and the combination of her and Paul McGann, buffered by the mellifluent peacekeeping presence of Rakhee Thakrar as Bliss, is a stand-out reason to buy The Time War 2, irrespective of your ability to commit to the storytelling journey of the set. You simply need to have heard some things in your life, and this is one of them. Jon Culshaw as the Very Special Ogron doesn’t hurt matters in the slightest, either.

If Planet of the Ogrons deals with personality in terms of the Very Special Ogron and the Twelve, In the Garden of Evil, Adams’ second contribution to this set, is a very different philosophical exploration of similar ideas. A garden filled with lethal creatures that kill if prisoners stray off the paths is filled with people who have no memory of their identities. They remember things, words, skills they have, but not who they are. And every now and then, they get teleported for interrogation by…whoever it is that’s keeping them there. When they arrive for questioning, they remember, but when they get sent back to the Garden, their memories are wiped of their personality again. And then there’s Prisoner Alpha, separated from the rest in a prison-dome all of his own. Is he, as he surmises, the most evil man in the universe? Or is there more to the Garden than meets the mind?

Adams’ tale is highly engaging, because it makes you wonder how you would cope in a similar situation – would you simply accept your imprisonment? Try to make friends? Try to test the boundaries of your confinement? What would your fundamental personality reveal if you didn’t have the understanding of yourself that you carry around with you? It’s a mystery, and Bliss shows a very rational side to her nature in working through the issues, while ‘Alpha’, despite his brilliance, wonders about his guilt, his culpability for crimes resulting in this incarceration. The Twelve though steals this story too, showing an inquisitive intellect, and a ghastly ruthless streak which frankly Julia McKenzie was born to express. There’s extra help in this story too in the presence of Victor McGuire (as he describes himself, ‘Jack in Bread, Ron in Goodnight Sweetheart, surprise star of West End musicals at the age of 44’) as Borton, another prisoner in the Garden whose reasons for being there are surprisingly never discovered, but whose personality reveals itself as amiable and curious, the very kind of person who might help solve the mystery of the Garden of Evil.

Episode three cracks along at a pace that feels punchy but not overcrowded, with its single key objective for our team of getting out of the Garden and regaining their memories. And while most of the episodes of this set are standalone but close in time, there’s a connection here that leads us relatively smoothly into the fourth episode, Jonah, by Timothy X Atack. Episode four is an unusual one, bearing some resemblance to the Beneath the Viscoid episode of the first War Master set – it’s all submarines chasing beneath the surface of a sea that negates the operation of time travel capsules. The story welcomes back the imperious Cardinal Ollistra, played by Jacqueline Pearce, and here there’s a definite sense of racing to find a prize that could turn the tide of the Time War, and there are three very strong female characters in the hierarchy of the Doctor’s sub-crew – Chief Panath, played by Tania Rodrigues, Executive Officer Omor, played by Surinder Duhra, and Ensign Murti, played by Anya Chalotra. Between them, these three women drive a lot of the story, and give the planet its personality, its culture, its character and values – and you end up with a world that you’re genuinely sorry the Daleks have ravaged. Plotwise, it’s high-stakes adventure on a race between the Time Lords and the Daleks for The Thing that can change the fate of the war, but there’s ultimately more to it than reaching the objective first. Atack crafts a story that has satisfaction bells strewn throughout it, and rings every one along the way. Meanwhile, there’s not a single dud note from the cast in Episode Four – the three locals act their socks off to build the world, McGann, Pearce, Thakrar and McKenzie add streaks of personality and character-colour throughout, and the whole thing hums with a quality you can only let engulf you.

The Eighth Doctor Time War 2 is four individual episodes with some connection, rather than a heavily linking arc of darkness, but there’s good stuff to be gotten out of each and every one, and there’s more of a feel of the war becoming an inevitable reality for the Eighth Doctor in this set than the last. There’s also, thanks to events in Episode One, a new, vaguely Charlotte Pollardy conundrum with which to contend going forward – people who exist when they shouldn’t, the laws of time having been put into abeyance.

There are some clever ideas here, around which are woven some staggering performances – McGann on form as ever, Thakrar really getting to show us more about the character of Bliss, and McKenzie stealing every scene in which the writers dare to put the Twelve. Like all the best of treats, we’d really like to keep her for a while before there’s any hint of the Thirteen stealing her thunder.

Grab The Eighth Doctor Time War 2 – it’s a solid progression for the Eighth Doctor as he inches ever closer to the war, a richly character-driven set of stories, and quite apart from all of that, you absolutely need the Twelve in your life, as soon as you possibly can manage. Tony Fyler

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