Doctor Who : The Eighth Doctor: Time War 3 – Starring Paul McGann, Rakhee Thakrar, Adele Anderson, and Michael Jayston. Written by Matt Fitton, Lisa McMullin, Roland Moore, and John Dorney & Directed by Ken Bentley – CD / Download (Big Finish)
The very notion of a Time War is enough to give you a blinding migraine the moment you cross its threshold, because not only do all the laws of life as we understand it bugger off to the restaurant at the end of the universe at that point, but all the laws of conventional storytelling give a bit of a hopeless shrug and trudge after them too. Cause and effect, life and death, past and future as determined by memory – everything goes immediately into flux and what you could very easily end up with is a long, loud, looping, endless scream as the walls of causality stove your head in.
This – with additional notions about budgets – is possibly why Russell T Davies, no stranger to ambition and himself the inventor of the idea of the last great Time War, regarded its events as ‘unfilmable.’
We’re a long way on from that declaration now – we’ve seen the last day of the Time War on TV, and in audio, Big Finish has been giving us angles on the conflict for quite some time and in plenty of ways – we’ve heard some of the adventures of the War Doctor, we’re gloriously continuing to hear what the War Master was up to during the days of the war, we’ve lived through some of the Time War from a Gallifreyan perspective, and in particular, alongside his adventures with at least slightly earlier companions, Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor – the last of the ‘pre-war’ Doctors, and as such the Doctor who brings the crusading moral certainties of the Classic era to their point of universal crisis when faced with unparalleled horror – is moving inexorably towards the point where his position of neutrality or sheer, dogged cheerful helpfulness becomes untenable, and he becomes the Doctor who could fight a war.
The third box set of Eighth Doctor Time War stories deals with temporal flux, the mathematics of survival, moral ambiguity, and the cost of a clear memory, while delivering some hardcore storytelling and an arc that seems designed to push the Eighth Doctor nearer and nearer to the edge of exhaustion, while giving him some solid, if slightly desperate, speeches encapsulating those old and increasingly frayed moral certainties.
No no, come back, it’s also got some really fun bits, honest!
If there’s a story that comes closest to proving why a Time War would be unfilmable, it’s Matt Fitton’s The State Of Bliss, an opening story that will absolutely leave you needing a long lie down in a dark room. Bliss, the Eighth Doctor’s companion played by Rakhee Thakrar, has always had a whiff of temporal anomaly about her – her origin story jumped about a bit at first, absolutely on purpose, and while her role in the second Eighth Doctor Time War box set was more stable, she became a person of interest for the Time Lords involved in fighting the war as a result of being a temporal oddity. They love a temporal oddity, those big-hatted devious Gallifreyan gits.
The State Of Bliss seems to explain why Bliss is such a question-mark in the primordial soup of time and space. We get to see various snippets from her life or lives, and the characters with whom she formed some of the bonds that led her to where she is. The plot underneath all this is screamingly devious and yet altogether logical and mundane, when eventually explained in words of a lowish number of syllables. Without going into too much spoilerific detail, a line from the story declares that ‘a fruit machine always pays out.’ The reason Bliss is the way she is can be expressed by the fact that it very rarely pays out the first time you pull the handle.
There’s a quite stunning naturalism to the performances in this story from actors of great quality, including Nina Wadia as Bliss’ tutor Professor Deepa, Anjli Mohindra as her mate and potential partner Calla, and John Scougall as her other mate and probably more entirely optimistic wannabe partner, Ryall. All these actors make for a scenario that lives and breathes like a real memory, like peering into Bliss’ diary of her student days. Most impressive of the lot though is Thakrar herself, who more than in either of her previous box sets, really comes into her own as a companion in this third outing, developing that comfort in quipping that is sometimes necessary when running alongside the Doctor, and marking out Bliss’ character as determined, able, brilliant when necessary and possessed of a strong moral sense which amplifies – and occasionally props up – the Doctor’s own. Think somewhere between a Clara Oswald and a Jo Grant, with a little of something that’s unique to Bliss herself, and you get an attractively natural, real-seeming person. Which, let’s not forget, is no mean feat when playing someone who’s less than usually sure of her own origins or nature.
The regularity with which we’re forced by experience to say lovely things about Lisa McMullin’s stories is probably sickening to some. But she will keep knocking things out of the park. In The Famished Lands, she steers away from the esoteric timey-wimeyness of Matt Fitton’s opener and demands we consider war as a real thing. The Vale of Iptheus may be far from the chrono-quivering front lines of the Time War, but the effects of the conflict are having real, horrifying consequences there. As Britain hangs on a precipice of uncertainty over the effects on trade of a no-deal Brexit, McMullin gives us a story that has the cutting off of trade routes at its core. With those routes severed, imports dry up. When imports dry up, the responsibility of feeding a mass populace falls solely of a domestic planetary government. And when there’s not enough to eat, people will end up simply starving to death.
The Doctor and Bliss arrive on Iptheus to discover happy starving people, but there’s much more to the story than that. Dealing with governmental paternalism up to and beyond the point of the death of swathes of its own citizens, there’s some solid sci-fi in the story too, with food that fills you up but gives you no nutritional benefit, and a somewhat Harryhausen twist that’s both horrifying and a geeky delight to hear. Make no mistake though, this is a hard-hitting story of the state, the individual, the mathematics of who gets to survive in times of crisis and why – and it will probably shock you. Science fiction at it’s best is supposed to shock you and make you think about your own world. Lisa McMullin’s story in this box set will do just that. It’ll also give you possibly the most memorable McGann Doctoring in the set, in his response to questions about why he’s doing a particular thing. Just listen – you won’t miss the moment.
Roland Moore’s Fugitive In Time has a somewhat Pertweean feel – the Doctor on a mission for the Time Lords, and accompanied by a Time Lord, Adele Anderson’s superb new take on Tamasan, a more scorched-earth strategist who’s followed the Doctor through the Time War arc. A planet locked off by virtue of an unfriendly atmosphere, the Daleks in orbit waiting to come and seize a particularly juicy piece of techno-kit, and the Doctor and his friends going undercover in a semi-feudal land to find a special visitor from the stars. Any story which can feature the legend that is Wendy Craig as a genetic scientist from a species so morally dodgy as to be faced with eradication from the timeline by the Time Lords has got to be worth a listen, and here, we see very clearly the difference between Tamasan’s straight down the line Gallifreyan dedication and the more freewheeling, open-minded, open-hearted approach of the Doctor to people and species the ‘official’ history would cast as villains.
And then there’s the Valeyard.
Michael Jayston. As the Valeyard. During the Time War.
I know – shut up and take alllll the money, right?
The War Valeyard, by John Dorney, is more or less everything you think you want in a Valeyard story, with a dollop of something extra-interesting on top.
The delicacy with which you need to write a Time War Valeyard story should not at any point be underestimated, especially when aiming at an audience which has already experienced the more morally ambiguous War Doctor, and the War Master, somewhat driven by the war towards the dark side of the status quo. What space, in all that moral tapestry, exists in which to write a particular Time War Valeyard story? How can he be different, if at all, from the Trial of a Time Lord Valeyard? How can he even be there during the Time War?
John Dorney gives Jayston room to play, both in terms of the sharp, verbose Trial Valeyard, and the new and noticeably different Time War Valeyard, in a story that conflates issues of memory and identity. ‘A man is the sum of his memories, you know; a Time Lord even more so,’ said the Fifth Doctor in The Five Doctors. And in a space and time in which even the Doctor will later repudiate his own claim to the name of the Doctor, putting heroism behind him, Dorney creates an identity issue that might help the Valeyard find a different way to be.
You can, if you’re a fan of transposing personal issues into your science-fiction, see The War Valeyard as an examination of memory in the face of something like dementia – if you’re not who you think you are, but you act as you believe you would, what is the ‘reality’ of your life and circumstance? And is it kinder to snap you out of a comfortable, pleasurable fiction or to leave you in a state of confusion and medication if it makes you happier than any colder, darker reality would be?
If you don’t want to do any of that of course, you can enjoy The War Valeyard as a cracking meet-up between the Eighth Doctor, the Daleks, and the Valeyard in a time and space that allows him a freedom he’s never previously had. Oh and you’re going to want to listen to the ending. Many, many times. The ending is guaranteed squee-fodder, and will get you writing pleading tweets to Big Finish to beg for some kind of sequel. (Note to self – would that make it a squeequel?)
(Second note to self – never, ever say that again…)
All told, there’s a balance across the four stories here that gives the set a distinctly Time War feel – mind-melting alternate timeline-bleed in The State Of Bliss, socially conscious sci-fi with some really hard hits in The Famished Lands, a daring quest into unknown territory with dubious allies, implacable enemies and a hearty line in double-crossing and chicanery in Fugitive In Time, and a joyful dissertation on memory and character in The War Valeyard. Along the way, a cast of impeccable quality – Jayston, Wadia and Mohindra help the regulars to achieve a level of naturalism which anchors their adventures in human, understandable emotions and reactions, even as increasingly the universe is falling to pieces round their ears. You might have to push harder than you’re used to just to get through The State Of Bliss because of its reality-shredding premise, but it pays you off for your effort, and acts as the gateway to what is probably the best set in the Eighth Doctor Time War series so far. Tony Fyler