Released October 2016
John Hurt’s shadowy War Doctor returns for a third Big Finish box set, Agents of Chaos, a series of three stories that manages to keep the sense of ambitious epic of the first two sets while simultaneously offering a more personal take on the desolation and devastation of war. As the harrowing conflict between the Time Lords and the Daleks ravages on, the Doctor is once more drawn into Cardinal Ollistra’s machinations, soon discovering that she has not foreseen all potential outcomes.
David Llewellyn’s ‘The Shadow Vortex’ opens the set by intriguingly taking the Time War to Earth in 1961 East Berlin during the height of the Cold War. Picking up on the now-common thread of fixed and non-fixed points in time, 1961 Earth is a point in flux, a quantum shield in place to protect the timeline’s sanctity. However, Dalek Agent Lara Zannis has managed to break through the shield, meaning to use the Shadow Vortex to allow the Daleks through after her. With the Time Lord operation Brightstar compromised, Cardinal Ollistra once more enlists the Doctor’s help.
As both Lara and the Doctor are captured by the East German secret police, all of the elements of an espionage thriller quickly come into play, including a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse and a rather unlikely alliance. It’s quite intriguing that the Daleks are now willing to enlist the services of other species for their own gain rather than simply relying on the tested techniques of imprisoning or exterminating, and Neve McInstosh brings the cold-hearted but practical Lara to life convincingly. The Dalek Time Strategist’s decision to have Lara not kill the Doctor will surely have ramifications and further exploration in later stories, but ‘The Shadow Vortex’ itself ends up being a quick-paced and tense thriller that shows the War Doctor taking an action that perhaps begins to better explain explain why he has denounced his own title. The inclusion of Earth in the past may take away from some of the inherent drama otherwise possible with an unknown place or time, but the end result is still a strong one and the dichotomy of the absurdist sci-fi with the gritty realism works immeasurably well.
Andrew Smith’s ‘The Eternity Cage’ sees the Sontarans capturing and holding Cardinal Ollistra upon the planet Rovidia. Denied the chance to enter the Time War because they are not equipped to handle the temporal front, the Sontarans seemingly seek to trade their hostage in return for an alliance with the Time Lords in order to be allowed entry into the battlefront. However, the Sontarans have also made the same offer to the Daleks and have managed to capture the Dalek Time Strategist as well, but there may even be a more cunning plan that in the works.
‘The Eternity Cage’ is essentially the story of how the arrogant and overbearing General Fesk and the Sontarans came to acquire their powerful time weapons, and the cruel use of the titular benevolent technology is harrowing as the implications reveal themselves. The resulting situations allow for some truly great scenes between the Daleks and Sontarans as well as between Ollistra and the Time Strategist, two mighty figures in the Time War reduced to captured equals and finally taking the opportunity to talk. Yet this is a story that also showcases John Hurt’s tremendous skills as well, and his incarnation’s struggle to remain some sort of virtue and moral fortitude despite everything occurring around him is a delight. As he agrees to rescue the woman who branded him a war criminal, commandeers a battle TARDIS, and befriends the Rovidian local Kalan while confronting two of his deadliest enemies and a traitor in their midst, the War Doctor is put through an emotional rollercoaster here that makes ‘The Eternity Cage’ a truly sublime tale.
Ken Bentley’s ‘Eye of Harmony’ is tasked with closing out this set, and the title aptly hints at just how momentous the events contained within are. Even with the Dalek Time Strategist’s assurances that Dalek victory has been foreseen and the continued inclusion of non-Dalek agents, the Daleks are still at their most desperate to swing the tide of the war in their favour, and their bombastic plan to prevent the Time Lords from ever attaining time travel capabilities is fitting of the momentous reputation and stakes that the Time War holds.
Josh Bolt’s Kalan fills the companion role for this story, and his character seems meant for John Hurt’s iteration of the Doctor. The two share a magnificent chemistry and help to keep the extraordinary events grounded in realism, even as the Doctor becomes more resigned to the fact that the universe is unfair and stacked against him as everyone’s moral codes are tested. Even as the Doctor and Ollistra both overcome seemingly helpless situations to continue taking the fight to the Daleks, it’s Honeysuckle Weeks who seizes control of the story as Heleyna is thrust into a very prominent role with very personal motivations. This again helps brings a sense of scale and measure to the otherwise grand events surrounding them, and Weeks certainly deserves full credit. ‘Eye of Harmony’ finally give the epic blockbuster that brings the very heart of Gallifreyan culture into question, and the end result is completely satisfying tale that only heightens anticipation for the next- and possibly final- release.
In the end, this set in itself still may not be enough to reconcile the Doctor’s distancing of himself from this regeneration in the future given how hard he tries to retain a sense of morality in an utterly impossible situation. Without spoiling the overall set, especially since the upcoming fourth War Doctor release will assuredly offer more payoff to the events on display here, the blending of personal sentiment with truly tremendous sense of ambition and scale makes for an intriguing dynamic that tells of a different and more nuanced side of the Time War. However, all three tales- and especially ‘Eye of Harmony’- also give a glimpse of just how grand the schemes and machinations of both sides are, bringing into clear focus the fact that there are certainly many more harrowing stories that could be told featuring this part of the Doctor’s life.