Released February 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW
The introduction of the War Doctor in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ opened up an incredible wealth of potential development and drama for an ever-changing lead character centuries old and fifty years in the public consciousness. A shrouded incarnation who had forsaken the moniker of the Doctor because of his chosen life embroiled in the almighty Time War, Sir John Hurt brought a gravitas and sorrow to the role in ‘The Day of the Doctor’ that added incredible nuance to his resolute determination and desire to do good and instantly made the War Doctor an undisputedly worthy addition to the canon. However, the fiftieth anniversary special would- by necessity- be the only televised episode to delve into this past incarnation’s exploits, offering a tantalizing glimpse of just what could have made his future incarnations shun him so fiercely. Fortunately Big Finish was willing and able to better fill that void in continuity, commissioning four three-story box sets to better highlight the character and era in question. With the release of The War Doctor – Casualties of War and the unhappy passing of Sir John Hurt, the War Doctor era officially comes to a close in a bombastic and fitting finale that perfectly bridges the gap between the two eras of the programme.
Guy Adam’s ‘Pretty Lies’ opens up this set with the Doctor and Cardinal Ollistra finding that danger and destruction follow them wherever they go. None of the previous War Doctor stories have shied away from this incarnation’s personal demons, and ‘Pretty Lies’ is certainly no exception. Hidden within a satirical but poignant look at journalistic endeavours as Schandel casually colours events to tell a story in line with his hero worship way of thinking, Hurt does incredibly well in showcasing his incarnation’s discomfort and anger with being called a hero given everything he has seen and experienced. Of course, the reporting narrative feeds directly into a rather unique resolution that sees the Doctor unabashedly confront the Daleks with no reason to expect victory, but it’s a fitting ending that offers a moment of hope in a maelstrom of destruction.
While it’s unsurprising that the Doctor will always fight for the oppressed and besieged, ‘Pretty Lies’ does well in creating an insurmountable situation in which there is no hope for a bloodless resolution. With the Daleks approaching a defenseless population in full force and taking no prisoners, the Doctor begrudgingly accepts the necessity of casualties and simply tries to bide his time while minimizing the death count as much as possible. Perhaps because of this grim optimism and the Doctor’s drive to survive no matter the odds, Ollistra is finally beginning to soften up around the Doctor and offer her support even when she doesn’t quite believe what he intends to do is possible, showing that she does care about the repercussions of the Time War beyond the immediate effects on the Time Lords and Daleks and finally offering the Doctor a powerful ally as the Daleks become more merciless in their attacks. After seemingly seeing the Doctor save the day once again through subterfuge, it’s harrowing but also satisfying to see the supposedly-emotionless Daleks succumb to the need for petty revenge as they wipe out the planet and all of its citizens after finding that they have been deceived, another nice reminder of just how ruthlessly powerful this menace is and how the Time War changes everyone involved.
Andrew Smith’s ‘The Lady of Obsidian’ finds the Doctor seeking help from a mysterious guerilla force as the Dalek Strike Fleet approaches yet another defenceless world. The advertising and cover make the revelation of the figurehead Lady of Obsidian’s true identity no secret, but it’s incredibly fitting that it should be Leela who is spearheading attacks to save so many innocent lives. Indeed, so prominently including Leela works incredibly well on two very distinct levels. Firstly, it allows a very direct comparison of just how different but, ultimately, just how similar the War Doctor is to his previous incarnations as his resolve and mettle is tested. More importantly, however, is that her presence gives further insight into just how traumatic and disturbing the effects of the Time War can be on an individual. The victim of an experimental Dalek attack, Leela has been living her life with complete memories of every potential timeline she could ever have experienced, her mind brimming with actions taken and not taken as well as the consequences of each and every possibility including all of her own potential deaths. Not knowing what is real and what is not and burdened by so much heartache, the Leela on display here is an altogether different being than that written in any previous story at any point in her life, and Louise Jameson gives possibly her strongest performance yet as she evokes the excruciating inner turmoil of Leela’s mental suffering perfectly.
It’s rare that the War Doctor is afforded the opportunity for genuine emotion as he has become somewhat scarred given the impossible situations in which he often finds himself. However, the scenes in which he slowly tries to remind Leela of her true past and their time together are among Hurt’s most memorable, the emotion in his voice drawing upon the lengthy and meaningful history of these two characters together. Yet while emotions are the driving force of this story, Smith also manages to include not only the Daleks attacking once more but also an altogether more intriguing menace known as the Unlived, an army of shadowy beings who never fully formed their potential space in this timeline. There’s a strong sense of foreboding throughout this story that supports the action admirably, and the powerhouse performances from all involved bring out the tension and danger of the proceedings perfectly, leading into the concluding chapter on another high.
Nicholas Brigg’s ‘The Enigma Dimension’ is tasked with effectively concluding the War Doctor era, gloriously seeing the Daleks gather for an all-out assault on Gallifrey itself. But as something strange looms over the planet of the Time Lords, the Doctor, Cardinal Ollistra, and Leela find themselves fighting to save Gallifrey and reality itself after it’s already too late. The War Doctor’s unique strategic side is brought to the forefront here, but he still never manages to lose sense of who he truly is on the inside even as he is afforded glimpses of a reality in which the Daleks have completely rewritten and replaced the Time Lords.
It likely would have been immensely tempting to write an action-heavy war story with the Time Lords and Daleks directly battling with countless casualties building on both sides, but Briggs instead offers a much more intimate, contemplative, and quiet tale that is utterly engrossing and satisfying in unexpected ways while essentially putting the Doctor in the mindset where he is found at the start of ‘The Day of the Doctor.’ The Enigma Dimension is an immensely clever conceit that is used to fantastic effect here, and the affinity it has for Leela as it uses her to speak for it not only highlights the very unique presence that Leela has within the Doctor Who universe but also further opens up Ollistra’s eyes to the fact that supposedly inferior beings can experience the world in ways that Time Lords simply cannot imagine. This is a wonderful notion that works on a narrative and personal level very well, and it once more allows the change the Time War imbues on its combatants and bystanders to take centre stage. Even the Daleks are all at once all-powerful and cowering infants as they try to strategize and adapt to the change of the unknown around them, showcasing the extremes they are willing to go to in order to emerge victorious. With emotions heavy and all of reality at stake, the performances from everyone involved in this emotion-laden tale are pitch perfect, and the depths the Doctor considers going to in order to provide ultimate peace are absolutely fitting for a man so weary and so close to breaking after fighting for so long.
The War Doctor – Casualties of War is absolutely the fitting farewell that both the War Doctor and Sir John Hurt deserve. Big Finish has crafted an absolute masterpiece that underscores the emotional aspect of war just as much as the strategic and action aspects. As was already apparent in ‘The Day of the Doctor,’ Sir John Hurt’s War Doctor is absolutely firmly entrenched in the long history of the Doctor and all of his changing faces and personas. Yet despite his incarnation’s refusal to be called the Doctor because of the atrocities he has committed, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ did undersell his importance in one key respect. The War Doctor was not simply the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right; the War Doctor was unquestionably the Doctor in all of his decisions when the odds were constantly stacked against him and there was never the chance of a peaceful and bloodless outcome.