Retrospective: Big Finish’s The War Doctor – Only the Monstrous

Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I’ve got; I’m still, I’m still the Doctor from the block…

… is really how one must think of the War Doctor. For as far as his description maintains that he will take things, no writer has ever portrayed him going too far. The Day of the Doctor, Engines of War, and this first boxset in Big Finish’s War Doctor range, Only the Monstrous all offer a different kind of Doctor than we’re used to but not one that we’re entirely uncomfortable around. Surely one of the major ‘selling’ points of this less-well-known incarnation of our favourite Time Lord is that he is not the Doctor. He goes to a place where the Doctor can never go and takes action during the Time War to such an extent that Doctors Nine, Ten, and Eleven all deny he ever existed, covering up their shameful actions so that no one may ever find out just what it took to win the war.

Of course, once the War Doctor – played with characteristic monumental aplomb by the late, great Sir John Hurt – starts to flesh out more and more of his hidden years, the more we get to know him. And as we do, the more we realise that he’s actually changed as a character very little.

Following Hurt’s passing last week, and with the final War Doctor boxset set for release by Big Finish next month, this seems a good time to return to this incarnation’s first audio tale.

Let’s take a breath for a moment. Only the Monstrous, tying in the classic and new Doctor Who worlds, is a very stylish adventure indeed. Harrowing, terrifying, and full of action. Cleverly, rather than dropping us straight into the heart of the Time War and leaving us there to fend for ourselves, writer Nicholas Briggs decides to side step that action to another war. One that, at first, seems to be contained outside the rivalries of the Time Lords and the Daleks. But, as the story unfolds, this war links inexorably with the War Doctor’s own troubles, and it only gets worse for him from there. This gives the tale an opportunity to grow the character of the War Doctor, his companion Rejoice, and the motivations of the Daleks and the Time Lords. In fact, by the end of this, Briggs reveals how soulless the Doctor’s people have become, nicely foreshadowing events in The End of Time and The Day of the Doctor.

The story is not the issue however. The War Doctor is.

A character so terrifying and nasty that he was denied as an incarnation and yet, when on screen or on audio, the War Doctor never seems as terrible as he’s made out to be. Of course, we hear about what he’s done in his younger days, the sacrifices he’s made, but when all is said and done, he’s still the Doctor; he never seems that different.

Of course, as a character, the War Doctor must be very difficult to write. One would have to ensure that the character was not too evil so that he became unlikeable. One could also not make him too flippant about death and killing, similar, for example, to a character such as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as that would go against his core values. The audience that tunes in for Doctor Who in any format expect a certain ‘Doctoriness’ (to coin a word) about the character. Put simply, the War Doctor cannot help but be the Doctor, whatever he claims. He has the grumpiness of his First, Third, Fourth, Sixth, and Twelfth incarnations, the flippancy of the Fifth and Ninth, the rage of the Eighth, and the steely determination of the Tenth and Eleventh. But this is just amalgamation of his other selves. Unfortunately, as sad as it is to say, for the War Doctor to truly reach his maximum potential, we will all have to hear or see him do something deeply disturbing. Briggs has the right idea with Only the Monstrous: he starts with the War Doctor activating a Time Destructor, has him denying his name throughout proceedings, and ends this series with a terrible decision to be made.

But for the next War Doctor boxset, we needed the character and the story to be pushed to the very limits. (Fortunately, that’s pretty much what happenedInfernal Devices proved a hit – but that doesn’t necessarily save Only the Monstrous… It does, however, soften the blow, and make the incarnation’s journey more interesting.)

To add more to the Doctor Who mythos, which is partly what these tales are designed to do, Big Finish had to turn the Doctor on his moral axis completely and show our hero as a terrible man. What better way to fully understand the story of his guilt and redemption in the post-2005 television stories could there be? Based solely on this first set (and taking The Day of the Doctor into account), from what we’ve seen and heard from the War Doctor, it feels as though the Eighth Doctor should have been more accurate as he died on Khan: “I don’t suppose there’s any need for a Doctor anymore… Grumpy. Make me Grumpier.”

Ranting about the character of the War Doctor aside, Only the Monstrous is something that you will want to listen to. The story itself is strong, and the Daleks are given more to do than simply bark out plot exposition and shoot at things.

The supporting cast is perfect, the direction is strong… and, of course, John Hurt is the Doctor once again, never mind the fact that he’s waging a universal war and is generally a bit miserable because of it. This starts the Time War chronicles well, and you’ll probably want to shove the discs in the CD player over the next few days, just to listen to Hurt as the wonderful Time Lord once again.

The War Doctor: Only the Monstrous is available as a CD boxset or via download from Big Finish.

(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in January 2016.)