You may look at this as the end.
With actor John Hurt sadly passing away early in 2017, it means that any further Doctor Who audios or televised stories featuring his gravely incarnation of the (don’t call me the) Doctor are dust in the wind.
But let’s not be morbid; Hurt certainly wasn’t, even when faced with his own mortality. So instead let’s take a moment to see what his final act as the War Doctor offers.
In a word, to sum up Casualties of War: stunning.
That’s not a word used lightly either – this is the culmination of plot threads and character arcs that have been playing out since the very first time Big Finish broke out Volume One of the War Doctor chronicles. It’s been quite the journey, but what’s especially prominent here is the epic scale of the tales told. From sieges, to never-people, to Leela and Gallifrey, this is the one that has all the trappings one could want for a war, no less the Time War. The production values here are second to none; Big Finish take the thrill level to beyond anything they’ve attempted before. This reviewer has bemoaned a fair few times that the Time War should have been left to the imagination – it’s still a steadfast statement to go by, but with what’s been achieved here maybe there’s a good argument to be had that if one gets the balance correct for audio in the parameters of joyful action and heart-breaking drama, than sometimes forbidden Doctor Who stories can be made to work.
Of course, one of the biggest draws of Casualties of War is the long awaited reunion between Leela and the Doctor. Many of you may have been satisfied when Leela helped the Seventh Doctor defeat the Rani in London for Doctor Who‘s 30th birthday celebrations but this reviewer finds the chemistry between Leela and the (you used to know me as the) Doctor sublime. It’s always a thrill to have a Doctor tussle in a new body with a old friend of his and here is no exception. Maybe it’s because Jameson and Hurt are two acting pros that their relationship gels so well, but this reviewer believes that it’s more about the fascinating balance between Leela the Hunter and War Doctor the Warrior. These two understand one another: Leela has always known that the Doctor is a dangerous man to be around; the simple fact that he’s now broadcasting that rather than trying to deny it doesn’t faze her one bit. This is still a man she respects and looks up to; it certainly helps to ground the War Doctor somewhat, in turn giving him some genuine lighter moments to play with.
Moving forward from that, this is the version of the War Doctor that we should have seen more of on screen – flippant about the death of others, willing to sacrifice the few to save the many, a tactical Warrior designed to lead armies and willing to do so. He still denies his name but in Casualties of War you can really see why. There’s a callousness to the War Doctor that hasn’t been explored until right now; it’s a fascinating journey into the Doctor’s darker years.
Once again, there’s the Daleks as the main villains of the piece and they are at their calculating best/worst here. The Dalek Time Strategist brings a solid blend of indifference and incredulity to the Time War and its victims. Indifference to kill and incredulity at the Doctor’s brazen attempts to stop Skaro’s finest from dominating the entirety of space and time. Top marks for Nick Briggs who once again manages to bring a new angle to the Daleks, moving beyond their simple battle cries, away from the attempted philosophising of the Dalek Supreme aboard the Crucible and offering a Commander with no mercy for any living being, and yet, at the same time, a tone of voice that belays a pleasure in the death and destruction that it brings. It certainly would be nice to hear more from the Strategist in the future.
Moving forward form the first two (brilliant) stories – Pretty Little Lies by Guy Adams and The Lady of Obsidian by Andrew Smith – Casualties of War‘s finale, Briggs’ The Enigma Dimension, takes the (I’ve lost my right to call myself) Doctor back to Gallifrey with Cardinal Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce), who by the end has become far more likeable thanks to travelling in the TARDIS for a while. In fact, it’s a testament to our favourite Time Lord that whatever he’s preaching, be it peace or war, there’s still a stubborn streak of goodness within that effects those near him. For this story, the Daleks win the Time War. No, that’s not a mistake – they win. How is this resolved? Rather nicely, to tell the truth. But to reveal how would be telling, you’ll have to listen to find out more. Suffice to say that there’s plenty of action with time for Hurt, Jameson, Pearce, and Briggs all to breathe and act their socks off. It’s an incredibly powerful end to tales set during Gallifrey’s darkest times.
Go now. Get this final War Doctor box set and lose yourself in the Doctor we could never truly get to know, the one that sacrificed his adventures so that the universe could sleep easier at night. And ensconce yourself in John Hurt’s final work, in the world of Doctor Who and our own universe as well.
It may be the end, but the War Doctor’s legend will continue forever.
The War Doctor: Volume 4 – Casualties of War is out now from Big Finish, priced £30 on CD or £25 as a download.