Of all the casting coups that Big Finish Productions have managed over the years, having the late Sir John Hurt reprise his role as the War Doctor is doubtless one of the most impressive.
Created as a one-off character for The Day of the Doctor, to represent an amalgam of Doctors past, there was no real fan expectation that the renowned actor would wish to revisit to the role and so his return for twelve stories, across four box-sets, was incredibly exciting and opened the door to audio dramas set in the post classic, pre-New Series Time War period.
We knew from the glorious Paul McGann short, The Night of the Doctor, as well as his fleeting appearance in the closing moments of Series 7, that this was the incarnation who eschewed the name “Doctor”, having acquiesced to his fate and willingly taken on a warrior’s role. Indeed, when we met the character on-screen properly in the 50th Anniversary Special, he was at the end of the Time War and the end of his tether; prepared to initiate The Moment – a weapon which would cause both Gallifrey and the Daleks to burn, seeing no choice but to commit this horrendous atrocity before the Daleks claimed victory.
Of course, despite the clever effects work which gave us a reflected image of John Hurt as a younger man straight after regeneration, we only saw the War Doctor in action at the end of his time, when he was weary of all the death and destruction. This, naturally, presented Big Finish with a challenge: how far can you take the character beyond the bounds of what we know as “The Doctor?” The answer, in truth, is not all that far. Instead, they positioned him as a Doctor partially in denial of his own nature, trying to be the loyal soldier but unable to always keep a lid on his heroic, life-saving tendencies and embracing the Time War on his own conflicted terms.
Of course, to test this Doctor, the writers created a series of impossible situations where the best that could be hoped for was a draw and where horrendous decisions were forced upon him. They also created a puppet master for him to rage against in Cardinal Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce), a member of Gallifrey’s War Council and essentially the queen of Gallifreyan dirty tricks. Despite a succession of underlings, soldiers, coordinators, and the like, Ollistra was the face of the Time Lord war machine throughout these stories; a devious figure who knew the Doctor of old, who manipulated him willfully and delighted in dropping him into situations, relying on his innate ability to win the day.
In real life, John Hurt and Jacqueline Pearce were old friends and they share a brilliant chemistry together which is a joy to listen to. It is a rare actor who can match John Hurt, but Pearce has a similar level of volatile intensity and together they make an explosive combination. Indeed, the character of Cardinal Ollistra has continued to be used in stories set earlier in the Doctor’s timeline, featuring in Paul McGann’s The Eighth Doctor – The Time War prequel series, and in Doom Coalition 4 in an earlier incarnation.
The other star of these stories is Nicholas Briggs, who seems capable of voicing endless variations of Daleks, imbuing them all with distinct personalities, while at the same time directing the stories with pace and increasing levels of tension. With all four sets released within a period of 14 months, each of the box-sets consists of three linked stories and they are framed by a terrifically rousing, martial version of the Doctor Who theme from composer, Howard Carter, who handled all the music and created immersive sound design for each of these releases.
Only The Monstrous
Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, Dalek supremo and Big Finish Executive Producer, the first set of stories deal with the fate of the planet Keska. Wounded by the effects of the Dalek Time Destructor weapon, which he deployed, the Doctor recovers there, looked after by his self-appointed nursemaid, Rejoice.
It is a thoughtful piece with some meditation on the nature of war and what it does to people, and the Doctor eventually returns to the fray, somewhat reluctantly, when Cardinal Ollistra’s people come looking for him. He does so on his terms though, and the story lets John Hurt be delightfully abrasive.
As the storyline develops, there are plenty of familiar notes: this Doctor might be different in approach but he meets some seemingly familiar challenges; there are Dalek slave camps and drilling projects which are conceived on an epic scale. However, this has the feel of a war movie, with grim choices for our hero to make in order to win the day.
As well as the headline stars, Hurt and Pearce (who oozes deviousness from the start) genre favourite, Carolyn Seymour (Survivors) stars as a slave leader and Lucy Briggs-Owen shines in the role of the Doctor’s nursemaid.
This second box-set looks at Ollistra’s attempts to deploy weapons of mass destruction against the Daleks, and digs deep into the moralities of war as she and the Doctor butt heads over her plans.
From a device that can take an entire species out of time, to mind control and devastating temporal flux, Ollistra has the Doctor is on the leash – literally at some points – as she struggles to gain the advantage and even brands him a war criminal! He may not be what we are used to, but some weapons are unconscionable even for this warrior.
Using a mixture of tried and tested Big Finish writers, as all the subsequent box-sets would do, the three tales are separate but also contribute to an overall story arc. For me, Matt Fitton’s The Neverwhen is the highlight of this set – and possibly all these stories – as he brings to life a ravaged battlefield where both the combatants and the technology are in a state of temporal flux, with ever-changing weaponry and physical forms.
There is another terrific guest cast at work here, with David Warner playing a charismatic Technomancer, while Zoë Tapper is wonderfully traumatisied as a conflicted Time Lord conscript.
Agents of Chaos
With an accent on duplicitous double agents, the third set of adventures brings the Time War to Earth, and more specifically to Berlin during the early 1960s. The War Doctor is on the trail of a Dalek agent and finds himself with teamed an unusual ally, an East German secret policeman – a situation which leads to a hilarious escape in a Trabant!
After the Cold War adventure, we are lead into a pair of linked tales which see Sontaran forces attempt to force their way into the temporal conflict in audacious fashion, luring both sides to the planet Rovidia – where our hero finally accepts a name, granted to him by a street urchin!
With Ollistra devising schemes for the Time Lords’ war effort, we come up against her opposite number: The Dalek Time Strategist, a character who has featured in various Eighth Doctor stories and equally matches her with its scheming.
Neve McIntosh, best known as Madame Vastra (A Good Man Goes to War; The Crimson Horror), stars as Dalek agent Lara, while Honeysuckle Weeks plays Ollistra’s assistant Heleyna and Dan Starkey once again voices the Sontarans.
Casualties of War
Released after the sad death of John Hurt, three final tales rounded out the War Doctor’s brief tenure (although the combined duration of his stories actually exceed the runtime of Christopher Eccleston’s season) and reunited him with an old companion from a previous era.
Initially, we find the War Doctor and Ollistra trailed by a journalist who lords the Doctor for his grizzled personality, before he reunites with Fourth Doctor companion, Leela, played by Louise Jameson. With Leela lost, presumed dead at the start of the conflict, we discover how the war has changed her and look through her eyes at this changed version of the friend she once travelled with.
Finally, Nicholas Briggs returns to writing duties to round out the set with a return to Gallifrey in an extra-dimensional tale, which throws back a couple of pleasing nods to other Gallifrey set stories. Serving as a fitting conclusion to the tales, and indeed to the character, he delivers the War Doctor to a place where he is willing to consider that ultimate, terrible solution to the conflict, prefiguring the fateful decision he will make to end the Time War.
What Did John Hurt Say About Reprising the Role?
In addition to the stories themselves, each of these releases come with comprehensive extras which interview pretty much everyone involved in their creation. There is a true sense of it being something special, with the leading man himself clearly enjoying the chance to return to the part, while his co-stars and the production team revel in the chance to work with the star.
In retrospect, we know that one of the reasons John Hurt agreed to reprise his role was because of his illness, knowing that it would be something he would be able to manage, but as he said quite honestly in interview (broadcast as part of the Big Finish podcast tribute), “You know it doesn’t make any difference why you did something; the fact is one did… It’s not necessarily something I would have involved myself in… I mean, I have enjoyed every second of it, I really have enjoyed every second of it – I mean it!”
And when asked about the role of the Doctor itself: “It’s impossible not for any actor not to enjoy playing the idea of Doctor. How can you not play a part who is always right, and is actually more attractive than anyone else, who is funnier than anyone else, who’s always got the right answer, cleverer than anyone else, always comes out on top! How can you not want to play that? You must be nuts! I mean, if you want an escapist role, it is THE one – it’s the one. And it’s all of those things, I mean, it flatters the ego something rotten!”
Of course, it almost goes without saying that John Hurt’s performance is never less than stellar, giving us a caustic, crabby, and at times angry Doctor – but he is never unlikable and you are carried with him thanks to the actor’s innate charisma and unique voice. He shines in the role and we were lucky to have him for one night, let alone twelve further hours!
All four volumes of the War Doctor series are available to purchase from Big Finish on both CD and Download, as is his wonderful performance as Griffin in their dramatisation of HG Wells’ The Invisible Man, and I have no hesitation in heartily recommending them all!