This is arguably one of the most anticipated series from Big Finish in a long while since this has given what fans have always wanted since 2005: the Eighth Doctor involved in the Time War. Granted, we saw a snippet of that in 2013’s 50th Anniversary prequel ‘Night of the Doctor’, yet Moffat elected not to have Paul McGann’s Doctor be the incarnation that fought for the majority of the Time War because that would be absolutely against the Doctor’s nature and attitude. As a result, we got John Hurt’s War Doctor in both the 50th Anniversary special and Big Finish’s four-volume War Doctor series; despite John Hurt delivering one of the best Doctors yet, his War Doctor still behaved exactly like the Doctor would, despite acting a bit grumpy and continuously complaining he wasn’t. With Hurt sadly passing away earlier this year, Big Finish’s only option in continuing their Time War story was to go the prequel route and chronicle the Eighth Doctor’s struggles during the war before his eventful regeneration into Hurt’s incarnation.
This first volume contains four inter-connecting stories, yet it’s a little bit disappointing that neither of them detail how the Time War itself started (a future project maybe?), instead showing us the early years of the War à la both The Sontaran Ordeal and Day of the Vashta Nerada (both found in Big Finish’s Classic Doctors, New Monsters series). The first chapter, The Starship of Theseus, is an unnerving start to this collection that is shows off just how complex the Time War can be, and because of how surreal and unexpected the story gets, you get the palpable sense of what it’s like to question your own mind. The second story, Echoes of War, is basically a survival story against devolution/evolution itself, while also touching upon the idea of a lone Dalek itself evolving into something new. The concept of a Dalek becoming good is something that has been touched upon before in 2014’s ‘Into the Dalek’, but none of the unfortunate pitfalls that TV story occasionally suffered from is found here, so you have a story that cleverly tackles the themes of identity, control, choice and fate. It’s all handled exceptionally well, mainly thanks to the cast’s reaction to the “good” Dalek, and in the end, this story shows how powerless we can all be despite having the notion of free will.
The Conscript is basically Hacksaw Ridge or Full Metal Jacket meets Doctor Who, which of itself sounds like a fascinating premise with the Doctor thrown into a military training camp to prepare for fighting on the front lines. Throughout the entirety of this episode, the Doctor is refusing to fight, against using firearms, bullied a lot, is blackmailed into situations that impact him on both a physical and moral level, and even loses his own sonic screwdriver at one point, but despite all that harsh treatment, this story demonstrates why the Doctor works as a hero that never carries a gun. Plus, we do get to witness just how ruthless Cardinal Ollistra can be, so it’s very easy to understand why the Doctor was incredibly hesitant and cold towards her during the War Doctor series. The final story, One Life, proves to be an enjoyable if somewhat anticlimactic finale with the Doctor trying to find the ultimate weapon before the Time Lords and Daleks get their hands on it. The reveal and explanation for this “weapon” are very satisfactory and calls back to a plot device used in one of the most beloved stories from the show’s modern era, but the resolution afterwards feels like a cheap deus ex machina that wraps things up too nicely for our liking.
Overall, despite the rough landing, this is one of the best sets Big Finish has released to date, serves as a great companion piece to the War Doctor series, and further demonstrates that Paul McGann’s Doctor was every bit as important to the Time War as John Hurt’s was. This was a Doctor involved in a war, yet is so passionate about not being in one, and the scenarios McGann’s Doctor finds himself in makes this collection feel bigger and more epic than any other story the Eighth Doctor has been involved in. While Bliss feels more akin to a cardboard cut-out than an actual companion, this leaves you both excited and anticipating about where both she and the Eighth Doctor find themselves in the next chapter of the Time War.
THE EIGHTH DOCTOR - THE TIME WAR SERIES 01 / DIRECTOR: KEN BENTLEY / WRITER: MATT FITTON, JOHN DORNEY / STARRING: PAUL MCGANN, OLIVIA VINALL, NIMMY MARCH, JACQUELINE PEARCE / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW