Audio Frequencies (DWM #511, May 2017)

Reviewed this issue:

The War Doctor Vol 4: Casualties of War
The Eternal Battle
The Contingency Club
Short Trips: Gardeners' Worlds
Short Trips: The World Beyond the Trees

He says he’s a man of peace, but he walks in war. Yes, Bill Potts – and that was never truer than when our hero, in his own estimation at least, ceased to be a Doctor, and became a warrior.

When John Hurt joined Doctor Who in 2013, it was supposed to be a one-shot deal – a creative workaround to cover the absence of Christopher Eccleston. But once this show gets its claws into you, its reluctant to let go, and the War Doctor has gone on to enjoy a prolific afterlife in books, comics and, most unexpectedly perhaps, with Hurt himself gifting us another 12 hours of adventures for Big Finish. With final trilogy Casualties of War landing within weeks of the great man’s passing, we surely have more reason than ever to be grateful that Christopher Eccleston – ruddy legend though he is – was washing his hair that year.

For anyone still not sure of this Doctor’s MO, he sets out his stall fairly early in opening instalment Pretty Lies. “I’m the stuff of nightmares,” he growls in that famous sandpaper rasp. “I’m a murderer, a warrior, a demon let loose in the time stream. A man who’s lost his conscience, his friends, even his name.”

At least, that’s what he wants to say. Unluckily for him, he’s accompanied on his latest skirmish by an over-excitable war reporter who re-edits this self-flagellating testament into a call to arms, insisting that “people need heroes, not bleeding hearts”. Whether by accident or design, Guy Adams’ script could scarcely be more topical as it taps into that hottest of hot button topics: #fakenews.

Regular listeners will know that, in lieu of a companion, the Doctor has formed an uneasy alliance with hawkish Time Lord neocon Cardinal Ollistra, played by Jacqueline Pearce, whose patented ice queen act is a fantastic foil for Hurt. Credit to Nicholas Briggs, too, for populating these stories with a whole army of Daleks. His Time Strategist is particularly good, the richer, deeper tone – almost identical to that used for the Emperor Dalek in 2005 – serving a similar role to Davros in allowing the Daleks to have proper conversations without becoming too… well, grating.

Meanwhile, the Doctor’s realisation that his very presence has made the people of the planet Beltox sitting targets for the Daleks only serves to add an extra burden of guilt for his back to bear, leading to an exceptionally bleak final twist.

And that’s the trade-off at the heart of these stories: yes, we get John Hurt, but history decrees we can only ever have him on a war footing and, tonally, we’re denied much of the light and shade that normally characterises Doctor Who. These are tough, rugged dramas dominated by talk of batteries and blockades and the crump of artillery shells, with little wiggle room for whimsical romps with Robin Hood or robots made of liquorice allsorts. That said, they aren’t without a certain gallows humour, not least thanks to what one character calls the Doctor’s “sour wit”.

The Time War, too, was always going to work better as an abstract idea: the Tenth Doctor once spoke of the hell of “the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres”. So one of the few disappointments of The Day of the Doctor was finding this translated to the screen largely in the form of an old-fashioned scrap with laser guns and spaceships and stuff blowing up. For a conflict fought in four dimensions, the Time War is a surprisingly boots-on-the-ground affair – which, over a protracted run, risks the listener ending up as battle-weary as the Doctor himself.

Hooray, then, for Andrew Smith’s The Lady of Obsidian, which comes closer than most to dramatising the true cost of this war to end all wars. And the victim chosen to illustrate that cost? Our own dear Leela. An early casualty of the war, the noble savage was thought killed in the tantalisingly-named Battle of the Pillars of Consequence. In reality, though, she was the victim of an experimental weapon that fractured her into every possible timeline, overwhelming her with memories not just of a life lived, but all the lives she might have lived – the roads taken and not taken. Unable to disentangle history from possibility, she can’t even recall whether she had children, and whether those children lived or died. “There were no children,” the Doctor tells her, baldly. “That is what you offer me?” she replies. “That awful truth?”

It’s powerful stuff, beautifully played by Louise Jamieson, clearly relishing some of the best material she’s had in 40 years of playing the part.

Pairing this icon of 70s Saturday teatimes with the War Doctor is also a gratifying way of knitting John Hurt into “classic” Who mythology, and making him feel even more a part of the family. How beautiful, too, that it should be Leela, the warrior empath, who still recognises the Doctor’s eyes in the man who will not bear his name.

Concluding chapter The Enigma Dimension brings the Time War to the very heart of Gallifrey, with Daleks in the Panopticon and the Time Lords apparently defeated. There’s an intriguingly abstract nature to threat-of-the-week, which the Doctor likens to “trying to destroy poetry with a battleship”.

He also claims that “conversations are the opposite of war” – and yet writer Nick Briggs is upfront about his love of a good war story, and his approach as Big Finish exec producer has been to include as much whizz-bang action as dialogue. At times here, that action is straight out of a TV Century 21 comic strip – it’s hard not to share Brigg’s obvious delight at being able to shout “begin extra-dimensional destructor beam activation!” into a ring modulator for a living – but he’s smart enough to keep the climax a smaller, more personal affair: a story about people, not explosions.

It ends, in fact, with Hurt’s Doctor contemplating a drastic final solution, and wrestling with his own “do I have the right?” moral dilemma. It feels like a fitting place for this incarnation’s story to end – at least until he’s ready to take his final stand alongside his skinny boy future selves.

“It may be that we never get to work with him again,” says Briggs, somewhat poignantly, in the bonus material, recorded prior to Hurt’s death. “But it’s been a very special moment in my life to have times and chats with John. He’s a legend.”

And for the rest of us? Really, there’s only word to describe how we ought to feel about John Hurt lending his gifts to our little show in the final act of his extraordinary life. And that’s privileged.

Through a slightly unfortunate accident of timing, the fighting continues in The Eternal Battle, the second of Big Finish’s current series of adventures set during Tom Baker’s final run. Writers Mark Wright and Cavan Scott were given a brief of “Sontaran horror”. But horror wears many faces and, rather than go for spooky chills and creeping dread, the duo have chosen to depict the horror of the battlefield, with the Sontarans bogged down in a war of attrition that’s testing even their appetite for a scrap.

It’s a war on two fronts, as well, with zombie humans on one side and an undead army of their own kind on the other. This offers a fascinating new spin on the clone race’s martial code: for a Sontaran, “there is battle and there is death in battle” – so the fallen refusing to stay fallen is their worst nightmare; the ultimate dishonour.

Tom Baker is in robust form – especially when pricking the Sontarans’ tedious pomposity (“You’ll probably want to swagger about a bit,” he says airily) – while Lalla Ward and the ever game John Leeson throw themselves into it with equal gusto. As does Dan Starkey, who really is onto a good gig as the go-to actor for a clone race. I bet his agent can’t believe his luck.

The Contingency Club lands the Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nysa and Tegan in London, 1864. “It’s a bit early to catch any flights,” sulks Tegan, after the Doctor once again fails to deliver her to Heathrow. Cheekily, writer Phil Mulryne takes it up on himself to retcon this particular plot device by suggesting some mysterious force is actively preventing the TARDIS getting near Hounslow. Like Neil Gaiman’s hand-waving explanation in The Doctor’s Wife for why the ship always deposits the Doctor on the brink of a crisis, I rather like this idea of writers going round with a bucket, mopping up historic story niggles.

Elsewhere, Mulryne fully embraces the spirit of 1982, with so much squabbling among the kids of the TARDIS crèche, the Doctor is forced to confiscate Tegan’s Walkman. “You’re not our headmaster!” she protests. “Well sometimes you could all do with one,” he scolds them. It’s one step away from promising a jolly good smacked bottom. And Adric, you might have guessed, turns out to be the sort of teenager who doesn’t like music. They don’t see the point of it on Alzarius, apparently. Did the Deciders learn nothing from Footloose?

Arriving at the scene of the action – a St James’s private club that’s home to some very peculiar goings on – our heroes are assured they’re suitably dressed for dinner. “Even pyjama boy there?” queries a doubtful Tegan – and it says a lot about the costume choices of early 1980s Doctor Who that she could be talking about either of her male companions here.

It’s a strange beast, this one – a rather meandering, low-stakes tale with little sense of real jeopardy or threat, and not quite enough jokes to carry that approach off. Even the antagonists treat the whole thing as a bit of a game. The performances are good, though – it’s always a pleasure to spend time in the company of actors life Clive Merrison and Philip Jackson – and Sarah Sutton gets to deliver perhaps Nyssa’s most immortal line ever when she declares: “Floating in the bath… it’s an Edward!” Well at least it wasn’t a Richard.

Let’s finish with a couple of small but perfectly formed treats from Big Finish’s Short Trips range. In Gardeners’ Worlds, Tim Treloar adds Jo Grant and Captain Mike Yates to his repertoire of early 70s Doctor Who characters with a lovely, velvety reading of this comfortingly familiar Third Doctor story.

So familar, in fact, that it opens with the Doctor watching a news report, before bombing off in Bessie to investigate some alien shenanigans in a picture postcard English hamlet. In place of a horny devil, though, here he’s faced with a thorny problem in the village flowerbeds. Attack of the English roses? George Mann’s story is as whimsical as that sounds, and none the worse for it.

The World Beyond the Trees bears Paul McGann’s image, but the Eighth Doctor has barely more than a blink-you’ll-miss-it cameo. Instead, it’s former Kaldor med-tech Liv Chenka who takes centre stage, as is only fitting when you’ve got a reader with the above-the-title status of Nicola Walker.

The story – in which Liv and a mysterious alien girl called Lila are the only people left awake in the whole of London – has a dreamlike, fairytale quality, and it’s to writer Jonathan Barnes’ credit that, despite the brief running time, he manages to work in a complete, and rather moving, backstory for this lost girl that put me in mind of the opening minutes of Up.

Walker is a wonderful storyteller and, in the forest of newsprint dedicated to speculation about the Thirteenth Doctor, I’m surprised not to have seen her name crop up more often. A big star thanks to ITV hit Unforgotten, she can do soft and spiky, funny and serious. Just thought, Mr Chibnall, sir.

In the meantime, how wonderful to be able to welcome to the Doctor Who family, in whatever capacity, actors of the talent and stature of Walker and Sheridan Smith and, for a precious while at least, Sir John Hurt.

“It’s been fantastic,” says Hurt in the interviews included with Casualties of War. “I’ve enjoyed every single second of it. Every bit of it.”

The pleasure, of course, is entirely ours. Because, despite all his character’s protestations to the contrary, there’s really no doubt in anyone’s mind that John Hurt has more than earned the name of the Doctor.

Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #511, May 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

All titles available from Big Finish