Review by Cavan Gilbey
The War Doctor, and this was very much unexpected I would like to add, has very quickly become a personal favourite audio-centric incarnation. This Time War era Doctor had fascinated me for a long time and I have only recently bought into the John Hurt fronted boxsets, of which I have heard and loves volumes 2 and 3. But He Who Fights With Monsters, bit of a mouthful, is the first time I have delved into this new prequel era where Jonathon Carley takes on the role. I think this is a great place for me to have started with The War Doctor Begins as this set forms one long story which lasts roughly 3 hours, telling a grand space opera tale which I think does some of the strongest emotional work and character development for this particular regeneration. In terms of the non spin-off material released this year, He Who Fights With Monsters is my favourite Doctor Who release of this year hands down. So expect a 10/10 at the end of this.
Called before a secret sector of the War Council, one even the Lord President has no jurisdiction over, The Doctor is sent off on a mission to assassinate a third party attempting to win the Last Great Time War. With no companions, limited resources and a declining sanity, The Doctor must find the mysterious Barber-Surgeon before his temporal abominations leave no survivors. With a Dalek squad on his tail, led by the Time-Strategist and its new cyborg solider The Hunter-Killer, The Doctor is running out of time to save the universe.
Lets talk about the cast first because I want to get all of my praise for Carley’s performance done now as to prevent me from excessively going on about it later. Typically the War Doctor usually still feels like a version of the Doctor, although with more identity denial, however Carley’s performance here is the first time I’ve properly believed that this isn’t the Doctor we know. There is so much fatigue in the performance that really allows you to feel the weight of the war and its effects on the Doctor, there is a moment at the end of episode two in particular where I think Carley really shows you how far he can take this Doctor’s bottled up rage. Carley shares many great moments of chemistry with Ken Bones’ General, the first episode really shows their friendship and mutual respect in a way that still maintains the Doctor’s sardonic approach to the military mind. Bones himself turns in a great performance as a character I didn’t think I’d want more of but here I am wanting more from The General. Episode 1 gives the Doctor a comrade in arms in the form of Indigo Griffiths’ Vellichor, a former librarian now military leader who aids the Doctor in tracking down the Barber-Surgeon. Griffiths does a brilliant job and I wish she had sticked around in the story for a lot longer than she did but she helps bring a more measured edge to the typical military figure, the performance really helps push this reluctant hero characterisation and draws you into Vellichor and the Doctor’s relationship brilliantly. Nicholas Le Prevost doesn’t get much time to shine as the Barber-Surgeon, but in that time he gives one of the villain performances I’ve heard this year. I won’t spoil anything about his character here but the scenes in the third episode he shares with Carley are not to be missed. Finally I want to shout out Nicholas Briggs here as he has somehow managed to really go above and beyond with his Dalek performances here, this version of the Time-Strategist is wonderfully maniacal and intelligent in that compelling supervillain way.
I think of all the Time War stories we’ve gotten on audio thus far, this is the closest to feeling like a true blockbuster movie. There’s a cinematic quality in the direction from Louise Jameson and sound designer Howard Carter, Carter in particular really gets the soundscapes of war down perfectly there. Warzones sound hectic and chaotic, there’s no sense of order and yet the quieter ship-bound scenes have this looming sense that everything could go wrong quickly. The eerie quietness is best utilised in the Barber-Surgeon’s dimension, really plays into the calm yet deranged characterisation the character is given for most of the run time but it also has this hint of sadness and entrapment. The real star of the show is writer Robert Valentine, a relatively new writer who has already written some excellent pieces for a wide range of eras. His story is one of hope in the face of extreme adversity.
The Doctor is tested constantly throughout, always having people try to force the identity they know on to him despite his efforts to distance himself from a self he sees as better. This Doctor
for the most part is reckless and often distances himself from others, but he can’t help himself when it comes to sacrificing himself for others. The third episode tackles this theme especially well as the Barber-Surgeon orchestrates an elaborate test to prove to the Doctor that his hope in good is never misplaced and that he will always be the Doctor. The final moments of episode 2 see this Doctor at his angriest, a moment where he truly knows he has gone beyond being the Doctor and become the warrior he needs to be but it leads him to a dead-end and results in one of audio Who’s best cliff- hangers. The Daleks themselves are characterised rather interestingly, Valentine using their military intelligence as their most intimidating feature. The Time-Strategist here sees itself as above the Emperor, it uses science to create a Hunter-Killer that go and do missions a regular Dalek couldn’t; showing that Dalek purity should be valued but other species have superior features that should be used due to their strategic advantages. There is also a desperation that mirrors that of the Time Lords, both races are decaying and the Daleks will experiment and adapt as much as possible to ensure they survive. The Strategist will even go as far to broker an alliance with The Doctor if it means the mutual enemy is destroyed, it’s a unique take on the often underutilised trope of this alliance.
He Who Fights With Monsters is by far the greatest piece of War Doctor media I think we’ve gotten yet. Dealing with emotional and strategic complexities of something as bizarrely conceptual as a Time War in unique and often bleak ways, Valentine manages to give listeners a side of the conflict that we rarely see. The War Doctor here feels like we might genuinely never see the Doctor of old comeback, this feels like the break in sanity that leads us to the version we see in Day of the Doctor who is willing to take extreme action to save the universe. Cinematic in a way an audio drama hasn’t been yet, this is a set I think will over even the biggest cynics of this incarnation.
Check out the rest of our Big Finish reviews!