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Doctor Who Unbound: Doctor of War

By Matthew Kresal

When Doctor Who returned to BBC One in 2005 after more than fifteen years (barring the occasional one-off), its modern incarnation came with a series defining backstory. That of the Last Great Time War, an epoch-sweeping conflict between the Doctor's race of the Time Lords and the Daleks that all but wiped out both races and left a shattered universe in its wake. A conflict which, retroactively and in spin-off media, would have its origins in the series original 1963-1989 run. A detail that would lead some fans to ask what if the conflict had come far sooner than it did for the Doctor and the universe around him.

2022 has given us one answer to that question in the form of a two new box-sets in Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound range. But this isn't the Time War has fans of the franchise have come to know it across spin-off media in recent years. And neither is the Doctor who fought it. Instead he is, to give this miniseries its name, the Doctor of War.

For those unfamiliar with Doctor Who Unbound from my reviews of it across this blog last year, a short introduction is in store. With the BBC having ended production of the series on TV in 1989, the series had found an ongoing existence in spin-off media. This including novel ranges, first under Virgin Books and then BBC Books, but also in a series of audio dramas that began being produced by Big Finish in 1999. With the show's fortieth anniversary approaching in 2003 and with plans for a celebratory multi-Doctor story planned in the form of Zagreus, the company hit upon the idea of producing a series of what-if tales. Combined with casting actors who had previously been candidates to play the Doctor in the past or a potential future series, it would allow writers to explore familiar tropes from new angles across releases that year. Two sequel stories followed in 2005 and 2008, but the 21st-century regeneration of the series on TV helped preclude additional Unbound Doctors being cast and the range went dormant.

Until Doctor of War came along, beginning with Genesis in April of this year. As the title of the set and its artwork may hint at, Doctor of War's point of divergence from Doctor Who as we've known it comes out of one famous moment in arguably Classic Who's greatest serial.

It's a moment that John Dorney dramatizes to full effect with Tom Baker effortlessly slipping back in time to 1975 alongside Sadie Miller and Christopher Naylor as Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan. Combined with Jack Townley's sound design and the music of Howard Carter, it's an incredible listen for any fan of Classic Who, with Dorney geting the ball rolling as the familair mingles with the different, and things get Unbound in a hurry.

And that's just the pre-credits scene.

Dorney's Dust Devil picks up from that opening and Carter's epic version of the Doctor Who Theme into a very different Time War and a new Doctor with a familair voice. Opening the episode proper with a monologue describing trying to make chronological sense of the Time War as "gauche," Dorney drops listener and a new version of Colin Baker's Doctor onto the planet Aridius. To say the narrative is non-linear is an understatement, but it's to Dorney's credit that he presents a story that makes sense along the way, treating the temporal hijinks and plot twists in a layered fashion. One that quickly sets up many of the themes and plot points of the set, including the fact that while faces (or rather voices) may be familiar, who lurks behind them aren't. The result is a heck of an opener, setting the stage for what's to follow.

Lou Morgan's Aftershocks, the middle story of the set, sees Colin Baker's Doctor of War (or The Warrior, as this incarnation comes to be known) in a familiar setting: on trial. Morgan's script isn't an Unbound take on Trial of a Time Lord, though there's, without a doubt, echoes of it. Instead, Aftershocks sees him thrown into a Kafka-esque series of encounters with Seán Carlsen's Narvin from the Gallifrey range and a version of Geoffrey Beevers incarnation of the Master, trying to make sense of charges unexplained and events that may or may have happened. It's also in this episode that, as befitting the title, the effects of the actions at the opening of the set make themselves known, all coming together in a conclusion that brings together performance, writing, sound design, and music all under the direction of Barnaby Kay in dramatic fashion. The result is an immensely satisfying and gripping hour of listening.

James Kettle brings Genesis to its conclusion with The Difference Office. With the previous episodes having spent much of their time out in the universe, Kettle's script centers the action on Gallifrey itself. Caught in the middle of a very different Time War, The Difference Office introduces listeners both to the Warrior as President but new incarnations of familiar Time Lord characters in the form of Rebecca Night's Romana and Sanjeev Bhaskar's Borusa. More than that, Kettle presents an Unbound Time War take on elements from a pair of later Fourth Doctor TV stories, presenting a rich storytelling mix that brings the set to a close with a sense of just far it and the Doctor of War himself have come.

That’s just half of the mini-series run.

The second set, Destiny, was released in September, opening with a Doctor/Warrior lite outing. Picking up on how The Difference Office mashed up and reimagined Fourth Doctor stories, Nigel Fairs puts his spin on 1977’s The Face of Evil with Who Am I?. As knowledgable fans will know, that was also the introduction of Louise Jameson's Leela, which comes into play here as Fairs reimagines elements and iconic moments from her first appearance. What fairs does to give this an Unbound twist is to drop another Time Lord into the Doctor's role: The Master, as played once more by Beevers. It's an intriguing idea Fairs plays with, dropping the Master in place of the Doctor, and one that's popped up in fan works, but hearing it done here, with Beevers and Jameson reprising their roles and with everything Big Finish brings, gives it a certain frisson, particularly in hearing performances as delicious as Beevers gives here.

The Warrior and the Master are traveling companions in the middle story of the set, Lizzie Hopley's Time Killers. Or, at least, things start that way as they arrive in the City of Mellennius on the planet Marinus (seen in the 1964 First Doctor serial The Keys of Marinus), only to discover a city where time is money. Literally. Hopley has fun dropping these two Time Lords, versions of characters that Big Finish listeners especially have come to know so well, into this situation and with the narrative shenanigans that ensue when one starts messing about with time. It also gives Baker and Beevers a chance to shine, each relishing finding new aspects to play. The only shame is that the choice of setting feels like an afterthought beyond a handful of references, which seems a shame given what the Unbound format might have offered from a Time War-affected Marinus.

Then there's Tim Foley's The Key To Key To Time, which is this set, and Doctor of War as a series, concluding installment. And that mouthful of a title is but a mere harbinger for the episode itself, where Foley returns to the reimagined Fourth Doctor era concept to present a reimagined quest for the Key to Time through a Time War prism. It's certainly an Unbound and one that sees Foley give Gary Russell's earlier Valeyard-centric Unbound story He Jests at Scars... a run for its money with its continuity references and a twisty narrative. Colin Baker speaking in the brief extras, describes it "politely" as a "mind scrambler," and he isn't wrong. Calling it a hot mess would also be a fair assessment, given the number of underused ideas and characters tossed into the narrative and the sense of endings piled atop one another. Indeed, it feels as though an entire box-set worth of stories are crammed into a tad under 80 minutes, leaving this a most unsatisfying and frustrating conclusion to the set.

Perhaps what ails Destiny, and its finale, especially, is something that benefited its predecessor: that it's a trilogy of standalone episodes. While that works for introductions, as with Genesis, Destiny feels like it ought to be building up to a conclusion. Except that, by being preceded by two standalone tales, the actual finale feels, at best, rushed and ill-conceived at worst. It also leaves Destiny and Doctor of War as a mini-series with the feeling that it's Time War based while it spends surprisingly little time dealing with the actual conflict but going off on tangents.

What isn't in doubt is the strength of its leading man. Colin Baker, who played the Sixth Doctor on TV in the mid-1980s in one of its most controversial eras, has found a second wind with Big Finish since first reprising the role in 1999. With Doctor of War, Baker is unbound from "old sixie," as Baker calls his incarnation of the Doctor, his full range on his display. There's an elemental nature to his performance as the Warrior, frequently shifting between emotions and tones within even the same scene, ever-changing and never still, from fury and frustration to a crushing sense of melancholy. There's echoes of both the Sixth Doctor as Baker's played him and the late Sir John Hurt's War Doctor, certainly, but Baker's performance here is neither, showcasing his range along the way. Indeed, even in the narrative chaos of The Key To Key To Time, Baker makes this worth listening to.

In the end, Doctor of War is literally a series of two halves. The first of which offers much promise and lets one of the show's leads find a whole new approach to his character. Yet it's also a series that, despite appearances, never settles into a narrative it can resolve in a satisfying fashion. All of which leaves Doctor of War as a fascinating but frustrating addition to the Doctor Who Unbound range with its vision of a Time War that might have been.


Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a (Sidewise Winning) story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press, and has also written a Sea Lion Press novel about Joe McCarthy.


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