Only the Monstrous is a Doctor Who audio box set with three episodes featuring John Hurt as the incarnation the Doctor refused to acknowledge. The producers and fans know this version as the War Doctor. This gets a little tricky since he refuses to claim his usual moniker or name. John Hurt, before his recent demise, had done some voice work for Big Finish Productions. The War Doctor was realized onscreen during the fiftieth anniversary episode of the television series entitled Day of the Doctor, which also starred David Tennant and Matt Smith. This particular audio saga was written by Nicholas Briggs. I will usually go into some depth reviewing each episode, however this will be a little different since there is only author, and the individual stories all lead into one larger story on one planet during the Time War. The War Doctor was the incarnation that fought more actively in that massive conflict between the Time Lords and the Daleks. This was the incarnation with the stomach to cross lines that his other selves an would have blanched at. This is not an evil version of the Doctor, but he is decidedly more dangerous in many ways. He will make the tougher decisions when the usual merciful or humane options could prolong the agony of the War.
Hurt is joined by a pretty impressive gathering of acting talent such as Jacqueline Pierce, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Beth Chalmers, and Barnaby Edwards, Briggs returns to the mic himself to voice the Daleks as usual. John Banks and Barnaby Edwards are welcome reliable contributors to Big Finish audio plays as well. Carolyn Seymour, Alex Wyndham, Kieran Hodgson, and Mark McDonnell round out the guest cast.
The Innocent is the first episode which sees the War Doctor barely survive a blast from some big cosmic bonb that destroys a Dalek fleet and crash lands him on a planet known as Keska. Keska has its own war with a race known as the Taalyens. He meets a woman named Rejoice and recovers a little of his previous humor from his earlier iterations. After the War Doctor decides to help the Keskans in this small potatoes sort of war, he finds himself returned to the Time Lords where another mission awaits him.
The Thousand Worlds and The Heart of the Battle are really one story where the War Doctor returns to Keska after the Taalyens and the Daleks have joined forces to devastate the world. The War Doctor is reunited with Rejoice, who is much older, and has to extract another Time Lord determined to find a peaceful resolution to the Time War… a task in which the War Doctor has serious doubts as to its success.
I was a fan who was not too excited about the unveiling of the War Doctor when it first happened on television. The acclaim that John Hurt has received is well earned. I just typically don’t like these sudden adjustments in canon when it comes to the Doctor’s past. Still, I enjoyed this set quite a bit. John Hurt masterfully brings out all kinds of complexities in his performance as the War Doctor. There are times I recognize characteristics of the other incarnations, but some of these new dimensions did end up being quite captivating. Hurt shifts effortlessly from a crushing sadness over what he has already done to preserve Gallifrey to a sudden fury over what he is left to do.
Jacqueline Pearce as the ruthlessly ambitious Cardinal Ollistra is also a wonderfully cast foil for this darker version of the Doctor. Pearce has always been great as the icy ruler or commander of some force or entity. It’s always great to hear her participate in these audio dramas. It’s a shame that she has also passed away recently, but there are plenty of her works for Big Finish I have yet to hear.
Nicholas Briggs is an executive producer for Big Finish and is always busy in some capacity for the company, but he is primarily a talented writer. His ideas rarely fail to intrigue me, He was a great choice to kick off this new exploration of the War Doctor. Only the Monstrous is the first of four sets featuring the War Doctor, and I am now intrigued enough to follow through with the remaining three.