Image Credit: Matthew Kemp (All Rights Reserved)
Image Description: The Stage at Big Finish Day 2019
Dahria Kuyser follows threads through Big Finish’s anniversary livestream
There are spoilers for The Night of the Doctor, The War Doctor: The Innocent, The Diary of River Song: The Boundless Sea, and The Legacy of Time: Lies in Ruins in this article!
When I heard about the Big Finish livestream, I was determined that, for once, this wouldn’t be a livestream I would miss, especially since it was for the much sought-after audio adventures. Of the many being streamed, I was particularly excited to hear some of the Eighth Doctor and River Song stories, based in and around the Time War. While listening, I was thinking about whether or not I would finally write an article for Tides, and it wasn’t until I listened to the last story, Lies in Ruins, that I realised I actually had something I wanted to write about. As I was listening, I was drawn back to thinking about two other stories I had heard earlier that day: The War Doctor: The Innocent; and, to a lesser extent, The Diary of River Song: The Boundless Sea. These three stories inform each other in some rather interesting ways, and come together to weave a fascinating narrative, focusing on the Doctor’s character arc through the Time War. It also takes a look into how relationship between the Doctor and River develops when their views on fighting are switched. As perhaps the two things that fascinate me the most in Doctor Who, I was very interested to see how Big Finish portrayed it, especially as they also lead almost perfectly into the first Eighth Doctor story I saw, The Night of the Doctor. So, in the spirit of the Time War, things are about to get wibbly-wobbly…
Travelling chronologically for the Doctor, yet backwards in the livestream, we begin with Lies in Ruins. In this story we get the brilliant combo of the lovely River Song, Bernice Summerfield and a world-weary Eighth Doctor, who find themselves in an ancient tomb on a planetoid which is later revealed to be Gallifrey itself. The story has something of a funereal air about it, particularly appropriate given it was the last story of the livestream. As the final story, Lies in Ruins was a very fitting choice, with multiple startling twists, an obviously excellent cast and an interesting exploration of the Doctor’s character leading into the Time War. While the Doctor is morose, with his mood darkening throughout the story, his new companion, Ria, provides a fine counterpoint by being bubbly and enthusiastic. Bernice and River also excel, with James Goss, the author, building on their time together at Luna University, with the latter the inattentive, annoying pupil of the former.
Once the tomb is revealed to be Gallifrey, however, the story changes tone somewhat. When Bernice and River get trapped by what appears to be the Matrix, the Doctor remains hopeful, believing he can restore Gallifrey and so put the universe to rights. After scavengers attack, looking to earn some quick money, he reacts peacefully by throwing up a barrier. However, the cracks in his persona are beginning to show, and so when they aren’t deterred, he reflects back their attacks and destroys them. The Doctor is already beginning his transformation into his next incarnation, blaming the scavengers as they are too ‘stupid’ to stop firing. Clearly, the increasingly pervasive Time War dominates his mind, as he mutters “I won’t let this fall again” (which is an interesting echo of The Day of the Doctor’s epiphonema “Gallifrey falls no more”).
While the scavengers may live, Ria does not, dying in the Doctor’s arms. Once she does go, the Doctor tells Bernice and River the truth—Ria was an android created by the Doctor when the loss of so many of his companions and the looming Time War became too much for him. If further confirmation was needed, we again see the Doctor losing a hold on his character and, by extension, his name. He requires a cheerleader, telling him how intelligent, kind and suchlike he is, whether or not he is actually demonstrating these qualities. Yet, despite Ria’s efforts, it is becoming less and less true, with River and Bernice needing to step in to curb his ruthlessness. River tells the Doctor that he was “on the verge of committing himself to chaos” and that only by having loyal companions at his side was he prevented from making that ‘commitment’.
It is River, primarily, who prevents this commitment. Here, it is worth giving a brief mention to The Boundless Sea, which gives us some additional insight into River’s mindset at the time. While its premise may seem initially absurd, with ‘tear-drinking zombies, featuring sexist men who never listen’, the story is particularly poignant, especially in the way River empathises with the female antagonist. Across this story, it becomes clear that River spends a lot of her time suppressing her emotions and compartmentalising, saying that she “never cr[ies]” as she has “wept a sea of tears already.” Back in Lies in Ruins, we see how River is being torn apart, unable to comfort her husband because of the ‘spoilers’ that she would reveal. It must be terrible for her, yet she must remain strong and cannot cry because he needs her to be tough. Indeed, in order to stop him she must take a hard stance, forcing him to face up to exactly what he’s doing. The cruellest and most effective line she says, though it must kill her to do so, is “run and hide children, because the Doctor is coming”. This is exactly what the Eighth Doctor fears becoming; a monster that children are taught to fear and dread. Cass will treat him as a monster in The Night of the Doctor. While he is able to stop this time with help from his friends, we know that these are some of the “darkest nights” that River speaks of; a parallel for her own actions while controlled by the Silence.
Of course, this pacification of the Doctor can’t last forever. The day it ends is, of course, the one shown in The Night of the Doctor. In this short story he tries to save and recruit Cass, but she refuses to be saved, choosing to perish on Karn. It is almost certain that it is Cass (perhaps in combination with River’s earlier “run and hide” line) who instils in the Doctor the idea that he is a monster and therefore, by his own stance, unable to be the Doctor anymore. With the universe having lost its opinion of him as a good man, and having lost that opinion of himself some time ago, he comes crashing down to Earth, or rather, Karn. Here, he chooses to become a warrior, committing himself to chaos and stripping himself fully of his old treasured title of “Doctor”. Now, he must be the one to make the hard sacrifices and ruthless decisions in order to protect reality itself and prevent Gallifrey from falling—after all, it’s his own fault that the Daleks continue to exist. As first words for the War Doctor, “Doctor no more” are particularly apt, as in order to save reality itself, he must sacrifice his mercy.
The Innocent, therefore, takes us to a future point where the War Doctor has been in service for some time. Despite the events of Night, there are still hints of the Doctor, demonstrating his usual reckless self-sacrifice, tinged with a hint of arrogance, as he (correctly) believes he is the most likely person to be able to destroy the Dalek fleet and survive. While he succeeds, buying the Time Lords some time, he crash lands on the planet Keska, where the peaceful locals take him in. While the Time Lords mourn the Doctor, a sweet companion-type called Rejoice cares for him as he drifts in and out of consciousness. Rejoice, a cheerful optimist, is increasingly curious about his recurring nightmares, which we catch glimpses of until it is eventually revealed that he is troubled by his decision to sacrifice over ten thousand innocents just to destroy some Daleks. When he is conscious, Rejoice keeps asking him his name and what his nightmares are about, but the Doctor insists that he is “no one”, refusing to tell her anything. Clearly, this is a Doctor haunted by what he has had to do, yet feels that he has “no choice” but to return to the Time War and keep making those decisions.
When the Keskans are threatened by a violent people from their past, the Doctor offers to help them as soon as he realises they won’t force him to do so. For just a moment, he has a chance to be the Doctor again, saving lives not because he has been ordered to, or is obliged to, but because he has chosen to do so. Naturally, the Doctor soon finds a way to keep the peace though, in a move that echoes incarnations past and future, he makes them choose whether or not to go ahead with his plan; they must be the ones to push the button. The Keskans offer him a reward—anything he wants—and in a move very telling of this Doctor’s haunted soul, he elects to just have “peace and quiet”. That is all this Doctor wants—he doesn’t want to kill anymore; he doesn’t want to have to be the one to make the hard decisions in order to protect his fellow Gallifreyans (and reality); he wants to be the Doctor. Yet, even in this relative peace and solitude, he knows he will soon be forced to return, and the memory of what he has had to do in the name of the war never strays far from the forefront of his mind. Rejoice visits the Doctor often, and tries her best to comfort him. However, he still cannot stand her calling him by his old name, and continues to insist that he is “a monster”, all while she repeatedly says that “there’s goodness in [him]”. The anger he feels at what he has had to become is very apparent, even screaming at Rejoice at one point. Despite her being exactly the kind of girl any other Doctor would love to take on as a companion—earnest, curious, and fiercely moral—he cannot overcome the feeling that he’s “a lost cause.” With time, he seems to be recovering some of what the Doctor is, but just as it seems like he might run away once again from the war with Rejoice at his side, the Time Lords drag him back to Gallifrey. The seeds of The Day of the Doctor have been planted, and will soon come to fruition.
Weaved throughout these stories is a narrative thread which gives us a greater insight into the transformation of the kindly, peaceable Doctor into the ruthless and uncompromising War Doctor. Yet, it is made painfully clear from these stories that beneath the harsh exterior of the War Doctor is the very same Doctor we all know and love. For this is the reason he struggles so profoundly with the choices he has had to make to win the war, and which make him lose his identity. This action draws not just him into the war, but also his friends like Bernice and River. The latter must cope with the repercussions of the Doctor’s decisions, along with the difficult choices she herself has had to make throughout her life. This is the beauty of Big Finish, of course—being able to delve deeper into the complexities of our most beloved onscreen characters and also into some of the in-universe events most shrouded in mystery. Having the chance to listen to these stories, along with the others played during the livestream, has further reinforced for me the value of Big Finish stories. With the move to a more digital world, this livestream made me all the more disappointed that Big Finish don’t have a streaming subscription—I’d be first in line.
They love stories, you know. The Legacy of Time: Lies in Ruins was released in July 2019. The Diary of River Song: The Boundless Sea and The War Doctor: The Innocent both in December 2015. All are available from bigfinish.com
This article was first published in The Tides of Time Special Edition Summer 2019