Friday, 1 January 2016

The Heart of the Battle written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Trapped in a citadel swarming with Daleks, the Time Lord rescue force must find a way to overcome insurmountable odds. With the Daleks apparently planning to rule the Null Zone, perhaps their thirst for universal conquest and victory has been quenched… The War Doctor doesn’t believe so — but how can he prove it without destroying any chance of peace? As the countdown to the destruction of Keska proceeds, a deadly choice must be made... A choice that will define this Doctor, and perhaps forever cast him in the role of ‘monster’.

Damaged: Given Hurt's involvement and the fact that the War Doctor is supposedly the living embodiment of what the Doctor is not about I would have thought this set would have taken more time to explore his character. It pays lip service to his 'monstrous' characteristics (if you can really call pushing a button for the greater good a monstrous act...I guess you can in historical context) in a scene at the climax where somebody has to commit the act of devastation bit beyond that there was little to distinguish him from the others. Perhaps that is still to come. If it were any other race in the universe I am sure the Doctor would be an advocate for peace but he knows that you cannot make a deal with the Daleks. His incredibly sarcastic delivery of the shock news that the Daleks want to win the Time War after all is delightful, probably the most Doctorish thing he has said in the entire set. Doing what is necessary to save lives does not make you a monster. At least that is what the Doctor wants to tell himself. Ollistra taking the Doctor to Keska in the future is a kind of reward for his efforts throughout this set. He might not have been able to save everybody but thanks to his efforts the planet keeps turning.

Standout Performance: Celia Imrie delivers a very powerful speech about the horror of the Daleks. Oddly me it reminded me of the moment when her character went off on a mad rant in Dinnerladies and was similarly impressive and unexpected.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The Daleks are not your glorious Overlords! They are simply your executioners!'
'Where can I find you Doctor. When I need you again?' 'At the heart of the battle where the blood of the innocents flows and only the monstrous survive.'

Great Ideas: It has a great cover and a great synopsis, after two less than motivated adventures there as every chance this could be the highlight of the set. A very important question is posed early in this story; would you sacrifice an entire race to destroy your enemy? The Time War can never be won and so Ollistra has put plans in place to negotiate peace with the Daleks. My jaw might have hit the ground when I heard that. Not because it was an unexpected development but because I had no clue how such a advance could be implemented. I mean, we're talking about the Daleks. It would have to be extreme circumstances to convince the Daleks to stop killing, peace could only be brooked at the threat of total annihilation. An inner sanctum of Time Lords who have come to the much more tasteful conclusion that peace has to be made with the Daleks. The Time Lords gave the Daleks the Null Zone weapon, a piece of hardware of their design from the Omega arsenal. It was supposed to obviate the loss of their main space time fleet and give them a chance of a bolt hole, a contained area of a thousand worlds where they hope the Daleks will be content. It's a bold idea, if a little deluded. If you think you are the ultimate example of racial purity in the universe you are not going to be happy with one small corner of the universe. You are going to want to spread and conquer. And what about the people on those thousand worlds? Sacrificed to the Daleks to slaughter them as they please. Why are the Daleks drilling into the cores of all these planets? Moveable bases from which they can administrate their new Null Zone Empire. A section of space with moving worlds like spaceships? That's pretty awe-inspiring. I've never heard anything quite like that before.

Isn't it Odd: Now I can see the comparisons with Dalek Empire that people have been making. Instead of the Dalek Empire just call it the Null Zone Empire. There is a terribly confused action sequence where the Doctor and his friends attempt to take on a Dalek that is firing with gay abandon. Nick Briggs has directed enough Big Finish action commendably for this to be a little bit embarrassing. It was all the voices that were thrown into the fracas, it's all a bit of a kafuffle.

Standout Scene: The Daleks want to fire a thousand planets at fifty times the speed of light at Gallifrey. That's a hell of a punch in the face. Talk about being hoisted by your own petard, Time Lords! I tell you what, Nick Briggs knows how to think BIG. This is a terrifying, Star Wars scale notion or the sort of thing that Douglas Adams might think up if he was having a particularly sadistic day.

Result: The box set could have been re-branded The Story of Keska rather than Only the Monstrous because it charts the development of that planet from one story to the next with far more clarity than it does it's characters. I take back what I said in my previous review about the opening story being irrelevant, this is very much a three part story where part one introduces Keska and it's local problems, part two visits the planet years later under Dalek rule and part three charts how the planet takes its place in the great Time War. It's bloated and full clich├ęs along the way but the journey has at least been going somewhere. The Heart of the Battle has some enormous ideas at its heart, ones that have the potential make some very exciting storytelling. However those ideas need to be explored through its characters and in engaging scenarios...what happens here is the big concepts are dumped on the audience in one enormous gulp of exposition. You want to know what has been happening in this box set? Well prepare yourself for fifteen minutes worth of explanation! The answers should emerge naturally from the narrative, rather than being dumped upon it. This whole set could have done with an edit to ensure that the conclusion felt like a natural extension of events rather than a lecture explaining what it has all been about. I really like Nick Briggs as both a writer and a person, I think he has talent and he is a very good ambassador for Big Finish. Lately though his efforts are being hampered by the fact that his finite talent is being stretched in too many directions. His fingers are in so many pies that only his thumbs are left to use the keyboard. Creatures of Beauty is what I always come back to because it is the yardstick to which I compare the rest of his work to. That was his ultimate achievement and it came at a time when he wasn't encumbered with stories to write for two dozen ranges. Only the Monstrous isn't a disaster. If you have never heard a Big Finish story before this would be an exciting place to jump in because of Hurt's involvement and the added thrill of the Time War. But for seasoned audio listeners there is little that is new here...and that is rather what was promised. I can tell you without doubt that the second set will be more enticing - Dorney, Fitton and a new writer. Tasty. The Heart of the Battle gets a thumbs up for a truly mind-boggling and devastating Dalek plan. It's just a shame it couldn't be less of a lecture and more of a drama. A point removed for the pointless suggested murder at the climax. She'll be back. Just call her Molly O'Sullivan the Second: 5/10

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