The Great War written and directed by Nicholas Briggs
What’s it about: Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing assistant Molly O’Sullivan spends her days facing the horrors of the Great War. Little does she know that a man from another world has arrived, looking for her. But what the strange sounds coming from the battlefield at night? Where is the glowing gas coming from? And is everyone who they claim to be?
Bit of Rough: ‘Right now, to find some hope, I think I would do anything…’ The last time we were with the eighth Doctor he was in a bad place. The worst. He had lost his grandson, he had lost his best friend…he had even lost his worst friend! It was the severest massacre on Doctor Who since Eric Saward resigned as script editor and it had much more of an impact because it involved some wonderful Big Finish creations that both the Doctor and the audience had come to care about. Especially in the case of Lucie Miller, one of the finest companions the Doctor has ever travelled with. So it was with eager anticipation that I played the first story of Dark Eyes because the Doctor was as close to suicidal as I have ever seen him, swearing bloody vengeance on the Daleks, abandoning his family and heading off to the end of Time to find some kind of peace. This was a chance for Paul McGann to do what he has longed for for years, to strip away all the poncy eccentricities and play the Doctor as a moody son of a bitch who has lost his place in the universe. His salvation starts here…
At the beginning of Storm Warning (the eighth Doctor’s first audio adventure) the Doctor was muttering to himself in a very similar way to how he is introduced here but the emphasis is all different. There he was largely at peace with himself, adventuring, having a jolly old time of it. Here he is bitter, furious and lost in a garble of his own resentment. He spits blood at Straxus to leave him alone and forcefully manhandles the ship in order to get it to surrender to his will but is reminded that the TARDIS is Time Lord through and through and obeys their instructions. The Time Lords sending the Doctor on missions used to be invasive and annoying but now it is all he has to hold onto whilst the universe slaps him in the face. Molly sums him up as a quack, a charlatan and a bit of a joker which does sum up the universal Doctor rather well. He’s forceful enough to get the Matron, usually a cast iron sort of character, to bend to his will. Molly thinks that Lucie is the Doctor’s long lost sweetheart that he is calling out to when he thinks he is going to die. Throughout you can feel the Doctor slowly starting to pull himself together, getting involved in the personal tragedy of the War whilst the draw of a mystery is egging him onwards.
Dark Eyes: Thanks to a particularly formidable ex, the Irish and I haven’t always had the best of relationships. As soon as I heard the trailer for Dark Eyes I thought that I would have similar trouble with Molly O’Sullivan but to my ever lasting surprise things worked out very differently. I’ve heard lots of reasons lately why Molly wasn’t a particularly successful companion – that we’ve had far too many feisty women in the TARDIS of late (like that is something that would ever get boring?), that she talks funny (because she calls the TARDIS a ‘Tardy Box’ and the Doctor literally ‘the Doctor’ but that’s just because she’s an individual and knows her own mind) and that Paul McGann and Ruth Bradley don’t share great chemistry (wrong, wrong, wrong…). A lot of the resistance to Molly is the very reason why I found her so compelling; she is from an unusually subservient background, a colourful culture and she is the only companion who I would send into a ring with Donna Noble and be unsure who would come out swinging. Sometimes it’s the companions that give the most resistance that are the most irritating (like Tegan) but other times they are the ones who bring the most personality to the mix (like Anji from the books). Molly is overwhelmed by much of what goes on in Dark Eyes but she will keep questioning it all until she gets a grasp on it. She’s a fighter, and that’s what I like about her.
Letters to her mother is a very personal and economical way to introduce us to Molly, getting inside her head in a very intimate way and learning a great deal about her situation at the same time. She’s a tough bird when the soldiers are brought in for treatment, dismissing Isabel when she falls to pieces but is humble enough to make peace with her once the emergency is over. Molly tries to understand the strange things that the Doctor says to her by referencing things from her own experience. He often responds to the question of who he is with ‘just the Doctor…’ so it surprises me that nobody has run with this joke before. Its quite refreshing in this day and ago to have a companion who not only fails to see the romantic possibilities in a relationship with the Doctor but also takes the mickey out of others who do! Molly is brave enough to stand up to a man pointing a gun at her to save the Doctor’s life.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s a war alright but there’s nothing Great about it. The Worst War more like.’
Standout Performance: On my oath I thought upon first listening to this that Isabel was played by Beth Chalmers and not Laura Molyneaux because their voices are so similar! When the real Beth Chalmers showed up as Matron I thought that Big Finish were on a economy drive!
Great Ideas: I rather like the idea of having a peek at the end of the universe to see how things finally turn out. It makes sense that the Doctor would think in those terms when he has just lost so many friends. Perhaps all he would find is another beginning but I would hope the Doctor wouldn’t find anything devoid of hope. The Great War is not often given much of a chance by Doctor Who and that might be because despite the shorter life of the First World War and small body count than the there is definitely something nastier about it than its predecessor. I can understand why the show would concentrate instead on WWII with its uplifting Blitz spirit and hope for a better future. Within the WWI setting I imagine muddy trench warfare, crude, brutal weapons and little hope. The perfect place to dump a despondent Doctor and the image of Daleks gliding across the horizon, their tank like silhouettes appearing through the smoke (as seen on the cover) is very memorable. A glowing gas on the tracks, a train stuck between the lines…Briggs mixes the historical with the supernatural to disturbing effect. You might think that having Daleks turn up during another World War might feel a little repetitive but the truth of the matter is they are utilized far more menacingly (and subtly) in The Great War than they are in Victory of the Daleks. There is just something about their functional, tank-like appearance that suits this setting. Its no great surprise that Molly is the person that the Doctor has been sent to save…and after this initial introduction to her character its pleasing to think I will get to spend more time with her.
Audio Landscape: The TARDIS fighting the Doctor’s commands to take him to the end of the universe, explosions in the background, gunfire, walking through muddy puddles, the sonic screwdriver, birdsong, a train whistling and chugging along the tracks, knocking on the train door, choking soldiers, an owl hooting in the night, packing the earth under the tracks, the eerie sound effect that screams through the night, horse and cart, Molly writing her letter, raining pattering on tents, bubbling laboratory, cocking a gun.
Isn’t it Odd: Cutting away from Straxus telling the Doctor what his mission concerns to the First World War had the adverse effect of me wondering what he might be doing there rather than simply immersing myself in the (excellent) audio atmosphere and the story. It certainly never did Terry Nation any harm telling the audience the reason the Doctor was on Skaro in Genesis of the Daleks, in fact it only added to the suspense of the first episode.
Standout Scene: Ruth Bradley shows off her range when she has to take the character from gentle narration to emotional vindication in the space of a few minutes. Isabel questions her coldness and Molly violently erupts and explains precisely why she has closed herself from pain. When she talks about Kitty its with raw, open wounds that she is going to lose the woman she pledged to look after who has shown her nothing but kindness in a cruel world. She’s trying to keep busy, running from the pain that she may be about to lose her best friend.