A Genius for War adds little to the ongoing Once and Future arc. But it nevertheless provides a fun and chaotic game of Jenga for the Seventh Doctor and Davros
Big Finish’s 60th Anniversary extravaganza Once and Future rumbles on with a third instalment of the unstable Doctor’s quest. Why is he switching randomly back and forth between different previous regenerations? How is responsible for it? And which Doctor is this, really, anyway? By now it’s no surprise that by the end of A Genius for War the listener is still no wiser. This latest chapter maintains the pattern of a series of quick fire face changes for the Doctor topping and tailing what’s otherwise an almost entirely stand alone adventure for the Time Lord.
It’s perhaps Once and Future’s greatest mystery of all: what’s actually special about these specials? Although the first entry toyed with Tom Baker playing a somewhat more callous and removed take on the Doctor than the one who originally travelled with Sarah Jane, both Peter Davison last month and Sylvester McCoy here very much play him as ‘their’ Doctor. The celebratory feel seems to have dissipated too. There may cross-pollination between various ranges and eras, but Big Finish have never needed an excuse for that before. Bringing Tom Baker face to face with the Brigadier’s daughter and his #1 fan Osgood felt genuinely audacious. But there’s little in A Genius for War that wouldn’t have sat happily in a perfectly typical Seventh Doctor Adventure.
In fact, between those appearances by UNIT’s finest, and those of the Curator and now the General, Once and Future is beginning to feel more like a marking of a decade since Day of the Doctor, rather than sixty years of Doctor Who. Meanwhile nothing underscore how disconnected the series is even from itself than how we follow up last time’s ending. We left the Doctor finally with some vague clue, only to open this episode wit him immediately distracted by the next shiny ball of death and danger. The ending dumps him right back where he was, leaving to investigate the exact same clue.
On paper then, this looks like a waste of an hour.
Our heroes knowingly walking into a trap just to find out why it’s been set is a classic setup for a reason, and A Genius for War provides an excellent example
But… (and this is a very significant ‘but’) there’s more to life, storytelling, and Doctor Who than all-encompassing arcs. A Genius for War may well be Once and Future’s equivalent of the time the Fourth Doctor took a break from hunting the Key to Time to go fishing. But relieved of that pressure to be part of a once in a lifetime epic, is it an good? The answer, happily, is yes.
The General and Veklin, the latter familiar from various previous Big Finish Time War shenanigans, have summoned the Doctor for a mission only he can accomplish. Davros has promised to defect to the Time Lords and bring the secret of the Daleks’ destruction with him. Everyone agrees it looks, walks, and quacks like a trap. However, even the remotest chance of victory is too much to pass up. And if is a trap which claims the life of Gallifrey’s most prodigal child… well, the Time Lords will just have to bear that burden stoically.
It’s a great idea for a story, but also one which doesn’t outstay its welcome. Just as you think we’re settling in for a prison break movie in space, Jonathan Morris’ script flips the table over, and then once more for good measure. The result is that you never quite know where the story will take you next. Nor do the characters for that matter, as those grandmasters the Doctor and Davros suddenly realize they’re not playing chess any more but Jenga – each competing to see whose disintegrating grand scheme falls apart first. It’s this element which provides the story’s biggest, and cleverest surprise. The Once and Future concept suddenly pokes up again at a pivotal moment in a genuine stroke of brilliance.
The plot is powered by everyone involved making very bad decisions throughout, though each misjudgement is perfectly in character for the side that makes it
It’s a tense and dramatic ride. McCoy’s wavers between concern and weariness throughout, but it works perfectly in context. He knows that whatever Davros is up to must be stopped at all costs, but finds all his nemesis’ inevitable betrayals tiresome, even as the cackling demagogue so obviously wants to impress him. Speaking of the Daleks’ creator, Terry Mollloy provides great value as he purrs and rages, feigns reasonableness and threatens. The Daleks, meanwhile, are, well, the Daleks. About the only ones not in the mood for games they can be relied upon to keep things lively by turning up from time to time for some screaming and shouting.
That the Daleks are such a known factor is actually the one problem with the story. They and Davros have been around the block a few times now, and we can pretty much predict their actions. But so should the other characters in the story. Davros himself even points out how much his scheme this time echoes one from the classic series, while discreetly drawing a veil over how that turned out. He’s extended every courtesy by the Time Lords, who also take his transparently ludicrous and self-serving proposal seriously. Combined with them responding to contact with a Dalek attack force with all the grace and effectiveness of the cast of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it make the General and company seem a bit hopeless.
One could almost make the same observation about Davros of course. If you didn’t know better you’d think he’d never even met a Dalek before. But then, at least having a huge blind spot for his slimy green babies is an established character traits.
Though an inessential part of Once and Future, skipping this episode would mean missing a dramatic rematch between McCoy’s Doctor and Molloy’s Davros
In the final analysis, Once and Future 3 is an episode you could probably just skip over entirely. It’s doubtful you’d miss a beat in the 60th Anniversary celebration. A Genius for War, however, is a fun little opportunity for the Seventh Doctor to play in the Time War toybox.
Doctor Who: A Genius for War
In the midst of the Time War, the Time Lords have received a communication from Falkus, the prison moon of Skaro. Its sole inmate, Davros, wishes to make them an offer.
He will help them win the Time War… but only if the Doctor comes to his rescue.
Doctor Who – Once and Future: A Genius for War is now available to own as a single-disc collector’s edition CD (+ download for just £10.99). You can also get it on digital download only (for just £8.99), exclusively here.