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‘Doctor Who’ Review: Big Finish’s ‘Once and Future: A Genius for War’

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Well Whovians, we’re finally here. We’ve made it to November, the big anniversary month for Doctor Who. For 60 years the legendary sci-fi series has been charming audiences around the globe, so for such a big occasion, there’s plenty to celebrate. While we still have a bit longer to wait for the three specials featuring the return of David Tennant and Catherine Tate, don’t worry, there are a ton of special projects coming out in celebration of Doctor Who. Big Finish has been putting out a series of audio dramas prime for the anniversary, titled Once and Future. The third chapter, A Genius for War, sees the return of one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies as well as a fan-favorite Doctor.

Written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Helen Goldwyn, A Genius for War, brings back loveable Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, embroiled in a plot smack dab in the middle of the Time War. Can the Doctor save his greatest enemy and ensure the safety of his fellow Gallifreyians? Continue for more about Big Finish’s Doctor Who: Once and Future: A Genius for War!

[Warning: Spoilers from Big Finish’s Doctor Who: Once and Future: A Genius for War are below!]

The Doctor goes to war… again

After the events of The Artist at the End of Time, which saw The Doctor part ways with his daughter Jenny (Georgia Tennant), the Doctor is once again in flux. Going through a degeneration is certainly not easy on the Gallifreyian, so after cycling through a few familiar faces, he stabilizes on McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. Although he doesn’t have long to celebrate the current stabilization before he’s pulled into a war that he thought he had left behind. It’s on the spaceship fans may remember from Trial of a Time Lord where A Genius for War truly begins.

Confronted by The General (Ken Bones), who also appeared in “The Day of the Doctor”, “The Time of the Doctor”, and “Hell Bent”, The Seventh Doctor is asked to go on a dangerous mission. Not just any mission though, but one would could change the tides of the Time War. Doing so could save Gallifrey from destruction, but the mission itself puts the Doctor in a predicament. The General, along with Veklin (Beth Chalmers) asks him to travel to Falkus, a moon of Skaro, to rescue Davros from imprisonment.

Once and Future: A Genius For War

As Whovians know, Davros is usually trouble. As the creator of the Daleks, Davros has been in direct opposition to the Doctor so many times. His pleas for help are a trap, something that every Gallifreyian involved can see. However, he promises The General that if the Doctor, specifically the Doctor, comes to save him, he’ll help end the Time War and eradicate the Daleks. The Doctor is intrigued, to say the least, so he sets off to Falkus to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

A trap is set in Doctor Who: Once and Future: A Genius For War

On Falkus, The Doctor finds a world stuck in the past. The moon is inhabited by Kaled, the people of Skaro before the Daleks, who are serving as prison guards. However, their involvement comes with a bit of brainwashing, as they believe they are stuck in The Great War. For clarification, The Great War isn’t The Time War, but one that occurred long before the one with the Time Lords. Instead, it’s a war that nearly wiped the Daleks from existence. So why exactly are the pre-Dalek people believing they are in a war that has been long over?

The simple answer is for control. These people, who are clones as you later discover, are trapped in a loop of the Dalek’s creation to keep them in place. If they believe they are under constant attack, they’ll be complacent, which is exactly where the Daleks need them.

Arriving on Falkus is one task, but finding Davros is another. That being said, The Doctor locates him with ease, which is when Davros’ true intentions come to light. He plans to blend Time Lord’s DNA with that of the Daleks, selling the shtick as a way to end the war. But truthfully it’s a way to cement success for the Daleks. Creating a future where they are the most powerful beings in the universe. Can The Doctor stop Davros before his plan becomes a reality? You’ll have to load up your Big Finish app and listen in on Doctor Who: Once and Future: A Genius For War for that answer!

The positives and negatives of Once and Future: A Genius For War

Of the three parts that I’ve listened to up to this point, A Genius For War is easily my favorite. For starters, Sylvester McCoy is such a loveable iteration of The Doctor, how can you not become filled with joy when you hear him once again in the role? He slips back into the character so easily, almost like he never left. This is a similar energy that Tom Baker and Peter Davison had in Once and Future: Past Lives and Artist at the End of Time, respectively. But something about McCoy feels different, in a positive way.

Seventh Doctor. Doctor Who
 Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor. Doctor Who (BBC).

What’s interesting about Big Finish’s Once and Future is how the degeneration process impacts the Doctor. Unlike David Tennant’s Fourteenth Doctor, who has the same face as the Tenth Doctor but is very much a different being, these Doctors revert to their old selves. With that, they have their old personalities, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel to return to Doctor Who. I think there’s something genius about that, creating a new story from the Doctor’s future, with respect to the faces the Doctor wears in each chapter.

I think what sets A Genius For War apart from the first two chapters is that Once and Future is no longer setting up the bigger story and it can finally just develop naturally. Not that there is anything wrong with the setup, it’s essential for the type of story at hand. However, once something has all the exposition out of the way and can finally breathe, that’s when the magic starts. A Genius For War is an all-out adventure, similar in vein to a Tennant episode, which ticked all the right boxes for me. 

The story was engaging, the acting was spot on. I could listen to this chapter over and over. Thankfully, it can be played as such, with the majority of the episode serving as a one-off adventure in the middle of the larger narrative. That being said, those who are looking to just listen to this chapter might be confused by some of those larger points, such as why the Doctor is degenerating.

Similar to the past chapters, A Genius For War suffers from a pretty standard run time, with the story having to be completed in just about an hour. This limits how much story can be told, which impacts the narrative just a bit. Did that strict time ruin this story for me? No, I think those involved did a fantastic job of telling a coherent story within the hour, but I do think there’s so much more that could have been added or explored with a second part.

Characters that I would have loved to see fleshed out a bit more are stuck as secondary characters. But the best thing about Big Finish and Doctor Who as a whole is that there’s always room for a return in one project or another.

Final thoughts on Big Finish’s Once and Future: A Genius For War

Overall, this was my favorite chapter so far in the Once and Future brand. I think this 60th-anniversary series has finally found its stride. If you need a quick fix of Doctor Who before the three specials that begin later this month, then you should be checking out Once and Future

Doctor Who: Once and Future: A Genius For War is available now from Big Finish! Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Cirus Discord if you plan on checking this one out.

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 377 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson