2 out of 2 found this review helpful.
When I first popped the disc in containing A Thing Of Guile into the CD player, I don't think I was completely prepared for the story that I was going to listen to. Certainly, the second story in the previous box set, Only The Monstrous' The Thousand Worlds had been based on older ideas reworked into a newly horrifying format for the Time War, but it was never predictable, formulaic or full of rather large plot holes. In fact, all of the four previous stories have been prime examples of Big Finish firing (if not on all cylinders, since none have been utterly perfect) on virtually all cylinders, with some dark, clever and ingenious ways to tell Doctor Who stories set in the massively destructive universe of the Time War. However, the impression that A Thing Of Guile has left me with is one of simply bog-standard storytelling, characters torn straight from the textbook of stories which feature it's characters going behind enemy lines, or providing distractions for attacks and pretty much the same plot from the first War Doctor box set, but condensed from two hours (since The Innocent was pretty much all set up, despite how good it is) into one. It's a shame, because I really did want to go in liking this story, I really did. But somehow, despite the talents of Hurt and Pearce, it really didn't come off.
There were good aspects, however. The cutting to the Gallifeyan pilots, desperate to escape despite the situation they were in was an interesting filler plot (and that's all it ever was), and there were some interesting moral questions thrown up about the nature of decoys, which is a shame since it never really goes anywhere with them. I loved the war Doctor's speech about the sacking of Troy, which was very powerful, and excellently delivered. I also thought that the scene between the Doctor and the Daleks' experiment were great, and highlighted the inherent contradictions in the war Doctor's character. After all, the way Moffat shoved him into the timeline in Day Of The Doctor was clumsy at best, and while I would rather have Hurt than not, looking at his inclusion, you can't help but admit that the way Moffat tried to appease all the irate fans who waved their lists of Doctors angrily shouting that Hurt didn't fit was clumsy in the extreme. However, one particular scene exposes the inherent contradictions that make up the war Doctor's character. It shows that while he may run around, banging his fist that he isn't the Doctor, and is somewhat different to the other Doctors, there are lines he isn't willing to cross. It's nice that this gets a mention, since it's perhaps why some people have failed to see him as a proper Doctor. Of course, the acting is of a superlative standard, with both John Hurt and Jaqueline Pearce bouncing off each other excellently. The rest of the guest cast were also enjoyable in the roles they were given, and Nicholas Briggs gets the chance to play a very different form of Dalek, as well as some of the more warped version of the metal meanies. The idea of a group of Daleks going against the will of Dalek High Command is also a pretty cool idea, but it's only ever brought up when it's convenient. And, of course, Nicholas Briggs' direction and Howard Carter's music and sound design is as excellent as always, really plunging us deep into the heart of the action, and making it as fast-paced and exciting as they can.
But where does A Thing Of Guile go wrong, I hear you ask?
Well, quite simply, it's in the writing. It's a shame that Phil Mulryne's script failed to impress me, because, on paper, this should work as an excellent Doctor Who story. However, that's where the problem lies: the war Doctor's tenure is one where the rule book is ripped up and thrown out the window, so this rather undemanding instalment creates a huge problem. Sure, there are ideas listed previously that are worth exploration in this kind of war environment, but the problem is, they aren't really explored. They're just extra elements, added to the story to try and give it an extra dimension it's clearly lacking. For the first half of this story, I thought that it was going to pull some clever twist or reveal, and the whole situation was going to come crashing down around them. However, it played out along wholly expected lines, to the point where it became clear after about half an hour where the story was going. The idea of the Daleks experimenting upon themselves to find some way to gain advantage in the Time War was one that perhaps needed doing, but it could have been done in a less formulaic way than this, I'm sure. The idea never comes across with the guttural horror, or even the rocketing momentum that it needs to, and instead just feels thrown in to provide an answer as to what the Daleks' secret experiment could be. The idea that the Daleks could experiment on each other, trying to find a form that would allow them to defeat the Time Lords, is one that could power a whole box set, yet here it's reduced to about ten minuets of actual explanation, since we've got to move onto the next part of the plot. And it leads me back to my earlier point: this is essentially the same story as that told in The Thousand Worlds/The Heart Of The Battle, only cut down into an hour. This means that, while both previous stories had time to spread character interaction and plot across it's two episodes, this is so preoccupied with trying to get it's story tied up, that it features virtually no character development or interaction that doesn't advance the story at all. And what little moments there are (namely between the Doctor and Ollistra) feels inconsequential because of it's brevity. I just felt like there was too little here to sustain my interest levels.
I also found the characters in this story (the few there actually were) to be rather poorly constructed. Two characters, Coordinator Jarad and Captain Solex, were previously introduced in Legion Of The Lost, but unfortunately fall very short of the mark here. Particularly in the case of Jarad, who was a very interesting character in Legion Of The Lost, and seemed to have a lot of promise. However, Mulryne squanders that by turning him into a fawning, grovelling mess, that just seems to complain about everything. While he was an effective, manipulating plotter in Legion, here he just comes across as a pawn to be sacrificed. Solex fairs better, but just feels like the kind of standard, tough-nut soldier that is such a common stereotype of these type of stories. Certainly, he has an interesting plot thread with regards to how he views the Doctor, and people of his kind, but it only really is brought to the surface when he dies, by which time it's too late. The other two characters are simply part of the subplot involving the decoy escape, and they just seemed to be rather generic and bland. I also didn't really think the idea of the Doctor as a war criminal was really taken anywhere. Sure, we were constantly reminded that he was a prisoner of the Time Lords, but I didn't see any concrete evidence as to how that affected him, and what real difference that actually had on the story. It could have just been any other tale, not a story that just followed the Doctor being branded a criminal. And considering this is probably the most she's had to do so far, I was hugely disappointed with the lack of development for Cardinal Ollistra. When reading the description of this story, I expected it to feature some interesting development for the character, since it seemed to focus on her more than any of the previous four had. However, I was immensely disappointed with what we got, with virtually no development for the character at all. I had hoped we would get some insight into her actions, and some reason for why she is the way she is, however this simply didn't happen, and this story ended up feeling more and more like a wasted opportunity.
Of course, this story also features, as mentioned at the top of this review, some massive plot holes. Why was the worm there? What was it's real purpose? I thought it might have something to do with the Dalek experiment, but no, it was just a random danger that our heroes had to face, and one that was despatched pretty quickly too, I hasten to add. And the dispatch of the Dalek fleet was pretty poor as well. Obliterated by thought? That's almost Steven Moffat-levels of magic wander-y. It just made the whole ending feel massively rushed, and not very well thought out. I also thought that the flashback at the beginning was also pretty ill-thought out, and just came across as an attempt to 'tart' up this story. I think, had it been shorter, like the little burst of flashback at the beginning of The Thousand Worlds and The Heart Of The Battle, it probably would have been a lot more effective. But what we got just felt like a massive info dump, designed to pad out the time and try and deliver exposition in the most unoriginal and boring way possible. I'm so shocked that Matt Fitton actually allowed this script to be sent out, it feels that patchy.
Despite my sentiment above, I didn't find A Thing Of Guile hugely offensive. Big Finish has put out a lot worse over the past three or four years (Daleks Among Us was a lot worse, and that featured elements of this story, only in an even more protracted manner), but this story certainly wasn't one of Big Finish's better efforts. I did really want to like this release, but unlike with a lot of Big Finish, where the execution doesn't quite come off, but the ideas are there, this is perhaps one instance where under ambition is a fatal flaw. Certainly, it's not the worst BF ever: the elements of production are great, and John Hurt means that this story could never be that bad. But I don't think that this is the best example of Big Finish, and brings this second War Doctor box set to a crashing halt. I like the idea of Big Finish telling stories in the Time War, but I think this should have been one tale left untold.