By Will Barber Taylor
After her medical work on Terminus, Nyssa is now the controller of a hospital ship, the Traken. As the universe burns in the crossfire of the Time War, she and her assistant travel to a planet close to Gallifrey where they are needed more than ever. A long time ago, Nyssa knew a Time Lord and understood his people. But it seems they can change…
The Time War is a central pillar of the revived era of Doctor Who. It is one of the great thematic and character motivators for The Doctor and many other characters throughout the fifteen years of “New Who”.
As such it can prove a daunting prospect for writers. Its sheer scale and scope can make one feel overwhelmed with possibilities and wonder how it can be possibly tackled. Yet in ‘A Heart on Both Sides’, Rob Nisbet accomplishes the task with true flair.
His story is intimate and yet brings the sheer magnitude of the Time War into stark focus. Rather than let the war overwhelm the story is fits perfectly, not just as a landscape for which the tale is allowed to thrive but also as a motivator for our protagonists. The war, as so many conflicts real or fictitious, is properly grounded in Nisbet’s story but he ensures that it does not take over the audio’s main plot.
Similarly, by not taking a one dimensional approach to the war and presenting the Time Lords as being not moralistically superior but rather going to horrific lengths to win the conflict, Nisbet ensures that the audience feels the story is more unique. It plays upon our preconceptions perfectly and allows us to fully comprehend the full horror of the Time War and better understand how it came to its dramatic conclusion.
Nisbet further gives his drama a new perspective by presenting it from the point of view of the Fifth Doctor’s former companion, Nyssa who is now attempting to help cure the sick as the Time War rages. Nyssa’s shock at the actions of the Time Lords throughout the adventure gives greater emotional weight to it; if it had been presented from a jaded rather than an idealistic perspective the story would not be anyway nearly as impactful. It further allows us to fully comprehend the war as a bridging device between New and Classic Doctor Who.
Nisbet’s writing also allows Sarah Sutton to display a full range of complex characters. Her portrayal of the steely Isherwood is especially compelling and one that is likely to stay with listeners for a long time after the story has ended. She brings a steely calm to the character, making it clear that even with the chaos of the Time War raging in the background she is determined to do her duty. Sutton’s virtuoso performance is one of her best on audio and she brings the war-torn world of Reave vividly to life in a way that only an actress at the top of her game could.
A Heart on Both Sides is a masterpiece that artfully weaves a medical drama together with a story of desperation and war and ends on a bittersweet note that will strongly resonate with Doctor Who fans of all ages but particularly those who were there when the Classic era was still in full fling. It sums up both Nyssa’s story arc of lone survivor turned healer and the galactic soap opera of the Time War perfectly. It is, even without the Daleks, the quintessential Time War story and one that you will want to listen to again as soon as you’ve finished it.
You can buy A Heart on Both Sides from Big Finish here.