Doctor Who – The War Doctor Begins: Forged in Fire (Big Finish Review)

The hero’s journey, in the context of storytelling, is generally understood to be a linear one: the call to adventure leads to trials and tribulations, then to saving the world – goals achieved, monsters vanquished, and self-actualisation achieved. How, then, does the War Doctor fit into that?

As played by the legendary John Hurt, the character made brief appearances on screen, before Big Finish commissioned four volumes of audio adventures. These stories showed how the most enigmatic and difficult Doctor fought the Time War, but Hurt’s death in 2017 closed off the possibility of more. Four years later, Big Finish has a new actor and a new mission: to tell the early years of the War Doctor, rather than meeting him at the end of his journey. 

Script editors Matt Fitton and Robert Valentine have clearly given some thought to the beginning of that journey: how to square this character with the one we’ll meet later, taking him a few steps backward along his journey, while still being recognisably the Doctor (as always, not that the character himself would accept that name). More brash, reckless and perhaps even more mercurial than the man he’ll become, this is a warrior at the start of a very long story. But how do these three new episodes fare: and does this Doctor’s character trajectory lead to the one we’ll pick up later? It’s a trickier question than you might think. For a primer on the previous War Doctor releases from Big Finish, check out Lachlan Haycock’s excellent recap here.

Light the Flame by Matt Fitton

We open directly after the Doctor’s regeneration, as seen in The Night of the Doctor, in the company of the Sisterhood of Karn (“Sacred fire, sacred flame!”) Their high priestess, Ohila (Veronica Roberts inheriting the role from Clare Higgins), helps to bury Cass, the pilot who perished in the crash which brought the Doctor to Karn. The Doctor, meanwhile, has arisen a new man. 

He immediately closes a door on his past, in both word and deed. He refers to his previous self as another man, full of hope and naivety, and stresses that a rebirth has occurred. Jonathon Carley, of course, is our War Doctor, with an uncanny likeness to the young John Hurt. “But you’re still obstreperous” remarks Commodore Tamasin (Adele Anderson), being all too familiar with the Eighth Doctor. 

“Go away and stay away! There is no Doctor here.”

The Doctor immediately sets about looking for weapons of war with which to fight the Daleks and turn the tide of the Time War, a very un-Doctor course of action. Among the Sisterhood, he meets Lithea (Anne Andresen), who claims to be mysteriously connected to the war. The Doctor is intrigued, sensing an ally, but the arrival of two Time Lords disrupts this brief moment of harmony. Cardinal Rasmus (Chris Jarman) and Commander Sanmar (Helen Goldwyn) both arrive with plans for the Source, from which Karn’s magic and energy springs forth. It’s not long before the Time Lords’ determination to gain advantage in the war, at any cost, becomes very clear. 

A journey to the very heart of Karn, and some very nasty in-fighting, ensues. Writer Matt Fitton has crafted some wonderful dialogue, clearly defining these characters without resorting to caricature: even the bad guys have a point of view we might consider rational. Fitton also makes use of the Sisterhood’s capability with magic at a crucial moment in the story, withholding it until just the right moment.

It all leads to the Doctor confronting Tamasin, asking if the Time Lords require him to commit atrocities in order to stop the wider war. It’s a statement of intent reminding us that, despite his new ruthlessness, there’s still a person of principle fighting these battles. Light the Flame ends as Doctor rights an old wrong: one unambiguous act of heroism before the hard work of untangling the Time War and getting his hands dirty begins. 

Lion Hearts by Lou Morgan

We open this second story with Commodore Tamasin receiving a mission debrief from a younger Time Lord, Lorinus (Amy Downham). In flashback we hear Lorinus fighting the Voltarins, trying to recover one of their spies – a Tharil, a Lion-like race of aliens as seen in the Fourth Doctor story Warrior’s Gate. Indeed, it’s one of the main characters from that same story, Biroc.

Cheekily, Lion Hearts treats the reveal of Biroc’s name as a dramatic opening to the episode just before the theme music: it’s as good a reminder as any that Big Finish writers are hardcore nerds who love to reference the Doctor Who source material in interesting ways. 

On the mission, Lorinus is joined not only by the Doctor but by Valletta (Marilyn Nnadebe), another Tharil and Biroc’s brother. Valletta excoriates the Time Lords for allowing him to be captured, and Biroc for believing they could keep him safe: “like all children”, she says, “he trusts too easily.” The stakes are high: as the Doctor explains, under the Voltarins’ agreement with the Daleks, all prisoners are sent to the latter for questioning. 

Lou Morgan’s script really leans into its inspirations as a war and espionage story. A big theme is trust: Valletta regularly holds the Time Lords to account for their part in the war, and pulls the Doctor up for his role in things. 

En route, the team accidentally awaken an ancient Voltarin weapon: autonomous and self-charging, programmed to kill. Here, Jack Townley’s sound design shines, choreographing an intense action scene perfectly. Back in the debriefing, Tamasin reveals her exasperation with the Doctor’s unorthodox tactics.

Later, there’s an emotional reunion, and the sickening realisation that Biroc isn’t the only prisoner of the Voltarins. It sets up an ethical conundrum for the Doctor and Valletta, one with a surprising and unexpected solution. For all the lightness of the earlier chapters in this story, things turn dark surprisingly quickly. At times in the War Doctor stories, the good man trying to do right in the universe is all too easy to recognise. That’s not the case here. 

“When this war is over, you will all have to live with what this warrior has done. Even me.”

Lion Hearts is a great story and one of the highlights here, a rousing rescue story that’s deeply enmeshed in the lore of Doctor Who and populated with fascinating characters and concepts. Lou Morgan, a relative newcomer to Big Finish, is a great writer and an asset to this release.

The Shadow Squad by Andrew Smith

Writer Andrew Smith, who happened to write two episodes for John Hurt’s War Doctor range, returns here: and indeed, it’s the instalment which most resembles those original stories. We’ve got Daleks, time shenanigans, elite soldiers and a super weapon. We open with a prologue, showing a home invasion from a very sinister Dalek, completing its mission to eliminate “the victor of the Corelli system.”

The Doctor heads to Atherea, where his presence happens to be prohibited. There’s a puckish attitude to him, especially when he ends up on the same trip as Tamasin: their relationship as fractious as ever. They’ve intercepted and decoded a transmission from the Dalek Strategist’s flagship, but there’s a time shield around the planet, preventing their arrival by TARDIS – hence their journey in “economy class”. They parachute in with a cry of geronimo.

Their contact is the undercover Draven, to whom they’re required to deliver a message cube from Cardinal Rasmus – then get out. But Draven disappears just as quickly as they find her: only the Doctor and Tamasin notice an apparent timeslip. 

They’re picked up and led, instead, to a secret base inhabited by Gallifreyans. A soldier named Trestor (Kit Young) welcomes them and explains that they’re permanently stationed there, dedicated to training for combat and winning the war. In these scenes, juggling multiple characters and tonal shifts, Louise Jameson’s skill as a director becomes clear: it really feels that these characters are in the same location, having a coherent conversation. 

When Trestor realises that Draven has been removed from time, and that the Doctor and Tamasin have taken her place, it’s battle stations. The trail leads to the Daleks – their Temporal Eradicator tracks people back in time, allowing the Dalek Strategist to know precisely when to eliminate a person to effect the greatest change in the timeline, turning the tide of the war. 

The Shadow Squad is another story with easy cinematic references – there’s more than a touch of The Terminator, plus The Dirty Dozen and various James Bond films (there’s not one, but two, secret underground bases in this story – one beneath a volcano. A final battle leads to a surprising, action-filled climax, and like many Doctor Who stories, asks us to consider whether Daleks really understand the concept of mercy. It all caps off with a rousing speech from Trestor reminding the troops what they’re all fighting for, and a parting word from the Doctor. 

Three stories and three excellent reasons to pick up War Doctor Begins. There’s not enough praise I can give to Jonathon Carley, a young actor and impressionist with a long list of projects behind him, who has assumed the War Doctor role from John Hurt – a daunting task, to be sure. It’s particularly striking to hear him tackling such interesting stories and showing his range. There are few actors to begin with who could impersonate such a distinctive voice, but Carley goes beyond, showing us rage, grief and even comedy. It shouldn’t need to be said, but he’s not just a mimic – he’s a very good actor. 

The writing, acting and casting is all sublime, reminding us that Big Finish has this down to an art by this point. It also continues to find new ways to tell stories within the Time War, a fruitful niche that some fans can’t get enough of. 

I found some very small faults with the trilogy: there’s been plenty of fan chatter about how previous War Doctor releases, while excellent, didn’t quite mesh with the man we saw on screen. Or, at least, with the idea of him as expressed by his successors: a man willing to do terrible things in pursuit of his goal, unworthy of the name Doctor. It would be a pleasure to see more moments with a dark, ethically compromised Doctor: or at least to see him confronted with more seemingly unwinnable scenarios. There’s a glimpse of this here, particularly in Lion Hearts, but crucially the story relents at the last moment. Within the format, presumably, there’s little room to explore the effect of a major defeat for the Doctor. Nevertheless: the fact that three more volumes are already on their way suggests that there are greater depths to explore. 

Above all, War Doctor Begins is a perfect showcase of just how essential Big Finish can be when the stars align. The writing, acting and direction is of course superb, but in finding fruitful corners of the Doctor Who universe to explore, they’re still finding exciting new perspectives. This is a great release which promises even greater things. 

Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins – Forged in Fire is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st August 2021.

 

Extras

Typically I wouldn’t classify the cover art as an extra, but there’s no other word to describe the gorgeous work here from Claudia Gironi, a newcomer to Big Finish. This painted portrait of the late, great John Hurt in his younger years signals that this is every bit a premium release, and buyers of the CD version will be rewarded. 

Complemented by the usual cast and crew interviews, the behind-the-scenes stories for this production are particularly interesting. Producer David Richardson talks about the ending of the original War Doctor range with the untimely death of John Hurt, and the long search to find another actor to replace him for future stories, including well-known names. However, as Nicholas Briggs adds, hearing Jonathon Carley’s impersonation of Hurt sealed the deal. Briggs mentions that Carley auditioned with Doctor Who legend and director Louise Jameson, who also helped to develop his performance: to “make him more familiar”, as Richardson puts it. 

Jameson also serves as director on this release, and has nothing but compliments for Carley’s versatility and ability to take direction. She sounds like a great director, flexible, helpful and encouraging. On her second time directing and recording actors for Big Finish remotely, she notes that she finds it “a bit unnerving”. As a director, one’s concentration has to be much sharper – like working through “a slight smokescreen”. 

Jonathan Carley, who says the job is “no small ask”, notes that he was able to focus by playing the character, rather than playing ‘John Hurt’. Nicholas Briggs asks why we love the War Doctor, suggesting perhaps it’s the ‘extremes’ of the character. “War stories are always seductive to us – for the wrong reasons and the right reasons”, he says. It’s the ultimate test of any civilized person – and a crucible for this very interesting character.

A contributor I really wanted to hear from was Jack Townley, the sound designer for War Doctor Begins. As he puts it, he was given free reign with all three stories, while observing the insane level of established detail about this universe.” He notes that creating alien soundscapes is always fun – they’re new locations, so he has license to create something from scratch, while always remaining grounded in reality. 

The supporting actors also bring some of the most interesting stories to the game, discussing their varied approaches to their roles. Veronica Roberts, playing the priestess Ohila, says she feels like “an eternal and timeless being”. Jameson adds that she and Roberts met in auditions in 1981, and have been fast friends since.

Big Finish regular John Dorney surprisingly reveals that, in Biroc, he’s never taken on a character originated by somebody else. He found a way to adapt David Weston’s performance for a more modern style of language, suggesting a deep engagement with the fundamentals of his characters. 

Synopsis

The Doctor is no more. In his place, a warrior, finally joining the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. But how far will he go to end this conflict? What lines will he cross? How much of himself will he sacrifice? The War Doctor is only just beginning to find out who he is…

1.1 Light the Flame by Matt Fitton
The Sisterhood of Karn have a guest, recovering from his traumatic regeneration. To do what is asked of him, the Doctor has rejected his name and his code. The Time Lords have plans for him and for Karn. Is he ready to light the flame of war?

1.2 Lion Hearts by Lou Morgan
Seeking out Gallifrey’s new warrior, Commodore Tamasan finds that the War Doctor has invited himself on a secret mission. The time-sensitive Tharils are in danger, and an old friend of the Doctor is trapped. But Biroc knows better than to trust either side in this war.

1.3 The Shadow Squad by Andrew Smith
Tamasan is unconvinced of the War Doctor’s loyalties, though when their paths collide, both agree that the destruction of the Dalek Time Strategist could be the best route to victory. But on Atherea, the Daleks may have found a way to annihilate all plans to defeat them before they are even begun…

Cast

Jonathon Carley (The War Doctor)
Adèle Anderson (Commodore Tamasan)
Anna Andresen (Lithea / Elementals)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
John Dorney (Biroc)
Amy Downham (Lorinus)
Helen Goldwyn (Commander Sanmar)
Chris Jarman (Cardinal Rasmus)
Marilyn Nnadebe (Valetta)
Veronica Roberts (Ohila)
Tracy Wiles (Draven / Shira / Sentinel)
Kit Young (Trestor)

Credits

Cover Art by Claudia Gironi
Script Editor Matt Fitton, Robert Valentine
Written by Matt Fitton, Lou Morgan, Andrew Smith
Director Louise Jameson
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Howard Carter
Producer David Richardson
Sound Design by Jack Townley

Suggested Listening

Night of the Doctor (TV)

Doctor Who: The War Doctor – Only the Monstrous

Doctor Who: Time War 1

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