Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins: Warbringer (Big Finish Review)

There’s no stopping Big Finish as 2022 comes to a close, with last year’s lockdowns barely slowing their output of premium Doctor Who box sets. Only a few months after the superlative War Doctor Begins: Forged in Fire (June 2021 – check out our review here), the sequel has arrived.

The second part of a quadrilogy, The War Doctor Begins: Warbringer does a lot of work in moving forward the overarching narrative, introducing prophecies, new allies and enemies, and a dark new chapter in the Time War. But the scope of this volume is focused on a single planet, with each part feeding directly into another: this isn’t simply a grab bag of interesting concepts and characters, but rather a unified story of how the Doctor and Veklin’s trajectory connects with that of a mysterious stranger.

Consequences by Timothy X Atack

We left our hero in Volume 1 having settled into his new identity, ready to fight the Time War as the War Doctor (Jonathon Carley). But as we join him in Consequences, he assumes another title – that of the Warbringer, a mythical God prophesied to end a perpetual war. While some complained that the War Doctor’s previous adventure didn’t see him do anything very un-Doctor-ish, here, he’s quick to impersonate a deity and reanimate a robot army for his own purposes. 

We also meet Case (Ajjaz Awad), an amnesiac waking up on a nameless planet to find herself fitted with a cybernetic eye and arm. She’s alone, with just the dispassionate voice of an AI in her head, in a vast cemetery – the Garden of Death. The Doctor’s ally Veklin (Beth Chalmers) quickly arrives and saves Case from an enemy Dalek.

“I can see it’s a graveyard. There’s nothing but graveyard”

The Doctor lands nearby and meets the teenaged Iansa, (Jessica Temple), a local warrior. She’s smart and keen to bargain with the Doctor, but hits an unexpected nerve when she calls him Moose Face. Iansa explains that war on the planet is self-sustaining, with no winners or losers and no memory of a time before eternal conflict. This being the Time War, it’s not too difficult to picture it. 

Writer Timothy X Atack adds a little more background detail on how the Time War has been cannibalising other time periods to sustain itself. The Doctor observes that 1940s US army vehicles, and 24th century Chinese drones, have been pulled out of their eras and into service. It’s a rich portrait of a place where war is a constant state of being, planets don’t have names, and the thought of a time before war is simply incomprehensible. As the Doctor says, “This is a borrowed world,” with its original culture lost to history. 

Veklin remotely checks in with Commander Tamasan (she’s in the bath) to give her a mission update: it emerges that the Doctor exploited a time fracture to save Veklin and himself, but it has flung them all 24 hours back in time. My sketchy understanding of the timeframe of events was ready to fall apart at this point, but patient listeners will be rewarded. Tamasan, thinking about the wider strategic ramifications, asks Veklin not to save the planet, and to stop the Doctor. 

Rejoining the Doctor, we’re introduced to Deadweights, death bots with glowing red eyes who frequently threaten to remove their prisoners’ spines (a great running gag). The Doctor repurposes them to build a non-lethal, mobile loudspeaker system.

Veklin, Case and Iansa meet Oya (Angela Bruce), a human who served in the Incipient army, one of the warring factions on the planet, and they have a tense dinner together. Veklin asks her where to find the Doctor, but Oya is more concerned about where her guests’ loyalties lie. Are they Incipient, or Germinal? It’s an interesting idea – two factions that might have long ago been based on ethnic or cultural boundaries, but have fought so long that any distinction is meaningless. Angela Bruce’s Southern accent in her scenes is gloriously OTT, but it adds a real sense of menace. As the story ends, a massive threat arrives from off-world, and the Doctor’s ready to create a temporal containment field using an artron generator to protect the planet.

Consequences is a good start but not a slam dunk. The high-concept plot takes a while to establish itself, and the conflict between Veklin and the Doctor feels contrived at some points, even as their relationship shapes up to be the backbone the series. On the other hand, the story breaks ground in subtle ways: during a scene at Oya’s home, I noticed that only the considerable female cast were present. 

Destroyer by Andrew Smith

Tharius is on course for destruction, with a Dalek Harvester on the way, but the Doctor has a plan – and a time bubble in place around the planet. Having bought a few more hours, the Doctor negotiates with Belus (John Banks), leader of the Germinal armies, to try to convince him of his godliness. Belus is wavering: he’s considering complying with the Warbringer’s push for a planetary exodus, but believes the gods may be testing them too. 

Meanwhile Belus’s lieutenant Faren (Nigel Fairs) places the team in confinement, but they escape – tensions between Case and Veklin have risen to breaking point, and Veklin is ruthless and happy to be leaving Case behind, which appals the Doctor. In the background, the clock is ticking on the expiration of the time bubble.

Tamasan is outraged by the Doctor’s activities, and lands with her troopers – survival of the planet would change the course of the Time War in the Dalek’s favour, she explains. Incidentally, I found it very useful to have a recap at this point. A Dalek ambush interrupts the fragile peace, and the Doctor sustains a head injury – he’s moved to the nearby Time Lord flagship.

“You’ve done all you can for these people. It’s over now. Accept it”

The tension between the Doctor’s ‘no small lives, save everybody’ stance and the ruthless pragmatism of his Time Lord superiors shows that he’s still living the early years of his current incarnation. He’s not yet the man willing to end the Time War with a single button press, and that’s kind of the point. It’s thrilling to imagine what might be planned for the next few War Doctor releases.

It all ends with a horrifying twist that changes our understanding of what’s come before. As the War Doctor, Jonathon Carley is as good as before, perhaps even better as he grapples with humour, sorrow and anger all within one scene. Escaping the shadow of John Hurt with great velocity, it remains a remarkable performance.

Saviour by Jonathan Morris

We flashback to the Doctor and Veklin meeting Case, saved from a Dalek ship. They’re also travelling with Albert (Timothy Hofmeier), a member of the Australia and New Zealand army corps, saved from Gallipoli at the moment of death – but doomed from the outset, as per the Doctor’s narration.

They trace a distress signal to a scavenger ship – “a right dump” in Albert’s words – which is drifting following a failed hyperspace jump and about to crash into an inhabited world. Veklin’s reluctant – as she points out, their business model is dependent on the misfortune of others, but the ship’s occupants Mo (Janet Prince) and Rondig (Stephen Frost) are pleasant enough. They made the distress call as they’re unable to use the escape pods, which are programmed to escape to the nearest habitable world – one which isn’t likely to be very habitable after all, in the middle of a war zone. 

But there’s something suspicious about Mo and Rondig, and without wanting to spoil the story – which amps up the tension and the action to epic levels – there’s a heartbreaking choice to be made. The climactic scenes find the Doctor backed into a corner, but still finding time for quips. There’s just a hint of desperation in his line readings, but he’s never ruffled. Nicholas Briggs also tears into his lines as the Daleks with even more gusto than usual. 

The truth behind the time travel enigma comes out, connecting the dots with the beginning of Consequences. It’s a beautifully self-contained set, each of the three stories intersecting to become more than the sum of their parts. 

The War Doctor Begins: Warbringer is available at the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 28th February 2022.

Extras

The package comes decorated with delightful cover art by Claudia Gironi, whose digital paintings have become the signature of this range.

The usual cast and crew interviews are present and correct. We get to hear from Doctor Who legend Louise Jameson, returning here as director! She notes again the pressure for Jonathon Carley to fill John Hurt’s shoes, and recounts meeting him for the first time – an excellent mimic, but not quite able to connect with the emotion of the story, until it suddenly clicked into place. 

We also hear from the key actors in the piece. Carley pops up to discuss his take on the title role. Ajaz Awwad appears too, noting that Case is a complicated character: a challenge, given that she’s a blank slate when we join her. Beth Chalmers, as Veklin, has a word for the pace of the adventures here on offer: relentless. 

Synopsis

2.1 Consequences by Timothy X Atack

The War Doctor and Veklin crash on a ravaged planet. On the fringes of the Time War, this world has its own battles raging. Elsewhere, a survivor works out how she came to be here.

But these newcomers are harbingers of something terrible, following in their wake…

2.2 Destroyer by Andrew Smith

Trapped on a world that worships war, the War Doctor finds himself fulfilling an ancient prophecy – could he be the Warbringer of legend?

His new ally Case is testing her abilities, too. And both will be called on to fight when the Daleks come…

2.3 Saviour by Jonathan Morris

The truth of how events on Tharius were set in motion is revealed. On a mission to destroy a Dalek Harvester vessel, the War Doctor discovers a new breed of Dalek.

Whatever action he takes next, we have seen the consequences – and they are devastating for everyone.

Cast

Jonathon Carley (The War Doctor)
Adèle Anderson (Commander Tamasan)
Ajjaz Awad (Case)
John Banks (Belus, Germinal Princeps / Deadweights)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
Angela Bruce (Oya / Andarta, Incipient Mother)
Beth Chalmers (Commander Veklin)
Nigel Fairs (Faren)
Stephen Frost (Rondig)
Timothy Hofmeier (Lance Corporal Albert Brown)
Janet Prince (Mo)
Jessica Temple (Iansa)

Credits

Script Editor Matt Fitton, John Dorney
Written by Timothy X Atack, Andrew Smith, Jonathan Morris
Cover Art by Claudia Gironi
Director Louise Jameson
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Howard Carter
Producer David Richardson
Sound Design by Jack Townley

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins: Forged in Fire

Doctor Who: Time War 1

Doctor Who: The War Doctor: Only The Monstrous

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