Stories of war continue to thrill and entertain across popular culture, and the Doctor Who universe is no exception.
The third volume of The War Doctor Begins, subtitled Battlegrounds, marks the return of Jonathon Carley’s take on a young War Doctor alongside some familiar faces from past Time War releases. Each of the three standalone stories contained within this set brings out a different facet of conflict and moral quandary, with the enigmatic figure, originated by John Hurt and now adeptly embodied by Carley, at the centre of it all.
These are adventures set in the midst of a difficult, terrible war, but it is also one where, despite its ravages, there are occasional glimpses of hope and resolution.
The Keeper of Light
It might have been a while since Phil Mulryne has scripted a story for Big Finish, but The Keeper of Light gives no indication of such an interregnum. The boxset’s opening adventure has all the atmosphere, mystery and threat you’d expect from a good Doctor Who tale, plus the added layer of trauma and disaster that comes from this being a tale of the Time War. That otherworldliness, that existential dread, that mania of the conflict is here conveyed in innovative terms.
Ken Bones, last heard at Big Finish opposite Paul McGann in the Eighth Doctor’s Time War saga and next appearing in Gallifrey: War Room, reprises not his role of the General but instead plays David, husband to Dorothy (Adèle Anderson), who herself sounds a lot like Time Lord Commodore Tamasan. The pair are introduced in an unusually quaint setting: as a couple booking some time away by the coast, lodging in the quarters of a lighthouse keeper in an attempt to reconcile their differences; their marriage, it seems, has seen better days.
“I’m awake now, and I fight this war on my own terms.”
Emma Campbell-Jones, who of course played the Eighth Doctor’s ill-fated companion Cass in The Night of the Doctor, appears here as a character called Layla, the companion to a distinctly upbeat Doctor, whose usual rejection of the being called that name is here nowhere to be seen – a dead giveaway things are not as they seem, if that wasn’t already obvious from the actors playing different roles.
The not-quite-there quartet eventually encounter an entity moulding reality as it sees fit, and the world they inhabit is revealed as an elaborate illusion. The Keeper of Light is a change of pace for both the War Doctor and The War Doctor Begins, and a vital exploration of the way reality is warped in a reality-warping war.
In a stark contrast with the contemplative opener, Rossa McPhillips’ Temmosus leans heavily into action and violence between multiple warring factions. From the pre-credits sequence to the end titles, this is an action-packed, guns-blazing ride, but not without moments of humanity and heart.
A captain of the Thal race – the archenemy of the Daleks, and therefore de facto allies of Gallifrey – defects to the other side, and brings his ship’s unwitting crew, and a stowaway Doctor, along with him. The cruiser they use on their journey into Dalek territory? A prototype vessel, named Temmosus after a figure from Thal history and intended as a gift from Time Lords to Thals – its stealth properties, aided by a Time Lord chameleon circuit, making it extremely useful for an incursion into Dalek territory.
Meanwhile, over on Skaro itself, Nicholas Briggs breaks out a fantastic array of Dalek voices, from the Time Strategist to Emperor to interrogator, bringing to life with glee the deranged race of megalomaniacs.
Everyone in this story has their own schemes and agendas. Temmosus is a tale of morality and loyalty, factions and allegiances, one that explores the enmity among Thals towards Time Lords, who they see as only ever having treated them as second fiddle to Gallifrey. But it’s not only the side of the good who have their disagreements and double crosses – the Daleks, too, have their fair share of political machinations, which are brought to life here thrillingly.
Three-part boxsets often speed past in a hurry, and suddenly we come to Timothy X Atack’s finale. After the pathos of the opener and action of the middle episode, Rewind leans heavily into the time-twisting aspect of a war fought through time as well as space.
A convenient prologue lays out the premise: on the planet Lacuna, residents face the same catastrophic day again and again. Stuck in a loop, they prepare for a horde of Beserker Daleks spewing “a black cloud of emissions” as they “fell trees and slice up roads”, day after day, for well over 400 days straight.
Despite his downbeat demeanour, the Doctor is still a figure of hope in the face of destruction; his eventual appearance within the horrific miasma, and his continued attempts to save Lacuna’s people, is a testament to his enduring generosity regardless of how much he refuses to think of himself in such high regard. All factors combine to illustrate the true terror of war – script, performance, sound design – making Rewind a top-notch final story to cap off the Battlegrounds set.
All three stories in Battlegrounds are to be lauded for their innovation and experimentation, as befitting of a range with such a core conceit. It seems a shame that Bones doesn’t get the chance to appear properly as the General in The Keeper of Light – but luckily, he’s back soon in the next instalment of the long-running Gallifrey saga.
There’s no replacing John Hurt, but Carley has all the spirit and fire of the War Doctor, and he absolutely sells the weight of centuries resting on the character’s weary, worn-torn shoulders. His performance in this boxset is impressively assured across all three episodes, matching the high standard set by other aspects of production. After the praise of the first two releases, it would be easy to overlook the skill of his performance at this stage in the saga – but he’s not lost one iota of the character’s charisma or torment.
Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins – Battlegrounds was released in May 2022. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 July 2022, and on general sale after this date.
Behind the scenes, cast and crew share their impression of the tales being told and their experiences recording them. Phil Mulryne’s dissection of his rationale for setting the story where he did and the thematic concerns embedded in its telling is well worth a listen – as is Rossa McPhillips’ description of the journey from genesis to fruition for his script. The telling of his personal background in the military and special forces as a precursor to a writing career is also very interesting.
“Jonathan, of course – we roll on. We’re a team now with these War Doctor [audios].”
Carley relishes the “full experience” that comes from being in the same studio as the rest of the actors, after he recorded the previous two boxsets either remotely or in-person but separate from his peers – and has only praise for Louise Jameson as an adept director. Jameson herself says Rewind is decidedly her favourite script from The War Doctor Begins saga, and you can certainly see why.
The Doctor is no more.
In his place, a warrior, finally joining the Time War between the Daleks and Gallifrey. But how far will he go to end the conflict? What lines will he cross?
How much of himself will he sacrifice? The War Doctor is beginning to find out who he is…
The Keeper of Light by Phil Mulryne
The Doctor and his faithful companion are on the trail of strange psionic signals…
At a remote costal cottage, holidaymakers David and Dorothy think there’s something strange about the lighthouse. But the Doctor can’t shake the sense of an even bigger mystery to solve…
Temmosus by Rossa McPhillips
Fighting alongside the Time Lords against their common enemy, some Thals have realised that this collaboration is not between equals.
When his new battleship is stolen, the War Doctor must convince his old allies that they are on the same side.
Rewind by Timothy X Atack
Lacuna is on the brink of destruction, attacked by a new breed of Dalek. But every day, it is pulled back from that brink, and everyone prepares to live through the end of their world once again.
One strange man, alone in his castle, holds the key to Lacuna’s ultimate salvation – or its annihilation.
Jonathon Carley (The War Doctor)
Troy Alexander (Gilder)
Adèle Anderson (Dorothy / Tamasan)
Rose Basista (Soolal)
Ken Bones (David / Anders Kristiansen)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
Emma Campbell-Jones (Layla Bridge)
Julian Forsyth (Grei Potemic)
Sarah Moss (Ignis Abel)
Hugh Ross (Malcolm / The Keeper)
Homer Todiwala (Regis Parenthis)
David Warwick (Dylon)
Script Editor Matt Fitton
Written by Phil Mulryne, Rossa McPhillips & Timothy X Atack
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 Howard Carter