To all stories, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. One of the major occupational hazards which comes with being a traveller in time, however, is that they might not necessarily happen in that order.
When Paul McGann played the titular role in Doctor Who, we only got to see his beginning and end on screen, with Steven Moffat managing to show his regeneration in 2013’s one-off minisode, ‘The Night Of The Doctor’. Rather than changing into Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation, however, he ended up taking on the form of a young John Hurt (all thanks to the wonders of computer jiggery-pokery), who was a previously unknown iteration of the character.
It was borne out of a sense of necessity – Eccleston declined to return for the series’ 50th anniversary story, ‘The Day Of The Doctor’, and Steven Moffat decided to instead invent an intermediate incarnation of the Doctor, who happened to be between McGann and Eccleston. Although it messed up the established numbering system, which naturally gave many fans something else to howl into the void about, it was also to provide a source of much fevered speculation concerning this War Doctor (as he was to become known).
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Russell T. Davies’ backstory when reviving the series in 2005 was that during the time it had been off air after it originally ended in 1989, there had been a Time War across all creation between the Time Lords and the Daleks, and the Doctor had fought on the front lines. Everyone naturally assumed it was either McGann or Eccleston’s Doctors, and yet here we were presented with the revelation of there actually having been another personification, one who had been bred specially for war, and rejected the name of ‘Doctor’.
At the end of ‘The Day Of The Doctor’, the War Doctor was to begin his regeneration into the form of Eccleston (who had already departed from the role eight years earlier), and that was seemingly the end of his story. However, thanks to Big Finish Productions and their official licence from the BBC to produce audio Doctor Who adventures, nobody’s run is ever really ended, with them bringing back every lead actor from Tom Baker to David Tennant many years (or, in some cases, decades) after turning in the TARDIS key.
And so it inevitably came to pass that Big Finish approached Sir John Hurt to reprise his role, so we could see what went on in that mysterious period between his arrival and departure, and a four-set run of War Doctor audio stories was released between 2015 and 2017. Although there had been plans for further sets to follow, Hurt sadly passed away in early 2017, and it meant the adventures of the War Doctor had come to a premature conclusion. Or, at least, so it seemed: but Big Finish had an idea on how to carry on his story.
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By the time we met the War Doctor on screen, he had been a part of the Time War for some decades, if not centuries, and had become a greying, grizzled old warrior. But what exactly happened right at the very start, after he had first come into being? Big Finish came up with the notion of doing The War Doctor Begins, taking up his story from the beginning, with a younger version of the War Doctor, showing the start of his journey towards becoming the man who felt the only way to end the Time War was to commit genocide against both the Daleks and his own people alike.
Taking up the mantle of the newly-minted War Doctor is Big Finish newcomer Jonathan Carley, who manages to capture a younger John Hurt in a fashion which proves quite uncanny at times, to the extent that you could almost forget the man himself is not still playing the role. That raspy throatiness is present and correct, but Carley’s more youthful voice evokes the Hurt seen in films like Alien, and so it means he does not have to do a precise recreation of the much older War Doctor as seen (or, perhaps more correctly in this context, heard) on screen.
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This first set of Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins consists of three adventures – ‘Light The Flame’, by Matt Fitton; ‘Lion Hearts’, by Lou Morgan; and ‘The Shadow Squad’, by Andrew Smith. The opener – ‘Light The Flame’ – picks up a matter of moments after the Doctor’s regeneration, with this new man having forsworn the legacy which comes with the mantle of the Doctor, and started to forge his own identity with heavy heart(s), knowing just what it means not to be a healer, but instead become a warrior, going against everything that his earlier selves stood for.
Most post-regeneration stories traditionally have the new Doctor go through a period of instability while things settle down, giving the lead an opportunity to act in a rather batty or zany fashion to begin with. Here, all these fripperies have been stripped totally away, with no eccentricity in evidence, and Carley presenting us with a serious and dour War Doctor, almost fully-formed, and gradually becoming resigned to an existence where he has to ultimately betray the legacy of the Doctor, yet also showing a growing sense of steel and grit as he starts to adjust to exactly who he has become and what he must now do.
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‘Lion Hearts’ is told mostly in flashbacks, during a debriefing session taking place following a secret Time Lord mission to rescue some time sensitive beings called Tharils, as they may hold some vital information which could give the Time Lords a key advantage in the Time War. One of them – Biroc (John Dorney) – is an old acquaintance of the Doctor’s, and the War Doctor has invited himself along to join the mission and save the captive Tharils, helped by Biroc’s sister. The War Doctor also has to earn his stripes, and prove to the Time Lords that he can be the trusted warrior they need.
On television, the leonine Tharils resembled the look of the Beast as depicted on screen in Jean Cocteau’s 1964 film La Belle et la Bête, and Biroc himself can actually be glimpsed on the cover art for The War Doctor Begins. The Tharils had been enslaved for their unique properties, so the Doctor had worked to free them; however, they were portrayed as rather haughty and aloof, and never seemed particularly likeable. It has to be a testament to both Morgan’s writing and Dorney’s portrayal that they manage to make Biroc into a sympathetic character here, engaging you more deeply in his fate.
Ending this first set with ‘The Shadow Squad’, the Daleks get to go face to eyestalk with the War Doctor for the first time. The Time Lords and the War Doctor once again join forces, in order to try and take out the Dalek Time Strategist, and gain the upper hand in the ongoing conflict. However, the Daleks have been playing a deadly game, and the forces which they have started to unleash could result in not just the end of the Time War, but the unravelling of reality itself. Things may be over long before they have even begun…
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No matter how many times they keep coming back, a clash between the Doctor and the Daleks always has a promise of elevating things; a big challenge, however, is to keep every single one of their meetings feeling fresh and new. Smith’s script manages to do just that, and serves up a type of Dalek which we have never encountered before, far more devious and malevolent than the standard shrieking pepperpots; it also gives the voice of the Daleks – Nicholas Briggs – a major opportunity to flex his acting muscles, and deliver us a Dalek which is genuinely unsettling and creepy.
Director Louise Jameson – who played Leela alongside Tom Baker in the 1970s – manages to give each story the relevant pace and energy, which is no mean feat given the challenges of recording remotely; she also has to get credit for the work she has put in to ensure Carley is not just offering us a bland carbon copy of Hurt’s voice, but is actually giving us a proper emotive and fully-developed performance. It all bodes well for the continuation of the War Doctor’s saga, and it appears Big Finish have another surefire winner on their hands.
Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins – ‘Forged In Fire’ is out now from Big Finish Productions.