In this third release in Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio drama series The War Doctor Begins, our hero finds himself facing conflict on a number of different fronts in the ongoing Time War, some of which are internal, as well as external.
The trio of stories opens with Phil Mulryne’s ‘The Keeper Of Light’, in which a married couple trying to rekindle the flame of their romance take a break to a remote coastal cottage in view of an abandoned lighthouse. At least, it was supposed to be abandoned, but strange things are happening, and the lighthouse would appear to be the source. The War Doctor (Jonathon Carley) and plucky assistant Leyla Bridge (Emma Campbell-Jones) are on the case, but things may not be as they appear…
This tale comes as a bit of a shock to the system, because for about 90% of its duration, any connection to the Time War seems to be vague or tangential at best. Instead, it feels as if this is a pastiche of the modern storytelling style of Doctor Who, where incidental characters have been invested with emotional journeys and personal relationships, and where the ordinary crosses paths with the extraordinary world of the Doctor.
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However, it lacks a certain oomph, and feels derivative of a number of different episodes from the series, which makes the whole thing feel a bit stodgy at times. That is, until you get towards the end, where it all suddenly becomes clear exactly why the whole thing feels not just generic, but also disconnected from the series’ main narrative. It really is a rather neat twist and plays with your expectations, which almost makes up for the earlier flatness of the main part of the story,
In Rossa McPhillips’ ‘Temmosus’, we have the return of the Daleks’ ancient mortal enemies, the Thals. A group of Thals steal a new battleship designed by the War Doctor, who has to not only try to recover it, but also persuade them they are all in the conflict together, seeking a conclusion to the Time War against the Daleks. However, it appears there are double dealings on both sides, with the Daleks facing some internal squabbles of their own. Who can truly be trusted, and are the motives of everyone as clear-cut as first thought?
Having grown up in the shadow of World War II, Dalek creator Terry Nation took the notion of fascism and he encased it in a bonded polycarbide shell, which screamed for exterminating the unalike. One wise move which he made in their first ever appearance was to separate the blonde, Aryan ideal that was so beloved of the Nazis, and gave it to the Daleks’ rivals, the peaceful and benign Thals, leaving the Daleks as the impure ones, the creatures who were imperfect, which rooted their xenophobia in a form of inferiority and inadequacy.
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The Doctor was to end up changing the course of the Thals’ destiny, by turning a race of pacifists into a personal militia out of purely selfish ends, and he has been atoning for that ever since. McPhillips‘ script picks up on elements of this, as well as showing a latent power struggle within the ranks of the Daleks, which adds an extra depth and dimension to the Doctor’s arch-enemies. ‘Temmosus‘ is a thoughtful look at the corrosive effects of war, and the ways in which it can take its toll, taking people to breaking point.
Finally, ‘Rewind’ by Timothy X. Atack takes us to the planet Lacuna, which is under assault by a new and deadlier type of Dalek. However, the planet is always under assault by them, as it keeps on reliving the same day – and countless deaths – over and over. Each time the day restarts, they remember all that has gone before, with seemingly no end to the horror. A man in a castle lies at the heart of what is happening, but for the inhabitants of Lacuna, it is unclear whether he will bring about their salvation or final destruction.
If this was one of the TV episodes, it would be described as being ‘Doctor-lite’, as his appearance in the story is kept until relatively late in proceedings. As a result, we have the approach taken by Atack of seeing everything through the eyes of Ignis Abel (Sarah Moss), including the War Doctor, who is more of a guest star in this story. It helps emphasise exactly the kind of moral grey area in which the War Doctor operates, as Abel’s perception of him makes him seem not to be the kind of white knight we are used to seeing with other incarnations.
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The War Doctor also finds himself undergoing something of a personal reckoning, as his attempts to try and save Lacuna from the Dalek onslaught may lead to the most terrible of consequences, and he has to weigh up whether he can live with that on his conscience. Moss and Carley give some great performances, and do work together beautifully. If there is a slight issue here, it would be that the notion of a time loop at the centre of a Dalek episode was preempted by ‘Eve Of The Daleks’ stealing a march, but thankfully this manages to be sufficiently different and entertaining.
This set should be applauded for being experimental with its overall approach, as it would be a terrible shame to feel that the range was treading water. It feels a little less satisfying than its predecessors, due to the opening chapter not quite managing to live up to its promise. However, better to have Big Finish try to do something bold and fall slightly short in the final analysis, than not to have attempted to do it at all.
Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins – ‘Battlegrounds’ is out now from Big Finish.