Review by Jacob Licklider
The War Doctor range was one of the Big Finish ranges sadly cut off due to the passing of Sir John Hurt. A fifth box set was actually planned and some of those scripts have been used in other ranges such as The War Master, at least in similar premises. Now that time has passed, the character has been recast with Jonathon Carley, most well known for several fan Doctor Who productions, and instead of continuing John Hurt’s legacy as the character which may have been insensitive if done incorrectly, goes back to the beginning of the character to explore what the War Doctor actually kind of means. The War Doctor Begins was announced as four box sets, starting release in June 2021 all looking to lead to essentially where their War Doctor releases began. Forged in Fire sports a beautifully painted cover by Claudia Gironi featuring Daleks and Thals and a younger John Hurt. It also is a set which sets up something interesting for the character, taking a step away from what Steven Moffat implied with the character, that he was the version of the Doctor who went against everything that the Doctor stood for, that his purpose was to be a warrior. There is something to be said to the recast; Carley joins Jon Culshaw’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Sadie Miller’s Sarah Jane, and Elliot Chapman’s Ben Jackson (among others) in Big Finish’s roster of perfect recasts. Carley worked closely with director Louise Jameson to ensure that his impression was more than just an impression, but really embodying the younger version of the character. He makes it his own and Jameson’s direction is also a welcome change as her touch makes the entire set have a different atmosphere to Big Finish’s usual output.
That theme is first acknowledged in the opening episode of the set, Matt Fitton’s Light the Flame, which opens right after the regeneration in The Night of the Doctor and instead of telling some grand sweeping Time War epic, it goes for focused character interactions. The Doctor, who refuses the title of Doctor, is essentially in contemplation in the immediate aftermath of The Night of the Doctor. He doesn’t quite know what it means to be a warrior, thinking he now has to rise up to everything the Time Lords have been begging him to do since the war began. There is a Time Lord who has a secret mission on Karn which causes most of the story’s physical conflict, but where Fitton’s script really shines is the exploration of what the Sisterhood and Time Lords do. This is a story entrenched in the mythology not of the Time War, but the Virgin New Adventures, as several ideas from Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible are used here and to the effect that there are no parties in the story who are good, except the Doctor. Yes the Doctor denies being good and tries to do things against his nature, but that idea is all in his own head. That’s what the War Doctor is, not what Steven Moffat set out to do, but what he actually did in The Day of the Doctor and Fitton is clearly enjoying exploring what it means to deny your own nature while still executing that nature. The Doctor in this and the other stories in this set is still acting like the Doctor and still saving the day. You have Ohila, played here by Veronica Roberts, who basically manipulates the new Doctor into trusting her, sending him a Sister to act as a pseudo-companion and get him ready while Rasmus, played here by Chris Jarman, tries to judge what the new Doctor is capable of. This is a story which perhaps suffers when the actual plot kicks in, it’s kind of a standard plot though does at least play around with the Time War as a concept. 9/10.
Lou Morgan writes the second installment, Lion Hearts, which brings back the Tharils from Warriors’ Gate, actually playing around with the fact that the Time War is a time war. Morgan’s story is basically a heist disguised as a suicide mission where the Doctor interferes with the Time Lord’s plans, building to a point where he has this brilliant outburst about doing exactly what they want him to do. His foil in this and the rest of the box set is Commodore Tamasan, once again played by Adele Anderson, in lieu of the character Ollistra being predisposed. Anderson plays the role as this tired woman, trying to win a war while the Doctor never actually cooperates and she sends Amy Downham’s Lorinus on a solo mission to rescue Biroc (now played by John Dorney) who has been captured. The idea is that the Tharils, being time sensitive and able to go anywhere, would essentially be a weapon on the inter-dimensional front of the Time War. They were able to go between E-Space and N-Space after all. Lion Hearts perhaps has the weakest ending as Morgan tries to build up the idea that the Doctor is just going to leave the Tharils to die, something that actively goes against the rest of the set’s theming, and at the last minute it is revealed that this was all a ruse and the Doctor got them out using the TARDIS. This especially feels off when there are some references by Tamasan to the Seventh Doctor who did genuinely terrible things throughout his life. Still the story is great and Carley, Marilyn Nnadebe, and Amy Downham really sell the moral dilemma and the infiltrative nature of this Doctor. 8/10.
The Shadow Squad by Andrew Smith is the final story of the set and is the one which plays the most with the time part of the Time War. The Dalek Time Strategist has his own plans to continuously rewrite the timelines with a new form of Dalek, meaning that there are characters here who appear and disappear, exist and cease to exist, all while Tamasan and the Doctor are trying to find a weapon. Smith’s script is important in not having the other characters realise just how much time is changing, only the Doctor and Tamasan as Time Lords realise what is going on. Smith also actually makes the Daleks work really well here, going to their best portrayals as scheming and manipulating, rewriting time several times. It means that for much of the story the Daleks don’t actually have to be present for the events, moving in the shadows, making the title have a double meaning as it also refers to a certain group of Time Lords. Nicholas Briggs’ performance as all of the Daleks is also incredibly nuanced giving the newer forms of Dalek this oily voice which just sends shivers down the sign. He also is clearly enjoying playing the Time Strategist once again and Carley and Adele Anderson’s performances are also just brilliant as there is this acid between them throughout. It highlights Andrew Smith’s already great script making this end Forged in Fire on a perfect note. 10/10.
Overall, The War Doctor Begins: Forged in Fire is a set which takes a recast lead, as well as several other recast parts, and gives another brilliant installment in Big Finish’s Time War releases. It’s a great jumping on point and features excellent performances, lively direction, and the beginning of a brand new miniseries. 9/10.
You can get it on download or CD here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-the-war-doctor-begins-forged-in-fire-2363