Review by Jacob Licklider
Perhaps one aspect of The War Doctor Begins I have found myself undervaluing is the format. While the first set is a three episode miniseries about the immediate aftermath of the regeneration of the Eighth Doctor, the second established itself as its own self-contained miniseries, though early in the War Doctor’s life. Battlegrounds, the third set in the series, follows this pattern as well cementing the fact that this range isn’t going to be an actual miniseries, but four sets exploring early parts of the character’s life. This third set has the linking theme of exploring war and the various battlegrounds war is waged upon: physical, mental, and spiritual. Three scripts from three stylistically different writers each tacking a different type of battleground makes The War Doctor Begins: Battlegrounds three episodes with very different tones and a focus on character pieces above everything else which keeps the link strong, but each of the stories can find themselves separate. The other link throughout the stories is the directing from Louise Jameson, who should be singled out for being responsible for how The War Doctor Begins sounds. Her directorial style is distinct and steeps the sets in this almost ethereal atmosphere where things feel ever so slightly out of phase to give the Time War this mythical quality.
The set opens with the reflection on the mental toll of war in The Keeper of Light by Phil Mulryne. This is also an episode that is a bit difficult to discuss without revealing its twist, but I will strive to try. You just have to look really closely at the character’s names and some of the cast list to get an idea of what the twist is going to be. It’s all in an exercise for Jonathon Carley to have the chance to explore the psychology of the War Doctor and what being born a warrior really means for the character. This is all wrapped up in a seemingly simple and standard Doctor Who adventure set on Earth all the way outside of the Time War itself. Of course, this isn’t actually the case and the Time War finds its way but the initial premise of separating the War Doctor from the War itself is fascinating. While the argument could be made that The Day of the Doctor did just that, that story was establishing who the War Doctor was and Phil Mulryne expands the idea by giving the Doctor a companion in Layla played by Emma Campbell-Jones who has been travelling for some time. Campbell-Jones and Carley have great chemistry as do the rest of the cast, each understanding what place their role has in the narrative which brings everything together to make the twist work and the examination hit hard.
New writer Rossa McPhillips explores the physical side of war in Temmosus, a story named for one of the Thals from The Daleks, the Thal leader killed by the Daleks in an ambush. Fittingly, in exploring the physical side of the war, it focuses in on those who are both affected by the war and made disadvantaged by the war. This is about those who have their homelands ravaged by warring factions often on their behalf, but not giving them the power to decide how fighting should proceed. This makes a situation where the Thals have to essentially become villains for a story to fight for their right in the Time War. The Time War while primarily between Daleks and Time Lords had this tendency to always ignore the fact that Skaro had an entire other race of people who have been fighting the Daleks since the very beginning, that war being a direct precursor to the Time War. This is one where Adele Anderson perhaps gets to shine playing what is essentially a villain. Yes, Tamasan has never really been a “good” character, but she has been one essentially trying her best. Here there is some genuine selfishness and Anderson really sells the character and the mindset of a Time Lord in a way we haven’t seen in a very long time. It also makes the Doctor be on the sidelines so a lot of the story feels like it’s from an outsider’s perspective adding to the commentary on outsiders and their place in war.
Rewind closes the set from Timothy X. Atack and uses a time loop style story to essentially examine the “spiritual” effects of war, though not explicitly. The spirituality is all in the subtext, mainly going towards the morality side of spirituality than any sort of religiosity, though those themes could be argued to be there. The planet Lacuna is in a time loop while being under attack from the Daleks while its citizens are essentially just trying to cope and break free. Their morale is slowly breaking down and once the Doctor finds himself in the loop things get ever more complicated because the Doctor is involved. The Doctor still wants to save everyone, despite feeling internally he is no longer a healer and does not deserve the name Doctor (Atack implies something has happened further to justify this). The brilliance in the script is also in its ending, it’s a story where while there is a building towards a conclusion, there is a lack of resolution with the story just stopping but not in a bad way. Usually when this happens it’s because a story has run out of steam, but here it is a matter of ending at the point where tension is the highest and the effect is perfect at leaving the listener with an understanding of what this is all about. This is all about the fact that war breaks people down and this serves as the pinnacle of the set.
Overall, The War Doctor Begins: Battlegrounds while not always going down the routes people might have been expecting is brilliant at tying together three stories based on a united theme. Themes of war while not foreign to Doctor Who with stories like The Daleks and Genesis of the Daleks exploring the horrors of war and its aftermath, Battlegrounds gets down to brass tax with the way war effects people, continuing to excel at what this range has been best at. 8/10.
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