REVIEW | The War Doctor Begins: Forged in Fire

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Four years after John Hurt‘s sad passing, the War Doctor is back in this new boxset of three audio adventures! Jonathon Carley takes up the mantle of this particular incarnation of our favourite Time Lord in a new series chronicling his earliest adventures in space and time: The War Doctor Begins.

So far, Big Finish‘s recasts have been very successful, with the likes of Tim Treloar, Daisy Ashford, Sadie Miller, Elliot Chapman and Christopher Naylor all having brilliantly resurrected a whole host of much-loved characters from the Whoniverse. But will Carley follow in their footsteps? Read on to find out!


1. “Light the Flame” by Matt Fitton

The War Doctor’s journey begins in Light the Flame, which opens mere moments after the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration in The Night of the Doctor. Taking place on Karn, this story follows the boxset’s titular character as he gets to grips both with his new incarnation, and, more importantly, with his new responsibilities as the Doctor of War. Lurking behind the scenes, however, are the Time Lords, who have sinister plans both for the Doctor and for Karn…

Right from his opening line, Jonathon Carley is the War Doctor. Seriously, his recreation of John Hurt‘s vocal mannerisms is simply incredible and, to my ears, is utterly indistinguishable from the original. I think this might be Big Finish‘s best recast yet; Carley is absolutely flawless in the role, not only as an impressionist, but as an actor. What a brilliant choice to breathe new life into a much-loved and yet sorely underexplored character. Fantastic stuff!

The Doctor isn’t the only recast character in this story. Ohila, the character originated by Clare Higgins, is played here by Veronica Roberts, who does a similarly impressive job at recreating the essence of the character she has inherited. This is probably the most in-depth exploration of the character of her appearances thus far and, while the script rightly remains focused mostly on the Doctor, it’s nice to get to know just a little bit more about Ohila. She’s definitely a character ripe for further exploration, so here’s hoping we get to hear Roberts back in the role sometime in the future.

This story also sees the return of Chris Jarman as Cardinal Rasmus, having previously featured in last year’s The Eighth Doctor: Time War 4 (review here). Like in his earlier appearance, he doesn’t get too much focus here, which is a shame, because I think he’s a character with lots of potential. I hope that when he crops up next, we get to know a little more about him, as well as something that differentiates this particular incarnation of the character from his earlier incarnation (Damian Lynch), from the Ravenous and Susan’s War series.

The guest cast is rounded off by Anna Andresen as young acolyte Lithea, and Helen Goldwyn as formidable Time Lord Commander Sanmar. Both put in very strong performances, perfectly adapting as Fitton’s script slowly reveals more layers to their characters. Lithea and Sanmar are the kinds of characters who start off one way, and slowly transform over the course of the story, and both Andresen and Goldwyn perfectly portray this evolution.

Along with suitably ethereal sound design from Jack Townley, all of this comes together to form a very strong story indeed, giving us a compelling, exciting and well-performed account of the War Doctor’s very earliest moments. Finally, the mystery of the War Doctor’s first adventure has been revealed… and what an adventure! If not for a slightly weaker ending, this would definitely have received full marks. Almost perfect.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

2. “Lion Hearts” by Lou Morgan

Lion Hearts by Lou Morgan sees the Doctor embark upon a rescue mission, setting out to rescue a group of alien Tharils who have been captured and imprisoned by the Daleks. It’s a relatively simple story, but it’s told well, and has a strong final act that elevates it above average.

Carley is joined here by Amy Downham as Time Lord soldier Lorinius and Marilyn Nnadebe as Tharil Valetta, who put in strong performances despite not being quite as developed in the script as one might hope. John Dorney also stars, taking on the role of Biroc from the 1981 TV story Warrior’s Gate. I’ve not yet seen that particular episode, so can’t attest to how effective Dorney is at recreating the part, but he gives a good performance too, particularly in his scenes with Carley’s Doctor.

Overall, this is a fairly strong story, making up for a meandering first act with a twisty-turny conclusion that will make this an interesting re-listen. Good stuff.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

3. “The Shadow Squad” by Andrew Smith

Forged in Fire concludes with The Shadow Squad, by Andrew Smith. The Doctor joins Commodore Tamasan as she embarks upon an intelligence mission on the planet Atherea… but when their correspondent is suddenly erased from time, they realise they’ve become embroiled in something far more dangerous. Discovering that the Daleks are at work on Atherea, the two fall in with a secret group of elite Time Lord soldiers known only as the Shadow Squad. Might they hold the key to defeating the Daleks?

I won’t go into any more detail about the story, as this is quite a plot-focussed episode, but what I will say is that it’s full of some fantastic twists and turns that really elevate it above a more traditional Time War story. The secret of the Shadow Squad, as well as the truth behind what the Daleks are planning, are both well executed, and are some really creative ideas that make this story feel really fresh and exciting.

Nicholas Briggs features as the Daleks and, while he gets to play some of their more traditional facets, he also gets some new challenges in the role. Alongside the sinister, whispering Dalek Time Strategist, he also gets to lend his vocal talents to an altogether new kind of Dalek (the details of which I won’t spoil here), who is a great and inventive new creation by Andrew Smith. Strong stuff.

This would definitely be a five-star story, were it not for a slightly slower, more traditional first act, and the thinly-sketched guest characters. While both the Doctor and Tamasan are well-written throughout, with the former getting some particularly good scenes as he faces off against the Daleks for the first time in this incarnation, the Shadow Squad themselves are a little underdeveloped, represented only through Kit Young‘s Trestor, who, while well-performed, isn’t the most compelling character.

Overall, however, this is an excellent story that, if not for those few minor quibbles, would definitely receive top marks. A fantastic end to a fantastic boxset!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Overall

The War Doctor is well and truly back. Jonathon Carley proves not only a pitch-perfect recast of John Hurt, effortlessly and near-indistinguishably recreating his iconic voice, but also an incredibly strong actor in his own right, perfectly bringing to life the varied material in each of these three stories. Along with a guest cast on top form, as well as three pacy, creative scripts, Carley’s performance makes Forged in Fire one of the strongest boxsets of the year. Almost perfect.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The War Doctor Begins: Forged in Fire is available now on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com

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