REVIEW | The War Doctor Begins: Battlegrounds

The War Doctor returns! Jonathon Carley is back for another three audio adventures, as the Doctor’s most secret incarnation becomes further embroiled in the Time War. Forged in Fire (review here) and Warbringer (review here) were #3 and #2 respectively on our Big Finish Top 10 of 2021, so my expectations are high for this one. Will Battlegrounds live up to its predecessors?


1. “The Keeper of Light” by Phil Mulryne

The Doctor and his companion Layla arrive at a holiday cottage in Scotland, where they meet warring couple Dorothy and David. Something strange is happening here; the landscape is changing, fishermen are disappearing and the old, abandoned lighthouse keeps flashing. Who is the Keeper of Light? Is everyone who they seem? And what has happened to the Time War?

The Keeper of Light is a difficult story to review. You can definitely see what Phil Mulryne was intending with this one- a story that takes the War Doctor away from the Time War- but that idea barely gets explored, with most of the runtime being given over to a really quite boring mystery and a sluggish, uninspired plot. A lot is made of the fact that this is an ‘out of the ordinary’ story for this particular Doctor, but everything is played so straight here that you really don’t get that impression as you listen.

The cast are all on top form, with Emma Campbell-Jones being particularly impressive as the Doctor’s new companion Layla Bridge, even if script doesn’t give her very much to work with. Up until the final couple of scenes, both the Doctor and Layla are very generic Doctor/companion archetypes, fulfilling their most basic functions of solving mysteries/asking questions which means that the emotional climax of the story falls completely flat. It’s such a shame, because with a little more work, this could have been a really effective story.

Overall, a disappointing story that, with any other Doctor at the helm, would be completely below average. It’s only because of the ending (and even that is fairly predictable, given the cast) that this story makes it above two stars.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

2. “Temossus” by Rossa McPhillips

Temossus sees the Doctor infiltrate a Thal spaceship heading into Dalek territory. The superweapon contained aboard the ship could make or break the war… so why is Dylon giving it up to the Daleks? The Doctor must convince the Thals to turn on their leader before it’s too late!

This is another fairly average story plot-wise, though, unlike its predecessor, there are some really nice ideas at play beneath the more traditional story beats. It’s great to hear what the Thals are getting up to during the Time War, and the idea of competition among Dalek ranks is an excellent idea I wish had been explored more. Rossa McPhillips doesn’t deliver a perfect story with his first Big Finish script, but there are definite moments of brilliance here, so I’ll look forward to hearing more from him in the future.

The cast here are all excellent, with the standouts being David Warwick as the battle-hardened Dylon, and Rose Basista as Soolal, a Thal who becomes the Doctor’s temporary companion for this adventure. Neither are brilliantly characterised, but they’re definitely appealing characters, and share some strong scenes with Jonathon Carley‘s Doctor.

Overall, another more average adventure, though one with some good ideas at its heart. A strong, if not quite consistent, debut for Rossa McPhillips at Big Finish.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

3. “Rewind” by Timothy X Atack

The people of Lacuna experience the same events every day, over and over. They wake up, go about their lives, and then get mercilessly killed by the Daleks before waking up again and experiencing the very same events once more. And if that’s not bad enough, they remember each and every time, burdened with the knowledge that they will die again and again. Is there a way out of this? Or is Lacuna destined for an eternity of destruction?

With Rewind, Timothy X Atack gives us the best episode of the boxset (and perhaps of the War Doctor Begins series in general), continuing to prove that he’s one of the strongest writers working for Big Finish at the moment. If you think about it, it’s remarkable how similar the basic plot of this story is to Eve of the Daleks, the last New Year’s Day special on TV, and yet Atack conjures up something completely new and just as good, giving us a gripping story

Sarah Moss stars here as Ignis Abel, who, with the Doctor’s antics being put on the backburner here, is the main character of the story. Moss is fantastic in the role, perfectly capturing her character’s simultaneous weariness and determination to keep fighting, and her scenes with Jonathon Carley are electric. Nicholas Briggs also impresses as the Berserker Daleks, an intriguing new breed of Dalek which completely lacks strategy, simply arriving on worlds and wreaking havoc.

Overall, Rewind is an excellent story, giving us an in-depth look at a world ravaged by the Time War and doing so with flair. And what a fantastically ambiguous ending! Brilliant stuff.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Overall

Two average stories rescued by the excellent Rewind, Battlegrounds is the weakest War Doctor Begins boxset so far. Jonathon Carley is fantastic as the titular character, and the rest of the guest cast are on top form throughout, but the first two scripts are far too generic for me to give this set a higher score. Nothing here is bad, and director Louise Jameson makes sure that even the weaker stories are dynamically performed, but this range can do and has done better in the past. For those looking for some old-fashioned Doctor Who excitement, there’s no harm in picking this boxset up. Those in search of something a little more high-concept and thought-provoking, however, are probably better off looking elsewhere in the War Doctor Begins range.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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