Big Finish. Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins - Forged in Fire Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish. Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins - Forged in Fire Review

Matthew Kresal asks Who by fire?
The passing of Sir John Hurt in early 2017 left a void in the Doctor Who universe. His War Doctor, introduced for the series 50th anniversary in 2013, had resonated with fans (this reviewer included, as I wrote about in 2017) and found a new life via Big Finish. Indeed, it seemed as though we weren't likely to get more War Doctor tales for some time, except perhaps in comics or prose. Five years on, however, that has changed as Big Finish takes us back to the earliest days of the War Doctor's incarnation for a new series called, appropriately, The War Doctor Begins, kicking it off with a box-set of three stories released as part of Forged In Fire.

It perhaps goes without saying that much of this set's success rests on the hands of the actor taking on the War Doctor. Something that led Big Finish to decide against using the older version of the character but to go younger, back to the young face we glimpsed in the final shot of The Night of the Doctor. Jonathon Carley excels at capturing the sound of early eighties Hurt in films like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Osterman Weekend. Although Carley, under the direction of Louise Jameson, doesn't just go for imitation. His younger War Doctor is a fully-formed character who ranges from moments of seriousness to sarcasm and anger, depending on what the scripts require. It's a solid debut performance and one that firmly anchors the entire set through its three stories.

And Forged In Fire certainly doesn't waste time putting him to use, right from the very first scene, in fact. Matt Fitton's Light the Flame kicks off perhaps minutes after the events of the Night of the Doctor, giving us the War Doctor's 'first' adventure on the planet Karn as the Time War prepares to roll over it and its Sisterhood. Fitton has to do a lot in an hour, from re-introducing the War Doctor and creating a sequel to a much-loved minisode, to establishing the supporting cast for the series (bringing in Adèle Anderson's Tamasan and Chris Jarman's Rasmus from the Eighth Doctor Time War releases). It's something that Fitton handles with aplomb, telling a compelling Time War tale as well as expanding upon both the Sisterhood and the Time Lord's harsher nature in the conflict (as exemplified by Helen Goldwyn's performance as Sanmar). It's a thrilling opening installment and one that sets the stage beautifully for what's to come.

Lou Morgan, a veteran of previous Time War stories, pens the middle tale of the set. Told in large part in flashback during a debriefing of Gallifreyian soldier Lorinus (Amy Downham), Lion Hearts is at its core a Time War take on the war film cliche of a team on a mission to save someone. But, as becomes apparent as the debriefing goes on, one done with plenty of twists worthy of this Doctor and the Time War. Not the least of which is the appearance of the time-sensitive Tharils, and in particular Biroc, introduced in the classic Fourth Doctor serial Warriors' Gate. Morgan weaves references to that TV serial into her script, even using something mentioned in it as a plot point here, while also creating a story that explores morality, honor, and the notion of the "needs of the many" in wartime. Lion Hearts is a thoughtful and engaging war story, one that suits where this Doctor is in his life very well.

This trilogy concludes with The Shadow Squad from Andrew Smith (who penned two stories for Hurt's later sets in the role). Like Morgan's story before this, Smith takes inspiration from another war film cliche, but one that he gives a very sizable Time War twist that, once revealed, seems so obvious it's surprising it's not been done before by Big Finish. Also, while their threat has been the menace hanging over the previous two stories, it's here that the Daleks come to the fore, perhaps showing Big Finish learning the lesson that featuring the series big-baddie is a case where less is more. Even with Skaro's finest, Smith finds a new Time War twist to use, along with a chance for the ever-reliable Nicholas Briggs to find something new to do with voicing them alongside Jack Townley's soundscape. By the time it's over, The Shadow Squad is nothing short of a triumphant conclusion for this set.

From Carley's nuanced performance as a younger War Doctor to Jameson's direction and three imaginative scripts, the stories that comprise Forged In Fire are nothing short of a War Doctor renaissance. And for those of us left craving more from this Doctor, it's both a respectfully done tribute to the great actor who originated the role and also a chance to carry forward telling new adventures. The War Doctor begins again, and long may he continue.

Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins - Forged in Fire is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 August 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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