Big Finish: Doctor Who - THE WAR DOCTOR BEGINS 3: Battlegrounds, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who - THE WAR DOCTOR BEGINS 3: Battlegrounds, Review

Matthew Kresal fights the unseen battle.
When Sir John Hurt sadly passed away in 2017, it appeared to be the end of the War Doctor's adventures. That changed in 2021 with the release of the first War Doctor Begins set, with Jonathon Carley ably sliding on the War Doctor's bandolier in the earliest days of this Doctor. Battlegrounds continue to explore the early times of the Time War fighting incarnation, but not always in the way you might expect.

That's clear from the very first episode. The Keeper of Light by Phil Mulryne initially seems to be an odd choice for a story, let alone an opener, in a War Doctor set. It's a rather traditional story from the outset, right down to the presence of a spunky female companion named Layla Bridge (played by Emma Campbell-Jones, who played Cass alongside Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor in the famed minisode The Night of the Doctor). In keeping with the battlegrounds theme, there's far more to this episode than meets the ear, including the casting of some familiar voices. What The Keeper of Light does, without question, is give Carley his best hour in the role to date, thanks to Mulryne's script and Louise Jameson's direction.

The middle episode of the set explores the Time War from a new angle. Thriller writer Rossa McPhillips makes his Big Finish debut with Temmosus, a story that brings an obvious but surprisingly underused Dalek foe into the conflict: the Thals. Featuring a rogue Thal commander stealing the titular new battleship from the Time Lords and the War Doctor, McPhillips shows off his thriller background by creating a Time War take on submarine thrillers such as The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide. The result is the most action-filled episode of the set, but one that doesn't lose sight of the themes of this trilogy of stories, as the War Doctor pulls apart the motives of the Thals on board. Not to mention a chance to see Time Lord and Dalek politics at play, helping to drive the narrative as much as the Thals themselves.

Battlegrounds trilogy of tales ends with Rewind. Imagine a war, the most terrible one you can imagine. Then live through the worst day of it, time and again, in some hellish twist on Groundhog Day. That is the premise of Timothy X Atack's script, which is essentially a Doctor-lite tale in the mold of Modern Who. Rewind is a story of what it's like to be an average person on an unassuming planet, living through the Time War, in this case, Sarah Moss as a junior government minister named Ignis Abel. Through Ignis and Moss' extraordinary humanity in the role as the "in-house optimist," as she describes herself at one point, we eventually meet the War Doctor and learn what he's doing here. As the closing story, it makes for a solid companion piece and bookend with The Keeper of Light, one that explores how people deal with the terrible alongside the ordinary. It's an episode that, despite its wartime setting, made this reviewer think of time spent at home in 2020 during the early months of Covid, with one day being inseparable from the other. It's a powerful story, building to a final scene that both has to be heard to be believed and will haunt the listener even after the theme music and extras play.

As strong as the scripts are, this set owes much of its success to its Doctor. Carley again excels at capturing the sound of early eighties Hurt in films like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Osterman Weekend, sometimes uncannily doing so. It also helps that Carley, under Louise Jameson's skillful direction, presents this younger War Doctor as being a fully-formed character in his own right. More than in either of the earlier releases, Carley brings forth the melancholic qualities of this Doctor, still coming to terms with the man he is now and how far that is from whom he used to be. There's a sense that with Carley having, to quote director Louise Jameson in the extras, gone from strength to strength across the trio of released box sets in this range, there's a willingness to let him do more with the character. The result is his three best performances to date, which is saying something given how strong both Forged in Fire and Warbringer were last year.

It's not just Carley who has gone from strength to strength. Battlegrounds proves that the range has done so, exploring the idea not just with the Time War itself but in different ways thematically. The three episodes aren't always what you expect them to be, but that makes listening to it a richer experience. With wars happening in the real world, Big Finish's collection of tales reminds us that the cost isn't in bombs, bullets, and casualties but sometimes in things we can not see.

A lesson worth remembering.

Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins: Battlegrounds is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 July 2022, and on general sale after this date.

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. His prose includes the non-fiction The Silver Archive: Dark Skies from Obverse Books, the Cold War alternate history spy thriller Our Man on the Hill, and the Sidewise Award winning short story Moonshot in Sea Lion Press' Alternate Australias anthology. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, or follow him on Twitter @KresalWritesHe was born, raised, and lives in North Alabama where he never developed a southern accent.

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