Big Finish: Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins: He Who Fights With Monsters, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins: He Who Fights With Monsters, Review

Matthew Kresal journeys into a Time War's heart of darkness. 
One of the joys for this reviewer as a Big Finish listener over the last eighteen months or so has been the company's War Doctor Begins range. Of course, the earlier War Doctor audios with the late and much-missed Sir John Hurt reprising his role remain near and dear to my heart as a fan. Even so, getting to hear this Doctor's origin story and Jonathan Carley wearing Hurt's bandolier with such skill has been a treat, too. And perhaps no more so than in He Who Fights With Monsters.

Being the fourth release in the range and essentially the season finale to a run of stories that began with Forged in Fire in June 2021, He Who Fights With Monsters does something different from its predecessors. And, for that matter, something that hasn't been done with this Doctor on audio since those earlier audios. Instead of three standalone episodes by different writers, this set is a three-part serial written by a single writer.

Of course, knowing that the writer is Robert Valentine means we're in for a treat. Valentine, who has become one of the standout writers currently contributing to the company (including script-editing and penning the finale to December's UNIT: Brave New World release), knows how to bring a box set together. Here, with Louise Jameson once more directing, he does so with a tale that takes this Time War incarnation of the Doctor into a story that's not only a thrilling adventure but asks a pivotal question: Who is this Doctor?

To answer that, Valentine creates a Doctor Who version of Apocalypse Now. One which sees the story opening with the War Doctor recruited to go on the hunt for and assassinate a seemingly rogue Time Lord. Whereas the 1979 film (and its source material Heart of Darkness, both the Conrad novella and the legendary unmade film version from Orson Welles) took their lead character into the jungle to search for a man gone native, Valentine uses the three episodes of this set to take the Doctor into both the heart of the Time War and his own past. Doctor Who has proven itself adept at adapting classic works for its format, and this is no exception, thanks to the journey we go on with the War Doctor.

For it's that journey that makes He Who Fights Monsters the listen that it is. A sometimes harrowing and haunting one, full of reminders of who this Doctor used to be before the Time War caught up with him. One that sees him facing the Daleks (as always), encountering old friends in different forms, and even welcoming death. It's a hell of a storyline to put any character through, but even more so with this Doctor. It's a testament to Valentine's writing, Jameson's direction, and Carley's acting that it comes across as the captivating story that He Who Fights With Monsters turns out to be.

Indeed, this is Carley's finest hour in the role to date. That's saying something, given how strong each of his previous performances has been, starting in the range's opening episode set in the aftermath of Night of the Doctor. Here Carley's Doctor is put through the wringer, emotionally and physically, by events. Something which, in some places, brought to mind Hurt's performance as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, thanks to Carley's performance. Something which proves once and for all that this is no mere imitation of Hurt, but a living, breathing take on the role that takes Hurt as inspiration but which Carley makes his own.

And, at the end of it, is the War Doctor's own version of Mr. Kurtz: the mysterious Barber-Surgeon. Valentine crafts a fascinating character on the page, superbly brought to life by Nicholas Le Prevost. The contrasts and similarities between the two characters and the performances by Carley and Le Prevost are fascinating to hear as the set races toward its conclusion. Indeed, those scenes highlight not only how good each of these actors is but are also worth the price of the set in their own right. And, of course, an immensely satisfying conclusion to this set.

The result? He Who Fights With Monsters is the best War Doctor Begins set to date. How could it not be with Valentine's infusion of the literary with Doctor Who, Jameson's direction, and the performances of Carley and Le Prevost? It's a War Doctor tale like no other and one that any Doctor Who fan should seek out without hesitation.

Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins: He Who Fights With Monsters is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 28 February 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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