Big Finish Review: Gallifrey - Time War 4

Big Finish Review: Gallifrey - Time War 4

The end has come. Unlike ongoing Big Finish ranges such as The War Master or The Diary of River Song, Gallifrey – Time War was never intended to go beyond four box sets, meaning that volume four was always going to be the final showdown, the resolution of numerous plot and character arcs. The ensemble cast of this epic grand finale includes Lalla Ward as Romana, Louise Jameson as Leela, Seán Carlsen as Narvin, Richard Armitage as Rassilon, Miles Richardson as Braxiatel and Nicholas Briggs as the Daleks.

Spoilers follow for the final instalment in the Gallifrey – Time War series. Don’t forget to read up on the previous instalment with The Digital Fix, and catch the episode synopses below:

Romana is lost to the Time War though Leela and Narvin still fight to survive.

A resistance, caught between Rassilon’s fury and the Dalek Emperor’s mania, have a desperate plan to stop the conflict.

Everything ends. And for some on Gallifrey, the Time War will soon be over.

Deception by Lisa McMullin

As the resistance scatters, Leela and an unknown ally embark on a rescue. But there are traps for the unwary inside the Vortex.

Meanwhile on Gallifrey, Livia and Mantus are at odds, seeking to protect themselves as Rassilon's grip tightens.

Dissolution by Lou Morgan

With young Rayo in tow, Narvin looks for respite in an ancient bolthole and turns to an old mentor for help.

But a Dalek has been hunting him through space and time, and it will not give up his trail so easily.

Beyond by David Llewellyn

Romana met her fate on Unity, but Braxiatel isn’t ready to give up on her. In a forbidden realm, he offers one last hope to escape the chaos of a universe at war.

First, they must enter the Beyond and confront the ghosts and monsters within...

Homecoming by Matt Fitton

Rassilon receives an ultimatum from an envoy of the Dalek Emperor while Leela and Narvin return with a dangerous strategy to end the Time War.

All roads lead to Gallifrey. For some, this is where the fight will end.

Review

The first volume of Gallifrey – Time War took a chilling look at the formalisation of hostilities between the Time Lords and Daleks, showcased guest spots from characters like Ace and the War Master, and ended with the resurrection of none other than Lord High President Rassilon. The next set depicted the machinations of different political factions and explored the lengths to which Rassilon and the War Council would go to secure their grip on power. The saga’s penultimate instalment propelled Romana and Narvin away from Gallifrey entirely, as the pair tracked down their friend Leela in the midst of the war. That third set lacked the weighty plot punch of earlier episodes but made up with some intimate character development.

Volume four draws on the example set by sets like Doom Coalition and Ravenous – the ‘chuck in everything we’ve got’ approach. It’s a tried-and-true Doctor Who format both on television and audio. Think Doomsday, Journey’s End, The Timeless Children, Doom Coalition 4, Ravenous 4, Time War 4, even the upcoming Dalek Universe 3: the finale packs in a plethora of returning companions and ‘big bad’ enemies. Volume four of Gallifrey – Time War features no less than eleven returning characters – and it’s got a high standard to meet.

Deception

It’s straight to business with the opening story, which picks up directly after the end of Unity from the perspective of Narvin, Leela and Leela’s adoptive nephew Rayo, who are headed for a planet shielded from the prying eyes of Skaro and Gallifrey. Here they are reunited with Eris, the erstwhile junior CIA agent from series two, who is now part of a resistance movement – a third faction unaligned to Time Lords or Daleks planning to end the war for good.

Eris has moved on since we last saw him in Partisans, transitioning from the rookie recruit to a more independent mover and shaker. He didn’t meet Leela the first time around, but spends the majority of the runtime here figuring out her nature as a warrior, and vice versa. Separated from Narvin and Rayo, they are caught in a deception fields, a ragged region of spacetime deployed by Rassilon in the vortex for psychological torment and to catch traitors. It’s a brilliant concept with a hideous in-universe rationale – yet is simply one of many horrors in the Time War.

The episode primarily functions to set up the boxset’s main plot thread: an attempt to poison the time vortex itself via the Untempered Schism on Gallifrey. But Deception also cuts back to Gallifrey itself, where Mantus and Livia are at loggerheads over Rassilon’s increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. What makes these scenes a true delight is how Richard Armitage indulges in Rassilon’s egotism, grandeur and verbosity, hinting at the madness that follows in episode four.

Dissolution

This volume, as the culmination of a sixteen-part saga, ought not be a newcomer’s first foray into the world of Gallifrey, but if for some reason it is, then Dissolution offers a decent introduction to the sometimes hot-headed but sharply intelligent Narvin, and some of his backstory prior to joining the Celestial Intervention Agency. He turned his back on his Time Lord chapter long ago aiming to make a difference at the CIA, and Dissolution teases out some of the motivations for this course of action.

Running in tandem with the events of Deception, the episode sees Narvin and Rayo flee to an isolated Time Lord retreat complex on an ocean planet, also the home of Narvin’s old mentor the Apothecary (Time Lords do love their monikers!), played by Anna Carteret. A hunter Dalek is on their tail having followed them all the way from the planet Unity, but by and large this is a chance for Narvin’s past to be explored and for Rayo to step up and prove himself as an increasingly forthright and morally responsible figure.

Narvin’s still keeping the secret of what actually happened to Romana back from both Leela and Rayo. This brings him into conflict with both Rayo and the Apothecary, who like any good mentor is on hand to provide sage advice for stepping up to the plate when needed and seeing the bigger picture. The end of Dissolution nicely sets up Rayo to become the Apothecary’s new apprentice, but not before he convinces Narvin to return to Gallifrey and make a difference once again, regardless of the danger.

Beyond

Romana, a mainstay of Gallifrey since its beginning back in 2004, was last seen sacrificing herself to allow Narvin and Rayo to escape the Daleks at the end of volume three. Being supposedly exterminated by a Dalek was a great cliffhanger, but she could never really be written out so definitively with Romana being such an intrinsic part of the Gallifrey saga.

As with Deception, Beyond picks up a moment after the end of Unity, but this time from Romana’s perspective. Irving Braxiatel scoops her out of danger with a new plan of his own for ending the war. Brax had fled midway through volume one, thinking the war unwinnable and refusing to participate, but now intends to track down a device called the Parallax, the latest Time War megaweapon with the ability to rewrite a species out of existence.

Braxiatel, a creation of the Virgin New Adventures novels, often heard alongside Bernice Summerfield and intended to be a brother of the Doctor, is charming, enigmatic and Romana’s friend – but also a renegade. (His timeline, too, is extremely complicated.) Beyond delves into the morality of both characters, showing a more emotionally forthcoming side to Romana outside her usual acerbic temperament.

The story is another blend of character and concept, throwing Romana and Brax into the midst of a strange space-time region called the Beyond, which throws up time-looped sequences of events, alternate versions of Narvin and Leela, and individual moments linking back to the one preceding it. It’s the reintroduction of the Ravenous, however, that really sets it apart. The artron energy-eating race of horrors cross over the Eighth Doctor’s Ravenous range to wreak havoc in the artron energy-heavy realm of the Beyond, and although they don’t play into any Time War arc in a big way, their presence here augments the sense of scale and danger in this vast war.

Homecoming

The first three episodes, although solid instalments in their own right, are ultimately links in the chain leading to the finale, which is where everything comes together. More than anything else this is Rassilon’s story, trying into his Ultimate Sanction for the Time Lords to become beings of pure consciousness as depicted in The End of Time.

Richard Armitage is of course the latest in a line of actors to take on the mantle. The mythic figure from Time Lord lore has been portrayed by the likes of Timothy Dalton, Donald Sumpter and Terrence Hardiman, and Armitage’s version is just as revered, just as convinced of his own divinity and just as consumed by megalomania as he ever was. The actor’s baritone makes for some truly awe-inspiring scenes as Armitage revels in every syllable and arcane pronunciation. If there’s any real criticism here, it’s that he properly appears in just this one episode. Yet with this incarnation surviving the boxset, it’s entirely possible we could hear from Armitage again in another of Big Finish’s Time War ranges (perhaps the upcoming War Doctor Begins?).

The Daleks are another key player, having made an unexpected incursion into the Kasterborous system, sneaking in without using the vortex, and wreaking havoc in the Capitol with upgraded weapons. There’s a fantastic symmetry between the Time Lords and the Daleks – both their respective leaders believe themselves to be a god, convinced of their own righteous divinity, and the way they butt heads in Homecoming is glorious to witness.

Cardinal Mantus, Rassilon’s snivelling and sycophantic puppet underling, is a brilliant creation, smarmy and still at loggerheads with Livia. The pair find themselves at the receiving end of Rassilon’s displeasure and are thrust into the fray in the skies above Gallifrey before teaming up with Narvin, Romana and Leela aboard a Dalek saucer. The resistance’s plan to poison the vortex, however won’t be enough to stop the Daleks with their new-found alternative time travelling abilities.

The final act brings semi-permanent change for Gallifrey, and not everyone makes it through unscathed. Mantus is exterminated, Livia is last shown dying of Dalek radiation and Romana is archived inside a pocket dimension, while Leela remains on Gallifrey as a warrior of the Time Lords (one assumes for further missions leading to her eventual appearance in The War Doctor). The fates of Narvin and Eris, however, remain frustratingly unclear. Their stories will likely be resumed by a future production team on Gallifrey, but Homecoming lacks the perfect ending that comes from giving all characters a satisfying final stand.

The Extras...

Particular attention has been given to creating an informative and comprehensive suite of interviews to complement the four stories. Scott Handcock and Matt Fitton give a handy rundown of the entire Gallifrey – Time War saga from the initial plotting way back in 2016 through to the finale, explaining the rationale behind a large ensemble cast and how each boxset was planned to present a different aspect to Gallifrey’s involvement in the Time War.

Writer Lisa McMullin, although acknowledging the challenge implicit in navigating so many characters and plot elements, is nonetheless thrilled to be involved as the series ends. She takes us through the ideation of deception fields that draws on stories of shellshock in World War One. Omar Austin seems to have a genuine affection for Rayo, and Seán Carlsen and Louise Jameson in particular still very much enjoy themselves even after many years in the booth, both as colleagues and friends.

Handcock reveals more Big Finish recording trickery on these stories as Lalla Ward and Miles Richardson recorded on separate days – which is strange to think given their story is essentially a two-hander! Ward also offers up a thoughtful insight into heroism and melodrama in Doctor Who. Hers is a sharp and nuanced perspective on Romana and the stories behind told.

Richard Armitage’s shows a close understanding of both the weight of his character both in this story and in the broader lore. The “colossal jigsaw” of recording across almost a dozen studio days is impressive indeed, and kudos to sound designer Russell McGee for bringing it all together. As usual on these releases, McGee also narrates a section at the end of the final disc explaining certain editing choices (sometimes quite ingenious) and the ‘continuity of sound’ necessitated by a saga spanning sixteen episodes.

Lastly, there’s something to be said for Ioan Morris’ eerie, Blade Runner-like score, a suite of which is tagged on at the end of each disc. Gallifrey wouldn’t be the same without his dab hand on the synthesiser.

Some Final Thoughts...

As the culmination of an expansive sixteen-part saga, the fourth volume of Gallifrey – Time War hits all the right notes. Gallifrey has never been anything other than unashamedly centred on its key characters, and that’s no different here. The series is probably one of the most effective fusions of classic and new Doctor Who with original Big Finish elements: classic characters like Romana and Leela fighting in the Time War alongside original creations like Narvin, Livia and Mantus in a series full of thrills and personal moments alike.

Volume four is a superlative finale that folds in many layers and returning characters, bringing some to a close while propelling others further along the course of the war. The cast is consistently brilliant and the plotting fuses character-motivated drama with science fiction action. Gallifrey – Time War comes to a mostly – through not quite perfectly – satisfying end.

It remains to be seen if or how Gallifrey will return from its latest hiatus. Pushing into the post-Time War era – the era of Hell Bent onwards – seems like a natural next step. Whatever the future of Gallifrey looks like, it promises to be unique.

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