Big Finish Review: Gallifrey - Time War Volume 2
The mythology of the Time War in the Doctor Who universe has become a hugely influential storytelling device, and Big Finish shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to releasing stories set within that period. Whereas other releases, such as that featuring the War Master or the Eighth Doctor, feature numerous space battles or Daleks, the Gallifrey series has branched off to reveal the political machinations of Time Lords on their home planet in response to the war ravaging the universe.
Gallifrey – Time War Volume Two is directed and produced by Scott Handcock, and is available exclusively on the Big Finish website before general release on May 30th 2019. Be warned this review does reveal key plot events from volume two. Episode synopses are as follows:
Rassilon has returned – summoned back from the dead, to lead his people through their greatest crisis.
But the Time Lords will reap what they have sown, and the consequences of this resurrection will determine Gallifrey’s fate.
And in among the schemes and strategies of war, Romana and Narvin are losing friends and allies, as they become ever more isolated…
Havoc by David Llewellyn
In the aftermath of Rassilon’s return, Romana finds herself at the heart of the War Council’s machinations, with the High Council, the CIA, and the Lord President’s new security force all vying for control.
But then, a mysterious stranger arrives in the Capitol itself. And they bring a terrible warning from the future…
Partisans by Una McCormack
When the world of Ysalus becomes a strategic target for the Time Lords and their opponents, Gallifrey takes an interest in the planet’s civil unrest.
But the CIA and the War Council each have their own strategy.
And, as good intentions only make things worse, the true horror of the Time War will be visited upon the people of Ysalus.
Collateral by Lisa McMullin
As the scavenging Sythes descend on Ysalus, Narvin discovers how far his people will go to protect their interests.
The universe is discovering that no place is safe from the fury of battle.
Every victory in the Time War comes at a price, and too often it is the innocent who will pay…
Assassins by Matt Fitton
Pushed to the brink by Rassilon’s actions, Romana is thinking the unthinkable.
A new threat has breached Gallifrey’s defenses. And its target is clear. A race of assassins has evolved at the heart of the Time War, dedicated to one purpose. The Sicari are coming for Rassilon…
The first Time War set was my first time listening to the Gallifrey series, but I quickly found the stories to be an enjoyable exploration of political corruption and Time War mythology. As director-producer Scott Handcock mentions in February's edition of Big Finish’s Vortex magazine, the slate has been mostly cleared with the cast of characters: only Romana and Narvin remain to face down Rassilon, and this works well to focus on other key players who emerge in the wake of Rassilon’s resurrection at the end of Series one.
Romana is exonerated from all criminal charges and reinstated as head of the Celestial Intervention Agency with Narvin as her deputy, which places them back in conflict with the High Council and War Council. A mysterious – and murderous – visitor to the Capitol disturbs the peace further, precipitating the creation of a President-controlled militia to clamp down on insubordination among all Gallifreyans. Over all of this, Rassilon’s spectre dominates, his power quickly becoming absolute.
Terrence Hardiman convinces as an imperious, calculating and war-mongering Rassilon, Lord President Eternal of Gallifrey. Hardiman’s performance is restrained yet sufficiently menacing to warrant his limited “screen time”. Rassilon’s resurrection, far from being a triumphant and peace-seeking advancement in the war effort, becomes the impetus for a dictatorial rule over the planet’s inhabitants. The creation of a new security unit enforces a merciless and iron-fisted approach to societal and political cohesion.
Romana and Narvin seem to be the only rational-thinking individuals in the Capitol, the only ones committed to peace-seeking efforts over war-mongering. The two characters have featured in Gallifrey dramas since 2004, but even newcomers to the series will quickly find themselves relating to and feeling for these characters, which is a testament to David Llewellyn’s intimate and meaningful writing.
Although Romana and Narvin are the stars of Gallifrey, the episodes are more ensemble pieces, with numerous new characters introduced very quickly and listeners expected to keep up with all the developments and shifting allegiances. Other returning characters Prime Minister Livia and General Trave experience appeasing change of heart, with the pair creating a reluctant and uneasy pact – a “noble triumvirate” – with Coordinator Romana to engage with Rassilon together, as a united force, which seems to be the only way forward in the face of his portentous might.
Havoc works as an effective opening episode to this second sequence of Time War-set Gallifrey stories, but the episode works better as a sequel to the first series, with listeners ideally having an awareness of what has precipitated the events that play out here. Llewellyn does a good job of drawing out the strings of deceit and doubt in what could be classed as both an intimate and far-reaching episode.
Narvin heads into the field with rookie CIA agent Eris to the Ysalus, a planet caught in the midst of war between two bands of “ideological puritans” and “xenophobic imperialists”, with countless innocents caught in the middle. Future history projections have predicted the planet to be highly important in future of the Time War – Narvin and Eris’ job is to ensure the conflict heads the way the CIA wants it to, giving them a future advantage against the Daleks.
Partisans continues to interrogate the impact of Rassilon’s return to the presidency by exploring the lengths different factions of Time Lords will go to in order to obtain glory and victory in the War. Although he does not feature personally, Rassilon’s presence is still felt, with his right-hand man Cardinal Mantus taking on main antagonist duties in this and the following episode. (From Mantus to Padrac to Borusa – even to some extent Ollistra – Cardinals on Gallifrey, it seems, usually turn out villainous.)
Samuel Clemens plays Mantus as a schemer and ultra-loyal disciple of the President who takes glee in holding the power and influence, and does not hesitate to use threats to execute his schemes. For example, although ostensibly sending Commander Aladra to accompany Narvin and Eris on Ysalus, he ultimately intends to work against the CIA and have the entire planet be destroyed as a strategic ploy for the Time Lords against the Daleks.
Partisans is also a Narvin-heavy episode, deepening his character when he is placed in challenging situations. Seán Carlsen shows significant emotional breadth, from showing contempt and begrudging acceptance at having to deal with rookie agent Eris, to pleading with Ysalus residents to cease hostilities. Even after multiple series, Carlson appears to highly value playing Narvin which increases the quality of the character on audio.
The episode’s atmosphere is one of uncertainty and doubt, where Romana and Narvin are never certain where others’ loyalties lie. Writer Una McCormack continues the themes of conflict, the ethics of wartime, loyalty and political subterfuge. Despite the physical conflict occurring on Ysalus on the surface serving as the focus of the drama, that same off-world conflict ultimately reveals much about the conflicts of interest and political manoeuvrings between groups on Gallifrey. These conflicts are the core of the Gallifrey, and Time War Volume 2 by this stage has not lost sight of this core function.
Lisa McMullin’s follows on from Una McCormack’s in something of a second half of a two-part story. Narvin’s solution at the end of Partisans – a temporal freeze instituted by the Time Lords to cease hostilities on Ysalus – has broken, and Rassilon has taken the opportunity to propose destroying the world as a sign of might and antagonism against their enemies in the War.
A key theme introduced in Partisans and brought to the fore here is the death and suffering of civilian casualties – war fought at the expense of innocents. With politicians and bureaucrats debating the fate of those suffering, while themselves being far removed from the conflict on a distant planet, the plight of the innocent is highlighted as a gross violation of human rights. Countless real-life parallels could be made with any of our own world’s many conflicts, which makes for some grim listening, knowing that the fate of these non-combatants will likely only be constituted by bloodshed and sorrow.
Rassilon appears briefly, but in a key role. According to him, victory will be achieved at any cost and by any means – implied here is the conclusion that if events come to pass in a way that means Gallifrey is the sole civilisation to prevail in the Time War, then Rassilon would deem it a victory. This of course is precisely the rationale behind the Ultimate Sanction espoused by the High Council as featured in The End of Time, laying a projection of continuity for Rassilon’s character through the rest of War, as he evidently only grows more radical in his actions from this point.
Rassilon’s megalomania dominates all of Gallifrey at this point – again, little more than a moment’s thought is necessary to draw a line Rassilon’s vanity, greed and power with real-world equivalents. Collateral therefore brings a harsh realism to a story about war that is not all fiction, more an augmented reflection of reality.
The fourth and final episode in this series considers the prospect of presidential assassination, and when that president is Rassilon, assassination is no small feat. The Sicari Collective gathers against the Time Lords, and Mantus is begrudgingly working together with Romana to repel repeated incursions into the Capitol.
Rassilon’s superiority complex and obsession for Gallifrey’s glory and eventual triumph is all-consuming. He sees Gallifreyans as his children and believes he is immortal, making for a fascinating character study. His hubris, like any fatal flaw, is his downfall but also keeps him in a position of high power and influence. His word goes, and it is truly difficult for Romana and Narvin to ensure the consequences of his actions are for the greater good.
Samuel Clemens’s Mantus is even more weaselly, dastardly and menacing in Assassins. The analogy made in the behind-the-scenes interviews of Mantus resembling the Lord of the Rings character Wormtongue is highly accurate given just how off-putting and power-hungry he is. The slow manipulation and temptation of Narvin to join the War Council and leave Romana and the CIA behind is convincing (although Narvin does stay loyal to Romana in the end).
Writer Matt Fitton has a good eye for continuity, adding in references to Commander Harlan from The Eighth Doctor – Time War Volume One, Cardinal Ollistra from the War Doctor series and the General from Day of the Doctor and Hell Bent. Fitton is a good choice for a cumulative episode such as this one, as it brings together strands from the preceding episodes, but also leaves multiple story threads open for further instalments to explore.
The consequences this episode brings are huge and set up the next release nicely. Rassilon’s first true regeneration is being made into a public spectacle – and the episode ends without listeners discovering into whom he regenerates (if he changes appearance at all!). Romana and Narvin are sent away in disgrace from Gallifrey, electing to head into the midst of the Time War to find Leela. In all honesty, after all the downbeat events that have occurred, this is a moment of hope and potential as it gives a hint that the team will be getting back together soon, a sure bonus for long-term Gallifrey fans.
This release also includes over 45 minutes of cast and crew interviews. The interviews are a worthwhile listen to hear of the progression of the characters across 15 years since the first Gallifrey audio, and the impressions of the actors when reflecting on that journey. Yet the interviews also highlight the range of new characters introduced, and the new and interesting dynamics that result between them and the regulars. It is a delight to discover that Abra Thompson’s grandfather was Dalek and Cyberman voice artist Roy Skelton.
Big Finish includes a 20-minute music suite from composer Ioan Morris. The score is generally ethereal and melancholic, stepping up the pace to tense and energetic when it needs to. Sound designer Russell McGee also gets his own part at the end of the disc to take listeners through his sound designing process. TARDIS sounds he created from scratch using a piano and a harmonica, whereas for an alien race he combined recordings of bats, cicadas and blowflies. This all proves highly interesting and well worth a listen.
Gallifrey: Time War Volume Two is a strong, suspenseful and revelatory release in the Gallifrey saga. The release is strongest when engaging with the superiority complex of Rassilon, although the entire set is highly engaging for its exploration of wartime politics and allegiances. The set is better off for the chance to breathe and expand without the presence of many established Doctor Who or Gallifrey characters such as the Doctor, Leela, Ace or Braxiatel. Instead, it gives increased audio time to Romana and Narvin, delving into their characters in a pleasing fashion, and expands the legend and spectre of Rassilon within a war he was almost destined to fight.