Big Finish Review: Gallifrey - Time War Volume 3

Big Finish Review: Gallifrey - Time War Volume 3

The previous series of Gallifrey – Time War ended with Romana and Narvin abandoning an increasingly volatile Capitol and fleeing into the midst of the Time War to find their friend Leela. Volume three picks up their search across four surprisingly personal tales.

Gallifrey – Time War 3 stars Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson, Seán Carlsen and Nicholas Briggs. Scott Handcock produced and directed the series, which is available exclusively from the Big Finish website until general release on April 30th 2020. Episode synopses are as follows:

Romana and Narvin are exiles, driven from Gallifrey by Rassilon’s regime and cut adrift amid the horrors of the Time War. Their one remaining hope is that they can find their friend: Leela was also lost in the maelstrom of battle, but she is fighting to survive...

Hostiles by David Llewellyn

Exiled from Gallifrey, Romana and Narvin are fleeing from their own people and the Time War. Seeking refuge on a derelict wreck they find they are not alone. And that Time Lords have enemies everywhere...

Nevernor by Lou Morgan

Narvin and Romana reach the distant, rural world of Njagilheim. But even here the Time War follows – and there are more things to fear in the Vortex than warships and weapons. The Orrovix have caught a scent and they are hunting...

Mother Tongue by Helen Goldwyn

Leela was thrown into a Vortex ravaged by the Time War, lost in space and time – but the Trell have shown her mercy...

She finds herself in another realm, another life. One where the warrior is also a mother. Where she must help her son to choose the path to avoid his world’s destruction.

Unity by David Llewellyn

On a dusty frontier world, destiny awaits Romana...

Betrayal, deception and death are the currency on Unity. And as the Daleks close in on their target, there will be a price to pay.

Review

Hostiles

The third volume of Gallifrey stories set in the Time War brings a new dynamic for the series regulars. Instead of West Wing-style political machinations in the corridors of the Capitol, the action has been shifted off-world to new and unknown locations. Having fled Gallifrey, Romana and Narvin are on the run and attempting to stay alive in the middle of the war. This offers tangible danger and renewed risk, as their home planet does not feature.

The result is an opening episode that stays contained and surprisingly personal. It starts with the two leads simply attempting to survive a crashing ship. From there, the story becomes a fairly rote run-around on an abandoned Time Lord vessel, with an untrustworthy surviving crew member and a monster roaming the corridors.

Rote, that is, until the obligatory revelation that all is not as it seems, and events have been distorted and time looped. The accompanying revelation that the vessel housed Sicari – antagonists from volume two – being experimented upon by Time Lord scientists is a nice tie-in to broader continuity and helps to expand beyond the initially simple setup.

The two supporting cast members give keen performances. Mark Elstob is unrecognisable as Qatal, but his energy very much comes through. As Trellick, Leah Harvey has a spiky attitude and vivaciousness, though at times comes across a little flat.

David Llewellyn’s script intentionally stays centred on its characters, as Gallifrey episodes predominantly have. With the mix of cautious character interactions, temporal trickery and the classic trope of a deformed monster stalking survivors, Hostiles may not break much new ground, but is strong for sticking close to its core conceit.

Nevernor

Back on the trail of Leela’s biodata though the vortex, Romana and Narvin land on the Norse-influenced rural world of Njagilheim, where, again, there is time-space trickery at play. Lou Morgan’s debut script for the Gallifrey range hits many of the same notes as the opener, examining the impact of the war on innocent worlds and the individuals who inhabit them.

From windy fields and simple homesteads to bleating sheep and stew for dinner, the setting is realised through some atmospheric sound design. Lucy Reynolds and Wild Scolding bring the cheery and hospitable farming couple – with a baby on the way, of course – to life, who prove more than willing to welcome our protagonists into their home and provide the obligatory warning of a nearby haunted area they most definitely should avoid.

A temporal storm ravaging a planet’s timeline is a concept that links to other depictions of the Time War, bearing similarity to what was heard in the Eighth Doctor story The Sontaran Ordeal. Fractured time is here seen to be tormenting innocents and tearing apart families, which brings the tragedy of the war into sharp relief.

At this stage, Romana and Narvin only have a burgeoning understanding of the widespread effects of the war beyond Gallifrey; their realisation in this episode of its scope is unsettling. One wonders why, as Time Lords – the head and deputy of the Celestial Intervention Agency, no less – they were not already more aware of its impact, but perhaps this indicates the parochial arrogance of the Time Lords as a species more than anything else.

Mother Tongue

The next episode does something radically different for the series: neither Romana nor Narvin feature at all. Short of listening to the credits prior to the episode itself, this is not something listeners would be aware of immediately, as there is the expectation that the pair will at some point show up and reunite with Leela; but once aware of this fact, the story stands out – in a good way – for being so Leela-centric.

Mother Tongue picks up on and extends plot threads relevant to Leela in the Time War, most notably her identity as a mother, an idea that featured prominently in the War Doctor set Casualties of War. She has woken in a world cut-off and made ‘invisible’ from the war by the tentacled Trell, which connect the planet with the vortex and lead to Leela experiencing time shifts to her youth, where she witnesses the death of her mother.

Although set away from Gallifrey, the story still feels its influence: the ultimate antagonists are, again, the Time Lords, whose war inevitably comes to impact Leela’s new home. Helen Goldwyn’s script is heartfelt and profound both prior to and after the conflict that soon arrives, delving into the complex dynamics of motherhood in a world where there are no easy answers.

Owing to the absence of Ward and Carlsen, there is a larger supporting cast, including Sam Hallion as Leela’s son Sholan, an initially innocent and loving but soon rebellious and scorned son whose complicated relationship with her mother is the core focus. This makes Mother Tongue a highly emotional exploration of the themes of motherhood, warriorhood, brotherhood, legacy, and sacrifice.

Unity

Finally, the pair of Time Lord fugitives track down Leela on the mining planet Unity – but the reunion proves less than amicable. Leela’s reaction to their arrival proves tainted by bitterness, as she no longer wishes to be “the puppet of tyrants”. Her desire to remove herself from the “lies and double dealing of the Time Lords” is extremely sensible and makes Leela perhaps the most relatable – certainly the most ‘human’ – of the protagonists.

Unity follows a similar pattern to the previous three episodes: initially it is a slow burn, delving into the lives of ailing mother figure Veega (Lorna Brown) and her son Rayo (Omar Austin), before introducing a bigger threat. The script covers many relatable, human moments, from Veega’s incurable sickness, to Narvin handling chickens on the farm, to Leela continuing to cope with the loss of her son.

Smarmy night raider Jarred McKenzie (Robert Jezek) is a delight as the human antagonist. His mysterious clients of course turn out to be Daleks; but considering this is only the third episode to feature them in the Gallifrey – Time War series, their return in this episode is impactful – despite them featuring only in part.

The final episode brings another game-changing ending – and more than one twist. To begin with, Romana decides to use a chameleon arch and be a Time Lady no more. Her last-minute decision not to go through with this – and stay beyond on Unity to surrender herself to the Daleks – itself has huge consequences. But to then be apparently exterminated by the Daleks right before the credits roll – that takes it all up a notch. The resolution to Romana’s predicament, if indeed there is one, will prove most interesting.

Extras

“Thank goodness I was kind to [Gary Russell]. Big Finish is my pension!” – Louise Jameson

The suite of interviews reveal how Ward and Carlsen relish the possibilities that arise from working with a smaller, and therefore more intimate, cast across this series. Although some cast members confess to comprehending little of the high-concept narrative, everyone demonstrates their joy at working with their fellow actors, and in exploring the lore and language of the Doctor Who universe.

Director Scott Handcock gets real when discussing the difficulty of many young actors to get a break in the industry, and the efforts of casting directors like himself at Big Finish to work with as many young actors as possible. He and Louise Jameson share an intriguing conversation about the initial idea for Leela to be in a relationship with Veega in episode four, and what that could have meant for the character in the context of the show.

The cast of Unity tap into the conversation around diversity in front of and behind the camera (or microphone), and the importance of accessibility for the audience.

Lastly, sound designer Russell McGee records a glimpse into his work behind the scenes. He gives listeners a rare insight into elements such as the dialogue edit, which on this release involved patching together dialogue recorded on two different days into the one scene. Scott Handcock also deserves praise for keeping tabs on all the different aspects of each scene, despite recording in one case resuming seven months after it began due to actor availability.

Final Thoughts

Listeners will likely get the most out of these stories if already familiar with the Gallifrey series or its protagonists, which would maximise the emotional pull of their plight in the Time War. Yet there is much to enjoy for newcomers too, namely the personal narrative focus and the realisation of the war’s tragic impact not only on worlds or races, but also on people.

A fourth volume of stories is still to come in 2021, with potential for further instalments after that. As mentioned, this volume deviates from the modus operandi of the series by examining the breadth of human relationships, motherhood, grief and the tragedies of an unwanted war. It goes big in a small way, and pays off if you immerse yourself fully in the lives of its characters.

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