Director: Scott Handcock
Louise Jameson, Lalla Ward, Sophie Aldred, Seán Carlsen, Miles Richardson, Sir Derek Jacobi CBE, Nicholas Briggs
Released on: Wednesday 28th February 2018
Running Time: 5 hours
Just how did the Time Lords get into such a major conflict with the Daleks? Big Finish's latest entry into their Time War saga attempts to answer just that via their long-running series Gallifrey, which has long focused on the adventures of Romana and Leela on the Time Lord homeworld, often in Political and Spy thrillers. It will be difficult to write this review without Spoilers, so reader beware, while I will try my best to limit them, but this review may feature an element of SPOILERS AHEAD! (Skip to Final Paragraph for my recommendation)
Celesital Intervention, the opening episode revolves around Romana (now heading up the Celestial Intervention Agency) and her increasing worry about the War Council and it's Secret Operations. She and her CIA cohort Narvin recruit Leela to at first spy on the War Council, and then desperately recruit her again to travel into the Death Zone to see what the War Council may be cooking up there. Meanwhile, a fellow time traveling race, and Time Lord ally, have had their planet destroyed by the Daleks, and the remaining 500 refugees from the Planet come to Gallifrey seeking asylum. While the War Council initially opposes letting Refugees onto their homeworld, and thus open them up to more risk, political games are played and the poor souls are allowed in...but at a price that Romana fears may be too high, as it gives the War Council even more power and free reign. In the end, the President Livia (the new TIme Lord President), declares War upon the Daleks...the Time War officially begins, and we find out that some of the creepy stuff the War Council is up to will have some long-lasting repercussions.
This opening episode begins the set off with a bang, and Lalla Ward's increasingly desperate and frantic performance sells it. You can just feel the stress and worry of what is happening to her and her world pushing down on her, and making her worry were they will end up when it is all said and done (and as we all know, it is nowhere pleasant). While the whole cast is great, Ward's frustrated Romana makes this political thriller all the more entertaining.
The box set continues with Soldier Obscura, and sees Ace and Braxiatel on a mission into The Obscura, a strange deadly region in Time and Space, which may hold a secret weapon within it. Ace is working for the CIA, having been left on Gallifrey by the Doctor at some point (at what exact point in Ace's mildly confusing spin-off material life this takes place, I've no real idea, but it doesn't really matter to the story), and she and Braxiatel head off into this dangerous area of space and meet Danna, a Time Lord mentor of Braxiatel who was once one of the best marksmen ever known, but has been living for years alone posted in the Obscura. The Daleks have been trying to break into this region of space for a while, occasionally transforming themselves by adding wings and other mutations hoping to get in and get a weapon that could win the Time War. But can Ace trust Braxiatel?
While I found the second entry to contain good performances and some interesting Time War ideas, I think it just didn't work for me in the same way the opening episode did. That's not to say it is bad (fr from it), but it wasn't as great as I felt the opening was. The reveals of what the Weapon was or might have been felt underwhelming, and the fake-out death of Ace is too predictable...you kind of know they won't kill her off (though really, why not?), and then after the theme music is played it is revealed that Braxiatel has wiped her memory and abandoned her on some random planet. I think this episode had some interesting concepts and good performances, but I wasn't as engaged with Ace or Braxiatel in the way I was with Ward or the supporting cast in the opener.
With the Braxiatel/Ace plan not panning out and knowing that the Doctor has sworn off helping the Time Lords in this War, Romana decides to enlist the help of the other major Time Lord Renegade: the Master. In The Devil You Know, they recall the Master to Gallifrey (the call he received in the middle of the War Master boxset), and he is tasked with retrieving a man called Finnian Valentine, who supposedly has knowledge of a weapon that is so powerful it could deter the Daleks and maybe even end the war. Of course, things are never so simple, particularly in a war waging havoc upon Time and Space. To keep the Master in check, Leela is assigned to go with him, and when they arrive on Valentine's alleged whereabouts, they find not one, but two versions of him. One whose race was wiped out by the Time Lords, and another whose race only survived through the help of the Time Lords keeping the Daleks at bay. Both are a little uneasy about helping The Master and Leela however. And when the interrogations begin to go nowhere, The Master's more ruthless techniques must take hold, at a cost higher than anyone would like. Major Spoilers here - learning that what they are after is not a weapon but a planet with a major power source, the Master disposes of Leela and sends her out into the Vortex in the midst of the Time War, hoping to leave her fate forever ambiguous to the Doctor...of course her fate was explored in the final War Doctor set, in which we had seen her in a far more fragile and lost state. The Master then heads off to Arcking where the alleged power source is held, that story picks back up in The Good Master, the third story in the War Master boxset.
The Devil You Know is excellent. Derek Jacobi once again gets the chance to relish in the role he only os briefly got to play on television, and this episode is not another great showcase of just how great he is, it also fills in the gap of his own War Master set. Louise Jameson is also quite good in this, as is Bryan Dick as the two Valentines, playing two slightly different versions of the same person quite well. Just great performances, a great story, and another exciting audio performance from the great Derek Jacobi.
The set concludes with Desperate Measures, which focuses on a new election for the President of the High Council. This section of the review has definite SPOILERS. Livia no longers wishes to be a War President and looks for a way to get out with her dignity intact. When her appointed successor is a General that is clearly being propped up by the War Council, Romana decides that she will challenge him and run to retake the office (offering to give her life for the seat, because she can only be elected President for another term if she has regenerated into a new body. But when her secret attempts at trying to negotiate with the Daleks become public, it pretty much ends her chances. Meanwhile, Narvin heads into the Death Zone to try and destroy the Resurrection machine which plans to bring dead Time Lords back from death in order to fight in the War...but the agent that is meant to be helping him betrays him. And so during the new President's installation as Leader of the High Council, Livia, and the War Council's real plan comes to light. The General's familial ties to Rassilon are used for one purpose...to utilize the MAtrix and the Resurrection machine, along with a living descendant of Rassilon, to resurrect the famed former leader of the Time Lords.
This finale is excellent. Ward is great, and the entire plot to bring Rassilon back from the dead is a lovely way to give us a cliffhanger for more. When it comes to political games, espionage, and deep cuts into canon, this set really can't be beaten.
This was an excellent set, and I am genuinely looking forward to the next entry in this saga. Big Finish has really outdone themselves with their Time War entries...from the War Doctor sets starring John Hurt, to the War Master boxset, and now with the ongoing Eighth Doctor and Gallifrey: Time War sets...they are really exploring this untapped era of Who-lore with nothing but top-notch storytelling, almost as if for years when they didn't have the New Series license, they were just thinking it over and over for a decade. They've been waiting for this, and they aren't wasting their chance. If I have a real criticism, it is that despite their best attempts to make this set easier to dive into for new fans, it really is better listened to with some background into other stories. You don't really need to listen to all of the Gallifrey audio series (I've only heard the first series from over a decade ago, which has little to do with this beyond introducing some key characters)...but listening to some War Doctor stories or the War Master set will definitely help in getting the big picture here. I would say if you wanted to jump into some of Big Finish's Time War stuff, don't start here, but definitely GET HERE. It's all well worth a listen, and they are killing it on the Time War stuff.