Today marks one week since the highly anticipated Gallifrey: Time War 4 boxset was released. How are your emotions? Mine still haven’t recovered.
If you’ve read my overall review of Gallifrey (which is basically just me gushing about how amazing it is), then you’ll know how much I love it. Some friends got me into Gallifrey just in time to listen to the whole series twice before last Thursday, the day every Gallifrey fan had been fearing for a long time—the release of Gallifrey: Time War 4.
This release is an especially important one because not only is it the end of the Gallifrey: Time War saga, but it’s also widely believed to be the final instalment of the entire 17-year series. Big Finish, on the other hand, has been very careful to say that it’s only the end of this portion of Gallifrey. My personal opinion is that they don’t have any current plans to continue Gallifrey, but they’re keeping their options open if they ever want to pick it back up in the future. This theory was especially backed up by how the main characters ended up at the end of the boxset, which I’ll talk about later.
Going into this boxset, my biggest worry was just that I wouldn’t like it. In my post about creating good stories, I talked about how bad endings can change my view of an entire series—and the very last thing I wanted to do was have the love for Gallifrey drained out of me. Therefore, I tried to go into Time War 4 with virtually no expectations, but I couldn’t really help wanting a few things. After the shocking ending of Time War 3, I was eager to see what happened to Romana, and more than anything, I wanted to see the original gang back together again, fighting Daleks and confronting (Hot!)Rassilon. I was especially nervous for the first two stories in the boxset, as I wasn’t keen on them splitting up the main group so much. Beyond was a wild card; I liked the idea of a Brax and Romana story, but I wasn’t sure if it would get as deep into their relationship as I wanted it too. And finally, Homecoming was where I set my hopes for interactions between the main four, or at least main three characters (sorry Brax) that have remained through the entire Gallifrey series.
Interestingly enough, after finishing Time War 4 (yeah, I binged the whole thing in a day, I wouldn’t recommend it), my opinions on the stories ended up being almost entirely opposite of what I thought they would be. There were many good things about the boxset, and there were also some not-so-good things. Without letting too many of my personal feelings about the boxset get in the way, with this review, I’m going to try and primarily view this boxset from a storytelling point of view. Hopefully, through both the successes and failures of Gallifrey: Time War 4, we can learn how to write better stories!
I’m not gonna sit here and bore you with lengthy synopses when I’m sure you’ve already heard the stories if you’re reading this. Instead, I’ll just briefly cover the highlights in each story and then relate my thoughts on it. (I’m grouping Deception and Dissolution together because I had similar things to say about them and they take place at the same time.)
Spoilers ahead, so beware!
4.1 Deception by Lisa McMullin and 4.2 Dissolution by Lou Morgan
In which Leela meets Eris and they’re as pure as you would expect, deception fields are downright terrifying, and—ooh, poisoning the time vortex? (Bonus: finally getting little tidbits of Leela and Narvin interaction that we’ve been missing since Celestial Intervention!)
Meanwhile, Narvin is being a dad, and…that’s about it. The Apothecary is cool and I’m waiting for her series to be announced. Also, there’s just some neat time lord history thrown in, as well as some of Narvin’s personal history. Did I mention that Narvin is a dad now? Oh yeah, there’s a Dalek and Narvin stares it in the face and tries to reason with it.
Both of these stories serve as light character pieces to open the boxset. While I still think it would have been nice to have some more content with Leela and Narvin together, as the last time they spent substantial time together was all the way back in Gallifrey VI and they have such a fun dynamic, I think that these stories were absolutely the next best thing that could have happened. Essentially swapping Leela and Narvin’s roles was a great way to force them to see each others’ reality in the Time War and interact with characters they weren’t familiar with. Also, these two stories gently moved the overall narrative of the boxset forward with the planting of the big idea to stop both the time lords and the Daleks from using time travel, effectively halting the war. Dialogue was great, and character interactions were really fun!
What I think both of these stories did very well was make the characters shine rather than the plot. Very little actually happened in both of these stories, and that’s not a bad thing at all—you don’t even really notice it as you’re listening because the characters and their interactions are so interesting that the plot just serves as a backdrop to the more important character work, especially when it comes to Dissolution. (Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that these two stories really represented what the first few seasons of Gallifrey were structured like.) Character pieces can often be boring or slow, or the plot can be overbearing and it’s not really a character piece at all. But these two stories were very well done in that respect, and they really increased my expectations for the boxset as a whole.
Possibly, however, I do think that these openers could have carried the burden of the overarching plot just a tad bit more to lessen the strain on Homecoming—but I’ll go into that towards the end of the review.
4.3 Beyond by David Llewellyn
YOU get an alternate timeline, and YOU get an alternate timeline and…holy crap, Leela just died?! Brax ex machina strikes again and literally becomes canon by his own admission, and depending on how you listened to the boxset, you may have been cursed with the alternate ending where Brax walks out a door and just immediately gets eaten alive by the Ravenous for absolutely no reason while Romana’s eyes begin to glow and she says “Then perish.” (Okay, that’s not exactly how that went, but…I’m sorry, missing the crucial track is hilarious.)
All memes aside, this story contains an alternate timeline that’s really hard not to get emotional about as well as an older version of Brax who suspiciously sounds like Tom Baker. Romana and Brax are forced to actually talk to each other for the first time in…forever? And then Brax does get eaten alive by the Ravenous. Or at least a version of him. I think?
This is one of those complicated stories that Big Finish puts out sometimes where you can’t think about it too hard or else nothing makes sense. Similar to the first two stories, Beyond doesn’t have much of a plot, but in a different way than Deception and Dissolution. Rather than being a character piece—though there is some focus on Brax and Romana’s relationship—this story actually revolves around little scenes from a timeline that never happened. While I did enjoy this story, when you squint a little, it seems to have missed the mark a bit. Yes, Brax and Romana were great. Yes, I really liked getting to see the alternate timeline and Romana’s potential for destruction and revenge (especially how much emotion she showed when the alternate Leela died—more on that later).
But when I added everything up, I began to wonder about the point of going so into depth in the alternate timeline in the first place. Now that I’ve considered it quite a bit, I think the purpose was to make Romana’s decision about the Parallax difficult. If Romana and Brax would have just gone in and found the Parallax instantly, Romana would have immediately turned down the chance to get out of this universe. Seeing how far she could go in another timeline implanted a new fear in her that made it harder to choose whether to stay or go…or, it should have. While Romana has a brief indecisive moment about the Parallax, it’s not nearly long enough to give us the clues we need to connect the dots between the alternate timeline and the difficulty of her decision. I actually had to mull this story over for a long while to get to this reasoning—which means that either the writing was too subtle or I’m completely wrong and there really wasn’t that much of a point to the alternate timeline other than the emotional shock factor.
Either way, there does seem to be something lacking at the end of this story. For me, the end of Beyond was where Time War 4 began to fall apart. From the moment older Brax shows them the Parallax, the boxset begins to rush, and it doesn’t really stop until the end of Homecoming. I honestly don’t know why there’s such a clear break at this point, especially considering that the last two stories had two different writers—but nevertheless, I could almost physically feel the distinct disruption in the storytelling flow at that point when I was listening (all missing tracks aside).
I already pointed out that the hurried ending made the whole point of the story a bit muddled, but what concerned me even more was Romana’s very jarring emotionless state during and after Brax is literally eaten alive by the Ravenous right in front of her. Of course, we’re all assuming that the Brax who died was a version of Brax and not “prime” Brax so to speak, but does Romana know that? Is it even true, or are we all just hoping? Well, whatever happened, Romana doesn’t react at all to Brax’s death. True, he saved her from the Daleks only to use her for his own schemes—but I find it really difficult (impossible, actually) to believe that she wouldn’t have reacted at all to him dying so horribly. I mean, this is the woman who just sobbed watching a version of Leela die even though she knew it wasn’t real. It doesn’t seem to make much sense for her to be completely emotionless over a very real Brax’s very real death just a few minutes later.
In storytelling terms, I really can’t account for the way Romana was written at the end of Beyond, especially when she was written so well throughout the rest of the story. It’s almost like a switch flipped and she was totally different from the end of Beyond and all throughout Homecoming. Though you could chalk it up to bad writing, again it just seems odd that she should be written so well right up until that point (and was always handled very well by this particular writer in the past). I can’t help but wonder if something more happened behind the scenes, but honestly, who knows. I’m at a loss to diagnose this!
Romana’s…shall we say, interesting writing also really deadens Brax’s demise as a whole, too. I mean, this is one of the main characters of the Gallifrey series dying, but Romana’s lack of reaction lessens the enormity of it. Then you start to think about it and go, “Wait, hang on, he just died!!!”
And that’s another thing that bugged me a teensy bit about this story. I’m not an Irving Braxiatel expert by any means, but it seemed like this story was mainly written so that the Gallifrey writers (and maybe even just the Big Finish writers as a whole) could wash their hands of Brax. I know he’s complicated and, I would imagine, one of the hardest characters to write in any story because of his confusing timeline and his rather interesting moral code—but Brax’s motives in this story seemed a little strange to me, and I think it would have helped if there would have been a bit more explanation as to where Brax was coming from. As far as the Time War is concerned, Brax at first tried to prevent it. When he failed, he then basically ran away. And now he’s coming back to try and end it by destroying a good portion of the universe? But he’s also suddenly concerned for Gallifrey’s safety? As I said, maybe I’m totally off base here and I’m the one who doesn’t understand Brax, but his writing just felt a little off to me in this story.
So overall, Beyond was fun, but it doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. However, I think with just extending the final scenes a tad and exaggerating the conflict, as well as fixing whatever was going on with Romana, it could have made a much bigger impact.
4.4 Homecoming by Matt Fitton
All hail Rassilon, who is sounding crazier by the second and getting into theological arguments with the Dalek Emperor, who is also completely nuts. The gang’s back together again (sort of?) and Mantus FINALLY dies, the best part of the whole boxset (I’m joking…I think). Poisoning the time vortex is no longer an option, so we resort to blowing things up. Even if it means killing Narvin in the process. But he’s totally not dead and he and Leela and Romana escaped and went to that lovely retreat from Dissolution and are living there with Rayo and Eris too. And Livia, let’s add her in. Yes. That’s definitely what happened.
Firstly, let’s talk about some good things from the boxset’s conclusion. I haven’t said anything about the performances of the actors yet—and honestly, it’s because I just expect it from Gallifrey at this point. Everyone is always 100% on point in their acting; one of the best things about the characters (especially the main ones) is that there are always so many small nuances in the way they perform dialogue. Even if they don’t actually mention all the history they have with each other, you can just feel it. And then, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Time War series’ side characters. Mantus, Livia, and Rassilon are all fantastic in their own ways. Casting Richard Armitage as Rassilon was absolute genius. The first time I heard his voice in this boxset, I got chills. There’s something just so sinister about a villain with such a deep, commanding, calm voice like that who is also completely bonkers. This incarnation of Rassilon is very clearly going some kind of insane, but rather than it being silly or laughable, Armitage’s voice makes it spine-tingling and just so eerie.
I liked the very clear point they made of equating the Daleks and the time lords, showing us yet again that there really isn’t a “good” or “bad” side in this war; it’s just plain bad all around. Rassilon and the Dalek Emperor basically echoing each other’s words was really powerful in that sense, and it was a great way to subtly insert that theme in there.
I’ll also put out a potentially controversial view here that I liked where the three main characters ended up. Leela was obviously set up for her story from the War Doctor boxset Casualties of War, but they added a twist to it. Leela doesn’t just fight for Gallifrey, she fights for Romana. That was an important addition that I really, really liked, especially considering that Leela would not be willingly fighting for Rassilon at this point. And I also really like the layers to Leela and Romana’s fates. The more you think about it, the more you realise how well done they were. I honestly don’t know how much of this was intentional, but I would hope that they did all of this on purpose. First, you have the fact that the first time Leela and Romana met way back in Zagreus, they faced Rassilon together. And now here you have them at the end of Gallifrey, facing Rassilon together again. Then, you have Romana. The first time we heard her in Big Finish, she was a prisoner of the Daleks for twenty years. Remnants of that time have carried over all the way into Homecoming with the recurrence of her prisoner ident “Unit 117” (another continuity thing which I love). Now, at the end of it all, she’s a prisoner of her own people. And more than that, you can tell that Rassilon maliciously created this prison just for her. We all know that Romana can often be overly critical of herself—well, imagine her having to relive her past mistakes for all eternity.
As far as Narvin goes…well, I’ll lump Livia in here with him because I like them both and I have similar things to say about their endings. Now, I’m glad they didn’t concretely kill off Narvin—he is one of my favourite Doctor Who characters, after all. It’s obvious they made his destruction ambiguous so that they can bring him back later if they want (Narvin series, anyone?) but it seemed like a little bit of a cop-out with him and Livia. Obviously, we don’t see either of them in any of the later Time War events from either Big Finish or the TV show proper. It seemed like killing them off was just the easy way of solving the problem of “we don’t know how to reconcile their later existence with already established canon so they’re dead” a la Rogue One. Now, that’s not necessarily bad in itself, but the way it was done was, once again, rushed. I think Narvin’s sacrifice should have been grander, and after all Livia has gone through, I think she deserved more than to just be shot by a Dalek and then limp around for a few scenes.
And well, once again, that’s the key word here: rushed. I’ve already explained my thoughts on how it pertained to Beyond, but as far as Homecoming goes, the first three stories contained so little of the main plot of the boxset that Homecoming had to carry the burden of literally creating the entire plot in one story. This seems to have severely damaged the story as a whole, and I think it’s the cause of pretty much all the issues I have with it: the minimal interaction between the main characters, the very little emotional reactions from any of the characters (especially Romana again, for some weird reason), and trying to wrap up the entirety of the Time War series in the span of an hour.
I’m going to delve into the last point a little more because it’s so important. Time War 4 had a really significant job. It not only had to have its own storyline, but it had to conclude the entire Time War saga. This is the burden of any “last in the series” thing, whether it be a last season, a last book, a last movie, etc. I’ve actually seen very few people get this right because it is very difficult to do. And unfortunately, I don’t think this boxset quite got there. For one, Homecoming didn’t feel conclusive to me. Obviously, the story had to lead into the rest of the Time War, as the Gallifrey part of the entire Doctor Who Time War saga takes place at the very beginning of it. But similar to the way that The Hobbit makes way to Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars prequels lead into the original trilogy, this section of the Time War should have had a good, conclusive ending to make the whole Gallifrey: Time War saga feel like a complete narrative. The problem is that I don’t think it did. There wasn’t much of a climax at all, even just considering Homecoming as a single story. It was “Let’s blow up the Dalek ship!” Then it’s blown up and that’s it. There’s little tension and none of the three main characters banding together to defeat a great evil.
And that’s another thing that I really had a problem with. When you think about it, the Daleks haven’t been that significant in the Gallifrey: Time War series. Because Gallifrey deals with the political and more “behind the scenes” parts of the Time War, the stories aren’t about going up against the Daleks. This makes the ending feel rather inconclusive, because yes, they won a small victory against the Daleks, but the real villain here throughout all of Gallifrey has been Rassilon and the corrupt politicians and the War Council. These are the antagonists that the main characters have been up against; not the Daleks. So the fact that they don’t even make any kind of dent in the real villains they’ve been facing this whole time just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like a good, rounded narrative. In fact, rather than winning even the smallest of victories over Rassilon or the corruption on Gallifrey, Rassilon gets the upper hand and decides the fates of Romana and Leela. So we get a sense in the end that the villain wins (at least I did, anyway). That can work for some stories, but it doesn’t seem true to Doctor Who as a whole or Gallifrey. Yes, we all know that Rassilon had to remain so he could be present for The End of Time and everything afterwards—but there were ways that Romana, Leela, and Narvin could have at least won a small victory over him and it would have felt like a more conclusive ending.
And finally, as someone who’s listened to and loves the entirety of Gallifrey, it was strange to hear a series that’s centred around characters end with a story that is not centred around characters and instead seems to shove character interactions to the side. Once again, this was where the rush factor came in. Leela, Narvin, and Romana were only all together very briefly. When someone writes an ending, we want to see all the main characters together, giving their all to defeat the big obstacle they’ve been facing for so long. Instead, the main characters were split up, and when it came to the actual “climax” (which, as I’ve already discussed, wasn’t really a climax) it was just Narvin and Livia. Even besides the main characters, the Time War series set up so many good side characters that just sort of disappeared in this last story. I already talked about my grievance with how they treated Livia, but there’s also Eris, who’s barely in the last story at all, and Rayo, who we haven’t heard from since Dissolution. It seems like a disservice to give us these great characters and then just not really include them in the ending.
Phew. Let’s take a deep breath. I hope this doesn’t sound like a rant—as much as I was disappointed by the last story, I’m trying to mostly look at it logically from a writing point of view. While I did enjoy the first three stories in their own right, and even parts of Homecoming, if they would have spread the story of Homecoming out a bit more between the first three stories and included just a little more of the plot, I think that the final story would have had more time to successfully conclude the Time War narrative and give us some kind of sense of closure with these main characters who we’ve been following for (counts on fingers) over ten seasons. Actually, in talking with a friend, I said that I really felt like Gallifrey: Time War could have easily had an entire other boxset. What is this whole “ascension” thing that Rassilon was talking about? I want to hear more of that. I want to see more of Eris’ Resistance. I want to know how Rayo is doing because I find it hard to believe that he’d be okay with being left behind forever.
My biggest takeaway from this boxset as a writer is don’t rush, especially with an ending, and don’t let character writing suffer for the sake of the plot. But I also took away how to write good character pieces because Deception and Dissolution were done very well. It may seem easy, but it’s an impressive feat to write a light story that doesn’t drag. And there were really good bits of dialogue scattered throughout this boxset, too. Even though the main characters didn’t get to interact too much, nearly everything they said to each other (especially in Homecoming) was stuffed full of deeper meaning.
Overall, did I like Time War 4? Yes, I can say that I did. It’s difficult to give it a rating because as you can see, my biggest grievance is just with Homecoming itself. If the final story would have been just a little better, I’d probably give the boxset somewhere between 7-10/10. As it stands, I’ll give it a 5/10. I want to stress that I did like it, and there were even some really good things about Homecoming, like I talked about. But the writer in me (and the obsessive Gallifrey fan) just really couldn’t let all the mistakes in Homecoming slide, especially seeing as it’s the end of Gallifrey—at least, as I hope, for now. I can only pray that Big Finish will decide to pick Gallifrey up again some time in the future with a fresh set of writers—or, as I pointed out to someone the other day, I think it would make a lot of sense to create a Narvin series because he’s totally not dead, what are you talking about?
I feel like there are so many thoughts that I didn’t even cover, but I’m going to leave it at this for now. If you have any questions or comments, or if you maybe learned something else from the boxset, drop it down below! And I’ll see you next time as we continue to learn how to tell stories by analysing the stories we consume.