Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The War Master - Only The Good
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This month saw Derek Jacobi's Master return to Doctor Who with the Big Finish release of The War Master. Exploring his involvement in the Time War, Only The Good picks up the Master's story before his mysterious return in the 2007 episode 'Utopia'.
This latest set has been directed by Scott Handcock, with four stories written by Nicholas Briggs, Janine H Jones, James Goss and Guy Adams. The box set is available on the Big Finish website now and goes on general release from February 28th 2018.
Here are the synopses for all four stories...
1. Beneath the Viscoid by Nicholas Briggs
On the ocean planet Gardezza, deep beneath the Viscoid, a mysterious capsule is recovered from the Time War, and an equally mysterious stranger found within. The Doctor’s reputation precedes him, even here… but can he be trusted?
2. The Good Master by Janine H Jones
The Time War rages around Arcking - a planet serving as a sanctuary for the sick and injured. But Arcking is protected by a mysterious, powerful force: a force the Master will stop at nothing to harness… even if time itself is against him.
3. The Sky Man by James Goss
When his new companion decides to save a planet, the Master indulges this most futile of requests. Materialising on a primitive, agrarian world, both the strangers quickly find their place in it… until fallout from the War invades their happy paradise.
4. The Heavenly Paradigm by Guy Adams
With his plans approaching fruition, the Master travels to Stamford Bridge in the 1970s: a location he believes might hold the key to his success. But what terrible secret lurks under the stairs of No. 24 Marigold Lane? And what sacrifices will the Master make in the name of ultimate victory?
Spoilers as always, if you haven't listened to the set yet...
Given the central character of these stories, it is not surprising that The War Master - Only The Good is a twisted subversion of Doctor Who. The Time War has been explored several times now at Big Finish, through the late John Hurt's War Doctor and now with Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor in this year's The Time War - Volume 1. Each tale has seen the Doctor attempt to save a desperate universe from catastrophic destruction, the Doctor the one hero that can save an entire world from extinction.
In this box set, The Master finds himself in a similar situation, travelling from one world to another in desperate need. But there is a dark, delightful twist to each of these stories; where The Doctor would be the hero, committing selfless acts to save others, The Master is in it for his own nefarious needs. He might not be the cause of the destruction - and he might want the Time War to end as much as his good counterpart - but he leaves each tale with death and destruction in his wake.
Beneath the Viscoid
The first story opens with a war-torn world, facing continuous assault by the mighty Daleks. The desperate populace, seen through the eyes of the desperate Nius (Jacqueline King), Osen (Deirdre Mullins) and Glortz (Mark Elstob) uncover a secret Time Lord capsule hidden beneath the ruins of the oceanic Viscoid. Inside they discover a survivor of the Time War that can help them in their battle...The Doctor.
Except, despite their assumptions, this is actually The Master and from the moment he awakes, Derek Jacobi brings a mischievous, twisted malevolence to the role. Playing along with their assumptions, he pretends to aid them in studying another Time Lord device, which can be used as a weapon against the Daleks. In any Doctor Who story, the Doctor would work around the clock, racing to save at least some of the doomed people from destruction. But this tale, filled with delicious dialogue by Nicholas Briggs, subverts the story, playing it as a Doctor Who episode through the eyes of The Master. The fact that he pretends to be The Doctor, despite his dismissive lack of empaty and cunning, mocking charm, is the icing on the cake.
The Master claims to help, when really all he wants to do is activate the weapon - his TARDIS - and escape the Daleks. By the time the Daleks break through, he acts, stealing the TARDIS and cruelly murdering his new 'companion', while the desperate planet burns behind him. It's a shocking, brutal climax, directed with gusto by Scott Handcock (every moment to the battle feels cinematic) and sets the tone for the rest of the box set.
The Good Master
That subversion continues in The Good Master as we follow him to a world that has a natural ability to shield itself from invaders and ha become the haven for a series of medical colonies. The Master takes the form of someone 'good' again, a surgeon helping to save lives. The irony that his is good at being a doctor is not lost and it is interesting to see Jacob infuse an element of grandfatherly charm to his performance.
Again the episode plays on the established idea of a Time Lord saving the populace. When a fleet of Dalek ships attack and demand The Master's surrender, he embarks on a dangerous mission to locate the source of the planet's power to hold them back. One thing I found interesting about the narrative running through this boxset is that, like The Doctor, The Master fears the Daleks and wants this Time War to end. This idea is paramount in this story, even if it is again subverted by The Master's nefarious schemes.
Enter new 'companion' Cole, played by Jonny Green (recently playing new recurring character Tyler in the Handcock-directed Torchwood: Aliens Among Us). His character here is more heroic, first attempting to save his ship when it is attacked by Daleks and crash lands on the planet and then agreeing to help The Master when the Daleks lay siege. Like the previous story, The Good Master surrounds The Master with good and heroic characters like Rachel Atkins noble Major Desra and Hannah Barker's eager assistant Phila, who are desperately trying to save the day, only to die in a fiery bloodbath as he abandons them to their fate. Where The Doctor would have tried to save them from the Daleks, the Master flees, only this time he has Cole in tow for the final two stories.
The Sky Man
After the dramatic events of the first two stories, the pace changes with The Sky Man. It is certainly the slowest of the four and requires patience, but the payoff is spectacular. The Master's manipulation of Cole continues as he gives his new companion the chance to save a planet from the ravages of the Time War.
It's an insidious scheme that is only truly realised in the final story. Jacobi largely takes a back seat, making Greens Cole the focus as he attempts to save the rural farming community of a dying planet from a ravaging death. It's a much more intimate story, focusing on the burgeoning love story between Cole and Emily Barber's Elidh. Both do a great job of keeping the story going but the lack of Jacobi is felt. He does get a great little sub plot of growing his own fine wine while Cole works to build environmental suits for the populace; if there was ever a example of just how self-centred The Master is, this is it.
The final twist if dramatic and horrifying, the peaceful farm folk who rejected technology to stay hidden from the Time War transformed into a cybernetic race fuelled by revenge. It's not clear whether they are a form of Cybermen or something else, but the parallel is clear. Either way, the outcome is bleak and tragic, particularly when Cole finds himself under attack from his love Elidh. It is a story where The Master wins and it is a glorious thing to behold.
The Heavenly Paradigm
Finally, The Heavenly Paradigm brings The Master and a distraught Cole to 1970s Earth. It is another small tale with an epic ending, as they make their way through 'ancient' London and a mysterious house that is home to a Time Lady custodian, played with a mix of warmth and fierce determination by Nerys Hughes.
Amid the façade of cream carpets and cups of tea, there are some great ideas at play. I loved the doorbell with its psychic defence capabilities and Marigold Lane's artificial intelligence (played by Jonathan Bailey) that has a wonderful dry sense of humour and quickly established itself as one of my favourite characters in the whole set. But most intriguing is the Heavely Paradigm itself, with It's ability to play out scenarios and reshape history with a better outcome.
Naturally such a power in The Master's hands is unimaginable and we witness just how far his schemes have taking him, using the power of paradox to achieve his goals. Saving Cole, who should have died a Arking, who then saved a planet that should have died, who in turn turned their wrath on other planets; the plot is carefully unravelled and with this ultimate manipulation of time it is clear just how different The Master is from The Doctor. It is a thrilling climax to the story and the whole boxset, made all the more shocking by the cruel death of Cole and the unravelling of time itself.
In a surprise final act, The Master hands the Daleks a crucial victory, forcing a defeated Master to hide himself away. Cue the use of the chaemelon arch as he transfers his consciousness into a baby that will grow up to become Professor Yana from Utopia. It wraps up the story of Jacob's Master into official Doctor Who Who canon nicely.
Considerimg how we first meet him, there is also scope for his return in stories set before Only The Good and given Derek Jacob's enthusiasm for working on this set, I am hoping we get more...
There are several tracks at the end of the boxset, featuring interviews with the cast and crew of Only The Good. There is great camaraderie between director and producer Scott Handock who came up with idea for The War Master set and voice of the Daleks and Big Finish head honcho Nicholas Briggs.
Derek Jacob is a delight, discussing his character's weird paternal relationship with Cole just as he too has paternal to Jonny Green. Green's enthusiasm for the role and Jacob's too are a delight, and this is shared by every writer and actor on the set. Plus loved the whole "do we call him sir?" debate and Jacobi's resonse of "No, call me Del Boy!"
Overall, these interviews offer lots of fascinating insights into the cast, writers and behind the scene moments.
Finally, the set ends with a trailer for the next Time War story from Big Finish, Gallifrey: Time War featuring a whole hot of familiar faces, including Lalla Ward's Romana II, Sophie Aldred's Ace, Louise Jameson's Leela and a returning Derek Jacobi as The War Master. This boxset is released in February 2018.
Some Final Thoughts...
The vigour and passion in which Big Finish is telling the events of the Time War between classic and Nu Doctor Who has given birth to some excellent stories and The War Master - Only The Good is one of the best. This bleak and chaotic period is the perfect playground for the Master to shine and Derek Jacobi is just superb in the role, brining all that malevolence, charm and devious wit we saw in those brief five minutes when he played The Master in Utopia a ten long years ago.
While this set ties in nicely to that story, The War Master - Only The Good is a fantastic set of stories in its own right and I hope this is just the start of more to come...