Big Finish Review: The War Master Vol 3 - Rage of the Time Lords
As Big Finish kicks off a month of 20th anniversary celebrations, The War Master continues to be one of it's gold standard audios, this latest release delivering a third set of adventures that sees Derek Jacobi's nefarious villain go up against his old for the Doctor, in the guise of Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor.
The War Master: Rage of the Time Lords has been written by Tim Foley and David Llewellyn and directed by Soctt Handcock. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st August 2019. Here are the synopses:
Four new stories featuring the Master’s exploits in the Time War.
With all of space and time in chaos, the Master plots his most audacious project yet. Only one other Time Lord has ever been able to stop him. But where is that Time Lord when the universe needs him?
3.1 The Survivor by Tim Foley
At the height of the Second World War on the planet Earth, Alice Pritchard wants for nothing more than the fighting to stop, and to do her bit for King and Country. But when the village priest offers her guidance, her life will change in ways she could never imagine.
3.2 The Coney Island Chameleon by David Llewellyn
When the carnival arrives on Coney Island, it brings with it the most incredible specimens that New York will ever see. Unfortunately for the acts, not all eyes on them are friendly. Enigmatic businessman TS Mereath has taken a shine to the Coney Island Chameleon, for example… and he will seemingly stop at nothing to acquire her.
3.3 The Missing Link by Tim Foley
On a desolate world in the distant future, the Master embarks on his latest scheme, aided and abetted by a team of brilliant scientists. But who is he truly working for? And in a universe at war, is there anyone left in all the cosmos who can stop him?
3.4 Darkness and Light by David Llewellyn
With the Master’s plans near completion, his victory is threatened by the presence of his greatest friend and enemy: the Doctor.
Check out our reviews of the previous two War Master sets below:
A warning of spoilers as I delve into each tale below...
One of the cleverest aspects of Big Finish's War Master stories are the manner in which they maintain the shadowy, nefarious nature of the title character, focusing instead on the lives he impacts. That is very much the case in opening story The Survivor, which focuses on Katherine Pearce's Alice Pritchard, a young woman working for Lady Raleigh (Su Douglas) in a sleepy English village in World War II. The Master presumes the role of a local vicar (very The Daemons), slowly manipulating and guiding her down a darker path.
Writer Tim Foley excels at telling the tragic tale of Alice (Pearce delivering a commanding lead performance) that works just as well without the context of the War Master. As a member of the 'Land Girls', working for Lady Raleigh to do their part in the war, The Survivors is as much a tale of class divides, the impact of war on a local community and delves into sexism, power and social norms in the heart of a forties British community.
The Survivors boasts a strong ensemble cast; regular Torchwood alum Paul Clayton as arrogant Judge Hale, Su Douglas as the Lady of the manor trying to create a façade of doing the right thing for the village, Laura Riseborough as her daughter Hannah Raleigh, a bored socialite with some mentally disturbed faculties that make her a thorn in Alice's side and most significantly Mina Anwar as Alice's aunt hiding her own dark secrets.
There's a lot to enjoy in this opening tale; a growing darkness in the English community with the Master pulling the strings right up to the story's final twists. The fallout sets the stage for Alice to become a quasi-companion (though this in itself is subverted in later stories), but show's what the War Master does best; playing the long game for his own dark, Machiavellian needs.
The Coney Island Chameleon
The theme of misdirection continues in this second tale, which continues to build on the story that is only properly revealed in the final two parts. Again the Master is a shadowy figure, taking on the guise of American businessman TS Mereath, as he seeks to gain another powerful figure from Earth's past for his own nefarious ends.
This time, the story centres of carnival strong man Giuseppe Sabatini (Youssef Kerkour) and his band of Coney Island 'freaks', one of which attracts the attention of Mereath. Knowing what we know of Alice from The Survivors, The Coney Island Chameleon's strength is in knowing what we - the audience - think is happening - the Master gathering people with abilities. More shadowy than his last identity, we get glimpse of this evil businessman who at first offers money and then will go as far as to burn your home and hunt you down to get what he wants.
The core cast are all solid - Kerkour's desperate Sabatini, Taj Atwal as the object of the Master's 'affection' shape-sifting Esther and Anjela Lauren Smith as mysterious New Orleans resident Genevieve,a fierce and loyal friend to Sabatini. Unfortunately the story itself, once the hunt begins, doesn't quite have the momentum it should. Perhaps the simplicity of knowing the Master is hunting Esther prevents The Coney Island Chameleon from ever really keeping the listener on their toes. Particularly when you know the Master is always going to win at this stage.
However - and a caution of spoilers again here - the subterfuge of the final act is brilliant. If the rest of the story is solid tale of man trying to protect a woman from being enslaved to someone 'evil', the reveal of the Master's prize is a real 'pulling the rug from under the audience' moment, leaving the tale on a very dark and tragic note. But then, this is The War Master, so should we expect anything less?
The Missing Link
After two stories of the War Master manipulating from the shadows, the great Derek Jacobi really steps into the limelight in this penultimate story as his plains are laid bare. And once again, the listener's expectations are cleverly subverted. Perhaps more than any other version of the Master, this one is the most dangerous because of his kindly old man demeanour and ability to play the long game, his plans are not immediately apparent.
Here we see that his first two 'abductees' were the first of many with special abilities, that he has been using to create a 'space hospital' where he can experiment with genetics without impunity. Alice, we soon learn was just the first and now he has honed her psychic abilities. From shape shifters, to super strength, the Master has created a place full of willing participants, all willing to work for the Master in the name of science.
The long-awaited arrival of Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor really builds on the energy of Rage of the Time Lords, attempting to rescue Alice from the Master's clutches without ever really knowing who he is facing. Given that this is The War Master's story and not the Doctor's, his heroics don't quite come to fruition. In fact, this Eighth Doctor, his mind fragmented as he tries to keep on track of the situation, is somewhat different to his other Big Finish stories, while still bringing McGann's gravitas to the role.
There is also some delightful rivalry between the Master's subordinates Mandrake (Dominic Thorburn) and Professor Silver (Liz Sutherland-Lim). And Jacobu's Master is a real delight here, playing the audience as much as Alice and the Doctor to the very end. The final twist really is another doozy, setting the stage for the final story in the set.
Darkness and Light
The final instalment of The War Master: Rage of the Time Lords pits the Doctor and Master against each other. Jacobi and McGann are a force of nature, full of gravitas as they bring David Llewelyn's script to life. While there are plenty of stakes as the Rage is unleashed and many, many characters meet a grizzly fate, it's the tete-e-tete between these two powerhouses that makes Darkness and Light such a delight to listen to.
What's most interesting about the Master as a character is seeing how it acts as a mirror to the Doctor and that is most apparent here; the Time War has made the universe a more desperate, morally grey place and the 'darkness and light' of these two characters is explored brilliantly. While it was fun to see characters like Mandrake and Alice explored further - with some genuine surprises along the way, it's Jacobi and McGann that really deliver the goods and make you wish for a story featuring them together on screen.
The Rage itself is an interesting, terrifying threat, with it's deadly abilities making for some tense moments as everyone strives to stay alive and a few shocking twists that raise the stakes further. The idea that the Doctor and the Master are forced to work together - despite the Master's assertions that he can control it - shows just how dangerous it has become in such a short space of time.
There are some genuine surprises in this final story, mixed horror and action with moral debate and more than one instance of the rug being pulled out from under the audience. The way in which Darkness and Light wraps up the issue of the Doctor not remembering the Master in Utopia is perhaps a little obvious, but still cleverly done. While the Master could never be truly victorious, it's still great to see him - and not the Doctor - emerge at least a little triumphant come the story's end.
A trailer for the final War Master set Anti-Genesis teases the War Master's defeat when he goes up against the Daleks in December.
While there is no music suite synonymous with most Big Finish releases, the set boasts almost an hour of behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew, with the passion of everyone involved coming to life in these discussions. Highlights include Derek Jacobi discussing the villainy of the Master, Paul McGann gushing how actors like Jacobi inspired him, further insights into the dichotomy of the Doctor and Master from McGann and writer David Llewellyn, writer Tim Foley discussing his love for Doctor Who and excitement at writing for the War Master and director / producer Scott Handcock revealing the plans for third set and some ideas abandoned along the way.
Some Final Thoughts...
Like Only The Good and Master of Callous before it, Rage of the Time Lords is another triumph. Derek Jacobi continues prove himself as one of the greatest Masters on or off-screen and the added mix of Paul McGann's Doctor (my personal favourite on Big Finish) makes this a resounding success.
There is a great ambition in these stories; the mix of period drama and futuristic action and horror add a sense of scale that shows the Master at his most cunning, manipulative and dangerous. It was a great tragedy that we got so little of Jacobi as the Master in Doctor Who; fortunately Big Finish continues make up for it in style.