Big Finish Review: Master!

Big Finish Review: Master!

Set on a dystopian future Earth where corruption, violence and ambition run rife, Master! marks a long-anticipated solo outing for Eric Roberts’s incarnation of the Doctor’s archenemy, off the back of appearances in The Diary of River Song, Ravenous and Masterful.

A dual directorial effort by Jason Haigh-Ellery and Jamie Anderson, Master! is available from the Big Finish website, before going on general release on the 30th April. Check out the synopsis below:

Abandoned in the Vortex, the Master’s lost incarnation is about to be thrown a lifeline.

Earth rebuilds in the aftermath of invasion, and power rests with those who innovate. Genius Lila Kreeg makes a deal with the devil to see her dreams fulfilled.

As the Master returns, there are those – like Vienna Salvatori – who wish to hunt him, and those upon whom he wishes vengeance himself…

Faustian by Robert Valentine

Drake Enterprises is the most powerful company on Earth. Dr Lila Kreeg is its most valued asset. But her experiments open a doorway which allow an evil back into the universe. The Master can offer Lila the world, so long as she obeys him…

Prey by Robert Whitelock

Impossibly glamorous assassin Vienna Salvatori has a new target. Crossing time and space, Vienna takes one final job to free her from this life.

But when the Master is hunted through the slums and ganglands of London, the line is blurred between predator and prey…

Vengeance by Matt Fitton

The Daleks are returning. Their plan, long in the making, is complete. Earth will be theirs once more.

But someone stands against them. Someone with his own reasons for revenge – and Vienna and Lila are caught in the crossfire. Because Earth’s greatest hope against the Daleks lies with the Master.

The Review

Faustian

In similar fashion to Big Finish’s War Master saga and in contrast to the typical Doctor Who story format, Eric Roberts’ Master does not feature too prominently for most of this first story. Instead, he pops up here and there to sow the seeds of manipulation and further his own ambitious agenda.

Our point-of-view character is “loose cannon” genius Dr Lila Kreeg (Laura Aikman), who’s working on a cross-universe matter teleportation project on a post-Dalek invasion Earth in the year 2223. Her project inevitably encounters difficulties and delays: an experiment fails; her superiors take issue with her risk-taking habits; she’s fired for going beyond her research remit. Lila is a likeable protagonist – to begin with, at least – and simply wishes for her research to succeed. Then there’s Lila’s colleague Eddi Bhole (Glen McCready), the imperious and profit-fixated businessman Magnus Drake (Alistair Petrie), and Rachel Atkins turning in a sneery and smug performance as Lila’s project supervisor Cathrin Travers.

But ultimately, it’s Roberts’ Master that we’re here for, and we’re introduced to this incarnation as he drifts helplessly in the vortex post-The Lifeboat and the Deathboat. Like Richard Armitage’s take on Rassilon in February’s Gallifrey – Time War 4, Roberts makes readily apparent the glee he takes in embodying this iconic Doctor Who role. His performance is dark and malevolent, with a few genuinely scary moments of audio menace, and is the clear highlight of Faustian.

The plot is beautiful in its simplicity, essentially boiling down to a, ahem, Faustian deal Lila makes with the devil (read: the Master), enabling her research to be advanced in exchange for the Master being freed from eternal imprisonment. It’s a masterclass in manipulation and a fantastic first act for this three-part release.

Prey

If Faustian is a slow-build setup that introduces the Master and Lila, Prey is the more action-oriented second act with explosions, brawls and chases through gloomy streets. The grunge of future-London slums and black-market lawlessness (gangster bosses, nightclubs, etc.) are laid out wonderfully.

Episode two is where we meet the stylish assassin-for-hire Vienna Salvatori, who’s been tasked with tracking down the Master by an unknown client. This Big Finish-original character, as played by Chase Masterson since 2012, has popped up here and there over the years, mostly in her own spin-off series, Vienna. She’s got a brilliantly blasé, in-it-for-the-fun-of-it attitude to danger, and the way she bounces off her war droid companion Artie (Andrew James Spooner) is a chance for some lighter moments to balance out the shadowy dealings the Master and Lila are now heavily involved in.

For Lila and the Master have now taken over and rapidly expanded Drake Interplanetary and are reaping the rewards – but as they are now at the top of the business food chain, the episode contemplates whether this makes them predator or prey. Roberts’ performance here is little less intimidating than in the first story; he’s at his best when given a chance to full lean into the character’s tendency for anger and quiet malevolence.

There are no redeemable characters here, making proceedings wonderfully murky: the Master’s ambition outweighs any sense of empathy he might have once had; Lila’s been corrupted and is involved with the wrong crowd; and the bazooka-wielding Vienna, although rightly fabulous, is still an assassin. With this particular incarnation of the Master you can really go to some violent places – there’s something about Eric Roberts that evokes the slimy yet charming mob boss archetype – and although there’s perhaps less overt violence and darkness in Master! than, for instance, much of Big Finish’s Torchwood range, Prey depicts a world that’s succumbed to grey morality and barbarity.

Vengeance

We’ve had a character piece and a brooding trip into London’s underbelly – Vengeance is the continuity-heavy finale, with a returning enemy in the Daleks. Hints were dropped into episodes one and two as to the fallout from the Dalek occupation years earlier (namely the titular invasion from the classic 1964 serial), and now they’re back, vying with the Master to be masters of Earth once more. There’s also the mystery of who hired Vienna to kill the Master, which is more complex than it initially seems (spoiler: it’s a not-dead Magnus Drake, revealed to be a Dalek duplicate installed after the invasion). Even Vienna’s out of her depth – no sane assassin would pick up a simple contract if they expected a global Dalek conquest.

The inclusion of the Daleks is a nice way to end the set, playing into both the still-recent invasion and the Master’s recent history with the Daleks in the 1996 television movie. Daleks arguably improve the quality of any given Doctor Who tale, and in this one there’s some pleasing variety to the voices and motivations of different units – Dalek Supreme, Dalek Litigator and so on. Indeed, some of the best Dalek stories create rifts between individual Daleks; such conflict gives Nicholas Briggs more to play with vocally and makes the Daleks a more compelling species and military force.

This being a solo Master story, you’d think he’d ultimately be the one to come out on top – but actually, the Master is fairly definitively defeated by the end, in similar fashion to his demise in the television movie. (There’s certainly scope for this incarnation to return, however.) The exploration of a dystopian future across these stories has proved interesting, and although Master! probably won’t blow you away, hearing Eric Roberts back in action against such a vividly realised backdrop makes this an absorbing release from Big Finish.

The Extras

I will go anywhere they take me because it blows my mind, what they write.

Howard Carter’s eerie theme tune is a great way of heralding the return of Eric Roberts as the Master’s lost incarnation. His incidental score takes inspiration from Blade Runner when canvassing rainy alleyways and neon-billboard public announcements.

Robert Valentine’s summation of the Roberts’ Master as “charming but never far away from truly aggressive violence” is extremely accurate, and the writer provides some intriguing thoughts about writing Faustian to echo the introduction of a new Doctor in Rose and The Christmas Invasion. Robert Whitelock takes great joy at being able to script a story for such an iconic character, describing the way he drew on references such as 1980s John Carpenter films (think Escape From New York).

David Richardson’s revelation that Faustian was possibly Robert Valentine’s first script for Big Finish – but his fifth to be released – simply goes to show just how prolific the latter has become in a short amount of time. Richardson also runs us through the recording process, which was partly conducted during the 2020 lockdown but started off in 2019 with Roberts and Masterson in Los Angeles. We get some pleasing commentary from Roberts himself about returning to the role and the psychology of the character. Masterson, too, shows great joy at playing Vienna (for almost a decade now!) and layers much praise upon Roberts for his portrayal.

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