Big Finish Review: Masterful

Big Finish Review: Masterful

Fifty years ago this month, the Master was introduced to Doctor Who. Roger Delgado’s Master became the Moriarty to the Third Doctor’s Holmes, appearing in eight serials before the actor’s untimely death in 1973. The character’s popularity, however, meant that a succession of actors have taken on the role over the years, occasionally giving rise to multiple-Master stories on television, audio and elsewhere.

Masterful takes the premise of a Day of the Doctor-style team-up for the Doctor’s childhood friend-slash-archenemy and turns up the dial to eleven. This nine-hour bonanza release features no less than ten incarnations of the Master, including the headline Big Finish debut of John Simm’s incarnation.

Masterful is available in standard and limited editions from the Big Finish website. The limited edition, which we will be covering here, consists of the three-part special by James Goss, the two previously released Short Trips I Am the Master by Geoffrey Beevers and The Switching by Simon Guerrier, the new three-part audiobook Terror of the Master by Trevor Baxendale, and a disc of behind-the-scenes interviews.

Here's the synopsis...

The Master's finally done it. He's won. He summons his other selves to a celebration of his ultimate victory. And they come - from across time and dimensions. But he's forgotten to invite someone. And Missy's not happy.

Has the Master really conquered the universe? Or has something more awful been unleashed? Something that even all the Masters cannot stop?

Missy is determined to reveal the truth. Because one fact about the Master's existence never changes. No-one can trust the Master.

Not even the Master.

Masterful

Masterful gets straight to business, giving listeners what they came for – the multi-Master team-up – straight away. John Simm’s incarnation has time scooped his predecessors for a party – and to gloat – in what constitutes one long, half-hour scene full of humorous bickering, sarcasm and gentle ribbing.

Writer James Goss encapsulates the essence of each Master and adds his own spin on certain incarnations. The Saxon Master leans into the egotistical mania that characterised his appearances in The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords and The End of Time. It’s a clever choice to have this incarnation be the precipitating force in the story. Not only is this Simm’s audio debut, but he’s also one of the most power-hungry of all of the Masters – every time we see him on screen he’s attempting to obtain, or has recently been deposed from, a position of power.

Geoffrey Beevers’ take on the character is defined by a silky-smooth charm in contrast to his abhorrent physical appearance, whereas Eric Roberts is the cocky mob boss; both are given some slightly different material to play with in this story. The Young Master, played brilliantly by Milo Parker, has a grand vision for himself and the universe. Derek Jacobi’s War Master is the war-worn fighter, true victor and ultimate schemer; his disdain for his other selves is not as outwardly vocal as in his next incarnation, but his low tolerance for tomfoolery is clear. Alex Macqueen’s version, dubbed the Reborn Master, embodies the camp playfulness and willy-nilly sadism that is revisited a few bodies later by Missy. Every appearance by Michelle Gomez as Missy for Big Finish has captured her bonkers nature as the version perhaps most inclined towards goodness. She’s also viewed by her past selves as embarrassingly over the top (“like a pantomime villain” or “a drunk aunt at a wedding”).

Jon Culshaw’s Kamelion provides a link to the Anthony Ainley incarnation, Mark Gatiss reprises his role as a version of the Master from a universe where David Warner is the Doctor, and Katy Manning’s Jo Grant is thrown into the midst too. It’s only fitting that, with Terror of the Autons also being Jo’s debut, she’s the companion to feature here. With Roger Delgado being no longer with us, she represents that Master’s era, having been forced into taking his place in the time scoop at the last second. (Perhaps, in avoiding the madness of his later selves, that incarnation was the cleverest of them all.)

But it’s not all fun and games. After the first half hour of banter, Missy disrupts the meetup – actually a front for Simm’s Master to steal the lives of his past selves, in typical timeline-disrupting fashion – and disperses them via another time scoop across a world fleeing an impending entropy wave of the Saxon Master’s creation. From there, it’s a matter of getting to know certain incarnations better – and a chance for certain pairings to spark off each other in unexpected ways.

The Decayed Master, with the help of a perception filter, finds himself in the company of Kitty (a delightful Abigail McKern), a woman living peacefully by the shore a lake, with whom he develops a bond verging on the romantic. Kitty’s influence is such that he mellows, starts fishing and considers helping others – the newfound tenderness and compassion a far cry from his usual personality. The pair share some surprisingly gentle and heartfelt scenes – until Roberts’ charming rogue intrudes upon the Master’s paradise, his simmering smugness clear as he flirts with Kitty and evokes feelings of jealousy from his predecessor.

Meanwhile, Macqueen’s and Parker’s Masters fight to be captain of a refugee ship fleeing the apocalypse. Parker has real potential as an actor and in this role – it should only be a matter of time before he reprises the part. The War Master hitches a ride in a car and is joined by the Saxon Master, who each try to out-manipulate the other, while Jo is first paired with Kamelion (who takes on the form of Culshaw’s Third Doctor in a pleasing cameo) and then Missy. Gatiss’ version travels to Gallifrey in an attempt to destroy the entropy wave, but his role is sadly not as large as the others’.

The character work being done in part two makes the second act more of a low-key affair. Act three sees most Masters gather back together where it all began, although the culmination of the plot somewhat fizzles out and underwhelms. Admittedly it is a massive ask to create a story as massive as this, but with three hours to work with, it seems a shame that Masterful ends without a properly big ending befitting the occasion.

What’s most rewarding is listening to these fantastic characters play off one another. It’s Beevers, Gomez and Simm who have the meatiest material to work with: Beevers for the interesting new aspects to his character, Gomez for Missy’s interaction with Jo and how that links into her personal arc, and Simm for being the one at the centre of everything.

I Am the Master

There is a message for you. It comes from a long way, from a dying world. No, not a dying world. A killed world. And the message is from the killer. Please attend carefully. The message that follows is vital to your future… However much longer that may be.

As Big Finish’s longest-serving incarnation of the Master, Geoffrey Beevers occupies a special place in Masterful, and I Am the Master employs the actor’s decadent vocal tones in an illuminating personal monologue.

The Short Trip, written by Beevers himself and originally released in 2018, consists of forty-three minutes of gloating and manipulation from an incarnation held in perpetual physical torment. This Master channels his eternal pain into a spree of ruin across the universe with a twisted charm and penchant for self-aggrandisement. All Masters enjoy the act of destruction, but there’s something about this incarnation – or perhaps more accurately, Beevers’ performance – that makes such ruination an overtly delightful act.

Dark, direct and disturbing, I Am the Master brings the listener round to the side of the Master to see life (or the lack of it) through his eyes. It’s gently self-referential (with the Master speaking directly to listeners from within a recording booth) and a real highlight of the Short Trips range.

The Switching

Yesterday there were two Time Lord prisoners on Earth – the Master in his cell, the Doctor in his exile. But today the Doctor’s not quite feeling himself. Today he’s seeing things from a different perspective. And today the Master’s going to escape…

Originally released as a subscriber exclusive in 2010 – and itself a reading of a prose story published by Big Finish in 2002 – The Switching, written by Simon Guerrier, was at the time a rare opportunity for characters from the Third Doctor’s era to appear on audio. Tim Treloar has taken on the role in recent years alongside Katy Manning and Daisy Ashford (and soon Sadie Miller), but a decade ago this was as good as you could get.

The second Short Trip release takes on a more conventional story format than I Am the Master, but that doesn’t mean the story proves uninteresting – quite the contrary. The Switching takes the body swap – a classic science fiction trope Doctor Who has surprisingly not had that much to do with over the years, at least on screen – and uses it to good effect in a pleasant little tale focused on interactions between key characters from 1970s Doctor Who.

Duncan Wisbey conjures decent impressions of both Pertwee and Delgado, alongside a smattering of other characters including Jo, the Brigadier, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton. He makes it clear who’s speaking at any given moment, helping to make this an agreeable half-hour foray into a much-loved classic era.

Terror of the Master

Dr Derek Drake is a National Treasure – he’s going to solve the energy crisis and stop all pollution. Governments and businesses around the world are signing up to his environmentally friendly campaign. So why is the Doctor convinced this great humanitarian and darling of the media is really the Master in disguise?

What could his greatest enemy hope to gain by improving the lives of everyone on the planet? The Doctor must convince his UNIT friends that they now face the ultimate terror – and that the Master may be in as much danger as they are…

Jon Culshaw has become the king of Doctor Who recasts. In addition to voicing Kamelion and the Brigadier in full-cast releases, he plays a new version of a Fourth Doctor-era villain, narrated the Delgado and Ainley Masters in Big Finish’s Short Trips contributions to Time Lord Victorious last year, and now voices a host of classic characters in Terror of the Master.

Deliciously slow-paced, Trevor Baxendale’s script is a by-the-numbers Third Doctor/Master/UNIT tale – and that’s the essence of its appeal. (Even the title is a nice call-back to Terror of the Autons.) The Master, in an uneasy alliance with an alien organism, has a plan to take over the planet and the Doctor, with the help of UNIT, is out to stop him.

Culshaw’s impressions range from decent to superb. Almost all the regular crew are here: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton. This being post-The Green Death, Jo has left UNIT, and so Corporal Daisy Hanson assumes companion duties for part of the story, although is definitely a side character. Baxendale’s script also picks up on the topical environmental themes of that serial, addressing perspectives on carbon emissions, fossil fuels, global warming and the debate over alternative energy solutions.

Combine a quintessentially Third Doctor-era script, a brilliant line-up of characters and outstanding narration, and you get a top-notch ode to Delgado’s legacy.

Behind the Scenes

James Goss equates the challenge he had on Masterful – incorporating multiple characters and elements – with Robert Holmes’ task writing The Five Doctors, and takes particular delight in describing the pairing of who deems the most competent (Jacobi) and most incompetent (Simm) Masters for their road trip sequence in part two.

Each actor pairing clearly enjoyed the recording process (Jacobi and Simm in particular, who apparently never met while filming Utopia) and have high praise for the writing. It’s especially heart-warming to hear Roberts reminisce about making the 1996 film, Gatiss recall meeting Nicholas Courtney and David Tennant for the recording of Sympathy for the Devil, and Culshaw draw on his fan credentials when revisiting beloved characters like the Third Doctor.

Other highlights include Manning’s memories of joining Doctor Who half a century ago (and how Jon Culshaw recaptures the magic anew) and Ken Bentley’s cunning directorial decision to have a single actor, Glen McCready, read in for all other actors absent from certain recording dates. There’s a lot to enjoy in these interviews, which proves as much of a delight as the main story itself!

Wrap-Up

For fans of the Master or Doctor Who in general, the limited edition of Masterful is utterly worth the purchase. Clocking in at over nine hours, this sumptuous release is jam-packed full of treats relating to a truly iconic character. The Masterful special features terrific interplay between the various incarnations, the two Short Trips delve further into the machinations of the Doctor’s archenemy, and Terror of the Master plays exactly like a classic Third Doctor serial. Although the feature story lacks the full punch of an anniversary release, as an entire product Masterful is indeed masterfully done.

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