Big Finish Review: The War Master - Anti-Genesis
December saw the release of the fourth and final The War Master box set, featuring Derek Jacobi as the renegade Time Lord and his travels during the Time War. After facing off against Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor in last summer's Rage of the Time Lords, Jacobi's Master finds himself partnered with the alternate Master of another reality, played by Mark Gatiss and working against regular Gallifreyan CIA agent Narvin (Seán Carlsen).
The War Master: Anti-Genesis has been written by Nicholas Briggs and Alan Barnes and directed by Scott Handcock. It is available to purchase on the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 29th February 2020. Here are the synopses...
In a Time War, there is a crime that not even the Daleks would dare consider. But the Master has more than considered – and he is ready to commit...
When his TARDIS returns to Gallifrey carrying his corpse, a chain of events ensues that will change established history. Old friendships will be destroyed and dark alliances formed, as the Master exploits a terrifying truth.
Even for the two most powerful races, time can be rewritten.
4.1 From the Flames by Nicholas Briggs
After the Master's TARDIS returns his remains to Gallifrey, in accordance with his final wishes, an intricate plot begins to change the nature of the universe forever. But even in death the Master threatens life. And only CIA Coordinator Narvin can hope to stop him.
4.2 The Master's Dalek Plan by Alan Barnes
As the Master inflitrates the Kaled scientific elite, the Time Lords seek to counter his interference. But while Narvin and President Livia try to stabilise the past, a new and horrifying future dawns in the wastelands of ancient Skaro.
4.3 Shockwave by Alan Barnes
With all known history threatened, the Daleks take desperate action to preserve their established legacy. When they cross dimensions to recruit an alternative incarnation of the Master, an uneasy alliance is formed... But can either side truly trust the other?
4.4 He Who Wins by Nicholas Briggs
The Master has achieved an ultimate victory. But at what cost?
Potential spoilers as I review this latest release...
From The Flames
Having largely flitted around the edges of the Time War in his previous stories, From The Flames finds Jacobi's War Master plunged into the depths of the conflict, travelling from Gallifrey to Skaro. It's a bold introduction to this final set, with a number of key Time War players from other Big Finish stories making their presence known.
Seán Carlsen's Narvin is the most prominent guest stair in this tale, now interim head of the Celestial Intervention Agency, who finds himself outmaneuvered by Jacobi's Machevellian Master. Pippa Bennett-Warner plays a desperate President Livia. Jacobi himself, like many of his stories, is only sparsely used as he pulls the strings from behind the scenes, but those moments he is there are a delight, with the casualties racking up with every ruthless encounter. There's a big traumatic twist for new Time Lord character Lamarius (Franchie Webb), whose actions find her unwittingly embroiled in an attempt to stop the Master complete his plans. If there is any true protagonist in this tale, it is Lamarius, with Narvin's desperation to get things done making him a somewhat more antagonistic character, while the Master leaves a bloody trail behind.
There's an epic grandeur to this tale, building on Doctor Who's mythology with mind-bending trips into the Matrix to war torn Skaro during the war between the Thals and the Kaleds. The mystery of the Anti-Genesis is a great hook; as usual, the Master is one steps ahead of everyone, the listeners included. Jacobi is a real treat, that kindly grandpa persona that will kill you without hesitation making for an effective anti-hero, while the events on both planets set up nicely the bigger events to follow.
The Master's Dalek Plan
Playing as an alternate version of one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time - Genesis of the Daleks - The Master's Dalek plan (a clever play on that other classic Dalek story) is an astoundingly good entry in the War Master saga. The idea is simple but very effective; what would happen if the Master took the place of Davros and created the Daleks?
What follows is Jacobi's Master unleashed, scheming, intelligent and dastardly as he follows all the same beats as Davros to build his first Daleks and end the War between the Thals and the Kaleds. Jacobi absolutely convinces is his villany, no longer restrained by any sense of familial allegiance to the Timelords over the Daleks. It's a clever, disturbing story, carried by the War Master who has so long worked in the shadows and no succeeds so brazenly.
Of course, no return to the events of Genesis of the Daleks would be complete without a wider look at the civil war of Skaro and desperate Lamarius attempts to play the hero of The Master's Dalek Plan. Navigating hand mines and mutants, she gets desperately close to stopping the Master.
The Master's Dalek Plan is a bold and ambitious tale that succeeds where no Master has ever done before; think the end of The Stolen Earth, just much, much bigger). It raises the stakes for the final two stories as it becomes a race not to stop The Master, but what to do when he has achieved the ultimate victory. This is the episode that shows why he deserves the name War Master.
Enter The Master from the Unbound universe. It's almost a shame that Mark Gatiss' Master is advertised on this release as his arrival in the third story is a delightful twist in an already thrilling tale. With the War Master's actions devastating the universe, Shockwave delivers the ultimate 'deal with the Devil' moment - can the Daleks and this alternate Master work together with Gallifrey to stop him?
Derek Jacobi takes a step back in this story, but Gatiss is on fine form, taking up the protagnist mantle as he is recruited by the enemy. Through his eyes we see the shockwave continuously alter history, with Gallifrey itself going through some interesting revisions. Witnessing Livia and Narvin in a version of Gallifrey that never experienced time travel is particularly fun, with the Master and Daleks making a mockery of them as they try to change history.
But there are still some great moments on Skaro too. The extermination of a certain TARDIS trio from Genesis of the Daleks and the Master fondness for the Third Doctor, Jo and the Brigadier is a real highlight, amid all the death and destruction taking place. Even at his very worst, there's something lovable about Jacobi's performance.
Shockwave continues to up the stakes in true timey wimey fashion, with Gatiss offering a surprisingly sympathetic version of the Master against Jacobi's insidious villain. The fun of the War Master stories is seeing the bad guys having their fun and this story has them at their most dastardly.
He Who Wins
What happens when you have won? That's the question posed to Jacobi's War Master in the final set as he comes to faces with his alternate version. The idea of Mark Gatiss's version and the Dalek Time Controller teaming up to save the universe is a fantastic concept - the worst villains imaginable now the only people capable of saving it.
Moments of He Who Wins are a little more subdued than the previous entries, playing more as a reflection of the Master's victory before both versions are forced to work together when the Daleks inevitably betray him. The cyclical nature of events - the War Master taking the same path as Davros - is another wonderful concept, culminating in the best possible outcome as we witness two versions of Jacobi's Master facing off against each other. It's a delightfully timey wimey concept that proves you can never have too much of a good thing.
He Who Wins is a ultimately a satisfying climax not just to Anti-Genesis, but all four volumes in The War Master series. Gatiss is brilliant, Jacobi shines and despite the presence of traditional heroes, the race to save the universe is an engaging and thrilling experience.
At around 45 minutes, the behind the scenes interviews offer a comprehensive look at Anti-Genesis and The War Master stories in general. Director and producer Scott Handcock chat with writers Nicholas Briggs and Alan Barnes to discuss the ideas behind this set, originating all the way back to Derek Jacobi's desire to return to Big Finish after his work on the first set Only The Good two years earlier, and their desire to play with the events of Genesis of the Daleks. Their recollections about that classic story and the intonations of Nyder's vocal delivery are hilarious.
The actors of the Gallifrey series Seán Carlsen (Narvin) and Pippa Bennett-Warner (Livia) talk about the differences in this set and the joys of working with Jacobi, with Carlsen indulging in his fan boy appreciation of all the references from Genesis of the Daleks. Jacobi is a joy to listen to, particularly his failure to remember watching the original Doctor Who story in 1975 because he was doing a world tour at the time. His decision to play every line like he's performing Shakespeare really speaks to the appeal of his Master. His experiences of working with and appreciation for Tom Baker is fascinating, with a delightful moment where Handcock reminds him of his shared screen time with Baker in Randall & Hopkirk Deceased.
Doctor Who fan Ben Crystal talks playing the Sixth version of Davros and the joy of exploring the creator of the Daleks. Franchie Webb reflects on Lamarius as a very damaged boss of a character and her dynamic with Skaro mutant Arfor (Vikash Bhai), the actor talks about his character's attempt to form a family unit with Lamarius. Daniel Brocklebank (Yaren), also speaks fondly about playing an evil Kaled and the satisfying comeuppance to his character.
Briggs and Barnes go into the desire to bring Gatiss's Master from the Unbound series, reflecting on this version being somewhat of a Joker Master for this tale. Gatiss, who has played the alternate Master since 2003, talks the thrill of the role, while sharing his own memories of Genesis of the Daleks and how clever and grim and gritty and grown up it was to him, as en eight year-old Doctor Who fan.
Of course, the real highlight of these extras has Briggs answer the questions to Jacobi's question - how does he make the Daleks sound the way they do?For any Dalek fan, this is an absolute listen!
Finishing off this final disk is a 24 minute music suite from composer Robert Harvey. This is a beautifully morose tone to the orchestral score, gothic and ominous in places as Harvey mixes in heavy chords and slow harp strings. There's an ethereal, somewhat off putting tone to the more sci-fi synth beats while the quieter piano pieces capture the reflective moments in this set of stories. The use of bold percussion beats creates a real sense of dread and danger, whole heavy synth chords and rising strings are delightfully insidious in tone. The final moments mixing military drum beats with gothic choral tones and harp strings add to the epic grandeur of the piece. Overall, the Anti-Genesis music suite is quieter and less bombastic than many other Big Finish scores but Harvey absolutely captures the mood of this set to deliver a fascinating piece of music.
Some Final Thoughts...
Anti-Genesis is a fantastic final set in The War Master series from Big Finish. Derek Jacobi is mesmerising as the central villain, while Mark Gatiss reprises his Unbound Master role to deliver a strangely sympathetic performance. With the War Master working behind the scenes in many of his stories, it is great to see him unleashed in his full evil glory as Anti-Genesis delivers an entertaining, thrilling alternate take on the classic Doctor Who story Genesis of the Daleks.
This is as grand as it gets, making full use of the Time War setting to deliver an epic story like no other. The writing is sharp, the direction electric and every member of the cast on fine form. While The Legacy of Time might be the big Big Finish release of the year, Anti-Genesis might be the best set released in 2019. What a way to end the year.