Big Finish Review: The War Master - The Master of Callous
After reprising his role as the Master in 2017's The War Master: Only The Good (check out our review here), Derek Jacobi returned to Big Finish last month for the next in four planned War Master releases. Set before the events of Only The Good, this next set of adventures see him manipulate an entire colony planet for his own nefarious means.
The War Master: The Master of Callous has been written by James Goss and Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 28th February 2019. Here is the synopsis...
On the mining colony Callous, Elliot King struggles to meet the demands of its governor, Teremon. The odds are stacked against him, and his options are running low. The world that once promised dreams now offers only despair.
A wild Ood stalks the forests, carrying an antiquated phone. The caller promises much – he claims he can change the world – but he always speaks a devastating truth.
He is the Master and the Ood will obey him... but to what end?
The War Master: Master of Callous continues the high standard set by previous release Only The Good. However it is an altogether different affair too; the first release saw Jacobi's Master navigate the Time War itself in four separate adventures, focusing on a credible way to lead into his exile as Yana in Doctor Who's Utopia. This time, as the first of three new releases (though filmed second), Master of Callous tells one story over four parts, each telling a new chapter in the tragic rise and fall of the colony planet Callous. This allows the characters to develop and change, and the listener the opportunity to invest in their lives, making the Master's ultimate goal for them all the more tragic.
There are some light spoilers in the review below as I delve into each story...
Call For The Dead (by James Goss)
This is a creepy, atmospheric tale, telling the story of Simon Ludders' Elliot King and his attempts to make a success of the mining colony. It is a terrific set up full of tension and drama; the precious mineral swenyo that will make him and his people rich has driven the Ood miners mad and they wander the nearby forests while he wastes the years away from his family, trying to fend off the machinations of corrupt governor Teremon (Pippa Haywood). All the way, he finds himself haunted by a mysterious Ood (Silas Carson reprising his iconic role from Doctor Who), that carries a disconnected phone with a message for him.
The interplay between an increasingly desperate Elliot and Teremon's delightfully dangerous governor add to the rising sense of threat; Haywood is wonderful as the villain of the piece - arguably more the big bad of Master of Callous until the Master's plan is eventually revealed. Her smooth-talking offer of 'protection' by her band of 'reformed' space pirates is a linger threat across all parts, while the onset of madness in the Ood thanks to the swenyo creates that sense of tension and fear when we first met them in Doctor Who's The Impossible Planet. The little hints of what is to come as they mutter "I am the..." are delightfully ominous.
Jacobi's Master is only really hinted in this first tale, the voice on the telephone the Ood is carrying revealing a twisted, dark fate for poor Elliott when he finally succumbs to years of fighting and takes the call. It's a large and epic tale, with the arrival of his daughter Cassandra King (Maeve Bluebell Wells) the central protagonist of Master of Callous and her pilot wife Martine King (Samantha Béart) who attempts to fulfil her father's legacy all while facing the warm smiles and barbed threats of Teremon. The tale also takes the time to explore the loving relationship of Cassandra and Martine and their attempts to mine the mineral that will save the colony, all the while the Master awaits at the end of the line.
Call For The Dead is a superb opener to Master of Callous, developing rich characters, revealing the scope of the Colony's plan and the threats towards it, while being packed with tension and creepy, haunting moments that add a real sense of danger throughout.
The Glittering Prize (by James Goss)
With the stakes set and Cassandra and Martine laying their claim in Callous, the second tale takes a somewhat different path with the reveal that the Master was able to save the colony and aid Cassandra in her plans to mine the swenyo successfully. Adopting the act of a kindly old man and benefactor to the King family, the second tale starts on a somewhat lighter note as we see Callous living up to its potential.
Given that this is a tale about the War Master, there is a certain degree of tragedy involved. Not only do the machinations of Teremon continue to play an added threat in the tale but we also see the struggles to succeed erode the happy marriage of Cassandra and Martine, impact the long standing friendship with loyal ally and family friend Jaques (Barnaby Edwards) and see their mining efforts crumble. The madness caused by the swenyo gradually creeps into the story, leading to a rather grim cliff-hanger as everything inevitably falls apart.
The Glittering Prize continues the strong start of Call of the Dead but doesn't perhaps have the atmosphere and tension of its predecessor. But Goss's writing allows for some rich characterisation and often harrowing drama. The performances from all - Maeve Bluebell Wells, Samantha Béart, Barnaby Edwards, Pippa Haywood and Silas Carson's delightfully off-putting Ood are all excellent and you are compelled by every one of their stories. But it is Jacobi who steals the show; as the kindly benefactor, he is a much more insidious character and you find yourself eager to see the dark side of his character emerge.
The Persistence of Dreams by Guy Adams
With the grand build up of the first two stories, The Persistence of Dreams is an altogether beast; Martine is stranded in a cargo ship in space, its hold filled with swenyo as she avoids Teremon's forces and gradually succumbs to the madness of the mineral.
This story is a real tour de force, with Béart delivering a superb performance as the usually grounded, cool-head Marine starts to hallucinate. Guy Adam's script is delightfully surreal as she is haunted not only by the ghost of her mother (Doctor Who's Brigadier Bambera herself Angela Bruce) and Silas Carson's haunting Ood, but she finds herself talking to a food dispensing machine, voiced by Jacobi's Master and other random and offbeat place as paranoia takes hold. Family legacy is a big part of The Master of Callous and Martine's own past relationship with her parents is exposed, delving deep into her psyche as falls deeper into the madness of her mind.
While every story in the boxset is great, The Persistence of Dreams is the real highlight, doing something very different, as can be afforded being the third in a four-part story. It is glorious and twisted edge of your seat stuff, taking one of the most engaging, likeable characters in the set and taking her down a very dark and tragic path. The climax is heart-breaking, offering a sudden u-turn on the story your were expecting as The Master of Callous heads towards it climax.
Sins of the Father by Guy Adams
There are no happy endings where the War Master involved, but even so, listening the tragic fall of Callous in the closing story makes for absorbing, if a little grim listening at times. This is where the true nature of Jacobi's Master is revealed; his end game is only unveiled at the very end and its a doozy, showing just how terrible (and delightful a villain) he really is, while setting up another step in his journey towards his appearance in Doctor Who itself.
This story follows two paths; the fall of the colony as Cassandra scrambles to keep the operation going and the Master's interplay with villainous Teremon as he is tortured for information. While Callous's fall offers some dramatic listening, the real strength lies in the Teremon and Master scenes; she believes she is completely in control - she is ruthless and unyielding - but as a listener you know she is completely out of her depth. But even then, Adam's script keeps the listener hanging on to the last possible moment and the pay-off is fantastic, even if some fates are left to the listener's imagination.
This is a dramatic conclusion to an epic tale that pays off on the various character journeys even if it isn't always happy listening. The strengths, yet again, are in the character moments as the madness, chaos and death takes its hold on everyone and only the Master emerges victorious. Sins of the Father is a fitting send off for this chapter in the War Master's life.
A trailer for the next War Master release The Rage of The Time Lords looks set to be dramatic event, throwing the War master into some of the more dangerous elements of the Time War and see him face off against Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor, who's presence is teased in the trailer.
There is the usual high quality standard of interviews with the cast and crew, led by director Scott Handcock. Derek Jacobi continues to relish playing the Master and it is clear through discussions that everyone is enamoured by him. These interviews offer some keen insights into the development of Master of Callous and the opportunity a four-part story afforded the writers.
Finally, the release is finished off with a music suite for Master of Callous. At almost nineteen minutes long, this really is a - pardon the pun - masterpiece in its own right. The music suite from composer Rob Harvey is a gourgeous sweeping epic of atmosphere and emotion.
He kicks things off with an insidious piano solo, haunting and atmospheric with some lovely, gentle emotional beats. Intertwining heavy synth chords add a sense of danger and menace before more melancholy piano and slow strings. The suite builds in earnest a third of the way through with racing heavy chords and grim, low strings; there is terrific balance between beautifully ethereal pieces and heavy, guttural heavy synth beats that are packed full of atmosphere.
The pretty pipes and piano motif comes out of nowhere, before Harvey mixes gentle percussion beats with heavy chords and brassy horns that convey the real sense of danger present. He ends the piece with brazen military beats, horns and percussion before a stunning ethereal piece full of twinkling somewhat demented synth and haunting chords and then back to sinister racing strings, heavy beats. The final rousing, climax is breath-taking. This was a joy to listen to in its own right.
Some Final Thoughts...
The War Master: The Master of Callous does something unexpected and surpasses Only The Good. Jacobi is outstanding throughout but he is backed with a strong cast and a story that is really given time to breathe over the four parts. It's an epic tragedy told with intimate character beats, with the added masterpiece of The Persistence of Dreams thrown in to really take things to another level. With a cracking score by Rob Harvey, rich scripts by James Goss and Guy Adams and taught direction by Scott Handcock, this very late entry to Big Finish's 2018 Doctor Who range may have been its best.