Big Finish Review: The War Master Vol 5 - Hearts of Darkness
Derek Jacobi returns as the fabulous War Master in the fifth volume of Time War-based adventures from Big Finish. Joining him for this set of four stories is Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo and Colin McFarlane, with Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor once again facing his enemy following the events of The War Master: Rage of The Timelords.
The War Master: Hearts of Darkness has been written by David Llewellyn and Lisa McMullin and is directed by Scott Handcock. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st December. Here is the synopsis...
“Find the Doctor… stop the Doctor… and, if necessary, kill the Doctor!”
Recruited by the Celestial Intervention Agency to track down his oldest enemy, the Master finds himself thrown into a mission that will take him into deepest Dalek territory.
Abandoned on the planet Redemption, he assembles a crew and acquires a ship – the journey that follows is certain to test them all… and not everyone will survive.
But space pirates and living corpses are the least of their worries. Their biggest threat remains at large: a Time Lord who likes to call himself ‘the Doctor’.
The Edge of Redemption by David Llewellyn
The fifth volume of The War Master adventures from Big Finish is a largely low key affair, reminiscent of the slow-build character-driven drama of Volume 2: The Master of Callous rather than the bold, epic stories of the past two entries. The opening story is very much a scene setter; it's the weakest of the set in that it doesn't feel very different to the War Master stories that proceeded it. Characters become ensnared in the Master's plan; people die. While Derek Jacobi is [pun intended] as masterful as ever, it all feels like something we've listened to before.
There's an intriguing hook in the Master's mission, sent by regular Big Finish Time War alum Narvin (Seán Carlsen) to track down the renegade Doctor. Along the way, the story examines the fallout of the Time War on the galaxy's population, something which we've seen explored more thoroughly in Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor Time War series. Though perhaps, considering the events that follow, that's kind of the point. The run-down planet, overrun with criminal gangs and refugees, makes for an effective set piece to start this latest tale.
Colin McFarlane's Morski makes a strong impression as the shady pilot who allies himself with the Master despite realising some of the threat he poses to the local population. He continues to act as an ally / quasi-companion to the Master into the next story too, and plays well of Jacobi. There are some interesting characters at play as the Master assembles his team of weird and wonderful aliens for a good old fashioned heist, which provides plenty of fun action sequences.
The Edge of Redemption is a fine story, but not one that will likely top the lists of War Master stories. But of course, the big twist at the end of the next story retroactively turns this one on its head too.
I've always had an odd relationship with The War Master sets. They were usually a nice thing to have on in the background while focusing on other things, but this time around things are very different. Throwing us right into the action is a fast paced but also equally intriguing opening to The Edge of Redemption, which promises a roller coaster ride over these four stories.
As soon as the opening theme concludes, however, it comes to a screeching halt and morphs into a slow and steady heist movie. The setting for this escapade of the Master's is one that is quite familiar not just to Doctor Who but lots of sci-fi in general; one that on audio can probably be imagined far grander than a TV set could handle. However, you never get a sense this is a grand and bustling environment, more a run down, smuggling post kind of feel. For a Time War story, it's very restrained to the big cosmic, time shifting, Dalek battles we're used too, meaning this is more a quiet character piece than anything.
The story's four main cast members all shine in their own way, Ilya the alien stuck in a freakshow after fleeing the destruction of her home planet who takes a liking to Kriket, Kriket, the innocent young man who's roped into the Master's plan, and Morski the no nonsense captain. However it is of course Derek Jacobi who steals every scene he is in, putting a plan in motion to perform a heist/rescue mission for Morski's ship so he can complete his mission. Though a grand plan for the heist, the story is littered with quiet two hander character moments making us feel for our brand new cast.
The closing five-ish minutes take a sharp turn, on board Morski's ship where some revelations come to light and we are left with not everyone we started with. While perhaps a slow start to the Master's task, The Edge of Redemption is a fun little tale, well worth your time and Jacobi clearly enjoys the material he's been given.
The Scaramancer by Lisa McMullin
The second entry in this set introduces Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo as the titular Scaramancer, in a tale of space pirates and high adventure in the depths of space. Jacobi's Master and McFarlane's Morski become an unlikely double act as they navigate the dangers on route to find the Doctor and there's certainly some fun to be had with both proving they can be as ruthless as each other.
Except, like moments in the preceding The Edge of Redemption, there are times when Jacobi's Master doesn't quite seem like himself, offering perhaps a clue as to where this story is heading. It's difficult not to venture too much into spoiler territory here, but the cliff-hanger is a doozy, making it suddenly apparent that what we have been listening too is not the story we thought it was. Arguably, you could say it's not really a War Master story at all.
Lewis-Nyawo is bold, brash and clearly having fun as Scaramancer, another key player in the unfolding narrative. There were times when I found her a little OTT; something I've noticed in a few Big Finish stories as of late - perhaps without the presence of a visual narrative, less is more when it comes to a vocal performance? But she certainly makes the character her own and hams it up nicely alongside the moustache-twirling chicanery of Jacobi's role. Alongside Sandra Huggett's equally enthusiastic Dorada, there is a lot of energy to The Scaramancer that provides plenty of entertaining moments.
Like the first story, it's a decent more not necessarily memorable entry in The War Master range. But the ending certainly makes up for it, leaving you very eager to find out what happens next.
After the quieter, character-led adventure of last time, the second story shifts to action and space pirates. Separated from Morski on his ship, the Master gets plenty to do, confronted by the pirate the Scaramancer and her crew. Introducing two new cast members, the tale actually does a decent job fleshing out the Scaramancer's history with the Master while also juggling the main action all within one hour.
Dorada the assassin isn't fully developed as a character, mainly acting as method to explain where the Doctor is and what he's doing, which is a shame, considering she's in most of The Scaramancer. That having been said, she's still an enjoyable presence and you never feel like you're wasting your time with her. Once again, it's Jacobi who brings the most life to the performances (Although the Scaramancer does hold her own, which is impressive considering just how talented and loved the main cast member is), working to foil the Scaramancer's plan in a clever way. It should also be noted that the way the main story and the flashback scenes weave together is very well done, and brings yet more life to the story.
That being said, it is perhaps the weakest of the four stories, but the quality of this set is ridiculously good so it doesn't mean much. While perhaps Morski could have had more to do, the story isn't losing anything by his notable absence during the middle part of the episode. All in all, a strong, decent story with well written characters and a shocking mid-set ending twist that somehow didn't surprise me as much as it probably should...
The Castle of Kurnos 5 by David Llewellyn
I love a good gothic horror Doctor Who story and The Castle of Kurnos 5 has gothic horror in spades. Paul McGann returns to the series, his Doctor arriving on a quasi-medieval world with ancient legends of a mythical necromancer, a haunted castle and the presence of Jacobi's War Master now embracing his inner Victor von Frankenstein to resurrect an ancient Time Lord villain. The similarities to the likes of The Brain of Morbius are both evident and most welcome here.
There is plenty of atmosphere and tension throughout, David Llewellyn electric script and Scott Handcock's taught direction providing a real treat for listeners as we follow the Doctor and guest character Kilda (a fabulous performance from Tanya Moodie) on their quest to rescue her daughter for clutches of the nefarious villain. Jacobi is at his most maniacal here, experimenting on Kilda's daughter, backed by his own 'Igor' in Henry Nott's Dieter, as he seeks out the ultimate power - the ability to raise the dead.
The menace of the undead legends and ghostly suits of armour brought to life by Time Lord technology provide a wonderful fusion of science and magic that Doctor Who has done so well in the past. And make no mistake, The Castle of Kurnos 5 is a great Doctor Who story with the Doctor and Master pitted against each other. I could easily have imagined Peter Davison's Doctor and Anthony Ainley's Master in the key roles and it would have worked just as well, given how superbly the story plays off the tension and rivalry of the two Time Lord characters.
But of course, this is The War Master, so naturally things don't go quite according to plan. The story's placing in the overall narrative, serves as a prequel, rather than a continuation of the events of The Scaramancer. But that works too. Had this come first, it would have denied the superb cliff-hanger, even if it would have given Hearts of Darkness a stronger start. The Castle of Kurnos 5 is the highlight of this set, one that indulges my love of gothic horror, with a tremendous performance from the leads and guest actor Moodie.
After the revelation at the end of the previous instalment, The Castle of Kurnos 5 acts as both a flashback and a prologue, following Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor. Shifting its main cast member to the wonderful Paul McGann, you can't help but feel dread knowing what everything the Doctor does will lead to. With angry and distraught mother Kilda acting in the traditional companion role, everything just feels so normal. Missing children, the Doctor investigating, monsters and the Master working on an evil scheme. Perfect.
Early on though, there's a sense the Master's got something grander in mind, trying to bring back a dead, exiled Time Lord scientist, as the Doctor races to stop the Master and rescue kidnapped child Meri. McGann really does carry the episode (perhaps unusual for a War Master set), but Jacobi is still as delightfully evil as ever. Coming to the conclusion, Jacobi steals the room as the Master takes control, contacting the scientist and planning something in the Layhar system, before stealing the perfect disguise. From here the story segways neatly into the opening scene of The Edge of Redemption (Though cutting off very abruptly) and setting up for a showdown unlike any the Doctor and the Master have faced before. The guest cast are decent but easily overshadowed, which is a bit of a shame if not necessary, but still makes for a fun romp that could well act as episode one to this set.
The Cognition Shift by Lisa McMullin
With the background established, the supporting cast in play and the twist turning Hearts of Darkness on its head, the final story has lots of fun with Derek Jacobi and Paul McGann, playing against type in their impersonation of different characters. It's great to see McGann play evil malevolence, while Jacobi offers a more desperate, subtle, vulnerable performance to the kindly old man with a nasty edge that he has captured so well in his portrayal of the Time Lord villain. Lisa McMullin's script has a lot of fun having the two actors take on familiar character traits and mannerisms.
The supporting cast get plenty to do too, with Dorada (Sandra Huggett) and Scaramancer providing the very human element of the story; two sisters caught in the machinations of two warring Time Lords. There are some genuinely disturbing moments as Dorada becomes a lab rat for the Master, while Scaramancer - in true Doctor Who fashion - becomes the hero the Doctor leads her to become. Morski too, continues to remain an elusively ruthless figure, right up to the episode's end.
The Master's final plan is suitably nerfarious, giving Hearts of Darkness an epic quality in the final act as he attempts to use the Cognition Shift to pervert the course of the Time War. After the low-key drama of the first two stories and the gothic horror of the third, this is the first story to really make the most of the Time War setting. It certainly isn't as grand as the events of Anti-Genesis, but then nothing is going to be. But it is a satisfying conclusion with many open-ended questions as we head toward's next year sixth volume of The War Master: Killing Time.
The Cognition Shift needed to deliver. Everything's been leading up to this. Does it work? Yes.
The supporting cast go through a lot here. Dorada, cruelly manipulated by the Master into an unpleasant fate, doesn't even get an ending. The Scaramancer leaves the story after being forced to relive the trauma of abandoning her sister because of the Master. Morski is hypnotised, practically possessed, then hypnotised again. Which is upsetting as this cast, especially the Scaramancer, are brilliant and deserved to go out so much better than they did. But hey, this is The War Master set so it's silly to expect anything less.
The real triumph of this story (and indeed set) is Derek Jacobi and Paul McGann, who relish playing different personas. From friend to scared to pure evil, it has it all. In fact, it's almost a shame when inevitably the roles are reversed and once again Jacobi is on Master duty. As for the plot, well there's some interesting ideas and the Master's most audacious scheme yet, but that's not what makes this so fantastic.
Jacobi is a delight and just goes to prove how he deserved so much more than his five minutes on TV. This is indeed one of the best examples of Big Finish bringing new life into barely seen or poorly treated characters. This set in particular is the finest for The War Master, and firmly cements Jacobi as one of, if not THE best actor to hold the role. Long may he continue at Big Finish.
Each disc is accompanied by a behind the scenes interviews and music suite from composer Ioan Morris. The interviews with the cast and director Scott Handcock for The Edge of Destruction is full of vibrant discussion and laughs, as they relfect on the team the Master assembles. Actor Colin McFarlane notes the Star Wars vibe of the team and setting and the difference with playing an audio character in the Doctor Who universe compared to his role onscreen with Peter Capaldi, playing a ghostly zombie in Under the Lake / Before The Flood. There's also a great discussion on TV prosthetics, as Jacobi shared his experiences from the 70s.
The music suite for The Edge of Destruction is wonderfully moody piece, with long, drawn-out chords and synth beats that feel evocative of classic sci-fi horror movies like Alien. The use of the Master's drum beat in the percussion beats is a nice touch. It's not necessarily a piece of music that works as effectively in isolation, but it is certainly an atmospheric accompaniment to the story itself.
The behind the scenes interviews for The Scaramancer see Scott Handcock interview the energetic Sandra Huggett and Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo, as they delve into the layers and deceit of the script. It's an infectious behind the scenes discussion, with both actresses clearly having lot of fun in the roles of Dorada and The Scaramancer. Lewis-Nyawo's description of Scaramancer as a lunatic with lots of trauma is spot on; I would love to see a follow-up story with her character in therapy!
The music suite for The Scaramancer has the same bold chords and melodic atmosphere of the first suite, but adds a playful percussion beat that suits the energy of this tale.
Scott Handcock interviews Tanya Moodie (Kilda) in the behind the scenes interviews for The Castle of Kurnos 5, delving into the use of imagination to drive the story, acting out the movements in the sound booth (sadly this wasn't recorded) and expand on the story beyond the final scene. Particularly amusing is their analysis of the alien ducks and chickens in the story. Handcock also interviews Amanda Shodeko (Meri) and Henry Nott (Dieter) as they discuss the sense of touch and smell in the nature of recording audio adventures and the pleasure of working alongside the great Derek Jacobi.
The music suite for The Castle of Kurnos 5 has a gorgeous, haunting melody, mixed with some eerie string movements and beats. The use of brass instruments are delightfully off putting, giving the score the sense of unease and tension to the piece.
Finally the behind the scenes interview for The Cognition Shift sees Handcock chat to writer Lisa McMullin about her scripts for Hearts of Darkness. She is incredibly enthusiastic to write for the Master and the challenging of going out of her natural penchant for comedy in favour of something darker and epic. She talks the dream of scripting a story for both Jacobi and McGann, co-writing the set with David Llewellyn and the lovely pressure of wrapping everything up in the final story. Handcock follows up with Derek Jacobi and Paul McGann, who have never recorded in the studio together, despite appearing in previous The War Master Set Rage of the Time Lords. They both enjoyed playing against type, while McGann in particular gets to delight in playing an evil character. And I think we would all enjoy seeing the wedding of the Doctor and the War Master when they meet again!
The final music suite for The Cognition Shift feels like the culmination of Ioan Morris' previous three scores; heavy chords, brassy tones and a sense of discord and tension permeate the final music sequence. The repeating, racing motif, coupled with the gritty, industrial synth beats play into the sci-fi trappings, making this a thrilling score to end on. A shout out also needs to be made to the extra flourish in the end credits music for The Cognition Shift.
The final disk also contains a trailer for The War Master: Killing Time, which sees the War Master return to Gallifrey with a couple of familiar Doctor Who companions in tow...
Some Spoilery Final Thoughts...
When it comes to The War Master, Big Finish never disappoints. The latest volume is definitely a game of two halves. The first half is packed with some interesting, larger than life characters , but there is something a little off about Jacobi's performance and a sense of having seen this all before that doesn't quite resonate. But perhaps that's the point. The War Master: Hearts of Darkness hinges on that mid-way cliff-hanger and it absolutely delivers.
It's been quite hard to review the events of the final two stories without delving into the impact of that cliff-hanger, so if you haven't listened to it yet, I advise you to stop reading now...
Having Paul McGann play the War Master and Derek Jacobi the Eighth Doctor is a stroke of genius. The final story is a real tour-de-force, with both actors absolutely giving it their all as they impersonate each other. Coupled with the high-stakes drama that feels largely absent in the first half, it ends volume 5 on a high point. But of course, it it the third story, The Castle of Kurnos 5, that is the real highlight of the set. It's a delightfully gothic-horror story that Doctor Who does best and one of my favourite Eighth Doctor - as well as War Master - stories of recent years.
The War Master: Hearts of Darkness is another great success, with bold, energetic performances from all the guest cast and Jacobi and McGann on fine form throughout.
I previously mentioned how I was never the biggest fan of The War Master sets, despite Jacobi's performance. Here is a completely different case. Fantastic characters and performances all throughout, this is a highly recommended four hours of fun.
A shout out to the events of the final story. Both lead actors clearly love getting to play each other. Jacobi playing the determined Doctor trying to save everyone, while McGann revels in playing the Master. In a way, I would have to give McGann's performance as the Master the best in the set. Not that Jacobi is anything less than superb, but there's something about McGann's portrayal here that really does sell you the idea that this isn't the Doctor anymore.
While not a Time War story in most aspects, this set doesn't need to be. Buying this would be a well spent £20 as not only is it the best release in recent months, but a strong contender for best of the year.