Review by Jacob Licklider
What made the first two instalments of The War Master work incredibly well was the decision to have the Master acting as a background character, working his scheme and influencing people to do things that seem to be good before things fall right apart at the end and it turns out the Master’s been in control all along. Killing Time, the sixth installment (though the fifth to be recorded, switched due to the COVID-19 pandemic) places the Master on the Stagnant Protocol. The planet is one that is out of the way and only noticed when people think that it can be taken over for its own gain. Currently there is a viral plague which the government has been inefficiently handling allowing for a new empress to take power with the Master working from behind the scenes. Now, this series was recorded in 2019 before the COVID-19 virus even existed, yet James Goss and Lou Morgan, in writing a science fiction set where the government doesn’t take the plague seriously, and the scientists are trying desperately to find a cure to the variants. In the behind the scenes interviews, the absurdism of Goss and Morgan’s premises for these episodes, as they weren’t expecting a global pandemic to take the world into one where the situation of the Stagnant Protocol is one that we now all know far too well. Even more coincidentally, this isn’t the only time this happened for Big Finish, two main range releases were delayed for similar reasons.
Like the rest of The War Master, Killing Time is a serial, though the first and last episodes could stand alone as its own two-part story from the pen of James Goss. The Sincerest Form of Flattery and Unfinished Business are the two stories that actually take on the Stagnant Protocol and chronicle the rise and fall of the Empress Calantha, played by Alexandria Riley, who is essentially aided by the Master in her rise and subsequent fall. Calantha starts as a humble guard outside a cell which the Master happens to be in. Both scripts play to Goss’s writing style as the Master, especially in the first story, barely appears. When he does in the first story he is basically having these little conversations with Calantha, dropping hints and advice so she can grab power. There is a scene, quite early on, where the Master is waiting on a bench, a bench which is meant for the servants, one that Calantha, now having a grain of power, would not be caught dead speaking to someone on. She actively tries to push the Master away, yet Jacobi’s charms essentially bring her to listen to him and eventually have a dinner which is imperative in allowing her to gain the power with the Master as her opponent. Calantha is an incredibly intelligent woman who knows how to get people on her side while Riley’s performance is one of those brilliant little turns as she eventually becomes too big. It plays out like a Greek Tragedy, where the hero (in this case Calantha) becomes far too big for her own good which is then brought down as the plague becomes too big for her to control. Of course the Master is behind it, that’s no spoiler, but the actual way this ends is also brilliant.
The two stories in the middle from Lou Morgan are essentially so the audience can see how the Master gains the power of the plague. The first is A Quiet Night In which takes place on Earth in the early 21st century, and is one of two stories featuring a returning Doctor Who companion. An alternate title for this episode could be ‘The Gaslighting of Josephine Grant’. Katy Manning returns and the premise here is that her uncle, really the Master, has called her for a quiet night in at his estate, with his housekeeper played by Sarah Douglas and a professor played by Fanos Xenofos. Obviously not all is as it seems and there is a party going on while the passages and doors of the house seem to be moving around. The audience is following Jo as she tries to get to the bottom of what actually is going on in this house and what has gone on with her uncle who now seems cruel, believing a conspiracy by this professor to change her dear uncle’s will. The implication is that this professor is going to then kill her uncle, but of course the listener knows that this is the Master. A Quiet Night In is an episode which ends with Jo Jones being completely broken, unsure of what parts of her life are true and is left to pick up the pieces. It’s clear to the audience from the word go that the Master is manipulating things and while it’s clear to the audience what’s ended with Jo, it’s not clear to Jo herself. Though the ending is one that still feels incredibly hopeful as she will recover from this.
Finally, The Orphan brings back Nyssa of Traken, played by Sarah Sutton, who has been brought in to try and cure this virus. She has several patients, all quarantined on a hospital ship with strict procedures to ensure that no labs leak. The Master masquerades as someone sent by the Stagnant Protocol to assist with finding a cure, however, he is incredibly clever at getting to Nyssa by bringing the fact up that she is an orphan and implying that she has the weight of several families on her shoulders. While she does, the manipulation is incredibly subtle and is designed to get any control away from Nyssa and right into the Master’s hands. This is perhaps where Jacobi’s performance hits its peak here with a denouement which, like with Jo in A Quiet Night In, leaves her broken, and in this case, violently ill with a new strain of the plague. It’s what sets up how the Master ends up taking over the Stagnant Protocol in the finale. This is perhaps the one episode which had the most hype as prospective listeners had ideas that Nyssa would be coming to terms with her relationship to the Master, however, while this does partially occur in the last five minutes, the Master does more gaslighting here which is excellent, so listeners should beware. This is also the episode where the score is perhaps the most apparent with a dark waltz used as a theme for the War Master which permeates things, written by Rob Harvey. It almost feels like something Rodgers and Hammerstein would write, but almost inverted, and in the behind the scenes there is some discussion of the various leitmotifs used here.
Overall, The War Master: Killing Time is another tapestry showing a plan of Derek Jacobi’s always wonderfully evil War Master. James Goss and Lou Morgan have crafted the story of how a society can fall by one man with an ability to put the right words in the right places, somehow being both prophetic and incredibly prescient to the current state of the world. A must listen. 9/10.
You can get it on download or CD here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-war-master-killing-time-2225
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