Review: The War Master: Self-Defence

Review by Jacob Licklider

The Trial of a Time Lord 2: Electric Boogaloo is not the title of the release I am reviewing today, but perhaps it should be and I mean that lovingly. The War Master: Self-Defence was announced on the hook that the War Master would be sharing a story with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, and with this announcement I stopped paying attention to the releases of plot summaries which is why it threw me for a loop when at the end of the first episode the War Master is put on trial by a race of god like beings from before the Time Lords after an introductory adventure in the set sets up the premise. The middle stories are flashbacks, though one feels like it may just be a flash forward a la Terror of the Vervoids. There is also no adherence to the format of A Christmas Carol looking explicitly at past, present, and future, just an opener, what’s used by the prosecution, the defence, and the final verdict which brings the Tenth Doctor into the story. Like the best installments of The War Master: Self-Defence is hung on a very solid story arc where each episode serves some sort of purpose to layering the plot to a point that explores the genuine depths the War Master will go to get his way. Like Master of Callous before it, Self-Defence is one where everything is re-contextualised at the end and an emotional hit is pulled off that although you can see it coming from a mile away, it just clicks and enhances both the performance of Derek Jacobi as well as the side characters.

The opening story, surprisingly, doesn’t draw from The Trial of a Time Lord until the very end, instead drawing on another Sixth Doctor story, The Mark of the Rani. Okay, not really, but there is a plot point of people turning into trees and still potentially being conscious, though here it is played for horror as the tree also begins to bleed when it is pierced. It was this image that clued me into the fact that The Forest of Penitence is written by Lou Morgan, meaning that it was going to be an emotional ride. Morgan’s script goes to some very dark places while the War Master is in the background and being generally unaware of his situation which makes him even more dangerous. The War Master as a series does the important thing of never forgetting that the Master is a villain, and he is villainous. He is almost at his most dangerous when he doesn’t know his situation. The character doesn’t lash out, but is quiet and gets everyone around him to trust him and Morgan’s script is perfect at embodying that. It’s a script which builds towards the twist that this is a prison and the Master is to be put on trial for his crimes against the universe by an outside party, the High Vectors. This makes the set feel like there’s something bigger than what’s actually happening in the following two adventures as forces outside of the Time War are getting involved. Forces that are in a way above the Time War.

The first flashback story is The Players by Una McCormack which is an interesting story but perhaps the one that feels a bit like the odd one out. It’s main goal is for McCormack to explore the Master’s character and create a story that puts the character in a position of being tortured. The Players takes place on a planet without a real sense of justice. McCormack always plays with interesting ideas and this is no exception. The Master is placed in a position of genuinely being the good guy instead of just the protagonist. Okay, he’s still villainous but he is perhaps the least evil person in the story so you’re kind of routing for him to win and almost see this planet destroyed. McCormack asks quite a few questions about the ideas of sin and original sin in particular, but I don’t think the hour-long story is enough to really answer all of these questions adequately while still being a very fun time.

Lizbeth Myles’ Boundaries handles the idea of doing a War Master story where the War Master is a good guy better in a lot of ways. This story takes place during The Sky Man and it is one that you need that context for. You need to understand what the Master was doing during the first set and The Sky Man in particular as that story’s ending adds to this undercurrent throughout Boundaries. This is a story where the War Master saves the day, undeniably, in a way that the Doctor would, though this is because of the clear ulterior motive of needing the world there so he can be the one to destroy it. Once again, this story takes advantage of a forest setting as a way to enhance the fear and horror angle that the story goes for. Myles uses the forest in a primal fairy tale style, being the place where people face their inner demons and where the unknown danger is coming from. Now, the danger is eventually revealed to be alien in nature of course and there is a science fiction explanation, but the fantasy/fairy tale trappings of the story makes for an excellent exploration for the story. Jo Joyner’s Fenice serves as companion while Jonny Green’s Cole Jarnish from the first set reappears in the background to establish this as being concurrent with The Sky Man. Joyner’s character is a secondary emotional thrust with Jacobi’s Master showing off such range and horror as the story continues that makes Boundaries a highlight of the set and range in general. The title is also incredibly appropriate as the entire point is the danger coming from the fringes, an interesting concept.

The main event of the set is Lizzie Hopley’s The Last Line. This is the set’s ‘The Ultimate Foe’, where sentencing is passed, one last appeal is made, and the Doctor is dragged into proceedings. Hopley’s script allows Jacobi and David Tennant the perfect opportunity to develop a relationship between the respective incarnations of the Master and the Doctor, something that was only briefly explored in Utopia. This story has the Master at perhaps the most insidious and devious he has been, not because he does something so beyond the pale, but because he knows exactly how to get the Doctor on his side and fighting for him and the listener as well as the Doctor have no idea if he can actually trust the Master. Because this is the Tenth Doctor, and Hopley understands how the Tenth Doctor works best as a character, while initially skeptical the Master is able to gain the Doctor’s trust and a promise that he will be saved. Hopley understands what the trauma of the Time War left on the Tenth Doctor in particular, as he was a character on the road to stability with the PTSD and grief of his actions.

The War Master: Self-Defence takes four very different writers and allows them the chance to tell four very interconnected tales that explore the War Master as a character and his place in the universe and the Time War, contrasted with a Doctor post-Time War. Derek Jacobi understands what the character has become and continues to excel under the direction of Scott Handcock, as the sets continue to stick towards the darker stories. 9/10.

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