Review by Cavan Gilbey
The War Master range has easily become one of Big Finish’s finest spin-offs, certainly one the most popular at any rate. But it may shock you to hear that prior to this boxset I had never heard any of Jacobi’s audio boxsets. I had listened to the War Master’s adventure in River Song’s audio series, and really loved it and the characterisation of this particular incarnation of the character but I never went on to get any of his solo outings. But that all changed with Escape From Reality, which I absolutely had to hear due to it being a spiritual successor to The Mind Robber from Troughton’s era of the TV show which happens to be my favourite all time Doctor Who television story. Getting to see the Land of Fiction become corrupted by an evil presence was always going to be interesting, the fact that it got to be Jacobi’s Master is an added bonus.
Wrath of Medusa by Rochana Patel and puts the Master in a bit of a predicament; he’s got a captured Dalek and an attack squad on his back. Its an emergency and with limited resources he sees one escape avenue and goes to seek sanctuary in the Land of Fiction so he can plunder its wealth of weapons and pseudo-technology. Arriving bang in the middle of Perseus’ heroic journey into the figurehead of mythology we know him as, but the gods can see they are part of something bigger and they want out of the Land of Fiction.
I love a bit of Greek mythology in my sci-fi, it lends for a really great ancient aesthetic and acts as a great contrast between all the high concept technology and the classical architecture. Wrath definitely captures that feeling perfectly on audio; the gleaming temple like interior of the Master’s TARDIS feels right at home alongside the presence of the Underworld and Perseus. However Patel doesn’t just use the myth and legend for mere aesthetic but instead actually plays into the ways we retell myths, a nice way of calling back to the oratory storytelling of the Greek and Roman era. Ovid’s Metamorphoses gets a mention and kick starts this great idea that the Land of the Fiction’s versions of the Greek gods and demigods are based on so many different conflicting versions of the same characters. So you end up having this pantheon of characters are a aware of their role as fictional, stuck existing without a real sense of being. This leads to the main conflict of the story which sees both Zeus and Medusa plotting to escape from the Land, it was great seeing the Master side with Medusa and the pair of them forming a bit of a duo. Also yes it is great to hear Medusa decimate a Dalek squad with very little effort.
Let’s talk cast. Jacobi is, and always will be if you ask me, born to play the Master. There’s some great moments of the Master just sitting back and taking in the world around him, revelling in the whole novelty of being within a fictional universe although there are some satisfying moments where he is on the back-foot slightly where Jacobi gets to show some of the Master’s pragmatism. I was surprised to Greg Austin of Class fame appear here as Perseus, he gives a great performance which captures this very youthful perception of heroism which Austin has a lot of experience with from playing Charlie. Ella Smith puts a suitable serpentine performance in as the eponymous Medusa, complete with hissing to really sell you on that gorgon persona. However she gets to bring a lot more emotion to this version of Medusa, ultimately helping to create quite a sympathetic version of this character which is refreshing in all honesty.
This first entry in the boxset is a really solid opener and acts as a great demonstration of what can be done with the Land of Fiction as a story telling device. Giving us this unique look at the nature and spread of myth as well as how characters take on new lives under the pen of different authors, Patel crafts something special with her debut story in the range. The cast bring this to life with Shakespearian pomp and camp, but they never drag you out of the story. If I had to find a complaint its that’s there isn’t a particularly strong narrative running throughout, instead this is more of a world-study but it does set up the thematic link of the Master searching for super-weapons.
Following up a tale of Greek tragedy is the Hans Christian-Anderson inspired tale The Shadow Master from Lizzie Hopley. Continuing his plundering of the Land of Fiction, the Master comes across a magic mirror which gives his shadow life. The Shadow Master finds romance and goodness more appealing than ravaging the universe, so the Master needs to some how stamp out the good before it halts his evil.
Hopley I find to be a bit of an inconsistent writer as while she has written some amazing pieces like The Carrion Queen and The Butcher’s Wife for Dark Shadows and Blake’s 7 respectively, her Doctor Who scripts I don’t often find myself liking all too much. I enjoyed The Stuntman penned by her earlier this year but I wouldn’t put it on the same level as her non-Doctor Who, this story unfortunately gets a similarly disheartened reaction. The idea of the Master trying to corrupt his own Anti-Master is a really fun concept that could open up for explorations of how exactly the Master’s code of ethics are perceived by those unaware of his history, perhaps even leading into an encounter with a version of himself that even he thinks goes too far.
Unfortunately the titular character is little more than a generic everyman, there is a debate that the character is supposed to be a blank slate. After all if the Master is the most grotesque creature in the universe, his words not mine, then his diametric opposite would be a generic do-gooder. But that doesn’t make for an interesting narrative lens, we get extensive narration from the character that only gives the story a weird pace but also never feel like it is building up to anything. The romance with Poetry, a manifestation of all goodness in the world, is initially sweet but doesn’t go anywhere. The whole thing feels typical of fairytales in a negative way; the over-reliance on establish character archetypes, black and white definitions of good and evil, contrived romances, its not the usually compelling and intricate narrative style that War Master stories seemingly adopt. There is a great conformation with Satan though that does highlight the skill Hopley has with tension, worth hearing the story for that scene alone.
The cast all do a good enough job, but no one really stands out enough for me as the script itself never gives anyone a real chance to shine. Gethin Anthony does an admirable job as The Shadow, but his narration often comes across as tired which does somewhat damage the flow of the story itself.
I hate being overly negative on stories, especially ones that do go out of their way to try something different with narrative forms but its frustrating when those experiments don’t work or pay off. The Shadow Master is a fairly shallow send up of a lesser known Anderson story, I just have anything else to say about it since there isn’t enough to go at.
The third outing takes us to Baker Street where Watson must solve The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor. Alfie Shaw’s story see Watson and an unfamiliar Holmes coming across a series of bodies which bare the uncanny resemblance of a Doctor John Watson. Disturbed by all this, Watson strives to solve this mystery before his own sanity breaks. Although with the Master lurking around the corner, sanity is the least of Watson’s worries.
Like any good Sherlock Holmes story, the fun is in watching the mystery play out so I will do my best to avoid spoilers and talk very broadly about what this story actually does. Shaw’s script goes in some really grim and disturbing directions that really show just how dark we can take the War Master range, there are some wonderfully existential additions to the script that craft a story where nothing but nihilism can be felt throughout. The emerging of the doppelgänger corpses give Watson’s character a really interesting persona, there is this desperate struggle to survive within this version of the character that fears death more so than other interpretations. Shaw’s story here is absolutely magnificent in how it also ends up playing into the sets overall theme of interpretation, something done really well in the opening story of the set and further developed into a more frightening concept here. There is one particular moment in this one, an action which you’d think would be even too disturbing for the Master to commit, but those who have heard this story know just how macabre this most moment is and kicks Shaw’s script in to high concept horror territory. Shaw’s understanding of structuring a mystery I knew was strong, Regeneration Impossible by him has a great compelling mystery at its core and Deceased Doctor further shows how Shaw perfectly understands this type of pacing to make every revelation feel significant.
Richard Earl reprises his role of Watson from Big Finish’s own Holmes tales, he was always a great choice in those stories and this release goes to show the range the actor has for a character who is usually written fairly plainly. Earl gets some great moments alongside Jacobi and Gorman but he gets his best material either when he is soliloquizing and speaking with Eleanor Jackson’s Johanna. Jackson does a brilliant job playing a character which initially comes across as your typical Holmes villain but evolves into something a lot nuanced and interesting. Burn Gorman does end up stealing a lot of the scenes he’s in as his interpretation of Lestrade, but a revelation later on really lets Gorman kick his performance in to high gear. Jacobi is at his best here, playing into the more seductive and hypnotic elements of the Master’s personality as well as his own sense of twisted playfulness as you can tell that the Master is just reveling in getting to play this character.
Easily the breakout story of the set and goes to show Shaw’s skill at penning these intricate mystery stories, he never fails to keep you guessing and when he does pull the curtain back everything feels genuinely disturbing or shocking. The cast are clearly having an amazing time and just sell everything so well with some audio career best performances from those included, in particular Earl who gets to really flex his Watson muscles. This intelligent and horrifying script is just what the doctor ordered.
The final story comes from David Llewellyn and keeps us firmly in the world of Victorian literature. The Master of Dorian Grey sees the titular Mr Grey head over heals in love for a local actress, but things turn sour when she turns in a bad performance and winds up dead. Heartbroken by all this, Grey ends up travelling with The Master for a short time but his personality changes for the worse. The Master has his eyes set on Dorian’s immortality, and he’ll do just about anything to worm his way into getting it.
Much like Wrath of Medusa and The Shadow Master a bit of understanding of the source material may be needed to fully appreciate this one, especially those first 25 or so minutes which serve as a retelling of Wilde’s seminal novel but of course with a few Master shaped alterations. These initial moments are actually quite evocative and help craft this world where class and culture rule, the great forbidden romance between lowly actress and aristocrat is a thematic romance we will all be familiar with regardless of its significance to the novel. This is a great environment for the Master to assume a series of disguises to con everyone around him, thus giving us Jacobi doing a cockney accent which is a lot of fun to hear but also helps make his reveal to Sibyl all the more terrifying; this scene actually gives me one of my favourite bits of Master dialogue from this set, ‘No, because you are a plot device.’ This is a much slower story that the other three, more so exploring the nature of how immortality corrupts by comparing Dorian and the Master. I think this the type of story I really enjoy, but I can see this turning people off especially for those are unfamiliar with Wilde’s novel or Big Finish’s extensive Confessions of Dorian Grey series.
Alexander Vlahos, much like Richard Earl, reprises his role from his main range. Now I have very little experience with Big Finish’s output for Dorian Grey but Vlahos has the perfect voice for this much younger and more innocent version of the character. Dorian feels almost childlike for the opening parts of the story as he acts on flights of fancy before he becomes seemingly more mature in the later sections after his travels. Jessye Romeo was a lot of fun as actress Sibyl Vane, having the hard job of trying to act terribly but the fact she manages to do that convincingly should serve as a demonstration to her range as a performer. Jacobi is getting the chance to do a great series of accents here, allowing him to play into the Ainley Master’s love of disguises and its clear Jacobi is having a blast getting to play side of the War Master.
A slow burner, but a rewarding listen at the end of the day. My only complaint is that the Master’s defeat feels a little bit contrived especially given how he manages to effortlessly hypnotiseReview: The War Master – Escape From RealityReview: The War Master – Escape From Reality one of literature’s most famous characters in a previous story but not manage to maintain power over Sibyl. Admittedly that is a bit of a nitpick and doesn’t detract from this great story about the follies of immortality and the lengths people will go to obtain it.
Escape From Reality has shot up to being one of my favourite releases of this year, the Land of Fiction proving to be an excellent arena for exciting and intelligent story telling and ripe for characters like the Master to get stuck in with warping and corrupting the stories we are so familiar with. I can see this easily being a favourite of those more familiar with the range than I am but this has sold me entirely on this version of the beloved villain. Nearly every story in this set offers something new and nuanced, using the audio medium in interesting ways as well exploring just what it means to consume literature as a whole. An almost perfect successor to the The Mind Robber, and a set I can see myself immediately wanting to revisit straight after a rewatch.
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