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.
2003 saw the celebration of Doctor Who’s fortieth anniversary, but the show was still off air with only the audio dramas, books and occasional animation on the website to satisfy the demands of fans. Luckily enough it was announced that year that Russel T Davies would be bringing the show back to television with Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper headlining the series, but to just slap the cherry on top of this sweet pie; 2003 would see the first completely animated Doctor Who serial called Scream of the Shalka.
Now barely anyone actually talks about this story, mostly because it’s one of the more niche bits of Modern Who history but it does seem to get a hell of a lot of love despite its status as a strange bit of non-canon material. Although it probably now is cannon given the reveal seen in The Timeless Children from a couple of years ago. But putting that garbage aside for a second, Scream of the Shalka is genuinely delightful and is a superbly written story that never overstays its welcome but instead leaves you wanting more, but the only other material we have from this Doctor is a novelisation and a short story (which is pretty good by the way).
So without further ado let’s delve into what makes this story so good, naturally all opinions expressed in this review are my own.
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.
I, Jacobiis the latest in of the occasional‘Big Finish In Conversation’ series, which offers a long-form interview with one of their stars. In this instance, it’s stage and screen legend Sir Derek Jacobi, (though he eschews the honorific and suggests “Del-boy” instead!)
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.
The War Master since its inception in 2017, has become one of Big Finish Productions’ most consistent ranges, with three of the four previous sets being released to critical acclaim with only one falling short. The range has been characterised by an exploration of darker themes throughout the Time War, giving Derek Jacobi one of the darkest incarnations of the Master to portray and explore. War is the prominent theme and how war changes people and planets, the hopelessness associated with a war to end all wars such as the Time War, and the atrocities which arise from two societies being pushed to their limit. The audio format is perfect for this type of story as it allows the cast and crew to go as dark as possible, using the power of suggestion to depict such atrocities and the listener’s mind is responsible for the gruesome images, all the while never having to restrict themselves to an adult only audience. These types of stories were best explored by the first, third, and fourth sets, while the fifth sets, Hearts of Darkness, instead decides to focus in on how the war is most effecting the two Time Lords set to survive the Time War, the Doctor, here played by Paul McGann, and, of course, the Master. Keeping the established format of four stories written by two authors, in this case David Llewellyn and Lisa McMullin, telling a linked tale over the four-hour period. Unlike previous sets, Hearts of Darkness employs several plot twists which recontextualises what has come before in the set, making it near impossible to separate each episode from one another. Things change, and like any good story, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.Continue reading →
The War Master: Anti-Genesis is the fourth, and potentially final, installment in Big Finish’s War Master range starring Derek Jacobi. Unlike the other Big Finish ranges dealing with the Time War, the War Master does not have an overarching plot through each of the four box sets as they are placed around this Master’s personal timeline. Anti-Genesis sets itself apart from the other three box sets, as unlike the previous sets, it is less a standalone War Master release, but a crossover with the Gallifrey range, featuring Sean Carlsen and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Narvin and President Livia, respectively. It is also a plot which reflects on Genesis of the Daleks and that stories implications for the Daleks and Time Lords, while placing the War Master directly in the action. For this review there will be spoilers for each of the stories in the set. As the set was only recently released, a non-spoiler review for those who have not heard it or are wary about spoilers: it is an excellent set. Derek Jacobi as always gives an excellent portrayal of the Master and giving him one scheme throughout instead of other sets giving him a scheme a story helps bring the set into a focus. The overarching plot is engaging and truly feels like a story involving a time war, instead of simply relying on Daleks and Time Lords engaging in traditional warfare. It’s a set that’s worth your time and should be picked up as soon as you can.
Four new stories featuring the Master’s exploits in the Time War…..With all of space and time in chaos, the Master plots his most audacious project yet. Only one other Time Lord has ever been able to stop him. But where is that Time Lord when the universe needs him?