The War Master: Only the Good – Starring Derek Jacobi, Nicholas Briggs, Jonny Green, Jacqueline King, Marc Elstob, Deidre Mullins, Rachel Atkins, Hannah Barker, Jonny Green, Jacob Dudman, Emily Barber, Robert Daws, Nerys Hughes & Jonathan Bailey. Written by Nicholas Briggs, Janine H Jones, James Goss, and Guy Adams. Directed by Scott Handcock – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
The Derek Jacobi Master on screen was a tantalising prospect.
It was a coup of casting in the first place, and Jacobi, not by any means a Who-fan, had no real idea who the Master was. He was brought into David Tennant story Utopia as the likeable, Hartnellish Professor Yana, holding his world together and trying to find a solution to its problems.
When Yana’s real personality is restored to him though, it’s hypnotic and breath-taking, and it shows you what a great actor can do. The Utopia Master is fully formed in an instant, and the switch that’s flipped is astounding. Affable Yana is gone in a handful of heartbeats, and the Master’s eyes are dark, so dark, his gaze malevolent, his rage explosive, his pleasure disturbing, seductive, sadistic –
And then he’s gone. Killed by an insect. Forced to regenerate, and forcing a generation of Who-fans to imagine what a cosmos with this Master in it would have been like.
We don’t have to imagine any more.
Big Finish has put together four stories in a box set that actually helps flesh out the Jacobi Master – his nature, his philosophy, his fundamental character, and then, in an initially controversial move, the company has put him back in the Time War. Many fans, apparently including Russell T Davies, hadn’t really made the connection that the Jacobi Master was the Master that John Simm later talked about, the one who was ‘resurrected’ by the Time Lords to fight the Time War. They’re supported in not making that connection by a line of dialogue, which claims that Yana was found as a baby with a pocket watch, on the shores of the Silver Desolation.
Big Finish has found a way around that, and the Jacobi Master will now be known as the War Master forever.
Hyperbole in reviews is always tiresome, but nevertheless, make no mistake: this is the Big Finish release of the year, bar none.
The scope of the story arc is enormous but intimate, and it makes you trust in it early on, so as each of the four episodes goes along, there’s never a sense, as there’s sometimes allowed to be with Doctor stories, that the ending will be improvised out of string and exposition at the end. Ohhhh no – the Master is better than that. You sense a progression early, but it’s the progression of a predator. You know it’s going to get you in the end, and there’s nothing you can do about it except take the steps along the path that leads you there. The War Master box set, unlike any Doctor Who story, makes you empathise with malevolence, makes you thrill at patient, dripping, venom, and even lets you nod when characters are killed, because they were doomed from the moment they crossed the path of the War Master.
Nicholas Briggs kicks off proceedings with Beneath the Viscoid, which has the feeling of a Fourth Doctor story, only if the most evil creature in the universe was wearing the long scarf. The Gardezzans live beneath the surface of a stinking, viscous sea-world, a world which perversely slows down the firepower of the Daleks, and allows an otherwise hopelessly outclassed race of prey a chance to fight back.
Then ‘The Doctor’ arrives, all politeness and appreciation and offers of help in their fight against the Daleks. Jacobi’s Master is superbly suited to this kind of story, because of course what we the audience know of him going in is so little – we know he had a persona that was affable and helpful, and we know that turned on a dime to reveal the raging drumbeat-darkness at its core. There’s some of that in this first story, a little ranting about the pathetic insignificance of the Gardezzans in private, while appearing always helpful and flustered on the surface. It’s a story for anyone who likes that inevitable sense of eventual reveal, who likes stories of how far liars can go before their fictions collapse in on themselves. Jacobi’s Master is scarily perfect, playing the Daleks and the Gardezzans off against each other, while pursuing his own agenda. With support from the likes of Jacqueline King as Nius, leader of the Gardezzans, and Deirdre Mullins as Osen, their chief scientist, Jacobi flexes his muscles in a story that never lacks for pace, getting your heart racing, with the imminence of destruction by the Daleks powering you through this opening act.
Janine H Jones gives us a medical drama with some sci-fi clout in the provocatively-named The Good Master. The War Master, under an assumed name that will make long-term fans cheer, is working as an actual Doctor on the planet Arcking – a sanctuary for the sick and injured on the fringes of the Time War. He hasn’t been there long, but he’s made a big difference, diligently saving lives and patching up those scarred by the war.
Naturally, there’s more to it than that, and when pilot Cole Jarnish is brought in after his ship is almost destroyed by Dalek firepower, we begin to learn the secrets of this unusual planet. The Master is on the hunt for one of those secrets, but the Daleks have found him, and demand that the Master be handed over to them or the planet will be exterminated. A race against time, in the middle of a time war? Absolutely – can the Master find what he needs before the Daleks can hunt him down, and if he does, what hope does the universe have then? Jones gives us an unusual story, which has a sense of familiarity to anyone who’s watched Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in Heaven Sent – things are not what they first appear in The Good Master, and they only fall into place towards the end. Again, the cast is littered with solid support for Jacobi’s performance, in particular from Hannah Barker as Phila, his assistant, and Jonny Green as Cole, a character determined to put his own mark on the universe, and eager to take any opportunity to do so. Listen out for a chilling line of explanation of how the Master knows what’s going on on Arcking, and a glorious anti-Dalek rant worthy of David Tennant’s or Peter Capaldi’s Doctors.
James Goss hates nice people.
That’s the only conclusion one can safely draw from his contribution to this box set, The Sky Man.
If ‘pacey’ is the keyword of Beneath the Viscoid, and ‘deceptive’ is the keyword of The Good Master, ‘poisonous’ is probably the best available keyword for The Sky Man.
Be aware, this is absolutely a compliment. Goss’ story is the most jaw-dropping, the most patient, the most fundamentally eeeeevil story of the set, because it deals in hope. The Master is on holiday, deciding to learn the art and science of viticulture, or wine-making to you and me, on a planet he knows is doomed. Throughout the course of the story, he does very little but sit in a cottage and make wine. But he knows the world is doomed, and after his arrival, the people of the world know it’s doomed too. But who believes a world is doomed when the skies are blue and the harvest’s good? When babies are born and lovers bill and coo, who dares to believe it can end?
One man does. One man determined to change the fate of the world, while the Master makes his wine. The steady progression towards an inevitable yet utterly horrifying fate drags you with it, feet dawdling, and your pulse will thrum in this one – there are only a few moments of high tension, but the sustained tension is a killer. The Master’s presence is everywhere, the handprint of death on everyone. Goss’ script will delight anyone who loves The Daemons, because of that sense of the Master’s dark presence, simply waiting out the inevitable, and busying himself in the meantime. It’s that slowness of progression and the increasingly inescapable truth of the Master’s point of view, that makes Goss’ script the high-point on the release of the year.
And then there’s Guy Adams. Pleasingly, there’s increasingly Guy Adams at Big Finish, and here, with The Heavenly Paradigm, he shows this Master’s philosophy of self-interest and pragmatism while threading the previous stories together, and raising the stakes in a gambit to end the Time War, to write reality according to this Master’s will. Plus, there’s Nerys Hughes in suburbia to boot! The Heavenly Paradigm shows us, more than any other story in the set, what makes this Master tick. He’s not an agent of chaos, but of control, his control, and the way the stories all feed together into Adams’ idea here is – oh, damn the clichés! – masterful. And in case that wasn’t enough, Adams also delivers that solution to the Silver Devastation problem.
The way these four stories knit together, and the way Adams takes them to the dawn on the on-screen War Master, suggests that any more stories with this glorious incarnation will have to go backwards, rather than forwards in his timeline. Listen to this box set and you won’t care. You’ll be waving flags and placards demanding more from the War Master in 2018. Tony Fyler