Derek Jacobi’s War Master is a character who had just a handful of heartbeats of time on TV, having hidden for the length of an episode behind the mental and physical disguise of ‘nice old genius’ Professor Yana. This is Derek Jacobi, so needless to say he made his mark even in that brief time on screen, but the War Master is a character, not unlike Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor and John Hurt’s War Doctor, which has been so far mostly unpacked and explored in Big Finish audio. With River Song, with UNIT, in the Gallifrey series, and in his own box sets, the War Master has had far more time to flap his wings of villainy in the audio environment. But in box set three, Rage of the Time Lords, there’s a feeling of renaissance at play. A renaissance literally means a looking back to go forward, and while the first box set gave us a tight handful of creepy, powerful but mostly unconnected stories, and the second set gave us the War Master as a patient, precise malevolence, this third series is proper, bedded-in Mastery – there’s an enormous plan that’s taken almost a lifetime to construct and bring to fruition, as the War Master constructs the Ultimate Doohickey Of Death, a weapon that, he feels, will not only give the Time Lords victory in their wretched war against the Daleks, but might just possibly put him where he feels he belongs – among the pantheon of Time Lord gods.
This is ambition on a scale that was only delivered from time to time throughout the Master’s on-screen career – Colony In Space, The Deadly Assassin, maybe the end of Logopolis. And this is a very different Master to any of the on-screen variants. One who has anticipated every move, crossed every t, dotted every i, and accounted for every counter-stratagem even of his old enemy, the Doctor. This is the War Master at his most devious, his most grandiose, his most brilliant and organised and vicious.
You’re going to want to strap in.
The Survivor, by Tim Foley, kicks things off with a nostalgic feel. Mr Magister, the new vicar of a village in the Second World War, befriends Alice Pritchard, a local Land Girl who can…do things with her mind. Move things. Change things. Possibly even hurt people. As he at first guides his new pupil, and then deals with her disobedience, the situation in the village becomes charged with suspicion, and fear, and finger-pointing, in a classic, claustrophobic Hammer Horror style as the tight nerves of wartime and privation and the potential of German spies everywhere turns the village into a replica of a medieval witch-trial. This is Carrie meets The Witchfinder-General…in World War II. Only at the end are we entirely sure what the Master aims to gain from turning a harmless village into a bunch of witch-killing savages, and of course, with no Doctor to step in and stop him, the War Master wins. He succeeds. He skips away from all the melodrama having achieved his aim – step one in very, very many in the building of his grandest ever Doohickey Of Death.
David Llewellyn follows suit in a very different setting in The Chameleon of Coney Island – we’re down among the circus folk, the ‘freakshow’ people, and in particular, the Chameleon – a young woman who can change her skin to match whatever background she’s against, and her patron, protector and arguably profiteer, Guiseppe Sabatini. A gentleman named TS Mereath (take your time, we’ve got all day) offers to buy the Chameleon from Sabatini, and on his refusal, uncanny levels of bad luck start to plague the showman and his Chameleon. While there’s a similar central thread in the first two stories – the Master collecting people with extraordinary, unusual abilities for some dark design of his own – you get a feeling for how the first story will go as it descends into claustrophobic, demented, threatening energy, where in Llewellyn’s story, there’s a final twist in the tale that you more than likely won’t see coming. In fact, it feels so much like a U-turn precisely because the clues that in retrospect do lead up to it are very subtly placed, and because Derek Jacobi’s Master almost brushes it off in explanation, as though of course that was going to happen, and it’s not his fault if you stupid apes are too dull-witted to see it. Again, the first two stories share a fundamental point – showing us the War Master on a mission, and the lengths to which he’s prepared to go to get that mission accomplished. In The Survivor, he’s absolutely willing to plunge a group of hapless humans into torment and turmoil to get his purpose achieved – of course he is, they only matter as instruments of his malign will. In The Chameleon Of Coney Island, there’s rather more personal viciousness involved – including a scene reminiscent of an early Omen movie, where he exerts his mesmerising will to deadly effect, and a full-on hideous Master cackle when delivering some humans to an early grave. It’s powerful stuff in both cases, and there’s some high level War Mastering there for most kinds of fans.
In The Missing Link, again by Foley, we spool ahead significantly. We’ve seen the Master in two instances of the short game, going undercover, mingling with the minions to get the things and people he needs. Now, for The Missing Link and David Llewellyn’s Darkness And Light, which work together as a two-parter in the same location, we hear and envisage the end product of the War Master’s grand conceit – an unstoppable superpowered smoothie of hate. This is a very New Who interpretation of the Delgado and Simm Master concepts, with more than a touch of Big Finish’s own Alex MacQueen middle-management Master thrown in for good measure. This is the Master as a scientific innovator, funding research, building teams, funnelling breakthroughs towards what, on the surface, looks like a goal of which at least the War Doctor might approve – something to put an end to the Time War. In these two episodes, the trick is that nothing you think is happening is random. Foley and Llewellyn here do the cheeky thing – they throw seeming obstacles and curve balls at their War Master, only to have him be the cleverest life form in the room, and have thought it all through ahead of time.
When things finally do go wrong, though, only a Pertwee-Delgado compromise and a hell of a lot of luck stands a chance of letting the Master and the Doctor survive this adventure. Pitting Jacobi and McGann together in an inevitable ‘We’re going to forget all about this once it’s over’ storyline is genius, because the sparks you get from them are completely unique to this pairing. The Missing Link is for the most part a ‘hideous creature let loose in a scientific complex’ chase story, complete with lycanthropes (or werewolves to the likes of you and me), while Darkness And Light continues the chase, ups the stakes, reduces the likelihood of a happy ending, throws in enough double-crossing to satisfy the wildest conspiracy theorist, and brings the whole thing to a rolling character-boil at the end, the future of the Master, the Doctor, the Time Lords, the Daleks and – oh yeah – the whole universe of space and time coming down to whether the War Master can make a deal with the devil of his own ambition.
The War Master: Rage of the Time Lords takes us from dark satire, through vicious Godfather-style crime among an indigent community, to a soaring opera of horrifying ambition and power, only to bring the ‘hero’ crashing down in his own hubris for the sake of there being a universe to exist in. It’s cheesy as hell to say, given the character’s name, but it’s a masterpiece of storytelling over four hours. What’s more than that, it’s the latest instalment in a series that is consistently among the best that Big Finish has to offer, and far from dropping the ball, it pushes our understanding of the character considerably forward, while entertaining every step of the way. Feel the Rage of the Time Lords at your earliest opportunity. It’ll make your ears very happy indeed. Tony Fyler