The Fourth Doctor: ‘Do I have the right? Just touch these two strands together, and the Daleks are finished. Do I have that right?’
The War Master: *Snatching the strands out of his hands* Oh of course you do, you dithering oaf. Here, allow me…
Not actual dialogue from this fourth War Master box set, but it might as well be. The situation with which we’re conjuring is glorious, satirical and simple. What if Davros never completed work on the Daleks? What if the raid that badly crippled him and trapped him in his life support system in fact killed him stone dead, and someone entirely else oversaw the development of the Daleks? Someone without Davros’ signature weaknesses – or at least someone able to channel them more effectively, the megalomania and god complex funnelled into making the Daleks winners, adapting to new developments along much more fluid lines than the rigid doctrines of their own supremacy?
In other words, what if someone did Genesis Of The Daleks…right?
Strap in, people, we’re going back to Skaro in the old times.
Except of course, first we have to get there. Nicholas Briggs devotes large chunks of his first story in this set, From The Flames, to circumnavigating the obvious and logical difficulties with just popping back to Skaro in the old times. It’s a kind of War Master version of Ocean’s Eleven – only with a smaller cast of villains. There are deaths to fake, slaves to manipulate, Gallifreyan archives to steal from, and only firm fan-favourite Co-Ordinator Narvin (Sean Carlsen), to stand between the War Master and the knowledge of exactly how to go about infiltrating one of only a handful of forbidden battlegrounds in the Time War – the birth of the Daleks themselves.
That’s gonna go well…
The story, like much of the box set, is an amalgam of elements which play on nostalgic notes – the War Master here is reputed dead, his body brought home to Gallifrey (*Cough* TV movie *Cough*) by, in this case, a corrupted servant, and he’s brought back from the dead in a fairly ritualistic fashion (a la The End Of Time) – with a sense of freshness and creativity that elevate its elements above the status of pure nostalgia. It’s probably not any particular spoiler, given that you already know the rest of the set exists, to tell you that Jacobi’s War Master is more successful than the Time Lords even imagine is possible. Because Time Lords underestimating the Master is not so much a cliché as a fundamental rule of the universe. And while there’s absolutely plenty of ‘returning from the dead and pilfering a Time Lord archive’ fun to keep you hooked throughout the course of the story, it’s the end of this story, and how everything unfolds from there, that really deliver on the promise of the set. The way in which this story ends and the next begins is so audaciously scampish, while being also some fairly full-on cold-blooded evil on the War Master’s part, it’ll warm the War Cockles of your heart. It’ll make you chuckle, and huff, and then chuckle again at quite how gloriously camp and timeline-devastating it is.
And so to episode two, with a title that should absolutely win awards, The Master’s Dalek Plan, by Alan Barnes.
This is probably the slice of the set that most people will really be buying it for, inasmuch as it deals with the bread and butter of what would happen if the War Master, rather than Davros, had developed the Daleks. There are gracenotes by the bucketload, mentions of characters we remember from Genesis and from I, Davros (the already definitive and groundbreaking Big Finish version of Davros’ road to the Daleks). It gorgeously guts the history we know and overlays it with a version with the War Master (hiding under perhaps just possibly the Master’s least imaginative alias ever) rewriting the destiny of the Daleks. Imagine Davros got to keep the knowledge the Fourth Doctor gave him of all Dalek defeats in Genesis. And also that he happened to not only understand the idea of life on other planets, but already be into his umpteenth life of time travel and evil plans.
If you had to keep just one of the four episodes on this box set, this would probably come out on top as your favourite child of Skaro, simply by virtue of all the mayhem it delivers to the timeline we know. Though that said, mayhem in our established timelines and histories appears to be something of a sore point with Doctor Who fans lately, so maybe it’d be the episode you’d be most keen to exterminate). The degree of sheer tap-dancing revision we get in this episode creates a sense of freedom, a shaking off of the shackles of established ‘reality’ – and of course also delivers the opportunity for the Time Lords to potentially meddle, because now they’re meddling in an altered, corrupted timeline, rather than the timeline which created the Daleks we know and perversely love. What that means is that we’ve now got two competing timelines, each with an at least technically equal right to survive. The Daleks we know or the Daleks amended and updated by the War Master – which would you prefer? Another question referenced by the recent on-screen finale (The Cybermen we know, or the Cybermen augmented by the Master…), the Big Finish version has the scope to be both more complex and more ultimately satisfying to older, less casual, more heavily invested audiences.
In Shockwave, the second Alan Barnes episode in the set, we hear the Daleks we know growing fearful for their own survival, and recruiting a most unlikely ally, providing a welcome return for the artist formerly known as Sam Kisgart. Yes – screw spoiler-warnings, the Unbound Master is back, dragged through the several hedges of improbability backwards to try and protect the reality we know from the reality being knitted together by victory after victory of his alternative self’s Daleks.
With Narvin and President Livia experiencing the flux of dimensions and timelines – you’ll love rural yokel Narvin, that’s all we’re going to say about that – it becomes clear that the Unbound Master and our known-quantity Daleks are facing more than just a standard fight, trying to thread the eye of harmony on the needle of reality with the sledgehammer subtlety of a staser.
To catch a Master, reset the flapping coat-tails of causality and avert a dimensional crisis of unprecedented proportions, it might well be that you need to set a Master on his tail. Shockwave gives us a thoroughly entertaining, funny, dark example of what might happen if you try.
Which leads us ultimately to He Who Wins, the clincher from Nick Briggs. One way to go about the conclusion of a box set in which the War Master takes over the destiny of the Daleks and uses them to destroy everything else in the universe might be to throw every blaze of audio glory you can imagine at the listener, but what we get here is grander, colder, darker and (probably not inconsequentially) more low-key and probably much more straightforward to record. It deals with the ennui of success, and echoes of the truth the Doctor has always maintained about the Master’s hatred and fear – every time he wins, it blazes bright for a moment, but then it leaves him slightly colder, slightly sadder, slightly lonelier in a universe of slaves, servants and the ever-present inevitability of his eventual overthrow. The more you clamp down on dissent, the more certain you make your destruction. The War Master has won almost everything. The window on our reality is sliding shut. And that’s when the Unbound Master (Mark Gatiss) steps into the War Master’s life, to give him an extra shove of perspective. And when push finally comes to that disconcerting shove, what will the War Master choose? The life of strife and struggle in our universe, with a Doctor to play with, societies to crush for a while, doomsday weapons to steal, and planet-burning fun to have, or the bleak, quiet, empty certainty of his own victory, and no-one but himself to talk to?
Where the first War Master set gave us a War Master acting like a would-be Doctor with a dark, innovative twist, the second gave us his nature as a contaminant personality, a stalking, shadowy patient evil with a plan, and the third showed us to him as the breathtaking scientific strategist of grand designs, this fourth set lets him loose among the established chronology of the Doctor, the Daleks, and the Master himself. The result is joyous, funny, dark and brilliant, bringing together elements of Gallifrey and the Unbound universe and giving us a race against if not time, then at least the results of causality gone tonto. It’s a punchy set of stories, each of which reward the listener in new and different ways, and all of which seethe with the wonderful, horrifying character of the War Master, played within an inch of his life and then some by Derek Jacobi at the seemingly unending peak of his powers. Tony Fyler