The War Master: Master of Callous

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The War Master: Master of Callous – Starring Derek Jacobi, Silas Carson, Maeve Bluebell Wells, Samantha Béart, Simon Ludders, Pippa Haywood, David Menkin, Barnaby Edwards, Richard Earl, Kai Owen (Porrit), Joe Shire, Angela Bruce, Wilf Scolding & Tom Forrister. Written by James Goss & Guy Adams & Directed by Scott Handcock – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)

The first War Master box set, Only The Good, was released in December 2017 and instantly became one of the highest points in the Big Finish year.

This second War Master box set, Master Of Callous, was released in December 2018…and has instantly become one of the highest points in the Big Finish year.

Clearly, the War Master’s time has well and truly come.

Part of the appeal of some of the best Master incarnations out there is their ability to turn on half a dime, from whimsical, playful, helpful or polite, to sharp, hard, violent and impenetrably dark, but it would be difficult, even going back to Roger Delgado’s original imprint, to find an actor who does this with greater aplomb or believability than Derek Jacobi. His five minutes of Masterdom on screen was chilling, but on audio, he channels everything you need and then just a little bit more, just to make you squirm, into his performance – it stands the hairs up on the back of your neck, it makes you almost cheer at the achievement and want his thoroughly poisonous War Master to win, and it blows the breath out of you at what this particular, seemingly so genteel incarnation can actually deliver.

But whereas Only The Good was four episodic incidents from across the War Master’s lifespan, Master Of Callous is a single tale in four hour-long episodes. Where Only The Good was the starter, a re-introduction to this character and an expansion of its potential, Master Of Callous is a solid, succulent, main course affair.

Callous is a planet with potential. A planet named as a joke, and which might just have enormous mineral riches under its surface, if only you could extract them. Sadly, this particular mineral drives you stark raving mad if you go anywhere near it. Because the universe just hates you that much.

On a planet with mad-minerals and dark mines of course, what you really need are the Ood, ready to go red-eyed and slaughtery at jusssst the right moment. Your wish is Big Finish’s command – there’s a glorious example of Classic-New Who melding here, with the grimy, profit-driven cynicism and power structures of Colony In Space, but with added Ood around the place, being lovely and polite and creepy as all-get-out.

And then there’s Derek Jacobi’s War Master.

That means the stakes are pretty high, and it would be easy to be fooled into believing nothing could go wrong with a combination of those elements.

Wrong.

Absolutely everything could go wrong when you’re blending Colony In Space with the Ood and the War Master – it could be a freighter-crash disaster of epic proportions. The reason it’s not a disaster but a triumph is that there are lots of people who are cleverer and more talented than they let you realise, working their interstellar bums off.

The scripts for this box set are dark. Relentlessly, prodding-in-the-squishy-psychological-underbelly dark, and in that, they reveal the fundamental nature of the War Master. He is patient when he has to be, and thoroughly, irredeemably, almost playfully vicious at his core.

Call For The Dead by James Goss sets us off on the right foot with Elliot King, theoretical owner of the mining rights on Callous, drowning in debt to suppliers and in particular to the brusquely awful governor of his sector of space, Teremon (played with a polite, professional snarl by Pippa Haywood), while being entirely unable to do the mining that might make him a success. A weak man who feels the pressure of his position and works himself into what would be in any case an early grave, King is additionally haunted by an Ood who has, of all things, a telephone call for him. Day and night, rain or shine, there stands the Ood, like a Poe-style raven, implacably holding an old-style candlestick telephone, on which there is a call for him. While James Goss and Guy Adams drew a lot of inspiration for this box set from Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, there’s certainly a sense of the Gothic horror story about the Ood with the phone call, and King seems to sense that when he finally answers the call, it will mark his death.

We’re not going to spoil it for you, but when he takes the call – Wow. Just…wow.

There’s a sense in which the nature of the War Master, as established in Only The Good, is felt as a seeping poison behind a helpful exterior, and The Glittering Prize, also by Goss, picks up that theme. It’s felt in Call For The Dead too, but in that story he’s mostly hidden, mostly just a presence felt at strategic points. In The Glittering Prize, he’s out and about, helping a new generation of the King family turn Callous from the disaster it was into a flourishing colony, able to mine its mineral resources, able to meet – or almost meet – the ever-increasing demands of Governor Teremon. Everything’s coming up riches, and it looks like it’s all down to the War Master, suitably hidden behind an alias. But there are pieces of a darker game being slid into position, and the technology that keeps the Ood from going mad begins to malfunction in the mines. The smiling man who helps everyone out has a plan to help Cassandra and Martine King (Maeve Bluebell Wells and Samantha Beart respectively) get richer than gods, but it involves a dose of derring and a dash of do that separates them in equally dangerous company – Martine with a cargo of the mad-mineral, and Cassandra with increasingly red-eyed Ood, increasingly disgruntled colonists and the increasingly furious governor. And of course, with the War Master. What could possibly go right?

When Guy Adams takes over writing the arc with The Persistence Of Dreams, things get significantly more psychological and freaky, including Derek Jacobi doubling as a cannibal trapped in a food machine that’s – ahem – bigger on the inside than the out. Most particularly, the episode takes us into Martine King’s darker side, the cracks and vulnerabilities in her psyche, her hopes, her dreams, her needs and nightmares. It’s a balancing piece, as by the time we meet this episode, we’ve spent enough time with Cassandra King and her father Elliot to understand what makes her tick, so seeing the similarities and issues that drive her wife, who’s so far seemed like the bastion of common  sense and strength in the relationship, shows us the extent to which everybody’s ‘normality’ is likely fractured and re-healed somewhere, and also the extent to which the War Master lacks any mercy when people are even just the slightest inconvenience to him. It’s a mad, bravura piece that will also leave you wondering about perception, and reality, and which is ultimately which.

And how do you end a four-episode War Master box set?

Well, with a planetary massacre, naturally. How else? Guy Adams cries havoc, lets slip the dogs of war, turns colonists against the Powers-That-Think-They-Be, gives us a full-on red-eyed Oodfest, and has the War Master showing his skills at the long game. The fun about the War Master has always been wrapped up in an outrageous freedom. We’ve only ever usually seen or heard the evil Time Lord when the Doctor is around to defeat him, and so all his plans must ultimately go awry. The War Master is utterly free of such a necessity, and so we hear his plans come to a cold, bloody, terrifying conclusion. What’s more, Guy Adams gives us an inkling of the War Master’s ideas of scale – he’s been on Callous through two generations of technical rule by the King family, he’s seen Governor Teremon push and squeeze the colony like a queen grifter, he’s seen suicides, homicides, Ood-lynching, human revolution and ultimately a local war, and his ultimate aim is still tied in to the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. He does it all, bathes the planet in the blood of generations, to give the Time Lords a thing they want, in exchange for a very important trinket in his personal timeline.

Master Of Callous is a glorious, gory, gritty, full-on extravaganza of Time Lord superiority, served up by a Master who is himself supremely callous, manoeuvring people and events over a generation of the colony’s struggle, simply to ultimately serve up an advantage to the Time Lords, and get a very particular advantage of his own. Derek Jacobi is on paint-blistering form as the politest of devils, who can suddenly drop you through a hole in the world with a simple change in his tone. The cast convinces on every level, from Pippa Haywood and Silas ‘The Ood’ Carson down through Simon Ludders, Maeve Bluebell Wells and Samantha Beart, to Kai Owen, Angela Bruce and Barnaby Edwards, giving you that heaviness in the chest you get from experiencing the realism of a hard life alongside lots of people with dark streaks and cracked-open lives and motivations – the heaviness you get from reading Conrad, in fact.

Set above all that grinding realism and hardship, the War Master emerges with a purity to his evil, a clarity to the perfection of his amorality that takes us back to the first appearance of the Ood. There, their innocence was corrupted by the power of a perfect evil buried beneath the surface of a planet. Here, the War Master is that force of pure domination, controlling all the muddier, more confused and struggling personalities beneath him for his own ends. The weirdest thing though is that in the writing of James Goss and Guy Adams, and in the breath-taking portrayal by Derek Jacobi, the War Master becomes our rock in this boxset. On a world and in a system corrupted with petty greed and venality, we cling to the certainty of him, his dedication and his will to power. He becomes ‘the devil’ of Callous, the Ood his fallen angels of retribution, punishing the small-scale sinners of that world to serve what he sees as his own, greater cause. Between them, in the clarity of his ambition and his determination to succeed, the writers and Derek Jacobi put the War Master squarely front and centre, and even make him oddly, darkly admirable.

Let the War Master whisper into your head again. He’ll make it worth your while… Tony Fyler

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