Big Finish’s War Master range is surely one of its most exciting “gets”: one of Britain’s greatest actors, apparently happy to come in and ham it up in front of a mic every few months for Big Finish. In an era where it seems like there’s so much Master-focused content, though, I’m not entirely sure this particular range shows the character off at their best, as evidence by 2019’s two War Master releases.
Rage of the Time Lords shows the Master trying to genetically engineer some kind of super-warrior by taking traits from various people around time and space. So we get two stories of the Master tempting people into working for him, The Survivor by Tim Foley (a young woman in World War II) and The Coney Island Chameleon by David Llewellyn (a shapeshifter at a carnival). (Concealed Weapon from The Diary of River Song Series Five also takes place during this set, fact fans.) They’re both okay stories, let down, I think, by a lack of incisive character writing. The characters here feel like types, not people; I think you should be horrified by their descents into the thrall of the Master, but it all kind of feels at a distance. It’s fun to hear Derek Jacobi pretending to be the Master pretending to be an American showman; I’m not sure what exactly he’s doing with his accent, but I’m willing to chalk that up to the Master’s deficiencies as an actor, not Derek Jacobi’s.
The last two episodes (a two-parter co-written by Foley and Llewellyn) shift to the base where the Master is using all of this information; Paul McGann’s Doctor gets sucked into it all. It has its moments, but it all felt a bit perfunctory. Is the Master going to succeed? Is the Doctor going to remember it? Of course you know the answers already, and the journey doesn’t surprise. I feel like there was more fun to be had with the Master running a research facility; as Foley points out on the extras, this is the Master who does a good job of that kind of thing, with real researchers in a real hospital… but the Master still seems a bit too obviously evil about it. What if he really was a good boss in his own weird way?
As much as Rage of the Time Lords feels like a promising idea that never takes off, Anti-Genesis is a terrible idea that crashes and burns right out of the gate. Nicholas Briggs and Alan Barnes’s story is a prequel to the first box set, Only the Good, showing the Master on a plan to derail Genesis of the Daleks. But oh god is it painful to listen to. Narvin is in it, which is good, but he is improbably incompetent for a man supposedly running a massively powerful intelligence operation, which is bad. There are two different grotesque “comedy” characters for some reason — neither is funny. Both actors seem to have been told by director Scott Handcock, “the script is crap, so just do what you want with it”. The whole story concludes the same way every Nick Briggs massive epic story seems to conclude. So many things take so long to fold out; we spend a whole episode watching alternate Gallifreys get wiped out, we spend ages with people trapped in Matrix simulations, we get the point of the Master’s plan long before it’s told to us, and we understand its downfall long before it happens. This four-hour release could have been two. Why is Mark Gatiss’s “Unbound Master” even in it? (He is good, though. Someday I’ll get around to his earlier stuff.)
(Other complaints: it kind of acknowledges Davros, in that it name-checks a character from that story in a scene that completely contradicts a key plot point of that story. Why bother? And it’s also the third Big Finish Doctor Who story in six months to feature werewolves. You might blame different production teams, but this story and one of the others have the same writer!)
I’m not sure why this range is like this. Missy Series One was great, and Big Finish have done many other strong Master stories. But to take an actor like this and give him material like this seems like a waste.
The War Master: Rage of the Time Lords (by Tim Foley, David Llewellyn; starring Derek Jacobi, Paul McGann) and The War Master: Anti-Genesis (by Nicholas Briggs, Alan Barnes; starring Derek Jacobi) were released by Big Finish Productions in July 2019 and December 2019 respectively.