In their latest War Master boxset, Master Of Callous, Big Finish gives us a story given plenty of time to breathe and develop. Possibly driven by Derek Jacobi’s availability, the War Master is a continual presence through the set of four stories, despite only being a major part of two of them. It’s a masterclass in storytelling from start to finish.
The first pair of stories are by James Goss, setting up the world of Callous, a mining colony with a problem – its valuable swenyo is hard to dig, and needs Ood slaves to mine. The mine is owned by the King family, and the first two stories paint a world under the heel of both lack of money and a ruthless, greedy governor, Teremon played by Pippa Haywood. Much of the story centres on the struggle of Cassandra King (Maeve Bluebell Wells) and her wife Martine (Samantha Béart) to make a success of the mine and their marriage.
As part of the backdrop, the Ood and the Master slowly nudge events, making the mine a success but attracting too much attention from Teremon. Events escalate and the future of the colony seems doomed.
The second pair of stories, by Guy Adams, start with a focus on Martine, and Samantha Béart is in sparkling form (helped by Scott Handcock’s direction) as Martine enters an Alice In Wonderland world. It’s both gripping and a great way to give backstory without forcing it on the listener. The final story is a showdown between the greedy governor and the inhabitants of Callous. She has armed troops and no scruples; she also has the War Master as a prisoner and is happy to have him tortured. Of course, the listener knows the odds will be against her, but the manner of the Master’s victory is dark in a manner made even more grim by Derek Jacobi’s superb performance. It’s also important to not overlook Silas Carson who plays all the Ood in this set, another masterful performance [sic!]. Add to this the sound work and music of Robert Harvey and it’s a candidate for the Big Finish release of the year.
There’s a lot more to enjoy than covered in this review, including strong performances across the piece, including Kai Owen and Barnaby Edwards. There’s even a cameo from another Big Finish range character, wrapping the set up nicely.
It’s one of those big stories we need more of on TV Doctor Who, a high concept setting with believable characters all walking forward to their dooms. There are no heroes here; even the central characters are slave owners and treat the Ood with contempt.