Over the years Big Finish have told some great stories with the wonderful Geoffrey Beevers – one of the emaciated “crispy” Masters – as well as their own inspired casting of Alex MacQueen. Setting stories in the Time War era however offers the chance for a slice of dream casting, with Sir Derek Jacobi returning to the role for the first time since 2007’s ‘Utopia’.
Despite the stellar lead, we went into this box set of four stories with a little trepidation, wondering how this setup could work with a villain in the lead role. The Master has been no friend to Gallifrey over the years and has allied himself with the Daleks on occasion too. That said, he has also been exterminated by them at least once, so we were interested to see where his loyalties might ultimately lie.
Beneath the Viscoid
As if to answer our question, Nicholas Briggs’ opener sees the Master working as an agent for the Daleks, dragged into the conflict when he becomes entangled in the Dalek occupation of the planet Gardezza.
Contending with a unique, viscous ocean in which Daleks struggle to operate, the Master seeks to regain his damaged TARDIS which has been recovered by the locals. For their part, the Gardezzans do not know what they have, save that it contains an unstable power source which they hope to harness and turn against the aggressors.
There is plenty of fun here, with the Master trading on the Doctor’s heroic reputation and the story relishes some nastiness, with hypnotic tricks and a casual disregard for lesser life forms that is thoroughly evil (but terribly fun to listen to), as they come to a sticky end.
The Good Master
On a mission for the Time Lords, and seemingly a while after the first tale, we find the Master undercover as a medical Doctor on Arcking, a planet which affords a unique level of protection from the temporal conflict – one which the Master has designs on obtaining.
Writer Janine H Jones, who is relatively new to Big Finish but has also written superbly for Torchwood: Aliens Among Us, crafts a clever tale that kept us guessing throughout, with Daleks that will stop at nothing to beat him to the secret of the planet’s power.
Johnny Green plays medic and pilot Cole Jarnish, who rises to the occasion during this tale and becomes a sort of companion to the Master from this point onwards. We also loved the name check back to ‘The Mind of Evil’ with the Master assuming the name Dr Keller.
The Sky Man
It is difficult to say much about James Goss’ story without spoiling it, save for the fact that it is simply brilliant. Smart, clever and heart-rending in equal parts, the Master takes a back seat and learns to cultivate grapes while his companion Cole chooses to aid a community against the devastating effects of the Time War.
The guest cast Emily Barber (Elidh) and Robert Daws (Anvar) give terrifically warm and involving performances which draw you into the world Cole is battling preserve, and there is love to be found amongst the horrors of war.
The Heavenly Paradigm
Finally, Guy Adams’ tale rounds out the set with Master and Cole on the trial of a temporal weapon which has the potential to be a universal game-changer, even though it is lodged in the unlikely surroundings of Stamford Bridge in the 1970s. First however, they pair must negotiate their way past guest star Nerys Hughes, who is on admirable form and more than a match for them.
The story draws on earlier elements within the set and builds to an appropriately large-scale finale, albeit in a deliberately domestic setting, and dovetails neatly into how we rediscovered the Master as the kindly Professor Yana on screen.
It is an odd dynamic to a villain as the star of the show. However, the very act of making the Master a hero (of sorts), against his better judgement and in opposition to the threat of the implacable Daleks, makes for a unique tension and a fascinating, fresh slant on the familiar. When all else fails, the Master is a pragmatist; ultimately driven by self-interest and his instinct of self-preservation.
In casting Sir Derek Jacobi for those few scant minutes as the Master proper, RTD did us an injustice that producer/director Scott Handcock and his team have brilliantly put to rights. Living up to the promise of ‘Utopia’, his Master is subtle, cunning and urbane, but also rages with fire too when needed. The performance is everything we could have hoped for and more.
As well as the usual high standard of sound design, we must make mention of the theme tune here – it is a brilliant perversion of the familiar Doctor Who theme and one we would love to hear a full-length version of.
Much like the War Doctor, this Master is bound for a destiny we have already seen, but that is true of pretty much all Doctor Who audio and, as ever, it is about the journey as much as the destination. While for the saddest of reasons we will never hear him face off, or indeed team up, with the War Doctor, it looks like there will be plenty more to come – not least in the already announced Gallifrey: Time War and UNIT: Cyber Reality box sets.