Review — Doctor Who: “The War Master: Only The Good”

Review — Doctor Who: “The War Master: Only The Good”

To finish off the holiday with Big Finish, let’s go a little bit darker and head into the evil side of the universe. Why? Because the Master (specifically the Time War version of him) has returned. Once again, Big Finish has taken a majorly leap and decided to bring back famed actor Derek Jacobi as the infamously dastardly rogue Time Lord for a new series of adventures centered solely around him. We last saw Jacobi’s incarnation of the Master in the Tenth Doctor adventure “Utopia” where he had erased all memory of himself from his mind and was masquerading as a human named Professor Yana to hide from the horrors of the Time War. Upon being drawn to a mysterious fob watch that contained all of his former memories, Yana quickly regained his villainous nature, became the Master once again, and then was almost immediately killed by his assistant Chantho which caused him to regenerate into the John Simm incarnation. Thus, we only really had one episode with this version of the character and he left such an impression that there was always a hope that he would return which Big Finish has seen fit to do with Jacobi’s Master appearing in the ‘Gallifrey’ series and ‘UNIT’ Series 6 coming next year as well giving us him a solo chance with own tales of villainy. “The War Master: Only the Good” is meant to serve as an almost parallel to the famed “The War Doctor” series that ended this past year and expand on an incarnation of the Master that we really don’t know much about. Needless to say, I have been looking forward to this set for a very long time since it was announced and since “The War Doctor” series ended. How does it fare compared to other Big Finish sagas and can the Master / Derek Jacobi hold a series on his own? Let’s find out as we take a deep dive into “The War Master: Only the Good”:

 

1.1 “Beneath the Viscoid” by Nicholas Briggs – Deep under the surface of the ocean planet Gardezza, a violent war is happening between the Daleks and the underwater inhabitants of the planet. The Gardezzian fighters have recovered an unknown capsule from the watery depths that apparently fell directly from the sky which the Daleks apparently are desperate for. These rebels are looking for hope against a merciless foe but what they have found may not be what they are expecting. Inside the capsule is a mysterious occupant who calls himself the Doctor but he certainly doesn’t act or behave like what he is named for…..From the minute the set and the story starts, ‘Viscoid’ grabs your full and undivided attention with a very unique setting for a Time War story and a fabulous opening story for our ‘protagonist’ of the set. Derek Jacobi as the lead from minute 1 grabs and holds your attention with the silky smooth voice and charm of Delgado but with the scientific charm of Professor Yana that we became accustomed to from ‘Utopia’. Jacobi’s Master is a sinister combination of the old and the new with a New Who coat of paint but yet elements big and small of Classic Masters intact in particular the use of subversion and hypnosis tactics similar to Beevers and Delgado. Jacobi also gets many monologues in this set particular at the end as things conclude that (with his sophisticated Shakespearean voice) really made me fall in love with this version. In my listening to this story, I came to realize how used to the Doctor talking lovingly to his TARDIS I had become to the point that it was weird and yet oddly satisfying to hear the Master do the exact opposite with his TARDIS (or rather A TARDIS as it turns out). In terms of the actual plot, ‘Viscoid’ takes many cues from “The Innocent” of the War Doctor series in that how the Master got in the situation is revealed piecemeal as part of the back story. I would almost call this one a spiritual successor / counterpart to that story and that first set itself in that both protagonists are asked to help the inhabitants of a planet under fire by the Daleks. However the motivations are of course entirely different with the Master following his own motives and willing to betray everyone and anyone at a moment’s notice to get what we wants. He may have ended up doing the right thing (as turns out to be the case at the end) but it ultimately came from selfish ends and desires, not from wanting to help people and this is made explicit in the story’s ending which managed to honestly scare and shock the hell out of me while at the same time remaining perfectly in keeping with the Master’s character. There are also many other details that I found myself loving in this story. The side cast and inhabitants of Gardezza are fascinating in a sci-fi sort of way and sort of remind me of a stronger version of the Mon Calamari from “Star Wars”. It was also heart-breaking to hear what inevitably happens to them once the ruse falls through even with the ultimate destruction of the Daleks that saved them. Speaking of which, I wasn’t sure exactly how much of the Daleks (played again by Nicholas Briggs) we would get in this set but it’s good to see them staying strong at least in this initial story especially in the fact that within the opening minutes we get underwater Daleks…..WHY HAS THIS NOT BEEN DONE BEFORE? We also actually get to hear the 4 heartbeats of a Time Lord circulatory system which was frankly quite chilling and many other details like that in the smaller moments really buoy this one up. In all honesty, I really can’t think of any real damning issues to this story. ‘Beneath the Viscoid’ is honestly a perfect story for me and a great introduction and example of how a Master story can and should work. Combine all that with the Time War, great performances, interesting setting and plot, and a great climax / lead in to the next story and you can’t simple do much better than this.

— 10 / 10 

 

1.2 “The Good Master” by Janine H. Jones – Following on from ‘Viscoid’, The Master has been summoned back to Gallifrey by the Time Lords for an unknown purpose. But of course that’s not going to be his immediate destination. He’s going to try and find some enjoyment on his way even if he’s still being pursued by an army of pissed off Daleks. Thus he makes a stop on the medical planet of Arcking which serves a place of respite for the wounded and the injured doing his best to help under an assumed name but of course for his own purpose. The planet itself contains some mysterious secrets surrounding it one of which the Master is eager to harness for himself but a few complications might be at hand in the form of the approaching Daleks and a pilot named Cole Jarnish…..this is another great story albeit in a very different way to what we’ve heard so far. The plot is a good one with the nature of the planet’s shield being a little confusing but well appropriate for the Time War. Similar to ‘Viscoid’, the Master is in disguise for the first half of the story (albeit playing as a significantly different kind of Doctor this time with a name that will make long time fans squee) and you can pinpoint the exact moment he switches back to malevolent once shit hits the fan. I should and will count this against the story to a degree but I personally have no problem with it as it’s done just as well as ‘Viscoid’ and it continues to show off Jacobi’s acting talent in the role. This is the Master at his most deceptive even more so than the previous story but we also get more aspects to his character as we actually see him being truly and outwardly kind for once (hence the title of this tale) and even building a necessary team around him. It’s an interesting aspect that I loved as it adds some unexpected depth to him but I’m sure there are some fans who will hate some of the moments in this one especially the foolish ones who think the Master is purely black and white evil. It’s odd and a little strange but it really works. This is truly a fully-formed and fleshed out character and Jacobi continues to astonish and make the role in his own with more great lines and moments in particular an anti-Dalek speech about halfway through the story that’s worthy any of the Doctors in a ‘Pandorica Opens’ kind of way. In terms of other noteworthy cast members, this story introduces Jonny Green as Cole Jarnish, a pilot caught in the Dalek crossfire and who I have a feeling is going to be important for the rest of this set. He has a strong story behind him with a hero complex of the highest manner and his interactions with the Master are fascinating and chillingly naive. I’m assuming he’ll be safe with him at least for now but I could see a tragic manipulation unfolding past this story with this character in particular. There are many other side characters who are played and become substantial to the Master’s plan such as Major Dezra (Rachel Atkins) and medical assistant Phila (Hannah Barker) who are acted well but obviously don’t last too long past the story. Dezra especially is awfully trusting and more willing to go along with the Master’s plan than even I expected with a darker edge to her than other characters I’ve heard so far in this set. There are once again more small details to love especially in the newly introduced kamikaze Daleks that are threatening but also hilarious all at the same time. I find it funny that a species so concerned about the purity of race and as their status as the ultimate life form are so willing to needlessly sacrifice themselves for a big boom. Things once again fall into place by the end in a mostly expected way considering what’s been set up though the Master does lose out a little bit on what he wants this time. In short, ‘Good Master’ is another great story even if it does have a few more small flaws than its’ predecessor. It again pushes boundaries with story and character and works well in setting up the Master with his companion for the rest of the set. I have a feeling that things are going to be explosive in further stories between these two and I cannot wait to see how it all turns out.

— 9 / 10 

 

1.3 “The Sky Man” by James Goss – With a fairly explosive first half behind us, the third and penultimate story “The Sky Man” takes things down a notch in terms of action and drama and focuses a bit more on character. With Cole now onboard the Master’s TARDIS, his heroism takes hold of him and he asks the Master if he could save a planet from the War himself as apparently Time Lord law prevents the Master from saving any directly. The Master is more than happy to oblige and he and Cole land on a primitive but prosperous agrarian world in danger of being destroyed. While Cole immediately gets down to working on saving the planet and it’s people, the Master decides that this isn’t his fight and decides to take a quiet little holiday growing grapes and making wine. But as things progress towards the planet’s untimely fate, will Cole be able to save the day and how will the Master play a part in that outcome? Unlike the previous two stories, ‘Sky Man’ is very much Cole’s story with the Master almost playing a secondary part in his own story but there still remains a strong focus on him and his influence and manipulations are felt everywhere in the audio even when he’s not physically there. Despite the seemingly good intentions at play, you can’t help but remain on edge even as not much is going on and this one will keep you on your toes even more so than any of the other stories in this set. It ends up being a very slow burn but it’s a shocking, subtle, and a powerfully tense entry that plays with the theme of hope and turns it on its head. It sort of reminds me of ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ except with a psychotically evil twist to it perfectly suiting our protagonist’s nature. Speaking of which despite a much more minimal presence, we get to see the Master at easily his most subtly evil by far which is ironic considering how the previous story did such a great job of building up a potential good side to him. He’s not doing anything in terms of scheming or grandiose plans but simply watching for the inevitable to come and letting his darker truths and points of view influence everyone and everything around him like a cancer. This extends to Cole and the Master’s relationship as well which is almost one of father and son in a twisted kind of way. It’s very sweet but in a very unsettling way as you enjoy it but are still waiting for the inevitable bomb to go off. Derek Jacobi remains fantastic in the role but Jonny Green is really the highlight here portraying the naively moral and stubborn Cole who thinks he has the power to save everyone in a Doctor-ish way. But it’s obvious he doesn’t have any of the experience or the knowledge to do it as much as he tries which becomes a flaw that really shows in some stronger scenes that really tug at the heart strings. I seriously didn’t expect the audio to get quite as serious as it does with some of it’s more adult moments and thankfully they are done well enough to where it’s all the stronger for it. Once again, it’s the smaller details that make this one worthwhile especially as things get darker with each of the inhabitants slowly turning against Cole. It becomes truly inescapable and heart-breaking by the end as his efforts become more and more bittersweet as doing what it takes to save everyone may mean sacrificing more than it’s worth. It’s eerily similar to how another popular Who foe ultimately and tragically came into being if you get my meaning and it gets the powerful treatment it deserves. In a set full of amazing stories and highlights, ‘Sky Man’ feels like a major high mark in almost every way. With great acting, heart-breaking drama, and a malevolent force behind the reins in a surprising way, you really couldn’t ask for more in a great Big Finish story. I’ll be curious to see if the finale remains as strong as this one as the Master makes a promise in regards to the events in this story that do seem like a lead in for the concluding part. Only time will tell……

— 10 / 10

 

1.4 “The Heavenly Paradigm” by Guy Adams – After a long and tragic journey, we come to the end for Cole and the Master. Within 5 minutes of the story opening, a gorgeous monologue from our lead makes things seemingly clear as to where we are headed: a grand plan to end the Time War on the Master’s terms and by extension ending everything in the process. The traveling pair land in Stamford Bridge 1976 and head for a space beneath the stair of No. 24 Marigold Lane to find the key to resolving all of the threads. But what exactly has been hidden there right in plain sight and how far will the Master go to achieving what he desires? ‘Paradigm’ as a story raises the stakes to the highest level as it appears that the Time Lords have been been using Earth in the War more so than they’ve been letting on. As to what exactly the Master wants to get his hands on aka the Heavenly Paradigm of the title, it’s very similar to what the Moment was in ‘Day of the Doctor’ except on the opposite scale. Without giving too much away, it fits perfectly within the character of the Time Lords that they would have an item of this extreme a nature in their collection and it seems completely fitting that the Master would go for this kind of a weapon to end the War as to how the Doctor went for the Moment serving as another strong contrast between the two. This one also takes an insane dive straight into the minds of both our characters and does a really fantastic job in actually following up with what happenned in ‘Sky Man’ especially in how destructive Cole and the Master’s actions actually were. Cole gets to see and experience hell on his own terms while we get to see the Master’s mind key traits on full display and in plain sight for all to see. More so than any of the stories in this set, we very much get to see how he works in that he doesn’t want chaos but control of everything as a matter of fact. If the previous story showed how subtly evil he could be, ‘Paradigm’ goes the opposite route and finally brings us the full extent and extreme of his manipulative evil nature. Considering the writer of this one wrote some of the best and most memorable stories for the War Doctor, River Song, and Captain Jack in other Big Finish audios, you can imagine how well this is all handled and it makes this story an extremely intense psychological thrill ride in more ways than one. Everyone ends the saga on a strong note particularly Jacobi who you can tell is loving the hell out of this particular story and his performance therein. Green again gives a final strong performance as Cole (I don’t consider it a spoiler as to that he obviously won’t survive this one given where how things are in the New Series) and there is also a strong side character played by Nerys Hughes who has some great lines and conversations with a lot of meaning behind them. She by her words once again show not only just how far the Time Lords are willing to go to win the War but what’s the best they can accurately hope in a way that’s eerily prophetic on what will actually happen by the War’s end. It all comes together in a very strong ending with more than one reference to past, present, and future. In particular, a specific musical cue returns and events mentioned in the New Series are finally seen that link everything thematically in a terrifying way that gave me absolute chills. I honestly wasn’t sure if this finale would be able to live up to its predecessor so colored me shocked to say that it absolutely does in all of the best ways. It gave me exactly what I wanted to see and not only matched but exceeded my high expectations. ‘Paradigm’ is a perfect end to this set and I truly hope we get more stories with this Master very soon.

 

— 10 / 10 

 

 

FINAL VERDICT: In a year of strong Big Finish stories, I’m as shocked and as surprised as you are when I say that “The War Master: Only The Good” has swept everything and become perhaps my favorite release of the year. It has everything you want from a set like this: an amazing version of the Master scheming and conniving with sinister malice played by the amazing Derek Jacobi at his best in the role, surprising emotional depth from the stories and characters, and the rewriting of entire timelines and setting as well as setting up events for the New Series and the onscreen version of the character. But what really shocked me about this set is the little details that really push boundaries with the character and surprise you from actually getting a slice of life inside the Master’s existence and how he truly works and thinks in this incarnation to what a relationship would be like with a surrogate companion. The Doctor befriends people for love and friendship  while the Master exploits and uses people as a means to an end without them realizing until it is too late. This set does an exceptional job of showing how different the Master and the Doctor really are in that regard and it makes for some truly intriguing and engaging storytelling as well as reminding me why the Master is my favorite Doctor Who villain. The only real flaw I can find in this set is how desperately I find I want more of it and the War Master from this team. ‘Only the Good’ is powerful, dark, refreshing, and in my opinion malevolently perfect. 

— 10 /  10 

And that concludes my final Big Finish review for the year. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and cheers to more from this amazing company to come! Until next time, ~Geronimo!!

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