Derek Jacobi’s Master made the briefest of appearances in 2007 Doctor Who episode Utopia and gave a huge impression, leaving fans wanting a lot more from his villainous Time Lord. Fortunately, Big Finish obliged and now we’re up to volume six of The War Master, with four more adventures exploring his devious exploits in the midst of the Time War.
Each volume of The War Master has achieved a high standard, with long form storytelling across each volume bringing delving into the deadly machinations of a villain that might talk and act like a kindly old grandfather but slaughter you and your whole race without a moment’s hesitation. Along with appearances in The Diary of River Song, UNIT, Gallifrey: Time War and Ravenous, previous The War Master stories have seen him face off against Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor and even Mark Gatiss’ Master from the Unbound series. Killing Time sees the War Master come face to face with two more familiar faces in the form of Katy Manning’s Jo Jones (formerly Grant) and Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa.
The War Master is one of the best Doctor Who spin-off ranges at Big Finish and Killing Time is no different. The scripts from James Goss and Lou Morgan allow Derek Jacobi’s Master to truly shine in an exquisitely crafted narrative that sees the anti villain pitched against someone as devious and ruthless as him, while delivering some wonderful character interactions, not least in his manipulations of two beloved former companions of the Doctor. It’s the most enjoyable release yet in The War Master range and also the most harrowing too; in a set where the villain always wins, it means those you root for might loose.
Of course, you’re rooting for the Master too and there is some great material here that Jacobi clearly relishes. He has been playing the War Master for some time at Big Finish and that shows. Every delivery of dialogue from him drips with insidious menace and utter charm.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery by James Goss
James Goss’s scripts book end The Killing Time with a grandiose drama full of ruthless power struggles and class divides as the Master finds himself in a civilisation on the brink of decay. The concept of an entire civilisation time-locked due to the effects of the Time War, where a multi-planetary population has found itself both immortal and yet unable to reproduce, is a great idea. I always appreciate the exploration of the Time War, and its effects on the wider universe, across multiple Big Finish adventures and this predicament is a great hook on which to play the story. You get a real sense that this race would be a dominant influence on the galaxy without the effect of the time lock and that desperation to regain past glories drives many characters.
Enter Calantha, played brilliantly by Big Finish veteran Alexandra Riley. A woman born from nothing, she is able to manipulate her way to the top, making her a great foil for the Master who has come seeking the same. The scenes between them are electric, with Riley and Jacobi bouncing of each other perfectly; it’s always great to see a villain come up against their match and for the most part, Calantha is that foil. There is never any real doubt that the Master will succeed, but it is a delight to see her outwit him on numerous occasions. James Goss’s script gives them plenty to work with; the dinner scenes in particular, are wonderful, with each line delivered by false pleasantries and thinly-veiled threats. There is also a sense that the Master is clearly having fun too, even if Calantha, at times, is able to surprise even him.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery is the most densely packed story of the four in this set and it sometimes difficult to keep up with al the various scheming nobles that become entwined in the Master and Calantha’s net. Ian Abeysekera’s Valmont and Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Prince Gardam make for interesting characters, allying themselves to winning – and loosing sides – as they become pawns in the Master and Calantha’s war, while Dona Croll’s Empress makes for a despicably ruthless, and even tragic, figure as they circle the establishment on the way to the top. While there are moments where it is hard to keep up with the dizzying number of characters, plots, schemes and treacherous actions, it makes the world created feel very real and the story always circles back to the Master and Calantha, to keep it on track.
Interwoven into this dense narrative, is the plague that threatens the population; the people might not age, but illness can hurt them. With no ability to reproduce, the plague becomes something of a death knell for the already decaying civilisation and gives the narrative a real sense of urgency as it spreads throughout the outer worlds, all the way to the capital itself. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is sometimes uncomfortable listening; the decision to switch it with the next recorded volume Hearts of Darkness was a wise choice, allowing its release not in the midst of a national lockdown, but in a period of time where vaccinations and loosening rules are at least offering some hope. That said, the plague feels largely secondary for most of this story, only really coming to the fore in the third and fourth stories on the set.
Producer and director Scott Handcock keeps the story on track; every performance, every scene is packed with something to love and it is easy to loose yourself in the world that is being created. Rob Harvey’s score is equally as absorbing, with plenty of beautiful, haunting and insidious motifs to reflect the tone of the piece. Writer James Goss always delivers the goods and this script is dripping with quotable dialogue that Riley and Jacobi lap up. The two leads – and there really are two leads in The Sincerest Form of Flattery – are just superb and clearly up for the challenge.
A Quiet Night In by Lou Morgan
Morgan’s script is something completely different to The Sincerest Form of Flattery and most welcome too – in fact, it’s arguably the best story on the set. Katy Manning, who had played the older Jo several times now at Big Finish, really drives the story as the former companion arrives at the home of her elderly uncle and uncovers some horrifying truths. There is a really compelling hook – Jo recognising Jacobi’s Master not as a new incarnation of the villain she and the Doctor faced many times – but a kindly, loving uncle with whom she has shared a lifetime of memories. From there, Morgan builds on one mystery after another and while Manning finds herself narrating many of Jo’s thoughts out loud, it is neither cliche or distracting; more a trip into her own descent into madness.
It’s a script that completely keeps you on edge, with one solution to the mystery seemingly replaced by another and another and another. Jacobi plays the kindly grandfatherly role to perfection; it’s only your knowledge of who he is that makes every interaction creepy in tone. Sarah Douglas’s stern housekeeper Mrs Mevel is equally as intriguing; you never quite know whether she is a hero, villain, or just a pawn in the Master’s game, while Fanos Xenofós’ Professor Merc-Hodden appears to offer a solution to Jo’s predicament in the most surprising way possible. Of course, nothing it ever what you think it is going to be and between Manning’s increasingly desperate, vulnerable performance, Handcock’s incredibly taught direction and the perfect musical accompaniment by Harvey once again, the tension is at breaking point before those answers are finally revealed.
As with the following Nyssa-led tale, this is not an easy tale to listen to for fans of Manning’s Jo. It is, after all the War Master’s story – and not the Doctor’s – and the beloved companion is really put through the emotional ringer. The listener too; there were moments where I couldn’t quite believe how dark Morgan’s script was going to be and there are plenty of surprises here that are too good to be spoiled. Needless to say, you might look at Jo’s adventures with the Third Doctor in a new light after this,
A Quiet Night In is a tense and emotional tour de force with a powerful performance by Manning who manages to bring something new to Jo, while still remaining one of Doctor Who‘s most beloved companions. The biggest issue with the story is that it screams out for a sequel. And the same could be said for the next story too.
The Orphan by Lou Morgan
After the emotional turmoil of A Quite Night In, The Orphan has you on edge from the start, as the Master turns his attention to Nyssa next. Like the previous tale, there is a link to the wider storyline with Calantha and the plague, thought this is more direct in its approach, as it puts a much older Nyssa in the path of the Master’s plan to wreak revenge on the woman who beat him. After his treatment of Jo, it’d all too easy to fear for the fate of Nyssa too and The Orphan does a great job of making you deeply uncomfortable long before the Master’s endgame is ultimately revealed.
The mystery is a little less compelling – you get what the Master is planning almost from the start – but it’s the slow and torturous manipulation of Nyssa that drives the story. Fortunately, Nyssa is more than just a victim and Sarah Sutton gives the former companion plenty of courage, intelligence and compassion as she seeks to save a civilisation from certain death. She is older and wiser and very much the hero of her story; unfortunately for her, it is the War Master who will ultimately prevail.
There are plenty of creepy and intense scenes; the moment Nyssa is trapped in a room with infectious, disease-ridden patients is truly nail biting stuff, while the Master’s sabotage of her work creates a real sense of forbidding as events spiral out of control. Like Jo, Nyssa’s fate at the hands of the Master is a cruel and shocking one; again, to say more would be to spoil the surprises in store, but again, it screams out for a sequel. My only gripe? Not enough time is spent on Nyssa once she realises what is happening; given the fate of Tremas and her home planet, she is perhaps the one companion most affected by the Master, and I would have liked more time spent delving into that.
If A Quiet Night In is a haunted house tale with a twist, then The Orphan is a sci-fi horror a remote space station with the threat of a viral outbreak threatening to turn it into a full on zombie movie at any moment. And like its predecessor, it is a psychological horror too; this Master in particular is – and pardon the pun – a master of long-form mystery and The Orphan becomes another terrific stepping stone in his path to victory.
Unfinished Business by James Goss
James Goss is back in the writing chair in a more streamlined story than his opening The Sincerest Form of Flattery. After the shocks and twists of the last two stories, Unfinished Business gets straight down to the Master’s plan to outwit his rival Calantha. It’s an apt title and it is incredibly fun to see both characters strive to stay ahead of the other. For Calantha, it is about holding her position of power. For the Master, it is about her total and utter destruction.
The virus takes centre stage here. Given that it was recorded in November 2019, you have to admire the prophetic nature of Goss’s script that feels at times like a satire on the government’s handling of the Coivid-19 pandemic. As with the superb Torchwood: Five People You Kill In Middlesbrough, released a couple of months ago, Unfinished Business feels like it could have been written yesterday. From the mistreatment of key workers to fearmongering and political spin, there are plenty of identifiable moments here that feel as if they could have been ripped out of the headlines. As it stands, you have to give kudos to Goss for having his prophetic finger on the pulse; indeed, Handcock talks about the fantastical nature of these scripts suddenly becoming reality resulted in the scheduling change during in the extras on the same disk.
While there are other returning characters from the first story, Goss streamlines the story around the Master and Calantha and there are again, some wonderful conversations and ‘dinners’, only this time with an added twist. All pretence and flattery is gone and these rivals know that only one of them is going to come out on top. The running motif with the wallpaper in the prison is a particularly fun motif and a certain funeral late in the game offers Unfinished Business it’s enjoyable, and most satisfying, moment in the whole set.
Killing Time is also the one set most removed from the Time War setting; there’s no Dalek in sight, though the story does draw closest to the wider threat to the galaxy. Laura Doddington’s Lady Sutlumu is one of the most delightfully insidious characters we meet; all sunshine and smiles despite where her true allegiances lie and it’s her manipulation of Calantha that adds another rewarding thread to all the schemes and machinations taking place. There are some huge stakes at play in the final scenes of Unfinished Business, all which are expertly navigated by the Master, making for a rewarding climax to the set. When he does come out on top – and there was never any doubt he would – he stands as something of a hero and villain, which is always fun.
Unfinished Business caps off the best volume in The War Master range so far. It’s dark, harrowing, intense and fun and teases more to come. Whether we get any continuation of the tales told here, it’s a set that shows the Master at his most dastardly (and after 2019’s The War Master: Anti Genesis, that’s no mean feat). Jacobi is magnificent in each story; you’ll love and hate him in equal measure and that’s what a great anti-hero should do.
The War Master: Killing Time was released in August 2021. It is available to purchase exclusively from the Big Finish site here, before going on general sale on the 31st October 2021.
Each story / disk is accompanied by an abundance of behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew of Killing Time.
At the end of The Sincerest Form of Flattery, producer and director Scott Handcock welcomes back Derek Jacobi, as they delve into the dark humour of the latest story, along with Alexandra Riley, who has worked closely with Handcock on Torchwood. They discuss the cat and mouse character piece between the Master and Calantha and the heavy Roman Empire vibes of James Goss’s script, complete with some wonderful stage directions! The music suite from Rob Harvey is full of pomp and circumstance as grandiose orchestral flourishes reflect the setting of the story. The mournful string movements are just as evocative, giving the suite a tragic, melancholy vibe.
In the interviews for A Quite Night In, Handcock speaks to Jacobi and Katy Manning, as they reflect on this being her first story playing Jo against a Master since Roger Delgado in the 70s TV series. She brings some wonderful insights into the relationship between Jo and the Master and working with Delgado, and now playing an older Jo against a much more dangerous Master. There’s some great banter between them and some delightful insights into the days working in 70s BBC television! The music suite from Harvey is very different this time but exquisitely done, a genuinely unsettling piece with haunting piano infused with sombre strings, heavy chords and eerie choral tones that capture the danger and menace of the story.
For The Orphan, Handcock chats to Sarah Sutton and Jacobi as they discuss another Master / companion reunion. Sutton talks Anthony Ainley’s ‘theatrically camp’ Master and Nyssa connection to him, particularly the lack of follow-up to the trauma inflicted upon her by the villain in the 80s. Like Manning, Sutton reflects on playing a much older companion alongside Jacobi’s War Master and how her trusting nature is manipulated by him. Robert Harvey also delves into the second and third stories and his approach to the music; its fascinating to hear his development of the score, in support of the powerful interactions between the Master and both companions in A Quiet Night In and The Orphan, and the opportunity record live string movements in Abbey Studios, which he describes as a labour of love and that comes across in his words and the music. Harvey’s music suite for the third episode is also hauntingly beautiful, with sad strings and oppressive percussion and synth capturing the tragedy of the tale.
Handcock wraps up the behind the scenes discussions on the disk for Unfinished Business, talking about the production of The War Master and how what seemed fantastical in the scripts suddenly became very relatable in light of Covid-19, resulting in Hearts of Darkness being released before Killing Time, despite being recorded later. He talks to the writers of Killing Time, James Goss and Lou Morgan, about the concept of this volume – which may or may not have begun as the Master on a series of bad dates! Morgan talks having the Master in her head as she wrote for him and her approach to having the anti-hero of the story subverting the strengths of Jo and Nyssa as characters. Handcock and Goss talk about the nervousness of having two female characters abused by the Master and the appreciation of Morgan for tackling those tales. Goss delves into the creation of Calantha as a character worthy of the Master’s attention an the collaboration between Morgan and Goss on shaping the story of Killing Time. There is a real sense from all three that working on Killing Time has been an absolute joy. Finishing off the disk is the final music suite from Harvey, which ties nicely back to the grand nature of his score to The Sincerest Form of Flattery, while creating a more tense, earnest racing them that reflects the sense of escalation unfolding. And that haunting piano score is just sublime, rounding off an impressive score to an impressive set.
For centuries, the Stagnant Protocol has been forgotten by the universe: an empire populated by a race that can never advance… a race the Master seeks to seize control of.
Unfortunately for him, he has a rival – Calantha – and she understands how to manipulate the system better than he could ever hope. His only chance of defeating her lies in the hands of some old acquaintances, whether they realise it or not.
One thing, however, is certain. Whichever of them may win, the Stagnant Protocol is destined to lose…
6.1 The Sincerest Form of Flattery by James Goss
6.2 A Quiet Night In by Lou Morgan
6.3 The Orphan by Lou Morgan
6.4 Unfinished Business by James Goss
Derek Jacobi (The War Master)
Katy Manning (Jo Jones)
Sarah Sutton (Nyssa)
Ian Abeysekera (Valmont)
Timothy Blore (Earl)
Dona Croll (The Empress)
Laura Doddington (Lady Sutlumu)
Sarah Douglas (Mrs Mevel)
Raj Ghatak (Second Vizier)
Glen McCready (First Vizier)
Francois Pandolfo (Officiencier)
Prasanna Puwanarajah (Prince Gardam)
Mali Ann Rees (Varnomium Computer)
Alexandria Riley (Calantha)
Harley Viveash (Waiter)
Fanos Xenofós (Professor Merc-Hodden)
Script Editor Scott Handcock
Written by James Goss and Lou Morgan
Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Scott Handcock
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Rob Harvey
Producer Scott Handcock
Sound Design by Rob Harvey
Theme Music by Ioan Morris