The War Master: Self-Defence (Big Finish Review)

The War Master series from Big Finish remains the best Doctor Who audio spin-off series and one of the finest sets across the entire audio streaming range. Despite only having minutes of screen time as the Master in 2007’s Utopia, Derek Jacobi made a clear impression and now seven volumes later, he is still going strong.

Set during the events of the Time War, Jacobi’s War Master has already faced off against one Doctor in Paul McGann’s Eighth, but this time there is a rematch – of sorts – with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. Producer and director Scott Handcock has assembled another strong team of writers to create this latest volume, which owes much to Colin Baker’s season 23 The Trial of a Time Lord in inspiration.

This time , it’s the Master on trial. So who else would he call as his character witness, other than his life long friend and adversary, the Doctor?

 

The Forest of Penitence

The opening episode is very different story to what we usually get in The War Master range, but it is no less effective. Lou Morgan’s script sees the Master and several strangers deposited on a forest world, with no memories of who they are or why they got there. It’s a classic theatrical ‘chamber piece’, but well executed thanks to the strong cast assembled to bring The Forest of Penitence to life.

Naturally, the most fun to be had comes from Derek Jacobi’s performance as the War Master, the kindly old grandfather figure that would kill you without a second thought. While the mystery of the planet is compelling in itself, seeing the Master supposedly out of his element and using his detective skills is a fun way to explore his character; you never know whether he is truly on the back foot or just playing a long game, but that’s what makes him such an engaging character to listen to.

The aforementioned cast includes a number of Big Finish regulars and everyone rises to the occasion. The relationship between mother and daughter Blythe (Sara Powell) and Cecilia Appiah (Ellie) is the heart of this tale, Naturally it all goes south quickly and there’s a lot of tension in how Ellie plays off the Master, with Appiah holding her own against Jacobi. Deirdre Mullins also shines as Dalfin, the survivalist, who soon deduces the real reason why they are on the planet, while Adetomiwa Edun (Corvell) and Phil Dunster (Scarp) round off the group of survivors with compelling character moments; Scarp in particular has a fascinating backstory that leads nicely into the  The Forest of Penitence‘s dramatic climax.

While the character work and mysteries are plentiful, the episode packs in the tension with moments of real horror. To reveal the nature of the grizzly deaths would be to spoil one of the stories most fascinating narrative hooks, but they certainly remain vividly memorable, long after the episode has finished. While it would be fascinating to see what a TV episode could do with this plot, there’s something more unsettling about hearing it unfold on audio, living the most gruesome elements to your imagination.

The Forest of Penitence is a strong start to another compelling set of stories from The War Master range.

The Players

“Guilty is such a malleable concept, wouldn’t you say?”

The Players really plays into the Trial of a Time Lord theme running throughout this set, fusing it with something akin to Frontier in Space in terms of scale and complexity. Derek Jacobi rises to the occasion of Una McCormack’s rich and nuanced script, opening with a fascinating monologue on the nature of guilt and morality, before retelling the events, framed though the Master’s eyes, of what led him to his trial.

While there are certain parallels to be drawn with Colin Baker’s second season as the Doctor, this is a very different beast to the Doctor vs Valeyard, not least because there is no question that the Master is twisting events to his own agenda. While it is always fun to see the villain on the backfoot, the fun of The Players – and indeed the rest of the set – is not on whether the Master will prove his ‘innocence’, but how.

There is no malevolent Valeyard for the Master to pay off in the trial scenes, but then he has enough personality for both the prosecution and defence. But there is still a strong cast for Jacobi to play off in the ‘flashback’ scenes, most notably Ella Kenion’s Lucia. It’s always fun to see a villain more evil than the Master and Lucia certainly has shades of this. A completely ruthless authoritarian, she is another character like Alexandria Riley’s Calantha from the The War Master: Killing Time, who seems to enjoy the games of lies and deceit she is playing with the Master.

As with Ellie in the previous tale, there is always an innocent soul for the Master to corrupt and this time in is young, eager and naïve Gallia (Robyn Addison), who wants to do the right thing but eventually falls fail of the battle of wills between the Master and Lucia. Rounding off the cast is Josh Berry as Theo and Ariyon Bakare as Cato, two psychopaths who are the last people you would want providing therapeutic treatments to the general populace!

There is so much to love about The Players, from the Master’s manipulation to the chamber of horrors he meddles in on the planet. There are subtle references to current political climates, which give the story an edge and the threat of the Time War is more prevalent here and the Daleks never feel that far away. With a rich script from McCormack, vibrant direction from Scott Handcock and engaging performances from Jacobi and the supporting cast, this is an essential Master story.

Boundaries

From the unfamiliar to the past, Boundaries takes place during the events of The Sky Man, the third story from the very first volume of The War Master: Only the Good back in 2017. In much the same way that The Trial of a Time Lord looked at events from across the Doctor’s timeline, so does this set, with the Master’s defence turning to his ‘present’.

It’s a great little premise; the Master is content tending to his vines as he runs a little vineyard with his ‘companion’ Cole (Jonny Green reprising his role from Only the Good). The threat to the planet becomes something of a very personal threat to the Master too; the sentient life destroying this world will also inadvertently stop him from growing his grapes. Naturally, only the loss of several lives will suffice.

Boundaries is very much a slow burn of a story, arguably a little too slow at times. But it does have a very impressive pay off,  a a gruesome death that links to the events of the first story The Forest of Penitence, and a self-aggrandising speech from Jacobi that might be the highlight of the whole set.

Jonny Green is fine in the role of Cole; there’s not really much development of the character here, given that it takes place during the events of the story The Sky Man, but he does solid work with Jacobi. Perhaps more successful is Jo Joyner as Fenice. There’s a few nice twists surrounding her character journey and the final scenes are electric.

This is a story that works best when framed throughout the ongoing trial of the Master. On it’s own, it has some interesting ideas but doesn’t really have much energy until it reaches that thrilling climax. But that speech from Jacobi is worth the wait!

The Last Line

We’re into The Ultimate Foe territory with the final story of The War Master: Self Defence. While the announcement of the reunion between Derek Jacobi’s Master and David Tennant’s Doctor (and the brilliant cover design) takes away from the twist, it is still great to see these two characters bouncing off each other. 2007’s Utopia gave us the briefest of moments with Jacobi’s version of the Master, so seeing him and Tennant’s Doctor together again is as much a triumphant redux as every The War Master release at Big Finish since Only the Good has been.

Lizzie Hopley’s script provides a lot more context to the trial and how the alien race has ties to Timelord lore, while the threat of being pulled back into the Time War gives the Tenth Doctor something of an edge, balancing his love-hate relationship with the Master with the trauma and fear of what is taking place around them. If there is one criticism of The Last Line, it’s that for most of the story, the Doctor takes the lead, leaving the imprisoned Master without much agency. However, his triumph in the final act makes up for this, something which the Doctor finds himself complicit in.

The idea that the Doctor has more knowledge of the Master than Jacobi adds a fun twist to the frenemy dynamic and there’s plenty of wonderful psychological insight into their relationship. The best moments were between these two characters; the unpredictability of the Doctor’s defence as a character witness and the Master’s attempts to save him when everything implodes, keeps the listener on their toes.

The supporting cast are all strong, with Steven Flynn and Abigail Thaw as High Vectors Goriant and Salaskin, providing plenty of arrogance as the prosecuting team. Sophie Shad’s Severine is the one ‘human’ character in the story, sharing some lovely moments with the Doctor and her journey is a fascinating one, given her ties to the Master. While Jacobi feels second fiddle for a good chunk of The Last Line, he still outshines everyone when he really gets going and there is some delicious maniacal machinations with him in the final act to leave a smile on your face. It is a strong story and a fun conclusion to another brilliant The War Master set from Big Finish.

The War Master: Self Defence is available exclusively at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release on the 31st August 2022.

Extras

There is a bounty of behind the scenes discussions with the cast and crew, starting with The Forest of Penitence. Producer and director Scott Handcock discusses how Lou Morgan’s story feels very different to what we’ve seen in The War Master range so far, enjoying how Derek Jacobi plays a more Doctorish character this time. The guest cast are are all fully appreciative of the Big Finish recording experience and the fabulous death scenes they have experienced in the booths while recording.

The Players’ writer Una McCormack wanted to do something that felt like a Delgado story with huge intergalactic stakes, Handcock using her story as it was different to everything Jacobi had done so far. He also delves into into the trial theme of the set and how The Players is a natural way to have the Master tell stories to the audience, the ultimate unreliable narrator. The guest cast Robyn Addison (Galia) Josh Berry (Theo), Ella Kenion (Lucia) and Ariyon Bakare (Cato) are appreciative of the depth and richness of the tale while Jacobi shares some fascinating insights into his ability to sight read.

Lizbeth Myles, the writer of Boundaries, explores her concept of the Master running his own vineyard, while Handcock talks about the idea of doing something during the present-day of The Sky Man from the first volume Only the Good. Jonny Green (Cole) recalls working with Jacobi four years ago, while Jo Joyner (Fenice) relishes the the opportunity to work with Jacobi now.

Lizbeth Hopley calls The Last Line her most challenging script as she worked to meet the psychological aspects of Handcock’s pitch. The director also delves into the desire to reunite David Tennant and Derek Jacobi once more and is full of praise for Hopley in her ability to deliver the script. There’s also plenty of insights from the crew as Steven Flynn (High Vector Goriant) and Abigail Thaw (High Vector Salaskin) discuss the trial setting while Sophie Shad talks the depth of Severine as a character and her relationship with the Doctor. Most fun of all is the banter between Tennant and Jacobi as they talk working together at Big Finish. share memories of 2007’s Utopia and the relationship between Master and Doctor, and most significantly, Jacobi’s audition for Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs!

Some Final Thoughts

With each release, The War Master continues to demonstrate why it is the top tier of all Big Finish ranges, Doctor Who or otherwise. Derek Jacobi laps up every rich piece of dialogue and has such huge presence, you can’t help but enjoy the ride. Producer and director Scott Handcock has a fantastic vision for every volume release and the concept of an inverted Trial of a Timelord is a genius move, particularly when you throw in a surprise reunion with David Tenant’s Tenth Doctor to boot. Four great stories and bold scripts and direction, the most frustrating thing about finishing the latest The War Master set is the long wait until the next one…

Synopsis

The Time War incarnation of the Doctor’s best enemy is back, and the two Time Lords face each other once more – but who remembers whom?

7.1 The Forest of Penitence by Lou Morgan
Waking in an unusual forest with no memory of how he arrived there, the Master has little choice but to seek help from other survivors. But what is it they’ve all survived?

7.2 The Players by Una McCormack
On the planet Trabus, the Master discovers a society where nobody is innocent and the only true crime is to be a less successful villain than those around you.

7.3 Boundaries by Lizbeth Myles
As his companion Cole attempts to save a world, the Master discovers an extraterrestrial entity that threatens to spread across the globe.

7.4 The Last Line by Lizzie Hopley
At the mercy of an ancient and powerful race, the Master calls upon his oldest friend in his hour of need. The problem is he doesn’t recognise this incarnation of the Doctor… while the Doctor knows this Master all too well.

Cast

Derek Jacobi (The War Master)
David Tennant (The Doctor)
Robyn Addison (Gallia)
Cecilia Appiah (Ellie)
Ariyon Bakare (Cato)
Josh Berry (Theo)
Phil Dunster (Scarp / Kerrif)
Adetomiwa Edun (Corvell / Block)
Steven Flynn (High Vector Goriant)
Jonny Green (Cole)
Jo Joyner (Fenice)
Ella Kenion (Lucia)
Deirdre Mullins (Dalfin)
Sara Powell (Blythe / Confederation Official)
Sophie Shad (Severine)
Abigail Thaw (High Vector Salaskin)

Production Credits

Script Editor Scott Handcock
Written by Lizzie Hopley, Lou Morgan, Una McCormack & Lizbeth Myles
Cover Art by Sean Longmore
Director Scott Handcock
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Ioan Morris
Producer Scott Handcock
Sound Design by Joe Meiners

Recommended Listening

 

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