The War Master: Escape From Reality (Big Finish Review)

Even with a Big Finish range as fantastic as The War Master, keeping stories fresh and engaging is always going to be a challenge. Of course, thanks to Derek Jacobi’s mesmerising vocal performance and producer, director and script editor Scott Handcock assembling a wonderful team of writers to help bring the character to life, we’ve had some terrific tales featuring a character that only had a few minutes of screen time on Doctor Who.

There is no chance of The War Master range going stale as it enters its eighth volume. This time, Jacobi’s master takes a deviation from the Time War, by entering the land of fiction itself. Ancient Greek myths, Hans Christian Andersen, Sherlock Holmes and Dorian Gray all feature heavily in this latest set of tales, framed through the Master’s search for a new type of weapon to help bring the conflict to an end.

It’s a concept that really shouldn’t work, but the magic of Jacobi and Handcock make this another success from Big FinishThe War Master: Escape from Reality is another ingenious triumph of storytelling, with the always dependable Jacobi supported by a talented cast, ready to bring fictional characters to life in all their glory

The Wrath of Medusa

Rochana Patel’s opening script is a suitably grand entrance to the land of fiction. From Hades to Mount Olympus, the Master finds himself interacting with the gods of legend as he seeks a place to hide from a Dalek execution squad. This is closest we get to the Time War, with the Daleks lurking at the edge of a corridor linking the universe to this strange new world. The Master’s quest to find a new weapon that will bring the Time War to a close is the narrative hook for this story – and the set as a whole – but it’s his interactions with the Greek Myths that is the real triumph here.

Greg Austin’s Perseus serves as a quasi-companion to the Master, who in turn acts as a shadowy devil on his shoulder, pulling the strings. There is some delightfully Machiavellian scheming from Jacobi’s master as he seeks his ultimate goal – the throne of Zeus itself and dominion over Mount Olympus. As always, Jacobi is magnificent and as a listener, you are fully invested in his insidious schemes, with poor Perseus a pawn in his wider game.

There are some big performances here – there’s not always a lot of subtlety in The Wrath of Medusa, but that’s part of the fun with this tale. Sakuntala Ramanee’s performance as Athena is particularly bombastic, but the most fun has to be had with Ella Smith’s Medusa, who really makes the most of this villainous role. She is a real wild card in the story, even with the Master’s machinations, and there are plenty of crowd-pleasing sequences – the climax to the story versus a very familiar foe is ridiculously fun.

If there is an issue with Patel’s story, is the over abundance of complex schemes and character arcs, that are sometimes a little hard to follow. But it is so big and so bombastic in its approach, that the listener is soon swept up in the grand events and the finale is a thrilling over the top spectacle that is sure to leave you with a big grin on your face.

The Shadow Master

The second story is a more sedate affair, but a real emotional triumph, as Escape From Reality turns its attention towards the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Jacobi takes more of a back seat this time, as he strives to develop a weapon based on the tales of The Snow Queen, but the real focus here is Gethin Anthony’s Shadow, who’s haunting narration is at the crux of Lizzie Hopley’s beautifully nuanced script.

The inspiration here is in the lesser-known Anderson short story, The Shadow. As the title suggests, Anthony’s central character finds himself the Shadow of the Master, navigating what it means to be alive as he struggles to forge an identity totally different to the man whose Shadow he has become. The writing is superb and Anthony’s performance haunting and tragic – the central concept at play is whether he can be good when he is cut from someone so malevolent. Finding the good in others and love in Jessye Romeo‘s Poetry, The Shadow Master dares to give the listener hope that he might forge a life of his own.

It’s no big surprise that this is a tragic tale. Good characters do not fare well in The War Master range, and yet you are so invested in Anthony’s Shadow, you want him to succeed. There are a number of cruel and surprising twists at play, and they cut deep, particularly the Shadow’s final fate.

The Shadow Master is a powerful and emotionally driven tale. Anthony gives it his all, while Jacobi’s ruthlessness is a delight. From his interactions with Safiyya Ingar’s Hobgoblin, to the Devil himself, played with great charm by Sam Stafford, the Master’s path of destruction is as inspired as it is entertaining and his triumph is just as spectacular in this story as it was in the first. But it’s not quite as joyous. This is a tale where you don’t want the Master to succeed.

But of course, he always will.

The Adventures of the Deceased Doctor

The biggest highlight of this set is Alfie Shaw’s The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor, which fuses two long-running Big Finish ranges into one – The War Master and Sherlock Holmes – as Richard Earl reprises the roles John Watson. Nicholas Briggs also gets to play Holmes, but only as a second to Jacobi’s own twisted interpretation of the famous detective. It is a deliciously dark feat of storytelling, with Jacobi’s Master having fun playing with the fictional world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Whether it’s Jacobi’s own take on Holmes or just having twisted, maniacal fun killing off such beloved heroes, this is a story that makes the absolute most of his foray into the land of fiction.

What is so wonderful about The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor, is that it feels like a genuine Sherlock Holmes mystery, with an added meta awareness that there are often multiple interpretations of famous literary icons. Earl is as fantastic as ever as Big Finish‘s own take on Watson, while Jacobi relishes and delivers on every moment of maniacal grandeur. Interweaved with the mystery of the deceased ‘Doctor John Watson’, a case Watson finds himself working to solve, is the big narrative of the Master’s attempt to create the ultimate weapon, straight out of the imagination of the most famous writing minds.

As a War Master story, this is not one where Holmes and Watson were ever going to triumph and there’s plenty of fun to be had with the Master’s take down of the poor John Watson. An adversary worse than Moriaty (who in himself becauses a pawn in the grander scheme) there are some fabulously dark moments, most notably the use of a pie, which left this listener with his jaw hanging open.

The conclusion is as satisfying as the rest of the story, marking The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor as one of the most entertaining Big Finish stories of the year. The fact that The War Master makes use of an existing Big Finish range – and then tears its way through it in such dark fashion – adds another depth to the tale, without harming any further installments from Briggs and Earl’s Holmes and Watson.

The Master of Dorian Gray

Once again, The War Master makes use of another popular Big Finish range, for its final story in the set. This time The War Master takes on The Confessions of Dorian Gray, with Alexander Vlahos reprising his role as Oscar Wilde’s gothic anti hero. As with The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor, building on a successful range does this story plenty of favours, allowing for plenty of rich characterisation and history to a world that instantly leaps off the page.

Vlahos and Jacobi play off each other well, as Gray is quickly enthralled in the machinations of the Master; a kind of unwilling companion to the grand plot running throughout the set and an intriguing new take on the classic The Picture of Dorian Gray. There is plenty of psychological manipulation and a dash of murder, while the romantic entanglements between Gray and  Jessye Romeo’s Sibyl Vane leads to some interesting moral quandaries and a few surprises in the final act. Fans of the The Confessions of Dorian Gray range will not be disappointed by this latest story.

However, there are some issues in the final story in the set. It doesn’t help that it comes off the brilliant The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor, which features a similar tone to the setting but is far more outrageous and entertaining. There’s a seriousness to The Master of Dorian Gray that sometimes feels at odds with the more OTT moments from the other three stories. It may have been wiser to place this story third, despite the intriguing narrative twist this story delivers to bring the overarching plot to it conclusion.

The finale is somewhat lacklustre, undeserving of the big bombastic moments that proceeded it, with the Master’s inevitable departure from the realm of fiction somewhat rushed. However, taken within the confines of The Master of Dorian Gray, it is more satisfying. A solid entry to Escape from Reality, but a little less thrilling than the three stories that preceded it.

Extras

There is the usual bounty of behind the scenes discussion. Across each disk, producer and director Scott Handcock delves into the concept of the set and how the Master adapts to the realm of fiction, talks adapting an old idea from Lizzie Hopley about multiple Hans Christian Anderson tales, the possibly obvious but perfect opportunity to put the Master in the world of Sherlock Holmes and a brief flirtation of bringing the Dorian Gray into the Doctor Who universe that is finally realised in this volume.

Greg Austin and Derek Jacobi talk to the dynamic between Perseus and the Master and the subtle humour of the script. Sakuntala Ramanee (Athena) and Ella Smith (Medusa) are full of praise for the epic and vivid storytelling and the Destiny’s Child influences to the Gorgons. Jacobi also talks his strong connection with Denmark, his work on Hamlet, being knighted by the Danish Queen and his own love for Hans Christian Anderson. Handcock talks the challenges of casting someone who could be the anthesis of the Master as the Shadow, and how Gethin Anthony brought the gentle vulnerability and romance in the Shadow’s relationship with Poetry. Jessye Romeo {Poetry) provide some lovely insights into the rich dialogue and themes running through The Shadow Master, with some fascination reflections on the powerful ending.

Jacobi and Burn Gorman discuss the many interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, with Gorman eager to play Lestrade over the years (as well as great additional appearance as Moriaty), while writer Alfie Shaw explores the opportunity to explore the nature of multiple reboots and interpretations of fictional characters as the core focus of The Death of the Doctor. Finally, Alexander Vlahos and Jacobi have great chemistry, talking Oscar Wilde’s fiction, debating the many Oscar Wilde roles Jacobi could play, and stepping onto a TARDIS as a Doctor Who fanboy,

The War Master: Escape From Reality is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 28th February 2022.

Synopsis

Pursued by a squadron of Dalek assault ships, the Master’s only hope is to abandon the space-time vortex and flee into an altogether different reality: a realm of fiction.

Confronted with creatures of myth and figures from folklore, the Master sees an opportunity to scavenge a universe of impossible artefacts and use them against his enemies.

But first, he must face off against a host of legendary monsters, literary heroes and embody fiction’s greatest consulting detective: Sherlock Holmes.

8.1 The Wrath of Medusa by Rochana Patel
Crashing into a universe of fiction, the Master finds himself lost in a world of Greek mythology… with a Dalek assault squad close behind.

8.2 The Shadow Master by Lizzie Hopley
As the Master plunders inconceivable artefacts from an impossible universe, he encounters a figure that may prove his greatest threat: his own Shadow.

8.3 The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor by Alfie Shaw
When Dr John Watson is informed of his own murder, only the world’s greatest consulting detective can assist. He just happens to come from a different world.

8.4 The Master of Dorian Gray by David Llewellyn
Seeking the power of immortality, the Master works himself into the life of Dorian Gray. But can he change how the story ends?

Cast

Derek Jacobi (The War Master)
Tom Alexander (Herman)
Gethin Anthony (The Shadow)
Greg Austin (Perseus)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks / Sherlock Holmes)
Richard Earl (Dr John Watson)
Pauline Eyre (Hecate)
Burn Gorman (Lestrade)
Edward Harrison (Basil Hallward)
Safiyya Ingar (Hobgoblin)
Eleanor Jackson (Johanna)
Sakuntala Ramanee (Athena)
Jessye Romeo (Sibyl Vane)
David Sibley (Henry Wotton)
Ella Smith (Medusa)
Sam Stafford (The Devil)
Alexander Vlahos (Dorian Gray)

Production Credits

Script Editor Scott Handcock
Written by Rochana Patel, Lizzie Hopley, Alfie Shaw & David Llewellyn
Senior Producer David Richardson
Cover Art by Sean Longmore
Director Scott Handcock
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Rob Harvey
Producer Scott Handcock
Sound Design by Rob Harvey
Theme Music by Ioan Morris

Recommended Listening

The War Master: Killing Time

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sherlock Holmes: Holmes and the Ripper

 

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