Saturday, 27 January 2018

WHO REVIEW: The War Master - Only the Good

BENEATH THE VISCOID by Nicholas Briggs

THE GOOD MASTER by Janine H. Jones

THE SKY MAN by James Goss


With John Hurt sadly departed, Big Finish has to turn to other avenues to explore the Time War. The eight Doctor boxed set was planned early on, but has now expanded to become another four-box epic series. Gallifrey returns soon to see the Time Lords' efforts in the War. Most interestingly, though, we get to see what happened to the Master, resurrected to fight for Gallifrey, once the War had begun in earnest.

A four-story boxed set of the kind BF likes to make these days for their "event" titles, Only the Good feels like something of a testing ground for the concept of a Master-led series, in spite of wrapping up its own story quite neatly. The big draw is obviously Sir Derek Jacobi, one of our most beloved actors, stepping back into a role that he had for only moments on television. It's a most welcome opportunity to explore the least-known incarnation of Doctor Who's most persistent villain (except, perhaps, for Gordon Tipple). What's interesting with this incarnation of the Master is how much like his alter ego he is. Characterisation in both the writing and performance makes it clear that there's a lot of Yana in the Master, and vice versa. This is a version of the Master who revels in little pleasures and seems to genuinely enjoy the chance to play at being a good guy - even if it is all a means to an end.

The first instalment, Beneath the Viscoid, feels somewhat apart from the rest of the set. Set on the planet Gardezza, a world with a thick, viscous ocean that causes incredible difficulty for the Dalek force that occupies it. This unpleasant environmental feature is the only thing that gives the amphibian natives a sporting chance against the Daleks, but their days are still numbered. Fortunately for them, a Gallifreyan time capsule is found on the ocean bed, and inside is none other than the legendary Doctor.

Except, the Doctor isn't in this set. It's the Master, playing at being the Doctor in order to gain the natives trust and use it for his own ends. This is the second time that Jacobi has sort-of-played the Doctor, after his role in the Unbound story, Deadline, but here he gets to portray the character in a genuinely interesting way. He's incredibly charming and resourceful and full of admiration for the natives's ingenuity, but can switch to becoming cold and callous at a moment's notice. It's clear that the Master enjoys playing the role... until he tires of it, and will dispatch anyone who gets in his way. Jacobi's performance is what makes this episode work. The rest of the cast, although perfectly fine, aren't given much to work with as they play pretty generic aliens, so the episode never really flies.

The Good Master is stronger, and once again sees the Master playing at being the good guy and loving it. The planet Arcking is a safe haven in the War, due to a gravitational event creating a state of grace around the planet. The Daleks can't invade and it's virtually impossible to be harmed there. As such, it's become a hospital planet for those wounded in the War. The Master is there, posing as one Dr. Keller (nice callback to The Mind of Evil), a talented surgeon who takes pride in all the lives he's saved. However, he isn't simply hiding out. There's something on Arcking he needs...

The episode introduces Johnny Green as Cole, an injured pilot who becomes the Master's new companion. There's some excellent interplay between the two characters, and it's easy to see why Cole would join this supposedly trustworthy Time Lord, especially as he's on the Dalek's most wanted list. We know him better, of course, but it's interesting to see the Master doing the right thing, even if it is for his own selfish reasons.

The Sky Man is very much Cole's story. With the Master uncharacteristically citing Time Lord code and refusing to become too involved, he is swayed by Cole's insistence that he could maybe save just one world. Almost immediately we get a powerful scene in which the Master presents him with the impossible decision - of choosing one world among all those plagued by the War to single out for rescue. It's an incredible scene.

Nonetheless, a planet is found, and the Master and Cole make it their home for a time. A peaceful agrarian world whose inhabitants have deliberately shunned high technology to steer clear of the attention of the belligerents in the War, it is unfortunately still affected when some kind of temporal fallout causes illness to spread amongst the inhabitants.The Master basically takes a holiday and takes up viticulture, while keeping his eye on Cole. 

Cole, though, lives among the people he means to save, gaining respect and distrust in equal measures as he makes small improvements to their lives. He falls for a young woman named Elidh - played beautifully by Emily Barber. The actors give their characters very believable chemistry, and Cole's increasingly desperate attempts to save the locals from the effects of the fallout become more and more galling. Without wanting to spoil the story too much, his eventual solution calls to mind the creation of the Cybermen, an event with equal tragedy, only this time we see all of it through the eyes of the man who was inadvertently responsible. Thanks to some excellent writing and a wonderful performance by Green, the results are heartbreaking. The undisputed highlight of the set.

Finally, The Heavenly Paradigm brings events to a climactic, if rather unexpectedly stylised, end. It turns out that one of the greatest weapons in the Time Lords' arsenal, with the power to restructure whole timelines and shape reality to its bearer's will, is hidden in a house in the Stamford Bridge area in the seventies. Oh, and it's guarded by Nerys Hughes. Not quite how I expected one of the most significant events of the Time War to start.

While we might have believed the Master had developed some real affection for Cole in their time together, it certainly isn't enough to stop him using the boy for his own ends. You see, Cole is a temporal anomaly who should never have survived crashing on Arcking, and now, with a little direction from the Master, he's created even bigger, more devastating paradoxes of his own. This the Master can use to power the Heavenly Paradigm to such a degree that he can rewrite the entire universe, and end the Time War for good.

What's so satisfying about the Master's behaviour in this story is that, while he is utterly ruthless and opportunistic, he honestly thinks he's doing the right thing. After all, he doesn't want to see the Daleks dominate the universe of everything fall into hell, anymore than anyone does. This could be the only way out for the people of the universe. Unfortunately, he's bitten off rather more than he can chew, and things go badly wrong. Leaving the Time War somehow even worse than he found it, the Master powers up his chameleon arch and goes on the run, bringing the story to where we will pick it up, years later, in "Utopia." A satisfying conclusion to a set that proves that the Master can have diverting adventures even when the Doctor isn't around.

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