Doctor Who Audio Review: The War Master Vol. 1
Doctor Who The War Master
Written by: Nicholas Briggs, Jay Harley, James Goss, Guy Adams
Directed by: Scott Handcock
Featuring: The Master (Derek Jacobi) and Cole Jarnish (Jonny Green)
Despite the fact that I’ve only really reviewed Doctor-centric audios (and the odd Companion Chronicle), Big Finish has plenty of other Doctor Who related ranges, a lot of which give actors or characters who never got the opportunity to shine their time in the sun. In this case, Sir Derek Jacobi’s turn as The Master, which got about 5 minutes of screentime in the actual TV show, and dearly deserves more than that.
I will fully admit that Derek Jacobi is one of my all time favorite actors and, as such, I was super excited to get this. But beyond him, is this boxset worth anything? First, the plot.
As you may have guessed from the title, this boxset shows us The Master’s perspective during the Time War and each story stands on its own while having the running idea throughout of his allegiances during the War. Does he stand with the Time Lords? The Daleks? His own side? What are his beliefs? Does he agree with the War? Or has this Renegade Time Lord finally found something to fear above all else?
It’s always risky making a villanious character the protagonist of your story, because the tendency is to lean them towards being Anti-Heroes rather than full-on villains. Just look at the “Suicide Squad” movie, where they totally shied away from having those characters be completely amoral and tried to show them as actually good people.
Fortunately, this boxset is smart enough to not only avoid that issue, but actually bring that concept into the conversation (the title of the boxset is even “Only the Good”). The overall theme of “Only the Good” is asking what actions are considered moral or immoral in the context of a war and using The Master to ask this question is perfect. The Master is pretty much a bastard 100% of the time, but when you put him against an event that’s even bigger than him you can then put him in a position where his actions aren’t heroic, but seem more justifiable in the grand scheme of things.
The first story, “Beneath the Viscoid”, pretty much just serves to establish The Master’s overall personality and to show that he’s basically just looking out for himself and everyone else be damned. But starting from the second story, “The Good Master”, things start taking that more interesting turn.
In this one, The Master is helping a hospital planet that seems to live under a “state of grace”, where weapons stop working when anyone approaches it. He is, of course, looking to channel this power for his own purposes, and this is where the conflict really comes. Can you justify death and destruction for a bigger cause? Can you throw away the individual life for the sake of a greater good? Or, perhaps even more interestingly, is it even valid to do it when you’re basically doing it for your own purposes?
Interestingly the very next story, “The Sky Man”, brings up the exact opposite question. During “The Good Master”, The Master picks up a young man named Cole and brings him along as a sort of equivalent to a Companion. Cole, being a wide eyed sort of guy, asks The Master why they can’t just save a world. If The Master is so brilliant and has such a great time and space machine, why can’t he just save a doomed planet? So, quite naturally, The Master brings up a list of planets that are all essentially condemned to be destroyed and tells Cole to pick one and save it. Cole does so and from then on, it’s a straight spiral downwards.
A lot of people have called “The Sky Man” one of the best things Big Finish has released in recent years, and I would have to agree. It might be the highlight of the boxset because it’s this perfect morality tale that asks a very difficult question: By doing good in the short term, are you actually making things worse in the long run? As soon as The Master brings up the list of planets, you just know things are going to go wrong, with the only question being “How wrong?”. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but REALLY DAMN WRONG.
Along with “Spare Parts” and “Lucie Miller/ To the Death”, this might be one of the downright bleakest things Big Finish has done, while still in the regular Doctor Who universe. And, sure, I’ve told you that things are gonna go bad, but trust me when I tell you that I already knew that going in and I still wasn’t quite prepared to just how… Just trust me on this one, ok?
Finally, the boxset ends with “The Heavenly Paradigm” which I was kind of expecting to be disappointing, but then it… wasn’t? Honestly, despite how great “The Sky Man” was, this might be my favorite story of the set, because while that one was focused on Cole, this one is all about The Master and it functions as a reminder as to who exactly we’re dealing with here. Let’s just say that it’s a true culmination of everything this boxset was leading to and it has more than a couple of moments that make you think “This was the logical way for things to go… And I still don’t believe they’re actually doing it.”
In terms of acting… It’s Sir Derek Jacobi. Do I need to say anything else? He’s cunning, he’s devious, he’s warm, he’s friendly, he delivers almost every line with an undertone of mockery. He is, in every possible sense of the word, perfection. Beyond him, though, everyone else is spectacular, without a single subpar or phoned in performance, presumably because they knew who they were up against. Jonny Green as Cole is the other main actor beyond Jacobi, and he sells his character’s innocence and naivete really well. As soon as you hear him, you just think “Oh sweetie, things are not gonna go well for you.” Also, shout out to Emily Barber, who played Elidh in “The Sky Man”. She has to really make you believe in and care for her relationship with Cole in a relatively short amount of time and she can really deliver.
Overall, I think you pretty much know what I’m going to say. “The War Master: Only the Good” is an outstanding boxset, filled with morally grey tales about the nature of what’s good and what’s evil, all of it delivered by one of the greatest actors alive playing one of the most charmingly devious characters ever. It has a great cast, great stories, great production and an awesome theme that I didn’t even mention.
If you’re looking for something Doctor Who related that’s darker than your usual fare, something that focuses on someone other than The Doctor or just wanting to experience more of Jacobi’s Master, this is absolutely amazing and I highly recommend it.