The War Master: Anti-Genesis

Posted in Audio by - December 28, 2019
The War Master: Anti-Genesis

Released December 2019

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

As Big Finish continues to delve into the mysteries and dangers of the Time War with the Eighth Doctor refusing to take up arms as the battle intensifies around him, the War Doctor forsaking his name while still trying to retain a vestige of morality amidst the unapologetic carnage, and the Daleks and Time Lords in general becoming more and more indistinguishable from each other as the war and desperation rages on, it’s surprisingly the Master who has perhaps had the most engrossing arc within this tumultuous backdrop. At times working for universal betterment and at the behest of the Time Lords while always maintaining a shrewd sense of self-preservation, Derek Jacobi’s incarnation that could only be hinted at in Utopia on television has quickly become one of the Master’s most beguiling, charming, and devious within The War Master audio series, a series that ostensibly comes to a close while highlighting this incarnation’s ruthless cunning in its fourth set, Anti-Genesis.

The Master is certainly no stranger to grandiose schemes that threaten to change the very fabric of reality, but ‘From the Flames’ by Nicholas Briggs sees the Time Lord carefully put into motion unquestionably his most audacious plan yet. Though very much an introductory prologue piece, the narrative deftly introduces the audio spin-off Gallifrey’s Celestial Intervention Agency Coordinator Narvin and President Livia into this world to provide both a grander sense of a cohesively developed audio universe and a sense of scale and relevancy with established characters with known motivations within the heart of the Time War itself. Indeed, though ‘From the Flames’ adequately introduces these characters so that knowledge of Gallifrey is not essential, Seán Carlsen and Pippa Bennett-Warner bring an easy and established chemistry that brings forth a profound gravitas to underscore the danger that even the apparent prospect of the Master’s remains returning to Gallifrey in accordance with his final wishes brings.

Despite its fairly straightforward plot, ‘From the Flames’ is tightly paced and carefully nuanced both with its characters and revelations. It’s clear from the start that no life should be considered safe, and the Master’s relentless deviousness as he seeks to put into motion a plan to utterly shift the foundation of the Time War and beyond provides the perfect backdrop against which a Narvin who has certainly felt the brunt of defeat before can attempt to mount a desperate defense using condemned prisoner Lamarius. Derek Jacobi may be used a bit more sparingly here than in most stories to allow the Gallifrey component to flourish, but there is never any doubt that his Master is always the focus, and the calm but determined power he exudes at every step of the way alongside uniformly strong performances and direction expertly help to set the scene for the monumental undertaking Anti-Genesis is poised to explore.

“The Master’s Dalek Plan” by Alan Barnes gives this set’s subtitle its meaning as the Master infiltrates the Kaled scientific elite on Skaro and seeks to undermine Davros’s legacy by inserting himself as creator and leader of the Daleks. Paying due homage to ‘Genesis of the Daleks,’ a serial often considered to be amongst Doctor Who’s finest and most iconic, Barnes astutely keeps events steeped in familiarity without simply retreading known ground. Unlike Davros who experienced a slow descent into madness, the Master is keenly aware of his own ambitions and callousness from the start, and his love of anagrams is put to good use here as he gains the confidence of those around him while furthering his own research into and development of more advanced Dalek components. Jacobi has an immense range as an actor, and the seeming ease with which he combines the demeanour of a stately gentleman with a raging sociopath is chilling yet utterly believable, the mutagenic pulse ray his Master arms his Daleks with a staggering display of the sheer intellect, unforgiving emotionless, and horrifying haste he can lend to anything his mind desires.

While the Master adeptly alters events and implements knowledge attained from Davros’s missteps in established history to succinctly see his plan through to fruition, Lamarius whom Narvin has rescued from death by dispersal and sent to retrieve the anti-genesis codes provides a stirring counterpoint to the sheer brutality of the events on Skaro. Dispersal for her means that she and by association her children would never have existed, and so her pleas for the Master to kill her simply so that she will have permanently existed are emotionally resonant and a reminder of just how much the definitions of good and evil have become skewed by people with any and every motivation within the context of the Time War. “The Master’s Dalek Plan” doesn’t necessarily try to innovate, but it captivatingly tells the necessary story of this set that boldly sets forth the trajectory of the second half with an enthralling hook that fundamentally changes the balance of power, especially with the Doctor nowhere to be seen.

Alan Barnes continues scripting duties with the third instalment, ‘Shockwave,’ as the true consequences of the Master’s actions begin to reverberate throughout the cosmos and even on Gallifrey itself. With the one unbreakable rule of the Time War now broken, the Daleks experience the unfamiliar twinge of fear as the realisation of a new reality without them in their current state begins to set in, and their only hope is to travel to a most unexpected location to look for a most unexpected source of help to re-establish the known parameters of the universe. Big Finish has occasionally delved into the realm of alternate universes with wholly unique versions of known characters in its Unbound and The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield ranges, and its within one such Unbound universe that the Daleks find their chance at salvation in the form of Mark Gatiss’s Master. While Barnes wisely does not delve too much into the backstory of this incarnation and the current state of his universe which has been explored elsewhere, the script easily establishes that the Daleks have offered him a chance at survival in exchange for the same, knowing that nobody can understand the Master quite like the Master himself, no matter the form he or she may take.

‘Shockwave’ is fairly light on plot to allow Gatiss the necessary time to establish himself as a developed entity to go up against Jacobi, but the bevy of alternate Gallifreys, Narvins, and Livias seen as alternate timelines continue to collapse upon each other aptly showcases just how consequentially tumultuous the Master’s scheme on Skaro has become. Carlsen and Bennett-Warner again give immense performances to bring these many iterations of their characters to life with the needed weight in short order while also highlighting some of the mutual antagonism that often boils just beneath the surface. Nonetheless, it’s the desperation and shrewdness that Gatiss brings to his Master as he seeks for the key to mounting a defense against his alternate self that easily steals the spotlight in this release, and with Jacobi in more of a supportive role but all the more fearsome as his own Master ruthlessly amasses his forces to continue his conquest, the scene is more than set for a thrilling finale as two surprising versions of the Master are set to meet.

Nicholas Briggs closes out Anti-Genesis not with a bombastic set piece as might be expected given the Master’s assumption of Dalek control but instead with a more reflective and character-driven piece with ‘He Who Wins.’ Referencing Rassilon’s famed quote from ‘The Five Doctors,’ the title picks up with the War Master having already achieved total dominion over the universe. This is an incarnation who is always supremely confident, often able to see his plans through to fruition as planned, and also able to improvise when unexpected hurdles stand in his way, but ‘He Who Wins’ presents the Master as more open, vulnerable, and even paranoid specifically because he has achieved total victory with literally nothing more he can achieve except for some sort of presumed failure. This is a character simultaneously experiencing ultimate highs and lows as he comes to contemplate his pyrrhic victory and what winning ultimately means, and Jacobi brings an incredible amount of nuance to a layered character as he plays off of himself and Gatiss’s incarnation on this unique journey that so demonstrably but subtly fleshes out the Master and his desires and motivations.

The differing perspectives of these alternate Masters are carefully integrated into this more thoughtful approach to a multi-Master tale, and the impending sense of inevitability as the normal constraints of the universe seek to re-emerge gives an added resonance with a unique twist to the Master’s unforeseen plight. With Briggs himself once more providing the voices of the Daleks and able to imbue just enough distinction and personality to those warranting such attention here and throughout the entirety of this set, ‘He Who Wins’ seamlessly flows with wonderful visuals and dialogue to bring this atypical but wholly appreciated journey to vivid and emotional life. While Anti-Genesis as a whole may not be the most ground-breaking arc, its narrative path is always engrossing and its culmination is a perfectly fitting celebration of Jacobi’s talents and of this incarnation of the Doctor’s greatest foe who just may be the most cunning and conniving of them all.

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