The War Master- Hearts of Darkness

Posted in Audio by - November 01, 2020
The War Master- Hearts of Darkness

Released October 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

With Derek Jacobi at the acting helm and a brilliant setting in the Time War as seen through a more malevolent point of view than the Doctor’s attempts to retain honour and morality allow, it’s no surprise that The War Master as a franchise has continued beyond its initially announced four box sets. As Hearts of Darkness opens, the Celestial Intervention Agency has recruited the Master to journey deep into Dalek territory and to retrieve the Doctor, dead or alive.

Of course, various segments of Time Lord society have requested the assistance of the Master before, but the sheer callousness with which the Master is entrusted with finding and stopping whatever the Doctor is attempting is nonetheless a brilliantly effective hook for David Llewellyn to build upon in ‘The Edge of Redemption.’ The Eighth Doctor being so reticent to join his people’s cause directly certainly raises many questions that brings the Master’s own motivations sharply into focus given both his and the Time Lords’ many conflict swith him throughout the eons. What ensues is a traditional heist story that is very much the foundation for the remainder of the set to follow as the Master attempts to assemble a team on the planet of Redemption that can attain and pilot a ship to the Doctor’s mysterious location. As any good setup story should, ‘The Edge of Redemption’ utilizes the downtrodden and desperate situation of this world to accentuate the characters that likewise have the necessary aspects of their backstories and resulting motivations brought up and developed naturally. Each does fill a specific role as is typical in this genre while Colin McFarlane and Julia Sandiford particularly shine, but the burgeoning bonds and understandable interpersonal conflicts that develop create a vivid world for the Master’s latest exploits, even if not all of these relationships survive to the next installment. With the Master’s own actions in others’ pasts seemingly closing in on him as he refrains from fully giving in to his base instincts while he manipulates and even allows himself to become more invested in the required success of this team as further challenges continue to present themselves, ‘The Edge of Darkness’ is an entertaining start to this set that wisely sticks to a smaller scale to brings its very dynamic cast of characters to life.

It’s unreasonable to expect a foe equal to the Master in each story, but ‘The Scaramancer’ by Lisa McMullin offers a layered and complex persona set against him that successfully drives the narrative forward. Space pirates are a natural enemy for the Master and his crew to come upon in such a dangerous setting, and the seeming ruthlessness of the space pirates’ titular leader lends an immediate sense of danger to proceedings that only becomes further heightened as an intertwined history between the Scaramancer and the Master is revealed. The life she has endured to this point is assuredly a difficult and heart-breaking one that affords her character an air of sympathy and understanding, and a profound and impossible situation at the Master’s hands made long ago certainly provides another strong backbone for the narrative as pieces of the puzzle slowly begin to slot into place. While the full scope of the plans of the Master and the Doctor remain shrouded, the ultimate twist at this story’s end is excellently timed and delivered to both make sense of slight nuances present in the Master through these two stories that have not necessarily featured previously and to provide context for his earnest desire to reach the Doctor as quickly as possible. Although ‘The Scaramancer’ does seem to suggest that another amnesia moment for the Eighth Doctor may be in his future to tidy up continuity, Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo’s guest turn brilliantly carries this story that reveals the true horrors the Master is capable of while boldly hinting at what has already occurred and what is yet to come equally successfully. This is a perfect balance between a grandiose scale presented through flashback and the strong interpersonal drama created throughout time periods, and the result is another strong story that capitalizes on the unique opportunities the Master in the starring role can offer.

David Llewellyn completely changes the trajectory of Hearts of Darkness by switching to flashback and focusing heavily on Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in ‘The Castle of Kurnos 5.’ In many ways an homage to classic horror tales, this title utilizes the most of its dark environment and the dark and foreboding interior of a derelict castle replete with ancient traps. With the Master now filling the role of mad scientist furtively taking individuals for his own experimental means as he looks to quantum genetics to find a link to a long-forgotten figure, the Doctor is able to piece together the basics of the Master’s plan when he learns of this world’s ancient legends featuring a necromancer and sorcerer that link to an exiled Time Lord from long who was looked to bring back the dead to serve him. It’s through these experiments that the reason for the Doctor’s eventual location becomes known, but Llewellyn wisely plays up the Master’s own ingenious nature as he proves every bit capable of matching and even surpassing the Doctor’s own intellect as he plans each and every step far in advance. The previous story hinted at the eventual close of this one, but the impact of the monumental switch that occurs is nonetheless devastatingly effective and adds an entirely new element of danger to affairs while similarly putting this set’s opening scene in an entirely different light. Incredibly atmospheric and benefitting from the charisma and power of Derek Jacobi and Paul McGann both separately and especially together, ‘The Castle of Kurnos 5’ takes a risk with its storytelling approach and manages to tell an enthralling tale that overcomes the immense obstacle that having its twist ending revealed before it even begins presents.

‘The Cognition Shift’ by Lisa McMullin brings Hearts of Darkness to a close as the Master confronts the Doctor on the ominous planet of corpses with the fate of the Time War itself at stake thanks to a technological device that carries with it tremendous ramifications for the Daleks and Time Lords alike should the Master succeed with his audacious scheme. Purposefully reveling in confusion as any and all identities are called into question, this conclusion doesn’t necessarily attempt to recapture the atmosphere of the preceding tale, but it reaffirms yet again just how malicious and heartless this incarnation of the Master is as he uses both assumed and genuine identities to achieve his aim with total disregard for anyone else. Effectively balancing the universal danger the Master poses here is the very personal torture he thrusts upon those around him, none realized so chillingly effectively as that of the Scaramancer’s own history with this renegade Time Lord. Lewis-Nyawo is superb in these flashback scenes and proves to be a tremendous complement to Jacobi and McGann who both give one of their strongest performances for Big Finish yet. The resolution does become a bit too convoluted to fully resonate, but the position everyone is in as events settle is still satisfying and epitomizes just how confident this range has become in such a short period of time with one further set of stories already announced. The central conceit of this particular set that eventually reveals itself will undoubtedly appeal to some more than others given how many iterations of that particular story type have been done throughout the history science fiction genre (and in a set with no story that tries to do anything completely revolutionary), but Hearts of Darkness hits all of the right notes and further enshrines the scheming War Master as amongst the most dangerous of them all.

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