The War Master: Killing Time

Posted in Audio by - August 10, 2021
The War Master: Killing Time

Released August 2021

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Written and recorded in 2019 but withheld from release as the fact of a world confronting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic began to mirror the fiction of an empire of immortals trapped in time confronting a lethal viral infection, The War Master: Killing Time finally arrives to reveal the Master’s plans for the Stagnant Protocol.

James Goss begins this set with ‘The Sincerest Form of Flattery,’ introducing an immensely intriguing world that Time War weaponry has left time locked and populated by sterile immortals. This is an empire that is all but forgotten except when those on the outside see its location as one of strategic importance, and the Master quickly looks to find a path to power and persuasion within this society that is so protective and respectful of its lineages and traditions after forging a singular path through the time lock. Unfortunately, despite his very efforts, his well-laid plans continue to hit a roadblock in the form of the native Calantha who has her own eyes set on a powerful ascent and who seemingly knows how to manipulate the system far better than he ever could. A new empress has assumed control as the government inefficiently handles the ravaging plague, and the Master and Calantha soon find themselves locked in a battle of wills as they attempt to outmanoeuvre each other while they directly and indirectly ascending the hierarchical ranks. Derek Jacobi and Alexandria Riley are brilliant together and apart, and the quiet dinner scenes away from the direct intrigue are a particular highlight that reinforce just how ingenious, conniving, and ultimately callous these at-times allied nemeses are. Few characters are able to stand up to the Master in terms of the audacity of their schemes and the extent to which they are willing to go to achieve their stated aims, but Calantha is an incredibly strong-willed and determined individual who proves to be a brilliant foil and who- at least in the short term- appears to emerge victorious against this most dangerous Time Lord. Still, the Master knows all too well that sometimes battles are lost on the path to winning a war, and the intriguing character piece that somehow paints the Master as a character worth supporting is a strong opener that promises immense payoff as the Master looks to reunite with old acquaintances in the next two stories to emerge victorious.

As the Master looks to the past to achieve his aims in the present, he crosses paths with Jo Jones in Lou Morgan’s ‘A Quiet Night In.’ Instead of a story that simply has the two in the same space, however, Morgan offers one of the most uncomfortable yet satisfying psychological tales in Big Finish’s catalogue to date. Jo is one of the most forthright, honest, and moral people that the Master has ever encountered, but it’s those undoubted strengths of character that the Master is able to latch onto and utterly twist to his liking, making Jo come to question everything she has come to know about the world and herself within it. This series has done incredibly well to make the Master someone worth supporting despite his self-serving and callous actions, but he has rarely shown the sort of gleeful maliciousness that he has here as he takes a familiar subject and completely tears her apart with as much torment as he can manage. Katy Manning is absolutely spectacular as the mature Jo who has been through so much since her time on screen alongside the Doctor, and her tortured performance is a testament not only to her own incredible acting skills but also to the determination and strength of Jo as a character. The Master has crafted a world here in which nothing can be assumed, and the soundscape and haunting score add an immense layer of immersiveness to this old and ever-changing house that further fuels the increasing sense of mystery and paranoia at its core. Of course, Derek Jacobi’s own performance is every bit as important as Manning’s in bringing the long history of these two characters and Jo’s resulting mental torture to life, and he plays up the unassuming nature of his character’s appearance to spectacular effect before delightedly revealing the unnecessarily brutal path he has forced Jo to take to achieve his aims. ‘A Quiet Night In’ is a testament to both of these characters and their long, shared history, and it’s an indisputable highlight of this range that perfectly brings the classic and modern eras together with devastating effect.

As many times as Jo met the Master during her time with the Doctor, however, no character has been so intimately affected by his nefarious acts as Nyssa of Traken, and the strong-willed woman now tasked with researching the plague and caring for those affected once more finds herself in the company of the man who so utterly destroyed her life in Lou Morgan’s ‘The Orphan.’ Of course, Big Finish has found great success with continuing the story of Nyssa after she initially left the Doctor on-screen, and the determined, calculating, and entirely empathetic woman portrayed here is perfectly in line with that characterization and emphasizes the very best of the person she was and has become. However, she is nothing if not hopeful and trusting, and taking the Master- here in a disguise of respectability- into her confidence as she explains the different procedures and protocols in effect as well as her own experiments proves to be a costly downfall, one that culminates in perhaps the most shocking way possible as the Master leaves Nyssa for dead while infected with a deadly new viral variant to put the next phase of his plan for the Stagnant Protocol into action. The journey to that point is every bit as impactful, though, and the Master tacitly mentions fathers, orphans, and planets to ensure that Nyssa is always in an emotionally heightened state given her own history, making his careful picking apart of her own psyche every bit as malicious as what he did to Jo previously. While it is undoubtedly true that Nyssa likely could have figured out who the Master was long before he revealed himself, that ultimate reveal is one drenched with emotion that only further solidifies the profound range and power Sarah Sutton can imbue to a character who has continued to become more confident and self-assured while finding a way to do immeasurable good in the universe. She shares an immense chemistry with Derek Jacobi who once again seems to be reveling in the mental turmoil his character is able to bring about, and the easy means by which the Master can turn even the most secure protocols into his favour is a terrifying realization that only reaffirms just how genuine the threat is that the Master poses. ‘The Orphan’ is not an episode entirely dedicated to directly exploring the ramifications of the Master’s previous actions on Traken beyond the path that they led Nyssa to take, but the raw openness on display when all cards are laid on the table takes a tremendous step in rectifying the glaring omission on screen that Nyssa never being able to confront the Master about his deeds presented, providing the emotional core for another brilliant story that highlights the manipulative prowess and cruelty of Jacobi’s most beguiling incarnation.

James Goss rounds out Killing Time with ‘Unfinished Business,’ continuing the tale of the Master and Calantha as the former looks to regain the upper hand against the woman who initially outmanoeuvred him to assume control of this empire that is now facing a new and deadlier viral outbreak. In many ways, this is a repeat of this set’s opening story but with the two in more consequential positions, and the cautious game of cat-and-mouse that is played as Calantha bestows a position of honour upon the Master who offers a cure to those in positions that afford him certain sway through the gleaning of information or trust is again brilliantly performed by both Alexandria Riley and Derek Jacobi. Goss succinctly taps into the class divide that exists between the elite and the regular people as the Master flits about various corners of society with his cure in tow, and the unintended price that that cure carries with dark secrets becoming known provides plenty of fodder upon which the Master can exert his influence. The quieter meals that provided a unique framing device for the first story return, and those moments are again some of the most understatedly powerful, especially those with the Master imprisoned and set to experience a sequence of tortures of Calantha’s devising. There’s little doubt that the Master is always in control of the situation and will ultimately emerge victorious, but Calantha proves to be a fitting adversary for the Time Lord until the very end, and one that is equally adept at conniving and scheming to best ensure she retains control. As such, it’s fitting that it’s the return of the Daleks as they also look to take advantage of this empire’s position that provides the impetus for the Master’s eventual rise as their own lies are revealed and a shocking truth about the Stagnant Protocol and the intention of immortality and entrapment is revealed. Still, despite two superb performances that easily carry the weight of the narrative, ‘Unfinished Business’ is a bit too similar to this set’s opener even while yielding a satisfying conclusion; however, it’s the fact that the hugely consequential threads regarding where the Master left Jo and Nyssa in the preceding stories are left unaddressed that is perhaps most fitting of this story’s title, leaving something of an air of incompletion to end an otherwise spectacular set that is all the more poignant because of the effects of and efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

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