The War Master- Only the Good

Posted in Audio by - December 16, 2017
The War Master- Only the Good

Released December 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

The Time War offers a near-infinite potential of storytelling opportunities within the confines of the Doctor Who universe, a conflict where all of reality across all of time is at stake at any given moment. With the television series opening the floodgates by directly stepping into the Time War for the fiftieth anniversary, Big Finish has capably followed suit as the audio medium continues to shed more light on the defeats, heartbreaks, and triumphs that unfolded during this dark era that becomes so impactful for the Doctor and the universe as a whole. Following four series featuring the War Doctor and the first of four series released featuring the Eighth Doctor during the Time War alongside other individual Eighth Doctor tales during this time, the audio focus now shifts to Derek Jacobi’s briefly-seen incarnation of the Master from ‘Utopia’ to highlight this era from a wholly unique perspective in The War Master- Only the Good.

It’s incredibly rare for the Master to feature without the Doctor present to offer an alternative viewpoint or action, the BBC novel The Face of the Enemy being perhaps the most prominent example though even then the Brigadier and UNIT were involved as a basis of familiarity with which to compare and contrast, and so this set offers a unique opportunity to fully explore the inner workings and nuances of arguably the Doctor’s greatest foe. Nicholas Briggs’s ‘Beneath the Viscoid’ opens Only the Good when a mysterious capsule from the Time War holding the Master is recovered upon the Dalek-occupied ocean world of Gardezza. Briggs instantly creates a tense environment of paranoia and mistrust where even the arrival of a Time Lord- a member of a race known by all to be sworn enemies of the Daleks- is treated with trepidation as a potential ploy to foil the unyielding resistance movement. Fortunately, the Daleks presented here are more than formidable as they navigate the aquatic environment, continue their brutal conquest, and get into a dangerous battle of covert brinksmanship with the Master with his TARDIS as the prize, and this intrinsic danger from all angles expertly amplifies the tension and adds to the emotional plight of the oppressed without having to delve into the potential time-altering mechanics and consequences of the Time War.

Understandably, though, it’s the Master who takes centre stage in ‘Beneath the Viscoid,’ and it’s fascinating to see how he acts without the Doctor in his presence to bring out any excess goading, arrogance, or pride. There has always been a fine line between these two characters even as their televised actions veer to opposite ends of the moral spectrum, and it’s quite telling that the Master here actually claims to be the Doctor and to revel in the respect and reputation that that name brings. Though he unquestionably acts in a morally gray zone to further his agenda as he at times both helps and harms individuals and is unafraid of using his hypnotic prowess when needed, he does not explicity act with evil intentions here, and this sort of self-serving characterization mirrors the content of a very revealing monologue he gives that explains his perceived realistic outlook on the universe in general compared to the optimism of the Doctor’s. With four stories and no Doctor in sight, Only the Good has plenty of time to continue to develop and flesh out the Master in a much more intimate manner than is typically possible in one story, but ‘Beneath the Viscoid’ makes an instant impact in that regard and uses the burdened but determined tension of Gardezza and its denizens’ fight for freedom to provide a strong opening to this novel concept.

Janine H Jones’s ‘The Good Master’ tells the tale of the Master masquerading as an altogether different type of doctor, helping in a medical facility on the sanctuary world of Arcking as he covertly hides away from the Daleks he had just double-crossed during his quest for his TARDIS. Jones manages to craft another unique environment here as Arcking is surrounded by a mysterious field that results in a state of grace in which nobody can die upon its surface, a field the Master ominously intimates he may have tested the strength of by giving to some of his patients what would otherwise have been lethal injections. At the same time, this power portrays the Daleks in the unusual light of being completely ineffective with their usual aggression, frustrated as they find themselves waiting on the sidelines while decreeing their usual threats and ultimatums without any means of backing them up. With the effects of the Time War reaching even this far away, the script does an excellent job under the banner of an unknowingly protected world of discussing the fragility of the human psyche within these confines, both regarding the inevitability of the Dalek menace and the horrors and atrocities being committed among the stars that the human mind simply cannot fathom and process once seen.

Unsurprisingly, the Master’s seemingly benevolent actions shroud the fact that he is looking to study the power source for the state of grace to turn it to his own advantage. It is somewhat surprising, however, how willingly he takes on Jonny Green’s Cole as a companion to help him attain his goal, in the process highlighting the nuanced differences between overtly similar actions that the Doctor and he may take. Jacobi manages to imbue an incredible range of emotion both before and after the Master confesses to his true identity, and it’s easy to imagine at times that he truly could be a lost incarnation of the Doctor in between his more self-serving turns given the character’s duplicity and quality of acting, an attribute that has always been hinted at but rarely shown to the extent that this perspective allows. More fascinatingly, as discussions of fixed time and temporal anomalies abound surrounding the field and the trigger of its destruction that eventually allows the Dalek might to truly manifest as Arcking falls, the Master threateningly suggests that sometimes a pawn must be sacrificed to save the king, hinting at the greater stakes yet to come as the Master’s time in the Time War continues and putting this harrowing tragedy into greater perspective.

James Goss’s ‘The Sky Man’ sees the Master indulge Cole’s futile request to save a world from the ongoing plight of the Time War, landing on an agrarian world that Cole picked from a staggering array of worlds needing help that the Master presented to him. Quite bravely, Goss firmly places the Master in the background in a sort of subtle mentor role as he hides behind the Time Lords’ strict non-intervention policy and remains content to let events play out like they should to instead cultivate a burgeoning fascination with the growing and harvesting of grapes to turn into wine, leaving Cole to both discover what the impending problem is and to resolve it on his own. This obviously thrusts the character of Cole directly into the spotlight and allows a tremendous amount of characterization to develop over a short period of time, and Jonny Green imbues a tremendous underlying determination to his compassionate character who will stop at nothing to achieve his heroic aim as he becomes ever more intrinsically involved with the honourable and hardworking society. Of course, as is so often the case, the road to success is here paved with plenty of pitfalls, and Cole’s personal jounrey showcase just how difficult making a difference can be no matter how noble the sentiment, especially as the Master seemingly plays a much longer game to protect himself and his interests.

The burgeoning relationship between Cole and Emily Barber’s Elidh provides the emotional core to keep Cole invested even as his engineering background that allows him to fix water pumps, bridges, and irrigation systems on this world that has forsaken technology and thus remained untouched is met with resistance and only tepid enthusiasm at best. Despite his best intentions and successful endeavours, the society as a whole continues to treat Cole as an outsider and casts him under suspicion when a weapon from the great war above inadvertently falls onto the world and inexorably ravages the entire ecosystem beyond repair. As plants, animals, and even humans fall to the unknown repercussions of this technology with devastatingly emotional consequences, Cole turns to his training once more and seeks to craft a survival suit modeled after his own pilot suit that will allow the people to carry on in these circumstances, suffering a few false turns at first before ultimately crafting isolation suits that can provide for all of their wearers’ needs on a permanent basis. Unfortunately, while his suits are able to sustain life and to temper the panic that the situation creates, he underestimates the very human desire for revenge even when the exact culprit is unknown, and the technology that made him the saviour of these people loses him everything and unleashes disastrously far-reaching repercussions, offering further support to the theory of convergence that has been stated before. This leads to a heartbreaking realization as Cole tries to understand what he has done as cries of retribution surround him, and the paradox of these beings arising from a world that should have died having been crafted by a man who should have died along with Arcking is a significant threat that thrusts tremendous responsibility upon Cole and gives credence to the Master’s sentiment that men are not meant to change the fate of planets, creating an uneasy sense of tension built upon further powerful emotions leading into the finale of this set.

Guy Adams’s ‘The Heavenly Paradigm’ firmly proves just how cunning and strategic the Master is, traveling to Number 24 Marigold Lane in 1970s Stamford Bridge to use the fallout from his dual paradoxes in order to make his ultimate aims come to fruition. The Time War is such an all-encompassing conflict that it’s not entirely surprising that the Time Lords would use off-world locations to store components vital to the war, and the prospect of a seemingly innocuous house on Earth storing all-powerful weaponry is a jolting visual that further links the two worlds beyond simply the Doctor’s compassion. Intriguingly, the Time Lords have prepared for the inevitable appearance of the Master, knowing that at some time the prospect of the weaponry would be too enticing for him to continue to pass on indefinitely. Mrs Wilson may initially seem like a rather docile housekeeper, but Nerys Hughes from the start instills an incredible sense of shrewd cunning that pays off wonderfully when all pretenses are dropped and her true menace and dedication to the Time Lords reveals itself even as the Master continues to protest that for once he truly has benevolent ambitions without ever giving up his hidden advantage.

Surprisingly, despite the presence of paradoxes, Daleks, and the effects of strange power sources and weaponry, Only the Good has been centred more around its characters and their emotions rather than the heady science fiction concepts that so frequently pervade Time War stories. ‘The Heavenly Paradigm’ brings the science fiction back to the forefront while putting the events of the previous stories into greater context. The Master promised Cole at the end of ‘The Sky Man’ that he would take care of the paradox ravaging the universe, and, after Cole is forced to face his own psychological horrors as he enters the home, the Master puts that plan into motion by revealing that the multiple paradoxes he has witnessed and fostered will provide the temporal fuel needed to power the ultimate Time Lord weapon that can ensure peace through the ensuring of proper decisions always being made. Yet while the Time Lords’ original intent was simply to point the weapon at the Daleks to create a peaceful force for good, the Master has far grander plans, ones that encapsulate all of the universe as he intends to foster in a rewritten golden age of universal peace. The Master has never been one to do anything in moderation, and while his intentions are perhaps honourable despite his ambivalence regarding very personal cost incurred, it’s tragically unavoidable given his known future in ‘Utopia’ that the unpredictable consequences of his actions that so radically alter the scope of the Time War result in him running farther than he’s ever run before.

It would have been quite easy for Big Finish to write four tales featuring the Master at his most overtly villainous and evil, but the course taken of showcasing a more subdued Master who is able to take advantage of the chaos of the Time War to precisely implement each step of his plan is far more rewarding and shows just how perceptive, tactical, and at times even compassionate he can be when not competing against his eternal foe. Although going into the set this incarnation of the Master is known to be a tragic one, Derek Jacobi brings an incredible weight and nuance to the role that hearkens back to Roger Delgado’s original and bolsters the strategic successes that his character brings about and experiences before his ambition proves to be his downfall. Though there is obviously potential for earlier stories featuring Derek Jacobi’s incarnation in a continuing range, Only the Good seems like a self-contained one-off and provides a fittingly emotional and powerful prologue to his all-too-brief appearance on screen thanks to layered scripts, incredible performances, solid direction, and engaging sound design that further develop the Time War in an intimate but specatacular fashion.

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