The War Master: Escape from Reality

Posted in Audio by - December 08, 2022
The War Master: Escape from Reality

Released December 2022


Fleeing a squadron of Dalek assault ships, the Master’s only hope of survival is to willingly enter the Land of Fiction in The War Master: Escape from Reality, a new reality that brings with it a series of impossible weaponry he would love to acquire and use against his enemies.

Rochana Patel deftly opens Escape from Reality with ‘The Wrath of Medusa’ and Perseus mistaking the Master for the god of the dead himself, Hades. Despite his rather unique relationship with death, the Master is, of course, merely a mortal, a fact that seems to motivate him all the more in this world where immortality can quite literally be offered like wine. Athena realizes straight away that this is a man who has no regard for the gods and who is more than capable of achieving anything he sets his mind to, implicitly knowing that his pride and cunning rival and perhaps even surpass Zeus’s own. Naturally, the Master has always been one to cavalierly manipulate others to achieve his aims, and he once more proves how astute he is as he leans into the legends of ancient Greece and carefully steers events to achieve his goals while playing upon emotions and eliminating potential rivals along the way. These gods becoming self-aware of their existence within a multidimensional construct is a fascinating concept that presents the rather enthralling prospect of the Master allying with the Greek gods and their unique powers as they return to the proper universe and the continuing ravages of the Time War, but he utilizes the conflicting histories of Medusa either as a beautiful maiden seduced by Poseidon who attracted Athena’s wrath or as the daughter of two primordial sea monsters to great effect to guide Perseus and the Gorgons that culminates in a most unexpected climax featuring the gods themselves upon Mount Olympus. Greek mythology is filled with so many complex relationships and people and items of incredible abilities, but Patel manages to convey this small corner of the larger mythological web in an extremely straightforward and welcoming manner that is respectful to the source material without ever becoming overwhelming, and the likes of an indestructible sword, sandals allowing flight, and a helm that results in invisibility offer plenty of motivation for the Master to intervene as he continues to look to the Time War. Without knowing if these events will ever factor into the Time War at large, the culminating scenes as the Daleks seek to gain entry into this dimension are chilling and certainly hint at the unique turn the conflict could take if the Land of Fiction were to ever get involved, and Greg Austin, Sakuntala Ramanee, and Ella Smith in particular bring this fascinating world to life vividly and emotionally alongside Derek Jacobi who seems to be reveling in the immense potential this backdrop presents to his most manipulative and conniving Master.

Foraying into the world and themes of one of Hans Christian Anderson’s lesser-known tales ‘The Shadow,’ the Master soon finds that his own shadow just may be his greatest threat in Lizzie Hopley’s ‘The Shadow Master.’ Through narration that proves to be initially appropriately innocent, Gethin Anthony is superb as a shadow slowly gaining form and soul while experiencing the world around him for the first time. Of course, the Master is all too aware of how this written tale ends and is determined to ensure that he does not fall victim to this burgeoning consciousness that has divested itself from him, and the Master’s determination to bring the shadow into the public eye is a fascinating study into the Master’s thoughts and methods. Unfortunately, the story seems somewhat noncommittal with what to actually do with the Master’s shadow, at times positioning him opposite the Master as an optimistic and nurturing soul who can find contentment and love with Poetry but then also showing him seemingly prone to giving into darker impulses more fitting of the Master. Precisely because of Poetry incarnate, however, that underlying optimism never yields, and the shadow’s proposition of a peaceful coexistence is the catalyst for a monumental confrontation that shows again just how badly the Master can miscalculate when he sets out to punish any singular individual. There is very much a fairy tale quality to ‘The Shadow Master’ that deftly includes deals with the Devil and the Master’s own immense schemes, and the very evocative visuals of an entire world dying after one fateful shot as well as the earnestness of the Master using the TARDIS and its own shadow to attempt to save it are brilliant moments that highlight the very best and worst elements of this incarnation. There are several elements such as the mirror that can so dramatically change a soul that- although vital to the plot by the story’s end- do seem rather haphazardly introduced, and so the story does often feel more disjointed than is needed, but the tone and subject material are quite distinct and help to explore another intriguing facet of the Land of Fiction exceedingly well while making the most of incredibly charismatic and emotional performances of Jacobi, Anthony, and Jessye Romeo.

Taking on the guise of Sherlock Holmes in Alfie Shaw’s ‘The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor,’ the Master finds himself in the position of helping Dr John Watson investigate what he is informed to be his own murder. The Land of Fiction, naturally, contains elements of every single piece of fiction, and Shaw brilliantly taps into the fact that the beloved characters of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have had a multitude of different iterations written and portrayed over the decades, including one in the science fiction genre that features a collection of encyclopedias that allows godlike knowledge upon its possession. For the Master who continues to look for any advantage he can gain in this land to take back into his own that continues to be ravaged by the Time War, this prize is irresistible, but in his way is an increasingly complex series of murders that seem to feature Dr Watson- or similar enough facsimiles- over and over again. Jacobi easily slips into the role of a shrewdly intelligent and incisive Sherlock Holmes, and he expertly exudes charm, perceptiveness, deference, and menace in equal measure as the Master takes in each of these scenes and their relation to the bigger picture. Naturally, Moriarty is never far from the centre of conversations given the tremendous shadow his empire casts across Sherlock’s world even after his seeming demise, and Burn Gorman likewise portrays both Moriarty and Lestrade with a strong conviction that highlights the insatiable desire for knowledge and victory of the former as well as the strong desire to help even if misguided of the latter. Indeed, given the visual limitations of the audio medium and the reliance on its audience’s imaginations to come to life, Shaw wonderfully works around this dual-role casting and, indeed, makes it completely integral to the plot to spearhead a bevy of fascinating twists that offer some of the darkest material this series has ever presented and that highlight just how determined and depraved the Master can be on his quest. Of course, this story would fail outright without the incredible performance of Richard Earl who has so wonderfully portrayed Watson in Big Finish’s own Sherlock Holmes range, and the confusion, fortitude, and anger he shows as Watson’s own identity and perception of the world around him are called into question wonderfully anchor a story that continues to get darker with its revelations alongside the Master’s own increasingly complex scheme and machinations. It’s relatively easy to simply put a character into an established fictional setting and have him act and react accordingly, but ‘The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor’ brilliantly subverts expectations and toys with the entire concept of the Land of Fiction itself to offer a an incredibly strong and resonant instalment in every respect.

David Llewellyn brings Escape from Reality to a close with ‘The Master of Dorian Gray’ as the Master looks to acquire Gray’s famed painting and the resulting immortality of sorts it can offer for himself. Much more than any other story in this set, ‘The Master of Dorian Gray’ stays much more in line with its source material with several scenes directly evoking those in Oscar Wilde’s original tale; while this in some instances takes away from some of the creativity that might otherwise be allowed, it also brilliantly highlights just how effectively- subtly or not- this Master can manipulate those around him to achieve his aims. Of course, Big Finish has long featured Alexander Vlahos as Dorian Gray in its own range of audio adventures, and Vlahos effortlessly brings a youthful energy to Gray who here is just at the beginning of his unique journey after selling his soul to remain young while the portrait visually incurs the weight of each of his ensuing sins. The Master finds Gray at his most emotional when feelings of love, pride, and betrayal are swirling within, and Jacobi excels in putting just the right impetus on each word to ensure that Gray continues on his predetermined path with the lovely Sybil Vane who captured Dorian’s heart integral to his plans. Unfortunately, the script treats Sybil as little more than a plot convenience after initially developing her as a woman finding love for the first time after dedicating herself solely to acting for so long; her reported death undoubtedly is a catalyst for Gray’s moral descent as he tries to come to come to terms with his own role in the affair, but having her return with the suspiciously easy ability to break the Master’s hypnotism and outplay the Master at his own game is fairly underwhelming and leads to a rather rushed and unremarkable conclusion. Jessye Romeo gives a strong enough performance as Vane, but the writing of the reunion between Gray and Vane after he realizes she is still alive simply fails to capture the profound emotions that should be present given the immense drama at their previous meeting. Unfortunately, ‘The Master of Dorian Gray’ also fails to indicate exactly what the Master plans to do with the items he has acquired from the Land of Fiction now that he is returning to the universe proper, giving a sense of unfinished business for this set and potentially creating the risk of alienating listeners in any future set that might choose to pick up on these threads. The incredibly fascinating premise at this story’s core simply isn’t surrounded with enough creativity to truly sustain the plot and set it apart as something truly unique, and this foray into the Land of Fiction that is unsurprisingly once again based upon the fictional works of Earth alone ends on something of a muted note overall.

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