The War Master: Rogue Encounters

Posted in Audio by - November 14, 2023
The War Master: Rogue Encounters

Released November 2023


One of Big Finish’s most consistently unique and powerful ranges, The War Master featuring Sir Derek Jacobi returns for its tenth box set, Rogue Encounters.

With only sixty minutes to save a world from Dalek devastation that would alter the course of history forever, the Master is challenged from multiple angles in the real-time ‘Runtime’ by Tim Foley. Despite this incarnation’s placement within the Time War, the War Master has featured alongside the Daleks relatively sparingly, and the Daleks’ inclusion here adds an incredibly palpable sense of dread and danger amplified by the powerful memories of loss and destruction native denizen Slug possesses as these two work together to cross the world and stay alive. Of course, the War Master has proven himself to be one of the Master’s most cunning, forward-thinking, and manipulative regenerations, and Jacobi excels as he conveys a calm self-assurance and confidence that contrasts so well to the fear and respect that Slug has for the enemies she cannot bring herself to name. Jacob and Aitch Wylie form an effective duo that showcases all of the requisite emotion needed as the clock continues to tick with the determined and well-intentioned Slug the narrative focus, and yet with the Dalek threat encompassing them as a bounty hunter looking for the Master finally catches up with him, their journey is anything but linear and effectively answers just why the Master is so preoccupied with the salvation of this particular world when he has brought about or casually watched the destruction of so many within and away from the ever-shifting carnage of the Time War. It’s no surprise that he is acting entirely in his own self-interests as he looks to ensure his own past remains intact, but the genuine sense of urgency he acts with here as his more recent actions are called into question make for a uniquely satisfying element of characterization in this visual and emotional opener that proves that this range and character still have so much room to explore and develop even when the featured story itself is fairly straightforward by the lofty narrative standards The War Master has set.

In ‘Manhunt’ by Rochana Patel, Alison Walker has become the prime suspect after her boyfriend disappeared during an American roadtrip. Though suffering from a lack of memory regarding events between the appearance of an unnaturally bright light above them and her reappearing alone in the driver’s seat of their car, she proclaims that the truth is not so straightforward and comes to discover just how truly strange it is when one Sam Tether offers hypnotherapy services to help her uncover and remember her lost moments. Understandably, the local sheriff is reticent to given any credence to Alison’s claims or to even ponder the existence of extraterrestrials, knowing from experience that the simplest explanation is often the truth, and as a result Alison is forced to confront the possibility that just maybe she did commit the atrocious act she is accused of even as she steadfastly claims that she never could. Loreece Harrison gives a tremendous performance as this woman whose life has been so violently turned upside down as she descends into a sort of madness, and the desperation underlining Alison’s conflicted sense of assuredness and of lingering doubt as she is constantly forced to talk about Andy and what may or must have occurred makes a profound impact. Of course, Alison’s hunch proves correct, and while Doctor Who as a whole has not often explored alien abduction storylines, it offers a clever angle featuring the need for emotions and just what constitutes a soul and the spark of life. The actual memories that the Master helps Alison uncover in which Andy and she actually meet their abductors are fairly standard in their execution as they remain true to typical tropes, but even these serve an important purpose to force Alison to confront just what type of person she truly is and what lengths she will go to in order to stay alive. This turn in characterization of sorts given the desperate innocence she conveyed throughout proves to be quite effective even if the resulting conclusion is somewhat rushed and flat comparatively, and it also gives the Master plenty of opportunity to highlight his hypnotic abilities as he strives to learn what is truly aboard the alien craft; without question his ability to draw others in with the promise of aid while he constantly thinks of nobody but himself continues to be a fascinating element that Jacobi brings forth so effectively.

Hijacking an archaeological dig to acquire what he assumes to be an ultimate weapon, the Master inadvertently unleashes something altogether more ancient in the form of Bilis Manger in ‘The Sublime Porte’ by James Goss. The Master- and especially in this wartime incarnation- is one of the most charmingly nefarious entities the universe has ever seen, and although he may not always emerge victorious in his schemes, it’s rare for him to not be firmly in control of the narrative while acting in his own best interest. For precisely this reason, the enigmatic Bilis Manger proves to be a fascinating presence for the Master to confront. ‘The Sublime Porte’ wisely refuses to explicitly reveal many specifics information about this prolific and impactful Torchwood entity, but the genuine fear he instils in the Master when the Time Lord comes to realize that he has let loose a being the Gallifreyans mythologized is all that listeners unfamiliar with Bilis need to understand the true power this character holds. Indeed, few characters in all of the Doctor Who universe can so dramatically shift the Master’s normally calm and assured demeanour, and Murray Melvin’s own charisma and measured intonations perfectly complement Jacobi’s performance that delves into far different emotions than he is typically asked to convey in this range. Yet as the Master sees his initial chances of escaping Bilis quite literally go up in flames while he tries to convince those around him that a figure only he can see is tormenting him, he quite characteristically comes to think that he can perhaps turn this situation to his advantage, forming what he thinks is a camaraderie with Bilis as he tentatively asserts that he is worthy of Bilis’s attention as a truly unique individual in his own right. As the true power of the Sublime Porte comes to be revealed along with Bilis’s own role in the protection of this power and of the universe itself, it’s only natural that the Master with his unending ego comes to crave the near limitless potential it would afford him; however, while he ultimately does take the dramatic step to prove himself worthy to Bilis as Bilis goads him onward and gently stokes the flame of ego, even the Master must take pause to truly contemplate what type of person he truly is and what boundaries and lines he may or may not be willing to cross. Beginning with a simple game of chess, this extended sequence that amplifies in scope so magnificently is perfectly played and through the culmination of one final and devastating twist perfectly highlights the Master’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the incredible legacy of both Bilis Manger and of Murray Melvin in what seems set to be his final performance for Big Finish following his unfortunate passing earlier this year.

Given how boldly and audaciously the Master has always sought to cling to life, the revelation in ‘Utopia’ that he willingly used the chameleon arch to become human and flee the Time War was shocking not only for reintroducing the Doctor’s eternal foe but also for hinting first-hand at the genuine terrors and atrocities that so scarred all of time and space. Of course, the Master has always been something of a tragic figure as he chooses to use his immense knowledge and charisma for anything but the common good, but Yana represents the epitome of everything that this Time Lord could have been in other circumstances. Even with the very limited resources at hand, Yana is forever dedicated to helping those around him, and yet the one thing that has eluded him is someone to call friend or family. He’s selfless to a fault, and Jacobi superbly plays the more vulnerable and kindly essence of Yana to impactfully delineate these two sides of the same coin. In Rafe he finds something of a kindred spirit, at first glad for the company and the physical help Rafe can offer him but soon enough taking on something of a patriarchal role as Rafe’s own abilities and memories begin to falter. This is a wonderfully written relationship that shows both Yana and, in turn, the Master reaching their true potential, and although it ultimately doesn’t do much to meaningfully expand upon the world and conditions shown in ‘Utopia,’ it wonderfully humanizes Yana all the more effectively and makes the Master’s inevitable emergence and carnage all the more impactful. James G Nunn brings the strengths of and slowly progressive changes in Rafe to life vividly, and his chemistry with Jacobi is pitch perfect and layered with genuine emotion. Still, ‘Alone’ does perhaps place too much importance on the watch holding the Master’s essence, and it seems unlikely that after how frequently Yana mentions it and finds his attention drawn to it- especially after Rafe’s emphatic break- that he would not have examined it closer as he so fatefully did on screen. Still, the suggestion that the Master is very much aware of Yana’s actions and can even influence the outside world to an extent while within the watch is a fascinating one that has any number of ramifications for future stories involving Yana. Whether those stories within this context come to fruition or not, ‘Alone’ is another emotionally engaging tale that effortlessly shows just how many unique avenues this well-established franchise can continue to travel and explore, a strong finale to another wonderful The War Master set.

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