The War Master: Self-Defence

Posted in Audio by - June 21, 2022
The War Master: Self-Defence

Released June 2022

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

The War Master finds himself and his right to life on trial in Self-Defence, needing to prove that his reputation is not wholly deserved and turning to a most unexpected witness when his chance at success seems most bleak.

In ‘The Forest of Penitence’ by Lou Morgan, the Master and an unknown group of others awake in a forest with no memories of why any of them are there. Implicitly, they all realize that they are in some form of danger and that they have remain on the move to have any chance of remembering their pasts, and the path before them that seems custom-made for their exact number seems to be the only option available. With the Master who knows his mind has been altered taking something of a background role while those around him assert themselves and likewise try to piece together the puzzle before them, the protective Blythe, the haughty Corvell, the independent Ellie, the frightened but determined Dalfin, and the cagey Scarp who seems to know more than he lets on all develop into well-rounded individuals surprisingly quickly. However, as members go missing while a monster trails them, the Master puts forth the frightening suggestion that perhaps some of the trees around them are not simply trees, a hypothesis that bleeding bark seems to confirm. Quite adeptly, he slowly transitions from a position of not knowing anything to knowing more than anyone else, teasing necessary truths out and manipulating others into admitting their own guilt within this confined environment designed to give repentant criminals another chance at a semblance of life. The journey to this realization isn’t necessarily the most surprising in its approach, but the brilliant performances create a nuanced and layered experience artfully guided by Derek Jacobi who continues to excel with imbuing an unassuming sense of amiability to the profound menace and guiltlessness that drives his Master. This forest is brought to life vividly with strong sound design and an intensifying tension, and its events adeptly set the scene for the finale in which the Master who is so proficient at pulling strings to suit his own desires finds himself on trial with no escape, an intriguing backdrop upon which the remainder of this set can unfold.

Trying to paint himself in the best possible light during his trial by showing that he is no worse or less innocent than anyone else in Una McCormack’s ‘The Players,’ the Master recounts a tale in which he assumes the identity of Confederation Emissary while visiting the world of Trabus that is seeking admission into the Confederation to help its dwindling fortunes. However, as public dissent has increased and efficiency has decreased, the leaders have taken the egregious measure of psychologically experimenting upon members of the populace with frightening effect, a power the Master realizes he can utilize to his own benefit. Almost by necessity, ‘The Players’ utilizes an increased amount of descriptive dialogue to get its point across and to begin to flesh out the extremely distinct viewpoints and motivations of the likes of Lucia, Gallia, and Cato. True to form, the Master has come to Trabus with no intent of actually helping anyone but himself, a tenuous foundation upon which to build his defence, and trying to dilute the apparent evilness of his own actions by comparing them to others present is shockingly arrogant, tone-deaf, and yet completely in character. Of course, this is one of the rare instances in which someone other than the Doctor is able to best the Master as Cato manages to retain control of the situation while the Master assumes that he himself is steering events. The trap the Master walks into is fairly obvious which does detract a bit from the story given this character’s absolute shrewdness and awareness that has been established in almost every other story, and the plot convenience needed to allow him to escape doesn’t manage to capitalize on the harsh darkness of this story as a whole, but the Master failing for any reason is certainly compelling and allows Jacobi to delve into a range of emotions he rarely gets to explore in this range. While necessary to the overall plot of the set, the courtroom framing device in which the Master attempts to manipulate those trying him falls a bit flat, but that the Master as a means of defense should choose to tell a story in which his own self-serving actions helped to leave Trabus worse than hw he found it is perfectly indicative of this character as a whole.

Attempting again to prove his case in the Vector court in ‘Boundaries’ by Lizbeth Myles, the Master returns to his time tending his vineyard on the unnamed planet from the opening set of The War Master audio saga, placing this trial towards the end of this incarnation’s life as the Master before his conscious use of the chameleon arch. Wisely, the story expects its listeners to be at least somewhat familiar with the events of ‘The Sky Man’ and ‘The Heavenly Paradigm,’ allowing an extra layer to be added when taking into account the known actions that will befall his assistant Cole to this story the Master recounts as a mysterious lichen spreads and threatens his precious crop. Of course, previous continuity necessitates Cole’s actions being at least partially distinct from the Master’s, and while Jonny Green is wonderful in his return to the role that allows listeners to question whether the Master genuinely has any respect for Cole or is simply using him for his own machinations, Jo Joyner’s villager Fenice becomes the audience’s eyes through which events and the Master’s actions can unfold. Again, the Master is able to embellish these events as he sees fit and adds a degree of unreliability to the narration, but his inability to find a story not laden with death along with his pointed coercion to have Fenice kill her own husband as the lichen spreads is again incredibly revealing about the Master’s lack of compunction and awareness. Fittingly, in a story that is immensely tense with the unknown nature of its threat and the utter horror befalling those in its path, the Master is convinced that he as a Time Lord will be able to withstand the threat and emerge victorious through pure willpower and brute force alone, again highlighting the immense pride and ego that has always fueled this character. Jacobi is once again superb as he powerfully delves into the incredible strengths and flaws of this particular incarnation who seems so trustworthy and unassuming, and the eventual illusion of Cole provides a wholly satisfying callback to this franchise’s earlier events while again allowing the at-best ambiguous morality of the Master to take centre stage.

In a set that to this point has all but completely looked beyond the actual trial setting to allow the Master to simply tell his own tales, Lizzie Hopley finally brings the legendary Vectors to the forefront in the concluding ‘The Last Line’ as the Master summons the Doctor in to present one final defence. Of course, the War Master has not met the Tenth Doctor who answers his plea, but he all too quickly picks up on the guilt that fuels this particular incarnation while playing to the indelible optimism the Doctor has always held about him. Naturally, the Doctor knows that the Master’s previous actions are utterly indefensible, but unable to let the Master be erased from all of history as the Vectors have now decreed must happen, he says and does everything in his power to preserve the life of the one whom he believes to be the sole other remaining Time Lord. David Tennant and Derek Jacobi share an immense chemistry that perfectly encapsulates everything their characters’ long histories have entailed, and the nuanced emotions both convey make a fairly straightforward story altogether more resonant and profound. Indeed, the Master knows exactly what to say so that the Doctor will continue his fight to stay the execution, allowing him the time to study and eventually overcome the immensely complex prison as provided by Severin’s unique capabilities. Not for the first time, the Master finds himself on the precipice of total defeat, and although the conclusion is a bit too reliant on technobabble compared to many of his other schemes, the resulting implications flooded with paradoxes and innumerable erased criminals is a monumental moment upon which to build. Unfortunately, the story suffers as a whole from having to be the only one in this set to feature the Vectors and Severin while also telling its own story, and having to build up this ancient race that even the Time Lords respect while also detailing how justice’s definitions have changed before then providing the means of the Vectors’ downfall is simply too much for one story to adequately explore. These are aspects that should have been interspersed into the previous tales to create a more cohesive experience overall, and while the end result is still enjoyable enough given the Tenth Doctor’s crushing realization that another pillar of the universe has been so warped, the entire Vector and Severin plot could have easily been so much more fully developed. Still, the War Master and the Tenth Doctor properly meeting is the main draw, and ‘The Last Line’ more than capably delivers on that premise with powerhouse performances from two of the Doctor Who universe’s finest.

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