Self-Defence pushes the Master’s most compelling incarnation into newer, darker corners. And that’s before the Tenth Doctor shows up!
The War Master: Self-Defence is a real sign of how far Big Finish has come in the past few years. Once, an audio drama reuniting Derek Jacobi and David Tennant would have been some wild dream on a fan wishlist. But now it’s an actual reality you can put in your ears. More than that, following huge successes for Tennant and Jacobi’s individual series, this rematch between the titans seemed almost inevitable. But, as always with the War Master series, there’s an awful lot more going on beneath the surface of the murky waters of War Master: Self Defence to surprise the unwary. In fact, with this incarnation of the Doctor’s greatest enemy, even the wary aren’t safe.
Self-Defence channels Sixth Doctor epic Trial of a Time Lord, complete with a past/present/future structure and courtroom bickering
The first great surprise that Self-Defence offers up is its structure. It’s a format borrowed from no more esteemed Doctor Who story than The Trial of a Time Lord. The Master is on trial for his life, a prisoner of the all powerful dispensers of justice, the Vectors. As he offers up his defence, he weaves various tales, regularly interrupted by the salty judges. He speaks of an old scheme, and of the adventure that the Vectors so rudely interrupted. And then he faces the ghosts of his own future (which is where the Tenth Doctor comes in).
Each Master has always had their own unique selling point. For the War Master it’s that he’s the one who wins. And like Hannibal Lector he somehow invites us in like co-conspirators to share his relish at his victories. It’s a remarkable feat that the War Master series makes all the more remarkable by rarely relying on the tactic of making his opponents even worse by himself. Similarly, his plots are rarely even incidentally for the greater good, whether the Master intended it or not. No, this Master will lay waste to the innocent and guilty alike, while humming pleasantly to himself. Even at his side is a dangerous place to stand. He’s able to display apparently genuine admiration, even fondness, for a chosen few. But it’s never greater than his ability to ruthlessly dispose of anyone of even the slightest inconvenience to his plans.
The Forest of Penitence features the Master at his most Doctorish, trapped with castaway strangers and untangling the mystery
Part of the appeal of Self-Defence is pushing Jacobi’s incarnation into uncomfortable scenarios and seeing how it affects him. Opening story The Forest of Penitence is one of those fantastic opportunities for the Master to act truly as a kind of Anti-Doctor. He has no grand scheme or plot this time. He’s simply found himself somewhere unexpected, in the face of deadly danger. Soon he’s applying his huge intelligence and cunning to figure out what’s going on, and defeat the monster.
He even finds himself a sort of companion in the form of a teenage girl in the group. She seems the ideal protege, with the makings of blossoming into a fine sociopath is she survives the night. Writer Lou Morgan builds her story on a sense of atmosphere that gently smothers the listener. There’s a palpable sense of dread throughout, while for a story that never sets foot indoors it’s astonishingly claustrophobic.
The Master’s misjudges how far his opponents in The Players will go to win, exposing new facets to Derek Jacobi’s performance
The revelation of who’s taken the Master out of his life and why leads us to the next three stories. The Vectors have brought him to their ever-shifting courtroom, who find his crimes so vast and numerous they don’t even attempt listing them. The Master’s defence is admittedly pretty weak stuff, legally and philosophically. The crux of it is that sometimes, on whatever whim, he doesn’t do the evil thing, while there are monsters out there in the dark even worse than him. But as in the original Trial of a Time Lord, it’s largely an excuse to frame a new story.
That story turns out to be less high concept that originally advertised. The Master describes it as a world where nobody is innocent and the only crime is to be the lesser of two evils. But Una McCormack’s The Players bring us instead to the planet Trabus, trapped in a vicious cycle of unrest leading to government repression. Repression which leads to even greater greater unrest and even greater repression.
Mixing and matching some elements more familiar from Star Trek, the Master’s posing as an emissary from the Confederation assessing a planet for membership, while covertly seeking the brainwashing machine secretly behind their successful ‘rehabilitation’ program. The Master’s complacency about his ability to manipulate the locals places him in new dangers. It’s a mistake the other Masters have made time and again. But it’s a rare misstep for this incarnation. Combined with Jacobi’s powerhouse performance as his Master struggles against a fate worse than death, it makes for some of the most disturbing scenes in the set.
Boundaries sees the Master atypically saving a planet, albeit on a whim, leading to one of Jacobi’s most magnificent speeches yet
The Master’s next piece of evidence continues trying to make him look sympathetic while actually underlining his egomania. The Annihilation inspired Boundaries features him setting out on a quest to save a planet from a deadly incursion, risking life and limb and more in the process. Except in this case it’s simply because his previously established hobby of wine-making is under threat. Any planet-menacing alien is welcome to ravage the local humans. But he draws the line at threatening his grape vines. It’s a fun and clever way to place the Master into about as straight-forwardly heroic a narrative role as possible, while staying true to his thoroughly selfish heart.
As with The Forest of Penitence, there’s a thrill to seeing the Master work through the clues and apply his genius to finding a way out in his own unique way. But the climax reminds us just how different he is from the Doctor. It may be a solution perhaps not a million miles from what the Doctor would have done. But it’s delivered not with weary regret, but with cruel satisfaction wrapped in a towering, even terrifying speech from Jacobi.
The Tenth Doctor finally arrives in time for The Last Line, as he confronts his inner terror at meeting this Master again
Self-Defence closes out with Lizzie Hopley’s The Last Line, and the set’s major selling point. The Master has been allowed one witness to plead the case that he’s not entirely irredeemable. Naturally he’s picked the Doctor. But this isn’t the Doctor he expected. Dragged back into the Time War era, David Tennant’s incarnation grapples with his dilemma. How can he possibly claim the Master is not guilty after all he’s done? But how can he watch him die again, following the events of Last of the Time Lords? And if he does save him, how can he live himself with the consequences of what he knows the Master will do in the future?
The script forces the Doctor and Master into unusual, even uncomfortable proximity, with no world threatening schemes, or attempts to catch or kill each other to hide behind. Instead, across various court room scenes and cell visits, they simply talk. On one level these moments provide two great actors with an opportunity to shine as they bounce off of each other. Tennant sounds like a man with a venomous snake by the tail, constantly watching for it to turn on him; Jacobi swerving between lecturing the Doctor on his failings like Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, and rueful grumbling about the inconvenience of his imminent execution. One highlight is his backseat driving of the Doctor’s inevitable rescue attempt. But it’s the equally inevitable twisting of the narrative knife, and Jacobi’s magnificent, gleeful, grandstanding that again leaves your pulse pounding.
Other modern Masters may have occasionally flirted with redemption, but Jacobi continues to prove that it’s oh so good to be bad
Self-Defence proves again why The War Master is one of Big Finish’s most acclaimed ranges. Showcasing the character at his most deadly and once more giving Derek Jacobi scripts worthy of tearing into with gusto, being bad continues to look oh so good.
The War Master: Self-Defence
The War Master: Self-Defence is now available for own as a collector’s edition 4-disc CD box set (+ download for just £24.99) and a digital download only (for just £19.99), exclusively from www.bigfinish.com.