The Master Who Wins returns for four more macabre stories of cunning devilry powered by Derek Jacobi’s spellbindingly wicked performance
This series charting the villainous exploits of the Derek Jacobi incarnation of the Master often play out like a superb magic trick. More than that, it calls to mind the routines of the extraordinary Penn and Teller. Like them The War Master shows its hand, and explains its secrets from the off. But also like them, it proceeds to still wow and amaze audiences while executing the illusion they just explained to you. It’s a range that it would be easy to assume must be getting stale by now. How many times can you tease hidden depths to this most coldly cunning of Masters? How many times can you pull back the cape with a flourish to reveal that – ta-daa! – he’s exactly the monster he’s always told us he is?
If there’s an answer to that question, Big Finish haven’t hit that number yet. And in Solitary Confinement they provide us with four more stories where Derek Jacobi’s considerable charm and charisma sit comfortably beside that cold, dead eyed stare and delight in needless cruelty. It’s this which makes the War Master one of Doctor Who’s most compelling villains. He’s having just the best time.
Solitary Confinement recalls the recent Self-Defence in giving the Master an excuse to sit and spin tales of his dastardly adventures for the listener. Like a malignant Jackanory reader, Jacobi’s purrs as he draws pleasure from gasps of horror and shock at his tales. It makes it easy to see the attraction of the format. In this case, he’s a resident in an asylum. Certainly madder, and at least as bad and dangerous to know as ever, he tells his therapist dark tales of dark deeds.
The Walls of Absence twists a knife in the heart of the romance genre
The Walls of Absence begins the set with the genius notion of reuniting Derek Jacobi with his I, Claudius co-star Siân Phillips, herself no stranger to the Big Finish studios. This time though, rather than a devious poisoner, she’s a retired programmer. More than that, she’s a expert even among a society that dedicates itself to coding. And instead of a reluctant Emperor, he presents himself as a slightly befuddled old gentleman suffering from some form of dementia. His long term memory is nothing more than a vague haze of escaping some mighty war. He’s also steadily losing his grasp on words and even the ability to perceive colours. But soon Phillips’ Mendrix has involved herself in trying to help him decode the secrets of his own brain.
What follows is a gentle love story that also manages to be terrifically tense, like Notting Hill if only the audience knew Hugh Grant was a serial killer until the final scenes. And yet it keeps you guessing about what’s really happening right to the end. Is the Master faking as part of some elaborate scheme? Or, with shades of his original appearance in Utopia, are we seeing a sliver of the genial soul he might have been if unburdened of the horrors of his past? It draws much tension out of the question of just how our old scorpion will sting this particular frog. It’s a remarkable achievement. And it’s one which pays off in style with an emotional climax that hits with all the power of an earthquake.
The Long Despair provides a horror story for old sailors, showcasing the Master’s total cruelty
Second story The Long Despair figuratively swims in similarly murky waters. It swims in them literally as well, as we find the Master on the backwater water world of Mehr Kee looking for passage to reach a mysterious light far out at sea. Long regarded as a harbinger of doom, many have tried the difficult water crossing to reach it. But none have succeeded. The Master is determined however and recruits an unnamed Captain, a man with hidden motives of his own, to try. If Absence was a twisted funhouse mirror image of a romantic comedy, Despair takes that old standby of disconnected, closed off, manly types opening up and bonding through shared adversity and throws the great white shark that is the Master into it.
At one point the Master mentions in passing distractedly throwing back a fish he’d just caught. It’s purely because more pressing matters catch his attention. but his therapist seizes on it as a moment of empathy. In response the Time Lord swears to one day return and wipe out every fish in that sea, just to be sure no mark of such an act of kindness, however accidental, remains. It’s a key to the story, this set, and the character as a whole. A villain like Bilis Manger may condemn to terrible fates even people he finds quite charming, if their continued existence is remotely inconvenient, or relish in undoing those who’ve transgressed his skewed moral standards in even the pettiest of ways. But he’ll also leave others to escape his grasp if their destruction serves no purpose.
But that’s not the War Master’s style. Any plan worth doing is worth tweaking to ensure the maximum pain and suffering to anyone caught up in it.
And The Long Despair proves a compelling portrait in muddy watercolours of a man as dark and terrible as the sea.
Despite its classical title, The Life and Loves of Mr. Alexander Bennet provides a thoroughly modern story of existential dread
At times it feels like Big Finish HQ could benefit from a Design Thinking wall. One of those rooms where colour coded post-its filled with every idea, concept, and story dominate the space like a pixelated rainbow. We’re familiar with competing movies from different studios about asteroid impacts, or about superheroes travelling the multiverse. Nevertheless, it does seem odd when it’s the same company behind both. This month’s example sees both Torchwood and the War Master involved with runaway AIs, using its insertion into every aspect of our lives, from writing our news stories for us to choosing who we go on dates with, to steadily take over the world.
Naturally the 12 episode Torchwood Among Us is an epic battle across multiple fronts. In contrast, Life and Loves focuses in on one dark little tale at the fringes of this particular lost cause. And we know it’s lost before we’ve even begun because this particular home assistant is called Maisu (it’s Basque for ‘Master,’ don’t you know) and speaks with the dulcet tones of Sir Derek Jacobi. And if anything defines this incarnation of the Master it’s one simple fact: he wins.
The Master is deliciously petty as he decides to give one human his special attention
The story draws on similar themes as Jodie Whittaker’s Black Mirror episode The Complete History of You. Alexander’s relationship with girlfriend Mia quickly disintegrates as the timid, underappreciated coder on the Maisu project falls into paranoia and anxiety. The new beta version of Maisu always has the best advice. And it certainly has a vast resource of information to call upon to lend that advice authority. Yet, somehow, somehow, Alexander’s life keeps getting worse…
A dark little story with a nasty edge, this could easily be shorn of its Doctor Who elements and sold to Netflix to sit happily alongside the new series of Black Mirror. But it still benefits from a Masterly touch. It doesn’t concern itself much with the wider sweep of what the vicious old Time Lord is up to this time. But when it’s finally revealed, it simultaneously suitably grandiose and characteristically, needlessly, petty. And what could we want from the War Master than that?
The Kicker ends Solitary Confinement in the asylum itself as the Master’s secret schemes reach fruition and he’s revealed at his psychotic best
We wind up, as the Master’s greatest rival hypnotist often says, ‘back in the room.’
The Master’s tall tales are at an end as he busies himself with his true purpose in being in solitary confinement at this asylum on a remote, unloved, planet. The answers to all our questions emerge over the course of the story like parasitic larvae from an unfortunate host. And they’re impressively cunning even for this range. There are games within games within games being played at the Drane Institute and the only certainty is that just when you think you’ve won is exactly when you’re closest to ruin.
And at the centre of it all is the cackling croupier that is Derek Jacobi’s Master. He holds everything else in orbit around him with the sheer gravitational force of his performance. He’s an actor that would be compelling to listen to reading an Ikea instruction manual. But with material like this he provides the sort of turn that will leave you suddenly realizing you’ve been standing over a slice of half-buttered bread, knife in hand, for twenty minutes, lost in his voice.
The War Master continues to showcase both the Time Lord’s most frightening incarnation and Derek Jacobi’s extraordinary performance
So we can forgive it some of the lapses in logic required to bash it into shape. The Daleks’ Temporal Inquisition, outsourced to the human Madame Sendaya for some reason, have arrived to investigate the true identity of the madman who thinks he’s the Master. They can detect and trace the emissions of a TARDIS. But they either can’t, or don’t think to, see if there’s any artron energy on the inmate. Sendaya is accompanied by walking, talking lie detecting synthoid Mr. Keltus who can measure infinitesimal changes in blood pressure but she doesn’t think to even ask how many hearts their suspect has.
It’s all a bit of a narrative cheat to force them to try and break the Master with a more traditional interrogation. A battle for control of the conversation that will, inevitably, only have one winner. But it’s a cheat worth indulging as it lets the Master do what he does best, and toy with his prey on that battlefield of words.
It all leads to a fiendishly clever climax which, appropriately enough, showcases the core of the Master’s psychosis. He’s possessed of a total conviction that he is unique in the universe. Perhaps the only truly ‘real’ person in existence, the only one who matters. And who sheer force of will is destined to conquer and control all others. Invincible. Indomitable. Inevitable.
On the strength of Solitary Confinement and the ongoing War Master series, he may be right.
The War Master: Solitary Confinement
The Drane Institute is home to the galaxy’s most criminally deranged. Patients are kept locked away for the protection of themselves and the rest of the universe… with their most dangerous kept in active isolation.
The Master is one such convalescent. He has no memory of how he came to be there. All he knows for certain is he should be: his presence is part of a greater design.
Confiding in the institute’s staff, the Master shares stories of love and loss, madness and glory… but there’s still a final twist in the tale: one the Master’s waiting to share with his enemies.