Review of 'The War Master: Only The Good'
Sir Derek Jacobi returns to play the Doctor Who villain in a series of audio adventures from Big Finish.
Doctor Who fans seem to have long memories, stretching back decades at times. So it shouldn't be hard to remember the episode, "Utopia," first broadcast in 2007, which featured legendary British thespian Sir Derek Jacobi as the kindly but eccentric Professor Yana. Except that, as the episode's finale revealed, Yana, in reality, the Doctor's arch-nemesis, The Master. Viewers only got a few minutes of Jacobi properly in the role before he regenerated into John Simm but fans have been itching for more ever since, especially in light of further explorations of the Time War. It seems only right then that Big Finish has brought Jacobi's Master and in style to boot with The War Master: Only The Good.
The set opens with "Beneath The Viscoid" by longtime Big Finish writer/producer and Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs. The basic premise of the story is classic Doctor Who. An aquatic alien civilization under siege by the Daleks receives a visit from a Time Lord who seems to be their only hope in this hour of need. So, perhaps naturally, they assume it's the Doctor. In listening to the story, it's clear that Briggs is relishing the opportunity to invert many a Who trope and it's something that director Scott Handcock draws out of Jacobi's performance as well. If you still think this might be a redressed Doctor Who story, then the final scene will happily dispel you of that notion with shocking clarity. It's a satisfying opening to the set and Briggs' best script in years.
The set kicks into high gear with its second story, "The Good Master." Janine H Jones' script finds the Master undercover on a mission apparently for the Time Lords on the planet Arcking. His goal? Discover the source of its unique protection from the Time War and seize it. Though nominally, a more action based "on a mission" style story, centering in on the Jacobi Master, gives it a certain freshness as does Jones' using it to explore facets of the character along the way. In that vein, there's the introduction of companion character Cole Jarnish (Jonny Green) into proceedings which offers up a whole new angle to the Master.
That angle is apparent in the third story, "The Sky Man." With his new companion in tow, the Master indulges Cole's whim to try and save a planet on the fringes of the Time War. James Goss (who has turned into one of Big Finish's most reliable and inventive writers) turns in a script that is another inversion of the usual Who tropes of the companion/Doctor relationship. The Master sits back and lets Cole try to save these people on a little, agrarian planet. Yet the story reminds us that the path to hell is paved with the best of intentions, echoing one of Big Finish's early classics along the way. It's a chance for Green to shine in his role and, though sidelined to an extent, Jacobi remains a presence throughout which makes the story all the better. Indeed "The Sky Man" might well be the highlight story from this set.
The set closes with "The Heavenly Paradigm" by Guy Adams. Given the open-ended nature of many a Big Finish series, it's rare that a story feels like the genuine culmination of story-lines and plots. This story does that in spades however as the Master and Cole seek out a Time Lord weapon in the most unlikely of places with the apparently benevolent goal of ending the Time War once and for all. "Apparently" being the operative word for there's a reason he's after this weapon. Adams' pays off everything the previous stories set-up beautifully in addition to telling a cracking story about one man's pursuit of a potential ultimate weapon. That he's then able to put a proverbial bow on the entire set and indeed these characters is all the more to his credit.
As is often the case with Big Finish, the quality of the productions is superb. Having Derek Jacobi in the cast of anything is in its favor but when the actor brings his A-game to proceedings is an immense boost. From his playing Doctor in the opening story to his interactions with characters such as Cole or facing down Daleks, it's clear that Jacobi isn't an actor phoning in a role for a paycheck. He brings to the role a sense of menace, presence, and even fun at times. It's everything fans could have asked for from the brief glimpses we got of him in the role over a decade ago now. Even better, perhaps its just his presence which elevates the other performers as well who each and everyone step up their game which further adds to the set's strengths.
That's without mentioning the sound design and music. It's hard to talk about Big Finish without mentioning the at times cinematic quality of both that elevate even their more mundane stories into movies without pictures. This set with its epic scale crossing time and space is no exception from Ioan Morris' scores to Peter Doggart's sound design which takes in everything from a vast network of tunnels to an agrarian planet and 1970s Britain. It's yet another example of the work that has won the company praise from fans and awards in the audio drama community.
Whether you're a longtime fan or new to these audios wanting a prime example of what it is Big Finish does, this set has something for you. It allows Jacobi a chance to shine as the Master, to let us see more than just that glimpse we got in Utopia. More than that, it's a showcase for everything the company does at its best. As a result, it might well be the single best box-set release they've done since the first Dark Eyes in 2012.
No small feat indeed.