Series: The War Master (#6)
Genre: Time Travel
Publisher: Big Finish
Runtime: 5hrs 14m
Release Date: 31/08/2021
Cast: Derek Jacobi, Alexandria Riley, Katy Manning, Sarah Sutton
The Stagnant Protocol. A time-locked region of space in which no one is ever born, and no one ever dies. Until now. Because the Master has come to the Protocol, and where he goes, death is sure to follow . . .
Back once again with his unique mix of grandfatherly charm and soulless evil, Derek Jacobi single-handedly proves why The War Master range is my favourite Big Finish series. Right from the very first scene, in which he converse with a mute prisoner in a dank cell, through everything that follows, Jacobi is on top form. Honestly, I could listen to the man talk about pretty much anything. But as the Master, he brings a uniquely calculated evil that no other actor can equal. One moment he’s a friendly uncle who you’d trust with your life. The next he’s sneering and cackling maniacally as the world burns around him. Jacobi’s delighted ‘Wheeee!’ as an angry mob closes in is worth the price of admission alone. This is a Master in full control, who knows exactly what he is doing and intends to have fun doing it.
The four stories in this series can be split neatly into two pairs. The first and last (both written by James Goss) are the supports around which the main story hangs. Here we see the Stagnant protocol in all its dubious glory. The time-locked nature of the Protocol is a uniquely Doctor Who creation, and a brilliant examination of the effects of the Time War on the surrounding universe. The protocol may not have chosen a side, but they are still swallowed by the enormity of the conflict. Bonus points also have to be given for creating a story centred on the Time War that does not feature Nicholas Briggs as the Daleks. Interesting though the setting is, the strongest part of these two acts is the character of Calantha (Alexandria Riley), a woman as devious as the master. And she has the home advantage. The constant hopping between scheming and polite dinner scenes can be a bit hard to follow, but the political manoeuvring and double-speak make it worthwhile.
The middle two volumes (written by Lou Morgan) don’t quite reach the same sense of grandeur. As the Master gathers resources, these two stories are far more intimate. Both also bring back a companion of the Doctor’s who have fought a different master. First we have Jo Jones (nee Grant), in a story that borders on the genuinely horrible. Trapped with the Master in a house that obeys the laws of neither space nor time, this is where Jacobi’s Master is at his most manipulative. The Master is effectively gaslighting Jo for the majority of this story, pretending to be her uncle, and leaving her a broken woman. There are some big implications for Jo’s backstory too that I’m not sure if we’re supposed to believe or not. Jo isn’t the only one left a mess after this one.
The third story features Nyssa, and this is one that fell flat for me. Nyssa (and indeed the Fifth Doctor) is a large gap in my Who knowledge, and without that knowledge Nyssa’s manipulation at the hands of the Master lacks the impact that familiarity would bring. That said, the acting is strong throughout, and makes up for some of the missing information. This particular story, set aboard a remote hospital ship, also feels the most claustrophobic. Recorded in 2019, the team could not have known how the world would have changed since then, a fact remarked upon in the interviews that follow the main story. Listening to the Master manipulating a deadly pandemic to his own ends certainly hits a lot harder in the present climate.
There might be an odd rough patch in this sixth volume of The War Master, but Killing Time is another excellent entry in the series, and I’m happy to see that Jacobi’s tenure as one of science fiction’s greatest villains is continuing beyond this point.