When Russell T. Davies brought Doctor Who back in 2005, he made a significant addition to the series’ mythology, giving us the Time War, as a way of explaining what the Doctor had actually been doing while the show was off-air. Mostly it was drip-fed to us with tantalising hints; our biggest look at the Time War came in the 50th anniversary special, ‘The Day Of The Doctor’, where we were introduced fully to a previously unseen incarnation of the character, played by Sir John Hurt.
Throughout the series, we came to learn more about what had happened, and this included the fate of one of the Doctor’s oldest enemies, the Master. In ‘Utopia’, it was revealed that the Master had made a decision to go into hiding, and he used a piece of Time Lord technology – known as the Chameleon Arch – to totally transform his biology into human, as well as crafting a brand new personality, with absolutely no knowledge at all of his previous life, or anything to do with the Time War.
This incarnation of the Master was played by no less than Sir Derek Jacobi, and even though he was only on screen for just one episode, he made a lasting impression, to the extent that fans wished they could’ve seen more of him, before he regenerated into John Simm. When Big Finish came to expand their range of officially licensed Doctor Who audios to include material from the 2005 revival onwards, they gave us not only tales set during the Time War, including more of John Hurt’s War Doctor, but also a series based around Jacobi as the War Master.
In this release – ‘The Master Of Callous’ – we see the War Master manipulating a mining colony to serve his own nefarious ends, playing everyone’s weaknesses and character flaws against them in a skilful execution of what happens to be a rather long game. The tale plays out across four linked stories – ‘Call For The Dead’ and The Glittering Prize’ by James Goss, and ‘The Persistence Of Dreams’ and ‘Sins Of The Father’ by Guy Adams. This arc lets us see the War Master in action, worming his way into the colony, and setting events in motion inexorably towards what proves to be an ultimately tragic climax for the colonists of the planet Callous.
The biggest problem with the Master on television is that the characterisation and performances have been so variable that we’ve never really managed to get a good look at just what he (or, lately, she) was all about; mostly, the Master tended to come off as a generic, moustache-twirling bad guy, with overly-elaborate and unwieldy plans. Some retrofitted guff by Russell T. Davies about him having been gradually driven mad by the incessant sound of a drumbeat in his head since childhood was an attempt to flesh out his motivation, but didn’t quite work.
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Here, we thankfully have a more fleshed out and rounded character, one who isn’t just an evil bastard, but one who’s also a thinker, planner, strategist and tactician. Freed from the rather hammy melodrama of Anthony Ainley’s incarnation, as well as the tiresome ‘wackiness’ of John Simm and Michelle Gomez, we finally get to see someone take the part with utter, deadly seriousness, and it works beautifully. It’s fair to say that Jacobi raises everything that he’s involved with, from I, Claudius to Vicious, so we’re lucky to have him as the War Master.
It’s nice to see the return of the Ood, all of whom are voiced – as on the telly – by Silas Carson, giving a nice continuity. The rest of the cast are strong, and special mention should be given to Samantha Béart, whose character goes on a gradual descent into madness in ‘The Persistence Of Dreams’, as she ends up exposed to Swenyo, a rare mineral which has telepathic properties, and can have extremely damaging effects on the psyche. With this release split into four parts, it allows sufficient time for the characters and plot to breathe, and to not feel rushed, which makes it all the more crushing when the War Master’s plot is in full effect.
‘The Master Of Callous’ – as well as being a suitable play on words – is a thrilling story which lets us explore just what a Master unfettered by the presence of the Doctor is truly capable of. Dare I say a masterful piece of drama?
The War Master: The Master of Callous is available now from Big Finish.