The War Master returns! Derek Jacobi is back as the Time Lord we all love to hate, and this time he’s joined by Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor! Sparks flew the last time they met in Rage of the Time Lords, but will Hearts of Darkness be just as good? Read on to find out!
Beware: there are some very minor spoilers throughout, so read on at your own risk.
1. “The Edge of Redemption” by David Llewellyn
Hearts of Darkness kicks off with The Edge of Redemption by David Llewellyn. Enlisted by Narvin (Sean Carlsen) to track down the Doctor, the Master (Derek Jacobi) heads to the planet Redemption in order to hitch a ride.
Arriving there, he meets Morski (Colin McFarlane), a roguish, Han Solo-esque space captain whose ship can take him to the Lehar system, where the Doctor is hiding. He’s a great foil for the Master, an equal in many ways; this quite novel for characters in this series, who quite often end up being manipulated by the titular character.
What follows is a heist story, with the Master and Morski breaking into a repository of impounded spaceships to steal the latter’s craft back from the authorities. They’re joined by Kriket (Sam Hallion), a plucky pickpocket, and Ilya (Julia Sandiford), a circus performer, both of whom are well-written and performed, each having their own little character arc within the story.
Overall, this is a fairly strong opener to the set. It’s very much part one of four, but it’s a fine story in its own right too. Good stuff!
2. “The Scaramancer” by Lisa McMullin
Escaping Redemption, the Master and Morski find themselves under attack from space pirates in The Scaramancer, by Lisa McMullin. Set mostly on Morksi’s ship, the Domdaniel, this is a rather traditional base-under-siege style story, elevated by some good character work.
Much of this is down to the strong writing and portrayal of the titular character. Played by Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo, the Scaramancer is a ruthless space pirate who has a complicated relationship with the Master. Through her, we get a glimpse at the devastating effects of the Time War across the cosmos, which really helps to paint it as a terrible, cosmic threat.
Also starring in this story is Sandra Huggett as Dorada, who is heading to the same place as the Master for reasons that become apparent throughout the episode. Again, she’s well-written and performed, with a unique and compelling relationship with the Master.
Overall, there’s not much to this story, but what’s there is fantastic stuff, setting the stage for what’s to come with a truly shocking final twist…
3. “The Castle of Kurnos 5” by David Llewellyn
The Doctor (Paul McGann) enters the fray in The Castle of Kurnos 5 by David Llewellyn! Arriving on the planet Kurnos 5, he joins with a group of locals to investigate a spate of mysterious disappearances, heading towards the titular castle, where, unbeknownst to him, the Master is performing terrible experiments.
He’s joined by Tanya Moodie‘s Kilda, a village elder whose daughter has gone missing. She’s a great character for him to play off against, serving as a sort of psuedo-companion throughout the piece. Also featuring here is Amanda Shodeko as Meri, Kilda’s daughter, who has some great scenes with the Master.
The sound design here was particularly strong, with Joe Meiners creating a spooky soundscape for the planet Kurnos 5. I listened to this story on Halloween, and it definitely has a really fitting horror-story vibe, which Meiners’ work accentuates perfectly.
All in all, this is probably the weakest story in the set, but it’s still pretty strong: a Hinchcliffian gothic horror story that sets the stage perfectly for the finale…
4. “The Cognition Shift” by Lisa McMullin
This adventure comes to its conclusion in The Cognition Shift by Lisa McMullin which… is very hard to talk about without giving anything away. In essence, it’s a big showdown between the Doctor and the Master, which plays its cards close to its chest for much of the runtime before culminating in some big reveals that finally shed some light on what the Master has been up to for the last three stories.
Derek Jacobi and Paul McGann both give astonishing performances here, bringing out sides to their characters we’ve definitely never seen before. With McFarlane, Huggett and Lewis-Nyawo reprising their roles from earlier in the boxset too, this is definitely an ensemble piece, with all five of the main characters given lots of great scenes throughout.
It’s difficult to discuss this any further without venturing into spoiler territory, but rest assured that it’s a compelling conclusion to the boxset. One thing I will say is that a certain character ends up with the Doctor at the story’s close… and, both because of McMullin’s characterisation and the performance of the actor, I’d love to see them become a proper companion. Here’s hoping!
While not quite hitting the highs of Only the Good or The Master of Callous, Hearts of Darkness is another strong entry in the War Master series. Jacobi gives an electrifying performance throughout, while each and every one of the guest actors involved, including a spellbinding turn from Paul McGann, are utterly on point. Add to that brilliant post-production from Ioan Morris (who debuts an extended version of the War Master theme here), Joe Meiners and Tom Webster (what an amazing cover!), and what results is a highly enjoyable collection of stories. Highly recommended.
The War Master: Hearts of Darkness is available now from http://www.bigfinish.com on CD or as a download