REVIEW: Masterful

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To celebrate 50 years of the Master, Big Finish Productions have released Masterful: a multi-disc extravaganza starring the Doctor’s best enemy. While this release available as a Standard Edition, containing only the three-disc Masterful storyline, I’ll be reviewing the Limited Edition boxset, which also features two Master-centric Short Trips releases and an all-new audiobook: Terror of the Master. For those only getting the Standard Edition, I’ll rate that first, then go on to talk about the extra stuff contained in the Limited Edition set.

There may be some light spoilers, so read on at your own risk!


“Masterful” by James Goss

Cover artwork by Ryan Aplin

The main event for this boxset is, of course, the titular Masterful, a three-hour long extravaganza written by James Goss. Summoned to a mysterious castle by the Saxon Master (John Simm making his Big Finish debut), the other various incarnations of the Master find themselves flung across the universe as a terrible entropy creature threatens all of reality. Each Master gets their own storyline, with the script giving each incarnation their own time to shine, truly cementing this as a celebratory release for every aspect of the character.

The best section of the story has got to be that featuring Geoffrey Beevers‘ incarnation of the Master. Arriving on a planet inhabited only by the genial Kitty (Abigail McKern), he finds himself healed of his horrific wounds, and begins to settle into a normal life with her. It’s a really interesting spin on the character, exploring what he would be like if he, and both Beevers and McKern give wonderful performances.

This storyline takes a tragic turn with the arrival of the Eric Roberts Master. I won’t spoil what happens, but it’s a truly heartbreaking turn of events, making me feel sorry for the Master for the first time ever. It’s a bittersweet moment, because, while I was devastated for the Beevers Master, I was thrilled that the Roberts Master was finally given some properly nasty material to work with. After this, I’m very much looking forward to the release of his very own boxset, Master!, coming later this year.

Another of my favourite storylines was that featuring Missy (Michelle Gomez), who is paired off with Jo Grant (Katy Manning). As Goss outlines in the extras, Missy and Jo are remarkably similar characters (though with rather different moralities), so to hear the two interact was absolutely fantastic. Though Masterful is a release celebrating 50 years of the Master, it also coincides with Jo Grant’s 50th anniversary, so it’s only fitting that the always-delightful Katy Manning gets to pop up here. Her appearance also ties in with a pretty major storyline from Missy’s time on the show, which is a great way of joining Classic and New Who with one another.

While the Beevers, Roberts and Gomez Masters were best served by this script, that’s not to say that the other incarnations are shunted off to the side. Alex Macqueen‘s campy, exictable Master gets a very intriguing storyline with his younger self (played brilliantly by Milo Parker in his Big Finish debut), while John Simm and Derek Jacobi spend the story bickering with one another in a car, which is hilarious.

The only two Masters I didn’t think really worked in this story were those played by Jon Culshaw (filling the shoes of the late Anthony Ainley) and Mark Gatiss. In terms of the former, I didn’t think the impression of Ainley was quite lifelike enough to be featured in a full-cast story like this (though it worked fine in the recent Lesser Evils short trip), so a lot of his scenes fell flat for me. Despite this, Culshaw gets to play another role in part one of the story (I’m not saying Who!), which he does an absolutely brilliant job at and was one of the highlights of this release for me.

Regarding the Gatiss Master, he’s in this script far too little for my tastes. What’s there is great (he has some fantastic, flirtatious scenes with Missy), but he never actually meets the other Masters. What’s more, his storyline was rather confusing…. I thought his universe was dying (as established in The War Master: Anti-Genesis), but he returns to it at the story’s close? It’s a real shame, because in all his other appearances, Gatiss’s incarnation of the Master has completely stolen the show. Oh well, here’s hoping we see more of him in the future.

Overall, this is a strong story. It’s perhaps a bit overlong and the conclusion was a little confusing, but, as a celebration of the Master, it definitely succeeds. It’s fun, exciting, gloriously meta and full of some really strong performances from everyone involved. Complete with great sound design and music from Joe Kraemer, Masterful is well put together, even if the plot is notably weak in places. Recommended.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“The Switching” by Simon Guerrier

Cover artwork by Tom Saunders

Included in this boxset is The Switching, released as part of the Short Trips: Rarities range in 2017. Written by Simon Guerrier, this story is short and sweet, following the Roger Delgado incarnation of the Master as he switches bodies with the Third Doctor in an effort to escape from prison.

There’s really very little more to the plot than that, but the success of this story is in its simplicity. Guerrier’s script nails the characters of the Doctor and the Master, tapping into their motivations and crafting a tale that feels authentically of its era. Meanwhile, narrator Duncan Wisbey brings the story to life, excelling at embodying each of the different characters.

Overall, The Switching isn’t the most groundbreaking story out there, but it’s still a pleasant way to spend half an hour, and gives some welcome spotlight to the very first incarnation of the Master, who did not feature in the main Masterful storyline.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“I Am The Master” by Geoffrey Beevers

Cover artwork by Anthony Lamb

First released in 2018, I Am The Master is the second Short Trip included in Masterful. Unlike The Switching, I’ve listened to this one before, but it’s been such a long time that I thought I’d give it a relisten. And thank goodness I did, because this is definitely a very strong story.

Written and performed by Geoffrey Beevers, this story sees the Crispy Master embark upon another dastardly scheme to destroy a planet. While the story itself is nothing groundbreaking, the way Beevers writes (and performs) in first person as the Master really elevates it. It’s so great to be able to hear one of the Master’s plans from his own perspective, and who better to write it than the Master himself?

Seriously, Beevers has such a strong grasp on his incarnation of the Master, which is no surprise, given that (if you include Big Finish) he’s the longest-running actor in the role. He also includes some cheeky meta nods at Big Finish and the audio medium, which really elevated the story.

Overall, this is a really strong, in-depth look at this incarnation of the Master, brought to life with a powerful central performance from Geoffrey Beevers. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Terror of the Master” by Trevor Baxendale

The final component of Masterful is Terror of the Master: a three-hour audiobook read by Jon Culshaw. To be quite honest, this was the part of the boxset I was least looking forward to, as I thought three hours would be far too long to listen to a narrated story. To my great surprise, this was my favourite part of Masterful by far.

Seriously, this is a very strong story. Sitting here now, writing my review, I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t like about it. It’s incredibly faithful to 1970s Doctor Who, complete with UNIT, issue-based storytelling and a gritty, modern feel, while also going beyond the practical and technical constraints that existed at that time, giving us such scenes as a motorbike chase through London, which would never have been possible in a real episode.

Culshaw once again proves himself a master (pardon the pun) performer, not only reading Trevor Baxendale‘s script with flair, but also bringing the various characters to life with an impressive range of voices. The standout is definitely the Brigadier, who Culshaw replicated flawlessly, but his impressions of the Third Doctor and Sergeant Benton are also top-notch. Because of this, Terror of the Master feels almost like a full-cast production.

The stellar sound design from Steve Foxon also adds to this. His music is incredibly evocative of the era, while the various sound effects add to Culshaw’s narration. After this, I’d be very happy to hear more long-form narrated stories from Big Finish just like this.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Overall

Come for the multi-Master thrill ride of Masterful, stay for the exceptionally good I Am The Master and Terror of the Master. This is an extremely strong collection of stories, charting the Master’s journey from the suave, debonair Roger Delgado to the crazy, hilarious Michelle Gomez and beyond. Goss, Guerrier, Beevers and Baxendale all come together to create a truly celebratory release that really gets to the core of the Master as a character. To sum up this release in one word? Well… Masterful! Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Masterful is available now from http://www.bigfinish.com, both on CD and as a download. It is also available in a Limited Edition boxset, alongside two Short Trips and Terror of the Master, or simply as a Standard Edition, which contains only Masterful.

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