After an outstanding start with Only the Good and The Master of Callous (review here), The War Master range has petered out somewhat, with more recent releases not quite reaching the heights of those earlier boxsets. But now the War Master is back, and this time he’s going up against a powerful new enemy… and some very old friends. Will Killing Time be the renaissance that The War Master series needs? Or are you better off killing time with another release instead? Read on to find out?
1. “The Sincerest Form of Flattery” by James Goss
The Stagnant Protocol is a planet of immortals who are unable to reproduce: a world that, while incapable of advancement, will be of great use to the Master in his plans for universal domination. The Sincerest Form of Flattery, written by James Goss, sees the Master (Derek Jacobi) arrive on the Stagnant Protocol, and begin a campaign that he hopes will give him control of the planet. With his guile, cunning and utter ruthlessness, how could he possibly fail?
Enter Calantha. Brought to life by Alexandria Riley (who also plays Ng in the Torchwood range), Calantha is the perfect foil for this incarnation of the Master: equally as cunning and, shockingly, able to outwit him at every step. In her, Goss crafts a well-rounded character who stands out to the listener right from her very first scene, with Riley and Jacobi’s sizzling chemistry bolstering the strong characterisation he affords her in the script. The interplay between the Master and Calantha is definitely the highlight of this story, and pushes the former in an exciting new direction that we haven’t really seen before.
Sadly, the plot itself is a little less compelling than the character work. The Sincerest Form of Flattery is one of those stories composed of little vignettes (think Slight Glimpses of Tomorrow, Expiry Dating or Torchwood: Coffee) which, while a great narrative device in some cases, has been a little overused of late for my tastes. While it allows writers to tell a story set over a lengthy period of time, it doesn’t really lend itself to a story with a strong central focus. Sure, this whole tale is about the Master trying to take control of the Stagnant Protocol, but it feels like a lot of that just happens off-screen, with the dramatised bits just telling us how he did it.
Another problem with this is that it diminishes the guest cast. Lots and lots of characters pop in and out in this one, but we never really get a feel for who any of them are. Even the Empress of the Stagnant Protocol, played by Dona Croll, only gets two or three scenes, remaining offscreen for most of the runtime! I understand that the focus is meant to be on the Master and Calantha, but, with only the two of them on show, the story’s setting feels sorely underdeveloped.
Overall, this is still quite a strong story, but I do hope it’s the last ‘vignette’ episode we get for a while. Goss’s characterisation of the Master and Calantha is so good here… it’s just a shame that the rest of the story isn’t quite as developed. A solid, if somewhat flawed, opener.
2. “A Quiet Night In” by Lou Morgan
Having been defeated by Calantha in the previous story, the Master sets his sights on revenge, and tracks down an old enemy to do so. A Quiet Night In by Lou Morgan sees the return of Jo Jones (née Grant), brought to life as usual by the wonderful Katy Manning, as she pays a visit to her beloved uncle… and becomes caught up in something very sinister indeed.
There’s not very much I can say about this story without spoiling it, but rest assured this is a doozy. It really shouldn’t be so fun listening to poor old Jo getting gaslighted by the Master for an hour, but A Quiet Night In is just truly gripping stuff from start to finish; definitely one of the best scripts from Big Finish this year.
Derek Jacobi puts in his best performance of the boxset, relishing the cruelty he gets to play here, while Katy Manning is excellent as Jo, absolutely selling just how traumatic this whole experience is for the character. The moment Jo realises she’s facing off against her old enemy once again is absolutely the highlight of the episode- if not the entire set- and had chills running down my spine such was the strength of Jacobi and Manning’s performances. Guest stars Sarah Douglas and Fanos Xenofos also do a fantastic job, bringing to life two of the Master’s associates with performances that are equal parts mercurial and menacing.
Overall, this is the best story in the boxset, with every aspect of the production- from the performances and script, to Rob Harvey‘s tension-building score- being on top form. Brilliant.
3. “The Orphan” by Lou Morgan
Still looking for ways to defeat Calantha, the Master targets another old enemy: Nyssa! The Orphan sees the dastardly Time Lord disguise himself as a kindly scientist as he joins Nyssa on her mission to cure a deadly virus. Much like the previous episode, much of this story’s success comes from the tension built up by Morgan’s writing, with the listener being one step ahead of Nyssa throughout, practically begging her to cotton onto the Master’s manipulations before it’s too late.
Once again, there’s really not a lot I can say about this one without spoiling it, but suffice it to say there’s another great Master-Companion showdown towards the end. Sarah Sutton puts in a strong performance as an older Nyssa, expertly getting across both her naivety in the first half and her horror at the return of her old enemy in the second.
While this isn’t quite the Nyssa VS the Master story that fans have been clamouring for since- well, probably the 80s- complete with all the emotional angst of her reuniting with the man who killed her father, there are still some fantastic scenes between the two characters that absolutely justify throwing them together here. There’s a particularly interesting moment when the Master remarks that, although he’s not Nyssa’s father, he serves much the same purpose in her life, with his antics in The Keeper of Traken having been the catalyst for her joining the Doctor and becoming the woman she is today.
All in all, while I would have liked perhaps a little more focus on this kind of character exploration, The Orphan is still a great story, giving fans an electrifying showdown between the Master and Nyssa, while also being an interesting way of furthering Killing Time‘s overall plot. What’s more, Rob Harvey crafts yet another stunning soundscape, the details of which he goes into in a fantastic Behind the Scenes featurette. Strong stuff.
4. “Unfinished Business” by James Goss
In the final episode of this set, we return to the Stagnant Protocol, where the Master has some Unfinished Business to take care of… Also written by James Goss, this story starts out a little like the opener, with a lot of jumping around between different scenes and settings. After the first quarter or so, however, things settle down somewhat, introducing a clearer plot and a less erratic narrative.
This is very much to the story’s benefit, and the last three quarters of Unfinished Business are truly riveting stuff. With the Master imprisoned and Calantha’s empire crumbling around her, the plot really kicks up a notch, and this is bolstered by a gorgeous core performance from Derek Jacobi. Seriously, this is a fantastic showing for the Master, with Goss writing him at his sinister best, and Jacob really upping his game when playing off against Alexandria Riley.
And, again, that’s all I can really say about the story without spoiling it. Unfinished Business is another really strong entry in this boxset, which has proved a real renaissance for the War Master‘s adventures.
Killing Time is a triumphant return to form for the War Master range, pitting the Master against opponents old and new in his quest to take over the Stagnant Protocol. Derek Jacobi puts in one of his finest performances yet, particularly in the last three stories, wherein he gets to show just how horrible the Master truly is, while Alexandria Riley makes a stunning debut as the dastardly Calantha. Meanwhile, Katy Manning and Sarah Sutton return to their old, much-loved roles from the TV series, bringing Jo and Nyssa back to life faithfully, while propelling them in directions we’ve not yet seen for their characters. Along with a haunting, atmospheric score from Rob Harvey, all of this comes together to form a really strong set. Highly recommended.
The War Master: Killing Time is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com