REVIEW | The War Master: Self-Defence

The Time War incarnation of the Doctor’s greatest enemy returns, in a boxset of four new audio adventures! Self-Defence is the first War Master boxset since 2017’s Only the Good to feature four writers, which will, I hope, give us a nice variety of stories compared to the more closely-linked episodes in the more recent releases. Read on for our thoughts!


1. “The Forest of Penitence” by Lou Morgan

The Master wakes up in an endless forest, with no memory of how he got there. Joined by the mysterious Blythe and her daughter Ellie, as well as the untrusting Corvell, he embarks upon a journey through the woods in order to divine the truth behind why he has been brought there, encountering a series of other lost souls along the way. What secrets are his co-travellers hiding? Who could be behind his presence in the forest? And why do people keep turning into trees?

The Forest of Penitence is an excellent opener to the boxset and the best story in this collection: tense, layered and with an intriguing mystery at its heart. As is common in the War Master range, the main strength of the story is in its characters, all of whom are varying shades of morally grey, allowing for some electric interactions between them and the Master. The standouts are Cecilia Appiah as Ellie, who wrongfoots the listener with her innocent demeanour, and Adetomiwa Egun as the suspicious Corvell.

Overall, this is the prime example of a good War Master story: dark, character-driven, thought-provoking and very, very twisted. Excellent work from Lou Morgan.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

2. “The Players” by Una McCormack

On the planet Trabus, the only crime is being a less successful villain than those around you. Confederation envoy Gallia has come to Trabus to parlay with the powerful Lucia, who is running a series of psychic experiments… experiments that the Master, posing as a Confederation emissary, would like to get his hands on. But when everyone around him is willing to let the ends justify the means, can the Master win?

The Players is, unfortunately, one of the weakest stories in the entire War Master range, completely squandering its premise in favour of a plot so dull that, aside from the brief synopsis above, I couldn’t tell you anything more about it if I tried… and I only finished listening to it an hour ago. Derek Jacobi‘s performance is stellar as usual, and he has some interesting and rather unexpected material in the final act, but the guest characters, while well performed (Ella Kenion and Robyn Addison are particularly good), simply aren’t strong enough to compensate for a really quite boring storyline.

Overall, while this is the weakest story in the set, it goes to show just how strong the War Master range is that this is still getting such a high score. Disappointing, but not completely without merit.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

3. “Boundaries” by Lizbeth Myles

All the Master wants is to grow grapes in his vineyard… so when his crop comes under attack from a virulent lichen, he will stop at nothing to destroy it. Joining with a young woman called Fenice, he journeys deep into the woods, finding himself under attack from psychic illusions and the lichen itself. Will the Master be able to stop this stranges of foes? Or will the world (and, more importantly, his grapes) fall to ruin?

Boundaries takes us back to the unnamed planet we visited in The Sky Man, a story from the very first War Master boxset, showing us what the Master was up to while his companion Cole ingratiated himself with the locals in an effort to save them from the Time War. It’s a great hook, and it’s nice to return to the setting of what is, to me, the range’s greatest story of all time. The plot itself is slight, but interesting, and there are some delightfully nasty moments throughout, which is always good for a War Master tale.

Derek Jacobi is joined here by Jo Joyner, who plays Fenice, an unfortunate local whose life is turned upside down by the invasive psychic lichen. Joyner is excellent in the role, and is one of this boxset’s standout guest stars, making her character compelling from the get-go and, at points, even tugging at the listener’s heartstrings. Jonny Green also features here, making a welcome return as Cole Jarnish. He’s not in the story very much, but it’s nice to have him back given that he was one of the strongest parts of Only the Good.

Overall, this isn’t a groundbreaking story in any way, but it’s entertaining throughout, and features a blisteringly good performance from Derek Jacobi, particularly as the play hurtles towards its close. Good stuff.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

4. “The Last Line” by Lizzie Hopley

The Master is on trial, with the terrifying Vectors threatening to execute him for his dastardly deeds. His only hope is to call on his oldest friend, and oldest enemy… the Doctor. But what might happen if the Tenth Doctor, a Doctor from the Master’s future, turns up to defend him? He’s about to find out…

This story ties together the trial narrative (such as it is) which has cropped up in the previous three stories, seeing the Master finally convicted by the Vectors for his crimes. Unfortunately, however, because the trial featured so scarcely in the previous four stories, it’s up to this one to explain who the Vectors are and what the stakes are for the Master, all while juggling the huge moment of the Tenth Doctor reuniting with his biggest foe. Because of this, much of the story is backstory for the Vectors which, while interesting, is a bit too little too late in my opinion.

This also means that the Doctor/Master interactions aren’t given as much time as they could have been given, as Lizzie Hopley also has to introduce loads of other elements so that not only this story, but the entire boxset holds together. As a result, the characters of the Vectors and Severine feel a little underdeveloped, with everything having been held back for this story. This set could have worked much better if executed like Trial of a Time Lord, with the cutaways to the court being longer and more fleshed-out in the previous three stories, rather than everything being dumped here.

Now, none of this is to say that The Last Line is in any way bad– far from it. This is still a good story, perhaps not in terms of its plot, which is a little sluggish, but in terms of character. Derek Jacobi and David Tennant make an excellent pairing, with Hopley giving them lots of really meaty scenes to get their teeth into. It’s great hearing Tennant getting to grips with a more classic-style Master, rather than the very different John Simm-played Master he fought on TV, and I hope that, somehow, he gets to face off against Jacobi again in the future, as their interactions here are really, really fantastic.

Overall, this story definitely delivers in terms of Doctor/Master interactions, but falters in that it must bear the burden of explaining the backstory of the Master’s trial, which would have worked so much better interspersed throughout the other stories. Good, but not great.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Overall

Self-Defence is, overall, a strong boxset whose success is marred somewhat by a weaker second story and an undeveloped framing narrative. Derek Jacobi is on sparkling form as usual, and shares an excellent rapport with cast members Jo Joyner, Cecilia Appiah and, of course, David Tennant, who puts in a strong performance in the set’s final story. This definitely isn’t the best War Master boxset, but it’s certainly an entertaining way to spend four hours. Recommended.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The War Master: Self-Defence is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com

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