One of the most highly anticipated audios to come out this year from Big Finish will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Master appearing on our screens back in 1971 in the story Terror of the Autons. From April to June, one new Master story will be released each month.
The new trilogy of Master stories begins with April’s And You Will Obey Me alongside the Fifth Doctor. May brings the Vampire of the Mind up against the Sixth Doctor. The storyline concludes with the Seventh Doctor confronting two incarnations of his nemesis in The Two Masters. After decades of the Doctor bumping into himself, it is finally the turn of the Master to experience what meeting yourself entails. In honour of these new audios, I have gone back and listened to a Big Finish audio release that features our second favourite renegade.
Master was released all the way back in 2003 and, in my humble opinion, is not only one of the best Master stories ever produced, but also stands amongst the most well written and well executed Doctor Who stories ever made. It is listed in Tony Jones’ article on the 12 essential Big Finish releases and it certainly deserves its place.
As a brief summary for those who have not listened to the story, it is described on the Big Finish website as:
Many years ago, on a dark and stormy night, the disfigured and enigmatic Doctor John Smith invited his closest friends…to a dinner to celebrate his birthday. A few hours later all the occupants in that house had been changed, some were dead, others mentally scarred forever by the events of that night…So, what happened to the distinguished dinner guests on that evening? Perhaps, we’ll never know.
Now, if that doesn’t whet your appetite for a crossover between an Agatha Christie novel and The Woman in Black that we didn’t know we wanted, then I don’t know what will. If you have not yet listened to Master, I would highly recommend it. It is currently very cheap to download from the Big Finish website and is an absolute bargain. There will be spoilers ahead for the story so if you want to listen to it first, please go ahead and then come back and leave me a comment about what you thought.
I will be ever so briefly looking into the scene nearing the end of the drama which reveals a little more about the origin of the Doctor and the Master’s fractured relationship. I will concentrate on this scene in particular, not only because it sent shivers down my spine when I first listened to it, but mainly because it made me reconsider everything I already knew about the Master and the Doctor.
Due to this, I now treat this story as part of canon because I enjoy what it brings to Doctor Who as a whole, but for those who argue that Big Finish isn’t canon, or have other ideas about this contentious subject, please do not let any associations to other parts of Doctor Who cloud your judgment of this as a standalone piece. Right, I think that’s most disclaimers sorted. All I ask is that you lock the doors, pull up a chair and enjoy.
Last chance: Spoilers ahead! You have been warned!
You can’t escape fate. Remember that.
Without going in to too much detail, this scene takes place during Part Four of Master. The story is coming to a climax and the Doctor and the Master are dealing with Death. Once again, the spectre haunts them and the decisions made on this night will affect their friendship for good.
A decade earlier, Death made a deal with the Doctor. The deal gave the Master ten years of an ordinary, honest human life where he was unable to remember his past. The Doctor hoped that this time would show the Master that death and destruction was not the be all and end all of his existence. Indeed, the Master’s human counterpart, John Smith, served his town as their doctor and became a valued member of the community. After the preceding events of the rest of the story, the time comes for the Doctor to complete his side of the bargain.
Death proclaimed that the Master would be relinquished from his servitude for ten years. When the ten years was up, the Doctor was to kill the Master. Of course, when it comes to the time to commit the dreaded act, the Doctor cannot kill him. Something stops him.
By killing the Master, the Doctor would be preventing the deaths of millions, but it would still mean killing his friend. John Smith/The Master begs the Doctor to kill him. He doesn’t want to be the Master and return to Death’s servitude, but if John Smith were to continue to live then he would have to admit that the Master, his friend, cannot be saved from Death’s grip.
Only, as Death reveals, it was the Doctor who was responsible for shaping the Master’s fate.
Death recounts the tale of the young Master, Doctor, and a fellow Gallifreyan child named Torvic. The Doctor and the Master were mercilessly and viciously bullied by Torvic and on one fateful afternoon, the young Doctor was eventually forced to kill the bully to save his friend’s life. The young Doctor, as he lay asleep that night, was confronted by Death and they made the deal. Death gave the sleeping infant a choice. Live with the guilt and torment until he became Death’s servant or he could give over his closest friend to take his place. The young Doctor replied instantly with two simple words. ‘Take him.’
And this is the part of the story that made me shudder the first time I heard it and the spark that makes this story so intriguing. We finally have an answer for the centuries long feud between the two renegades; the Doctor created the Master as a selfish child and he’s been paying ever since. As the Doctor grew up and took his chosen path, the Master became distant as the guilt and hatred ate away at him. He too travelled the universe, always alone, doing whatever he could to survive. The Master’s continuing battle to keep on living was manipulated by Death so as to punish the Doctor for the decision he made as a frightened child.
This, for me, shows Big Finish at its best. This story places itself at the heart of generally accepted fandom and twists what we think we know. It allows the reader to question the differences between the two men and apply this information to every Doctor/Master encounter throughout their 45 year history. It focuses on the nature of decisions and how our choice influences what we, sometimes naively, think we have no control of. It both empowers decision and reminds us that what we consider right and wrong in any given situation is never straightforward.
I will go no further on this point because I would love to hear your considerations. However, I think the final word should go to Tony Jones as he describes the story rather wonderfully. In his article, he describes Master as being ‘like a fine, strong and ancient whiskey, something to be savoured.’ And I couldn’t agree with him more. Just be wary of any invitation calling you to a dinner party any time soon.
What do you think of Master? What is your favourite Master story? Who is your favourite Master?