Eric Roberts’ fourth Big Finish contribution is his fullest, with two-and-a-half episodes of action as the ‘Bruce’ Master in the Master! boxset, and it’s a slightly different version of the character to previous appearances.
First of all, as is visible from the cover art, this is an older-looking Master who has spent a long time in the vortex since not only the TV Movie but the blockbuster end to the Eighth Doctor’s Ravenous series that was Day of the Master. And while it is a follow-up to those appearances, an epilogue of sorts, it plays out more like the start of a new story, reintroducing this incarnation in what feels like a warm-up to a huge Eric Roberts-led series.
And as no such series has been announced, it kind of punishes Master! for existing on its own.
But, having said that, that also captures a very American-style ‘watch the pilot episode before we produce the full series’ approach to television that was prevalent in the 1990s and is just where this incarnation of the villain would fit in.
The first of the three stories, or acts, in the boxset is Faustian. The title alone tells you lot about what’s going to take place, and it uses that reference well to set up the Master’s return in a post-Dalek Invasion of Earth London.
The first characters introduced are Dr Lila Kreeg and Eddi Bohle — who sounds just about similar enough to Eric Roberts at times to cause some confusion — while the pair work for Magnus Drake’s Drake Interplanetary company that is meddling with vortexes and teleports and high-concept science-fiction. So not to be confused with George Sheldrake’s Sheldrake Industries also meddling with vortexes and teleports in the recently released Dalek Universe. There’s even a Time Lord appearing in flashbacks and flashforwards for one character…
Lila’s first encounter with the Master is a typical mythological trope, and she starts having visions that lead her down the path of following rather than free thought. It’s rather biblical. While the Master tries to break into the world, some world-building is done to explain what this post-invasion world is like to live in. It’s full of contractual disputes, international political intrigue, and a suitable cyber-punk aesthetic.
The influence of the Dalek invasion on shaping the landscape of power in London, 2223, isn’t immediately covered off, but then — and this is why having a solo boxset hurts the storytelling — it delves deeper and deeper into a Dalek invasion story which the Master and then bounty hunter Vienna Salvatori happen to be in. Rather than An American Werewolf in London, this is ‘American space antagonists in London’.
And there’s another delayed payoff that doesn’t quite hit. At the end of Faustian, we finally truly get to meet the Master, and it is an absolutely delicious way of reintroducing him that works on the dramatic level. But if you’re buying this boxset to listen to Eric Roberts, it’s arguably too long a wait for him to appear in his masterful glory.
Episode two, Prey, is all-action and focuses on what motivates the Master and Vienna to do what they do as they separately navigate the unexpected dangers of the city including a Notting Hill that has descended from upper class comfort to gangland warfare. And the longer they stay alive in this hellscape, the more likely they are to die once people know who and where they are.
That sets up the finale, Vengeance, which turns into a standoff against a returning Dalek invasion fleet, a base-under-siege of sorts for the Master but then a brilliant bit of plot-driven drama which for some listeners will come as a totally unexpected and brilliant surprise and for others as the reward of listening closely to the first two episodes.
Facing the Daleks again really brings the best out of this Master, who was exterminated by the Dalek Time Controller at the start of the TV Movie. Without spoiling what Vienna is up to, it brings about a lot of friction between herself and the Master and compounds their plans to escape extermination. She also gets arguably more of the plot here than the Master, and is the character driving all the twists and reveals. The Master does stay busy, mostly fending off Daleks with force before he holds off from killing one long enough to have a long catch-up about the last time they met.
This ties nicely to this incarnation’s first appearance, almost returning the favour to the Daleks of what they did to him, and descends into the kind of unhinged megalomania his successors have been known for as he tortures one Dalek to the absolute limits.
In the end, this behaviour is so unsettling that one of the higher ranked Daleks flees the scene entirely, and the other characters are also disturbed by the lengths this hungry incarnation will go to. He certainly gets an ego hit from the pain he delivers, but it shows how unsustainable it would be to exist alongside this man without putting yourself in a position where you could be dead meat at any moment, and the boxset ends in an almost circular fashion as Lila messes with science beyond her control once again.
She’s survived this boxset and proven her worth in several ways in a tricky world to live in, and clearly has a story worth following after. As for the Master, does his narrative end with the boxset too? Who knows, who knows…