The sixth War Master boxset from Big Finish begins with the locked up Master telling his guards he hates crowds. But the thing is, crowds mean power. Whether that be power of or over the collective, he knows how to influence people into doing his bidding. And so he starts whispering in the ear of everyone he can under the belief that with just his words he could change the path of a whole space-faring empire.
Now this set is, in recording order, set before the movie-size epic Hearts of Darkness, and, given the premise that the fifth boxset ended on, you do need to remember this isn’t supposed to follow that up. But it is picking up on some continuity threads from other releases in the range, and is centred around the Stagnant Protocol which has mutilated the timeline of a galaxy and essentially made for an immortal yet sterile society in ideas, ambitions, and biology.
The Master, always cruel and cowardly, is offering solutions to that main problem and the societal ills that come from it, and that’s helping him gradually establish himself. So too is his old guard Calantha, also treading a path to the top with promises. It’s a narrative that runs through all four stories in the boxset, but lags in the opening episode The Sincerest Form of Flattery. There are too many scenes of the Master simply being ignored or met with no interest as he tried to work his way into the empress’s ear, and the opening half-hour is spent mostly being that awkward person in the corner of a party unable to strike a conversation on the dance-floor.
As Calantha says: “They won’t see you; they’re experts at not seeing people who want something from them.”
His cafe chats with Calantha give clues to both of their motives, and further expose the caste-like system that keeps the Master out of play for so long even as Calantha rises up the ranks on the inside.
When he finally has everyone he wants listening, the Empress then dies, but it looks like it’s of no interruption to the Master’s greater plans which play out over the remaining three stories. And of course there’s now a plague and it’s lab-grown duplicate to worry about, which may need the knowledge of a certain Nyssa of Traken to sort out.
Rather than head straight to Nyssa, the boxset jumps to modern-day Earth and Jo Jones, another companion of the Doctor that the Master has strong connections to. Jo has travelled to a rarely-seen house in the middle of nowhere, where she’s meeting her uncle who sounds just like Sir Derek Jacobi.
What follows is a psychological horror that riffs off Heaven Sent, Jordan Peele films, Tintin, and Alfred Hitchcock. Katy Mannings is given most of the material, with the Master, his housekeeper and his friend Professor Merkoff mostly being bumped into, video game-style, to send Jo in the next direction. Each encounter adds more confusion, but eventually she starts putting clues together and that prompts the Master to play with her further. In one brilliant scene, he pretends to be dying, then grips her with strength way beyond that of a sickly old man. It’s a small detail, but adds to the sensation that nothing is quite right until the Master starts recounting memories of Jo’s childhood with him as her uncle.
Each lie becomes more detailed and believable, making the listener question proceedings as much as Jo. The Master and his accomplices then pretend she’s mad, and from there it’s a thin cord for Jo to hang on to her mind before an actual mental breakdown. It’s not just brutal in execution by the Master, but the dialogue is stinging in how hard it hits and, while the story may feel bland at first, it really has some nice lore-writing details and plays on things we know about the Doctor Who universe to deconstruct a character who is beloved by fans despite their flaws. Whether that’s Jo or the Master, you would have to listen to find out, but one of them has a grim end and it’s certainly upped the rivalry between the two for the next time they meet. But first, the Master is finally off to see Nyssa.
Not for the first time, the War Master finds himself on a large spaceship with a barebones crew in The Orphan. Nyssa is, in fact, the only person onboard, working on a cure for the plague running through the sector of space impacted by the Stagnant Protocol. Dr Trubad is the pseudonym the Master introduces himself by this time, and he even comes with photos of his own ‘family’, and while he seems familiar to Nyssa, they quickly get on well and try to care for nine wards of plague patients.
The plague appears to bypass the Stagnant Protocol, which may be why it holds the Master’s interests, as those who catch it rapidly age. Nyssa’s own age is a bit of a mystery here, as this is prior to her having her own children, yet the cover art suggests it is an older Nyssa. And the older Nyssa even de-aged herself once, so it’s not clear what point in her Big Finish-led character development we’ve jumped to.
Her duty to her patients is absolute, and, like with Calantha and Jo, the Master uses loyalty as a weapon against his enemy. The psychological playing doesn’t go as far as the previous story, but it doesn’t need to because the setting already has an overworked and isolated Nyssa ripe for taunting and pushing over the edge. A dead patient or two under her watch should do the trick.
As the Master has a greater presence here than in A Quiet Night In, the listener gets to experience more of his enjoyment of what’s going on and more insight into what he’s actually up to. In both stories, particularly if listened to straight after the opener, it’s fairly easy to spot the twists coming.
Unfinished Business concludes the boxset and sends the Master back to The Stagnant Protocol and the advancement of his plans set up in episode one. Or the disassembling of them.
Time has caught up with the current Empress, and the Master’s power grab, but that proves to be the least of his troubles by the end of this story. He does get to relish in his evilness and seeing the suffering in others, and explains the source of the plagues and part of the stagnant protocol. It all feels like it would be better delivered before the previous boxset, but on its own, Killing Time is great and still works well as a large chapter of the War Master series.
The War Master: Killing Time is out now from Big Finish.