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Reviewed: Big Finish’s The War Master — Solitary Confinement

Russell T Davies created a new Doctor so he could have David Tennant and Catherine Tate acting together again, and Big Finish arguably went one better in 2023 by reuniting another all-time great combination.

For the ninth release in the War Master range, titled Solitary Confinement, Sir Derek Jacobi got to play the Master against Siân Phillips as Mendrix. Fans of both of their careers, or of the history of British television drama, will know they appeared in I, Claudius together way back in 1976 to much critical acclaim.

Having an actor as legendary as Jacobi onboard already lifts every War Master release, and pitting him against Phillips again makes Solitary Confinement, which has four different writers for its four episodes, an even more thrilling listen.

The start of episode one, The Walls of Absence, is stunning with a great musical score supporting the Master’s well written monologuing before the titles come in. After that, the audience is introduced to Mendrix, who appears to be playing a grandma. How sweet! Except we know this is a War Master story, and Phillips is an actor known for gritty roles. And just as those thoughts come in, their characters meet.

A beautiful amount of detail is put into the pair’s lines, with the Master as trustworthy as he could possibly seem. He knows who Mendrix is and what she does, so he clearly has a hidden motivation, and you don’t need the ego of the Master for that to come out as Phillips gives Mendrix such an aura of brilliance that you know she’s already figured it out and is entertaining the Master’s limited patience while she tries to return to grandparenting duties. There’s no action here, but it’s two acting greats making you hang off their every line.

There’s then an abrupt scene cut, putting the power-playing between the two in a totally different position; in a new setting, Mendrix is now in something very far away from grandma mode. And she has some bad news to deliver to the Master.

Not a moment is wasted in the opening episode as the audience gets to experience them in multiple environments, showing off their acting chops and building a level of trust while also introducing a background threat: the Master’s own health. He’s renowned for doing anything not to die, or for ensuring he will always regenerate instead of remaining dead, but rather than that be presented as his primary objective, there are multiple philosophical sessions about what makes him him (a common theme for incarnations of the Master from 21st Century Doctor Who). It feels fresh, rather than repetitive, due to the two names delivering it.

Mendrix acts as the Master’s therapist, a role with a clear goal but with parallel motivations for both practitioner and recipient as this is set deep in the Time War. And once they get close… well, who would be able to resist the urge to write a romantic subplot for two acting greats?

You don’t need to be a follower of this range or even a Doctor Who fan to enjoy how this is set up, and probably for the same reasons RTD pulled his favourite double act back together. If the material works, they can make the most out of it and sell it to any audience. And there are many quotable lines in this beautifully written piece. If it were a late-night television drama then it no doubt would have captured the imagination of TikTok and older viewers.

One of the best things about this story is it can ramp up the relationship and the level of threat at the same time effectively, sweeping you into its world and both the small and large consequences of what is happening to and around the Master. A great script, a great realisation of its science-fiction ideas, and accompanied by superb performances and music.

A classic Master cliffhanger means later episodes cover different territory and troubles, enabling him to be more villainous but with his madness still a key plot point and something that is known to other characters too since this whole release centres around the Master’s time as one of the Drane Institute’s most twisted prisoners…

The War Master: Solitary Confinement is out now from Big Finish.

Ida Wood

Reviewed: Big Finish’s The War Master — Solitary Confinement

by Ida Wood time to read: 3 min
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