Review: Big Finish’s “The War Master: Self-Defense”

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Doctor Who is gearing up to celebrate its 60th anniversary next year and in its long history, the Whoniverse has surpassed the original TV show. Through numerous spin-offs, novels, video games and audio dramas, Doctor Who expanded its tradition significantly. Great finish has published and distributed so many fantastic Doctor Who audio dramas, bridging the gaps between the Doctor’s TV adventures. However, the Doctor’s bonus adventures aren’t the only stories Big Finish tells, with stories that follow other important Whoniverse characters.

With the release of the seventh series last June, The war master is a thrilling set of audio dramas exploring one of NuWho’s most compelling characters during an incredibly exciting time. With Derek Jacobi returning to the Master’s voice, The Warmaster: Self-Defense is a four-part series that brings the Doctor’s greatest enemy face to face with his past, hoping for a future.

This series also saw david holding return as the Tenth Doctor, in a very exciting finale. So, what trouble did the Master himself get himself into? He can assure you that whatever the problem is, it is self-defense.

[Warning: Spoilers from Big Finish’s The War Master: Self-Defence are below!]

The overall story in The Warmaster: Self-Defense

Although each story in the four-part series is an entirely self-contained story, there are connecting storylines that are woven throughout each episode. The series reminded me of the classic Doctor Who “Trial of a Time Lord” series which saw Colin Baker Doctor on trial for breaking the laws of Gallifrey.

However, in Self-defenseThe Master is the one who is judged for his crimes against the universe. He is being held prisoner by the Vectors, an all-powerful group of intergalactic judges revered by the Time Lords for a little-discussed reason. However, listeners are asked to accept that the Vectors are judge, jury, and executioner of these galaxy villains.

Derek Jacobi as the Master of Doctor Who.
Derek Jacobi as the Master of Doctor Who. (BBC)

Throughout the trial, the Master provides evidence of his innocence, hoping to dissuade himself from an untimely death. Each story takes the audience on different adventures with The Master, giving us insight into how he functions as the hero of his own story. However, the series begins with a test of the Vectors as the Master and others are dropped into the Forest of Penance.

Chapter 1: The Forest of Penance

When the first chapter opens, there is no hint of the Vectors and The Masters trial. Instead, we are immersed in a large forest with At Jacobi’s Master waking up and missing some integral memories. With a group of other people waking up in the same way, the Master attempts to figure out what is happening and who dispensed them into this forest.

If waking up in a place you don’t know wasn’t bad enough, being hunted by an unseen creature ups the ante in this audio drama. Still just out of sight, the creature follows the group through the forest, causing a higher intensity and creating panic in the group as they descend further into the forest. Consider the bleeding trees and slowly disappearing companions, the Master has his hands full with the mystery unfolding.

The interesting part of this chapter in Self-defense that’s how much The Master reminded me of The Doctor. I think it was partly by design, Master trying to paint himself in a positive life all along. Self-defense. For most of “The Forest of Penance”, The Master has no plan, he does not plot. Instead, he is presented with a mystery that must be solved, which is the basic premise of every Doctor Who episode. There are certainly times when you still see the Master accomplice shine, but those times are fleeting.

The cast of “The Forest of Penance” was fantastic, with incredible actors bringing these characters to life. Blythe’s mother-daughter duo (Sara Powell) and Ellie (Cecile Appiah) are a strong motivation in the first part of the drama, however, the relationship that develops between Ellie and the Master becomes more exciting the more time we spend in the forest. The banter between the latter two is some of the best beats to an already great story.

Warmaster Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi as the Master of Doctor Who. (BBC)

Rounding out the group were Deidre Mullins like Dalfin, Adetomiwa Edun like Corvell, and Phil Dunster like Scarpe. Scarp particularly stood out among these three, delivering great character moments, testing the Master in ways he’s not used to being tested.

Chapter 2: Players

Returning from the Forest of Penance, the Master comes face to face with the Vectors, metaphorically because the Vectors don’t show their faces. The Vectors claim that they feel no grief or remorse within the Master for his actions. They don’t believe he is capable of showing compassion or putting others first. The Master brings to his defense an adventure on the planet Trabus, where no one is innocent except him.

At Uma McCormack’s the story is less of a space adventure and more of a government exploration, which is a very specific cup of tea. In the story, the Master poses as an emissary from a Confederacy who decides whether Trabus meets the criteria for membership. However, the Master has a secondary mission of obtaining weapons from the planet to use in the Time War.

Players felt like they were watching two people play chess. On one side was the Master, who believes he can manipulate people and situations to get what he wants. His adversary is a corrupt government that has mastered the ability to brainwash people to achieve their ultimate goals.

“The Players” was nice afterthought, but following the story as it unfolded was difficult at times. Between the complicated names I couldn’t attach to the faces and the more scientific exploration than some of the other chapters, I had to listen to “The Players” twice to fully appreciate it. The story also moves quickly, but it’s more dialogue than action so you really have to be careful.

The war doctor
Derek Jacobi as the Warmaster. (Great finish)

Helping to tell the story are Lucia (Ella Kenion), the identified leader of Trabus for this story, who strives to do the least harm presented as a desire to do good. Gallia (Robyn Addison) is the innocent voice among the harsh realities of the stories. She has an incredibly strong need to do good, which drives her to question Trabus’ leadership and switch sides in the planet’s revolution.

Cato (Ariyon Bakare) is one of “The Players'” most interesting characters, as the irritable lead scientist of the brainwashing experiment. However Cato is undeniably the villain from the first words spoken, so the mystery or twist of the chapter falls a bit flat.

Chapter 3: Limits

before listening The Warmaster: Self-DefenseI thought for sure about the episode with david holding would be my favorite. After listening to “Boundaries”, that was no longer true. “Boundaries” served as the second piece of evidence in the Master’s trial, where he saved a planet from destruction. The Master stays on a planet with his companion Cole (johnny green), where its main mission is to grow the best grapes for wine.

When the grapes are threatened by a mysterious force field that appears on the planet, the Master reluctantly becomes involved in the mystery. The barrier seems to be slowly growing, mutating everything within it. The story is slower than the first two, with many interactions between the Master and Fenice (Jo Joyner), an individual whose home and husband are stuck in the force field. Fenice panicked throughout the chapter, her motivation is to find her husband and not just save the world.

The story itself was great, however, the beginning of “Boundaries” lacked the energy that the ending had. By the time The Master and Fenice reached home within bounds, the story really took off, bringing it to a very exciting climax. While this adventure was fantastic evidence for the Master to prove his innocence, the story instead felt like the Master was blocking his judgment of the Vectors.

Chapter 4: The Last Line

The Vectors are no longer impressed with the evidence provided by the Master, however, he was given a witness to help prove that he is not completely irredeemable. Yet who would ever come to the defense of the Master? Cue the return of david holdingwho arrives in the middle of a mess already in motion.

10th Doctor David Tennant
David Tennant in Doctor Who (BBC)

The Doctor is asked to speak on behalf of the Master and ultimately the Master’s life. This provides an interesting dilemma for The Doctor. On the one hand, he could tell the truth and rid the world of Master once and for all. By doing so, he could potentially save countless lives from the Master’s evil plans. However, at this point in the Doctor’s history, the only other Gallifreyian he possesses is the Master.

Caught between what seems good for the world and himself, the Doctor embarks on his own journey, to save the Master of Vectors. The heart of this story is that of the ever spiraling dynamic between the Master and the Doctor; two individuals united by fate. Hearing these two iconic voices together was a treat for NuWho fans, which was one of the reasons I was so drawn to reviewing this set.

A disadvantage of The Last Line is that tennant is an incredibly quick talker and with most of the lines sounding right to him, it was hard to catch everything he had to say on the first try. It doesn’t help that there is a lot of scientific terminology mixed up. Although on the second listen I was able to catch most of what was being said.

General impressions of The Warmaster: Self-Defense

The Warmaster: Self-Defense is a good set if you’re looking for an entry into a new part of the Whoniverse. The whole set has the essence of Doctor Who everywhere, however, offers a more intimate look at the Doctor’s greatest enemy.

Derek Jacobi is truly excellent in every story, bringing humor and levity as well as the dark and sinister side that fans know from The Master. As my first entry into the world of Big Finish audio dramas, I was pleasantly surprised by the adventures Self-defense took me, allowing me to absorb more Doctor Who in my life.

The Warmaster: Self-Defense is currently available from Great finish! Have you ever listened to it? Let us know what you thought Twitter! Discover our latest Doctor Who review of The Legend of the Sea Devils!

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