THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
Master

Written by Joseph Lidster Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2003
Continuity After Survival.

Starring Sylvester McCoy.
Also featuring Geoffrey Beevers, Philip Madoc, ? Anne Ridler, Charlie Hayes, Daniel Barzotti

Synopsis: Many years ago, on a dark and stormy night, the disfigured and enigmatic Doctor John Smith invited his closest friends, Inspector Victor Schaeffer and his wife, Jacqueline, to a dinner to celebrate his birthday. A few hours later all the occupants in that house had been changed.


Reviews

Black is Back by Andrew Wixon 27/11/03

I wonder exactly when fandom stopped loving to hate the Master, and just started making fun of him. This presupposes, of course, that we ever liked him, and that we currently don't, but I think both assumptions are fairly accurate. Certainly back in the 80s there wasn't anything like the degree of serious Master-bashing that was common a few years ago, and the simple fact is that the character hasn't had anything like the exposure one would expect for the Doctor's most frequent opponent, especially since he's bereft of the copyright issues bedevilling use of (most obviously) the Daleks. Probably best to blame Eric Roberts...

If, until recently, you were to ask me why I didn't really care much for the Master, I'd've given the usual answer - you know, the one about him being a silly black-clad moustache-twirling cartoon, utterly lacking in depth and motivation and in no way a credible foe for the Doctor. When the series grew up, in a manner of speaking, in the novels and other late-80s and 90s stories, we all suddenly woke up to this. Also to the fact that the Doctor doesn't strictly speaking need an arch-enemy of this ilk. Does he?

You will have spotted an 'until recently' buried in the florid text of the previous paragraph, and the very location of this review may well tip you off to a few things. But first of all let me say that I approached BF's Master with a good deal of apprehension - partly because, well, it was about the Master, who's a black-clad moustache-twirling etc etc, and partly cos it was by Joseph Lidster, author of the bizarre but ultimately underwhelming Rapture.

Well, this play is far superior, though in its own way equally off the wall. Broadly speaking it's a gothic melodrama, a genuine 'it was a dark and stormy night' tale of lurking evil and strange faces at the window. It's also one of those stories that changes gear radically from episode to episode - the first is quite innocuous and genteel, with the Doctor only narrating, while the second is very talky, though very engagingly so. The latter pair are different again. As surely everyone knows by now, this is the story of the horribly scarred 'John Smith', a brilliant surgeon with amnesia, who gathers his closest friends at his home to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his being discovered wandering the town. We, of course, know who he really is, and we're also pretty sure his memory will come back before episode four is out - the questions are, when and why?

The rather simplistic characterisation and motivations that afflicted >Rapture reappear here, but much more agreeably. The whole issue of the motives of evil-doers, and the Master's apparent lack of any such motive, is crucial to the play and gets a lot of discussion. It soon becomes apparent that this is an attempt to 'fix' the Master and come up with an explanation for exactly why he does the pointless things he does.

And it works! Admittedly it entails some extremely abstract plotting in the closing stages, a possibly-controversial insight into the shared childhood of the Doctor and his old friend, and another villain who's almost entirely metaphorical in nature (shades of Auld Mortality), but it works. Some may consider this reboot of the Master a bit too Cartmel/NA-ish in nature, others may think it long overdue (both are probably true). But it's hard to gripe too loudly at such an obviously-painstaking attempt to rethink a rather tarnished icon of the series, especially when it's acted with the skill that Sylvester McCoy and Geoffrey Beevers display here. For the first time one can truly believe these two characters were once close friends.

It's too early to say whether this new take on the Master and his place in the wider mythology of the series will, er, take or not. But even if it doesn't, this is a highly impressive attempt to rehabilitate the character for a new century. BF want us to love to hate him again - and if his next few appearances keep up this level of quality, I strongly suspect we will.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 2/12/03

The brilliant idea that is central to this drama by Big Finish is this: The Master has lost his memory, and is a cherished member of an isolated community steeped in Edwardian values. He's calling himself Doctor John Smith, in a wonderful twist on the usual recipient of that name. He's holding a get together with his best friends, the Schaeffers, at his old house (complete with curse) he inherited. Thus the Master is one of us, with memory loss and shrivelled features, and the Doctor pays him a call.

The wonderful isolated old house setting makes this memorable from the word go. I am a massive fan of old houses, and the stories that horror and fantasy writers can weave around them. This is another such story, and it's dominated throughout by supreme eerieness. The opening episode sets the scene with the Schaeffers, maid and Master of the house. You know who this houseowner really is (it says it on the tin), but he doesn't. What are the voices in his head? When will the Doctor appear, bringing with him a wealth of knowledge about who Dr John Smith really is? Why has the Master ended up like this? Why is the Doctor there? Surely he doesn't want the old Master back?

As the drama unfolds, there is plenty of 2-way confrontation between the Doctor and the Master. Sylvester McCoy and Geoffrey Beevers (Ainley never would have been this good) are up to this wordy piece, and their interplay is brilliant. Also of note are the other characters, in particular Philip Madoc, who is excellent as Adjudicator Schaeffer, disturbed by the murders in his community. The whole drama feels in places like a stage production - which it could very easily be adapted to. The small cast thrive off each other's personalities - and the whole ensemble dazzles at times.

There's plenty to shock in this play, with more horrific images than I can ever recall in Doctor Who. The nature of the Ripper-style murders are particularly graphically portrayed. There's an air of nastiness throughout, particularly when the nature of evil itself is discussed. When explanations are forthcoming of the Master's state, a lengthy final episode is needed to close the whole business off. When a story has built up so much atmosphere and presented such great characters, it is marvelous we get to spend a little longer with them at the end. There have been times when I have questioned Big Finish's policy on episode length - very much so when two episodes are merged into one - but when extra length means getting more of a great thing, then I am all in favour of it.

I have mentioned the performances of the two leads already in this review, but McCoy's role specifically needs emphasizing. His New Adventure persona definitely went darker. I didn't care for a lot of those books, because the 7th Dr was too much on the sidelines, manipulating events within. Here, in this drama, we have this NA Doctor in evidence - but there is no sidelining of the main character. Sylvester McCoy is absolutely brilliant here, and presents this eerieness and darkness in a most effective manner. The revelations about his past don't sit comfortably, but they are mighty interesting all the same. He has most definitely come of age as an audio Doctor now (following his brilliant turn in Project: Lazarus).

Credit also must go to the writer. Joseph Lidster gives us a very effective thriller, with the nature of evil at its very heart. The tagline from some old film kept coming into my mind as I listened. "Who knows what evil lurks within the heart of man?" - it's entirely appropriate for this drama. I suspected Lidster had great writing ability after The Rapture. The Ibiza rave culture at the core of that play took it right down the polls - but the story and writing itself were pretty good. The supreme character writing, the startling imagery and the treatise on evil - should put this higher up the polls.

All in all I would say that Master is the best of these recent villain plays that Big Finish have produced, by quite a long way too. It also stands as one of the best of the whole anniversary year. Geoffrey Beevers has built on his superb performance in Dust Breeding, and is now well and truly the Master. 9/10


Madness by Joe Ford 3/1/04

"We apologise for the interruption of this programme but the news we have to impart is of such magnitude it cannot wait... Sylvester McCoy has appeared in a Big Finish where he doesn't stink! Astounding! Please enjoy the rest of your programme..."

There are three problems I had to overcome before I got to the good stuff in Master. Unfortunately they are all HUGE and inescapable problems, which leave the CD in a much worse place than I fear it should have been.

The first episode is the most boring thing I have ever put myself through and I've sat through the first two Lord of the Rings films. I kid you not, this half an hour felt as though it would go on for an eternity. Imagine if this was the first episode of the new series? The ratings would plummet! Its all harmless stuff, two old friends visit their chum John Smith and have dinner and then a man screams. That's about it. Not exactly a thrill ride huh? It doesn't help that the characters are stereotypical and worse, Unlikable. I actually fell asleep during the first episode and I was sitting at work! It has taken me so long to write this review because I feared returning to the story saving it for a night when I was really having trouble sleeping. Fortunately things do improve...

But once you've vaulted over that hurdle you have the matter of the amount of cliches writer Joseph Lidster (who's pretty cute it must be said) stuffs into his story. On the surface it is just the plot details that are old chestnuts, the haunted house, the murder mystery, the guests all having something to hide... but then you go beneath the surface and realise that Lidster is doing a Silver Nemesis on us! Nicking ideas from the preceding stories! You have the Master going through an emotional crisis just as Omega did in, surprisingly, Omega. All the characters flowering into something quite different to how they started just like in Omega as well! And the 'is the Master good' was just done in Davros when we were questioning his motives! But worse than that there are blatant steals from other sources, the end of episode three is exactly the same as the cliff-hanger to Phantasmagoria episode three with the maid turning out to be... well not what you expected her to be. But worst of all is the plagiarising from the BBC books; the Master has spent the last ten years on Earth amnesiac... hmm sounds not unlike a certain Victorian dandy I know of! While this is all a matter of timing, all these other works just happening to come out before Master you can't help think that Lidster was influenced by these things.

Gary Russell. O h d e a r. Will somebody please reign this guy in? How many of the audios has he directed this year? Fifteen? Twenty? Has Big Finish got a director crisis on at the moment or is Russell simply not allowing anyone else to do any work, either way this is still another atrociously directed piece. People have been questioning whether you can actually call an audio a 'directed' story and my answer was to take The Chimes of Midnight and He Jests at Scars and to tell me if one of these was better 'directed'. At points in Master I think Russell may have actually fallen asleep, the plodding first episode is lacking in even the most basic of competent sound FX, terrible music, long padded introductory scenes and no kind of momentum at all. Episode two is even worse, considering the intimate nature of the episode I can understand Russell leaving most of the work to the actors but there is practically nothing, and I mean NOTHING to this episode but Beevers and McCoy talking. Gary could have taken a lunch break and left them to it with the microphone for all the direction this episode has. He chooses an embarrassing cartoonish voice for 'Death' which completely ruins any sense of menace and the levels of hysteria he allows the actors to reach is astonishing. Frankly like much of Big Finish's work this year there is a distinct lack of discipline involved. This isn't a personal attack on Gary who has proven himself to be a fine director at other tangents but his work of late has lacked even basic proficiency and I feel maybe the guy is taking far too much on.

All of this is a shame because at the heart of Master there is a brilliant idea struggling to get out. What Joseph Lidster has managed to achieve is nothing short of incredible, he has managed to make the Master an interesting character, a description I never thought I would allocate the pantomime villain, and reinforce and prove that he and the Doctor really were old friends before they were enemies. The central premise, can the Doctor kill the Master, is fascinating and great to watch unfold. As the story progresses and we are privy to conversations between the two old friends that border on the intimate. It is about time that we discovered why the Master hangs around the universe causing all sorts of mayhem and just what his first step on the road to hell was. These questions are both answered well and a genuine and honest history is built between them. For these revelations to crop up so late in both characters' stories is astonishing but it never feels forced just that other matters have stopped it from spilling out before. It is wonderful to think that the Doctor would do a deal with Death just to give his old friend ten years of peace and it is heartbreaking when he realises there is nothing to stop him regressing into his homicidal persona.

This is the seventh Doctor at his all time best, desperate, angry and scary. Its very much the 'New Adventures' Doctor with a dash of poignancy thrown in, that same melancholic, peaceful man who was reading The Time Machine in the TV Movie. It is such a far cry from those pathetic performances McCoy has been given recently I cannot reconcile they are the same man who appears in Master. McCoy dominates the story without ever resorting to scene stealing or theatrics, he uses his voice to full effect providing some very disturbing scenes. This man can be damn sinister when he tries and his commited, thoughtful performance here proves that McCoy can be (and occasionally is) a bloody good Doctor. As my dear old mate Rob Matthews once said to me when McCoy is bad, he's really bad but when he's on a roll...

Geoffrey Beevers provides excellent support as the Master (or John, who he plays for most of the story). Frankly John is much more interesting than the Master because of his memory loss, we know who he was and what he is capable of and seeing what a lovely chap he is now is cruel. Will he become totally evil again? What will he do when he discovers his mysterious past? It's all very tragic and cleverly played by Beevers so we see hints of the Master all the time, well aware that he could leap out of the John persona at any time. The slips into his old persona are shocking and scary, much, much scarier than Delgado or Ainley ever were. His voice has a soft touch to it that makes the snarling threats seem that bit more frightening.

Together McCoy and Beevers hold up the event-less episode two, an entirely two-handed episode that proves a dramatic upswing (in terms of writing) from the first instalment. There is a moment where John tells the Doctor of a birth he doctored and as he held the new born baby in his hands he was tempted to smash it to the ground which is a terrifying, one of several genuinely adult moments Lidster scatters amongst the childish stuff. The conversations about evil border on the melodramatic but do get their point across well; does an evil man have to have any motive to kill? Can a man be born evil; is it a case of nature or nurture? Interesting questions like this pervade this tightly written half hour.

But then things go all stupid again as the extraneous character reveal their true motives and it's cliches all the way again. Of course it was the maid! As soon as she appeared, all sweetness and light amongst all these horrid posh nobs it had to be the least likely, didn't it? Following this 'revelation' and it is easy to spot the pattern in the twists, the policeman is killing the girls and the Master, who everyone suspects all along, is entirely innocent. Except for killing trillions of people in the universe that is. Oh and the biggest shock comes with the Doctor... but I couldn't possibly spoil that one. If you don't guess it at the beginning of episode four I will have to question your intelligence.

But the worst crime this CD commits is its inclusion of Death, a character who has been popping up more and more of late. Compared to Camera Obscura's chilling, nightmarish portrayal this is a bitter disappointment. When the Doctor begs for the Master to remain as John she just shrugs and says "okay". It's quite nice that the Doctor would do a deal with the devil to see his friend safe but it leaves the question lingering to why Death would want to grant such a gift? Especially since it could mean the death of one of her best agents. Even more inappropriately Death spouts out verbal tripe as her native language, lame threats and taunts making up most of her dialogue. She doesn't really do anything truly evil and including such a character in the play... well surely that was the point, wasn't it?

Still the CD is framed by an ingenious device, the Doctor telling the story to a gun man which leads to a genuine surprise in the last few minutes. Each episode opens nicely with the Doctor and gunman pointing out the story's faults (hmm, maybe you shouldn't be drawing these to our attention Joseph!). But at least the story is left at an intruging point, the Doctor vowing to get his friend back from the claws of Death and now we know how close they can be I can UNDERSTAND why he will pursue this course. That is Master's greatest success, opening a series of new stories for the Master with the added bonus of some lingering threads.

It's such an uneven story though, occasionally brilliant but far too often banal to be anywhere near satisfying. It is a good sign for McCoy, giving such a powerful performance but aside from that (and some interesting back story) I cannot recommend this at all. The writer is a little out of control, the director is asleep and the script editor (is there one?) did a worse job on this than Lidster's The Rapture. On the whole, disappointing.


Who's the real villian here? by Jamas Enright 1/8/04

The set of villain audios have had as their central idea the theme of a character piece telling us about how the villains came to be villainous. We already seen/heard to some extent how Omega and Davros came to be the way they were, but the Master has never been presented as anything other than someone diametrically opposed to the Doctor's own ethos.

But that's what made him great. The Delgado Master was someone that you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley in the middle of the night, but he was so suave about it that we wouldn't have minded him putting us out of his way. The Ainley Master was somewhat less subtle in his performance, but once you got past the obligatory stupid disguise he again exuded power and had this fascinating history with the Doctor. The Beevers Master hasn't had much of a chance to shine, but, mainly from Dust Breeding, you get the impression that this is the Master that really enjoys being nasty.

And, I have to say, this is what I wanted in a Master story. The Master being the Master being nasty. This, however, isn't what we get. We get a story about the Master, but, unlike the previous two stories, not featuring the Master. What we get is Doctor John Smith, a good man, and his friends. (This is all in the promotional material and basic set-up of episode one, so I'm not giving anything away.)

As I concept, I like this. What if the Doctor found the Master as someone who was good? It sets up a brilliant ethical crisis for the Doctor, and should give us the chance to see the Master in action as the brilliant force for good we sometimes saw flashes of in the TV stories. Unfortunately, what we get is endless diatribes about what it is to be evil, and complex internal motivations about evil acts. And the worst part is, when we finally find out why the Master is the way he is (which only takes about ten minutes!), it isn't because a) he's evil or b) complex internal motivations! (And I'd like to rant more about that, but I can't because of the excessive spoilers that would entail.)

(Ultimately, I think I would have liked to see more of Geoffrey Beevers as the Master proper, rather than a re-evaluation of the Master as a whole, which I would have found more acceptable after some more Beevers Master audios.)

Right, leaving aside the story, let's turn to the performances. This is, I think, one of Sylvester McCoy's most over-the-top performances as the Doctor (and at the point of me writing this review, I've heard him play Uncle Winkie!), from his screaming introduction in the story proper to his excessive hyper-interest in trying to help John. The best parts of his performance are when he's playing more subdued when talking to the sniper.

Geoffrey Beevers is, of course, not the Master, which, as I say above, might have meant more if we'd seen him being the Master more. Still, he turns in a great performance as someone who wants to find out who he is, but doesn't like the answers. Philip Madoc, veteran Doctor Who TV actor, voices Victor Schaeffer, at times passionate, at times almost insane. Anne Ridler voiced Jacqueline Schaeffer, but I kept thinking of another actress (whose name completely escapes at the moment) whenever I heard her voice. Similarly, I kept thinking of Charlie Hayes, who plays Jade, as Hannah Gordon. Ah, the limitations of audios without the visual cues to make people distinct.

Production-wise, not bad. The voice treatment of Death is a little annoying, but still perfectly understandable, which is better than can be said of other voice treatments. The episode lengths are a little uneven, which is an odd thing to point out given that the shortest episode is standard episode length, the others being much longer, so we get lots of play for just one story.

End of the day, it's not really the play I wanted, and not really a play that I think lives up to the concept behind it, but there're still some great performances to enjoy for all that.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 4/10/04

Master is an effective ghost story, incorporating a fair share of horror and drama in equal measures along the way. As storylines go Master has all of these in spades and is arguably one of the most enjoyable Seventh Doctor Big Finish audios. This is thanks in so small part to Joseph Lidster`s script - in fact the only major criticism to be levelled at the story is the fact that the Master for so long goes under the guise of John Smith, suffereing as he does from amnesia. It is in the cast where the story really comes to life however, Sylvester McCoy`s Doctor is portrayed somewhat tragically, facing insurmountable odds.

Geoffrey Beevers is also excellent,his take on the Master being perfect (vocally) for audio, as Doctor John Smith,he is more muted but nevertheless enjoyable. Similarly Philip Madoc (who is sidelined for too much of the tale) and Anne Ridler (who needs screaming lessons), but it is the part of Jade; timid as the maid one moment, and a formidable foe in Death as portrayed by Charlie Hayes which really stands out.

Master also contradicts the events of The Dark Path, as an explanation for his origins is offered here and similarly too much of the play feels overlong and stagey in many scenes. This asides, Master whilst not necessarily ambitious is certainly atmospheric.


A Review by John Seavey 31/10/05

I'd already read the script for Master in The Audio Scripts, Volume 4, but I can only assume that I'd skimmed over parts of it without realizing as a form of psychological self-defense. When I listened to it, not being able to skip the dull bits, I found it the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture. Listen to the bit in part one, where Smith's best friend tells the woman who's been working for him for years his entire personal history, then an episode later Smith himself tells it to the Doctor again. There's nobody in that story who doesn't know everything about each other -- the exposition scenes are all purely for the audience's benefit and show it with every screamingly bad line. And they're repeated several times, too -- there's at least two, possibly three descriptions of the murdered prostitutes (that only have a tangential relation to the plot), there are several repetitions of every single character's background, it's as though Lidster thinks his audience has some bizarre memory disorder which causes us to forget everything every fifteen minutes. (Actually, it's as though he realized very early on that he didn't have nearly enough plot for a two-hour audio, but that's just because that's what actually happened.)

Which brings me to the padding, oh dear GOD the padding! If you were to clip out every time Smith says, "I'm evil, I'm fated to be evil," you could lose an entire episode. If you then cut out Lidster's cod psycho-babble on the nature of evil, which has all the depth of a half-remembered high school philosophy lecture as dictated by a profoundly stoned chimp, you'd lose another, and if you then proceeded to cut the endless, laborious set-up where characters tell each other things they already know, you'd have...well, you'd have the first fifteen-minute Big Finish audio. And that fifteen minutes would be shite too, because that's the fifteen minutes where we find out that as a teenager, the Doctor was a murderer who sold his best friend down the river into an eternity of bleak murderous despair. And that once you kill someone, anyone, for any reason, you're fated to keep killing endlessly and motivelessly as the soulless pawn of an evil Cosmic Power, because guilt over killing makes you a killer.

There's a certain minimal interest to the basic idea in the hands of even the most incompetent writer -- if you remove the memories of a villain, will he still be villainous once you return them? But the problem is, Lidster attempts to prove this by taking the basic idea and being the most incompetent writer to ever handle it.


Not the Master by Charles Phipps 5/6/07

This is a work that's difficult to review for me because it's a masterfully (no pun intended) produced drama that manages to be a great deal about nothing. A lot of my enjoyment was ruined by the fact of my own pre-existing prejudices towards the decisions that the creators chose to make. Is it really fair for me to judge a work by those standards? Normally, I'd say no but when you produce a work with the title of The Master then you darn well can expect that your work is meant to be judged by whether or not you told a good tale about the character. After the wonderful Omega and Davros stories I'd purchased, this was a huge disappointment.

The first problem is the fact that the work is not about the Master. It's about John Smith the artificial persona that was created by the Master while he has amnesia. Now, this could have been used to discuss the nature of the Master's evil and there's definite hope for that in the first two episodes. Instead, the implications are that this is an entirely artificial being that in no way reflects what the character really would have been like had he lost his memories. Plus, there's several rather horrible assumptions that are made by the drama writers that utterly ruin the piece.

Chief amongst those assumptions is the idea that the Master is a motiveless killer and evil-doer. It's a central plot premise that the Doctor doesn't know why his old friend turned into the monster he did. The problem is that he's never hidden his motivations. The Master wants power, to amuse himself, and to live forever. These are pretty fundamental human desires. While he commits several ghastly murders in his various serials, the majority of them are motivated by very clear desires that others just happen to be in the way of. Once you realize this, the audio dramas reaction of the Doctor and the character of Death is just silly. Why is the Master evil? All the television series tend to agree that he's a bad and selfish person that has the intelligence to satisfy his worst impulses while avoiding punishment. It works for many real world leaders, it works for the Master.

The worst part of this story is the fact that the Master is reduced to a pawn. It's bad enough when the Daleks are reduced to being Davros' henchmen. However, when you have a character like the Master then its especially nightmarish to have them no longer in charge of their own destiny. The Master spends this entire audio drama as the helpless victim of both Death and the Doctor's machinations. There's a brief moment when he shines about what his motivation is but he's promptly shut up by Death. The real Master would never submit to the indignity of being slave to any being, godlike power or not. Thus, the chief purpose of the audio drama fell completely flat for me.

The acting in this work is still very superior. Sylvester McCoy puts everything into his performance as he's the only one with full knowledge of what's going on. The character of Death is portrayed too much as an omnipotent schoolgirl and this isn't Neil Gaiman, so it doesn't work. Geoffrey Beevers does an awesome Master voice if nothing else and it's sufficiently creepy to carry many scenes that should have failed on pure logic.


Everything becomes clear... by Thomas Cookson 4/1/08

I think the reason I'm such a big upper of Big Finish is that they seem to have the very mission statements that speak to me as a fan. I think Dalek Empire appeals to me because I'm a Dalek fan first, and a Doctor Who fan second. I'm also fond of their ideal of making Doctor Who as something solid, mature and hardcore in ways that the old series often wasn't (with perhaps the exception of Mind of Evil and Warriors' Gate). Indeed it's nice that in a way Big Finish have got to the point where revisionist origin stories like Spare Parts and Davros mean that it's probably possible to listen to the audio range without ever needing to watch any of the TV series.

But Big Finish's main mission statement seems to be about revisionism of the 80's era, almost as if retrogressively trying to put the show back on the right track. Gary Russell, who set up the Audio Visual group in the 80's, says that he did it as an alternative to the below-par stories that were on TV at the time, which he is quite frank in his opinion of. And whatever the concerns were about the problems of the 80's, whether it was the corruption of the Doctor's morals during the Colin Baker era, or conversely the emancipation of him during the Davison era, the lethargy or indulgence of stories and absence of plots, or the overuse of Davros to the detriment of the Daleks, Big Finish always aims to be worthy and make reparations for those past mistakes.

I, of course, am not a fan of the 80's era. I think the era was marked by the worst kind of judgement and in regards to Seasons 21 and 22, a complete contempt for the lead character and his morality. I also think that it was the beginnings of the kind of nerdishness that turned Doctor Who into an all consuming, all cannibalising, bloated monster.

But I think Big Finish have done a wonderful job in salvaging from the mess of that era. The Doctor in the audios may be strictly constrained to the fan-dogma role of a pascifist, but in an audio format he is able to display heroism through words and intelligence instead and be every bit as strong and formidable as the Doctor used to be. As I've often said, I think Dalek Empire was the Saward era done right, even when it got tired. I think that Lance Parkin's Davros and Joseph Lidster's Terror Firma had really drawn something very important from what was once a redundant, overstretched conflict against a character who otherwise should have always just been a one off. I also feel that had Lance Parkin and Joseph Lidster had been able to write Destiny of the Daleks, they could have made all the ludicrous cock and bull surrounding Davros' resurrection and his undeterred allegiance to the Daleks into something actually believable.

The thing is that Joseph Lidster actually seems to rather like the 80's era. His CD liner notes often express fond nostalgia for the Sixth Doctor and Peri dynamic, as well as the Ainley Master, and his stories quite liberally drop many continuity references to 80's stories. And this is no exception.

"Except you don't do that anymore do you Doctor. Don't play your spoons. Don't mix your metaphors. Don't have fun. Too busy destroying planets. Tidying up your previous mistakes."

I must say that I didn't really pick this up for the sake of the Master, but because of Joseph Lidster penning it, since he wrote Terror Firma which completely blew me away.

It has been said by some critics that Joseph Lidster's work exhibits some of the same problems as the 80's stories. Namely a focus on empty shock value a la Vengeance on Varos, to disguise the fact that the Doctor doesn't actually have to do much to defeat the already pretty beat up enemy. I'd say it was an issue in The Reaping, but it isn't quite the case here. This is one of those stories where the force the Doctor is up against is far too powerful for him to fight. In fact, all he can do is try to appease it, and so it's a story where the Doctor loses.

There are big surprises afoot as well, but I think they're pretty important in the grand scheme of things.

The Master has been sparingly used by Big Finish, only appearing here, in Dust Breeding and non canonically in Unbound: Sympathy for the Devil, which, to be fair, can only be a good thing. I've always maintained that the Master would have been far better for having the fat of his stories removed, ideally so that his stories ran as Terror of the Autons, The Mind of Evil, The Daemons, The Sea Devils, Frontier in Space, The Deadly Assassin, The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, The Five Doctors and Survival. And yet, this story does something that the show has forever neglected to do with the Master, by getting inside his head and explaining why he does what he does. It's probably up there with Spare Parts, in explaining the Cybermen's origins, The Apocalypse Element, in having the Daleks invade Gallifrey, and Dalek Empire, in showing what the Daleks get up to on the Doctor's days off as one of those stories that seems so obvious its a wonder they never did it before.

Of course, some of those above examples ended up showing how unsatisfying such stories could be and why it was maybe for the best that they never made it to screen. The Apocalypse Element was pretty much just sound and fury, Dalek Empire as a spinoff very nearly outclassed its parent series but after the first two series it got prolonged to the point of apathy and revealed the worst nightmares of how quickly a Dalek spin-off would get samey and pointless. Spare Parts, however, was the big surprise for me, given that since it was an inherently predeterminist plot I was expecting a predictable Genesis knock-off, but it defied my expectations and gained pride of place on my top five audios list. In fact, after listening to it, I wouldn't look twice at The Age of Steel again. And this is likewise a story well worth telling.

The story approaches the idea that the Master is a man possessed by an evil spirit that compells him to kill without reason. And this is one problem with the 80's nostalgia, for whilst the psychopathic-spree-killer interpretation works for Anthony Ainley's Master, particularly in Logopolis, it doesn't fit so well with Roger Delgado's Master. The older form of the Master was very methodical and restrained, and murderous only when he felt it necessary. Indeed in Colony in Space, he has noble aims to bring peace through total subjugation. Then again, that was from Malcolm Hulke who tended not to deal in purely evil bad guys.

So I'm not sure I can really reconcile this Master with the Master as I knew him in the TV series; or, to put it another way, it's not something that fits neatly and I don't quite get a sense of this being a proper inhabitation of the Master that I know. But I suppose that's the problem with characterising a villain who's inherently shallow. I can believe it, but it takes effort from my end.

I mean, there's nothing wrong with the basic format of the story. McCoy's Doctor was the best foil for the Master, next to Pertwee. Pertwee had that kind of contrast with Delgado, but they both had a sense of being unrelenting champions in the gentleman's duel between them (and if the Master really had turned out to be the Doctor's Hyde-side in Planet of the Spiders, it would have been an appropriate full circle of the doppelganger theme in Inferno). Sylvester's Doctor and the Master however really felt like they were flipsides of the same coin. Both dark and suspect and manipulative, with an eye on making the cosmos work to their will. This especially plays on that "two sides of the same coin" theme in its origins tale of a kindred friendship from childhood, and it goes one even better and has the Master share a mirrored life of the Doctor's human existence in Human Nature.

But what we learn in that surprise twist about the Master's relationship with both the Doctor and his own demons is actually something very crucial. In fact, I am very saddened that it never made it to screen because it could have salvaged so much from the dreck of the 80's stories. When we learn that the Master has been preserved as a device of death by the evil spirit, suddenly it makes perfect sense how the Master could come back from the dead after being burned to a cinder in Planet of Fire. Likewise the Doctor's guilt explains why he could never kill off the Master even after Logopolis' attrocities, despite how the Doctor made no such concessions to Solon or Shockeye.

Indeed, it explains the Fifth Doctor's often neurotic instinct for ineffectual pascifism, and conversely the Sixth Doctor's violent mania, and the hints that one day the Doctor may fall under the thumb of the same evil entity and become the Valeyard. It may jade the idealism of Doctor Who to suggest that the Doctor's heroic actions are borne out of guilt rather than altruism, and that the Doctor, the man who is always harping on about the thoughtless violence of humans, is actually the biggest hypocrite of them all, but I quite like it. Indeed it's probably the bravest reinterpretation of the Doctor to come out of Big Finish.

Again, it's a shame this couldn't have made it to screen and had official canonicity, because suddenly it seems like the aimless mess and daft publicity stunts of the 80's era could have gone somewhere after all, that the show could have made sense out of its back catalogue of nonsense, and that this would have been the great payoff to it all.

I've always said that there was a missed oppurtunity in the Graham Williams era to involve the Master and reinterpret him as an agent of the Black Guardian. This of course takes the oppurtunity to do something similar in the gods and demigods galore environment of the McCoy era.

It's not what I'd consider a standalone. Just like Davros, it's a little prologue to a greater story with some belated introspection that reveals secrets we didn't know and weren't expecting. It feels cut short, it feels fragmented, and it doesn't really feel solid or self-contained, but like the best of Joseph Lidster's stories it always has intrigue.

I suppose the best compare and contrast exercise would be with Creatures of Beauty. That is also a story in which the question is asked over whether the Doctor's interference ever does more harm than good. A story in which guilt plays a major part in character motivation, and not in the nasty sensationalist way of the Saward era of having the Doctor do or permit violent acts, for no other reason than simply as an excuse to act melodramatically guilty about it afterwards (the 80's era was big on guilt because it was such a reactionary and vindictive decade as a whole). It's more humanistic, being about how guilt gives people an impetus to help others and make amends, even at the cost of their own life. Come to think of it, Creatures of Beauty also had a brutal policeman character and revolved around the dark secrets of a rich estate.

The thing is that Creatures of Beauty skillfully avoids oververbalising its themes and issues in a way that Master doesn't. Master is all about how moral judgements lead us onto the path of violence and cruelty and how people are affected for the worse by contact with evil. Creatures of Beauty has an all-encompassing sense of mood, which Nicholas Briggs is very good at: merging the thematic, literate and aesthetic into a cohesive poetry, describing a visual picture that brings me to tears of a sky polluted by a fuel slick, as if it were ink spilled on a painting. Stories like Inferno, Genesis of the Daleks and Mindwarp had a similar nightmarish atmosphere with alien-coloured skies, doppelgangers, a condensed metaphor of all the worst periods of human history brought into one battlefield at one time and savage, mutated abominations and pure evil that made you feel like you were in hell itself, with the Doctor failing to save the day completing the sense of being in a different universe with different laws.

Creatures of Beauty had something really similar to Inferno in that our driving force was with the Doctor, because, like him, we were desperate to escape this world. From the moment we witness the first suicide, the world of Creatures of Beauty really is a respresentation of depression, where everything is an interrogation of scientological proportions, everything is colourless and there's no beauty in anything, and it's as if this misery would become contagious to the Doctor and Nyssa if they stayed a moment longer.

In a similar way, the landscape of Master is a representation of the Master himself. It's an environment of etiquette and socialite witticisms, but there's a dark underbelly of hatred and sadism to it all representing the Master's repressed homicidal impulses. But then again that is typical of Big Finish's rather suburban view. Even the alien planets in Big Finish tend to be on the lush galactic outskirts. Much of Big Finish is very much based on the middle class, socialist, eco-friendly, feminist, humanist outlook, and I'd say that this is the main difference between audio Doctor Who and the new TV series. The TV series is very much working class, maybe that's why the new series strikes me as petty, vindictive lynch-mob TV in the same vein as Jeremy Kyle.

In regards to Creatures of Beauty's mood, this is quite the opposite. Instead of being an outgoing, surround-sound, vast cinematic experience like many of Big Finish's releases, this, like The Holy Terror, is more within the constraints of televised theatre. Instead of being an insideous, hellish environment, this is actually a very inviting story. This new human and reformed Master is someone you'd really like to share company with, and he and Sylvester McCoy have a wonderful warm chemistry and repartee. But some of it can't escape seeming scripted and some of its philanthropic agenda is really laid too thick to be believable as proper dialogue.

It's strange, because in Terror Firma, such flaws had been ironed out. The dialogue of Terror Firma was very authentic. Case in point: the scene where Charley was trying to talk Samson out of committing suicide really does sound like someone desperately trying to think on the spot of ways to talk someone out of jumping and trying every cliche at once. Likewise Terror Firma was an extremely fluid story, but this one is anything but. It's clunky and, in terms of twists and revelations, it jumps the gun various times in the wrong sequence.

But, still, it's got such strong and sensitive material performed wonderfully. And of course I would be remiss if I didn't mention the scene where the Doctor prepares to kill the Master. In a way its outcome is predictable, just like in Resurrection of the Daleks. And yet not, because Sylvester McCoy's Doctor is the kind of Doctor who might actually do it. But just like in Resurrection of the Daleks, the Doctor knows it'd be the right thing to do, considering the atrocities he'd be preventing, but he still chickens out. Crucially, what the scene represents is the hardened Doctor who has lived several lifetimes mired in cynicism and destruction and grown in stature with every conquest of his enemies, brought back to his childhood by this experience and retreating in guilt.

It's ironic that the Master was so overused in the old series, but Big Finish has been careful and sparing with him, using him to great effect here and in Dust Breeding. Unfortunately, as for the rest, Spare Parts aside, the Cybermen have largely been in mediocre audios like Sword of Orion, The Reaping and even their spinoff wasn't much cop. The Daleks have been hit and miss, and their early releases had been very patchy and I'm not a fan of Jubilee as a story and certainly not as a Dalek story because to me it debunked them. Blood of the Daleks was bloody good though and portrayed the Dalek civil war with such horror and pathos that it really showed up how soulless and nasty Doomsday's Dalek/Cyberman feud was by comparison. Dalek Empire was an astonishing masterpiece series until it made the mistake of doing an uninspired third series which ultimately showed that it was carrying on aimlessly when it should have ended in series 2.

Speaking of which, the final word on Master is an ambiguous one, and would leave open the hope of redemption for the Master, except that we already know what will happen next for him from watching the TV movie. But I really would have liked this to have been the final word on the Master, the same way that Dalek Empire III's ending would only be worthy if it plausibly lead to the possibility against the odds of evolution and redemption for the Daleks, and was the last word on them. Damn that New Series for ruining that!

Despite the claims of DWM's Seventh Doctor special, this didn't move me to tears, and I'm not a hard man. Dalek Empire, Spare Parts and Creatures of Beauty have all made me sob, but it did endear me to a previously irredemable and one-dimensional character, and I do enjoy replaying it, and I so wish it had made it to screen because it would have been the perfect deadwood remover.


A Gripping Drama by Matthew Kresal 1/6/09

The Master is the archenemy of the Doctor who, since 1971's Terror Of The Autons, has faced the Doctor time and again with one evil scheme after another that never succeeds. Yet, unlike the Daleks or the Cybermen, we have never really seen what makes this villain tick - except once in the novel The Dark Path. Then there is this Big Finish story which is also the last of the so-called "villain trilogy" (following the rather excellent stories Omega and Davros). Master takes us to an old house, a group of people who are not what they seem and we learn what makes both the Master and even the Doctor tick.

A Doctor Who story is often only as good as its Doctor. Master has Sylvester McCoy and he gives what is perhaps his best dramatic performance in the role of the seventh Doctor. The seventh Doctor doesn't play spoons or mix his metaphors as he first did (to paraphrase the story's own dialogue) nor is he the more malevolent dark manipulator of later stories. In fact, the Doctor is an almost-tragic figure who for once cannot win for losing. McCoy plays this tragic tale rather well, especially in his scenes with Geoffrey Beevers. In fact, the Doctor barely appears in the first part but one barely notices. Yet, McCoy is just the tip of an excellent cast.

Geoffrey Beevers returns once again as the Master. Yet, instead of being the villain of say The Daemons or Logopolis, he's very much the humanized Doctor of Paul Cornell's New Adventure novel Human Nature. It is a true statement to Beevers' skill as an actor that when I first heard this in late 2007 I didn't realize he was playing the Master. This is because Beevers is convincing as both the life-saving Dr. John Smith and the evil archenemy the Master. Beevers and McCoy have an incredible rapport in their scenes, whether it be as friends or enemies. Beevers in fact really is the one who carries the story through in much the same way Davros did in Revelation Of The Daleks. The overall result is one of the single best performances to ever appear in a Doctor Who story in any medium.

Then there is the rest of the cast who prove to be just as excellent. Philip Madoc plays Inspector Victor Schaffer and Anne Ridler plays his wife Jacqueline. Both are believable as a married couple who, as it turns out, are far from what they seem. Both may seem respectable members of society but when they begin to act out of character it is a true shock to the listener. Then there is Charlie Hayes who plays the maid Jade who more then anyone else is not only far from she seems but in fact keeps the biggest secret of this story. Hayes makes this transformation brilliantly and shows off her considerable skills as an actress in the process. Overall, it's as strong a cast as you are likely to find in any Big Finish story.

One of the standout aspects of this story is the fact that it is more of a stage play then your average Doctor Who story. It plays out almost entirely indoors with only a single scene outside the house and a few scenes of the Doctor effectively playing the story's Greek chorus. The interior setting makes it highly reminiscent of Ghost Light. It is also reminiscent of that story with its spooky atmosphere throughout that makes this little drama all the more fascinating with its tale of the sometimes-thin line between good and evil.

Master also serves as both an anniversary story and an origin story of sorts for the Master. Joseph Lidster peppers this drama with references not only to TV stories like The Keeper Of Traken, but also Big Finish stories like Dust Breeding and even going so far as to directly quote from the fifth Doctor audio story Primeval or to lay in some foreshadowing of the events to come in the following story Zagreus. Then, in parts three and four, Lidster turns Master into that origin story of sorts as the backstory of the Master and the Doctor on Gallifrey is revealed. It makes for a fascinating listen that complements rather then contradicts The Dark Path and what little we know from other stories as well. Lidster adds a new chapter to Doctor Who's mythology by taking elements of the past and bringing new life into them. Very well done indeed, Mister Lidster

With strong performances, a stay play setting, a claustrophobic feel and an excellent script, Master represents one of Big Finish's strongest stories. What could have been just another Master story instead becomes a gripping drama on the sometimes fine line between what is good and what is evil. In fact, Master, in my opinion anyway, is the best seventh Doctor story of Big Finish's first fifty Doctor Who stories. Fans looking to hear what make their favorite characters tick or those looking for a great audio story, here's a tale for you.


A Review by Brian May 3/3/13

Master is my favourite of the Big Finish 2003 specials, although I can see why it mightn't be to everyone's taste. It's overlong (although that's an endemic feature of the series at the time), slow and heavygoing, but despite all this I find it quite compelling. Although by their very nature these productions are plays, Master is one of the most theatrical. With its limited settings, small cast and intensity of dialogue, it's one I believe would transpose to the stage well.

It's quite an odd mix. It has all the elements of a gothic horror, with an abundant display of the genre's staples (the storm, the curse, the haunted house, the serial killer), but this is primarily for garnish. Except for these atmospheric trimmings and some random shocks, the story isn't horror at all. In purely gothic terms, the framed narrative evokes many literary works, so too the criticism of the middle class, as the veneer of their respectability is peeled away to reveal the hypocrisy beneath. But somehow "gothic" doesn't really describe it accurately either. How about a psychological thriller? Or a philosophical one, perhaps? Of course, the latter doesn't exist, but it's an appropriate enough term for my purposes. The second episode is dominated by a discussion on determinism, relativism and the nature of evil. All very heady, worthy and intellectual stuff, but actually very interesting to listen to, especially as it's between the Doctor and the Master.

And it's about time we discussed the latter. As with Davros and Omega, these audios are designed to flesh out the characters a bit more and explain why they are like they are. The problem with the Master is that he's a huge cliche, so giving him a convincing enough backstory is a more arduous task, but the result we're given is quite plausible. A fascinating and quite haunting alternative to the traditional insinuations of the two Time Lords' original relationship is revealed. But, that said, it's actually the least interesting aspect of the story. More profound is the Master's current persona of "John Smith". A decent, sympathetic individual and one who has chosen to help others. In short, he's a good man. Does he deserve to become the Master again? It's a fascinating situation, albeit not new to science-fiction, both literary (Ursula Le Guin's City of Illusions) and filmic (Total Recall - and possibly the Phillip K Dick short story it is based on, but which I haven't read so can't comment). And many others, I'm sure.

Geoffrey Beevers deserves high praise here. He's perfect for the role, as he has one of those quietly menacing voices that oozes evil. For a story like this, it's very challenging, particularly when it comes to differentiating the voice of the Master from that of "John Smith". But Beevers does it, modulating his tones expertly so you can tell the two apart very distinctly. He's well supported by Philip Madoc and Anne Ridler, both excellent as the embodiment of the middle class, as per several paragraphs above. But while they exist to be effectively dismantled, the actors (and writer Joseph Lidster) ensure their characters aren't just ciphers intended to make a crude political point. Sylvester McCoy isn't at his sinister or manipulative best, but he's melancholy and introspective, which are the next best facets of his seventh Doctor. In fact, the only performance I have a problem with is Charlie Hayes as Jade, and that's only in her "revealed" form in the final episode; her witticisms and colloquialisms just don't gel, cheapening the effect.

It's also in part four where things go pear-shaped. There are more lengthy metaphysical meanderings like those of the second episode, but they're not half as interesting. I'm not sure if it's down to the prevalence of Jade's presence, but the philosophising tends to waffle on a bit, with perhaps too many twists and turns for the story's own good. The attempted ambiguity as to whether the Master remains "John Smith" or not isn't very convincing. (I think we all know what will happen.) But the final (final!) twist is the biggest letdown; the unnamed assassin would have been much better served remaining as he was.

But despite the final instalment's shortcomings, Master remains a very interesting story. The production is of a high standard and Gary Russell's direction is brilliant; the use of cross-fades during the dinner conversation in part one particularly noteworthy, holding the interest in what could have been a very boring sequence. It's demanding, but rewarding and overall is a worthy addition to the catalogue. 8/10