Review: The War Master – Rage of the Time Lords

Review by Michael Goleniewski

Four new stories featuring the Master’s exploits in the Time War…..With all of space and time in chaos, the Master plots his most audacious project yet. Only one other Time Lord has ever been able to stop him. But where is that Time Lord when the universe needs him?

The War Master has officially returned in the third installment of his highly acclaimed solo audio series. Announced and begun in late 2017, this is a saga that has achieved quite a high pedigree in the past couple of years. Derek Jacobi’s version of the villainous renegade Time Lord, first seen in his only TV appearance in 2007’s “Utopia”, is rapidly becoming many people’s favorite incarnation due mostly to the exposure that these audio adventures from Big Finish have given him. Series 1 (“Only the Good”) brought us the conclusion of the series first in a way that tied directly into the events of New Who while at the same time starting things off on a massive high with four great stories that have rapidly become some of my favourite audio stories ever. Series 2 (“Master of Callous”) took things in an almost entirely different direction with one narrative interspersed through 4 hours as the Master partook in manipulating events on a mining planet in a quieter and more subtle way. While it certainly wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea and received a bit more flak from fans and reviewers, it was an installment that I thought was just as good as the first one albeit in an almost entirely opposite way.

Now we have Series 3 ominously titled “Rage of the Time Lords” that sees not only the return of the individual yet interconnected story format to the series but also the formal appearance of the Doctor into the storyline in the form of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor. It’s a surprising and very exciting twist and one that I had I and a lot of other fans on the edge of our seats and chomping at the bit for what would happen next. So does “Rage of the Time Lords” meet the high expectations of the series or is this the lynchpin from where things would falter? Let’s not waste any more time and take a look:

3.1 The Survivor by Tim Foley — 

In the middle of the Second World War, a young woman named Alice living in a small village near London is doing her best for the Women’s Land Army. But she’s frustrated, tired, and developing a nasty temper especially after being put in charge of overseeing the lady’s rebellious daughter. However, when the Reverend of the town asks her for a small favour, strange things begin to happen around the estate. Tensions and suspicions are raised, injuries occur, and Alice becomes scared and angry. But the Master has big plans for her regardless of whether she knows it or not……

‘Survivor’ starts things off in malevolent fashion in a quiet mix of ideas from both ‘Master of Callous’ and ‘Only the Good’. It’s another great example of the Master manipulating things to his own ends albeit on a much smaller scale. Having him hiding out as a priest is a great starting point harkening directly back to his earlier days even down to using the exact same pseudonym in a nice bit of continuity and Jacobi is just as good as Delgado in the overall ruse and the devilish scheming. This time though, his plot is only just beginning and it all comes down to one single person and her exceptional qualities.

With that being said, the real focus here is Katherine Pearce who gives a very strong performance as Alice Pritchard. She’s very much a forced victim who wants to do her part but is being pushed in dark directions both by the people around her and by the Master himself. The big surprise around her is one that’s not entirely unexpected but Tim Foley’s script handles things well in both dialogue and soundscape; even if it has a bit less bite than you’d expect given where it ends up going. There is a little bit too much tell and not show initially especially in regards to young Alice’s special qualities and there are a lot of moments discussed that should’ve been heard in narrative rather than just simply discussed.

The side cast is also bit unlikable with Laura Riseborough and Paul Clayton especially garnering a bit of nastiness but it’s appropriate given what the story is trying to do. The pacing is also well handled though the script holds back in a few places that are genuinely surprising. It’s a little disappointing that we don’t see the big ‘Carrie-esque’ ending that’s started off in the final moments but it’s clear that something bigger is on the horizon that the set is obviously preparing things for.

All in all, ‘Survivor’ is a great story if not necessarily an outstanding one full of the usual great performances that this series is known for as well. It’s a good start to the hopeful beginning of another fascinating plot and it does leave you wanting more just like the title characters.

8 / 10 

3.2 The Coney Island Chameleon by David Llewellyn —

When the carnival arrives on Coney Island, it brings with it the most incredible specimens that New York will ever see. Unfortunately for the acts, not all eyes on them are friendly. Enigmatic businessman TS Mereath has taken a shine to the Coney Island Chameleon, for example… and he will seemingly stop at nothing to acquire her.

Things take a very strange turn for the set in ‘Coney Island Chameleon’ as the storyline jumps to a New York winter. A small struggling freak-show nearby to the Brooklyn amusement park has some rather exceptional talent with a seemingly alien origin. The Master is willing to get his hands on it by any means necessary even if it means donning a lacklustre American accent…..

That’s really a representation of what this second story is in a nutshell: decent if a tad lacklustre. The majority of David Llewellyn’s script tries to get us to sympathize with an Italian strongman played by Youssef Kerkour and his dire situation with the title character. While it does work in placing the Master in a much more traditional role for this series, it never really quite works in getting you invested entirely especially when Taj Atwal’s Esther (aka the Chameleon herself) is not exactly the most likeable character in the world. That is….until an interesting twist turns everything around and everything we’d heard up to this point suddenly gains an entirely new perspective and meaning. It’s very fitting for the story itself and one that does save it to a degree from being mediocre.

But the rest of the adventure is still a depressingly dull one for the majority of its runtime and it’s only within the final 10 minutes or so that the story really gets interesting. The soundscape is again fine if a little minimal and the pacing is about the same though very boilerplate. The acting is ok though as noted Jacobi’s accent is very distracting with how offsettingly bad it is. It doesn’t make the character bad necessarily by itself and he still gets plenty of nastier moments especially in that final twist. But in a strange way, it feels like Jacobi is being directed to channel more of Anthony Ainley’s incarnation at his worst with mustache-twirling evil written all over him and it’s really not a good characterisation for this version. We’re used to this Master being a lot more subtle and devious with what he’s planning but here it’s plastered right in your face evil with a capital E.

All of this combined together doesn’t make ‘Chameleon’ a bad story as there is a lot to enjoy and recommend when you get right down to it. But compared to stories from other sets and even to its immediate predecessor, it definitely feels like the weakest story featuring the War Master thus far. It does make us exceptionally curious for what he has in store in the coming two-parter in which Paul McGann’s Doctor is set to appear. But by itself, it’s an average audio at best and a surprising misfire for an otherwise strong saga up to this point.

6 / 10 

3.3 The Missing Link by Tim Foley — 

On a desolate world in the distant future, the Master embarks on his latest scheme, aided and abetted by a team of brilliant scientists. But who is he truly working for? And in a universe at war, is there anyone left in all the cosmos who can stop him?

‘Missing Link’ is the first half of a two-parter that sees the general plot of this third set gain more flesh and bone and come to fruition. The narrative jumps to a group of scientists working on a menagerie of test subjects far in the future where the Master has been gathering extraordinary individuals from all across time and space and messing with their abilities for some unknown end. But when one of them manages to make an escape attempt, it catches the attention of a very positive force in the universe, a battered man who might be able to help…..

The strength of this story really comes from its future potential as it’s obviously a set-up for the second half and the finale to come. It’s not really a spoiler to say that this is where Paul McGann’s Doctor first makes his appearance in the set. But the big surprises lie in how his character is used and manipulated by Jacobi’s Master through the course of the script. While both of them get a surprising amount of equal time which honestly works against the set considering this is meant to be the Master’s set, it’s rather fun to see a Master vs. Doctor battle from the other side of the spectrum. At times it feels like a big cat-mouse escapade watching from the side of the cat who knows every move the mouse is going to make. Considering there is still one more story in the set to come, it does make the climax fairly easy to spot but it’s no less shocking or provocative and the final 10 minutes are some of the best the series has given us thus far.

As to the rest of the plot, it’s another strong outing and a fair improvement over ‘Chameleon’ in general. There are some good returning characters from other sets and some great interconnected tissue to other War Master stories not in this set that continues to make this incarnation’s world feel much bigger. Jacobi continues to be great at the times we do see him and McGann is again fantastic doing his usual thing as his Doctor including a little of the memory issues that this incarnation is known for.

The weak points start in the side cast of scientists who not only get the majority of the initial runtime but are rather boring and apparently pretty inept at what they do given the actions they take over the course of the story. None of them stand out in the slightest even the notorious Professor Silver (Liz Sutherland-Lim) and they all feel like they are filling in time and gaps needed while the Master and the Doctor do their respective things. There is one side cast member that stands out but as to who it is would be giving away spoilers that would ruin a big surprise from the prior adventures. While it does do a great job at building up the mystery of what scheme is actually being worked on, the majority of the plot is a fairly standard runaround albeit one told from an interesting perspective. However, the purpose of the story mentioned in the title is nicely handled and again the climax is a great one with the cat eventually taking the prize at least for the time being.

It’s not the best story in the world and the majority of it does feel like we’re killing time for the bigger moments to come. But you can’t say that ‘Missing Link’ isn’t at least a return to form for this series with great performances and a great conclusion propping up what would’ve otherwise been a fairly average adventure that’s a hell of a lot of fun in the time it uses to get us to where we want to go.

8 / 10 

3.4 Darkness and Light by David Llewellyn — 

With the Master’s plans near completion, his victory is threatened by the presence of his greatest friend and enemy: the Doctor.

The finale of the set sees the Master’s plans on the verge of success. A new ultimate weapon has been born distilled from races across the galaxy with enough anger to destroy everything in its path. It might be the key to ending the war for good but it’s about to escape. But the Master isn’t out of schemes just yet and the only thing might be able to stop it is a compassionate heart or rather hearts…..

“Darkness and Light” is an enigma of a story that is at times gigantic and at times somewhat simplistic. While it is a strong culmination of the entire set as a whole, at its core it is essentially a base under siege narrative with an omnipotent alien-like being stalking every move of our leads. There are smaller pieces here and there to it that lead off of it some of which work and others of which don’t.

But David Llewellyn’s script is laser-focused for the most part on keeping your attention on where it should be: the dual nature of the moralistic coin with the War Master on one side and the Eighth Doctor on the other. Jacobi’s Master is always full of surprises continuing to establish himself as one of the most accessible Masters in Who canon while McGann’s Doctor hasn’t felt this tired with the War in quite a long time bringing one of his most powerful performances in the role. You can truly feel the contrasting fire between the Doctor’s light and the Master’s darkness which actually do play a part in resolving the situation and the connecting elements between the two characters haven’t been this tangible in audio form since ‘Masterplan’ all the way back in the Dark Eyes series. Jacobi and McGann’s dialogue and interactions with each other are simply perfect and their confrontation is a major Whovian highlight that’s been worth waiting for through this entire set.

The rest of this story surrounding this battle is fine if a little bit standard. While the weapon itself feels copy and pasted at times from other stories, it still serves its’ narrative purpose well even if it feels like it would work better in a visual format. A minor subplot with a couple of scientists is utterly boring and there are some fairly large leaps of logic that feel insane even for the Master’s planning. But one of the side cast played by Dominic Thorburn has a nice surprise twist to him built up from his appearance part 1 and the story does work well in pushing everyone to their limit. It’s an utterly brutal story but one that keeps your attention well even if it does sag a little bit in the middle similar to what ‘Missing Link’ did with it’s pacing and it does manage to fit into continuity nicely with how it ends this Doctor / Master relationship.

In the end, “Darkness and Light” is a tad imperfect especially compared to the stunning quality of its predecessors. But it’s still a great conclusion delivering mostly what you want it to and the final moments send both leads off into the stars for more adventures and schemes through time and space.

9 / 10 

FINAL VERDICT: “Rage of the Time Lords” is a flawed but still very strong entry in the War Master series. While it never quite reaches the fan-servicing delight of ‘Only the Good’ or the subtle nastiness of ‘Master of Callous’, it works to combine ideas from both prior sets together in interesting experimental ways which come off rather splendidly at their best. The addition of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor into the mix is a great addition and works to elevate some of the less interesting moments of the final two-parter while Jacobi continues to excel beautifully in his incarnation with devious depth and malevolent evil. At times, it doesn’t feel quite as well written or as paced well as it could’ve been and one of the stories, in particular, doesn’t seem to have too much of a purpose other than to kill time. It does feel like the weakest installment thus far, no doubt about that. But when it works, it still works like gangbusters and it delivers exactly what it needs to when it truly counts to make your time with it not at all wasted. With the current final series “Anti-Genesis” on the horizon for a December release, here’s to hoping that this series can pull off one heck of a final installment from the slight dip that “Rage of the Time Lords” has brought to the table.

8 / 10

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