Review by Jacob Licklider
The War Master: Anti-Genesis is the fourth, and potentially final, installment in Big Finish’s War Master range starring Derek Jacobi. Unlike the other Big Finish ranges dealing with the Time War, the War Master does not have an overarching plot through each of the four box sets as they are placed around this Master’s personal timeline. Anti-Genesis sets itself apart from the other three box sets, as unlike the previous sets, it is less a standalone War Master release, but a crossover with the Gallifrey range, featuring Sean Carlsen and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Narvin and President Livia, respectively. It is also a plot which reflects on Genesis of the Daleks and that stories implications for the Daleks and Time Lords, while placing the War Master directly in the action. For this review there will be spoilers for each of the stories in the set. As the set was only recently released, a non-spoiler review for those who have not heard it or are wary about spoilers: it is an excellent set. Derek Jacobi as always gives an excellent portrayal of the Master and giving him one scheme throughout instead of other sets giving him a scheme a story helps bring the set into a focus. The overarching plot is engaging and truly feels like a story involving a time war, instead of simply relying on Daleks and Time Lords engaging in traditional warfare. It’s a set that’s worth your time and should be picked up as soon as you can.
For those of you who’ve already heard the set, let’s move on to a more in depth, story by story review. The set opens with “From the Flames” by Nicholas Briggs which feels like the odd story out from the set. “From the Flames” is essentially a prologue for the rest of the set; giving the audience a point of reference for the state of Gallifrey and the War Master, and introducing the basic premise of the Master’s schemes here. However, it is a story that feels almost out of place from the other stories in this range, with more of a Gallifrey type feeling over the standard War Master tone. This is not a flaw with the story, by any means, but it can give the listener a little tonal whiplash as to the type of story they are expecting when listening to this particular range. The plot here is the most simple of the set, due to its nature of being the prologue to the set as a whole. The Time War is in full swing and Gallifrey is at a point where there is no clear way of ending the conflict. Gallifrey is not yet invaded, and the Master is apparently dead, his TARDIS returning to Gallifrey. Of course, that’s not actually true, it’s the Master, he’s never dead, but scheming to get into the Citadel subtly to steal the anti-genesis codes. The nature of the Master’s “resurrection” is incredibly clever and beats the mystical explanation from The End of Time, and Jacobi stands out from his first scene. That first scene sees him bring a companion he saved to his own death, as all part of his plan to invade Gallifrey. The death of the Master’s companion here is incredibly brutal and immediately sets the tone for the story, something that writer Nicholas Briggs should be commended for. Briggs also effectively introduces Narvin’s current place in Gallifrey’s hierarchy: he is acting as Coordinator for the CIA and has lost quite a bit of his pride because of this. He’s also acting in Gallifrey’s best interest, but almost being as wary as he can be when it comes to Livia. This is the President who succeeded Romana after all, and Romana is nowhere to be found. For new listeners of course, Briggs does a good enough job to make you understand the lore. He also has an Igor like assistant who works underneath the Citadel, in the Cloisters, which creates an interesting dynamic, and a fourth personality for the set as a whole. “From the Flames” is perhaps the weakest of the set, yet is still an engaging story with plenty of heart and intrigue for the listener to continue the box set. 8/10.
“The Master’s Dalek Plan” is the story in the set that most resembles Genesis of the Daleks. The Master goes back to Skaro while Davros is still experimenting with his travel machines, before the death of Shan, before his disfigurement. This is a story which almost had to be helmed by an experienced Big Finish writer, and Alan Barnes fills that role nicely, as the premise here is that using the anti-genesis codes to go back, make sure most of the characters from I, Davros and Genesis of the Daleks are killed, and form his own Dalek army over the course of the story. While the basic premise is ground covered in Genesis of the Daleks, Barnes takes great advantage of using the Master (parading himself as Davros’ uncle Sorvad) in Davros’ place. While Davros’ arc is one of a slow descent into insanity as he turns his people into the Daleks, the Master begins the story as immediately sadistic: pretending to be injured using the wheelchair associated with Davros, pretending to help an injured Kaled regain his lost sight by implanting an eyestalk right into his forehead, and working on the Mark III travel capsules. This is the story that shows off just the range Jacobi has as an actor, going from the sweet and kindly old man to a complete psychopath in the same scene. The Master also actually learns from Davros’ mistakes in creating the Daleks: here he makes them loyal to him from the beginning and to quickly get them under their control they are armed with a mutagenic pulse ray which transforms others into Dalek mutants. Barnes plays up the body horror aspect of Genesis of the Daleks with the mutation being realised with squelching and writing as tentacles form and bodies shrink. The sound design by Richard Fox and Robert Harvey for these episodes are excellent and “The Master’s Dalek Plan” in particular works incredibly well. Outside of this, Barnes adds a story of Narvin sending Lamarius, a Time Lady sent to be dispersed by the CIA, but rescued at the last minute to retrieve the anti-genesis codes. Lamarius knows what dispersal means for her: she would never have existed, her wife would never have met her, and her children would never have existed. It’s an incredibly passionate story for Lamarius as there are several points where she is begged to be killed, just so she can have existed as she can’t be dispersed if she is already dead. Perhaps slightly derivative, but overall “The Master’s Dalek Plan” raises the stakes and puts the Master in a position to win. 9/10.
Alan Barnes also provides the third story in the set: “Shockwave”, and while it is the best one of the set, it is also the one that is the most out there. Derek Jacobi’s War Master is mostly in the background of this story, as his scheme builds and he eventually wins at the end of the story, instead focusing on a different incarnation of the Master. Mark Gatiss appears in this and the final story of the set reprising his version of the Master a scene in the Doctor Who: Unbound releases, and more recently in The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume 3 and 4 opposite Lisa Bowerman and David Warner’s Doctor. It is sad to see the Sam Kisgart moniker dropped from the character, but his return is welcome all the same. The Master has made a deal with the Dalek Time Strategist of an alternate universe and he is travelling through the shockwaves as alternate timelines collapse on one another due to the events of “The Master’s Dalek Plan” as an act of warfare. It is this type of warfare which only works in a Time War setting: the idea is that Gallifrey’s Time Lock is failing because of the use of the anti-genesis codes so the timelines are shifting within one another. This creates several alternate versions of Gallifrey and alternate versions of Narvin and Livia to deal with. The most prevalent one is of a more mystical Gallifrey, almost inspired by the vision seen in Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow and Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible if the fantasy elements were turned up to eleven. It almost feels like a Gallifrey if the Pythia remained in power, as there isn’t an elected president, but a monarch in the form of Livia. In this reality Narvin is almost a hermit, secretly working on scientific projects despite ostracisation from society and the danger he is in. The more antagonistic side of the Narvin and Livia relationship is turned up as well in this reality which serves to highlight some of the subtle complexities of their relationship in the main universe. Bennett-Warner and Carlsen are excellent in their roles and the roles of their alternates, making each version seem distinct, even when they only appear for a short time. Gatiss also gives an excellent performance as the Master. Here he is desperate after the destruction of his own universe at the end of “The True Saviour of the Universe” and because of that desperation he is working with the Daleks. They have promised him a universe of his own to live in, and is only really looking out for number one throughout this story which is great. “Shockwave” is the most non-traditional story in this box set and for that it is the standout story from the release. 10/10.
Nicholas Briggs concludes the set with “He Who Wins” which isn’t so much as a story with out and out conflict, but a reflection on the War Master as a character and what would happen if the Master won. The title is a reference to The Five Doctors and the line “To lose is to win and he who wins shall lose”, giving the Master a Pyrrhic victory. He becomes the literal master of the universe as the Daleks conquer everything and leave the Master in charge. It is at this point where the Master is finally turned upon: the Daleks no longer need him and are ready to kill him, so the drive of this story is an older War Master and the Gatiss Master to go back in time to convince the younger War Master to change his ways. Briggs’ script is incredibly clever in what it accomplishes about the Master. The Master is a character who can never truly win because even in his flawless plan, the flaw comes in actually succeeding. In wishing to be the Master of the universe, a truly Sisyphean task is set before him and he has to climb his way out of it on his own. Derek Jacobi playing off himself throughout the story is excellent and the way that everything resolves itself is incredibly satisfying as the three Master’s banter throughout the story. Perhaps this is an episode that goes a touch too far in the way it references other stories, but for the box set it works excellently as a conclusion to Anti-Genesis and gives the War Master a decent amount of character development, with Briggs on top form in writing this, potentially final, War Master script. 9/10.
Overall, while The War Master: Anti-Genesis is not the best of the sets it is still a set of incredible quality, deserving an overall score of 9/10. If you have read this and not already heard the set move it near the top of your to-buy list.