Review by Jacob Licklider
The War Master since its inception in 2017, has become one of Big Finish Productions’ most consistent ranges, with three of the four previous sets being released to critical acclaim with only one falling short. The range has been characterised by an exploration of darker themes throughout the Time War, giving Derek Jacobi one of the darkest incarnations of the Master to portray and explore. War is the prominent theme and how war changes people and planets, the hopelessness associated with a war to end all wars such as the Time War, and the atrocities which arise from two societies being pushed to their limit. The audio format is perfect for this type of story as it allows the cast and crew to go as dark as possible, using the power of suggestion to depict such atrocities and the listener’s mind is responsible for the gruesome images, all the while never having to restrict themselves to an adult only audience. These types of stories were best explored by the first, third, and fourth sets, while the fifth sets, Hearts of Darkness, instead decides to focus in on how the war is most effecting the two Time Lords set to survive the Time War, the Doctor, here played by Paul McGann, and, of course, the Master. Keeping the established format of four stories written by two authors, in this case David Llewellyn and Lisa McMullin, telling a linked tale over the four-hour period. Unlike previous sets, Hearts of Darkness employs several plot twists which recontextualises what has come before in the set, making it near impossible to separate each episode from one another. Things change, and like any good story, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
‘Hearts of Darkness’ highlight is the performances from Derek Jacobi and Paul McGann, both playing characters put in situations where they stretch the limits of the characterisation present. McGann as an actor is one whom the listener can tell when the script is not engaging him, while throughout this set McGann shines and almost steals the show from Derek Jacobi, going through a range of emotions and situations with every episode increasing the danger and making the ending of the set in particular stick with the listener long after they finish the set. Jacobi also keeps the listener guessing as to what the Master is planning and doing throughout the set. The actual premise involves an ancient Time Lord Cardinal’s legacy with dark experimentation and what it could mean for the Time War as a whole. This is a set where the Daleks don’t appear, giving the performers a chance to go against the typical idea of the Time War as a simple Time Lords versus Daleks conflict, instead allowing us to go beyond into the depths of the depravity. The Time Lords are not good people here, Sean Carlsen’s Narvin being present and the CIA manipulating events of the set see to that. Carlsen is excellent as always as the Time Lord schemer, though it is a slight shame that he is mainly a background player throughout.
McMullin and Llewellyn introduce another Time Lord ‘renegade’ here, the Scaramancer, though unlike leaving for their own means, they left Gallifrey because of the Master and the Time War. Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo gives a powerhouse performance throughout the set giving the audience a real chance to understand what motivates this character and why she’s doing what she does. She starts the set as almost a generic mercenary character with the Master, however, as the layers are pulled back you get to see just what makes her tick: we learn just how damaged this character has become through her short life, and what she’s doing to ensure that everything ends. Colin McFarlane plays a foil character for the Scaramancer as Morski. Dramatically Morski acts as the genuine no nonsense, always looking out for himself, mercenary character. McFarlane is charming, giving off a lovable rogue vibe, though the character is incredibly derivative of Han Solo. Morski is more in the villainous camp, which initially seems odd for this set as usually the Master is around good characters of whom he breaks, so it becomes interesting to see how Morski is then broken by the Master at the very end of the set.
Scott Handcock directs this set and as always he brings a flair to each of the episodes of this sets. While Hearts of Darkness is a set that tells one story, each episode plays out with a different genre: The Edge of Redemption is a heist story, The Scaramancer is essentially a large chase story, The Castle of Kurnos 5 (as implied by the title) is gothic romance, and The Cognition Shift is 1950s style science fiction (though played straight and not trapped by B-movie tropes and cliches). Llewellyn and McMullin clearly work together as a team, and props to McMullin for injecting the right type of humour for this type of set as an under the surface dry wit, instead of laugh out loud comedy. It works best with the type of story this set is telling while just about everything comes together in the end. Overall, The War Master: Hearts of Darkness is one of those sets where spoiling many of the twists would ruin listening to those. If one has not found the time to purchase it, I would highly recommend it as it proves once again why The War Master works as a range in telling four hour epics based around a theme or concept. 9/10.
Download/buy here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-war-master-hearts-of-darkness-2226