Review by Jacob Licklider
“I am usually referred to as the Master…universally.”
This immortal line, first aired 50 years ago, introduced Doctor Who fans to Roger Delgado and the Doctor’s arch enemy the Master. And now, to celebrate this momentous occasion, Big Finish Productions has brought together all surviving TV incarnations of the Master and a host of others for a three hour audio drama, ‘Masterful’. Released 50 years to the day of Episode One of ‘Terror of the Autons‘, there are two editions of this release; the standard three disc edition and the limited eight disc edition which contains a disc of bonus features, an original audiobook by Trevor Baxendale, and two previously released Short Trips. This review is only looking at Masterful the story (see our Terror of the Master review here) So, should you buy Masterful? Short answer, yes, of course you should, James Goss provides three hours with a brilliant cast pitting Master against Master, playing to each incarnation’s strengths and giving listeners a real treat to see how dysfunctional each incarnation can be when forced to cooperate.
The entire premise of the story is that John Simm’s Master has invited all of his other incarnations, except Missy, to a dead planet to celebrate the success of one of his schemes: the Doctor is dead and the Master is ready to rule the universe, the rest of his incarnations are all failures. Simm’s gloating over the other incarnations is the first absolutely brilliant scene as while they gloat the Delgado Master avoids the party by pushing Jo Grant into the Time Scoop and then Missy gatecrashes in a reference to The Daemons. The first half hour of this audio drama is complete and utter insanity and the listener can really get into just what each of these Masters have to offer, before it’s revealed that Simm was lying and he was just planning to kill his other incarnations because they are failures. Simm is used sparingly, really only in the first and final episode, but when he appears he gives his absolute best performance, blending the World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls and The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords personalities brilliantly. Hijinks ensue, and pairs of Masters are thrown throughout time and eventually have to come back together to stop Simm from destroying the universe, because it really isn’t fun to take over the universe if there isn’t a universe to rule over.
Masterful introduces a second actor to play the first incarnation of the Master in Milo Parker; who is the Master before leaving Gallifrey. Parker is the one performer here who doesn’t actually get to have his own identity as the Master, being introduced here and not really getting the time to shine among the other forces of personality. Goss characterises this Master as more averse to killing and supposedly less insane, in an attempt to portray him as naïve, however, it makes the incarnation feel more like a one trick pony; especially when paired with Alex MacQueen’s Master who is just delightfully over the top. MacQueen returns after a four year absence from the role and his return is very much a welcome one. That specific version of the Master is perhaps one that fits the mix of ruthlessness and insanity, setting himself apart from the others with some truly evil machinations. MacQueen and Parker are taking over a colony ship, fascism style, which works wonders for MacQueen’s delightfully evil portrayal of the Master. This is a character who knows he’s evil and truly delights in the terrors he causes, treating the colonists as his own little toys, deceiving them at every turn. It’s genuinely a shame that MacQueen hasn’t received his own spin-off box set while Gomez, Jacobi, and even Eric Roberts have received theirs.
Speaking of Gomez, Missy’s inclusion here is a real treat as Masterful reflects on the latest incarnation of the Master’s (okay there’s Sacha Dhawan but Big Finish haven’t gotten the rights to him yet and he didn’t exist when Masterful was written (yes, he’s post-Missy, why are you grabbing a pitchfork) so just go with me) relationship with Jo Grant, the first companion the Master met (on television, yes The Dark Path and The Destination Wars are canon, again just go with me). Katy Manning not only holds her own in a set full of powerful performances, she provides some genuine emotional heart to the story. Manning is a powerhouse of an actress and she slips right back into Jo Grant, showing how much the companion often pigeonholed into the ditzy blonde can actually be self-sufficient. She’s the one who realises why Missy interferes with the Simm Master’s plans and why Missy doesn’t just kill her right from the off. Michelle Gomez as Missy is also a real treat as Gomez lets loose one of her more off the wall performances. Already mentioned is her introduction, but she comes out of this story as one of the few Masters with any sort of sense to find an ending.
The other Master to really make any sense in his scheming is Geoffrey Beevers whose storyline here feels tangential; but by the middle of the second part it connects right back up with the crash-landing of Eric Roberts into the plot. Beevers finds himself underneath a perception filter where he looks normal and ends up starting a quiet life fishing with Kitty played by Abigail McKern. This Master calls himself Jeremy and genuinely has a nice quiet life where he can be a good person, reflecting on Joseph Lidster’s characterisation in Master, but instead of the Doctor coming in to tear everything down, it’s the Eric Roberts Master. Beevers gets the last laugh, but Roberts proves that he can be just as cruel and subtle as his other incarnations. Yes the TV MovieRis referenced with a tongue planted firmly in the cheek, but Roberts is actually taking the role seriously this time. Like he actually plays the character as a seducer, getting Kitty to trust him and even getting his past incarnation to believe that this woman wouldn’t care that he’s been concealing his real appearance from her and then springing it on her at the very end. It’s not what you’d expect from Roberts, but it works really well.
Meanwhile Sir Derek Jacobi as the War Master is always brilliant, but is honestly overshadowed in all the other plot-lines. Jacobi’s best interactions are with the Parker Master which is excellent and continues to be brilliant at the beginning of the story. Jacobi also has his own little plot, though that is used sparingly, which can also be said of Jon Culshaw and Mark Gatiss. Mark Gatiss is playing his version of the Master from the Unbound Universe which is excellent and sort of ties into Anti-Genesis, though he leaves the plot near the middle of the second episode. Jon Culshaw is playing Kamelion and he is always excellent, but in his role as Kamelion he is playing the Anthony Ainley Master which is just brilliant. Culshaw channels Ainley and sprinkles in a few different appearances using the shapeshifting abilities. Ken Bentley directs each actor with aplomb bringing the character work together and Joe Kramer delights in using several different snippets of other Master themes throughout the three hour runtime.
Overall, Masterful is a brilliant way to start off 2021 celebrating who the Master is and what it means to be evil. 9/10.
Download/buy here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/masterful-limited-edition-2197
Check out our interview with Geoffrey Beevers