❉ A cosmos without Eric Roberts’ scene-stealing Master scarcely bears thinking about!
“It’s a dog-eat-dog universe after all, and in the end, we’re all just part of the food chain.”
This line of dialogue embodies the best and worst of Master!, the first Big Finish release to put Eric Roberts’ incarnation of the title character at its centre. On the one hand, Roberts’ delivery is perfect – bringing to mind the best aspects of his lone televised appearance in the role without resorting to overtly nostalgic call-backs. However, the fact that this moment doesn’t come until shortly before the end of the set’s opening instalment, Faustian, speaks to how much time is wasted on the set-up. Using the term “set-up” rather than “build-up” is deliberate, because this release generally seems less interested in building than simply putting pieces where the plot needs them to be.
Across its three episodes, nearly all of the elements feel purchased off the rack, mass-produced instead of crafted. A dystopian future controlled by corporations, a heartless corporate titan driven only by getting his way, and the young prodigy with a shameful secret on their past (to name a few) have all been seen/heard in the Doctor Who universe many times before. That’s true of many things with Doctor Who, but at its best, the series and its spin-offs find new angles to explore. In Master!, even the potentially interesting notion of a future Earth living under the constant threat of renewed Dalek attack is undercut by Big Finish’s extreme overuse of the Daleks in recent years.
Consequently, when the Daleks eventually arrive – as anyone listening knew they would, regardless of whether their familiarity with the cast list – it feels obligatory rather than a natural progression of the drama. Vengeance, the set’s final episode, is at least more engaging than Prey, which comes across as little more than a pretence to involve the character of Vienna Salvatori, an “impossibly glamorous assassin” introduced in one of Big Finish’s earlier Doctor Who dramas. From a marketing standpoint, featuring the character, played by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine actress Chase Masterton, makes sense, but the narrative application is less successful. Vienna is meant to be a world-weary soul who can offer insightful commentary on the moral dimension of events as they unfold around her. Unfortunately, Masterson’s performance doesn’t really sell it, and any listeners who aren’t already familiar with the character from her own Big Finish series may find themselves saying, “This means nothing to me.”
As for Vengeance itself, the episode recapitulates elements from previous Dalek encounters, including but not limited to the revelation that the Daleks are manipulating events behind the scenes. Not surprisingly, their actions tie back to the opening sequence of the 1996 Doctor Who movie, where the Master was put on trial and exterminated by the Daleks. Under other circumstances, the introduction of a “Dalek Litigator” might be interesting. In this case, though, it’s simply a pretext to set up a moment of reckoning between the Master and the Daleks over an event that multiple Doctor Who stories from the past 25 years have shown to matter very little.
It doesn’t help that the involvement of the Daleks coincides with shifts in some of the human characters’ attitudes and actions that seem to occur more because the plot demands it than as an organic reaction to the events. The aggressively shallow Magnus Drake is suddenly revealed to be a cunning genius. Scientist Lila Kreeg suddenly develops a conscience just in time to wrestle with it. Ironically, the only actual character on display is the Master.
As such, it’s not surprising that Eric Roberts is the set’s saving grace. Some questionable career choices may have obscured how he was once among America’s promising young actors, but Roberts is a true professional. When so much around him seems laboured, he makes his performance as the Master sound effortless. He might not offer the exquisite vocal menace of Derek Jacobi or Michelle Gomez’s verbal flights of fancy, but he is the Master. Whatever its shortcomings, Master! aptly demonstrates that Doctor Who is all the more interesting for this fact.
❉ MASTER! is now available as a collector’s edition three-disc box set (on CD at £19.99) and as a digital download (at £16.99), exclusively from www.bigfinish.com
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.