❉ Big Finish’s epic multi-Master story is perfectly poised to add new dimension to the character, writes Don Klees.
Doctor Who fans love anniversaries. Attention to the passage of time is perhaps an inevitable side-effect of the show’s main character being a Time Lord, but history suggests it has just as much to do with the opportunity to revisit beloved characters and/or multiple versions of the same beloved character. While Big Finish Productions’ line of audio dramas is less than half of Doctor Who’s present age, the company has nevertheless celebrated its share of anniversaries with appropriately epic releases. Some tie to internal milestones, such as 2019’s The Legacy of Time marking 20 years of making Doctor Who audio stories, while others tie more specifically to the show itself, as in 2013’s 50th anniversary story The Light At The End.
Their recent release Masterful, written by James Goss and directed by Ken Bentley, falls into the latter category. Celebrating 50 years since the television debut of Doctor Who’s most enduring villain and featuring many of the actors who played the role on television, it shares two particular traits with other commemorative titles. Along with being something of a mixed bag from a quality standpoint, the set illustrates the great dilemma the company faces with their line of audio dramas. Torn between a desire to push boundaries and the need to please a devoted fan-base that often resists change, Big Finish’s event titles tend to offer an uneasy mix of thoughtful drama and outright fan-service.
Masterful brings together Geoffrey Beevers, Michelle Gomez, Derek Jacobi, Eric Roberts and John Simm with several actors who’ve only played the Master on audio – John Culshaw, Mark Gatiss, Alexander McQueen and Milo Parker, the latter playing a much younger version of the character. With so many incarnations on display, including one that’s never really been explored in Doctor Who, the story is perfectly poised to add new dimension to the character. Though it does so at times, the overall narrative often comes across an extended remix of the Master’s greatest hits culminating in a finale that characterizes the hand-waving resolutions many fans accuse its televised parent of indulging in. The show’s ongoing narrative and the Big Finish material’s relation to it understandably limits what can be done in the audio stories, but even by that measure, this one feels less consequential than it should.
Fortunately, less consequential and entertaining are not mutually exclusive assessments. Whatever its shortcomings, there’s a lot to enjoy about Masterful. The opening sequence where the various incarnations are brought together calls to mind meetings between various incarnations of the Doctor and is in some ways more entertaining by virtue of the participants being even more acerbic on balance. Relative newcomer to Big Finish Eric Roberts is in good form, striking a balance between quiet menace and camp attitude of his TV portrayal such as when he tells Geoffrey Beevers’ decayed incarnation – “I’m a body for special occasions. You’re the tatty old shoes I can’t throw away.”
Despite Masterful being John Simm’s first appearance as the Master for Big Finish, Michelle Gomez as Missy has a much greater presence in the story. Not surprisingly, she too indulges in some verbal abuse of Beevers’ incarnation. After he responds to an initial insult by insisting “I will not have my millennia of suffering mocked”, Missy replies, “Oh, you will. And you will like it.” The disparagement Beevers’ version receives from the other Masters is a notable counterpoint to him getting the most substantive storyline of all the different Masters after events early in the story lead to them being dispersed across time and space. Its connection to the main plot is tenuous, but it engenders a genuine sense of empathy for him that recalls the excellent 2003 play Master.
Plot shortcomings aside, the weak links here are Jon Culshaw and Mark Gatiss. With a great deal of the latter’s dialogue focused on his incarnation coming from an alternate universe, he seems to have been included primarily to exploit the marquee value of his name. Meanwhile Culshaw fails to convince as the avatar of the late Anthony Ainley’s version of the Master. When he first appears, it’s only a heavy dose of continuity references that makes it clear who he’s meant to be playing. The script provides an equally continuity-driven rationae for him sounding different, but his contribution seems stuck in the no-man’s-land between impression and performance.
In contrast, Derek Jacobi always brings great relish to the role, giving dialogue such as “that’s the thing about convoluted plans. You never know when they’re over” a pitch perfect delivery. Alex McQueen’s return is also welcome after four years since his last Big Finish appearance. The happy surprise, though, is Milo Parker, who excels as the younger version of the Master for whom the dark path is still in the future. Along with the actors mentioned above and Katy Manning reprising the role of Jo Grant – another character marking 50 years since her TV debut in Doctor Who – they embody Masterful’s potential. The story itself may have fallen short in some respects, but these committed performances ensure that it’s a worthwhile listen.
❉ ‘Masterful’ is now available as a limited edition 8-CD box set (priced at £44.99), or on download (at £39.99), exclusively at the Big Finish website.
❉ 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.