❉ Infectious fun, this is the tightest-plotted and best War Master set, writes Sam Maleski.
Five boxsets in, and The War Master range is evolving interestingly. It’s always important, when it comes to writing a spin-off, to establish a distinct identity: but that can very easily turn into a trap, and it did, to some extent, with Derek Jacobi’s turn as the Master. The character was conceived, in the way range producer Scott Handcock described it on several occasions, as a bit of a Hannibal Lecter, a suave killer who always plans ten moves ahead of anyone else in the game.
Which is an apt metaphor, because it identifies the failings of some earlier entries: with no Who-branded Will Graham or Clarice Sterling, it’s actually quite hard getting involved in narratives that feel like variations on a never-changing theme of “smart murder man goes and do an evil”. Not that it didn’t serve the range well on occasion – stories like The Sky Man or the entirety of the Master of Callous boxset did manage to find a great deal of texture and nuance in the worlds that the Master gleefully blows up, but, after the convoluted plotting of Rage of the Time Lords, and the admittedly quite fun fanservice extravaganza of Anti-Genesis, a shake-up was needed.
Hearts of Darkness delivers that, and then some. It’s – by some extent – the tightest-plotted and best War Master set. A lot of credit has to go to both its writers: Lisa McMullin, one of the brightest new talents working for the company, and David Llewellyn, who’s been doing work for Big Finish since the mid-2010s, and has proven especially talented at creating rich and intricate arc plots (his work on Gallifrey: Enemy Lines and the early seasons of the Torchwood monthlies spring to mind).
Together, they create a really unique angle on the Time War: far away from ravaged planets and space battlefields, the set reads like an incredible tribute to sci-fi creativity, going gracefully from cyberpunk to swashbuckler movie to pure Gothic. There’s a really fundamental joy in seeing necromancers and zombies right next to space pirates with futuristic sabres in Doctor Who, there just is.
The structure of the set, however, is probably its biggest asset. It hits an almost perfect balance of serialized and episodic, for starters, but is also structured around a genuinely clever and interesting twist, that forces its performers to really stretch themselves into new territories (said twist shan’t be spoiled here, but it’s hard to avoid discussion of it completely, so if you want to go completely blind, maybe skip the rest of this review). It’s all rooted in what’s ultimately an effort to give Jacobi a deeper characterisation as the Master: much more than in any other set, he’s a scientist here, and the evil he causes feels justified by a desire to understand people, with their kindness and selflessness, by literally taking them apart to see how they tick.
The set refuses to fall into the open “grimdark” features that the range has exhibited in the past, but because of that, the Master’s sadism cuts a lot deeper (there’s an especially awful scene involving a bird, it’s traumatizingly devious), be it only because the point of view of the story ends up being squarely with his victims. That’s the appeal of the set, really: a story of how people survive and navigate the Time War, a theme already played with in previous War stories like Simon Guerrier’s The Uncertain Shore, but which is here coded a lot more clearly in terms of real-life trauma, and with a longer runtime leaving you plenty of time to get familiar with the nuances and complexities of a fascinating cast.
The first episode, The Edge of Redemption, is an outrageously fun romp – its premise similar to this year’s earlier Master Thief (a Master heist story), but the execution considerably better, with a breakneck pace that accelerates towards not just plot complications, but also deeply human and raw conflict. The ending’s a killer, largely thanks to the excellent performance of Colin McFarlane as shady space smuggler Morski, who makes an excellent straight man for the increasing insanity unfolding through the set. That momentum is carried forwards in the second story, The Scaramancer, which starts off as a straightforward space pirate story before adding complex layers and really digging into the main thematic concerns of the set, embodied by the titular character, who benefits from a standout turn by Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo.
The third story, The Castle of Kurnos 5, reintroduces the Doctor in the proceedings, Paul McGann returning for a second set after Rage of the Time Lords, and fills us in on some of the missing plot pieces. It’s the clear outlier, really, in that it’s more of an Eighth Doctor story than anything else – at first glance, at least. Taking after Universal and Hammer horror movies, the mood and tone are in fact very much dictated by its antagonist, with a Master in full Frankenstein get-up, complete with Igor-like assistant. It’s a bit on the nose, certainly, but it’s great fun, especially once Llewellyn starts weaving in some Gallifreyan lore into the mix: the dialogue is also on fine form, giving a real sense of menace and dread to the Master and to the quest the characters go on to find him.
Of all the individual episodes, it is probably the finale, The Cognition Shift, that shines the brightest – always a good sign when a boxset sticks the landing. It introduces some epic fantasy in the horror feel of the previous story, and, going full-on fairytale, allows itself some truly beautiful flights of poetry. The Master sounds better here than he has in years, delivering wonderfully lyrical lines like “Hope is fear in disguise, distress with your eyes closed” while the other characters face magic gas and castles filled with traps. It’s fun, creative, and also incredibly precise when it comes to hitting character and plot beats – the way the plot wraps up into this wonderful little parabola about trauma and fear and emotion is as lovely as it is a compelling writing trick.
The set is in the image of its closing episode: infectiously fun, but also never less than meaningful. Carried away by strong production, better performances, and even better writing, it’s absolutely a highlight of the year.
THE WAR MASTER: HEARTS OF DARKNESS
The Edge of Redemption by David Llewellyn
The Scaramancer by Lisa McMullin
The Castle of Kurnos 5 by David Llewellyn
The Cognition Shift by Lisa McMullin
Duration: 240 minutes approx.
Released: October 2020, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
Producer/Director: Scott Handcock
Script Editor: Scott Handcock
Senior Producer: David Richardson
Written by: David Llewellyn and Lisa McMullin
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
❉ ‘The War Master: Hearts of Darkness’ is now available to own as a as collector’s edition four-disc box set (at £24.99) and as digital downloads (at £19.99), exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ Sam Maleski (they/he) writes about genre fiction and Doctor Who – including one Black Archive for Obverse Books and the Sheffield Steel essay collection series. They can be found tweeting at @LookingForTelos and blogging at @MediaDoWntime.