Review: ‘The War Master: Self-Defence’ from Big Finish

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Doctor Who is gearing up to celebrate its 60th anniversary next year and over the course of its long history the Whoniverse has grown past the original television show. Through many spin-offs, novels, video games, and audio dramas, Doctor Who has expanded its lore in significant ways. Big Finish has published and distributed so many fantastic Doctor Who audio dramas, filling in gaps between The Doctor’s televised adventures. However, the Doctor’s bonus adventures aren’t the only stories Big Finish is telling, with stories that follow other important characters from the Whoniverse.

[Note: While I am reviewing this audio drama independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Big Finish for the purpose of this review.]

With the seventh series releasing just this past June, The War Master is an exciting set of audio dramas exploring one of the most fascinating characters during an incredibly exciting period in NuWho. With Derek Jacobi returning to voice The Master, The War Master: Self-Defence is a four-part series that brings The Doctor’s greatest enemy face to face with his past, in hopes of having a future.

This series also saw David Tennant return as the Tenth Doctor, in a very exciting finale. So what trouble did The Master himself get into? He can assure you, whatever trouble it is, it has all been in self-defense.

[Warning: Spoilers from Big Finish’s The War Master: Self-Defence are below!]

The overarching story in The War Master: Self-Defence

While each story in the four-part series is an entirely self-contained story, there are connective storylines that are weaved throughout each episode. The series reminded me of the classic Doctor Who serial “Trial of a Time lord” which saw Colin Baker’s Doctor on trial for breaking the laws of Gallifrey.

However, in Self-Defence, The Master is the one on trial for his crimes against the universe. He’s held prisoner by the Vectors, an all-powerful group of intergalactic judges, revered by the Time Lords for a reason not really discussed. However, listeners are asked to accept that the Vectors are judge, jury, and executioner of those villains of the galaxy.

Derek Jacobi as The Master from Doctor Who.
Derek Jacobi as The Master from Doctor Who. (BBC)

Throughout the trial, The Master provides evidence of his innocence, hoping to talk himself out of an untimely death. Each story pulls the audience into different adventures with The Master, giving us a look into how he operates as the hero of his own story. However, the series begins with a test from the Vectors as The Master and others are dropped into the Forest of Penitence.

Chapter 1: The Forest of Penitence

When chapter one opens up, there is no hint of the Vectors and The Masters trial. Instead, we are thrust into a large forest with Jacobi’s Master waking up and missing some integral memories. Together with a group of other individuals waking up in similar manners, The Master attempts to figure out what is going on and who dispensed them in this forest. 

If waking up in a place you are unfamiliar with wasn’t bad enough, being hunted by an unseen creature, ups the ante in this audio drama. Always just out of sight, the creature follows the group through the forest, causing a higher intensity and creating panic in the group as they descend farther into the forest. Factor in bleeding trees and companions who slowly go missing, The Master has his hands full with the mystery going on.

The interesting part of this chapter in Self-Defence is how much The Master reminded me of The Doctor. I think it was partially by design, with The Master attempting to paint himself in a positive life all throughout Self-Defence. For most of “The Forest of Penitence”, The Master has no plan, he isn’t scheming. Instead, he is presented with a mystery that must be solved, which is the basic premise of every Doctor Who episode. There are definitely moments that you still see the conniving Master shining through, but those moments are fleeting.

The cast in “The Forest of Penitence” was fantastic, with some incredible actors that brought these characters to life. The mother-daughter duo of Blythe (Sara Powell) and Ellie (Cecilia Appiah) are a strong drive in the earlier part of the drama, however, the relationship that develops between Ellie and The Master becomes more exciting the longer we spend in the forest. The banter between the latter two is some of the best beats from an already great story.

The War Master Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi as The Master from Doctor Who. (BBC)

Rounding out the group were Deidre Mullins as Dalfin, Adetomiwa Edun as Corvell, and Phil Dunster as Scarp. Scarp particularly stood out among these three, providing some great character moments, testing The Master in ways he isn’t used to being tested in.

Chapter 2: The Players

Returning from the Forst of Penitence, The Master comes face to face with the Vectors, metaphorically because the Vectors don’t show their faces. The Vectors claim that they sense no grief or remorse within The Master for his actions. They don’t believe he is capable of showing compassion or putting others first. The Master brings to his defense an adventure on the planet Trabus, where no one is innocent, except him.

Uma McCormack’s story is less space adventure and more an exploration of government, which is a very specific cup of tea. In the story, The Master is posing as an emissary from a Confederation who is deciding whether Trabus meets the criteria to join. However, the Master has a secondary mission of obtaining weapons from the planet to use in the Time War.

The Players felt like watching two people play chess. On one side was The Master, who believes he can manipulate people and situations to get what he wants. His opponent is a corrupt government who has mastered the ability to brainwash people to achieve their ultimate goals.

“The Players” was enjoyable after the fact, but following the story as it unfolded was difficult at times. Between the complicated names that I couldn’t attach to faces and the more scientific exploration than some of the other chapters, I had to listen to “The Players” twice to fully appreciate it. The story also moves quickly, but it’s more dialogue than action so you really have to pay attention.

The War Doctor
Derek Jacobi as The War Master. (Big Finish)

Helping to tell the story are Lucia (Ella Kenion), the identified leader of Trabus for this story, who strives to do the least amount of evil presented as a desire to do good. Gallia (Robyn Addison) is the innocent voice amongst the harsher realities within the stories. She has an incredibly strong need to do good, which sees her question the leadership of Trabus and switch sides in the revolution on the planet.

Cato (Ariyon Bakare) is one of the more interesting characters in “The Players”, as the irritable lead scientist of the brainwashing experiment. However Cato is undeniably the villain from the first words spoken, so the mystery or twist of the chapter falls a little flat.

Chapter 3: Boundaries

Prior to listening to The War Master: Self-Defence, I thought for sure the episode with David Tennant would be my favorite. After listening to “Boundaries” that was no longer true. “Boundaries” served as the second piece of evidence in The Master’s trial, where he protected a planet from destruction. The Master is staying on a planet with his companion Cole (Johnny Green), where his main mission is to grow the best grapes for wine.

When the grapes become threatened by a mysterious force field that appears on the planet, The Master begrudgingly involves himself in the mystery. The barrier appears to be slowly growing, mutating everything inside of it. The story is slower than the first two, with many of the interactions taking place between The Master and Fenice (Jo Joyner), an individual whose house and husband are stuck in the force field. Fenice has panicked energy throughout the chapter, her motivation is to find her husband and not just save the world.

The story itself was great, however, the beginning of “Boundaries” lacked the energy that the ending had. By the time The Master and Fenice reached the house inside the boundaries, the story really hits its stride, bringing it to a very exciting climax. While this adventure was fantastic evidence for The Master to prove his innocence, the story felt more like the Master was stalling his judgment from the Vectors.

Chapter 4: The Last Line

The Vectors are no longer impressed by the evidence provided by The Master, however, he has been granted one witness to help prove he isn’t completely irredeemable. Yet, who would ever come to The Master’s defense? Cue the return of David Tennant, who arrives in the middle of a mess already in motion. 

10th Doctor David Tennant
David Tennant in Doctor Who (BBC)

The Doctor is asked to speak on behalf of The Master and ultimately The Master’s life. This provides an interesting dilemma for The Doctor. On one hand, he could speak the truth and rid the world of The Master once and for all. Doing so, he could potentially save countless lives from The Master’s devilish schemes. However, at this point in The Doctor’s history, the only other Gallifreyian he has is The Master. 

Stuck in the middle between what feels right for the world and himself, The Doctor embarks on his own journey, to save The Master from The Vectors. The core of this story is that of the ever-spiraling dynamics between The Master and The Doctor; two individuals joined by fate. Hearing these two iconic voices together was a treat for fans of NuWho, which was one of the reasons I was so attracted to reviewing this set.

A downside of The Last Line is that Tennant is an incredibly fast talker and with most of the lines seemingly going to him, it was difficult to catch everything he had to say on the first go around. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of scientific terminologies mixed into it. Though by the second time listening through it, I was able to grasp most of what was said.

Overall Impressions of The War Master: Self-Defence

The War Master: Self-Defence is a good set if you’re looking for an entry into a new part of the Whoniverse. The entire set has the essence of Doctor Who all over it, however, provides a more intimate look into The Doctor’s greatest foe.

Derek Jacobi is truly excellent in every story, bringing humor and light-heartedness along with the dark sinister side fans know from The Master. As my first entry into the world of audio dramas from Big Finish, I was pleasantly surprised by the adventures Self-Defence took me on, allowing me to absorb more Doctor Who into my life.

The War Master: Self Defence is currently available from Big Finish! Have you listened to it already? Let us know what you thought on Twitter! Check out our latest Doctor Who review of The Legend of the Sea Devils!

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