Sunday, 12 September 2010

Master written by Joseph Lidster and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Many years ago, on a dark and stormy night, the disfigured and enigmatic Doctor John Smith invited his closest friends, Inspector Victor Schaeffer and his wife, Jacqueline, to a dinner to celebrate his birthday. A few hours later all the occupants in that house had been changed ­ some were dead, others mentally scarred forever by the events of that night. So, what happened to the distinguished dinner guests on that evening? Perhaps, we¹ll never know. But two clues have led to much speculation ­ found outside the study window, a charred umbrella with a curved red handle and found inside the house, a blood-stained copy of Stevenson¹s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. For one person, this night represented an ending: an ending to one thousand years of darkness and an ending to ten years of light. But, for everyone else, is there no ending of this one night of Hell?

The Real McCoy: Oh my gosh. If that wasn’t better than his performance in The Fires of Vulcan, it was equal and easily one of McCoy’s best turns in a Doctor Who audio. I was extremely impressed by the levels of menace and unease he managed to conjour, growling and purring through the story and I honestly cannot imagine any other Doctor playing this sort of material as effectively. Astonishing considering this was written by Joe Lidster who I felt completely fudged the seventh Doctor in The Rapture, just as I thought he fumbled trying to capture the pre NA seventh Doctor this shot at his post Lungbarrow self is exactly how I would have imagined him and more. Contemplative, thoughtful, slightly scary and a real presence. I loved how the story dropped little hints of where this was in the Doctor’s timeline, Death laying before him his list of crimes meddling, murdering, etc and the use of Adjudicators and the subtle mention of the Doctor’s family. After listening to this story I am convinced that the producers should drop his adventures with Ace and shoot straight to the end of his incarnation and set all of his stories in his twilight years. It’s the first time I have felt this in nearly 50 releases but McCoy is the only actor I can imagine doing justice to this material in the way he does, especially whilst he is narrating the story or telling chilling bedtime tales. A huge thumbs up for Lidster and McCoy. What really hit home was how Lidster was willing to take risks with the Doctor’s character, the only story in the villains’ trilogy that reveals as much dark material about the Doctor as the villain in question. Whether you like this revelation is open to debate but you have to admire the audacity of suggesting the Doctor is ultimately the villain and responsible for the Master.

The framing device is rather wonderful adding to the seventh Doctor’s mystique – at first I wondered if this would be an explanation of the Kennedy assassination but in typically ambiguous fashion a British flag is mentioned. The Doctor admits that the Master is an old friend of his. He is terrified of the Master remembering who he once was. In a scene that seems cold and callous but actually turns out to be anything but the Doctor orders John to murder Jacqueline. Does the Doctor save lives in the universe to make up for what he and the Master did to Torvik when they were young boys? As he tries to tell Jacqueline about how dangerous John Smith is he discovers he doesn’t actually know who his nemesis is anymore, how many thousands of lives he has saved. The Doctor refuses to let fate decide his actions. No longer does he play the spoons, mix his metaphors or have fun, now it is all about destroying planets and tidying up his previous mistakes. It is slowly revealed that he is not here by co-incidence; he did a deal with Death and orchestrated this whole scenario for the Master. He feels guilty that he has never tried to understand the Master. By killing the Master now he could save countless lives. When John Smith asks him if he is approaching with the knife he purrs ‘Yes, I am’ and for a second my blood went cold, he was actually going to do it! The Doctor wants the Master as a friend, not an enemy. It is revealed that it wasn’t the Master that murdered Torvik when they were boys, it was the Doctor and Death came to him that night and offered him a choice, lose himself in that death of afflict the Master. ‘Take him’ says the selfish child and the Doctor has been paying for that decision ever since. He can’t imagine anyone he would rather be friends with than the Master. It is deliciously dark to see the Doctor breaking his deal with Death twice in this story so near the end of his seventh life, does Death decide to swoop down and take him for his betrayal? To have him land in that alleyway in San Francisco and have his chest torn open in a hail of bullets?

Amnesiac Murderer: A big hurrah for Geoffrey Beevers turn as the Master in his most twisted examination yet in the series. He gives a chilling performance that would have left Delgado, Ainley and Simm waiting in the wings, triumphing the audition! John Smith is charming, humbled and knowledgeable and the Master leaps out of him, Jekyll and Hyde style and spits and sneers and dabbles in death. Smith is the greatest surgeon in Perfugeum and has saved many lives and has no family aside from Jacqueline and Victor. He was found wandering the streets with no knowledge of his previous life, scarred and possibly having survived a terrible accident. He has visited hypnotists and specialists to jog his memory but there is no way to light the darkness in his mind. More than anything he wants to know what he has forgotten. Did the Master take lives with no motive? Smith’s interest in psychology has developed from his own condition – what could cause a man to forget his entire past? His fantasies of murder, are they representative of the man he once was? Smith feels as though the is something inside of him struggling to break free, is he the living embodiment of Jekyll and Hyde, a mindless killer some of the time? The guilt of murdering Torvik ate away at the Master when they were boys; he left Gallifrey and did whatever he could to survive. Evil festered and grew inside of him. The only certainty with the master is that he will bring death; millions have died by his hands. Smith finds that he cannot pretend to be what he is not. In a shocking moment he turns on Jacqueline, calls her a fat, pampered, prejudiced fool, trying to destroy her love for him to save her. The reality is that he loves her and upon admitting this to the Doctor wonders if the Master is finally redeemable. The Doctor made it so the Master killed Torvik and Death took her hold, nurturing that feeling and allowing it to incubate and emerge. The master craves power, dominion, knowledge of the forbidden and secret, much more than just being evil. He reveals that those who deserved to die where denied life. Has the Master made a lifetime partnership with Death? He was sentenced to a life of despair by the Doctor but he still considers him a friend. At the close of the story the Master is offered the same choice that the Doctor was all those years ago, he can remain as John Smith, a good man but he would have to give the Doctor to him. I love the open-ended conclusion because it allows much speculation – especially as this could have taken place right before the TV Movie.

Great Ideas: Young girls are being murdered, their throats cut savagely as to almost decapitate them, their chests ripped open and their hearts removed. John Smith questions whether people who kill always have a motive; perhaps they just have a different morality. Framing the story with the Doctor telling the tale to a lonely assassin is inspired as the assassin criticises his ability, how he makes none of the characters likable! Does evil as a concept exist? What if someone commits murder because that is who they are? Do we see each other as others see us? Criminals – nature or nurture? Lidster poses some fascinating questions in his two handed second episode. John Smith’s gut churning story of holding the newborn baby in his hands and having the power to smash it to the floor genuinely gave my goose bumps. I loved Smith and Jacqueline’s double bluff, he threatening to kill her if the Doctor doesn’t tell him who he was. The story that the Doctor tells of him and the Master as boys is the closest to character development the Master had seen to this point. Two young boys growing up together, their world one of rules, a stuffy class ridden society, striving to shatter their chains and one day truly be free, wandering the stars and seeing the universe. Torvik was a bully and he tried to murder the Master by holding his head under water and in a moment of panic and desperation the Doctor picked up a large stone and shattered his skull. They both pulled the bully from the river and burnt him on a funeral pyre. They were never caught. The Doctor should have been the Master and vice verse, he was offered a choice and he chose to make the Master the killer and freed himself from the enticement of killing. The boys grew up and apart. There are darker sides to everybody’s personalities, prejudices. The Master is Jade’s servant and she is revealed to be…Death herself! Victor is the one killing the prostitutes because they were criminals (prostitutes), filth, because they don’t deserve hearts. Death came to the Doctor with an offer, for ten years the Master could live at peace with the universe as long as the Doctor murders him after that decade has expired. If Jacqueline dies millions will follow like a stack of dominoes, if John’s love for her dies the Master will be reborn. In a truly shocking twist Victor snaps his wife’s neck. As the Master jumps free the Doctor desperately makes another deal with Death, to crush him and bring John Smith back to the surface. However Death offers the choice to Smith, remain free and give the Doctor to her. The assassin turns out to be Death in disguise. I loved the casual revelation that Death is popping off to take a little girl with a nut allergy about to bite into a flapjack. Perhaps her shadow hangs over all of us, waiting to make the wrong move.

Standout Performance: As Baker and Molloy triumphed in their story so do McCoy and Beevers champion here. However Philip Madoc deserves a huge round of applause for his chilling turn as Victor, part time Adjudicator and slaughterer of girls. His mental stability is extremely precarious and Madoc never shies away from revealing the horror of a breakdown, his drunken rage is knife-edge scary.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘All who hear my voice shall die.’ ‘You’ll tell me what I am or the streets of Perfugeum will run with the blood of innocents.’

Audio Landscape: Beautifully brought to life by David Darlington who continues to be one of the finest sound designers on Big Finish’s payroll. The story opens as it means to go on, deathly screams, cats crying out and unveiling a heavy curtain or foreboding. The assassin is tucked away from a cheering crowd, his gun cocked and ready to fire. The clock ticking, wine being poured, the fire crackling and a winter wind; this is a perfect murder mystery setting. Laughter echoes around John Smith’s head (‘You’re going to die tonight’). At one point a heart beats and you can hear blood pumping furiously. Water runs constantly in the kitchen. The Doctor’s ghastly scream at the end of part one goes right through you. Rain hammers on the house and lawn. The Doctor’s endless scream. I really enjoyed the laughter at the end of part two, after the theme tune, a really nice touch. Torvik screams with laughter and falls to his death with a splash. The door creaks ominously as Jade/Death enters the scene. Mad winds rush through the house.

Isn’t that Odd: At moments Death sounds ridiculously camp and very similar to Sancreda in Lanyon Moor. The story of the amnesiac Master visiting hypnotists reminded me very strongly of the amnesiac 8th Doctor trying to retrieve his memories and Smith’s decision at the end, to become the Master or remain, as he is reminiscent of Human Nature. A shame that Death is such a wisecracker but points for trying to pull off such a melodramatic concept.

Standout Moment: For its possibilities and the thick atmosphere, the end of part three really winded me. Its delicately played and all the more effective for it. However the whole of episode two, powerful dialogue and characterisation, would also rank.

Result: Far better than I remember, Master is a theatrical piece that plays games with its characters in deliciously cruel ways. In some ways Lidster has toned down his penchant for melodrama by setting this story in a claustrophobic location with only a handful of carefully defined characters but in others he has refined it and juggles about some powerful ideas about fate, perception, the nature of evil and the motive to murder very effectively. Geoffrey Beevers is given ample opportunity to prove his worth and he is aided superbly by Sylvester McCoy who finally knocks me over with a powerful performance, at times it is hard to work out who is the villain and who is the hero which compliments the audacious twist at the heart of the story. My only real complaint is that after her dramatic reveal at the end of part three Death turns out to be as ridiculous and exaggerated as you would expect and weighs down the last episode with an uneven tone. For most of its running time however Master is a very effective haunted house story and one, which envelops you in its stifling atmosphere of insanity. And how scary does McCoy look on the cover: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @


Sam Palmer said...

Death is a New Adventures Character; So is this a NA play? do you need to be well-versed in them to follow along?

Ed Azad said...

Jack the space! I love the idea that Edwardian culture produces the Ripper no matter what planet it's on.

The cover art in this stage of Big Finish's life was pretty ropey, but they did pull off a convincing Master here. It really looks like a toasted Beevers.

At this point I'm fine with accepting Doctor Who as a multiverse of continuity, like Batman. Every showrunner tends to retcon or jettison what they don't like, anyway.

David Pirtle said...

This is one of the most outright fantastical stories I've experienced in the Doctor Who universe. The Doctor makes a deal with what can only be described as the goddess of death in an attempt to redeem the Master's soul. I agree that what really lets it down is the personification of death. Too much snark and not enough weight, especially when introduced at the climax of the tale. But I also agree that McCoy is terrific in this. What he lacks as an actor he more than makes up for as a storyteller.