Master was the 49th entry in Big Finish’s “Main Range” or “Monthly Range” of Doctor Who audios (released back in 2003), that were part of a run of four stories which starred the four Doctors that Big Finish had access to at the time, and which were each named after one of the franchise’s major villains: Omega, Davros, Master and (original to audio) Zagreus. The releases were part of the celebrations for the show’s 40th anniversary. This time around Sylvester McCoy stars as the Seventh Doctor, traveling without a companion, and Geoffrey Beevers co-stars as the Master, a role he had played on TV in The Keeper of Traken and then at least in one audio story before this one (Dust Breeding).
(Daily Doctor Who #289)
I’ve mentioned before that stories that are legitimately about villains do not always thrill me. A story with someone overtly evil as the protagonist will obviously mute the heroism of the story (which is really what I’m in it for) and is often depressing and gruesome. Master skirts around these tones a lot thanks to what the story is about, but never really avoids it (and doesn’t really want to), filling its run-time with dread in the same way that the creepy house the story is set in is filled with the spectre of death.
The story is about a dinner party being held by one Doctor John Smith–but this isn’t the Dr. John Smith we’ve come to expect from Doctor Who–this is the Master, in his burnt and desiccated form from The Keeper of Traken, but with amnesia. He has lived in provincial town for the past ten years, dedicated himself to helping those who need it in spite of his disfigurement and unknown past. But John Smith is plagued by mysterious voices, a spate of unexplained murders have been terrorizing his community. Into this portentous evening comes a mysterious stranger, calling himself the Doctor–who claims he doesn’t know John Smith, but is evidently lying.
All of this leads to a lot of interesting but inconclusive discussion on the nature of evil, and the question of whether all evil deeds have understandable motives. Could it be, wonders John Smith, that there are some criminals which simply cannot be profiled–crimes for which no reason exists? When the Master resurfaces (as of course he does), he claims to be such a person, and yet at the same time declares that he does what he does because of his lust for power. It doesn’t quite add up, but the story seems to act like it does, which is a bit frustrating.
Even more annoying, the story introduces Death as a character, hidden in the story as both the creepy voice and as a lower class servant girl. This, we are told clearly, is not some science fiction avatar of death, or a creature that is really into death…but Death itself. And Death, we find out, has been following the Master around all his life getting him to do its bidding. It seems to be pretty much omnipotent as it can move itself and others through time and space anywhere it wants to go, it can change appearance, it take away and restore memories, it can reverse time and change the outcome of events, and it’s really really mean…but also sort of annoying.
The story goes even further and introduces a whole origin story for the Master that is sort of akin to the recent “canon” Timeless Child plot in the way it both complicates and demystifies the characters that we know, to their detriment. In this case, it turns out that the Master and the Doctor were childhood friends who were cruelly bullied by some idiot, and then when things got really bad one of them struck back and killed the guy. Together, they hid the crime, but the guilt and shame ate at the one who had done the murder until he turned into the Master.
And then the story adds an “everything you know is a lie” twist (also similar to the Timeless Child) and we find out that it was the Doctor who committed the murder, but then in his guilt and fear he made a deal with Death (who was lurking around back then as well) to make the Master think he had done it, setting the two of them on the course of their lives as we know it. It’s not a badly produced scene, but it’s so unbelievably stupid as far as its sabotaging the series’ mythology, it’s hard to imagine anyone could take it seriously.
Who knows, maybe it was addressed or undone in a later audio, but thankfully it’s been completely contradicted by the television show–although it’s interesting to note how certain elements of this story can be found in the eventual return of the Master to TV, with the whole Professor Yana thing from Utopia.
Master has an interesting set-up, and it’s filled with lots of complex discussion, decent atmosphere, and some good performances by Geoffrey Beevers and Sylvester McCoy (as well as Philip Madoc and Anne Ridler as the John Smith’s friends)…but it’s not a very good story. For my money, it’s best forgotten.