Tony’s in two minds.
The Master is having quite a good year at Big Finish to celebrate 45 years of his existence. Not only has the Geoffrey Beevers incarnation turned up to menace the Victorian supersleuths, Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Lightfoot, running into a French-accented Sixth Doctor in the process (Oh, it’s a trip, you should check it out), but an idea that has floated round the fandom for the best part of a decade has finally made it to legitimacy – The Two Masters trilogy has been prepared for us. The first instalment, And You Will Obey Me was a peculiar affair involving the Master’s dogged determination to survive at any cost and in any form possible, but it took a couple of the things about the character that by now border on cliché and made them interesting and scary again, so an over complicated plot was still able to deliver its essential insidious Beevers Masterliness.
Vampire of the Mind sees the long-awaited return of Big Finish’s most successful solely invented Master, played by Alex Macqueen, which means a completely different tone of Master while staying true to the fundamentals of the character. Macqueen takes the idea of the Master as an expert in disguise and turns it up to way past eleven, always – when the Macqueen Master is pretending to be someone else, it’s always delivered with a fantastic mixture of commitment and twinkle, as though he’s playing some giant game with the world and can barely keep himself from laughing, but manages because, after all, he’s a performer and he’s having too much fun to spoil it with overacting. In a sense of course, that’s the Macqueen Master’s calling card, having entered our consciousness originally as an as-yet-unseen Doctor from the future. Macqueen here is, as ever, a thing of utter joy, and matching him up with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, by turns pompous and prone to moral outrage, allows him to bring new elements out in the character, including an almost convivial chattiness between Time Lords which seems adopted more or less specifically to rub Old Sixie up the wrong way. Macqueen, like Beevers, has discovered the art of a great supervillain laugh which sounds as though he ACTUALLY finds things funny, and he’s also become a Master of contrasts – a cooing, cajoling, persuasive Master that takes us in some ways all the way back to Delgado’s original, matched with a hard-edged evil more akin to an Ainley or even a Peter Pratt moment. It’s positively intoxicating to listen to – as perhaps is obvious by the fact that we’re four hundred words into this review and we haven’t mentioned the plot once.
The plot is pure Pertwee through and through – scientists from a range of disciplines are going missing, and there’s a mysterious ex-Ministry of Defence fortress on an island which the locals claim is infested by ‘zombies.’ There’s a scientific foundation doling out research grants like sweeties, with the single proviso that if you get a grant, you have to go and work at the Institute. Image-wise, again the keynote is Pertwee – science, labs, mysterious island fortresses, and an eventual alien creature that’s very mid-Pertwee in its characteristics. Think Mind of Evil and you won’t go far wrong. The Doctor even tries to call in UNIT at a number of points in the story, and we get the joy of a phone call between the Sixth Doctor and the Macqueen Master which harks right back to Terror of the Autons. What’s most interesting in this story though, besides Macqueen’s portrayal and his interaction with Baker’s Sixth Doctor, is the long-line narrative thread that’s developing. Throughout Jago & Litefoot 11 and the oddness of And You Will Obey Me, the Master has had pretty much two consistent goals, and they continue into Vampire of the Mind too, but for the first time, we get more insight into the ‘why’ of the thing – the Master has pretty much always had a monomania about the Doctor, but here, in just a throwaway line and a flashback scene, we get a sense that something has recently… ‘happened’… to the Master which has set him on the fairly Talons of Weng-Chiang path he’s been on this year. We don’t as yet get to understand what that something is, (though if you’ve ever wanted to hear the first post-regenerative words of this Master, buckle up, because we get them here), but are assured it’ll all make sense when the third and final instalment, The Two Masters, is released.
Is Vampire of the Mind an all-time classic, absolutely-must-listen Big Finish story? Well, no – the similarity to many stories of the Pertwee era gives it a dangerous propensity to sound like a re-tread, though to be fair, Macqueen and Baker blow any such cobwebbing right out of the water, as does Kate Kennedy as Heather Threadstone, Old Sixie’s one-off companion for this story. In fact, Kennedy’s Threadstone is very true to the spirit of the story, channelling Caroline John’s Liz Shaw through a very 21st century Who dynamic, giving the Doctor more than a run for his money, and absolutely refusing to be the ‘What’s that, Doctor?’ kind of companion that seemed so much a necessary part of the 70s. Kennedy brings energy and a lightness of touch to the almost Amy Pond relationship Threadstone has with the Doctor, and would be a welcome addition to the Tardis on a more full-time basis if and when Leading Wren Constance Clark ever decides she’s had enough of time and space.
The nature of the titular ‘vampire of the mind’ though is a little creaky, and at about the 60% mark as you go through the story, you can pretty much predict how things will go for the remaining 40% of the time. Vampire of the Mind is an homage to the Pertwee-era Delgado Master’s exploits, with three leads who wouldn’t know an average performance if it jumped up and down and waggled Marie-Antoinette’s lockpicks in their faces. As such, there’s no real bad about Vampire of the Mind, and there is an enormous amount to cherish and re-listen to. What it doesn’t have is an enormous amount to surprise you beyond those three central performances. It’s a 1970s story, elevated through performance and some solid writing from Justin Richards into a thing that can pass muster in 2016. The Master’s flashback gives an effective hook forward into The Two Masters, and the very end of the story has more than a touch of Fury From The Deep about it, which is enough to end this knockabout Time Lord romp with a dark shiver that likewise will need a solid pay-off in the third instalment of the story.
Everyone who’s heard how Macqueen ‘first’ encountered the Seventh Doctor will of course be tearing their hair out trying to make sense of an adventure which must by the number of the Doctor, undo the surprise factor of that first meeting. Let’s just say Richards has taken care of that, though admittedly in a way that’s both inevitable and strangely crowbarred in. Does it satisfy the points it needs to? Yes, but in a way you’ll see coming several miles off.
So – having gone back and forth on it in this review, is Vampire of the Mind one to recommend? Yes, if you’re a Pertwee fan especially, and yes on the strength of the three central performances, absolutely. Plotwise, it may be nothing terribly special or earth-shattering but it’s at least as good as many of the Pertwee stories that were lifted to classic status by the performances of Pertwee, Delgado, Manning, Courtney and co. Likewise here, Macqueen, Baker and Kennedy between them turn Vampire of the Mind into a couple of hours spent in great company, updating some 70s tropes and having a good deal of fun in the process.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk