Big Finish: Doctor Who - The War Master: Hearts of Darkness Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who - The War Master: Hearts of Darkness Review

Matthew Kresal finds himself between two Time Lords...

One of the delights in listening to Big Finish in recent years is the further adventures of Sir Derek Jacobi's War Master. In doing so, they've proven that those incredible few minutes in Utopia thirteen years ago were far from a fluke, though, after last year's fourth set, it seemed to be over for the character. Thankfully, that wasn't to be the case as evidenced by the release in October of Hearts of Darkness, a set given the further boost of a return engagement between the War Master and Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor.

Written in alternating episodes by David Llewellyn and Lisa McMullin, Hearts of Darkness is a four-part epic, with each episode building on the last. It's also channeling something of a take on Joseph Conrad's novella of very similar titling with this box-set, and the pair of tales from each writer, being a journey across a Time War ravaged cosmos. And, to an extent, into history with different civilizations at various levels of development (or lack thereof). It's an intriguing theme and one that both Llewellyn and McMullin play within each of their scripts.

That isn't to say that there isn't plenty of variety within its four and a half hours running time and the four episodes. Llewellyn's opening episode, The Edge of Redemption, for example, is a thoroughly enjoyable space heist story, sort of Firefly meets Doctor Who, only with The War Master instead. One that sees Jacobi's Master playing criminal mastermind (no pun intended) alongside a motley crew that includes Colin McFarlane's rogue of a spaceship captain Morski. Indeed, if one wants an example of the kind of grand-scale science fiction audio drama Big Finish does, The Edge of Redemption is a near as damn it perfect one.

That sort of Firefly meets Doctor Who tone carries over a bit into McMullin's The Scaramancer. It's a tale of space piracy, with the fantastic Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo as the titular space pirate, with many of the genre trappings you might expect. Or, at least, on the more serious end of them both rather than, say, the space opera quality of that Second Doctor story called The Space Pirates. It's also something of a lynchpin story, setting up the Scaramancer as a character and acting as the turning point for the box-set as a whole, something that McMullin handles well as the plot never overwhelms the story.

Llewellyn is back in the writer's chair for the third episode in the gothic The Castle of Kurnos 5, while McMullin returns for the finale with The Cognition Shift. As with Rage of the Time Lords, it's in the back half of the set that Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor enters proceedings. How and why the Eighth Doctor appears, though, is rather hard to touch upon without utterly spoiling the set, which I won't do here. If only for the simple reason of Jacobi and McGann being together again on audio. Because they don't disappoint, especially with both of them each getting new things to do as performers in the series, itself no mean feat given how many stories each has done for Big Finish. It's something that also put this release into a category all its own as a Doctor-Master face-off in its own right. One even better than their previous engagement in the already fantastic Rage of the Time Lords.

This fifth War Master set also lives up to the strong production values of its predecessors. Joe Meiners's sound design work deserves particular praise given the range of locations from futuristic spaceport to a planet in a Gothicesque period and a primitive, dangerous world, all of which he produces out of sound. Ioan Morris's scores are likewise evocative of the worlds in which the stories take place, adding immensely to their sense of atmosphere, especially in the latter half of the set. The combined efforts of Meiner and Morris is an absolute boost to the production as a whole, ably bringing added dimension to performance and scripts alike.

For a series that has gone from strength to strength, the War Master: Hearts of Darkness has proven no exception. From a genre twist on a literary classic to a second (and in this reviewer's opinion, even stronger) face-off between the War Master and the Eighth Doctor, it's also a fine example of the storytelling that Big Finish excels at making. If for some reason you've not heard a War Master set before, don't hesitate to give this one a listen.

The War Master: Hearts of Darkness is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until December 31st 2020, and on general sale after this date.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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