Big Finish: Doctor Who - The War Master: Anti-Genesis, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who - The War Master: Anti-Genesis, Review

Matthew Kresal rewrites time.
For fans of Doctor Who in recent years, Big Finish's audio dramas have been one of the to-go places for new stories. Especially as the company has pulled back the layers of the much-fabled Time War that formed so much of Modern Who's backstory and reveling in the exploits of the wartime incarnation of the Master, played briefly on-screen in 2007 by Sir Derek Jacobi. Few entries into Big Finish's War Master range have been as intriguing or capable of making fan hearts beat as fast as Anti-Genesis, the fourth release from December 2019. Its four episodes brought two different eras of Who's history together in one epic box-set.

Like most other War Master sets, Anti-Genesis's four episodes come from the pen of two writers: Nicholas Briggs and Alan Barnes, two Big Finish regulars dating back to the company's earliest days. It's Briggs who opens the set with From The Flames, seeing a dying Master returning to Gallifrey with his dying wish to be laid to rest there, forgiven by the Time Lords. Except, of course, as Coordinator Narvin (Seán Carlsen from the Gallifrey range), there's always more to the Master than meets the eye. From The Flames kicks off the set in style, with Briggs playing on the audience's (and Narvin's) expectations throughout, even as he introduces the major players in this little saga, such as Franchi Webb's Lamarius. Only in its closing minutes, however, does Briggs and the Master alike reveal the scope of their ambitions and let loose the proverbial dogs of war with a literal bang.

Alan Barnes takes over for the middle episodes of the set. The Master’s Dalek Plan has not only a fantastic play on words for its title but sees the War Master diving headlong into his plan. One that, as astute Classic Who fans may have spotted from both the set's title and its cover art, essentially means the Time Lord is going to write his own version of a certain well-regarded serial. But while Barnes pays plenty of homage to that story, this is by no means a simple re-write, given that the Master is the renegade Time Lord that he is. There's a lot of fun to be had spotting the Easter eggs planted in the episode (including in the Master's speech that opens it), but it also raises the stakes and sets the stage for another ending breathtaking in its sheer audacity.

The effects of the Master's plan become abundantly clear in Barnes' follow-up episode, Shockwave. One that sees the Daleks themselves crossing dimensions to find the one being with a chance of unraveling what the Master has done: The Unbound Master, played by Mark Gatiss. If the previous episode had been a showcase for Jacobi's War Master, then Shockwave offers up the same for Gatiss in his incarnation, one the actor has been playing on and off since way back in 2003. Listening to Gatiss interacting with Daleks and other familiar characters is a treat in its own right, not to mention a chance for him to show off his Master without David Warner's Unbound Doctor around, either. Not that Jacobi is entirely left out, as one powerful scene that should drop the jaw of any knowledgeable Classic Who fan will attest.

Briggs returns to the writer's chair for the finale, He Who Wins. As the Big Finish website sums it up rather succinctly: "The Master has achieved an ultimate victory. But at what cost?" Building as it does on the previous three episodes, He Who Wins is not an easy episode to review, at least without dropping heavy spoilers for it. Suffice to say, Briggs maneuvers all his chess pieces into position to pull off a very particular ending, one that in some ways addresses the major issue with the finale of another Master audio nearly two years early. He Who Wins also offers up, from a time when it was uncertain if Jacobi would continue in the role, a chance for Big Finish to neatly put a bow on these early sets of the range. Not to mention a satisfying conclusion to Anti-Genesis as a box-set in its own right, no mean feat given the sheer ambition unleashed across its four episodes.

As the preceding paragraphs may attest, this War Master set is one steeped in Doctor Who lore. Not only in Classic Who and with one particular serial but also in Big Finish's own output from the Gallifrey and Unbound ranges. It is, as a result, one of those audios that, to use a phrase coined by my fellow reviewer Tony Fyler, "takes place in a space and time defined by the power of fandom squared." Which isn't at all a bad thing, I hasten to say, especially as someone like Briggs and Barnes immersed in the things that the set so readily riffs upon for four-plus hours. For fans in the know, Anti-Genesis is the best kind of fandom-centric storytelling: bringing two very different eras of the series history together with spectacular results.

All of which are highlighted by how strong of a production there is to back the scripts. Richard Fox and Rob Harvey's sound design work deserves particular praise given the range of locations from Gallifrey to recreating locations and moments familiar to Classic Who fans. Harvey also scores the set, producing a cinematic piece of work that brings so much atmosphere and tension to the episodes, while also finding moments to echo Dudley Simpson's iconic work from more than four decades ago. Between Fox and Havey, they strike a balance between modern expectations, while also paying homage to elements of the past put into play by Briggs and Barnes. Combined with the performances, especially Jacobi and Gatiss as their respective Masters, it's something that brings out the best the set has to offer.

In many ways, Anti-Genesis may be the crowning jewel of the entire War Master range. No mean feat, given that it has gone from strength to strength across six very different sets now. Yet, from the performances of Jacobi and Gatiss to its use of elements from across Doctor Who's history, perhaps no other War Master box-set has been as pleasing or thrilling an experience to hear.

And, as time has shown, it was not the end, only the beginning.

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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