Big Finish: Doctor Who THE WAR MASTER: SELF-DEFENCE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who THE WAR MASTER: SELF-DEFENCE Review

Matthew Kresal listens to a reunion 15 years in the making.
In 2007, Russell T Davies and Modern Doctor Who dropped an almighty surprise on viewers. During the closing minutes of the episode Utopia, viewers discovered that Sir Derek Jacobi's kindly Professory Yana was, unbeknownst to anyone, including himself, really the renegade Time Lord known as the Master. And after a few tantalizing minutes, Jacobi's Master gave way to a younger incarnation played by John Simm. Jacobi's Time War incarnation of the Master has, however, found new life in recent years with a series of audio dramas from the folks at Big Finish. And now, released 15 years to the day Utopia aired, Jacobi's been reunited with David Tennant's Doctor in their latest outing, Self-Defence.

Tennant's Doctor, it's worth mentioning (as indeed Big Finish does on their site), only appears in the final episode of the set. While that may disappoint some, it is also worth mentioning that there's a heck of a journey undertaken to get there. Lou Morgan starts listeners off with The Forest of Penitence, which throws the Master and listener alike in at the deep end. Despite its forest setting, Morgan's script has a claustrophobic mystery element to it, thanks to its small cast and a sense of unease cultivated by director Scott Handcock in conjunction with the music of Ioan Morris and sound design from Joe Meiners. Toss in some intriguing exploration of guilt and a dose of body horror, and you have a most effective opening story which sets the stage for what follows.

Namely that the War Master is called to account for himself. As Scott Hancock notes in the extras, Jacobi enjoys telling a good story, something that listeners to the two in last year's interview special I, Jacobi, will be familiar. In Self-Defence's middle episodes, The Players by Una McCormack and Boundaries by Lizbeth Myles, the War Master gets to do just that, interspersed with flashbacks to the events. It's a story format that can be difficult to pull of, running the risk of being too expositional or lacking dramatic scenes.

It's safe to say neither is the case here. McCormack's tale of a diplomatic mission to a dystopian society shows the range of Jacobi's War Master while also putting the conniving manipulator's shoe on the other foot, as it were. Myles, meanwhile, takes listeners back to The Sky Man from the original War Master set while this Master was still traveling with his companion Cole. Set in-between scenes in that episodes during the War Master's proverbial downtime, Myles uses a threat to it to explore some of what makes this incarnation (and the Master as a chracter at large, for that matter) tick. Both make for solid episodes in their own right while also setting the stage for the finale.

The finale, of course, bringing the old sparring partners from Utopia back together. The Last Line by Lizzie Hopley is no mere exercise in ticking boxes or fan service, however, and she quickly dispenses with any continuity hijinks. Instead, Hopley returns to the premise, frequently mentioned, that this Master is the Hannibal Lecter incarnation. As such, this reunion with Tennant's Doctor is an extra special treat, with shades perhaps of Doctor Lecter to the Doctor's Will Graham in Red Dragon or the cult-favorite Hannibal television series. It's something which makes the interactions between the two characters all the more fascinating, especially knowing where they are in their respective timelines, complete with a sense of tragic inevitability to events. That Hopley does all of that inside a story that pays off the three episodes of the set while remaining compelling in its own right is all the more to her credit and that of producer/director Hancock orchestrating things behind the scenes. That one gets to hear the likes of Jacobi and Tennant bouncing and facing off against one another is just icing on the cake.

From making the most of Jacobi's talents to a fan-pleasing reunion well-realized, Self-Defence is another triumph for a range that has taken Big Finish from strength to strength. For something that began as a mere few minutes 15 years ago has grown one of the most compelling pieces of Doctor Who storytelling around at present. For those who've not had the pleasure of experiencing it for themselves, Self-Defence is a fantastic to dive in.

The War Master: Self-Defence is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 August 2022, and on general sale after this date.

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. His prose includes the non-fiction The Silver Archive: Dark Skies from Obverse Books, the Cold War alternate history spy thriller Our Man on the Hill, and the Sidewise Award winning short story Moonshot in Sea Lion Press' Alternate Australias anthology. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, or follow him on Twitter @KresalWritesHe was born, raised, and lives in North Alabama where he never developed a southern accent.

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