Big Finish: The War Master: Escape From Reality, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: The War Master: Escape From Reality, Review

Matthew Kresal discovers a new Master of fiction. 
In 1968, Classic Doctor Who gave viewers one of its most unique tales, with The Mind Robber sending the Second Doctor into the Land of Fiction, a universe where fictional characters were real. Nearly forty years later, Modern Doctor Who dropped one of its biggest surprises in the episode Utopia as Sir Derek Jacobi's grandfatherly Professor Yana became the Doctor's Time Lord nemesis, the Master. Two moments in Doctor Who's history are now linked together as Big Finish has brought Jacobi's Master into the Land of Fiction for their latest collection of War Master audio dramas.

And what a set Escape From Reality turns out to be.

The Wrath of Medusa by Rochana Patel gets the ball rolling quickly. With its opening minutes setting up why and how the War Master heads into the Land of Fiction, Patel wastes no time getting on with the story and establishing the set's tone. Namely, dropping this Master into myths and stories, letting him interact and face off against characters from them in the process. And where better to start than in the epic tales of gods and monsters from Greek mythology? Listening to Jacobi's Master ooze with charm and insincere flattery is half the fun of this opening installment, as is Patel making meta use of Greek myths and dropping the odd reference to The Mind Robber along the way. It's a solid start to the set and one that very much sets the bar for what's to come.

Lizzie Hopley picks up the second installment for something different. The Shadow Master shifts away somewhat from Jacobi's Time Lord, letting another character tell of his impact upon this realm: his own Shadow. Gethin Anthony is a suitable narrator in that guise, with Hopley using the conceit of a lesser-known Hans Christian Andersen, giving this Shadow some haunting monologues. Big Finish has proven themselves masters (if you'll pardon the expression) at telling stories best suited to the audio medium, and The Shadow Master is no exception to that, throwing in imagery in descriptions that would shatter a visual effects budget if done on-screen with high concept ideas, all contained in an absorbing personal drama.

For the back half of the set, listeners to some of Big Finish's non-Doctor Who output might find themselves on familiar ground. Alfie Shaw offers up The Adventure of the Deceased Doctor, which, as its title might suggest, offers something of a crossover with the company's Sherlock Holmes range. Namely, by having Richard Earl reprise his role as Dr. Watson from those audios, but with a very different Holmes in the form of Jacobi, who is clearly relishing the part. Yet what starts as a seemingly straightforward Holmes pastiche, if a slightly wild one given it starts with the Baker Street duo learning of Watson's apparent murder, quickly snowballs into something else entirely. Like Patel in Wrath of Medusa, there is a play on the meta aspects of the Holmes canon and how it affects how we see these characters, but Shaw leans even farther into it with his murder mystery plot. It's a roller coaster of an episode that also sees a fantastic supporting turn from Torchwood's Burn Gorman as Inspector Lestrade and one that this reviewer won't spoil for perspective listeners. Suffice it to say it might be my favorite story from the entire War Master range to date.

Last but definitely not least, there's another crossover of sorts to be made. Given the nature of the set and Big Finish's decade-long series based on the character, the Master would have to meet Dorian Gray, or else it wouldn't be complete. And The Master of Dorian Gray doesn't disappoint, with Alexander Vlahos reprising his role. But, like the Holmes episode that proceeds it, this isn't strictly a crossover with the established audios. Instead, the Master is once more up to something inside a well-known work, using it for his own devices. David Llewellyn, a veteran of the Dorian Gray range who adapted the original novel for Big Finish, plays around with this famous novel and its titular character, playing on the Master's (and audience's) knowledge of the story to build up the suspense. Pairing Llewellyn's twists with Jacobi and Vlahos's performances, The Master of Dorian Gray is a satisfying conclusion to the set and a fine story in its own right.

One of the things that make Escape From Reality such a great listen is its leading man. The War Master range has shown us the Master we could (and perhaps should) have had back in 2007, but rarely has it offered as much of an actor's showcase as this set. From Jacobi's seemingly effortless charm to a manipulative chess player sometimes out of his depth, the range that the writers and producer/director Scott Handcock give for the actor is not short of stunning. And, as things get meta in the second half of the set, the range of accents and styles from Jacobi on display makes listening a pleasure. For fans of Jacobi as an actor and Master, this set is a must-have.

That's without forgetting how solid of a production the entire set is, to boot. Rob Harvey's sound design work deserves particular praise given the range of settings across the four episodes, from Mount Olympus to fairy tale locales to the familiar Victorian settings of Sherlock Holmes and Dorian Gray. Harvey also scores the set, creating very different accompaniments for each episode that suit each outing with a cinematic flourish. Indeed, the music suites with each episode are among the set's highlights. Combined with Hancock's directions and solid supporting casts that includes Big Finish players reprising roles with familiar voices in new parts, it's every hallmark of Big Finish's work on aural display throughout.

And thanks to the solid scripts, Jacobi's range of performances, and how good it all sounds, Escape From Reality might be this reviewer's new favorite War Master set.

The War Master: Escape from Reality is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 28 February 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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