This might shock you regular readers of this blog, but I am a pretty big Who fan, to the point that I’m familiar with not just the TV show, but with the radio plays put out by Big Finish (which, rather delightfully, were recently given at least semi-canonical status by the show itself!). Plus I have very strong opinions about the “Who was the best showrunner of the modern series?” debate, but fortunately for you we’re here for something rather different. Here’s my thoughts on probably one of Big Finish’s most anticipated titles, springing out of their closer arrangement with the BBC that allowed them to work with storylines and characters from the modern series…
Let me state the obvious: if you’re not already at least a casual fan of the TV show, this ain’t for you. Even the title, “The War Master”, is not really comprehensible unless you have some familiarity with the show’s continuity, and not just the fact that one of the show’s longest-running villains is called the Master. This definitely is no gateway, but it’s not intended to be. Instead, it’s a salve for those of us who wanted to see more of the great Sir Derek Jacobi performing as the Doctor’s greatest frenemy, the Master, for more than the six minutes we got in “Utopia”. Luckily, more than that, it’s a great addition to the “Doctor Who” canon in its own right, which fleshes out the Master in a way that fits neatly with both the “classic” and modern series interpretations of the character.
After a run-in with the Daleks and managing to recover his lost TARDIS, the Master is ordered by the Time Lords to perform an undercover mission on the planet Arcking, an entire planet that’s serving as a battlefield hospital in the Time War. If there is such a thing as an interplanetary Geneva Convention in the Doctor Who universe, the Daleks wouldn’t give a damn about it anyway, so why hasn’t Arcking been blasted into oblivion? Well, some unknown power that can effortlessly defy even the entire Dalek armada is protecting the planet, and the Time Lords want to find out if they can harness it. While pretending to be a benevolent doctor, the Master runs into a young, brilliant engineer named Cole, whom he soon enlists as his own companion and encourages him to play hero even in the midst of the most tragic catastrophes of the Time War. See, even the Master is disgusted with the Time War and, like the Doctor, he has a plan for ending it. It’s just, unlike his childhood friend, he doesn’t really get hung up on the question of whether the ends justify the means…
In a way, it’s a shame that we probably won’t get to see Derek Jacobi play the Master on the TV show again. But one of the strong points of Big Finish is that, freed from the limitations of a special effects budget, you can steer the story almost anywhere. So, Big Finish has stories like “…ish”, a Sixth Doctor adventure where the Doctor and his companion Peri face off against a renegade, murderous bit of language, or an Eighth Doctor story, “Scherzo”, where both the Doctor and his companion Charlie spend most of the time completely blinded by a bright light. The four interlinked stories that make up this “mini-series”, Only the Good, don’t get that experimental by a longshot, but it’s still hard to imagine it playing out on the show, unless the BBC miraculously multiplied its budget by ten. It’s an epic that spans from a war-torn city of amphibious beings to a suburban (literal) death-trap, with lively voice acting, especially from Nerys Hughes, who gets a delicious role that…well, I can’t talk about without spoilers.
The one issue with the scripting is that the overall story takes a while to actually get going. The first installment, “Beneath the Viscoid”, is more of a prelude, having little to do with the overall arc of the mini-series but setting up the Master’s personality, how he fits in the Time War, and just how dire the situation is. Still, it doesn’t fit in the narrative that well, and sets up the expectation that Only the Good will be a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive tale, albeit one with different cooks stirring the pot. In fact, you could probably skip “Beneath the Viscoid” and still be able to follow the rest of it.
But this is, admittedly, nitpicking. Honestly, this is one of Big Finish’s best offerings, and indeed an excellent Doctor Who tale even by the standards of the TV show at its best. Partially, it’s because this isn’t just a Master story, but a story about the Master. It actually makes an effort to build on both his past and future characterization. People dissatisfied with the more unhinged Masters portrayed by Sims and Gomez (and, for that matter, Big Finish’s own McQueen) might be pleased that Jacobi more resembles the cool if still murderous Master of the old series. At the same time, though, the writers pick up on the modern series’ exploration of the question of whether or not the Master is more capable of heroic selflessness than he’d ever admit.
As you might expect, though, the main draw is Derek Jacobi’s layered and downright brilliant take on the Master, which builds so much more than the precious little time he got on screen and showing that not giving him more time was one of the show’s biggest blunders. Jacobi’s Master is, on the surface, a reserved, eccentric, if slightly irascible man, but you don’t have to scratch far to find a sadist who can hold a really nasty, deadly grudge. Without getting into spoilers, it even makes Only the Good worth at least a second listen, as you listen knowing what the Master has in mind. Much like how thanks to Big Finish the Eighth Doctor, who “officially” only appeared in the TV movie and a brief special, The Night of the Doctor, became a fan favorite, I’m sure Jacobi will become one of the best Masters despite being fated to barely even an episode-long tenure.
Anyway, let me close off with just one quick, mild spoiler that might satisfy the curiosity of some of you: no, Only the Good doesn’t even refer to the “the Master was driven mad by a drumbeat inside his head” retcon (as if you’d need another reason to like Only the Good).