Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 049. Master by Joseph Lidster (October 2003)

It’s fascinating to look at this trilogy of titular villains and now I’ve reached Master I can do so (since I assume Zagreus isn’t quite as connected to the main trio). What Big Finish have demonstrated best over the course of these three releases, in my view, is how well they get to the core of a lot of these classic concepts. An example: the pairing of each Doctor with each villain. I mean, it’s spot-on, isn’t it? Of course you put the Fifth Doctor with Omega, the Fifth Doctor who comments in Black Orchid that he always wanted to drive a steam train as a little boy, the one who’s the epitome of the young public schoolboy, the one who best suits revelations about the figure he revered when he was younger. Of course you put the Sixth Doctor with Davros, the two sparring, no-nonsense scientists, both verbose, both melodramatic, but both with a calculating intelligence underneath. And of course you put the Seventh Doctor with his oldest arch-nemesis the Master, the Doctor who is the most mysterious and yet the warmest, the Doctor who can be as full of menace as his polar opposite. It’s no surprise that they don’t do, say, Five/Master after all their slightly duff stories together, and an obvious choice here really given the 80s Master is at his best in Survival. The subtler, more NA-infused approach (we get a reference to Benny, so it’s clearly that era even if she doesn’t appear) that Joseph Lidster takes here is very welcome, just as the early 80s space opera vibe of Omega really worked with Davison and the gritty Saward-esque tone of Davros was a perfect fit for Colin Baker. Better still, all three 80s Doctors finally get their equivalent of The Deadly Assassin in being companion-less. Better still, the trilogy works so well in the sequence as presented (very unusually, as most BF stories are best slotted into their proper placing within the classic show): we progress from the Davison’s Doctor, whose double commits all the terrible acts in the real Doctor’s absence, to Baker’s Doctor, a man on whom Davros lands some stinging verbal critiques, to McCoy’s Doctor, a man who is as dark as dark can be, almost the true villain of the piece. Together, the three work as a great look at his character progression even without the focus on the individual villains: they’re a very well-done triptych.

While we’re discussing Doctors, Sylvester McCoy…wow. Oh gosh, he’s good here. Elsewhere I have seen his performance in this audio described as “the tits”, and while I may not necessarily echo the phrasing I certainly echo the sentiment. The Doctor interrupting an assassin about to kill a head of state is almost as good an entrance as the one in The Fearmonger (“I can think of an easier way of making a living, you know. A man with your talents, your eye for detail, your vision…a watchmaker, a jeweller, perhaps? Or you could try keyhole surgery…”). His manipulative scenes with the assassin are terrific. McCoy downplays everything to the level of quietly building menace, a manipulative figure who has organised the entire theatrical façade, and he’s as fantastic a presence as he always can be at his best (just look at his monologue about childhood on Gallifrey, or witness the tiny moment where he murmurs “the darkness cannot save you”, having been standing behind the door listening to Smith and Jacqueline the whole time). The core Faustian pact – that Death gave the Master a normal life for ten years to be the good man he could have been, so long as the Doctor kills him when the ten years are up – is a stunning, harrowing premise. I don’t think a Doctor has ever delivered a line more scarily than McCoy’s “Yes, I am” when the Master asks if he’s holding a knife over his head. Unlike some of his other audios, Master seems to star the dark Doctor of Season 26: witness his summoning at the hands of branded stones – he’s almost becoming the Merlin he was foretold to be. The Doctor briefly seems to become “Death” in Part Two, as scary a thought as one can imagine (it reminds me of the wonderful cover of Timewyrm: Revelation where the Doctor is dancing with Death on the moon. Just gorgeous) – and my word, McCoy really knows how to scream; I think he’s the best Doctor actor at screaming! Again, as in Davros, there are concerns that he is blinkered and prejudiced, unable to see John Smith for the good man he has been these past ten years.

Lidster introduces narration as a more introspective, unusual take for such an intimate tale, and McCoy handles it very well; it’s just as good here as it was in Doctor Who and the Pirates. It sets the mood wonderfully, giving the whole affair a classically horror-novel sheen: “On the outer edges of an old town called Perfugium sits an old house, and in that old house sits an old man, and he sits, and he waits.” His dialogue is solid, too, nicely filling in the back-drop of the colony world Perfugium and the history of Wolstonecroft’s house while at the same time allowing unease to trickle in drop by drop. Such Edwardiana in a far-future world (the story owes a debt to Jack the Ripper, The Turn of the Screw and Jekyll and Hyde) is an irresistible, intriguing setting, and importantly not one we’ve normally seen the Master in. The raging storm without, from which the dignified are shielded – that’s the suavity of the Master in inverse, alright. He suits such restrained, psychological unpleasantness more than he does sci-fi histrionics. There’s reference to hypnotism, summonings and a clear fascination with Conan-Doyle-esque macabre, a vibe which always works well in Who – the most it’s been like this since The Chimes of Midnight, I think (and a vibe which is pleasingly subverted by Jacqueline’s demand to all the semi-hysterical men to “discuss all this like adults”).

And how does Lidster treat the eponymous figure? Geoffrey Beevers’ Master is an interesting beast, now far more important on audio than he ever was in his brief appearance in The Keeper of Traken (although he’s so much better served here than he was in Dust Breeding). Much as Molloy got to do with the pre-disfigurement Davros in the previous story, Beevers gets to play two roles, appearing first as the kindly and welcoming amnesiac doctor, John Smith; it’s a well-pitched, amiable, measured performance. His psychological insights and research into the human mental condition, into the motives behind evil, are exactly what you might expect of a “good” human version of the Master; Lidster writes Smith as a powerful tragic figure, a man whose evil will always find him out and devour him in the end. His speech about the possibility of killing a new-born baby is properly terrifying and cuts at us all: why do we think “evil” thoughts? Why does it occur to us to do terrible things, even if we don’t do them? Another deceptively clever thing about the script is the manner in which Smith accepts he is the Master and that he is evil – it is merely because he is told he is. If we are led to believe enough times that what we do is wrong, or that we are outcast, how can anyone be anything else? Perhaps the Doctor and the Master are as innocent as one another, in the end.

The most interesting bit of back-story the old rivals get is in the Doctor’s beautiful speech about their childhood back on Gallifrey, in a “world of rules, a stuffy, class-ridden society” (much like the Edwardians) – a world where the two old friends would run away from their lessons and dream of wandering the stars, a world where they were both bullied together. That the child Master killed the bully to save the child Doctor is a powerful reveal, and in my view fits rather well with the characters; the revelation goes some way to informing his later actions, even if its fit with the drums in his head is rather vague… except. Wait. Surely – Lidster wouldn’t do that? It occurred to me earlier in the audio that that was always a possibility, but I was confident he wouldn’t go there. But he did. The Doctor was the murderer, even as a young child, and signed the Master’s soul away in an even earlier Faustian pact, betrayed him, gave him up to Death and consigned him to a lifetime of nightmarish torment and villainy, a choice which has itself tortured the Doctor all his lives. Now that’s dark.

Philip Madoc is probably one of Doctor Who’s best stalwarts, and he’s reliably good as ever here as Inspector Victor Schaeffer, whilst Anne Ridler is every bit his equal as his wife Jacqueline. Madoc underplays the sinister side of his character very well on occasion (“Just a small glass for Jacqueline. You know how flighty she gets,” and then, to Smith’s protestations, “I think I know my wife best”) but is perfectly capable of building to fever-pitch fear when the script calls for it. His despair at his wife’s trick in Part Three is properly tragic and by God he’s terrifying when he’s revealed as the murderer. The scene near the beginning which they discuss motivations behind the evil of a serial killer, couched in terms of amiable chatter about a silly opera, is a wonderful show-don’t-tell bit of writing. The dinner scene, with Gary Russell’s whispering voices shrouding the character’s own words intermittently, is another terrific bit of Who; so much unsaid (and the hissing voices occasionally heard behind John Smith’s words made me think of the voices in the fob watch taunting Jacobi’s Master in Utopia). They fit the aesthetic perfectly; there’s a wonderful little moment where Jacqueline slaps Jade the maid and is horrified with what she’s done, with the latent evil within her: the Master’s telepathic abilities mean his evil spreads out from his own core and into those around him, corrupts what it touches like Midas turning things to gold. Jacqueline’s relationship to John Smith is perfectly managed and seeded throughout the story from the very opening; possibly the “love of a good woman will make you a better man” thing is a bit tired as tropes go, but it’s not quite as straightforward here as it usually is, so I can let that pass.

There is of course one character I have not yet mentioned, and that’s highly apt, because for much of the narrative they lurk in the shadows, on the periphery. The pulling of the rug Lidster delivers at the end of Part Three is in my view as clever as the one we saw just two stories ago in Omega. Let’s all forget about the least important figure in the house, the maid, committing the same mistake everyone made in The Chimes of Midnight – let’s just not factor her in while we listen to the philosophical musings of everyone else… and she turns out to be the most important of all. I didn’t see the Jade/green connection coming at all, and the final moments of Part Three are a masterclass in suspense, the silence, the stilling of the clock, the creak of the door, and Charlie Hayes’ wonderful performance. “Please, sir, now the masks have dropped, can we address each other by our proper names? We’re no longer John Smith and Jade, his servant. You are my servant, the Master. I am Death.” Her flamboyance is great fun, cheeky, mischievous (anyone else thinking of Pratchett right now?) but just the right side of spooky, capable of sealing up a woman’s throat with a thought. Her dismantling of the other character’s secrets in seconds is creepy, and yet her somewhat chirpy personality works well as it makes both the Doctor and the Master seem more terrifying in some ways than she ever does. And of course, the final twist of the knife, if you’ll pardon the pun – the assassin is Death, too. We’ve just had two hours and fifteen minutes of a conversation between the Doctor and Death personified. I love this show.

I loved The Fearmonger and The Shadow of the Scourge, and McCoy’s had some other good releases, but Master is his best in my view – a terrifically moody, gothic, almost stagey piece anchored by some wonderful performances, a gripping and frightening rumination on determinism, free will, crimes of passion and the nature of evil, and what it can do to us, how hard it is to turn away from such a path. More than that, it’s also the ultimate Master story and one of the best stories Sylvester McCoy ever starred in.

Next time: the big anniversary showdown, Zagreus

Other things:
Very, very unlike The Rapture, this is an atmospheric mood piece full of snarling voices, dark laughter and screams. It’s hard to believe the same person wrote both.
The theme tune is sped up again! It’s really annoying me! Stop it! Grrr.
“You’re the one who’s about to commit murder. I’m just here for the view.”
A joyously cynical assassin – “Oh I get it, you’re going to tell me that the person I’m going to kill – they’re not that bad really, and that life is worth living, and all that?”
“Debauchery, eh? Doesn’t sound too bad.”
“I could eat a horse.”/“Funny you should say that…”
The vanishing knife? Invisible bloodstains on Victor’s hands? Rather Macbeth.
“It is not what you are born into, but what you do with your life.”
“Victor, are you drunk?”/“No, no, no, no. Well, yes, actually.”
Jade continually referring to John Smith as “Master” is great.
“If you’re going to tell a story, you should put at least one likeable character in it.”
The Master is a doctor here. Neat. And the Doctor’s old pseudonym, too: they are more alike than ever. He is, after all, a “wonderful Doctor.”
“Doctor Vaughan Sutton…” What’s a Time Lord to do when his normal alias has been nicked?
“All these books here try to unravel the motives of why people behave in the way that they do. But what if there is no motive, there is no reason?” This reminds me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s description of Iago as “motiveless malignity”. The Doctor insists that the villainous usually had a motive, but that the Master was not the type to ever have clear impetus behind his actions. There’s a terrific moment where Smith suggests that the Doctor merely tries not to understand the Master for fear of seeing into himself too deeply: “by admitting you understand them, you must be admitting a similarity between yourself and the monster.” Their discourse on relative objectivity is also fascinating – if those who simply see colours differently are trying to help others see the world as they see it, are they truly evil? Are they not simply trying to “correct” the universe they perceive differently to everyone else?
“A man who kills because of motives can be questioned. A man who kills because he is ill can be certainly helped. A man who kills because he was born, fated even, to be evil… well, that is a true tragedy in itself.”
Symbols are very important in Master and I’d argue it’s one of the Doctor Who stories it’s most important to take on a metaphorical, an alchemical, level rather than a literal one. The Doctor is struck by lightning mid-summoning. Some of it is a bit overdone – I could have done without Smith’s copy of Jekyll & Hyde toppling off the shelves – but for the most part Lidster builds a suspenseful world of images around his central characters.
The “rather obvious cliché of a mystery man turning up in a storm”.
“I feel we are quite similar, you and I, Doctor.”/“Perhaps we were friends in a past life.”
“There will be death, Doctor, and it shall be of your doing!”
John Smith on the Doctor: “He’s almost as intelligent as I!”
“Doctor, my family is very proud. They would rather incidents such as what led to the curse were quietly forgotten, erased from history.”/“Ah yes. My family feels the same way about me.”
“We don’t even know who you are!”/“And do you know who you are?”
“Suppose I was Hyde, and now I’m Jekyll. A man is not truly one, but he is truly two.”
“Sit down and I will tell you what once you were.”
“He had no motive. There was no reason. There was only one certainty with the Master, and that was that he would bring Death. He was, beyond all doubt, evil.” (But of course, as we all know from Rose, the Doctor’s most constant companion is also “death”).
“You can name a hundred people that the Master killed; I can think of one thousand people that John Smith saved.”
“I fear Jade is much more than your maid.”/“Yes, she’s also my cook and my housekeeper.”
“Oops. Did I let the cat out of the bag there, so to speak?” *cat mewls, fleeing*
“We can’t run away, Jacqueline. We can’t pretend to be what we’re not. Inside of us we’re fated.”
The Master’s skewering of Jacqueline as “fat and prejudiced, running that hostel to ease her guilt” is nasty.
“You and Death, good friends, are you?”/“Our paths cross from time to time.”
“Use the knife. End the game. Take my life. It’s dark. You needn’t even see the whites of my eyes.”
“Thank you, friend.”/“After all these years.”
“They don’t deserve hearts. They’re not like us.”
“That scream! Why must everyone scream?!”
“You should know all about having the weak following you, Doctor.”/“I have my companions to ease the loneliness, Master.”
“What am I, Doctor – Death’s Champion? Just as some claim you are Time’s Champion?”
“I want my old friend back, not my enemy!” (Good grief, the Doctor says the same words Michelle Gomez’s Missy says in Death in Heaven).
“The universe needs me, and I need what it has to offer. I am the Master. That is who I am, what I am, and what I need to be!”
“None of us are perfect, Doctor. In life, none of us are perfect, good or evil.”
“You think we would have stayed friends were it not for Death?”/ “I can’t think of anyone else I would rather be friends with than you.” (McCoy’s delivery is so mournful)
“That’s what I am. I will not give in to the darkness, whether I am motivated by guilt or not; I won’t rest until I find him and bring him back to life.”
“I will save you, my friend. One day.”

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