By Will Barber Taylor
Master Thief by Sophie Iles
The Master wants to plunder one of the most secure vaults in the universe, the Repository. He’s got a plan, and a deadly new weapon to assist him. However, as the Master quickly discovers, getting in might be easy, but getting away with it might cost him everything.
Lesser Evils by Simon Guerrier
The Kotturuh have arrived on the planet Alexis to distribute the gift of death to its inhabitants. The only person standing in their way is a renegade Time Lord, who has sworn to protect the locals. A Time Lord called the Master…
The Master is perhaps on the most complex and compelling characters in Doctor Who’s long history. Throughout their history, the character has been both friend and foe to The Doctor. They’ve sought to hold the universe to ransom using entropy, allied with Daleks and Cybermen alike and generally caused nothing short of a major headache for our favourite time traveller.
Yet we have also seen other sides of the character – particularly in the iteration portrayed by Michelle Gomez – that paints them as almost an anti-hero.
Portraying The Master as the central figure in a story is tricky for any writer given that we usually like to root for the most heroic character and even in their more sympathetic moments, they are hard to root for. However, in these two tales made as part of the Time Lord Victorious event we get to enjoy two brilliantly devious tales that put The Master right at the centre of the action.
In this first story, Master Thief, written by Sophie Iles, we are transported to a beautiful, tranquil planet filled with glass and one whose peace is disturbed by the arrival of The Master in his Roger Delgado incarnation. Impersonating an important client of the Repository, The Master is determined to gain access in order to take something out of the Repository’s database – however, he’s not reckoned on how far the custodians of the Repository will go to ensure that their vault is intact…
Sophie Iles’ story not only perfectly captures the Delgado Master’s suave brutality but also transports us to a world that could easily exist either in Classic Who or New Who. This is no small feat as often worlds depicted in Doctor Who media feel more at home in one era or another and when you have a character as immersed in 70s Who as the Delgado Master then it can be difficult to place him in a new setting without it making him seem out of place.
Iles doesn’t do that and her depiction of the Repository’s world is detailed enough to conjure up an image in the listener’s mind whilst allowing enough room for them to input their own spin on it.
Similarly, her characterisation not only of The Master’s innate cruelty but also his ability to turn from charming to deadly gives the story a certain rhythm and also makes it feel more like the traditionally villainous Master we are used to. She has fun allowing The Master to enjoy his apparent triumph before springing the story’s twist upon him – his shock at it is all the more satisfising given how well Iles had written The Master’s villainy prior to this.
Jon Culshaw sparkles in this episode, fully immersing himself in the Delgado Master’s disarmingly charming and fully inhabiting Delgado’s booming but cultured voice. He fully brings Iles script to life and takes delight in delivering the Master’s lines with a vocal flair.
Whilst in the first story The Master seems like the archetypal portrayal of him, scheming and ready to do anything to achieve his aims, the second story by Simon Guerrier seems to be, on the surface, the opposite.
Beginning with a Kotturuh woman arriving on the planet Alexis to bring death to the inhabitants so that she might take what life she can from them as she believes it to be part of her holy work. It soon becomes apparent to the Kotturuh however that she will not be unchallenged. The Master, in his Anthony Ainley incarnation, cast onto the planet by the Time Lords has become Alexis’ defender and is distasteful towards the Kotturuh. Attempting to bargain for the lives of the dominant life form, the Mungello, the Master is confronted not only by his own morality but also by the truth behind his defence of Alexis.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, it is difficult to characterise the Master as a hero but in this story Guerrier deftly manages to interweave heroic traits with the Master’s more traditional cunning lingering underneath. Guerrier’s particular skill is to present the Master’s decision to stand up for the inhabitants as ambiguous – it is obvious that he has another agenda at play but whether he does hold some affection for the Mungello is left up to the listener to decide.
Indeed, Guerrier goes out of his way to present both the Kotturuh as being “evil” in one way or another – both are clearly morally ambiguous – but through the dialogue between the two we have to ascertain who is the lesser of the two evils; the Brainiac like Kotturuh or The Master. This not only allows Guerrier to question The Master and the Kotturuh’s motivations but provide an excellent final twist that is fully in keeping with The Master’s character.
Culshaw is perhaps slightly more at ease as Ainley’s Master than Delgado’s but he brings a sublime calculation to his portrayal. Every word seems perfectly considered and designed to ensure that he gets out of his predicament with as much ease as possible. Culshaw’s Ainley is as close as you can be to having the real 80s Master in an audio adventure and he is well served by Guerrier’s excellent prose.
Both Master Thief and Lesser Evils are excellent stories that utilise one of Doctor Who’s most iconic villains with a natural ease that makes them such believable and compelling stories; though written decades after both versions of The Master last appeared on screen they capture their essence perfectly and ensure that as a listener you are in no doubt who are the masters of storytelling; Iles and Guerrier are superb writers and their talent shines through in this release as does Culshaw’s vocal triumphs. It is a truly excellent release and demonstrates that Big Finish’ Short Trips range is as enjoyable as it has ever been.
You can buy Time Lord Victorious: Short Trips: Master Thief / Lesser Evils from Big Finish here.