Monday, October 6, 2014
The primary strength of "Master" lies in the performances. The most notable guest stars are Who luminaries Geoffrey Beevers and Philip Madoc. Beevers is once again teriffic as the Master. It's really unfortunate that he only got the one appearance on the TV show instead of the somewhat ridiculous caricature played by Anthony Ainley. (This is purely the adult me opining this. As a child, I was absolutely terrified of Ainley's Master.) Beevers is the perfect Master for audio drama since he has such a rich and (as the Master) malevolent voice. Madoc was in many Doctor Who stories, probably most famously as Solon from " The Brain of Morbius". My favorite classic Who Madoc moment was his icy performance as the terrifying War Lord in "The War Games". He is excellent here as the warm, but dark adjudicator Victor Schaeffer.
In this story we find the Master living in a small village having lost his memory. He has been a surgeon there for years and has saved numerous lives. It is his "birthday" (commemorating the day he was discovered in the village) and as such, has invited his two closest friends to visit him. Since this predates (the televised version) of the Paul Cornell story "Human Nature" (and I hadn't read the book) this seemed a highly original idea. Beevers is beyond charming under his current (ironic) alias, Doctor John Smith. The first episode is mostly a warm conversation between himself, Schaeffer, and Victor's wife Jacqueline (wonderfully performed by Anne Ridler). While three people sitting in a room chatting with each other for nearly a whole episode sounds somewhat uninspiring on the surface, it's actually quite charmingly entertaining. Plus, the conversation references some odd goings on (murders in the village and a possible curse), and it's clear some even odder goings on may be happening in Dr. Smith's house that night. The atmosphere in the house is wonderfully done. The ticking clock, whispered voices, and eerie music lend a both pleasant and sinister atmosphere. You know this dinner party isn't going to end well. And, things start to go downhill right around the time the Doctor shows up.
The Doctor is very cagey in this story. It seems like he didn't intentionally come here, but at the same time he seems to know what's going on with the Master. It's more like he was avoiding making this trip and is unhappy to know the time has come for him to reenter the Master's life. Episode two is largely Doctor Smith and the Doctor ("Smi.... uh Sutton) having a discussion about the nature of evil and the motivations of murderers. Dr. Smith can sense that the Doctor knows more about his unknown past than he is letting on, and their philosophical discussions are quite engaging.
To this point, I love the story, but in its second half things go down hill for me. When the villain of the piece is revealed to be "Death", I groaned. It seems an odd thing to have a superstitious personification actually be "real" in the science fiction universe of Doctor Who. And, the idea of the Master living his life compelled to be Death's agent feels like a cop out. There is also a story of the Doctor and the Master as children being swept into the murder of another child, and subsequently covering it up. I was really being uncomfortable with the Doctor being linked to such an act, and then was even more uncomfortable with later revelations about the nature of this deed. Other fans, may not have the same reservations with this bit of back story. But, I find it belittles the Master and really changes the way you fell about the Doctor. This is one of those things where I am not sure I am willing to accept it as canon.
Another odd thing about this story is that the Master is actually barely in it. Beevers at various times gives hint to the "Hyde" struggling to reawaken within Dr. Smith, but there is really only one proper scene with the Master in it late in the play (supposedly added on at the last minute). As charming as Beevers is as Dr. Smith and as compelling as it is to experience the Master as a good man (it worked great again on TV in "Utopia"), it seems odd that they originally weren't going to have the Master (proper) appear in the story, and it feels like a bit of a cheat that a story focused on the villain has so little of him in it.
Still, despite my serious reservations with the second half of the story, I really do enjoy it on the whole very much. It's just incredibly atmospheric with great dialog and wonderful performances. I also enjoy the device of having the Doctor tell the story to a stranger to be effective, and the revelation of who the stranger is serves as a nice late twist. My qualms with the villain and the nature of the back story for the Doctor and Master aside, the bulk of this story is still very engaging. So, while "Davros" probably left a better impression on me ten years or so ago when I first heard these stories, I think I actually prefer "Master" today. I also think the trilogy of villains stories was a great idea, and all of them are well worth owning. The latter two stories of the trilogy were good enough to get me to dive into the Big Finish catalog, so for that I will always be eternally grateful.