Call me John Smith, says Tony Fyler.
There are some villains so singular, they’ve earned themselves a special place in the Doctor Who mythos. In 2003, Big Finish gave three of these powerful personalities single-shots at a very different kind of story – stories that wouldn’t necessarily fit into any timeline, stories that unburdened the Doctor of companions to get into peril, and so freed themselves of the narrative need for traditional storytelling techniques, so they could delve deeper into the unique psychologies of Davros, Omega and the Master in turn, also looking into their relationship with the Doctor outside of a frantic battle of good versus evil.
Sylvester McCoy drew the Master, and it was Joseph Lidster who wrote what would turn out to be one of the strongest stories in the whole Big Finish range.
The scenario borrowed heavily from elements that had worked on screen. The Seventh Doctor interrupts an assassin about to kill a hugely popular figure, bamboozling him and making him a deal. ‘Let me tell you a story,’ he says. ‘If, once you’ve heard my story, you still want to pull your trigger, you can.’ It’s a slight but effective twist on the scene in The Happiness Patrol where the Seventh Doctor chills us to the bone, talking a guard out of killing him.
And so to the story proper. Many years ago, on an alien world, Perfugium, modeled on the society of Edwardian England – very prim, very proper, very hypocritical - a large house, with a man and his maid, was expecting visitors. The man’s best friends in all the world, the local police chief and his silly, pretentious but charitably aristocratic wife arrive.
The man? Doctor John Smith, a man with no past beyond the ten years he’s spent in Perfugium, quietly healing the sick, raising tomatoes and making exquisite wine. A man with no memory of his life before. But a man who carries a past on his face, a face that is hideously scarred and burned. A man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, whose voice is soft and whose heart is softer, but with a searing intellect and a need to know the secrets of his face and its past.
The police chief, Inspector Schaefer (voiced by the ever-wonderful Philip Madoc), tells of a series of hideous murders in the town – prostitutes with their throats cut, and their hearts cut out.
Nobody suspects the mild-mannered Doctor Smith of any crime so violent, but Smith himself is troubled. He’s begun to hear voices in his house. In his head. A terrible, violent, evil voice claiming to be him.
Then, in the grand traditions of Edwardian melodrama, a mysterious stranger arrives in a storm. He calls himself Doctor Smi- Doctor Sutton. A strange, small, quiet, Scottish-accented man, with an intellect, says Smith, almost as great as his own.
With Sutton’s arrival, Doctor Smith begins seriously to question who he is, what he is, and whether such a thing as pure, motiveless evil truly exists. By the end of the night, he will have his answers, though he might heartily wish he had not dared to ask.
What Master gives us is a definitive, pre-new Who version of the Master’s creation, his duality with the Doctor, and a pre-Professor Yana look at what the Master might be if he were not driven by death and power to be the creature he is. It seeds many of the ideas that have defined his and her portrayal in 21st century Who, though it gives a different (and if we’re absolutely honest, a better) explanation of what drove the Master mad. When you have Philip Madoc on supporting actor duties, and two leads who make it right that he should be in such a role, you know you’re listening to something special, and McCoy and Geoffrey Beevers dance through the script in what feels like a friendly duel of ideas, McCoy’s Doctor probing the façade of John Smith, looking for the enemy underneath, Beevers’ Smith earnestly looking with him, unafraid of the exploration if it’s an intellectual honesty that tells him more about himself. McCoy is on superb form here – he’s always on great form when you stick him in a Victorian or Edwardian house and allow him to do his An Inspector Calls thing, being mysterious and cryptic, but driving the action along with a surging undercurrent of passion. Beevers has become a truly definitive Master in his time at Big Finish, more than he ever got the chance to be in The Keeper of Traken (though go back and watch that if you can, it’s much better than you might remember), and Beevers himself is clearly one of those people who’s almost unbelievably nice and thoughtful, and in Master he gets the chance to play a character closer to his true nature, though with a pulse of something powerfully dark he cannot grasp beneath the surface.
Master poses hard questions – does evil, stripped of motive, exist? Is it a part of one’s nature, rather than a combination of the nurture one receives? Or is it all simply a question of what happens to an individual, what sets them on a path, what doesn’t steer them clear? There are nods to the ideas of A Christmas Carol here, but there’s also a highly powerful narrative of nurture. McCoy has had the chance to do at Big Finish what perhaps no Doctor since Pertwee had done before him (and which both Tennant and Simm and Capaldi and Gomez have subsequently done on-screen) – to re-establish the history of friendship between the Doctor and the Master, the boys who ran together, played together, dreamed of escaping their world together. He does it to some extent with Alexander McQueen’s version of the Master in UNIT: Dominion, and here he plays the relationship again, but very differently, with Beevers’ more sibilant, more strictly rational and intellectual version of the character – and the man the character could have been. And just when you begin to think it’s over, it reveals a hammerblow twist that will make you see their relationship in a whole new light. A light that will explain and change how you think of their relationship forever.
Master is way, way up there on the Big Finish awesome-ometer. It’s up there Spare Parts, Chimes of Midnight, Embrace The Darkness stratosphere of greatness. But it’s the Master as you’ve never seen or heard him before, and the Seventh Doctor having to confront a truth that goes beyond the easy labels of madness and evil, to truly put himself in the Master’s shoes and contemplate the reasons why he does the things he does. It’s a lesson the Western World could do with learning right about now, and what’s more, the download is a piffling £2.99 from the Big Finish website. You have no excuse not to do this, and every incentive in the world to get this story now – your whole take on the Doctor-Master dynamic might just be about to undergo a quantum shift.