21 July 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - The Two Masters

I don't really know what to think of The Two Masters. Perhaps it's my own fault but I only listened to this in the second half of July, after a month or so of being told how good it was, with many giving it full marks and declaring it their favourite story ever. But I got round to hearing it, this four parter just felt a little bloated and underwhelming. There's plenty to like, that's for sure, and the reliable hand of John Dorney is visible throughout, but it certainly wasn't what I was expecting from the finale to the trilogy that has given the main range its greatest prominence in a year. 

The Two Masters has been described as a very complex story, but I disagree. To me, it seems quite straightforward. Confusion would seem to be caused by the fact that parts of this story are told out of order, and in fact occur before the preceding two stories, And You Will Obey Me and Vampire of the Mind. It was also said that there were a lot of twists and turns in this story, and I assume this is just referring to the main one, as the actual plan isn't that complicated. There's a cult who want to end the universe and remake it in their own design, but for that a Time Lord is required. The Master can obviously see the advantages of a device such as this, and so the majority of the story sees his two incarnations and the Doctor working their way towards the inevitable conclusion.

The Masters are great, and they're given plenty of time to show it, with the majority of the second disc being given over exclusively to them. Their rapport is very enjoyable, thanks both to the writing and to the skill of these two great actors. Geoffrey Beevers and Alex Macqueen have both been given the opportunity, to varying degrees, to show off what they can do individually in the last couple of releases, but here is a proper chance to see what they're capable of, given that they weren't quite themselves before. Although it didn't really need explaining, it's nice to see John Dorney tie this into the Master's own chronology and show us why it has to be these two particular incarnations, other than for the obvious reason that they are the only ones available for Big Finish's regular roster.

Of all the incarnations at the main range's disposal, it's appropriate that Sylvester McCoy's Doctor be the one to feature in a tale of grand schemes and manipulation. Unusually, however, the Doctor seems to be making it up as he goes along in this one, and his solution is not long in the making. He's joined by junior Rocket (Wo?)Man Jemima for the first couple of episodes, who proves likeable enough, but relatively disposable - as the Master is only too happy to demonstrate. I really thought, after all the build-up about over-arching plots she was going to turn out to be an agent of the other Master, part of a bigger plan, but nothing came of it in the end. 

As I say, after two listens, this seems to be a straightforward story, without only one real twist. The cliffhangers are fantastic, and scene-to-scene this is gripping, but when taken as a whole, it seems to largely be a showcase for Beevers and Macqueen, which is no bad thing. This is 40 minutes - the best part of two episodes - longer than the usual four-parter, making it the longest story since The Widow's Assassin, and approximately twice as long as Scaredy Cat. These extra minutes are probably earned, but a number of them could probably have been saved. Nevertheless, The Two Masters speeds along, even in the longer, more dialogue-heavy scenes.

Big Finish stalwarts Martin Montague and Jamie Robertson are on hand to supply the sound design and music, respectively. They give proceedings a suitably grand weight, making this feel like a truly epic adventure. The only thing I think I could comment on besides how good it all is, is that Robertson's score is notable in some scenes by its absence. While it is of course best in some cases to let the drama speak for itself, with a little breathing room, scenes of high peril, such as ships exploding or crashing, were oddly devoid of any atmospheric enhancement - in sound effects or music. It just struck me as a little odd, especially when compared to the good work done through the rest of the serial.

Jamie Anderson has assembled a great cast here, and commands them excellently. Most notable for me was Esther Hall, an actress who I've admired for years, who is sadly squandered on a series of bit parts. She also had a role in the first Doom Coalition set, and Anderson has cast her again in his own story, Absolute Power, due out in December. Hopefully this will be a more substantial role, as she's a very capable actress, and I'd love her to become as well known within these circles as she deserves. Elsewhere, Lauren Crace is strong as Jemima, but the role is a little hollow, given the Master spells out exactly the reason she is around several times. I know it's supposed to be a big shock when the potential companion snuffs it (spoilers!) but it didn't really have any major impact on me as I'm so used to this kind of character not joining the Doctor on his travels anyway. The rest of the cast - leading trio aside, of course - are all fine, but there weren't really any standouts among them for me. A very solid company though.

This is a very good story, with John Dorney showing off the reach of his imagination. Alex Macqueen and Geoffrey Beevers show off just how suited they are to this most revered of Doctor Who roles, while Sylvester McCoy gives a stronger performance than usual. Jamie Anderson handles this tale well, keeping it entertaining without going overboard. This truly is an extraordinary story, and easily the best of the trilogy, but I can't help feeling there is something of a missed opportunity here. Perhaps if I hadn't known the main twist before listening - despite my best efforts, I read it on Twitter - it would have had more of an impact. As it is, I'm still mightily impressed by The Two Masters, even if it isn't perfect.

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