Review: Doctor Who Unbound – Masters of War

Masters of War

The ‘Doctor Who Unbound’ range of Big Finish audio plays is probably its most interesting. Essentially, each asks a ‘What if?’ question and then, with the assistance of a brand new Doctor and usually one of the TV companions, answers it. Sometimes the questions have been quite simple ones about events having taken a different path, while others have been more philosophical.

So we’ve had Geoffrey Catweazle Bayldon and Carole Anne Ford answer the questions, "What if the Doctor and Susan never left Gallifrey?" and "What if the Doctor changed history?"; David Collings, in possibly the most interesting play, tackled "What if the Doctor believed the end justified the means?"; controversially, Arabella Weir’s Doctor escapes the Time Lords – in the shape of David Tennant in a medallion – by getting a job in a supermarket; Derek Jacobi may or may not have been the Doctor but he was certainly the writer of some of the worst Juliet Bravo scripts ever made and might have been famous if his TV show, Doctor Who, had ever been made; while Michael Jayston reprised his TV role of an evil version of the Doctor to answer the question "What if the Valeyard had beaten the Doctor?" – well, only Bonnie Langford would be able to challenge him, apparently.

The most conventional of the plays was probably David Warner’s appearance as an alternative version of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, exiled to Earth a few decades or so after all those alien invasions that UNIT faced, thus answering the question "What if the Doctor turned up late?" with the short response "Not much, thanks to Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier, and the Master would have regenerated into Mark Gatiss."

Now, here he is again, partnered with his new companion The Brigadier (still played by Nicholas Courtney), answering the valuable and vital question, "What if the Daleks were, erm, reasonable?"

Plot
A new adventure for a new Doctor in a new Dimension…

The Doctor and his travelling companion, retired army officer Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, take a random trip in the TARDIS – and land on the planet Skaro. The Doctor helped the Thals to defeat the Daleks years ago, so he is surprised to find the Thal city under Dalek occupation. He determines to help them again, but what is the Daleks’ purpose in keeping the Thals alive? Does it have anything to do with the Daleks’ mythical creator, named in their teachings as Davros?

Is it any good?
There’s a lot to recommend about this play. It’s interesting, David Warner’s Doctor is great to listen to, if a little characterless (although I liked his impressive but nowhere near as ridiculous Pertwee-esque MacGuffin creation powers), and it’s nice to see the Brigadier’s militarism being put to good use rather than constantly rebuked and mocked by pacifist nancies. Terry Molloy is as great as always as Davros, too, and Courtney does well with a play that actually stretches him for a change.

The play’s also something of a puzzle, since you’re not exactly sure why the Daleks are so reasonable for most of the play, and since this is Doctor Who Unbound, you can’t be sure if it’s for real or a ruse. They seem similar yet different and you’re not sure why.

But there are a number of issues with it. The first is the play is ridiculously long, pushing two hours over two CDs, which stretches the premise of the story to breaking point and beyond. With some judicious pruning, it could have been a whole lot better.

The second is the supporting cast. For the longest time, I could have sworn this had to be a crossover with another of Big Finish’s audio play ranges, Dalek Empire. Why? Because so much time is spent on the Thal characters, despite the supporting cast being just so bad, so woeful in their pitching of their performances, that I assumed they must all be under contract and Big Finish was doing some kind of cross-product premotion. Certainly, rather than playing rebel slaves engaged in a life and death struggle to overthrow their Dalek oppressors, they felt like some disgruntled Debenham’s employees who weren’t enjoying their works trip to Thorpe Park fairground.

The third is ‘the big bad’ – which isn’t. The second half of the play, which is effectively one great big space battle, has all the tension of a game of battleships with four squares and three pieces on the board, with supposedly great military species being fooled by basic strategies: it’s probably supposed to echo Destiny of the Daleks’ war between the Daleks and the Movellans, but that’s not a story you want to be emulating. The voices of the baddies just make you want to titter, too.

And lastly, as "What ifs?" go, this one was a bit pointless. Nice script, nice plotting, but it doesn’t really illuminate anything about Who or make you think about its foundations; there are no real twists or shocks (well, maybe one or two: I don’t want to spoil it for you); and Warner’s performance while good, doesn’t make you want years of episodes with him instead of Matt Smith, say.

With a bit of judicious editing and a better cast, this could have been a great bit of work, although not especially groundbreaking. As it stands, it’s still pretty good, if a bit late afternoon Radio 4 at times. Maybe worth it if it comes down in price a little bit more.

Did it keep my brain occupied for an hour or two down the gym or did I, at various points in the play, want to trap myself under something heavy in preference to listening to any more of it?
Yes, although I’d have probably have had to run a marathon to get through it in one go.

Price
Amazon CD: £10.49
Big Finish download: £11.99
Big Finish CD: £14.99

Cast
David Warner (The Doctor)
Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier)
Terry Molloy (Davros)
Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
Amy Pemberton (Nadel)
Sarah Douglas (Gillen)
Jeremy James (Delt)
Christopher Heywood (Toloc)