Some time back, Big Finish released a calendar of original art and I thought it was marvelous. I wish they still did that. Most Doctor Who calendars are just images from the series and putting them on the wall feels like weird stalker-like behavior! Now, artwork on the other hand…! But let me not distract myself; I mention it because this is the third in a series of villain-themed releases and the cover art is, once again, outstanding. There’s a repeated motif that comes up: dome at the bottom within which is captured a scene of the episode; dual image of Doctor and Villain at the top of the case. Great job to Big Finish and the artists they employ. And let’s not forget that art comes in many forms. There’s more art to be found within: Philip Madoc (forever Dr. Solon in The Brain of Morbius) and Geoffrey Beevers (the most well-spoken of all the classic Masters!) star in a haunted house story. How can we go wrong with this?
I’ll say this: it’s fantastic to listen to, but it’s extremely strange. About two thirds of the way through it, I was thinking I was listening to a fireside chat between two brilliant philosophers. And I was completely engrossed, but the story wasn’t what was keeping me that way; it was the discussion about values and the like. It’s a pretty simple story… actually it’s Sylvester’s Doctor telling a would-be assassin the story of the Master, who has lost his memory and has spent the last 10 years living as Dr. John Smith in a small town. Smith invites the Schaeffer’s over to celebrate his “birthday”. The Doctor doesn’t shows up until the end of episode one and even when he does arrive, we can be pretty sure he’s not the bad guy. Bad guy? Oh, yes, the house is supposedly cursed or something and everyone starts acting a bit funny including Smith’s maid, Jade. (Why the Schaeffer’s don’t think to leave is anyone’s guess!) This is all overshadowed by a recent wave of murders in the city that Inspector Schaeffer has been investigating. In a house where everyone has secrets and death seems to be waiting on the doorstep… well, you try not to be on the edge of your seat.
There are things I loved about this story and a couple of things I found annoying. McCoy’s sudden cry at the end of episode 1 that abruptly ends the chapter felt horribly fake. He hadn’t been in the story until that moment and his cry just didn’t resonate with me. It was a terrible chapter resolution. And I thought the discussion with the assassin was ridiculous. I can’t imagine walking up to a man holding a high powered rifle and having a cordial conversation with him and him being, in any way, accepting of my presence. Call me a pessimist. But after that, there’s a tremendous amount to like about this story.
The fireside chat in an old home was conjured up so nicely in my mind, that I don’t know how I got to work the days I was listening to this story. I was completely in that house with the celebrants. McCoy’s Doctor discussing nature vs. nurture with the Master was fascinating, as was his speculation that the color red you see, may not be the same color red I see. (I have pondered this since I was a child!) And how many references were there to The New Adventures range of novels? Death herself makes an appearance which I never expected. She refers to the Doctor as Time’s Champion and the Master as Death’s Champion. She also makes a comment about how the Doctor doesn’t play the spoons and mix metaphors anymore because these days, he’s too busy destroying worlds (a clear reference to Remembrance of the Daleks). There’s a discussion about the nature of friendship too and I always find that enjoyable. And then we get some insight into the Doctor’s past. But this is a blessing and a curse…
Any background on the Doctor and the Master is as simultaneously fascinating as it is infuriating. Fascinating because we learn incredible things about our hero. In this instance we learn that the Master and the Doctor were bullied by a kid named Torvic and one day, while Torvic held the Master’s head underwater, as bullies do, the Doctor hit him with a rock and killed him. This lead the Doctor to a life of helping people while the guilt ate at the Master making him go nuts and kill. Extremely interesting. But will it ever be considered part of the actual canon of Doctor Who? This is always the danger with Doctor Who: sooner or later a writer will come along who thinks “nah, I don’t like that, so it’s not real. It doesn’t count.” (Like that idiotic “half-human” rubbish from The Movie! Though in that case, thank Rassilon, they struck that from the Matrix.) Even by the time of David Tennant’s The Last of the Time Lords, the Master was made insane by Rassilon, not by murdering a bully. The only real hope we have of ignoring this new piece of background is that the Doctor was telling the story to an assassin and may have made up bits, but even that doesn’t hold a lot of weight; in his story, he had forgotten which of the two of them committed the murder until Death reminded him. However, even that could have been part of the reason he was telling the story to the assassin regardless, so maybe it was a parable and he was trying to get through to Death. And there are moments where even Death appears to be a pawn of the Master’s so… maybe?
Or not, because Death ends up being the assassin who knew the Doctor would not honor his side of a bargain: to kill the Master after giving him 10 good, happy years. So then the point falls. Or does it? By the end, we see that the Master is back at the start of the story, and the whole thing is kicking off again. So was this a plan of the Doctor’s all along? Was Torvic ever real? Or was it a ruse to mislead Death? (Though, not sure one can actually mislead the embodiment of the afterlife…)
I think the trick with this one is to ignore the background about the Doctor and enjoy the weird tale of a haunted house with a bit of philosophizing by Drs. John Smith. Their discussions are absolutely fascinating and honestly, Beevers could read the phone book and make it sound intriguing. If nothing more, it’s a creepy story for a dark and stormy night. ML