Doctor Who Unbound: Masters Of War

By Matthew Kresal



What would Doctor Who be without the Daleks? If they hadn't featured in the second-ever serial, broadcast in the winter of 1963-64, the series might not have survived beyond its initial thirteen-episode run. But endure it did, leaving the Time Lord (as the titular Doctor later became) and the armored mutants from the planet Skaro locked in a running series of struggles that would include their creator Davros and much more. Which makes it all the more surprising that the Daleks didn't appear in the initial run of the Doctor Who Unbound audios, only appearing in a sequel released five years after the initial releases of the range. But worth the wait, it most certainly was in the form of Masters of War.


As discussed in earlier pieces for this series, Doctor Who Unbound's origins lie in that era of the show's history known to fans as "the wilderness era." With the BBC having ended production of the series on TV in 1989, the series had found an ongoing existence in spin-off media. This including novel ranges, first under Virgin Books and then BBC Books, but also in a series of audio dramas that began being produced by Big Finish in 1999. With the show's fortieth anniversary approaching in 2003 and with plans for a celebratory multi-Doctor story planned in the form of Zagreus, the company hit upon the idea of producing a series of what-if tales. Combined with casting actors who had previously been candidates to play the Doctor in the past or a potential future series, it would allow writers to explore familiar tropes from new angles across releases that year.


With the release of Exile in late 2003, it seemed that Big Finish's run of Unbound stories had finished. Yet the rich worlds they'd created for some of the audios beckoned for further exploration. In 2004, Big Finish announced the first Unbound sequel, A Storm of Angels, featuring the alternate First Doctor and Susan introduced in the range's opening entry, Auld Mortality. With its release in 2005, Big Finish also announced plans for a follow-up to the well-received second story in the series, Sympathy For the Devil, featuring David Warner's alternate Third Doctor and Nicholas Courtney as disgraced former UNIT commander Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Yet the audio then known as Engines of Destruction was not forthcoming in 2005, nor for the following two years. It was only in December 2008 that it saw the light of day, and now under the title Masters of War.


Told across two CD-length acts versus Sympathy For the Devil's sole disc, write Eddie Robson's script for Masters Of War is an epic tale. Beginning with the Doctor and Brigadier arriving on Skaro, they soon discover the Daleks occupying the city of the Thal's, the planet's blond-haired other intelligent inhabitants. In this way, Robson starts the audio off in a traditional Doctor Who style, with rebels rising up against an oppressor. This opening hour does much of the setting up for the Unbound groundwork of the story, layering in things as the Doctor and Brigadier go about helping the Thal rebels. Even here, there are some intriguing deviations from the established Who norm that Robson touches upon in his script. The history of the Thals and the Daleks predecessor race, the Kaleds, a war in Skaro's past, and the presence of Davros are all familiar elements, but Robson subtly turns them on their head as the hour progresses.


Then, in classic Doctor Who style, comes the cliffhanger at the end of episode one that turns the entire premise of this Unbound tale on its head. It's here that Robson reveals the truth of the Dalek occupation, changing both the stakes and narrative gears for the second disc. It's here that the story shifts away from rebellion towards an epic battle with the fate of Skaro and potentially the universe at stake. Much like its 2003 predecessor Sympathy For the Devil, Masters Of War comes across in this second half as akin to a big-budget film, albeit without pictures. Something owed in small part to the fact that Robson instinctively grasps the potential of the Unbound range, playing around with Dalek history, ideology, and, indeed, the very characters fans think they know so well after decades of stories on-screen and in various media.


A large part of that cinematic feel comes from its post-production work. The sound design and the score from Martin Johnson give the entire story a grand scale, especially in the second disc where battle sequences rage among character moments. Johnson's score in particular (presented as a separate music suite at the end of the opening installment) has the feel of an orchestral score worthy of a blockbuster movie. The sound effects too capture that quality, from Daleks roving around cities to crowd noises, explosions, and even spaceships in flight. The strengths of Johnson's work highlights production elements that Big Finish have, especially in recent years, brought to the fore in so many of their productions, including their recent releases based on the current incarnation of the TV series.


Masters of War also benefits as well from the strength of its cast. Warner, in particular, builds on his earlier outing in Sympathy For the Devil to become a Doctor in control of his senses, making up for lost time, and with a terrific wit to boot. Backing him up is Courtney as the Brigadier, once approaching the role in a way we could only see in an Unbound setting: a previously failed army officer finding redemption on an alien battlefield far from Earth and in fine form as well. The icing on the cake is Terry Molloy's Davros, reprising the role from three 1980s Who TV serials plus several Big Finish audios and Nicholas Briggs playing the Daleks. Both of them, like Courtney, receive a chance to play their familiar, even iconic, roles somewhat differently. It's something that they both take the opportunity to shine, especially in the second half of the story. As grand as its scope ultimately becomes, Robson's script for Master of War never loses sight of its characters, and, thanks to the performances, those character moments are among the biggest highlights.


Once the battle is over, it's time to leave, but not for everyone. The closing minutes of Masters of War present a lovely scene between Warner and Courtney which superbly illustrates the difference between the two characters. One man is on a mission to make up for his lost time, while the other believes that they've atoned for their past. Ultimately, and perhaps far more so in retrospect, knowing as we do know that this story represents one of the last times Courtney would play his most famous role, it's a scene that amounts to something of a farewell for the Brigadier. One which stands in tribute to both the character and the man who brought one of Doctor Who's most enduring characters to life.


Masters of War was to prove to be the final story released under the Doctor Who Unbound range. Yet, befitting its parent series, it hasn't quite proven to be the end as, in recent years, Warner's Doctor has crossed over into the Big Finish Bernice Summerfield audios, experiencing new adventures alongside that long-running Seventh and Eighth Doctor companion. Even so, Masters of War would prove to be both worthy as a successor to Sympathy For the Devil but as the finale to the Unbound range as a whole, revealing new visions of the Doctor Who universe and asking that greatest of storytelling questions:


"What if...?"

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Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a (Sidewise Nominated) story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press, and has also written a Sea Lion Press novel about Joe McCarthy.