The eighth story in Big Finish‘s Doctor Who Unbound range is a sequel to Sympathy for the Devil which saw an alternative version of the third Doctor (David Warner) teaming up with a retired Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) during a time of crisis exasperated by the machinations of the Master (Mark Gatiss).
Masters of War opens with the Doctor and the Brigadier as travelling companions in the middle of a hot situation. The Brigadier’s lacking in diplomacy has offended someone’s god, and now they’re having to abscond pretty quickly in the TARDIS.
Not having time to properly set-up the TARDIS for the journey, they arrive on an alien world that the Doctor vaguely recognises. They’re quick to face a Dalek which, instead of exterminating them for “violating curfew”, asks for their identification. The Doctor’s first reaction is to instinctively fight, but they’re quickly rescued by a native. The Doctor and the Brigadier are issued with temporary IDs and orderED to get permanent ones the following day. The Dalek instructs them all to return home, and obey the curfew, before leaving.
They’re on Skaro, some few hundred years after the Doctor first encountered the Daleks in their city. The natives are Thals, under the dominion of the Daleks. Skaro has had alien settlers over the years, which allows the Doctor and the Brigadier to explain themselves when registering for their IDs.
The dominion of the Daleks sees them as overlords, imposing curfews, keeping the Thals in line, and broadcasting propaganda teachings from their creator – the mythical “Davros” (Terry Molloy) – told via computer-generated videos. The Doctor wonders why, in all of his encounters with the Daleks, he’s never heard of Davros. Nevertheless, the propaganda teachings hold great store by their creator as some kind of benevolent religious leader who passes on his knowledge to his Dalek-disciples who then carry his message to his flock.
The Thal that rescued the Doctor and the Brigadier is part of one small pocket of resistance. They’ve just lost their bio-engineer to a Dalek weapon, and so the Doctor looks over their plans to take control of a Dalek. Their scheme is sound, and the device they’ve created should work, but the Doctor has doubts that their plan to put a spy in the midst of the Daleks would work. At great loss to themselves, and the capture of the Brigadier, they’re able to secure a Dalek by attaching the device to it. The Doctor reprograms the Dalek, and allows it to return to the city.
For his crimes, the Brigadier is not exterminated but is instead put in with a recent “collection” of 300 of the weakest Thals that are to be “made better” by Dalek technology. This is seen to be a coded way of saying that they will become Daleks.
The Doctor’s reprogrammed Dalek returns to the Dalek city and enacts its programming – it claims to be Davros, returned from the wilderness having completed his “transformation” into a full Dalek. The Black Dalek doesn’t believe it. Some Daleks do. Some don’t. Daleks following “Davros” defend their creator, whilst those loyal to the Black Dalek try to exterminate the “dissident”. Chaos ensues, with Daleks killing Daleks. The Doctor’s plan is working, and the resistance cell are delighted.
It’s then that the Doctor learns from a wounded Dalek that the Daleks were not, in truth, dominating the Thals – they’ve been protecting them from an alien race called “the Quatch”. With the Daleks in disarray, the Quatch arrive … and they have a surprising leader.
Masters of War is over two-hours long, with the first hour ending in a cliff-hanger. Based on the previous story, Sympathy for the Devil, you know you’d like more Warner / Courtney adventures, but do you really want over two hours of one adventure? If this first episode is any judge, yes you do! David Warner has gone from being a great alternative third Doctor to an excellent one, one that you wish had been in many more adventures like this. Nicholas Courtney plays the “retired” Brigadier with an extra zest over the previous adventure, really stepping up to the plate and making you realise what a huge missed opportunity it was to not have him as a proper travelling companion with the Doctor in the TV series. This TARDIS pair has quickly become my favourite pairing.
The actual story, which so far doesn’t really need to be an “alternative / unbound” story, is fascinating and well told with good characters and excellent portrayals of the Daleks as they behave slightly differently from the usual “ranting Daleks” we see. These ones are much more akin to the ones in the early Troughton adventures, in which they are quite capable of behaving in duplicitous ways rather than just ranting ad exterminating all the time.
It’s not too much to admit that I found this first episode captivating, and I can’t wait to listen to more of it.