Big Finish is a funny beast; straddling both the original and revived series of Doctor Who, and yet needing to create an identity of its own, sometimes it forgets there are no pictures to go with the dialogue and bombards the listener with a surfeit of invisible imagery – trying to recapture the mood of the twentieth century run without making allowances for the psychological nuances that modern listeners expect. The company’s best plays are the ones that live in the mind rather than dying due to the lack of visuals.
With The Two Masters, John Dorney hasn’t just taken a conceit that would have been right at home in the classic series and given it a thoroughly modern twist, he’s absorbed the way the new series works – particularly but not exclusively Steven Moffat’s reading of it – and fashioned a story that actually would have felt right at home in the novels of the Wilderness Years, without having to compromise on any of the influences that can be felt running through his plot. If there can be one criticism of the result, it’s that there’s a fair amount of characters telling one another what’s going on rather than simply going on with it; the plot itself introduces quite a considerable scope for characters and situations – and indeed locations – that are often only a minor part of the story and are moved beyond almost as quickly as they appear. On the other hand, it is entirely to the listeners’ benefit that Dorney takes the time to spell things out through fairly natural sounding dialogue, allowing the intricacies of his concept to bed into the audience’s mind without risking confusion. And none of his ideas feel imposed upon his chosen period; Delta and the Bannermen began as one kind of story before revealing its true self later on, and the notion of destiny and the Time Lords was woven throughout the seventh Doctor’s era. Throw in a few of the conceits from Journey’s End and The Big Bang and a huge splash of wibbly-wobbly Blinovitch Limitation, and what you end up with is a sort of Doctor Who’s Greatest Conceptual Hits.
To say anything of what happens would be to either undermine the listener’s journey of discovery, or to promote expectations that aren’t about to be satisfied. Suffice it to say the seventh Doctor is travelling alone when he runs into some old nemeses as an aperitif for some even older and more significant nemeses – or rather, the same nemesis conducting a convoluted, but entirely logically constructed, plot to self-assassinate. There is what at first appears to be a separate issue concerning memory and emerging cracks in the timelines, but a temporal diversion at the beginning of the third episode brings everything into complete clarity. Clarity enough for the focus of the second half of the play to be the gradual unravelling of the increasing complication of the first half, at least. This is superbly structured to prompt explanations that actually add further textures to the mystery – and whenever a sub-plot is introduced that doesn’t appear to be living up to its significance, you can almost guarantee it will turn out to be more consequential than you at first imagined.
John Dorney doesn’t have quite the wit of his obvious inspiration Robert Holmes (but then, who does?), and some of the humour is diluted by the occasional over-enunciation that’s one of the common pitfalls of audio drama. But Dorney’s grasp of the time paradox potentialities is faultless, and his achievement is that he makes The Two Masters clear enough to follow that what could have been a disaffectingly dense experience is actually a thoroughly entertaining one. If the title might have led you to prepare for something that couldn’t be lived up to, this is instead everything you might have hoped it would be. A real gem.
THE TWO MASTERS / WRITER: JOHN DORNEY / DIRECTOR: JAMIE ANDERSON / STARRING: SYLVESTER MCCOY, GEOFFREY BEEVERS, ALEX MCQUEEN / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (VIA BIG FINISH), JULY 31ST (GENERAL SALE)