DW: The War Master – Hearts of Darkness Review

As predicted, even though the original run of four stories formed a nice circular whole, the War Master range proved so popular that it returns not long after it last appeared. “Hearts of Darkness” is another hand-wavey encounter between the War Master and the Eighth Doctor (presumably set before their other encounter, which ends in a mind wipe) but it instead brings up an old sci-fi cliché with interesting results. Want actual detail? Read on!

Synopsis:

Recruited by the Celestial Intervention Agency to track down his oldest enemy, the Master finds himself thrown into a mission that will take him into deepest Dalek territory.

Abandoned on the planet Redemption, he assembles a crew and acquires a ship – the journey that follows is certain to test them all… and not everyone will survive.

But space pirates and living corpses are the least of their worries. Their biggest threat remains at large: a Time Lord who likes to call himself ‘the Doctor’.

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

The Good:

The War Master sets seem to come in two flavours: four separate stories with sometimes a connective tissue here and there, and a four-part single story. “Hearts of Darkness” falls into the latter as we follow The Master across space, TARDIS-less, in search of his greatest foe… Or do we? Yes, big spoiler time here folks! The Part 2 cliffhanger reveal is that The Master we hear in the first two parts is actually The Doctor in The Master’s body, and he’s after the actual Master in his body to stop him. I’ll admit the twist is fun, but it didn’t catch me by surprise as Part 1 (“The Edge of Redemption”) sees “The Master” bring together a crew of people to recapture an impounded ship and escape the planet, during which the pilot (Captain Morski, played by Colin McFarlane doing a weird American accent) shoots one of the other team members after she accidentally killed the other. “The Master” gets angry at the pointless killing, which was SO out of character that it twinged that something clearly wasn’t right, and then I saw the cover staring back at me, as it does, and I went “Oh, right. A body swap plot. Got ya”.

It’s a shame because Big Finish have gotten me twice with that twist (The Doctor and Davros in “The Curse of Davros”, and The Master and The Master in “The Two Masters”) but third time wasn’t the charm here. STILL, the point is, and why this is still in the good, is because Derek Jacobi is good fun as The Doctor, but Paul McGann shines as The War Master. It makes all the generic cliché-ness not matter and become fun. That’s not to say we don’t hear Mr. Jacobi be the evil and sadistic Master at all as one of the other would-be companions The Doctor picks up calls herself The Scaramancer (Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo) and has a backstory of The Master saving her from her war-torn, soon to be destroyed world but refusing to save her sister, even though he easily could. He even drops her off in front of her sister and tells her only she can come back in the TARDIS, forcing her to make an impossible decision. Hell, one step further, we hear him constantly taking her back to in and around that moment and getting genuine pleasure and intrigue out of her increasingly worse and worse fits of tears, until she becomes cold to the whole thing. It’s horrible in that delicious Derek Jacobi way that makes me smile…

As I said, the cover having the little lightning between the two leads was the final tip-off as to the twist. Also: side characters on the cover! Hooray!

Episode 2 (named after the character of “The Scaramancer”) also sees The Doctor/Master meet a bounty hunter named Dorada (Sandra Huggett) who claims to be after The Master’s head, but is actually working for The Master to bring him a vital component to a machine (admittedly under the notion that she was helping The Doctor due to the whole body-swap thing). That’s the main cast set up for the finale, but Episode 3, “The Castle of Kurnos 5” shows us just how The Doctor and The Master swapped minds in the first place. The actual Master is on Kurnos because a Time Lord from the distant past whose name escapes me at the moment (and it’s not in the cast list because, well, he’s long dead…) created a bunch of forbidden technology and was banished for it, eventually living and dying on Kurnos before his great works could be completed. They mostly revolved around bringing the dead back, but The Master was far more interested in the ability to swap minds on a grand scale, and in order to find that out he needed to know where this ancient Time Lord hid his greatest work. He gets this information (at the expense of a local girl, naturally) and then tricks The Doctor, who arrived too late, to swap minds so he could travel to the planet unpursued by Time Agents and the like. At least at first…

This leads us to Episode 4, “The Cognition Shift”, where The Doctor, Captain Morski and the Scaramancer travel across a planet of near-dead zombie-like people and a emotionally manipulative swamp in order to reach The Master, who has finished a machine that can swap minds instantly and universally, an example of which he gives by swapping Dorada’s mind with that of a bird (and then momentarily pretends to be Dorada in The Doctor’s body, just for that extra bit of manipulation!) As it turns out his plan is pretty insane this time, that’s for sure. He plans to use the machine to swap his mind with that of the entire Dalek neural network, controlling the entire Dalek race while they inhabit The Doctor’s body all at once. The Master as The Daleks and an entire-Dalek-race-led Time Lord would then conquer the universe… Yeah, I know… The Doctor comes up with some ideas to stop him, but they might end up in The Master’s consciousness being broadcast across the universe and giving him control over everybody, but in the end he manages to swap his and The Master’s minds back and neutralises the machine using The Scaramancer’s body, which had been ruined by a Time War plasma blast but had a handy side-effect that stopped the machine for good. The Doctor and Scaramancer, who wishes to now be known as Lyric, her real name, leave while The Master hypnotises Morski to take him back to Kurnos and his TARDIS, all while laughing at the evil things he did while in The Doctor’s body…

The Bad:

Beyond Captain Morski’s accent, which sort of grew on me over time, the only bad thing is when you think back across Episodes 1 and 2 and how it made no sense that The Doctor pretended to be The Master. Why would he? It’s not like his old rival has a reputation that could be helpful! Just call yourself The Doctor and if anyone recognises the body as The Master’s then explain right away. The Scaramancer nearly kills him a few times before he finally admits who he is and then she stops… why didn’t he say all this from the start? The obvious reason is ”we wanted a big reveal for the end of Episode 2” but in-universe there isn’t one…

The Continuity:

There isn’t much, if any, continuity to speak of here. I mentioned The Doctor having swapped bodies before with Davros in the Sixth Doctor audio “The Curse of Davros”, he also did it with far-less-of-a-villain Cassandra in the Tenth Doctor TV story “New Earth”.

Also as mentioned, The Master has swapped bodies with a previous version of himself in similar fashion before, as the swap was revealed in “The Two Masters”, but body-swapped versions of the Masters appeared in “And You Will Obey Me” and “Vampire of the Mind” beforehand, making the reveal add a lot to relistening to those two stories and hearing the difference between the two performances. That worked better obviously because they were two versions of the same character, so it was a little harder to tell something was off the first time round…

Overall Thoughts:

“Hearts of Darkness” is a perfectly fun story featuring a good use of the old body swap sci-fi cliché. While it doesn’t reach the heights of the first two War Master sets (and I’m wondering if any ever will, frankly) and I can say it’s worth your time for Derek Jacobi and Paul McGann’s performances as each other alone.

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