Doctor Who

Starring: Sylvester McCoy
Big Finish Productions
RRP 13.99
ISBN 1 84435 031 2, BFPDWCD7Y
Available now

The disfigured and enigmatic Doctor John Smith invites his closest friends to dinner to celebrate his birthday. Following a series of gruesome murders, the conversation turns to questions of morality and nature versus nurture. Is it possible for a killer to be motivated by nothing more than pure evil? Then an unexpected visitor arrives - another Doctor...

This, the final entry in Big Finish's loosely themed "villains" trilogy of character studies, is even more intensely focused than last month's Davros. Writer Joseph Lidster goes for a stage-play approach, using a minimal cast and a single primary location, a house on an Edwardian-styled colony world. Like the creepy Edwardian mansion in Robert Shearman's The Chimes of Midnight, you get the distinct impression that all is not as it should be, especially when the guests, Adjudicator Victor Schaeffer (Philip Madoc) and his wife Jacqueline (Anne Ridler), start making bigoted and hurtful comments that seem entirely out of character.

Their host, an amnesiac Master, is portrayed by Geoffrey Beevers, who previously played the part in The Keeper of Traken and in Big Finish's Dust Breeding. The actor's velvety tones work just as well in the mode of amiable and (temporarily) innocent physician as they did in the guise of the Doctor's arch nemesis.

As a villain, the Master has often been derided by critics for lacking convincing motivation, doing the wicked things he does simply because he is evil. The writer latches on to this character flaw and makes a plot point out of it, revealing a shocking detail from the Doctor's past along the way. Lidster manages to reconcile the fact that the Doctor has sometimes regarded his former friend with pity and compassion (in The Sea Devils and the TV movie, for example), while at other times considering the villain to be irredeemable (in stories such as The Deadly Assassin and The Mark of the Rani). He also ties in the Seventh Doctor's occasional dealings with the forces of Death and Time in Virgin Publishing's New Adventures novels.

Some fans were disappointed that Beevers' role as the "degenerated" Master in Dust Breeding seemed to contradict the character's regeneration into a new body in the New Adventure, First Frontier. However, this story, with its hints at the imminent events in the TV movie, adds weight to my own theory that the Master's meeting with the Doctor and Ace in Dust Breeding actually takes place after First Frontier and Happy Endings as far as the Master is concerned. Such continuity building is undermined slightly by the Doctor's comment that the Master always travels alone (he had a companion called Ailla in the novel The Dark Path and was accompanied by Glitz in The Trial of a Time Lord), but the Doctor is clearly generalising.

The story's ending is necessarily inconclusive, but otherwise this is a quite masterful analysis of a notoriously difficult character.

Richard McGinlay