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“The timelines hang in the balance.  The Daleks must be stopped.”
“Which is why one of your lot stole an innocent woman from Earth’s history and turned her into a weapon against them…and then you took the insane step of sending the Master in to clean things up.”

With that terse summation of where things left off in February’s Dark Eyes 2, we rejoin the most Romantic of Doctors in an increasingly complicated situation.

Left playing cleanup in a series of skirmishes and events throughout time, the Paul McGann Doctor struggles over his role in a difficult game of power politics between the Daleks, the Eminence and their Infinite Warriors and the Timelords, the latter of whom are keeping their hands “clean” by enlisting the aid of none other than the increasingly mad renegade The Master…

“I am the knight errant who’s arrived in the nick of time.”

Since we left off with Eyes of the Master, it appears that matters have gone from bad to worse.  The Master (Alex Macqueen) has recruited Dr. Sally Armstrong (Natalie Burt) from his 1970’s adventure with the Ides Institute as his very own companion.  Worse, he’s playing both sides against the middle, attempting to manipulate and exploit both the Eminence’s Infinite Warrors…and the titular “dark eyes” Timelord weapon we know more personally as Molly O’Sullivan (Ruth Bradley).

“He’s twisting her good nature.  Just like he twisted Sally Armstrong’s scientific curiosity…took advantage of her situation at the Ides Institute.”

Written in its entirety by Matt Fitton (The Wrong Doctors, Afterlife, Signs and Wonders, Charlotte Pollard, Luna Romana, Survivors, Counter Measures Series 3, The Dark Planet, The Time Machine, Dark Eyes 2), this is a more unified if not unilateral season.

While there are, technically speaking, the usual four discrete stories to be found herein, the reality of the situation is that this is actually one long story, and not in the sense of prior seasons bearing an overarching motif and grand design.  Think of it as one long Peter Jackson film, perhaps sliced into saleable bits, but still actually one nigh-changeless story spanning the entirety of the set.

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In The Death of Hope, The Doctor is brought to the site of Aaron’s World by Timelord Celestial Intervention Agency agent Narvin (Sean Carlsen), to bring him up to speed on The Master’s recruitment of both Armstrong and O’Sullivan and his plan to utilize the latter to cure Infinite Warriors of the Breath of Life.  That’s pretty much it; The Doctor watches events unfold, powerless to act throughout.

“You’ve all made mistakes, but you need to behave with honor.  There are dead on both sides.  So from this point on, you work together…no more killing.”

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He’s set free to intervene in The Reviled, where The Master’s Earther “Ides colonists” and their retrogenitor “white eyes” are facing some difficulties maintaining their military base cum mining operation on the planet Remosa due to some pushback from the native “roaches”.  And while the Remosans begin to assert themselves to the point of tyranny, they find that a colonial revolution is stirring…

In the process of trying to negotiate terms and keep the colonists hidden from the Eminence, The Doctor meets up once again with med tech Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker)…but The Master is also on hand, with Dr. Armstrong stirring the ever-warming political pot…

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“That’s what poor old Kaleshnikov thought too.  You’re familiar with Mikhail’s work?  Like you, he was a genius, a gifted engineer…he began working on tanks, even though he’d always said he’d rather be designing tractors.  The fact is, he didn’t design tractors.

All through his life, he said it wasn’t his responsibility what governments and politicians chose to do with the weapons he’d invented.  He claimed he’d intended them to be used for defense, rather than attack…just before his death, he wrote a letter to his church.  He said his soul was in pain.  He’d finally realized the true nature of his legacy.”

Then The Doctor visits Ides Professor Markus Schriver (David Sibley) in a failed attempt to halt the creation of The Eminence in Masterplan. Unfortunately, the good Professor has two assistants: both Liv Chenka and Sally Armstrong…

“Deep down, you know…that you’re not special.

As far as The Master’s concerned, you could be anyone…someone to fetch and carry, hold his test tubes and tell him how wonderful he is.  But soon enough, he’ll grow tired of you…discard you, and forget about you.  Because you and I both know who it is The Master really cares about.

You?  You’re expendable.  Your days are numbered, and you know it.”

The most comparatively intimate of the stories contained herein, Masterplan slips in a few eye opening wake up calls to a general public all too inclined to both passively allow and indeed actively support institutionalized evildoers in the hope that they too can join what is in fact a tightly closed circle of would-be “elites”.

And like Kaleshnikov, Schriver and Armstrong (not to mention John Leguziamo in George Romero’s all too apt politicosocial allegory Land of the Dead), this leaves said public not merely deluded, but setting both themselves and the world at large up for a very precipitous fall…

Like a strong cup of coffee, this story comes like a breath of fresh air amidst all the battleground doings and backroom political machinations that surround it.  All of the characters get to psychoanalyze and explore the deeper motivations of the others, with each side getting some fairly biting and apropos digs in on their opposite number.  No one comes out unscathed, and what could be more honest and true to the human condition than that?

Admittedly, this is still a rather central battleground of the overall Timelords vs. Daleks vs. Eminence vs. Master war that the Dark Eyes series revolves around.  And yes, The Eminence do show up for the final third to bring matters kicking and screaming back into the trenches.  But for the better part of the story, Masterplan provides the one bit of business where characterization, rather than the insanity and casualty of militarism and warfare, are given the opportunity to come to the fore.

Perhaps it’s still a bit dry.  Certainly, its messages and metacognitive analyses of persona and motivation are quite bracing.  But it’s quite a welcome breather from the battlefield nonetheless.

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“Fun?  You call this fun, you twisted psychopath?”

Finally, Narvin takes The Doctor into the alternate timeline he created due to his intervention during the events of Masterplan in Rule of the Eminence.

“Earth is open for business.  And our business…is death.”

Beth Chalmers (Raine Creevey from the Sylvester McCoy Lost Stories, as well as roles in The Wrong Doctors, Spaceport Fear, Avengers Lost Episodes vol. 2 and Philip Hinchcliffe Presents’ The Devil’s Armada), Georgia Moffett (Frankenstein) and Jonathan Forbes (Daleks Among Us, Afterlife) all turn up for a spell in this bit of dystopianism where The Eminence (ostensibly under the aegis of The Master) nearly manage to conquer the entire planet…except for the intervention of The Doctor.

It’s got a bit less of the explosions, screaming and trauma of the first two stories, but remains rather on the New Who side of the scripting fence in terms of its globally impactful menace of the week feel.  At least Molly O’Sullivan gets a few welcome minutes to set matters straight at the denouement…

“Why you…I’m thinkin’ somebody’s askin’ for a punch on the nose!”

Paul McGann and Ruth Bradley are welcome as ever, and do their best with some overly busy, action-oriented material.  But the fact is that they, and attention to characterization per se, get a bit lost in all this wartime business and intricately managed power politics.  One story aside, there just isn’t enough room for them to expound on things to the level they truly deserve amidst plotting quite this dense and events operating on quite this grand a scale.

While good acting will show through in even the most inhospitable of scenarios, the increasingly complicated, even deadlocked chess game of the Dark Eyes series is hardly the ideal setting for actors to emote and develop subtleties of persona and interaction.  All this noise and nonsense, explosions and militarism…it’s just ugly, and not what life’s all about.  Needless to say, while I do enjoy several of the actors and actresses involved here, this setting, this sort of CG-style fireworks and rollercoaster sturm und drang “big event” feel is just not my thing in any respect, so those who do enjoy that sort of Grant Morrison Justice League-esque “widescreen” storytelling should bear that in mind.

Alex MacQueen continues to provide his Geoffrey Beevers by way of Michele Gomez iteration of The Master, partly preening, oily menace and partially barking mad.

It certainly works, and even provides a laugh or two (as with the bit about the hat in The Death of Hope), but while I certainly appreciate the subtleties of his ever-shifting tonality of performance, I still prefer the more dashing, stable villainy of a Roger Delgado (or for that matter, the less obviously insane take of Beevers).  Mind you, no question of accomplishment involved or implied here, rather more a matter of personal taste.  That being duly noted, MacQueen’s take on the role certainly merits ranking among the top tier of Master incarnations, and deservedly so – longstanding preferences aside, he’s quite good.

Nicola Walker’s Liv Chenka is far too bristly, cold and battle hardened to truly warm to in any real respect, with her chilly sendoff in Masterplan leaving a decidedly bitter taste in the listener’s mouth.  Sure, she wasn’t actually responsible.  But with that speech and viewpoint, is she not still culpable?  Chenka may in fact be the ideal companion for a series set within and revolving around the horrors of war.  But that’s no compliment.

Overall, I was glad to see far less of the Daleks this time around, but there’s still enough of The Eminence, The Remosans and several settings’ worth of beleaguered, militarized (or war-torn casualty afflicted) locals to set my nose a bit out of joint.

While putting as much of a logical and human element into the equation as possible, it’s all far too Call of Duty meets Halo by way of Starship Troopers for my taste, and though the prospect of a more intimate Doctor vs. Master (and inferred companion vs. companion!) series left me a bit eager to experience this round, with the partial exception of Masterplan, the actual result is far likelier to appeal to fans of the aforementioned videogame franchises (and film) than those who share whatever measure of similarity in tastes to those of my own.

And at the risk of giving too much away, it’s a bleedin’ shame about that sendoff…

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/dark-eyes-3-979

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