Doctor Who: Renaissance of the Master

You will obey me, says Tony Fyler.

The Master was originally a Doctor-specific creation. He was the Anti-Pertwee, and his original function in Doctor Who was to provide either a convenient ‘Moriarty-style’ thorn of evil genius in the Third Doctor’s side (mainly, but not exclusively while he was trapped on Earth), or to be a gateway through which other monsters of the week could rock up in our part of the galactic neigbourhood, con the bejeesus out of everybody and threaten to kill us all, or turn our planet into a planet-sized wheel of brie.

After the tragic death of the original (and many believe still the best) Master actor, Roger Delgado, there was doubt over whether anyone could breathe life into the role again. One of the handful of supremely talented scriptwriters with whom Doctor Who has been blessed throughout its life answered the question – Robert Holmes found a way around the death of Delgado in The Deadly Assassin in 1976, without committing to what any future Master would look like, in terms of whether they would be cast for looking like Delgado’s original or whether, as with different Doctors, they’d go in an entirely different direction. Peter Pratt gave a very stripped-down, vicious performance as the cowled, horribly degenerated, weirdly ping-pong-ball-eyed Master in a story which set some rules about Time Lord regeneration in stone.

Another five years went by until the Master appeared again, this time played, seemingly as a different, more sadistic, seductive figure, though still with a horribly degenerated body, by Geoffrey Beevers. But The Keeper of Traken in 1981, some eight years after Delgado’s death, was more than just a second outing for the gruesome cowled Master. The Production Team had decided to bring back the Master as a semi-regular villain to end the Fourth Doctor’s time and usher in a Fifth Doctor’s era where more than a handful of nefarious plans would be down to the Doctor’s arch-enemy.

The Keeper of Traken serves as an origin story for the new Master, as played for no less than eight years, from the beginning of the 80s to the end of the decade (and the show’s Classic run), by Anthony Ainley, and despite Ainley himself having a profile and a degree of personal eccentricity that could have made him a great Master without props, the decision was made to model the look of the new Master as closely on Delgado’s original as possible, delivering the notion that the Master had a preferred body-image, and that, despite having stolen the body of Tremas, an older man, that body was ‘morphed’ into something that closely approximated the original Degaldo Master.

Ainley made no secret of his love of playing the Master. Much else about the man remains to this day a mystery, but about the Master and cricket, he was passionate. During his eight years as the Master (the longest stint in the role to date, measured chronologically), he clocked up ten full stories and an amazing scene at the end of the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration. Half of those performances would match him against Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, and in the first four years of the 80s, Ainley’s Master would appear in seven of his ten stories, plus the Caves of Androzani regeneration scene. This was a remarkable renaissance for the Master.

We use the word ‘renaissance’ advisedly – it means a revival based on classical models. There’s no fitter description of what Ainley did with the role of the Master, particularly during the Davison era.

He was undoubtedly a little hampered straight out of the gate – having turned in an agreeably naturalistic performance as Tremas in Johnny Byrne’s Keeper of Traken, he was immediately challenged with two of the least likeable, least understandable stories of the 80s – Logopolis, focusing on the unlikely television of advanced mathematics rendering matter into forms and keeping the universe alive through a gateway into a pocket universe, and Castrovalva, focusing on the possibly even duller subject of recursion. In Logopolis though, Ainley is absolutely the star – he almost dances through four episodes of beigeness and bilge, a far brighter, darker presence than outgoing Doctor Tom Baker. It is of course not often anyone gets to upstage or outshine Tom Baker, but the opposite vibrations of the men at different points in their career – Ainley coming in, Baker going out, showed on screen. Castrovalva challenged Ainley to be the Master – the master of disguise, as he staggers along throughout most of the story disguised as the elderly Portreeve. But again, when he’s being the Master – particularly in relatively private scenes with Adric, there’s a relish to his darkness that, while being at odds with Delgado’s naturalism, still excites with its intensity of focus.

But despite these days being rather an overlooked Master, Ainley could deliver a naturalistic performance too, given the right script. While it’s hard to find things to like about Time Flight, and certainly even among its strengths, it would be difficult to argue for naturalism as one of them, watch Ainley in his third Davison story, The King’s Demons. To some extent it follows the bone structure of Time Flight pretty exactly – Ainley in disguise for a big chunk of the story, using a stolen piece of alien tech to influence events, then a reveal, then pure Mastery to the end, but the performance in The King’s Demons is massively more natural, especially when he’s revealed as the Master. He seems to be having the most tremendous fun, dealing with people of far less intellectual prowess than himself. If the Ainley Master is a renaissance for the character, then this is his Mind of Evil.

Ainley’s Master gets even more sublime in the next story though. The Five Doctors is a treat-packed script, but even in among all the Doctors and monsters and Time Lords (oh my!), it’s Ainley’s Master who really shines through. Check out his supreme self-confidence in the Council Chamber – he’s the only one in the room who seems to be in control or enjoying themselves. Alone in the Death Zone, we see his fine footwork both literally in terms of surviving the thunderbolts, and figuratively when he has to think on his feet, find unlikely allies, take control and sacrifice them as necessary. While Delgado’s Master is perhaps the ultimate universal ‘master criminal’ – the bon viveur who happens to harbour a soulless determination to control the universe, Ainley’s, throughout much of his time but especially in The Five Doctors, has learned the lesson of the degeneration years, and will survive at any cost. He no longer has his cat-like lives to lose, and self-preservation is his key.

That’s a little perverse given his last full performance in the Davison era, in Planet of Fire. Here, more than anywhere else, is the Master as geek – having had an accident with his Tissue Compression Eliminator, he’s been cut down to the size of a mouse in the wainscoting, but he uses his intellect to control the tools he can – he builds himself a mental magnifier, to influence Kamelion, to influence the Tardis, to engineer his return and his empowerment. It’s the Master as the cleverest kid in the engineering club, and again, his focus on his own preservation and survival is the key to his performance here.

In The Caves of Androzani – always in the top three stories whenever fans are polled, and until last year the top story of all, the Fifth Doctor, exhausted, poisoned, entirely unsure of his survival, lays down, and the battle for his existence begins. Companions from his life swoop into his mind to tell him he must survive, must regenerate, but he seems unsure, especially when Adric appears, and he seems to ask the boy how he can be there. But none of them persuade him so much to regenerate as the snarling, laughing figure of Anthony Ainley’s Master, urging him, demanding that he die, that he give up the fight. It becomes the catalyst he needs to go on, to change, to come out the other side of his death. The Master was there when he was ‘born,’ and it’s the Master who spurs him not to die.

Ainley’s appearances grew less frequent once Davison was gone – twice in Colin Baker’s time, and just the once against Sylvester McCoy. But given that during the 80s, the Daleks appeared four times, the Cybermen four times, and Ainley gave life to the Master more times than the both of them put together, there can be little doubt that the decade belonged both to Ainley and the reinvigorated Master. More particularly, the Davison era, which saw him appear twice a year for the first two years, is essentially the second golden age of Master stories, a renaissance that took the classic Pertwee-Delgado dynamic and made something based in its image, that was brilliant, intense, and wonderfully new.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at
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