Oh our dear Tony has been naïve.
In the age of New Who, when loving or hating the showrunner has become a fault line along which Who fans are frequently divided, we often hear the cry ‘He’s a great actor, he just needs better scripts!’
But rest assured, whichever is your favourite Doctor, they were never as ill-served for scripts as the second long-running Master on TV, Anthony Ainley.
Anthony Ainley took the role of the Master seriously, and always aimed to do the best he could with what he was given. Sadly, all too often what he was given made no sense whatsoever, leaving him straggling behind Roger Delgado in the Master stakes, not necessarily representing their relative skills as actors.
Beginning his Who career as Tremas of Traken, Ainley showed he could anchor a character and handle the technobabble of the show well. At the end of the story, Ainley became the Master, signalling a shift in the programme’s approach to the character – after eight years during which the Master appeared just twice, both times in a desperate, predatory mode, trying to get himself a real body again, The Keeper of Traken, and Ainley’s casting, was a signal that not only would the Master be back in regular rotation in the stories of the Eighties, he would be equally as free as Delgado’s was to commit all kinds of villainy.
It’s peculiar then that Producer John Nathan-Turner, in reviving a Seventies villain, harked back to the original version, at least in his appearance, rather than letting him be a new face of intergalactic terror.
Logopolis and Castrovalva are hard stories to love because they sacrifice storytelling to signposts of authorial cleverness at every turn. Of the two, Logopolis brings the better performance out of Ainley, the new Master showing his enthusiasm and energy as he moves around the planet with a glee and fluidity, and killing absolutely for the sake of it. Even his moment of amusement as the Doctor shakes his hand before they set off together to save the universe shows promise for the new Dark Lord of Time. But Castrovalva drowns both Ainley and Davison in the philosophy and dimensional mathematics of an Escher painting, which ultimately ends up going right up its own…erm…never-ending passageway.
To be fair to Ainley and his Master, his performance is by several yards the best thing in Time-Flight. There’s an ultimate gleeful pointlessness in the elaborate nature of his disguise as Kalid, and his emergence from that disguise at the end of episode two manages to generate excitement in a story that was poorly resourced, poorly directed and probably pitched as ‘Let’s Steal Concorde!’ Too often, Ainley’s fate was to do good work in scripts that had no real place for the Master, or had him playing second fiddle to a concept, a co-star, or in this case, a Concorde.
As if to prove that the deficiency was in the writing, rather than in the potential of Ainley’s Master, his next appearance, in The King’s Demons, allowed him to do many of the same things as Time-Flight had – disguise, ending an episode on the removal of that disguise, what was beginning to be his trademark Master chuckle, using another semi-techno-lifeform to advance his own agenda…but in the tighter, more claustrophobic two-parter, Ainley shines, both in his disguised form and as the fully-fledged Master throughout the second episode, dancing along lines of allegiance, authority and superstition. Not since Tremas has Ainley looked so assured in his own skin, but now it feels very much like the Master’s skin, as he borrows a degree of Delgado’s civility with the Doctor in private, but brings his own gruff focus to the character when things go against him. For the first time in The King’s Demons, Ainley impresses on the audience that while he might look like the old Master, and dress like the old Master, actually, there’s more going on there than meets the eye.
The Master Dances
The Five Doctors delivers the scenes and lines that give us the Ainley Master’s best performance, finally proving that he’s in control of the character. Even in a story more crowded than any other, he stands out in almost every scene in which he features, perhaps the best of which is the first – the Master sitting with the High Council of Gallifrey. He feels comfortable, even in that dangerous environment. He even feels playful, considering a universe without the Doctor. But the gnaw of his borrowed body is enough to persuade him to go when offered a completely new life cycle. There’s that surreal scene – the new Master meets the Third Doctor. The more familiar, but still playful debate with the Fifth Doctor, the Master thinking on his feet with the Cybermen and leading them across the Floor of Death. The Master meets the first Doctor. The giving way to the potential of killing the Doctor another three times, and finally, the coup de grace – being knocked out by none other than the Brigadier. It’s the Ainley Master’s finest hour, and it showcases all the strengths of this Master; the glee, the quick feet and quicker brain, the ruthlessness and the raw-throated savagery at the end.
In his final battle with the Fifth Doctor, despite the busyness of a script involving the death of Kamelion, the leaving of Turlough, a satire on the battle between science and religion and the introduction of Peri, Ainley’s Master feels as though he’s grown in assurance, however much he’s shrunken in stature on the Planet of Fire. Ainley, closeted in scenes on his own, delivers a credible threat through his diadem of ping pong balls, and his Kamelion-version feels imbued with the physical power of the man, despite the reveal that he’s actually little more than a mouse in the wainscoting. Planet of Fire adds some gravitas at the end, when – fittingly for a Master who came into being when his predecessor won the paradise of Traken – he is burned in what might as well be everlasting hellfire, giving a final spin to the story’s science versus religion theme.
The Ainley Master faired badly during the brief time of the Sixth Doctor. In Mark of the Rani, he’s little more than a pantomime villain, dressing up as a scarecrow and acting as a butt for the Rani’s contempt. His presence was necessary so that the Rani could be established as a clever villain – she didn’t have to have any of the faults that make a villain’s plans go wrong, because the Master had plenty for both of them. Note the change in Time and the Rani, when she had to be responsible for her own downfall, and a much less satisfying story all round ensued. But the Rani’s triumph comes at Ainley’s expense.
The Master’s appearance in the final two episodes of the Trial of a Time Lord, likewise, seems unnecessary and gives him little to do, though Ainley again makes meat where there is barely gristle, channelling Pratt’s capacity to be the antithesis of Time Lord society, and to laugh at its corruption, while the Doctor rails.
By the next time the Master returned to the show, it would be for what was ultimately the last broadcast episode of ‘Classic’ Who. He was by no means necessary in Survival either – and indeed had been dropped into the story as a requirement from the Producer, rather than an integral part of the plot by the writer. But oh, what magic he weaves while he’s there. The post-Traken outfit is finally ditched in favour of something rather more rakish, and Rona Munro does an excellent job of rationalising his presence – in a storyline about different forms of strength, and about the battle between cool intellect and primal animalism, who was more natural to face off against the Seventh Doctor than his alter ego, the Master. Ainley in this story is back on top form, the Master talking himself down from giving in to the power of the beast, then ultimately surrendering to the need to kill, to see the Doctor dead at his feet. If the series had to end, it was fitting it should end on one of the strongest performances by the Ainley Master in nine years of plotting and cackling and just occasionally chewing the furniture.
Anthony Ainley’s was a Master always ready to rise to the challenges of his illustrious predecessors. That too often he was given nonsensical things to do or no real reason to be in stories at all ultimately doesn’t detract from the reign of a Master with a voice like silk and burned cork, a cat-who-got-the-cream chuckle, and a vocal gruffness every bit as distinctive as Delgado’s dead, dark Master eyes. Ainley was the Master for a whole generation of fans, rising above the poverty of some scripts to imprint a new version of the classic villain on their minds.
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
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 FylerWrites.co.uk