Tony gets his cowl on.
Roger Delgado, who had so emphatically stamped his performance on the role of the original Master, was tragically killed in a road accident before his wishes to be properly written out of the show could take effect. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor had bowed out at the end of the following season. Tom Baker’s Doctor had two highly memorable seasons in the role behind him and had just said goodbye to the last on-screen link to the Pertwee years before the notion of bringing the Master back was floated – Sarah-Jane Smith had been summarily shoved out of the Tardis because the Doctor had to go home.
So what would the Master be now, in a show so markedly different to the one in which he had been so pivotal?
Anarchy In A Cowl
What Robert Holmes decided to do with the Master was to give him a whole other kind of role. Delgado had been chosen specifically to be the Anti-Pertwee, matching the Doctor for debonair style and cleverness and layered performance. Robert Holmes decided to strip all of that away and give us the soul of the Master, a charred, skeletal thing animated only by purpose – and essentially by plot. If Delgado’s Master was a study in characterisation, Peter Pratt’s genuinely frightening ‘screaming skull’ Master was an elevated plot engine, that could have worked with any Doctor. His whole purpose in that story is to regain himself, his power, his vitality – and then of course use it to inflict maximum misery. While it’s easy to overlook Pratt’s performance given the prominence of Bernard Horsefall’s front and centre villainy as Chancellor Goth and the moderately unfortunate fixed eyes of Pratt’s makeup, the importance of his Master cannot be overstated.
There have been over the fifty years of the show, two types of Master: the natural Master, who comes by his body by the normal process of regeneration, and the unnatural Master, either disembodied or forced to steal an existence in order to survive. The first tends to play the role for character, the second, mostly for plot.
That all began with Pratt’s stripped-back raging beast in The Deadly Assassin. Roger Delgado, having been chosen specifically as a foil to Pertwee, was always easy to watch on screen and rarely looked forced. Pratt showed the evil undisguised, unnuanced and essentially desperate – his plan is as convoluted as anything Delgado’s Master could have come up with, but the powerful rage punches viewers in the face right through the screen. This Master doesn’t threaten, doesn’t grin – he guns people down, almost rather than have to keep up the pretence of civilisation that talking to them would entail.
The breadth of Holmes’ invention in The Deadly Assassin is astounding, viewed in retrospect. He invented the ‘twelve regenerations’ rule, the Matrix, and pretty much all the Gallifreyan hooha of the Chapters, all while debunking the idea of the Time Lords as trans-temporal gods, and rendering The Manchurian Candidate in a sci-fi setting. Against all this (and the notorious violence of some of the Matrix scenes), it’s understandable that Pratt doesn’t deliver many people’s absolutely favourite Master – fans tend to like their Masters to be the Moriarty-mirror of their Doctors, it makes for breathtaking philosophical challenges - but he more than does his job. Arguably, if he hadn’t, the Master could have died a series-death right there on Gallifrey. Pratt, even through the emaciated facemask and without his own eyes, delivers us a whole new take on the Master – a raging, vengeful thing that only looked suave and genteel in Roger Delgado’s body because it could. He shows us the bite behind the Master’s smile, and for the first time, the Master feels really unpredictable and dangerous. It’s also worth remembering that where Masters who are chosen as the antithesis of a particular Doctor can challenge and demean that Doctor’s worldview and throw the viewer onto the back foot, what Pratt and Holmes managed in the Deadly Assassin is actually something broader – they used the Master as the antithesis of a whole idea of civilisation. The Master and Goth are primitivism, violence, animal viciousness, hatred and lust for power, eating the heart out of the oldest and most stagnant society. If Roger Delgado’s Master is a villain for all seasons, then Peter Pratt’s is anarchy in a cowl.
The Serpent In The Garden
The odd thing about the relationship between The Deadly Assassin and the Master’s next connected set of three outings four years later, was that Assassin succeeded in ‘pulling a Troughton’ – making the audience accept that the Master could be a completely different person, played by a different actor – only for The Keeper of Traken to keep him almost the same – burned and cowled, though less physically shocking – and then to cop out at the end and give us not what the Master could have been, a brand new man, poised to kill off the fourth Doctor and match wits with the fifth…but a Delgadoalike version, condemned for the next nine years to look and play the role almost as a physical impersonation of the Master set out by the original – down to the beard.
This is not to denigrate or belittle what either Geoffrey Beevers or longest-serving Master Anthony Ainley brought to the role. While Pratt gave us anarchy in a cowl, Beevers was very much, both in performance and to a degree in iconography, the whispering serpent of corruption in the Garden of Traken, with Kassia as Eve, prepared to do whatever is necessary not to have her Adam, the elderly Tremas, taken away from her and invested as Keeper. Beevers is on splendid, subtle form here, and just as Delgado was perhaps at his best pretending to be an angel of light or a figure of authority, so Beevers, with his softly sibilant tone plays on every emotion in Kassia’s mind – sympathy for a creature unable to move, fear of being alone, desire to be herself a person of more authority. Beevers’ Master is half serpent in the Garden, but also has an air of genuine suffering, a suffering that has twisted him even more than before to want to hurt the harmless, to not only deny mercy to those less powerful than himself, but to actively destroy them or watch the weak suffer. As with Pratt, it’s unlikely that Beevers is many people’s favourite Master (at least on the basis of The Keeper of Traken – his Master for Big Finish is a whole other story), but if the point of regeneration from a storytelling perspective is to show us a new way of being the same person, then Beevers is an honourable ‘Third Master’ in the character’s identity parade.
And so, with the dimming of the fourth Doctor’s light, the age of the Ainley Master began. Ainley as Tremas in Keeper of Traken shows what an adept character actor he really is…and then runs straight into the scientific monolith that is Christopher H Bidmead.
No actor after seven years playing the Doctor should have to leave in a Christopher H. Bidmead script, as was Tom Baker’s fairly mystifying, long-drop fate. No actor freshly coming into the role and having to prove himself as the Doctor should have to start in a Bidmead script, as happened to Peter Davison.
And no actor, having just taken on the role of the Doctor’s greatest humanoid adversary, should have to try and make a mark in not one but two Bidmead scripts, back to back. It’s giving neither the actor nor the character a fair shot. But Ainley would go on to prove himself as the second ‘long-term Master,’ despite those unpromising beginnings. In Logopolis, he plays the role with an almost dancing glee fitting to the character, finally established in a new body, a strong body, and ready to terrorise the universe again, rather than having to focus purely on restoring himself. Ainley makes a striking contrast to Tom Baker’s outgoing Doctor, Baker by that time feeling largely uninspired and done with the role, which is why Ainley pulls off something of a coup – in Logopolis, Anthony Ainley’s new and promising Master actually upstages Tom Baker, setting his cat-who-got-the-cream chuckling stamp on the beginning of a brand new decade which would see the Master return to a prominence he hadn’t enjoyed since the Pertwee era.
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