Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Mothership Master Class - Pt 1: A Villain For All Seasons by Tony Fyler

“Who the heck are you? Well?”

“I am usually referred to as the Master.”

“Oh, is that so?”


Imagine the dilemma. You have a weekly science fiction show beloved of children all across the country, now going into its eighth season. You realise it’s something special, because it’s solved the fundamental problem of longevity – every now and again, you can completely change the lead actor. Added to that, it’s about a benevolent alien, with all of time and space as his playground.


Except now he hasn’t.  The hangover from the previous production team means your alien wanderer is now stuck on Earth, in the 1970s (or 80s, depending on your dating protocol). Surrounded by the kind of people he’s always fought against – the military. You’ve shot a lot of possible bolts trying to make the audience accept the set-up: changed the actor; gone to colour (for the handful of viewers in 1971 who could see it); given him an atypical companion, a scientist…which never quite worked. But now you’ve painted yourself into a corner.

If the Doctor, whose previous unique selling point was his ability to go anywhere in time and space, now simply can’t move from 1970s Earth, then you have a problem. Every story, essentially, is a refinement of the ‘base under siege’ idea, and you have to ship this week’s alien monstrosity in for him to do battle with, or accept that the stories you’re going to be able to tell will always be that little bit less fantastic than what has gone before. Either way, you’re looking at a ratings loser and a slow decline.


What you need is a reason. A person, not a species, someone with whom the Doctor can match wits at every level – physically, technologically, and intellectually. You need someone with the Doctor’s inner steel – and his sense of whimsy – but allied to an entirely opposite worldview. Someone who can challenge the Doctor not only on an intellectual level but a philosophical one, who can say “Oh, you believe in justice and liberty and self-determination…how quaint…” and then go about the business of destroying the world with a smile. You need the Anti-Doctor.

If you have the Anti-Doctor, he can reach out into the universe of time and space for you (off-screen and without spending the budget), and give you a reason to have this or that invading species. And he can play the game himself, focusing the series into that clash of worldviews, and making the viewer wonder whether in fact the Doctor has it right after all. And suddenly, you’re not looking at a ratings slump at all. You’re looking at an idea that can run and run – the Anti-Doctor would have all the Doctor’s abilities, including the power of regeneration – creating a seminal villain for the show, who could stand by the likes of Daleks and Cybermen, and even stand above them, the antithesis of our hero personified.

                          Delgado Eyes

When Roger Delgado steps out of the horsebox, less than a minute into Season Eight opener, The Terror of the Autons, he is already practically perfect. His first scene takes barely a minute, but everything is there – a combination of Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks at their most inventive sets up the family fun of a circus in the 70s for about 40 seconds and then – there’s a wheezing, groaning sound that we all know. It’s the Tardis! Has the Doctor got it working? Are we all about to go off on intergalactic adventures again?
But no. It’s not our Tardis. It’s a trailer of some sort, materialising out of thin air. It must be another Time Lord! Fans begin to hyperventilate at that point, knowing from The War Games that the Time Lords can defeat and curtail even our incorrigible meddler. A tall, dark, saturnine man in immaculate black clothing jumps out, looks about, as if for lower life-forms to kick, and stands surveying his new planet. He is challenged by the circus owner, and describes himself as “the Master” – so very opposite to our fearless Doctor, such grandeur, such presumption to rule. He reveals he has knowledge that “Rossini” the circus owner has been hiding – his real name - and when challenged again…there they are. The Delgado eyes. Fans in 2014 make a big deal about incoming Doctor Peter Capaldi’s intense stare, but back in 1971, Delgado’s Master had eyes of ice and emptiness, and the camera showed the utter lack of fellow feeling in the hearts of this new Time Lord. Within moments, Rossini’s resistance is quelled, and with a snap of his black-gloved fingers, the Master has arrived and tamed his first human slave.

As a season opening scene, and as a way of instantly establishing the nature of the villain, Terror of the Autons has rarely, if ever, been bettered. Barely a minute, and the Master became a legend. The Doctor had a new “best enemy”.

From that very first story, too, the Delgado Master began fulfilling the storytelling promise of the idea – instigating invasions, weaving cunning plans, casually calling up to exchange pleasantries and then execute the Doctor by remote control telephone flex…as you do…
The influence of the original Master is keenly felt in the difference between the two Pertwee Auton stories. In Spearhead, the autons are creepily utilitarian, masked as everyday objects – shop window dummies - and then scare the bejeesus out of a generation of children (and undoubtedly some adults) by jerking to life and gunning people down. Delgado’s Master brings flair, deception and undeniable gall to the whole fantastic plastic concept – dressing them up in blazers and boaters with enormous comedy heads, and sending them on a PR tour, handing out deadly plastic daffodils (a comment on this very contained Master’s view of flower-children, maybe? Or a satire on the public love of anything for free, no matter how pointless or tatty? Either way, you get your metaphorical moneysworth). He also brings authoritarian malice, played out with more than a tough of grand guignol – devil dolls and suffocating chairs as a repayment for disobedience. And of course, there’s all the hypnotism and the mastery of disguise. By the end of the story, the audience is left in no doubt about two things – the Master is here to stay, and on any planet where he is, nothing can be guaranteed to be what it seems.

The Master as Emil Keller

Take famous scientists, for example. The very next story, The Mind of Evil, has the Master masquerading as a humanitarian scientist, in an attempt to rid the human mind of its criminal and aggressive impulses. If you’d done that story without the Master in it, either you’d have had to set up complex backstory for some deranged human scientist (and anyone who watched The Underwater Menace could tell you badly wrong that could go), or you’d have to make the alien mind parasite a far more interesting thing than it is here. But with the Master – with Delgado’s Master – at the core of the piece, you can skip it and simply be mesmerised by the ingenuity and gall of it all, while focusing on the real-world questions raised by the science fiction. When John Simm’s Master became Prime Minister and allied with killer aliens, there was a thrill in the audience because he was so overtly front and centre, so very very visible. But Delgado pioneered the act with his Professor Emil Keller – respected humanitarian scientist on the one hand, and pusher of the world towards political Armageddon on the other. What’s more, the key to the Delgado Master comes very much to the fore here – the plots may be absolutely barking mad, but the performance never is. The Delgado Master always made whatever he was doing look effortless and comfortable, and so he sold even the barmiest of plots and gave you a shiver. Behind all the alien shenanigans, you watch The Mind of Evil and you wonder – what if there really was someone like that? Someone devoid of pity and convinced their way was right? How much would we let them get away with? Manipulating our minds? Manipulating our politics? Delgado’s Master makes you believe, and he makes you think.

You do know there’s an Axon just behind us, don’t you?

In The Claws of Axos, the Master seems to be having  fun rather than being actively diabolical, watching the parable of greed play itself out as the “primitive” humans allow themselves to be sucked in by the beautiful gold-skinned salespeople of Axos, and get a serious case of “buyer beware” as a result. To some extent, while both the parable and the action are rather good fun and a compelling watch, Delgado’s Master is almost wasted in watching it, and escapes at the end almost as an afterthought. In just his third story – although his third consecutive story – we see the danger of having the Master there, especially in a story with other aliens. Holmes and Dicks had pitched the balance right in Terror of the Autons, and in The Mind of Evil, Don Houghton used him to excellent effect to explore the questions of the script for the viewer. In Axos, Martin and Baker appear not to know what to do with him, or indeed why he’s there at all, and the potential of Delgado’s Master goes largely to waste, in an unfortunate precursor of stories that have dogged the show ever since.
By Colony In Space, we begin to wonder if this whole “Master” idea might not have been oversold in the first place, as he is rather relegated to the role of “Plot Device Number 2” in a story mostly concerned with corporate imperialism, with a dash of moral debate about Weapons of Mass Destruction thrown in at the end. That said, Delgado wrings some fine villainy from what he is given, and really pioneers a trick that he – and most future Masters – will use time and again: the moment of breathless excitement when he first appears on screen pretending to be someone else, in this case an Adjudicator from Earth. But just when you think Colony In Space is all a bit ho-hum with a stupid claw-handed robot, it delivers one of the landmark scenes between Delgado’s Master and Pertwee’s Doctor. The fundamental philosophical opposition in which the Doctor and the Master exist is given expression in the battle of words over what should happen to the Doomsday Weapon. While there has been verbal sparring between them before, it’s in Colony In Space that this philosophical difference is really set in stone, opening up a world of backstory and showing exactly why these two renegades from a race of watchers will always be at loggerheads. Indeed, the crux of the difference, expressed when the Master says: "One must rule or serve. That is the basic law of life. Why do you hesitate? Surely it's not loyalty to the Time Lords, who exiled you to one insignificant planet?" and the Doctor replies: "You'll never understand. I want to see the universe, not to rule it," is resurrected in the John Simm Master stories, when the Doctor begs him to simply see the universe, without having to own it or destroy it. Delgado and Pertwee play it dead straight, pitching the back-and-white opposition of their roles and showing a friendship that could have been magnificent, and why it turned to never-ending enmity.

The Master twinkling in The Daemons

And for those who found the Third Doctor’s only Season Eight off-world adventure rather bleak and remote, and even wondered whether the Master had been such a good idea after all, The Daemons ended the season on as strong and high a note as Terror of the Autons had struck to open it. Here is the Delgado Master in his element, pretending to be, of all things, a pillar of virtue and a power in the community, while using “the occult” to awaken ancient aliens. There’s plenty of the Master’s steel here – less suffocation by armchair, more hard stares and disintegration by gargoyle, but Delgado here plays the role for all it’s worth, revelling not only in the politics of parish councils and tight communities crumbling at a whisper of suspicion, but also in the emotional scope he adds to the Master – it’s a side of the character we’ve seen before, but the Master as a nimble liar, telling people either what they want to hear or what they don’t, whichever advances his plans, is a trait that’s never been better shown than by the Delgado incarnation, and arguably never better within that incarnation than here. It is of course particularly appropriate in a story about science versus faith (or at least superstition), which sees the most evil man in the universe posing as a quiet country vicar – while Azal may look like the Devil, it’s actually the Master who’s the serpent in this particular Eden, playing the locals for fools with just an occasional glint in his eyes, and aiming for ultimate power. The Master’s sense of humour here is seldom given a chance to come to the fore again – a line or two in The Five Doctors and Mark of the Rani – until the John Simm Master is born, and gives us an incarnation who is stark raving mad. Delgado plays the laughs up his insanely large sleeves here, and The Daemons is a strong fan favourite because of it.
The decision to feature the Master in every story of Season Eight was a brave gamble, but one thing it allowed was the creation of a rich character, at least as complex as the Doctor, and who had very definite skills – in disguise, in subterfuge, in psychology and in classic Time Lord Jiggery-Pokery. After five stories, Roger Delgado’s Master was a hit on playgrounds all across Britain, because apart from being easier on the vocal chords than the Daleks, he was infinitely adaptable. The Master could be behind anything: scientific experiments, political shenanigans, stealing the ultimate weapon or raising the Devil – he was a villain for all seasons.

Season Nine opened with a different take on the same dilemma. The Master had become a hit, had become the Doctor’s Moriarty he had been intended to be. Which meant the success of Season Eight couldn’t be replicated again, or it would be just more of the same. Besides, the strain of appearing in every episode of the season was huge and the production team wanted to wriggle increasingly free of the constraints of the Earthbound format.

In a neat little bit of symmetry, where Season Eight had opened with the Master joining forces with the first monsters of Season Seven, the Autons, when we catch up with him in Season Nine he has joined forces with the second monsters of Season Seven – almost.

The Sea Devils is essentially a re-tread of the Silurians, but with added Master. That means all the established hallmarks are there – the Master hypnotising hapless humans to do his bidding, the Master swanning about the place in uniform, pretending to be somebody else, the Master actually being in control of the situation while convincing everyone he’s a prisoner. There’s also a re-run of the kind of Yin-Yang debate between the Doctor and the Master that has by now become a hallmark of their encounters – from Axos, through Colony In Space, to The Daemons, their battle for the hearts and minds of the “monsters” here has become fairly standard, and in a nod to The Daemons, the Doctor wins the day but the Sea Devils are then despatched in a neat explosion – though here, the climax serves as a parable of the fear at the heart of the military mind, destroying the potential of a shared future with the Sea Devils by not being quite brave or quite brilliant enough – remind anyone of The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood?
Then there’s The Time Monster. Taken as a whole, it’s a somewhat confused affair, but as an example of the Delgado Master and his high ambitions and low methods, it serves rather well. In the first place, he’s busy pretending to be an Earth scientist again – Professor Thascales – and indeed, there are other similarities between The Time Monster and The Mind of Evil, the Master using a living alien 
consciousness for his nefarious purposes being the most obvious. But in other respects, this is as close as the Delgado Master gets to cackling pantomime villainy: how to stop an approaching UNIT force? Oh here, have a V1 bomb, conjured up out of nowhere! How to dispose of the tiresome Miss Grant? Oh, let’s send her spinning off into the time vortex, stranded alone on the Tardis (an idea briefly recycled in The Lodger). In among the cackling and a plot mad enough to confuse the monster that lives under Steven Moffatt’s bed, there are elements of the Master’s character that we’ve never seen deployed with quite such cruelty before. His seduction of Queen Galleia is an odd note in the largely asexual realm of 70s Who, and a particularly callous example of the Master lying without a care to those whose help he needs to get where he wants to go. Throughout the whole of the Delgado era, it’s only really here that the viewer loses sympathy with the character that we see beneath the suavity and the dark gentlemanly cad. This is the Master in thug mode, the Master we will recognise in the Pratt and Beevers incarnations – for just this moment, all the fun and the sparring fall away, and the true and barren nature of the man who kills people with armchairs and gargoyles stands revealed. Despite the fact that it’s not a thing on which we focus (after all, in The Time Monster, there’s barely time before the next insane thing), in the Master’s treatment of Galleia and her husband, we catch a glimpse of the mad-eyed monster he will become.

But not before Frontier In Space.

 Frontier In Space

There’s so much to love about Frontier In Space – Draconians looking amazing, Ogrons being gorgeously stupid, the gritty almost-soap of the human and Draconian politics - that the Master’s pitch perfect turn as the Commissioner from Sirius 4 (and his more honest approach to Jo) get a little lost in the mix – again, an example of writers having too many elements to handle effectively. It’s a shame, because it is the Master’s only on-screen appearance with the Daleks and in a less packed plot, the combination of Delgado’s tall, imperious Master and the shrieking pepperpots of doom could have been more than enough to fill six episodes. The fact that so much of what does fill those six episodes is good anyway is a consolation, but the Delgado Master’s final scene, having “brought the Doctor some friends” – a Dalek squad – and then skipping off to have adventures of his own – feels genuinely semi-comical, the same Master who phoned up to make pleasantries before killing his old friend and enemy. It feels like a joke between Time Lords.

It absolutely doesn’t feel like the end.

Real life is frequently unkind. While it’s true of course that Roger Delgado was planning to hand in his Tardis key in any case, his death in a car crash shortly after Frontier In Space was completed makes that flippant exit, that almost-“See you around” at the end, leading to Planet of the Daleks, all the more lurching to watch.

When a Dalek operator dies, we mourn, but the Daleks themselves go on. When a Cyber actor passes away, the point is that they are all interchangeable, and the silver boots can be refilled.
In creating a rounded character with unparalleled nuance, Roger Delgado ensured that the Master would live forever – or at least as long as there was a Doctor to battle. He himself was irreplaceable. When the Master returned to the universe some three years later, he would be a very different creature. The gentleman-tyrant, the contained egomaniac, the villain for all seasons would never be quite the same again.

©BBC Doctor Who 1963

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