Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Mothership Master Class Part 2 - Rogue's Gallery by Tony Fyler

By the time Doctor Who decided the time was right for the return of the Master, a lot had changed in the show. Roger Delgado, who had so emphatically stamped his performance on the role, had been killed in a road accident. 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 – 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?

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 an 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, 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 was…and then he ran straight into the scientific monolith that was Christopher H Bidmead.
No actor after seven years playing the Doctor should have to leave in a Bidmead script. No actor freshly coming into the role and having to prove himself as the Doctor should have to start in a Bidmead script.

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.

Concept Constipation

Logopolis and Castrovalva are among that collection of stories that every fan takes out of their collection every now again and watches, just to prove to themselves that the flame of fandom still burns, despite everything. The Underworld, The Gunfighters, Fear Her, The Curse of Fenric (controversial!)…Logopolis and Castrovalva. 

In stories crammed with concept at the expense of knowing or caring what is actually going on, Ainley struggles to make his mark as the Master. Of the two, Logopolis probably sees the slightly better performance from him, as he moves around the planet with a mixture of glee and fluidity, revelling in the things his new body can do, and in 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, which arguably gives Ainley his first chance to Delgado it up with an over-elaborate disguise, dwarfs 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.

If there are points in the Master’s televisual history when the character was in danger of dying out, obviously Planet of the Daleks was one, followed as it was by the death of Delgado. The Deadly Assassin was another, saved by Pratt and Holmes together. If there’s any point at which the Master has deserved to die out, it is probably in Castrovalva.
Oh, wait – Time-Flight…

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 some excitement in a story that was poorly resourced, poorly directed and probably pitched as “Let’s Steal Concorde!” It was, far too frequently, Ainley’s fate to do very good work in scripts that either 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, closing out the following season 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 become the trademark Master chuckle, using another semi-techno-life form to advance his own agenda…but in the tighter, more claustrophobic two-parter, Ainley shone, both in his disguised form and, perversely, as the fully fledged Master throughout the second episode, practically 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

And just in time for one of the Ainley Master’s best performances, in the 20th Anniversary Special, The Five Doctors. Here, Ainley finally proves that he’s in control of the character – even in a story more crowded than any other; he stands out in almost every scene. Perhaps the best of which is the first – the Master sitting with the High Council of Gallifrey. He feels comfortable, even in this 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 (and weren’t we ultimately glad for the confirmation of the promise of The Deadly Assassin, that the Time Lords can bestow such a gift?). Then there’s that surreal scene – the new Master meets the third Doctor. The more familiar and still playful debate with the fifth Doctor, the Master thinking on his feet with the Cybermen and leading them across the Floor of Death. Another brilliant fan-moment – 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 possibly 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 of the battle between science and religion and, lest we forget, the introduction of Nicola Bryant’s chest, Ainley’s Master feels as though he’s grown in assurance, however much he’s shrunken in stature on the Planet of Fire. While 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, the need to give Peri some pith and vinegar – ‘My name’s Perpugilliam Brown and I can shout just as loud as you can!’ – rather deflates the Master’s presence, and when it’s revealed that he’s little more than a mouse in the wainscoating, there’s a degree of probably unintentional comedy in the Master’s predicament, if not, ever, in Ainley’s performance. It’s a slightly odd tone, but it regains some gravitas at the end, when – perhaps fittingly for a Master who came to be when his predecessor had won the paradise that was Traken – he is burned in what might as well be everlasting hellfire, giving an additional final spin to the science versus religion theme.

The Ainley Master faired just as badly during the brief time of the sixth Doctor. In Mark of the Rani, he was a necessary adjunct and little more, an overcomplicated, faintly pantomime villain dressing up as a scarecrow for…some reason…and a butt for the Rani’s contempt. In a way, 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 as a Master story, Mark of the Rani serves the character badly.

His 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, where the Doctor rails. The Ainley Master by this point was revelling in a certain degree of pantomime – there were flashing eyes and good-humoured teeth-sucking as he looked down on the Time Lords apparently from on high in the Matrix).

By the next time the Master returned to the show, it would be for what was ultimately the last broadcast episode of ‘Classic’ Who. Any honest fan knows that he wasn’t necessary in Survival either – and indeed had been landed in the story as a requirement from the producer, rather than an integral part of the plot by the writer. But oh, what magic he wove while he was there. The post-Traken outfit was finally ditched in favour of something rather more rakish, and Rona Munro did 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 ditched the hints of pantomime villainy and was back on top form, talking himself down from giving in to the power of the beast and 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.

The Last of the Camp Lords

And then…
Oh, and then…
If the potential of Deadly Assassin was squandered by Traken, Logopolis and Castrovalva, what can we make of the roller-coaster ride between Survival and the TV movie?

Ainley’s Master went out on – arguably – a career high in the role. He was replaced by a CGI snake, and Julia Roberts’ brother. Played – to come back to the theory of two types of Master – solely for the plot, Eric Roberts’ outing as the Master had potential as far as his look went, and developed some effective ruthlessness, killing his host’s wife and making sardonic, inappropriate comments to fellow hospital staff, but the moment Roberts was called on to simply be the Master, he played it for high pantomime camp – ‘I always drezzz for the occasion’ sounding like he’d stepped out of Hell’s touring company of La Cage Aux Folles. Ultimately there were many more things wrong with the TV movie than the performance of the Master, but Roberts’ over-the-top flamboyance as the Time Lord Victorious must surely have confused the American audiences the show was intended to court.

If there are two types of Master – the naturally regenerated kind, who act as the antithesis of a particular Doctor and play it for the character conflict, and the more desperate, bodysnatching Master, playing largely for plot, the 23 years between 1973 and 1996 were most definitely the age of the body snatcher. Along the way, there was brilliance from each of the Masters – Pratt’s performance proved the Master still had life and fury in him; Beevers’ showed us the insinuating, persuasive, genuinely cruel core of him; and Ainley’s brought a combination of playfulness and viciousness to bear.

When the eighth Doctor and the fifth TV Master disappeared from the screen at the end of the TV movie, it truly felt as though the world was done with both of them.

It would take another 11 years to prove that feeling wrong. But when he came back, the Master would be truly reborn, right in front of our eyes.

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