Doctor Who: The Master in the 1970s – Arrival of the “Unimaginative Plodder”

The Original Master - Doctor Who Marchester takeover

You will obey me! Whovember has ended, and that’s not gone unnoticed. Welcome to the Marchester takeover. When creating a Moriarty to match the Doctor’s Holmes, the Who team had to wheel out a figure with staying power, little did they know how successful they’d be. He arrived, a stylish and sinister figure, capturing a popularity when the show was already nearing a decade old. Things would never be the same again… To start this three-part takeover… A select journey from imperious Delgado to bug-eyed husk…

WHOVEMBER #4 PROCLAIMED SEASON 12 TO BE NOT ONLY THE GREATEST SEASON IN WHO HISTORY, BUT THE FIRST ARC. THAT’S TRUE, BUT THERE WERE CONTENDERS BEFORE, LOOSE ARCS WHERE THE SERIAL FORMAT JUST COULDN’T CONTAIN A COMMON ELEMENT. Jon Pertwee’s second season sits pretty as the closest contender. There, as always, the serials sat distinct from each other. But while the Doctor’s exile had brought the show its greatest stability, with consistent sets and cast, Season Eight added an extra component. And of course that dapper silhouette belonged to The Master. The season’s shared villain, linking every story, popping up and winding like a snake through tales of Doomsday Weapons, Axons, Daemons and Autons. While Season Seven had brought colour, Season Eight brought fun. And it all started at the circus…

The Terror of the Autons (Season Eight, 1971)

Perhaps the start of the end

Doctor Who had undergone its most significant reboot with the arrival of Jon Pertwee. Forget changing support cast, switching leading man and even altering the TARDIS set. Now we not only had colour but a fixed-Earth setting and a large and stable cast. The new production team headed by producer Barry Letts and Script Editor Terrance Dicks needed a writer they could rely on to set out the stall in the season premiere, so for what became Spearhead from Space they turned fast-rising star writer Robert Holmes. Not only reliable and steady hands, but one of the greatest British television writers of the 1960s and 1970s. Holmes name would become indelibly linked to Doctor Who, and that’s not through quantity as much as sheer quality. Sontarans, Autons, Gallifrey, the brain numbing monotony of Time Lord society – those and many more emerged from the mind and pen of Holmes. Onto Gallifrey later, but things must begin at the beginning, or in this case perhaps the start of the end. Because one year on from introducing the third Doctor, Holmes was tasked with creating his implacable Moriarty.

Enter the Master

“I am usually referred to as the Master”

It’s a great arrival. A TARDIS unmistakably appears, but one with a working Chameleon circuit. And with precision timing the Master emerges from the horsebox to make an immediate and indelible impression.

In just a few lines, in his first scene (appearing before the Doctor), Robert Holmes and Roger Delgado define a cool, impeccable, menacing and powerful nemesis. As the Master, Delgado cut a smooth and sartorial figure, with his dark suit, Nehru collar, slick hair and crucially piebald goatee. Delgado’s superior sneer and almost always unruffled delivery gifted much comedy to the character without sacrificing any of the threat.

The Doctor has never worn facial hair, except when in disguise or imprisoned for years in a dwarf star alloy cube, apart from the odd sweeping sideburn that the 1970s couldn’t control. The Master… Had a beard, a goatee that may as well have had a “twiddle this tache menacingly” label hanging from it. The Master had a fine taste in suits, the Doctor had a frilly shirt, multiple coloured velvet jackets and a cape! The Master was a force for evil, with hypnotic control cowardice. The Doctor was noble, occasionally grumpy but compassionate. The Master had a working chameleon circuit in a TARDIS with an occasionally black interior, occasionally reversed. They both dished out the same faint praise to each other, but then again they are both Time Lords.

Yes, the Master was designed in every way to be the perfect foil to the Doctor, and Delgado’s ability to elevate a potentially horribly one dimensional character to the charismatic third dimension ensured that the Master would have incredibly staying power – as it turned out, well beyond regeneration…

A New Chapter

Yet another introduction that can’t be underestimated

With the big arrival out the way, we first find the Doctor In his new look UNIT laboratory (why not?) at UNIT HQ. Taking on the UNIT family built over 1970, Holmes was tasked with yet another introduction, one which can’t be underestimated. Scientific assistant Liz Shaw had departed over the season break and in her place came the opposite. A “ham-fisted bun vendor” as the Doctor called her. Jo Grant as she became known to us. Pretty, hip, spiky, fond of stupid questions she’s potentially the archetypal companion, and one of the most fondly remembered. She was massively helped by the rigid military company built around her, as well as the stern but avuncular Doctor she assisted. To show just how impressive her entrance is, within 25 minutes of ruining the Doctor’s experiment, she was under the Master’s hypnotic suggestion, attempting to detonate a bomb in UNIT HQ itself. There’s nothing like an immediate liability.

The Master has arrived on Earth with a plan. One with links to the past and the future. One year on and the Doctor is appalled to find that an energy unit, previously belonging to the Nestene Consciousness vanquished in Spearhead from Space, had been placed in an eminently stealable position by UNIT – something the freshly minted Master was somehow not quite so oblivious about.

Unimaginative Plodder

“Oh, good luck!”

The Master arrives with supreme superiority, no bad feat when facing off against the Third Doctor. It’s in Terror of the Autons that the sparring starts, but where the pretty compelling evidence that the Master is an all-round more skilled scientist than the Doctor is set. Why else would the Doctor feel the need to ridicule him so much…

Having effortlessly stolen the Nestene energy unit the Master sabotages a radio telescope to draw the Nestene to Earth. The scenes around the telescope that top and tail Terror can’t help but prophesise Logopolis almost a decade later, where the Fourth Doctor would meet his end… Here however, two astonishing things happen. First, the investigating Doctor is visited by a rather jolly, out of touch and Douglas Adams-esque Time Lord, warning him of the Master’s arrival with a classic goodbye line, “Oh, good luck!” And second, the scene of the crime – where we first see the effect of the Master’s weapon of choice, the tissue compression eliminator. It’s a masterstroke, a weapon to match its Master: comedic and horrific in equal measure, the Master would seldom feel the need to conceal its use.

The Master has the advantage, unlike the Doctor thank goodness, of having many of his traits laid out on his first appearance. We’d later see his preoccupation with disguises, but there’s also the recurring motif of this alter-ego. Here, as he takes control of a plastics factory, it’s rather disappointingly Colonel Masters.

Temporal Faint Praise

“There’s something evil about it”

Moving on from the affecting waxworks of Spearhead, Holmes has great fun with a plastic factory and all manner of Auton related horror. Unfortunately, some didn’t agree, with death chairs, hideous homicidal children’s toys and faceless coppers coming in for a fair amount of criticism.

Of course, the Third Doctor had only one choice when confronted with an Auton policeman, Venusuian Akido. From there the plot unravels into glorious UNIT soldiers versus Autons firefights and the curious sight of the Master in a campervan of over-size headed, yellow-coated, smiling Autons. Spearhead was rather implacable, the only classic series serial shot on film, with many iconic moments captured on the celluloid. This is altogether more surreal, more colourful and more 1970s, and much of that has to do with the Master.

Cosmic Balance

“I admire him in many ways”

The Master and Doctor are set in equal opposition, although the drama lets it ebb and flow.  While the Master is always one step ahead, the Doctor is always nearer than the Master may expect; while the Doctor rails and bullies pompous figures of authority with trademark rudeness, the Master is always incredibly polite, helped by mid control over those of the right mind-set (not everyone, it’s important to note).

For much of the story the Doctor and Master fail to meet. It’s overdoing it, but like Kirk and Khan in the second Star Trek film, their first exchange is remote; a wonderful cliff-hanger where the Master calls the Doctor (after some nifty, disguise infiltration) “simply to say goodbye” before emitting a frequency that turn the phone cord itself into the most despicable of things: yet another weapon that can makes Jon Pertwee gurn. What a school reunion!

The End of the Beginning

“You’re my intellectual equal. Almost.”

Bluffing and trading would set the tone for the season that followed, with Delgado and Pertwee having a ball with their confrontational dialogue. Terror of the Autons has quite an exceptional finale, with the physically lethal Master climbing the radio telescope, the emerging Nestene and the identical yellow-jacketed Autons making a slow assault on UNIT troops. But then, in the Master’s ascendance, it’s a shame that just a few lines turn the Doctor and the Master into allies. It’s the start of a crucial pattern. The Master, for all the devilish planning that goes into his schemes, often finds he has overlooked something during the end–game. Here it’s his impending death at the hands of the creature he’s summoned that gives him a sudden change of thought.

The Mater escapes of course, thanks to a deceitful ruse of his mask over hapless hypnotic subject Rex Farrel. The Doctor was unconvinced from the off, thought could have rushed to stop the inevitable, but he was never truly concerned about his fellow Time Lord as he still possessed the dematerialisation circuit taken earlier on from the Master’s TARDIS. Even after all the bloodshed, Mary Whitehouse bothering, Time Lord warnings… Is the Doctor concerned? Of course not.

“As a matter of fact Jo, I’m rather looking forward to it”.

The Time Monster (Season Nine, 1972)

From the perils of the Time Vortex to the destruction of ancient Atlantis

After propping up a full season of six serials between January and June 1971, it’s reasonable that the powers worried that they’d overused their fantastic new villain. Delgado’s Master would only make three more appearances in Doctor Who, and right in the middle came this compelling oddity.

The Time Monster came at the end of Jon Pertwee’s third year, providing the six-part finale to a season that had screamed into existence with the time crunching Day of the Daleks. When he last appeared The Master had charmingly summoned Sea Devils and attempted communication with Clangers from his remote island prison. Now, under the alias of Professor Thascalos (you’ve got it, necessarily specified in this as Greek for Master), he’s conducting hilariously named TOMTIT experiments that would unleash uncontrollable force and take us from the perils of the Time Vortex to the destruction of ancient Atlantis.

The Time Monster is really quite extraordinary. There’s understandably filler in its six episodes, but it also manages to be almost laugh a minute. A blistering film-committed dream kicks things off, leaving the Doctor on the back foot with the Brigadier. It’s all signs and portents here…

Time Tricks on Planet Earth

“Really. The arrogance of that man is beyond belief”

By this point the Doctor has long-warmed to assistant Jo Grant, even complimenting her learning with only a hint of condescension, before the two are propelled to a fascinating TARDIS hunt, powered by a time sensor that alarmingly looks a lot like, well, cock and balls (see the lead image). It’s a rather scintillating first part, ending with the Master’s summoning of Kronos, the most effective appearance of the uncontrollable bird god. In a quite advanced, but also quite underexplored side-effect, the Master’s lab assistant is aged to infirmity for over an episode.

Intercut scenes show ancient Atlantis, adding a level of narrative depth and to the story that it doesn’t quite deserve. In effect the final fate of Atlantis, despite the wonderful opening, never really hangs over the story. We know what happens, as much as it is enshrined in myth. Same with lab assistant Stu (aged as above), it’s sadly a little overcooked. In its place is a story of two Time Lords, two Time Lords who are all too comfortable with each other.

Above his laboratory, hiding below his clock tower TARDIS, we see the Master enjoying a crossword, arguing about E equals MC cubed (just as it is in the Vortex) and praising his hypnotic subject Dr Percival for being quite the opposite of the Farrel Snr in Terror of the Autons:

“You know, it’s a long time since I came across a hypnotic subject who turned out to be as good as you are. It’s just like old times.”

Into Time

“I’m sorry about your coccyx, too, Miss Grant”

Delgado’s Master really is the, er, master at forming double-acts. Dominating, sneering and being let down by many a hilarious accomplice. Meanwhile the Doctor gets to show off to Jo Grant and get involved in quite unnecessary one-upmanship with Brigadier; a comfortable win thanks to Bessie’s inertial absorption.

Spending a third of the story comically roaming around South East England, the Time Lords remotely battle at chrono gadgets before the story is propelled on to its second location. Action then switches to the farcical nonsense of the adventure’s highlight: the Time Vortex, where the two Time Lords wind up poor Jo about her tail bone.

Utter Annihilation

“I am the Master and I come from the gods!”

Like Terror of the Autons, The Time Monster predates Logopolis with its inter-dimensional time ship antics. In its way The Time Monster inadvertently created a lot of Big Finish. Sucked into Time Lord lore just as the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor BBC books were, you can sometimes barely move for Time Rams – when two TARDISes attempt to occupy the same point in space-time. Materialising within another TARDIS would narrowly avoid what the Third Doctor called “extinction”. Here both TARDISes actually land inside each other in some kind of time ouroboros.  Having left a temporal mess on Earth, it’s time for the vortex. It’s great and amusing stuff, all very much about time meddling, with the two Time Lords, each with their own companion, each taunting the other. Both TARDIS have with large roundels (one revealed to be the view screen) for this adventure, swiftly forgotten when they proved not to be popular with series producer Barry Letts. Lest we mistake which is which, the Master’s console room not only has a different time rotor centre-piece but its  main entrance on the opposite side. We hear more of the Time Lords’ views on each other and can only think what the Academy must have been like. When the Master is quite complimentary in his faint praise, he echoes the Doctor’s assessment of him in The Terror of the Autons:

“You know, he has an excellent brain, that man, though a little pedestrian. But, oh dear, what a bore the fellow is…. The slow witted fool. Now you watch. He cannot bear not to have the last word.”

It may seem a little harsh, but if anything, the Third Doctor is one-dimensional Venusian in this. From rules to Akido to thaskins (or plinges).

The End of Civilisation

“Now I have him really trapped”

Of course, the Master’s triumphalism is misplaced. Having ejected the Doctor to a definite fate in the Time Vortex – yes a rare and real attempt to kill him – the Master proceeds to ancient Atlantis (what other kind?), the story’s third location.

Here we see two sides to The Master. One, the imperious and manipulative exploiter of the situation, and the other, seducing and quite probably getting it on with Ingrid Pitt’s Queen Galleia to reach his goal. It’s been a merry chase since the Atlantis-set dream that kicked the adventure off. Both Time Lords are similarly arrogant when they land but as usual, we soon find that the Master yet again hasn’t thought things through. When the true time crystal is brought from the Minotaur guarded maze (the Minotaur played fairly effectively if a little head-strong, by future Darth Vader David Prowse), the Master has manipulated Atlantis to the point that he can summon Kronos. But things immediately a little out of hand and the Master flees as Atlantis receives its third cause of possible destruction in Who-lore.

Time Flight

Deceptively influential in fandom

Yes, the Master could have clearly thought things through more – but the Doctor’s pursuit of his nemesis shows a similar lack of foresight. He goes for the Time Ram, only to be saved by Kronos itself. The story is partially explained when we see that the Chronovore doesn’t have to be a blanched flapping terror all the time, but even converse. It isn’t immense skill that allows the Master to rather unbelievably escape an eternity of torture at Kronos’ hands – more the Doctor’s misplaced humanity, or the distraction it creates. While the Doctor and Jo return to right time on Earth, the Master escapes for one final plot in this incarnation, no doubt proud that he’s reached his most lunatic hour. Utter unmitigated nonsense, The Time Monster has proved deceptively influential in fandom. In the wrong hands it could be a powerful weapon against the Classic Series, though it’s as unlikely a non-fan could sit through its entirety as the Master could control Kronos.

The Deadly Assassin (Season 14, 1976)

We were reaching the end an era…

A brilliant, absurd title for one of the Who classics that came from adversity.

We were reaching the end an era; Robert Holmes, father of the Master, would leave his position as script editor the following year. Doctor Who was more successful than ever, with every one of Fourth Doctor’s series throwing out classics for fun.

So, it’s no surprise that Tom Baker was in his element. The show’s quality was at what could be considered a peak but things couldn’t last. And with the exit of well-loved companion Sarah Jane Smith after just over three seasons the Doctor was cut loose from his UNIT family for the first time in the 1970s. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the Doctor well underway to becoming definitive was influencing things behind the scenes. Tom Baker’s desire for his Doctor to be companion-less is well known, not least his suggestion that the Doctor could make do with a talking cabbage. History has shown that suggestion not to be as outrageous as it sounds. Steven Moffat would turn a disembodied Cyber-head into the Doctor’s longest serving companion when he bid the Eleventh Doctor farewell four decade’s later.

So, thought the production team, scratching goatees all around, if they could just make one companionless story Tom would see the error of his lobbying. And while they were preening beards, there was one obvious candidate to bring back.


“Predictable as ever Doctor”

In hindsight we may have been ready for the Doctor to talk to himself a lot, and even do it particularly well in that incarnation – but not for the opening scroll of signs and portents that started the story, nor that we would learn so much about Time Lord society in one swoop. Yes, the Doctor was back on Gallifrey. It was the first time we got to take a good long look, only to find that something malevolent had got their before us and the hero of the adventure. Yes, Robert Holmes was the perfect writer (and script editor) to bring back The Master.

Holmes sets about building tension and revealing the astounding level of stagnation and entropy at the heart of Time Lord society. It’s no wonder that the Doctor, or the Master, left although it took a return home for them to get wrapped up in political intrigue heavily influenced by the Sinatra thriller The Manchurian Candidate.

The Skulking Figure

“He’s my sworn arch-enemy. A fiend who glories in chaos and destruction”

A key element of Time Lord culture, introduced among many (Celestial Intervention Agency, houses, government), is setting down the rules of regeneration. The Master has run out, a peril of his malevolent life, and after some other misadventure along the way is a wraith in need of some serious life medicine. This is a darker Master, as he should be on the verge of death. As he says, “Only hate keeps me alive”. The production was forced with the untimely death of Roger Delgado some three years earlier, to make changes and Holmes used it to their strength. He’s a shadowy figure, often kept under his mummy-like wraps, although after considerable build up his boggle-eyes are a misstep, not least because they completely hide actor Peter Pratt behind the mask. Barely a physical threat, this Master is forced to skulk in the shadows, using the high-ranking and manipulated Goth as his muscle, the Tissue Compression Eliminator as his own sniper rifle and death as his cover, particularly during his truly chilling masterstroke just before the adventure’s climax. And for all the necessary skulking, at last we have a Master far beyond the need for false names. Despite his criticism of Goth’s failure the Master is far less prone to underestimate his enemy than before: “The Doctor is never more dangerous than when the odds are against him” he hisses. But as usual, he hasn’t chosen his accomplice terribly well.

Enter the Matrix

“This time he’s surpassed himself”

The direction of the serial is sublime, taking extraordinary and unprecedented decisions such as the jaw-dropping silent cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode as the Doctor seems to shoot the President of the High Council of the Time Lords. Much of the adventure takes place in the Matrix, a Time Lord invention the Master would return to, most recently in the New Series’ eighth series. That setting lets surrealist action take centre stage, particularly the infamous drowning cliff-hanger that incurred the Wrath of Whitehouse. But more importantly, the harnessing and misuse of the Matrix revitalises the Master as frankly far a better scientist than the Doctor. Or as the curly-haired Time Lord puts it, “He’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He’s almost up to my standard”.

We scarcely need the Master to remind us that the Doctor is capable of beating him. However, Goth’s deathbed confession – to which the Fourth Doctor is characteristically disparaging – shows that the Master is not only more dangerous when he’s on the back foot, he’s just as influential. “Met him on Tersurus. He was dying. No more regeneration possible. Promised me share all his knowledge if I bring him to Gallifrey.”

Survival Beckons

When we next met the Master it would herald the new beginning

The climax, when the true meaning of the ceremonial artefacts of the President’s office are unbelievably brought to light sees the ground shake as the Master rather foolishly engages the Doctor in physical combat. It’s a compelling thought, the society so old that the knowledge has just fallen away, the strength or power to rediscover it simply wasted away. It’s the returning renegades who control the balance and although the Master seems very near his end he does just enough to secure a future. He hasn’t solved his problems yet, but he’s still dangerous. When we next met the Master this same Doctor wouldn’t prove so successful at stopping the villain’s new beginning. Still, Holmes succeeded in bringing a new danger to his Time Lord creation, and showing why he and the Doctor had to leave Gallifrey.

With the Doctor departed, the Co-ordinator and Castellan (both brilliantly cast) show a typical lack of action as they observe the Master slipping into the Grandfather Clock TARDIS that was beside the Doctor’s TARDIS all along. As always, the Master “cannot bear not to have the last word”:


Next time on the Marchster take-over: The 1980s – Survival Years

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