Doctor Who: The Master in the 1980s – “Somewhat Reduced Circumstances”

The Master in the 1980s - the Doctor Who Marchster takeover

You will continue to obey me! The Marchster takeover reaches its mid-point. The Master had burned brightly before fading to a surely inevitable end during the 1970s. The 1980s brought a new Doctor and Jon Nathan-Turner, a producer who wanted to fill out the TARDIS crew and saw the strength in this youngest ever Doctor having a nemesis of note. A decade of survival beckoned, as the Master’s fiendish plots became increasingly self-absorbed. The Second Marchster… A select journey from Geoffrey Beever’s skulking well-spoken loon to Anthony Ainley’s smarmy psychopath…

THE MASTER HAD ENJOYED, AND SUFFERED, A PRODUCTIVE 10 YEARS ON DOCTOR WHO, FROM HIS GLORIOUS ARRIVAL ON EARTH TO SCRAPING A LIVING AS A WRAITH-LIKE ASSASSIN. He couldn’t stay crispy for long however, though the effects of his misadventures would be felt for a good time yet.

Having so far met his nemesis only once during his long-lived fourth incarnation, it was timely that the Master’s rebirth should come as the scarf and frock coat were locked back in the TARDIS costume room. It was certainly a rebirth, though not a comfortable one – as the Master carved his longest on-screen life yet from the tattered familial tragedy of others.

The Keeper of Traken (Season 18, 1981)

Envious Eyes

Having escaped E-space and lost two companions in the form of K9 and Romana, the Doctor’s trip to explain how he could mislay a Time Lady to the Time Lords on Gallifrey is interrupted. Fittingly, after the pomp legend of The Deadly Assassin, there is an admirable dream-like quality to The Keeper of Traken. Although the serial’s name doesn’t so much concern the incumbent Keeper, gate-crashing the TARDIS in his reality-warping chair like Metroid of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, but the position itself – and the envious eyes that covet it.

New Beginnings

The final premonitory days of the Fourth Doctor

On the way, we’re in the final premonitory days of the Fourth Doctor. It’s unfair to say that Tom Baker was sleep-walking by this point. The science of script editor Christopher H. Bidmead acted as sterner control than the occasional frippery of Douglas Adams a year previously. Though, in a season that carried a loose arc of entropy, the Doctor was subconsciously building a new family for his future incarnation. From E-Space came the first – Adric, the precocious maths genius teen who doesn’t make the best foil for the Fourth Doctor, but who was soon to make friends in N-Space.

While on Traken, the Keeper has detected evil in the family union of the benign Tremas, his soon to be wife Kassia and his daughter Nyssa, as he relates through an extended flash-back sequence much like a fairy tale. And if the idea of a galactic empire held together by universal harmony sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is.

Calcified Evil

A fairly blunt metaphor for the Master himself

The concept of the Melkur is a fascinating one, retaining a considerable amount of mystery thanks to its Henry Moore-like design and the fact that we never really learn much about it. Everything is carried along on superstition and good will, although it’s also a fairly blunt metaphor for the Master himself, twisted into his current form through his pure evil. On a planet where time is a concept not worth tracking, it appears the Melkur is embedded in the gardens outside the main chamber for many years, giving Kassia time to truly become “married to the statue she tends”.

Most importantly, the Melkur is simply a cover for the Master. In some ways the final physicality of many years of his false and playful identities. For, it has power, it can walk, it can communicate… It is the Master’s TARDIS and he is content to stay in its bland interior.

Master Revealed


Traken is a rather odd murder mystery. That the Melkur retains evil designs isn’t left in doubt for long, but its actions conveniently point fingers at the Doctor and Adric only for the generally trusting Trakens to ignore the rather compelling evidence. Perhaps it’s because, for once, the Master seems to have his plan spot on; waiting a long time to seize his moment. That comes with the passing of the Keeper, a time of great destabilisation, but also one that brings him close to his prize. As the adventure unravels we are slowly brought inside the Melkur, to a rather typist pool console room where some dastardly hands work to the soundtrack of an evil cackle. The console is one of a number of red herrings chucked out by the production team, and one never really explained.

The Long Game

“It is only the beginning”

It’s a shame that the Master’s power of persuasion are evidently on the wane. Not only are direct eye contact and shots of rather visible red light necessary, but also a necklace he forces Kassia to wear. True, it may be the crucial security he needs for the final switch to grab Traken’s ultimate position, but perhaps it also indicates he’s learned from many years of being betrayed by not only his accomplices but his weak end games. While the Master’s identity is concealed, awkward dialogue like “Find your TARDIS Time Lord” don’t do much to distract from the further red herrings shooting from the Melkur’s eyes. Although Geoffrey Beever’s voice does wonders.

When the Master is revealed in the final act of the story, it’s an improvement on The Deadly Assassin. It seems that the power of the Time Lord artefacts did help him recover slightly, although he is still on his final regeneration (approaching the end of his twelfth life) – to the point that playing such a long game as waiting for the Keeper to die seems highly risky.

Securing the Future

A fairly obtuse take on Hamlet

This time, it is not the Master’s end-game that lets him down, although his plan to settle “many old scores” proves an unnecessary distraction. The Doctor, in a frankly strange and unnecessary confrontation, only delays the Master long enough for the child geniuses Nyssa and Adric to disconnect the Melkur/TARDIS from the source during the difficult early days. A random malfunction gives the Doctor what he needs to escape, although perhaps it’s too soon. Later, after the Doctor has departed, the Master quite impossibly manages to merge with Tremas, Nyssa’s father and the Doctor’s ally throughout the tale, before disappearing into a familiar grandfather clock. Nyssa, who took Kassia’s position tending the Melkur and proved one of the few Trakens capable of assisting the Doctor, is at the centre of the tragedy in this fairly obtuse take on Hamlet.

The Keeper of Traken may be a slightly melodramatic and sombre affair, but it also signals a new beginning and solidifies a new path for the Master, one quite different from the one he walked before. He may have a new body, but it is not that of a Time Lord. And the next decade would see him increasingly trying to stabilise his new form or simply undertake plots that are far beneath him. Galactic domination is off the cards, as he slips into semi-retirement.

The King’s Demons (Season 20, 1983)

Something isn’t right…

The King’s Demons is another oddity in the Master canon. One has to applaud the idea, with the first return to the castle era since the brilliant Third Doctor-starring The Time Warrior a decade before. When the TARDIS dematerialises in the middle of a joust the Doctor is convinced that something isn’t right, and he’s not wrong. It’s three months prior to King John signing the Magna Carta and is Royal Highness is not acting at all the way he should. Obviously this is no fixed point in time, fairly representative of the continuing development of the Magna Carta in reality.

Happy Birthday!

“You may disguise your features, but you can never disguise your intent.”

The King’s Demons sat at the end of Doctor Who’s 20th anniversary season, a rather weak finish but one that fitted the year-long theme: it featured a classic returning villain. The Master is back and deep under cover – heavily disguised, sporting a not-too-bad French accent and going under the name of Sir Gilles Estram. Yes, an anagram that makes for his weakest pseudonym so far. For all his attempt to recapture past glories, such tricks only highlight what had been lost in the 1970s.

Fitting Tributes

The foundations of parliamentary democracy? Is there no limit to this man’s evil!?

Two years on from the Master’s rebirth, the setting does encourage the squabbling Time Lords him to engage in some throwback antics, notably a sword fight that’s more savage than those we saw 10 years before. The Master has upgraded his disguises, with what is clearly a fake voice and false face revealed to be something far more futuristic. But there the paths divide. The Doctor’s triumph over him, and subsequent uncovering of the deception may leads him to a knighthood (albeit one that can’t stand) but takes the Master to a savage death in… An Iron Maiden that inevitably turns out to be his TARDIS. So far, so throwback and in some ways a light but passable tribute to the master and Doctor’s past tussles.

Unravelling Past Glories

A plot mundane to the point of utterly pointless

But what is incredibly perplexing is, although the Master’s had time to navel gaze far more than ever before, his plot is mundane to the point of utterly pointless.

“He wants to rob the world of Magna Carta. Small time villainy by his standards, but nevertheless something I intend to stop if at all possible.”

The foundations of parliamentary democracy? Is there no limit to this man’s evil!? Shakes fist madly. The minute scale of the plot even earns it a mention in the script. And while the Doctor wows to stop this petty act of time sabotage, the Master gets to skulk in the dark corridors off a medieval castle. Only to reveal the true motive for this story… A gift for the 20th anniversary, and what John Nathan Turner hoped would be the new K9: Kamelion.

Noble Aims

“It will end with the Master”

Away from the swords, the Doctor and Master’s verbal sparring has long lost its sheen, now resorting to hypocritical mistruths. “You’re getting old, Doctor. Your will is weak. It’s time you regenerated”- that’s just a little off, unless the Master has become so deranged he has forgotten his own condition. Fighting over the impressionable and weak-minded Kamelion, the Time Lord standoff is redolent of the mind-bending duel of The Brain of Morbius, although again it suffers in comparison.

A New Companion

“Mediaeval misfits! Don’t think you’ve won yet, Doctor.”

And so the Master is vanquished and the TARDIS crew grows, much to Turlough and particularly Tegan’s horror. They might as well not have worried. As the Doctor sets the coordinates for the Eye of Orion and a date with three of his previous incarnations, it will be a long time before we see Kamelion again.

Planet of Fire (Season 21, 1984)

Often overlooked

Planet of Fire often gets overlooked. The main reason for that is a good one, sat as it is immediately before the sublime Caves of Androzani which still to this day overcomes general 1980s quality in giving the strangely well regarded Fifth Doctor a highly regarded send-off. While the serial before may have earned a shoot on Tenerife, it’s more famous for introducing a fairly popular companion and less so for the bidding farewell to a rather dismal one.

Return of the Android

Conspired against by the technicalities of his design

Planet of Fire may not have the story or direction quite as dazzling as its successor, but it has ambition in spades. Behind the camera, the late Fiona Cumming is her usuall adept self, elevating the material across two planets, thanks to the largest of the Canaery Islands. The Tenerife setting adds considerable range to the scenes set on Earth and the distant planet Sarn as the tale kicks off with signs and portents abounding. In the TARDIS Turlough is busy accusing the Doctor of developing an obsession with the Daleks when Kamelion has an episode. It’s the first time we’d seen the android companion since his debut the season before, conspired against by the technicalities of his design. And for all we know, it’s also the first time the TARDIS crew have seen him as well. Turlough’s later rough handling shows the poor ride he got on the TARDIS (“You’re finished Kamelion”) and frankly, I doubt Tegan even said goodbye in Resurrection of the Daleks.

Silver Suit Linings

“He is far more in the Delgado mould than his recent appearances”

Kamelion, poor battered Kamelion is one of the most tragic characters to step aboard the TARDIS. Here we first find him in pain, then progressively in the thralls of suggestion before a rather miserable end. He is clearly under control, repeatedly telling us and anyone who’ll listen that contact has been made. But who could possibly be behind it? Well, no one who’s prepared to step out of the shadows any time soon. It’s Kamelion’s transformation into the Master, immutably the Master, at the climax of Part One that leaves us in no doubt. It’s not long before we see the real Master watching on, this time in a peculiar console room of dark and green, and a set of equipment apparently purposefully there to control the android.

It’s a strange adventure that follows. Most of the time the Master we see on screen isn’t the Master at all, but Kamelion at one of the sporadic moments he manages to fully control him. That lack of control forms a lot of the repetitive drama in the first half of the story. There are nods to the past throughout though. When the Master’s TARDIS is quite ridiculously tipped over, the Master recalls Logopolis and The Time Monster when he asks his captive robot to materialise the Doctor’s TARDIS inside his own. The Doctor will later suggest the same thing, escaping flames to materialise his TARDIS around the Masters, only to find the temporal stabiliser’s been removed. “Another old trick of the Master’s” he says ruefully. Still, when the Master reveals himself to the Doctor, meeting a typically downplayed “oh no”, there is something of a throwback to him. The suit is unusual, and given far more time to talk he is far more in the Delgado mould than his recent appearances.

A Return to Verbal Sparring

“Journey’s end, Doctor. I’m sorry. Your cremation will deprive me of our periodic encounters.”

In fact, the dialogue is a great leap forward. Although, as the Master is seldom himself, so to speak, It’s difficult to rate his performance. Peri marks herself apart by resisting the Master’s usual mating call, “You will obey me, I am the Master”, but that is slightly diluted by the fact that it is really Kamelion she is facing off against at the roof top.

To accompany a stronger line in verbal sparring, the Master is more decisive and in the ascendance than usual, though he has little cause to be. We soon find that he’s a lot more confident when working through an avatar…

“Over the years I’ve dreamed of a million exquisite tortures to accompany your final moments. That it should come to this.”

But while the master my implore those in his thrall to burn the Doctor slowly, we soon find him in the middle of one of the slowest melt-downs in the show’s history. And for most of it the Master has poor old Peri in tow. She really attracts them.

Into the Volcano

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Master’s stature had been diminished by the 1980s

When we reach the centre of the volcano on Sarn, we’re not seeing a companion encounter the Master for the first time, although it’s one of the better handled performances. In the volcano the Master gives a strangely effective introduction to the Tissue Compression Eliminator to the American student – albeit on some suits rather than living beings. In many ways you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Master’s stature had been diminished by the 1980s and Planet of Fire exists to prove you exactly right. It takes until the cliff-hanger of part four for the Master to properly reveal himself, or be revealed.

And when Peri strikes out on her own and deduces what must be the Master’s control box, we find a diminutive Master staring up at her. The special effects are quite impressive and it all comes as quite a surprise if you’re not ready for it – but it’s and also one of the most inadvertently amusing cliff-hangers in Doctor Who history. After all those years, the Masters gone and shrunk himself with his own device.

And the focus of his salvation is the Hall of Fire; what the Doctor suggests is a “curative chamber”.

Companion Kidd Gloves

“How does it feel to get a taste of your own medicine?”

The Master and Doctor only get to parley in the fourth and final part. We’ve seldom seen the Master in this much trouble, previously begging Peri for help from his miniscule position. But he soon recovers his old sneer when his nemesis turns up. The Doctor doesn’t seem too surprised, but even a casual viewer might have thought that the Master would have better things to do than improving the range of his weapon of choice considering his past decade. Still, he’s not apologetic and arrogantly predicts his plan will succeed enough for him to take much advantage of his all new TCE. It must be the merchandising rights that keep him going. Which reminds me, Kamelion is still as tormented as ever.

It turns out that the Master’s accident was relatively recent, accounting for Kamelion’s earlier attack aboard the TARDIS – and in fact an android stowaway under the Master’s control ever since The King’s Demons. It may be that the Doctor knew all along, and having lost Tegan the episode before he takes the prospect of losing two with little grace.

Earlier he’d taken down Kamelion quite completely – “this so-called will be nothing but a heap of spare parts”. But above all this is a Turlough story, with the action assistant testing the Doctor’s trust more than we had seen recently. The Doctor’s all in a bit of a time-tizzy by the end, unable to trust Turlough in a neat return to Turlough’s entrance, it’s a fitting tribute to who might quite possibly be the Doctor’s greatest male companion even if it encourages some very pointed questions from the Doctor – “ “Why have you never mentioned your home planet before?”

But Turlough’s isn’t the only departure. Much like the incarnation before, the Fifth Doctor’s final days were rather pre-destined. And there on the floor is Kamelion – in what I think is a directorial decision. Could there be a sadder end for a companion? In a fiery climax, the android begs to be free (dead) and the Doctor complies, using the Tissue Compression Eliminator.

Fiery Farewells

“Help me! I’ll give you anything in creation. Please! Won’t you show mercy to your own…”

Meanwhile the Masters has escaped to what he sees as his Numismaton gas rebirth in the flames of the volcano. And it works, he becomes a “thousands times” stronger… Until the Doctor’s sabotage ensures him a horrible end. And end it was meant to be– the end of this Marchster takeover, at least with the Master in the guise of Tremas. Anthony Ainley’s contract was at its end and had come to an end and he was even gifted a final, interrupted line that’s hanging suggestion harked back for a mooted resolution to the Delgado Master’s demise – one that could sadly never happened…

Of course this wasn’t the end, and the Tremas body, wearing thin, would return twice more, to battle the Sixth and Seventh incarnations of the Doctor. Next, with little explanation for his escape, on screen at least, he would form a pact with another fellow student from the Academy, The Rani. But at least he had a fine exit, in the classic run’s BBC finale – the appropriately named, and finely pitched Survival. A story where he regained some bite. Planet of Fire is in the top tier of the Master’s 1980’s serials, but he was luck that his truly final appearance left the bit part- plots of the rest of that decade quietly forgotten.

Next time on the penultimate Marchster take-over: The 21st Century – Time for a Change in the Tale of Two Jacobis…

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