Doctor Who: The Master through the Decades – The Classic Series Compression Eliminated

The Master 1970s 1980s 1990s

For the past two years, Jokerside has tracked the Doctor’s arch-nemesis through time… Well, through the past five decades. From his suave arrival in the 1970s to her tussles with the Twelfth Doctor, Jokerside presents the summary… The Master throughout the Classic Series!

IT’S THE DOCTOR’S 53RD BIRTHDAY, BUT IT’S STILL A GOOD FEW YEARS OFF THE GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY WHEN WE FIRST SAW HIM CATCH UP WITH AN OLD SCHOOL FRIEND. ARRIVING IN 1971, EIGHT YEARS AFTER THE DOCTOR, THE MASTER QUICKLY ESTABLISHED HIMSELF AT THE HIGH TABLE OF WHO VILLAINS. With some Doctors, particularly his fifth and third incarnations, the Master was a pervasive, era-defining foe. During his fourth incarnation, the first of the villain’s rare appearances proved to be a classic against the adversary. While almost the entirety of his eighth incarnation would have the Master in opposition. He’s the foe who has caused the death of at least two, possibly three, of the Doctor’s 13 lives so far. And that puts him far ahead of the other great contenders for the throne of evil.

Series 9 of the New Series kicked off with a spat between Davros and the Master, the latter now in her Mistress form, one-sided as it was. The creator of the Daleks emerged three years after the Master, but which one could be said to be the Doctor’s nemesis? Each character is a scientific genius, has put up with huge physical discomfort and revealed layers of intricate hate over the years, but there’s an important difference. Davros is the background to the Doctor’s great opposition, the one we’ve followed from its very beginning. But the Master, purely malevolent, emerged fully formed with so much of his back-story with the Doctor and the universe in general, hidden in time.

Where from Whovember?

For the anniversary Whovember retrospectives, Jokerside took each of the Classic Series Doctors, and followed a specific journey through each incarnation. Having completed the Eleventh Doctor retrospective, where else could Jokerside go but the Moriarty to the Time Lord hero’s Holmes? Taking a similar tack with the Doctor’s nemesis, what started as the spring-based MarchSter series grew to span six decades. From suave opportunist to desperate survivalist in one era, from android to Time Lady in another. When it comes to the classic years, it all began in a circus…

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

Terror of the Autons, Season 8 (1971)

The Original Master - Doctor Who Marchester takeoverWe should have known when it started so surreally… At the beginning of Doctor Who’s Eighth Season an eccentric Time Lord, popping up in a Monty Python-going-on-Douglas Adams way, warns the Doctor that his old school colleague had arrived on Earth with the marvellous parting shot, “oh, good luck!” We’d already seen the Master arrive by that point, setting an immediate dapper impression in the crucially off-kilter setting of a circus. As Jokerside observed, “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.”

Indeed, Robert Holmes made yet another crucial contribution to the fabric of the series by shaping a brilliant Moriarty to the Doctor’s academic, occasionally Venusian Aikido-flaunting, Holmes:

“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.”

But Holmes’ doesn’t just deal in symmetry in shaping a character that would remain as antagonist in every story that season:

“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?”

The Time Monster, Season 9 (1972)

His first appearance, when he arrived Tissue Compression Eliminator in hand, was a necessary starting point, before Jokerside turned attention to that dapper incarnation’s penultimate plan in The Time Monster. Following a familiar pattern, the rogue Time Lord was still prone to bit off more than he could chew when awakening the power of Kronos. Having appeared in seven serials over two seasons, it’s no surprise that the Master’s plots have take a turn to the preposterous in the ambitious Season Nine finale:

“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.”

Dafter plots were to come from this rogue, but few as eccentric or laugh-out-loud amusing. In between filler, the odd multi-layered structure that leapt back to Ancient Atlantis, there’s time for Delgado to have great fun with the character:

“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.’”

One of Roger Delgado’s many strengths was shaping double-acts with the hapless, veering from the chilling to the ridiculous as he did so. He even takes the chance to return the faint praise he received from the Doctor in 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.”

As Jokerside observed, The Time Monster exposes two crucial sides of this villain. On one hand he’s an imperious and manipulative exploiter of any situation, seducing and quite probably getting it on with Ingrid Pitt’s Queen Galleia of Atlantis to reach his goal. On the other hand he clearly hasn’t thought through the consequences of his actions, as post-volte-face, he’s forced to flee while Atlantis suffers the third possible cause of its destruction in the Who-canon. That said, the Doctor’s pursuit of his nemesis shows a similar lack of foresight, and it’s his misplaced humanity come the end that provides just the distraction the Master needs to escape once again. It’s almost as though the Doctor isn’t trying too hard.

Out of such an oddity (or “unmitigated nonsense” as the retrospective put it) comes a legacy to Doctor Who’s ongoing myth:

“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 the later Big Finish approach. Sucked into Time Lord lore just as the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor BBC books were, you can sometimes barely move for Time Rams in the audio adventures – when two TARDISes attempt to occupy the same point in space-time.”

The Deadly Assassin, Season 14 (1976)

What a difference a decade made. Five years later we encountered a vastly different Master on the show’s first major trip to the Time Lords’ home planet. Robbed of Roger Delgado by a tragic car crash just after the celestial antics of Frontier in Space, it’s Robert Holmes once again who stepped in to create a new lease of life for the Master. Or rather a new lease of death. Having reached the end of his regenerative cycle, in spite of the bug-eyed mask that actor Peter Pratt wore, there’s a real sense of a desperate, dangerous villain in the catacombs of the Time Lord’s entropied civilisation. Its brilliant if absurd title can’t obscure a Who classic that surfaced from its own adversity. As Tom Baker demanded a companion-less TARDIS the production team set about providing a story that would show exactly why that wouldn’t work. By sculpting a classic, they failed. Meanwhile, outgoing script editor Holmes had incredible freedom to show exactly why the Doctor and Master became renegades. By sculpting a controversial rebrand of Time Lord society, he succeeded:

“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’.”

Holmes uses the Master’s hugely disadvantaged plight to revitalise the character:

“The harnessing and misuse of the Time Lord 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’.”

One of the Classic runs real ‘classics’, The Deadly Assassin is almost too deft in its bold story-telling and dips into the mythology of the show. Come the end, things are barely resolved. The entropy of the Citadel has been exposed, but the Master not defeated, and the Doctor absolved of assassination to return to his status-quo.

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

The Keeper of Traken, Season 18 (1981)

The Master in the 1980s - the Doctor Who Marchster takeoverWhen Jokerside turned to the Master’s second significant incarnation, it was time for a new beginning. But the Master we’d follow for the next ten years, in-fact up to the show’s 21st century revival, would appear in a far different form to the dapper villain who had arrived at an Earth circus. As Jokerside observed, “He couldn’t stay crispy for long… Although the effects of his misadventures would be felt for a good time yet.” Yes, the misadventures of The Deadly Assassin saw him do enough to survive, setting the template for his next decade of appearances. For the rest of the Classic era, the Doctor’s foe would be a zombie. And has his skin-stealing existence would remain precarious, his plots losing the scope of the previous decade as a result. Within his regeneration cycle the Master’s main weakness had been a lack of long-term vision, but post-death his survivalist days found him struggling to commit to very good plots at all. It’s all the stranger that, with no evidence to the contrary, the incarnation seen throughout the original 26 year run is the same bearded suave that landed in 1971, simply in the skin of five different actors. Big Finish’s extend universe has established Geoffrey Beevers’s smooth talking semi-husk as the default Master for this time period, the briefly seen Master with the long-game. A highlight before the main meat of Jokerside’s 1980’s retrospective: Terrible schemes.

The Keeper of Traken is the story that set the mould for the 1980s Master with the late in the day, all too quick cackle and body transference. Traken makes an intriguing serial in Season 18, and as the penultimate story of the Fourth Doctor’s television life. The mystical, Elizabethan “admirable dream-like” quality of Traken makes it a low-key high point of Tom Baker’s final season, between the gothic and universe bending E-Space trilogy and mathematically challenging Logopolis (and subsequently Castrovalva). Ostensibly a murder mystery with a fair dollop of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, a smidge of Shakespeare and a great deal of red herring chucked in. The envious long game of the Master is the curious centre and for the most part, he’s hidden in an irregular, walking statue of a TARDIS:

“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.”

Yes, rather strangely the Master plays a very long game in a peculiarly cramped TARDIS. As Jokerside observed, “When the Master is revealed in the final act of the story, it’s an improvement on The Deadly Assassin.” Mainly as his desperation has faded and he finally seems to have learned that his end-game is very weak. But in a sign of things to come, this incarnation is betrayed not by his inability to strategise, but his need to settle “many old scores”. It’s all an unnecessary distraction. But from all the melodrama a new path extends before the Master. In short, “Galactic domination is off the cards (for the next decade), as he slips into semi-retirement.”

The King’s Demons, Season 20 (1983)

Jumping forward in the Captain Black existence of Anthony Ainley’s Master, The King’s Demons exemplified the rogue’s lack of priority at the time. The first return to a castle setting since the time of his great first adversary, the Third Doctor, at least the fiend has rediscovered his love of preposterous disguises, and terrible anagrammatic pseudonyms – this time he’s in the guise of the shabby Sir Gilles Estram. But he also manages to sink to the worst scheme of his career. As Jokerside wryly observed, “For all his attempt to recapture past ‘glories’, such tricks only highlight what had been lost since the 1970s.” Indeed, the plot is “mundane to the point of utterly pointless.” Effectively time sabotage, the rogue who should have far more pressing things on his mind than averting the signing of the Magna Carta. Obviously proving this act is no fixed point in time, by New Series standards, is actually representative of the continuing development of the Magna Carta through history, but that’s surely an unintended kindness. Anywhere in space and time as the show sells itself these days… And the Doctor’s main enemy is meddling in King John’s court. As a Frenchman.

The Master’s diminished ambition was always going to be exposed in comparison to the previous 10 years, but the indignity’s even worse when so many elements of The King’s Demons recalls previous serials. It’s not just the castle scenes, but the sword fights, and even the mind duel that never had a chance of competing with the epic tussle at the climax of The Brain of Morbius six years before. It’s all the more galling that the noble sounding two-parter The King’s Demons closes the 20th anniversary season, highlighting the Master as that story’s requisite ‘returning monster’. Thank goodness, for him and us, its episode count wasn’t higher.

Planet of Fire, Season 21 (1984)

Boxed together in a loose and non-adjacent arc the Master’s final fight with the Fifth Doctor picked up and concluded the short storyline with the shape-shifting robot Kamelion, occasional Master puppet and Doctor companion. Planet of Fire is a considerable step up from The King’s Demons the year before. It’s hardly surprising that it struggles in comparison to the excellent Caves of Androzani that follows it, but alongside that classic of the era it’s part of the huge quality uplift that met the latter days of the Fifth Doctor.

Filmed in Tenerife, necessitating the slightly cooler addition of a waistcoat to the Fifth Doctor’s wardrobe, Planet of Fire has ambition in spades, but also some errant eccentricity, as the Master re-establishes his control of Kamelion to get himself out of a pickle:

“It’s a strange adventure… 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 asking his captive robot to materialise the Doctor’s TARDIS inside his own.”

There’s a real sense that the increased exposure of the Master, particularly in these straitened times, is fuelling repetition and an unhealthy preoccupation with the past. It’s not as damning as The King’s Demons, but the Master’s condition is. After all this time, the accident waiting to happen that is his Tissue Compression Eliminator, has back-fired. What was an oddly chilling tool in the 1970s, has become a joke.

“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 (incoming companion) Peri strikes out on her own and deduces what must be the Master’s control box, we find a diminutive villain 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.”

It’s perhaps the most shameless grasp at the idea that the Master is all about survival, this time lapping himself into a corner by adding another debilitating condition he’s added to the list. His Tremas suit is holding up well considering. It would have been quite the exit had the Fifth Doctor’s sabotage provided a final end for his nemesis. At the time, Ainley’s contract was up for renewal, but fate would have the Master somehow survive in his zombie guise. It’s Exhibit A in the joke that Steven Moffat has recently wrapped around the character in the New Series. Perhaps more than any other appearance of the Ainley Master, it’s a shame that, as Jokerside observes, “given far more time to talk, he is far more in the Delgado mould” than ever. Planet of Fire could never have brought the end it promised:

“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.”

  1. Doctor Who: The Master in the 1990s – “I’m glad one of us is amused”

Doctor Who, Television Movie (1996)

The Master Eric RobertsA footnote in many ways, and a bonus addition to the Master retrospectives, the Master’s role in the 1996 TV Movie can’t be ignored. Mainly because doing so would cast a veil over one of the Doctor’s most promising and underused incarnations. But the path Doctor Who took to America in the seven years following the cancellation of the Classic Series was tortuous, and few characters would be as affected as the Master:

“In a production that, aside from its great BBC investment, enjoyed a British director, star, two executive producers and writer, at least, the villain was what Segal called a “line in the sand”. Fox and Universal insisted on a named American actor from a prescribed list, which Segal circumspectly added was a triumph of “commercialisation over creative rationale”. And so the Master took an unexpected new form…”

During disintegration at the claws of some pip-squeak sounding Daleks’ legal system, Gordon Tipple’s brief appearance didn’t look to far removed from the “dapper form of the Ainley or Delgado variations”. But in the subsequent guise of Eric Robert’s Bruce it was a different story. The Master was no longer just a zombie, although he now displayed far more obvious signs of it than in the 1980s. Instead, he was a plasma snake inside a zombie. Or more correctly, thanks to the power of retconning, a Deathworm Morphant. The TV Movie truly was the peak of the Master’s survivalist days, in a “zombie mode far more informed by Captain Black than the sturdy future-Elizabethan Trakenite Tremas he had adopted a decade and a half before.”

“The brunt of the survivalist Master’s final days is borne by Bruce, the San Franciscan paramedic otherwise embodied by Eric Roberts. Roberts take on the Master was roundly vilified at the time, and endlessly blamed on compromise in behind the scenes debriefs. To criticise the Master for chewing the scenery though, is rather disingenuous given this is Who’s most pantomime character.

Things had moved on by the 1990s after all:

The movie makes it clear that Bruce’s is a dead body which this snake-form Master wears like a glove. A glove that won’t hold together long, unlike his previous Ainley incarnation. Seizing the body via Bruce’s mouth in his plasmic snake form is a far cry from the laughter aside dissolve that ended his days as a husk. Indeed, as this Bruce incarnation of the proceeds to deposit and suck up possession through his mouth, it appears he’s developed quite an orally fixated serpent.”

All sorts of back-story has filled in to explain various plot holes surrounding this incarnation’s survival and abilities:

“There is a character journey, from the Master’s early unfortunate, black-eyed drooling on the end of Bruce’s bed to his extravagant end. His odd, robotic beginnings may capture most memories, and indeed the pace of the film doesn’t quite do it justice before it’s shoe-horned into the script with the line “It took me a minute, with the talking and the walking”. But once this incarnation gains his swagger 40 minutes in he’s quite entertaining. Indeed, he’s particularly at home in vehicles. Whether correcting Grace’s grammar or wryly misinterpreting Chang Lee’s comment that he “kills him” in the ambulance or putting on a show in the TARDIS…”

If you’re being kind, there’s also some delight to be had explaining away that pantomime swagger:

“This Master still has a tendency to play up his malevolence with an unlikely air of invulnerability. So many years on… He’s happy to head into a hospital full of people who know his meat-glove body before he’s nailed the right mannerisms and gleefully peel off a decayed fingernail. It can only be a judgment on his earlier terrible disguises. As his forgiving nurse friend says, “Oh Bruce, you’re sick”. As he replies, irony undetectable, “Thank-you”. Still, although there’s no comparable depth of plan, it does recall some of the insidious perseverance of his Husk form; happily plotting with the last of his energy and even simulating his own death to reach his goals. In the TV Movie, perhaps it’s the severe deadline – something that had seldom bothered the Master before…”

True to form, the Master has failed to grasp the full consequences of his actions. As Jokerside found, “The Master’s plot is ridiculously quick and simple in itself, just requiring a hugely complicated set of events that the Master clearly doesn’t fully understand before he embarks on it, and one that is almost constantly derailed by incidents solely caused by his arbitrary sabotage of the TARDIS at the head of the film.”

This villain  still has an innate predilection for self-sabotage. That the plot hinges on the concept of regeneration, a sure-fire way out of those long years of survival for the villain, is to the detriment of the TV Movie. Audiences were understandably flummoxed, but the Master had a point. In fact, he’d had it before:

“Perhaps the Master had confidence in the simplicity of his plan because he’d tried it before… While he had no Time Lord body to upgrade this time and was forced to seize the body of his “rival Time Lord”, the TV Movie bears a great similarity to the plot of classic serial The Deadly Assassin.”

And that would also explain why it failed. Despite the inevitable controversy this incarnation did and continues to generate, his flaws are consistent. His plot is “undone by his reliance on slaves, hubris and classic lack of thinking things through”. That final element truly is consistent through all his incarnations. That it ended in a different manner to usual wasn’t so much to do with the character, but once again that the show had jumped to a different country in a different decade:

“As this Master carries no redemptive qualities, his plans collapse ends up not with the volte face as defined the 1970s and much of the 1980s, but a straightforward punch-up and death during some dodgy temporal bluster which would set the template for New Who. It must be those reptilian eyes that lead a flash of light to inexplicably alters his death leap mid-jump. But there’s no doubt, as he rejects the Doctor’s help, before ambiguously calling his name, His death is absolute. And interestingly, rather than sucked into the Eye of Harmony, he seems to explode in its clutches.”

A blunt end for a desperate incarnation of the Master with a very limited time span, who apart from overcoming his stiltedness had developed very little at the cusp of his victory from when he gained his new body a day or so before. A fact, Jokerside reasoned that was “perhaps, down to the face behind the face.”

This “brief zombie of a Master would be set as the last chapter of the arch-enemy’s years of survival. When he was at his blackest to the Doctor’s white.” Or rather of his first survivalist period. By the 1990s, he had lost almost all the intrigue and subtle menace of his first appearance 25 years before. But that would return in some fashion as the show did. Belatedly. In the interim, the TV movie does provides a rather spectacular flash of a conclusion for the Master’s Classic run. It had been a strange old time, but “as the Doctor says after all, ‘He’s on his last life, fighting to survive… In the fight for survival, there are no rules’.”

Even compared  than the Doctor, much of the Master’s life remains shrouded in mystery. The New Series would dip into the past in a way that the Classic Series never attempted, despite the rumours that swirled around the character in the 1970s before Delgado’s untimely death. In all, the Master arrived late and for most of the time was undead. But thanks to the innate strength of the character, and crucially two blinding entrances crafted by Robert Holmes he proved to have more legs than most. Even when those legs were undead, his presence demanded attention. So it was no surprise that he would stage a major comeback or two in the revitalised show of the 21st century.

Next: The New Series Compression Eliminated

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