Doctor Who: The Master in the 2000s – “No beard this time… well, a wife”

Master The Master John Simm

When it came to the 21st century, we should have known we were in for a helluva ride. Far removed from the tin-pot schemes of the 1980s and the side-notes of the previous decade, the time of the Master was upon us. Having escaped the Time War by the skin of his overstretched regenerations, even the Master couldn’t have guessed how big he was going to get. A select journey from homicidal Prime Ministers to paradox machines…

The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords (Series 3, 2007)

IF COINCIDENCE HAS A FIELD DAY ANYWHERE, IT’S IN THE VAST AND CONTRADICTORY EXPANSE OF THE TIME VORTEX. And so the third series of the refreshed, renewed and lightly rebooted Doctor Who found at the end of time and the last stand of humanity when a chance encounter with an old but doddery genius, a forgetful but kind, old professor left the TARDIS crew stranded and the Doctor, in the best and worst way, not the last of his race.

Hindsight of subsequent six series can’t dull the freshness of Russell T Davies gratuitous dystopian trick in the antepenultimate episode of Series 3, just about kicking off the show’s first three-parter since 1989. In 2005’s first series, Davies had returned the Daleks to the small screen, navigating the intricacies of the Terry Nation estate to bring some Pepper-Pot classics back to the show. In the second year came the not so imperious return of the Cybermen, this time opting for a parallel universe origin tale. Following hotly behind the unexpected Macra cameo in Series 3’s Gridlock, the Master was the next obvious candidate to make a return, and so completing a set of classic villains and monsters, who’d rocked up in the New Series in the same order as they had during the 1960s and 1970s. The Master was a big scalp of course, as the production team had as much fun hinting about his return as fanboys had speculating. Take the guest starring appearance of Anthony Head in Series 2’s School Reunion, carefully flashing up in the series trailer next to partially obscured sign “…Master”. Of course, he was the “… Headmaster”, and despite enjoying the Western stand-off he had with the Doctor, fans retreated to their lairs waiting for the inevitable. And so it came. The first new Time Lord in a world very much built around the idea that the Doctor was alone, the last of his kind.

Was that really six series ago?

Straight to the Point

“Oh, a nice little game of hide and seek, I love that”

Following the events of Utopia, surprisingly resilient tension-filled momentum that remains unbeaten in the show, the resulting two-part finale has no intention of hanging about. There’s a fresh Master, force regenerated to match a bounding incarnation of the Doctor (and no doubt taking advantage of a fresh regeneration cycle bestowed on him by the Time Lords before cowardice took over), hijacking the Doctor’s TARDIS and heading into the unknown of space and time. Fortunately, with the traditional vortex effect, Captain Jack’s old vortex manipulator, which would stay with the show for some time to come, hurls the Doctor, Jack and Martha into our present day to set about discovering what became of the rogue Time Lord.

Absolute Power

“The Master is Prime Minister of Great Britain”

The Master, stable and secure as a majority-backed, popular and time-rich Prime Minister is a great conceit. Not only does it let Russell T Davies turn his scripts back to pointed politicism but also saves the usual skulduggerous slow reveal of the Master’s plot that had on more than one occasion reduced him to pantomime. It also gives us a glimpse of the Master at full power, a considerable challenge for the Doctor to overcome but also height of great distance for a defeated Master to fall. The Master had never been so outlandish and sadistic. And that’s saying something. Although there is more in common with his original suave, indifferent, amoral and confident appearance in a sequel four decades before than had been seen for years, what would unravel from these heightened stakes is true marmite for Whovians.

We are allowed plenty of time to watch this incarnation in action, from teasing and murdering at will to sending very specific messages to the Doctor and crucially, his companions. John Simm’s incarnation may be a little strained, just as the Tennant version of the Doctor was, but in many ways is also picks up traits from the Ainley incarnation who’d happily sneer at the lesser mortals. Far removed from the 1980s however, he’s dispensed with his faux-suave nature as he’s rediscovered his taste for large-scale plots (it helps to have real taste buds back) and finally, an appreciation of companions. Both the Doctors and of his own. Of course, the taste for larger scale plotting had really returned during the 1996 TV Movie, along with the wet shave. But who would have put any space currency on both remaining with him after meeting the Eye of Harmony.

After the future Earth smashing of the Series One finale and the monster mash-up, London bash-up of Series Two, the third series needed to be as large as this international, universe threatening romp and he was the Time Lord for the job.

Filling the TARDIS

“Mr Saxon does like a pretty face”

Perhaps the strangest change for this Master is, much to multiple Doctor’s amusement in the succeeding short Time Crash, is… His wife. The rather strange first lady of Britain is later revealed to be very much The Master’s companion – the first time we’ve seen him adopt one as the Doctor might. Aside from broadening the drama, it’s hard not to see this as a reflection of the fact that a partner-less leader is simply not electable in this day and age, psychic boost or not.

Despite having the time to manipulate events at source, the Master’s Harold Saxon’s has invented his past to gain the top job as the effective cameo from Nichola McAuliffe’s journalist highlights. And best of all, the real icing on the cake: his rise to power was possible thanks to the power void left by the actions of a very angry Tenth Doctor, dispatching Prime Minister Harriet Jones at the end of The Runaway Bride. Yes, this is a plot well laid. And while Utopia was a novelty, a fairy-tale glimpse into what could have been with a kindly and skilled, ‘better’ version of the Edwardian Doctor, it’s clear that these last two sons of Gallifrey, the Doctor and the Master, are fully entwined. Read more…

Doctor Who: Celebrity Histories – “I’m Going to be King. Run!” (Whovember #10 Omega)

Tenth Doctor and his Zygon 

New Whovember continues. The second of two Tenth Doctor retrospectives looking at the strangely linked world of his celebrity historicals. As the knocks tolled for this Doctor it was clear that he still had a thing for Royals. But would we ever find out what?

IN THE FIRST PART OF THIS RETROSPECTIVE WE VISITED THE SECOND AND THIRD SERIES OF NEW WHO – TACKLING WEREWOLVES, FIREPLACES AND BARDS. When Martha left, halfway through the Tenth’s chronological tour of duty, there was no way that trips to the celebrated past would leave with her. Series Four presented two historic adventures, both with celebrities of sorts and both landing in the top half of that year’s most viewed. While they proved to be excellent farewells to the Russell T Davies era of historical adventures but they left some plot strands… Although the Eleventh Doctor may have upped the stakes with Marilyn Monroe and River Song, the riddle of Queen Bess was asking for a conclusion.  And what better time than the Doctor’s Golden anniversary?

In this installment a look at:

A mixed bag of Fire, Myth and gold.  But are there any other patterns? “No, no, don’t do that…”

The Fires of Pompeii (Series Four, 2008)

Capaldi isn’t alone…

Series four still sticks out in the run of New Who. It’s resplendent, with only Series Eight matching its appearance. The fifth series would take a strange decision to mute the colour palette and it would take some time to return to this sheer variety. Companion-wise, initial disappointment that Donna reneged on her excellent choice not to join the Doctor gives way to undoubtedly the best character development seen in the show. And yet, it never quite hits the high-points of Series 3 despite serving up two celebrity histories.

Again, The Fires of Pompeii ramps up the production quality with astonishing set design thanks to BBC co-production Rome. Ancient Rome on Doctor Who once again, except it isn’t – it’s Pompeii and “it’s volcano Day”. Once again this is the first main trip for the Doctor’s companion and a rough ride of conscience and choice awaits. It may be the weakest grasp at celebrity, but its warranted. Lucius Caecilius Lucundus’s house still stands in Pompeii. And with the actor portraying him latterly rising to the rank of Time Lord it’s got to be a cert. Capaldi isn’t alone, sitting in a fine cast that also features Phil Davis, Phil Cornwall and Phil ‘The Power of Kroll’ Taylor. I might have made one of those up. Read more…

Doctor Who: Celebrity Histories – “Stepped through in either direction” (Whovember #10 Alpha)

Tenth Doctor and his future 

New Whovember continues with the first of two Tenth Doctor retrospectives. To begin, the strangely linked world of celebrity historical that prove, if nothing else, that there are few people the Tenth Doctor likes to hang around with more than Royals.

IT’S NOT EASY TO FORGET THAT THE DOCTOR’S FIRST ADVENTURE TOOK HIM BACK TO THE DAWN OF HUMANITY, BUT THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TIME VORTEX UNDER THE BRIDGE SINCE THEN.  When it returned in 2005 the new series established a formula it’s virtually kept to of kicking off each series in the present day, then speeding forward in time before dipping back into the past for the third episode. While purely historical adventures may not have existed in the show since the early-1980s, the successful return has shown that they remain a crucial part of the show.  Indeed, few things sum up the Russell T Davies era of New Who like the celebrity history. And as the longest serving Doctor of both Davies’ tenure and New Who it seemed natural to look at the Tenth Doctor’s brushes with the celebrity shoulders of times past…

In this installment a look at:

Broadly, if you’re not royalty of the writing or properly regal kind you’ll have trouble getting in. Things have changed considerably since the Seventh Doctor couldn’t quite place Queen Elizabeth II’s face in Silver Nemesis. But are there any other patterns? “No, no, don’t do that…”

Tooth and Claw (Series Two, 2006)

A Victorian household named Torchwood

Tooth and Claw unmistakably kicks off in the Highlands. The setting for the Second Doctor adventure The Highlanders, where it was ably doubled by Surrey. Here it’s Merthyr’s turn to stand in for the timeless landscape. Timeless that is until… Slow-mo kung fu monks appear to commandeer a Victorian household named Torchwood. It’s a strange but thrilling start to the Tenth Doctor’s first historical, climaxing in a classic cage reveal pre-title cliff-hanger. The clue to cage’s the inhabitant is in the title you know…

Set loose from introducing this incarnation, Davies shows a playful and confident hand. Ian Drury makes an unexpected but welcome appearance aboard a TARDIS heading for 1970s Sheffield while Rose calls the Doctor a big old punk. But amid the fun of a vortex crash and the Doctor’s astute use of his Rhythm Stick, they end up in 1879. The Tenth Doctor’s first historical makes more than a nod to the Second Doctor’s 1966 Scottish outing – the last completely historical serial of any real length – when the Doctor introduces himself as Dr James McCrimmon. That takes in the PhD the Second Doctor once established that he’d earned and as a cover it gives David Tennant the chance to use his own accent (and then when Rose matches him, start the “Don’t do that” trope that will become very familiar). It’s fun but it’s also a sign that things are about to become a little too coincidental. The auspicious bump into Queen Victoria send the TARDIS crew into a tale of werewolves, long laid plans of revenge and assassination set mostly on the Torchwood Estate. Read more…

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