The Doctor Who Column: The Master a challenge for Cumberbatch?
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What would or will Benedict Cumberbatch make of a role that has both defied and deified various actors over the last forty years?
The papers love this. When it comes to second-guessing who's going to appear in the next series of Doctor Who, they're like kids rushing up to queue at the ice cream van. The slightest scrap of speculation and the reporters are in for the kill, printing big, blockbusting headlines so bold that even a myopic pensioner would flinch.
When it comes to the big guns of Doctor Who, the papers love to create a stir of speculation. We've had Penelope Wilton somehow coming back as a Harriet Jones Dalek, thereby torpedoing the credibilities of both if it had happened; countless names suggested for the next Doctor (blimey, give Mr Smith a chance), and now, inevitably, Sherlock himself has been touted as the very next Master.
Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch, currently best known as brainbox sleuth Sherlock, is “reportedly” in line to be the next Master. Whether or not this is true is anyone's guess. I suppose we had all this the last time when John Simm was reported to play the evil Time Lord genius. Initially the rumour was downplayed, and then – guess what? Turned out to be true! So maybe the pattern will be repeated. Or maybe it could all be a great big double bluff. But if they do choose Cumberbatch, well they couldn't have picked anyone better – especially bearing in mind how past Master actors have tended to be the mirror image of the Doctor that they were playing against.
Roger Delgado's Master? Suave. Cool as a cucumber. Much like Jon Pertwee's Doctor. John Simm's Master? Hyperactive. Shouts a lot. Now compare that to David Tennant's Doctor (well, in his first full season any road). Given that Cumberbatch's Sherlock comes across as a slightly geeky, unconventional genius – well, that's Matt Smith's Doctor to a tee. So if they do choose Cumberbatch, to quote the shouty prize man on the same TV show: “It's a bullseye!”
"There's a curious pattern surrounding The Master in that in theory he's the perfect bad guy, but sometimes in practice, he comes across as a bit of a laughing stock"
But what is it about The Master that commands all this speculative press interest? He's the fiendish arch-enemy of The Doctor's. The quintessential force for evil. The Moriarty. The Dick Dastardly. The Hooded Claw. Mind you, bearing these last two evil genii in mind, I'm just wondering whether The Master's a flawed genius, or whether he's just easily floored every single time. There's a curious pattern surrounding The Master in that in theory he's the perfect bad guy, but sometimes in practice, he comes across as a bit of a laughing stock. On occasion, you get the big build-up to his much-fanfared arrival, but by the end of the story, there's that feeling of disappointment. It's like rushing to the ice cream van to find that the ice cream man only has sandpaper-flavoured wafer cones left to munch downheartedly on.
A quick look at the long list of Master adventures sums it all up. On the one hand, you have classics like The Daemons, The Sea Devils and The Deadly Assassin. On the other, you get turkeys such as Time-Flight, The Time Monster and (well, some would say), The End Of Time (although I still quite like it in its crazily meandering way). Time is not on The Master's side. It's a shame – there's all that potential to have a consistently strong baddie, but at times, all that potential's been shrunk to the size of a pea.
Even in his first story, The Master's not quite managing to live up to his awesome status. The bowler-hatted Time Lord is full of gloom and doom, while hovering half-way up a Chromakeyed sky, but in fact, despite The Master's superior qualifications, time and again in this story, he fails to kill The Doctor. Fair enough - to give the man his due, he's persistent, using bombs, plastic daffodils, Cockney thugs, and policemen to try and bump off his rival. And yet, every time, the half-baked scheme fails. At the conclusion of Terror Of The Autons, the Nestene Consciousness is about to materialise on Earth, and yet it just takes one comment for The Master to have a convenient change of heart and blast its sorry arse back into space.
"Despite the character's increasingly lunatic schemes, Delgado got the character of The Master spot on"
The other problem with The Master's early stories is that it's not difficult to deduce that he's behind every problem that The Doctor encounters. Deadly mind parasites. Blobby Axons. Doomsday weapons. Shouty wannabe gods. The Master's at the nub of all these problems, but by May 1971, for the viewer, it was probably becoming all too predictable. Fortunately, they'd get the balance right the next year with two Master stories rather than five – following that, I guess the plan was to have one Master story a season, culminating in a story called The Final Game, in which The Master would have apparently sacrificed himself to save The Doctor's life. Sadly, this was not meant to be, as a result of a terrible outside tragedy, as Roger Delgado was killed in a car accident in June 1973.
Delgado though was a key factor in The Master's success. Despite the character's increasingly lunatic schemes, Delgado got the character of The Master spot-on – a suave but controlled evil, curiously tinged with some respect for The Doctor. It's not every day that your arch enemy wants to offer you a share of the galaxy – whether or not The Master would have saw his offer through to the end (if The Doctor had accepted) is anyone's guess, but that mutual grudging respect between the two men always came through: The Doctor's wistful reminiscing about their school-days in The Sea Devils. The verbal sparring at the end of The Daemons when The Master is captured and arrested (“You always were an optimist”). Or throughout Frontier In Space, from the moment that The Master 'rescues' his old foe from the moon (“I've come to take you away from all this”). It's well documented that Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado were very good friends, and that camaraderie is there for all to see in those marvellous exchanges between the two on screen. Maybe some might comment that the rivalry had turned into cosy banter, but for me, that mutual respect adds another interesting dimension.
"The main problems with The Master now loomed larger than ever before. As a caricature pantomime villain, The Master's prime material. He has a moustache to twirl. He can be prone to clichés. And given that this was the excessive 1980s, subtlety was now no longer on the agenda"
Mind you, Delgado's Master could be a force to be reckoned with, especially in his early stories. The vicious death of that technician on the radio telescope – The Master karate-chops the poor bloke, who plummets bellowing to his doom in seconds. Then there's the way in which his apparently benign mask slips when he's about to clout Farrel Snr. after Rex's Dad fails to fall for that old hypnotism routine. And who can forget the creepily detached manner in which he kills McDermott with a suffocating bubble chair. In The Mind Of Evil, he's also perfectly willing to let The Doctor suffer at the controls of the Keller Machine, simply as an experiment. It's a fine line to tread between cool detachment and sheer malevolence, but Roger Delgado managed this easily. Add in a dash of great Delgado comic timing (whether he's outsmarting Trenchard with a blast of The Clangers or mimicking his paymasters, the Daleks), and you have the ultimate villain. The fact that The Master's loopy schemes rarely come to fruition in a sense doesn't matter – simply because Roger Delgado's performance had it all.
When Philip Hinchcliffe brought The Master back for 1976's Deadly Assassin, any respect that he might have had for The Doctor had vanished – instead, old Skull-Face just wanted his enemy discredited and dead. The reason that The Master works in this story, for me personally, is because he has a clear sense of purpose. This Master has only two aims – to see The Doctor's head on a plate and for him to find some way of surviving. “He'll have destroyed Gallifrey, The Time Lords, everything!” says The Doctor. “Just for the sake of his own survival.” The Master manages to do this with the aid of a slightly odd-looking shower unit which is better known as The Eye Of Harmony (presumably the Harmony bit equates with some Gallifreyan shampoo). Even The Master gets excited by this prospect at one point when he appears to crow: “Rassilon's discovery – Hoo Boy!” See, stick a cowboy hat on The Master's bonce and he's pre-empting evil skeleton headed baddie, Tex Hex, from rubbish kids' cartoon Brave Starr by about 10 years.
When that gambit didn't quite come off, he tried again in The Keeper Of Traken by drawing luckless intellectual Tremas to stick his hand on a grandfather clock. Whether or not that spurred The Master on to a new lease of life is debatable. The main problems with The Master now loomed larger than ever before. As a caricature pantomime villain, The Master's prime material. He has a moustache to twirl. He can be prone to clichés. And given that this was the excessive 1980s, subtlety was now no longer on the agenda. As a result, Anthony Ainley was now required to go “Heh heh heh” a lot, pull funny faces and opt for the Abanazar style of acting that the production team thought necessary.
"Half the time, poor scripting means that Anthony Ainley's master has no motivation at all"
Which is actually doing Ainley a disservice, since when he's playing it straight, he actually does a great job. When not laughing like a drain in Logopolis, Ainley's Master is actually a genuinely evil presence, ready to gun down and double-cross in equal measures. By the time that the 4th Doctor's time is nearly up, I'm almost agreeing that this incarnation of The Master is “utterly mad”, simply because he's so single-minded in conquering luckless masses that he's prepared to consign everyone to oblivion if he doesn't get his wish. In Planet Of Fire, Ainley gives a commanding performance when not having to resort to useless bragging along the lines of “I am The Master!” The suited Kamelion Master is particularly impressive, and the same goes for his disquieting 'death' scene when he's apparently burnt to a cinder. Ainley's best performance comes in Survival, portraying a subdued, world-weary Master, whose key aim is simply to survive and be free of the influence of the Cheetah People's planet.
And that's where Ainley's Master keeps shooting himself in the boot. Half the time, poor scripting means that he has no motivation at all. Let's see – he wants to halt the signing of The Magna Carta. He tries to take control of rubbish aliens in body stockings. He enters some half-cooked alliance with another alumnus from the Pantomime Dame Time Lord Academy. He's even reduced to hiring Glitz as his lackey, which is a bit like hiring Derek from EastEnders as your second banana. The writers and production team in the 1980s, more often than not, couldn't quite get the hang of The Master. The pointless schemes. The pantomime villainy. Even the non-stop laughing: Why exactly? Who needs canned audience laughter when The Master's hammy chuckles could do the job quite adequately?
And it seems that future production teams would draw upon this silly template for the future while apparently forgetting that The Master's supposed to be a force to be reckoned with. The Master of the TV Movie is a load of old campy nonsense, purring on about dressing for the occasion (despite looking like he's just been sleepwalking through a colour-blind curtain factory) and actually achieving less dramatic impact than his predecessor. The same also applies to the 21st century imagining of The Master. Despite a strong start with Derek Jacobi's superb blink 'n' miss it portrayal of sheer evil, we're back to campy shouting and nostril-flaring gurning when he regenerates into his next incarnation.
"This is actually some seriously impressive acting from Simm, who superbly portrays a Master who's both out of control and out of his mind"
John Simm's Master has had a bit of a mixed reaction. I mentioned in my review of The End Of Time that I think it helps seeing that story before the jumbo Sound Of Drums tale. Basically, this Master is a complete fruit loop, a nutbar who was apparently driven insane by staring into the eye of the vortex as a kid. This is really hammered home in The End Of Time, when his botched rebirth results in a Master who's more feral and even more bonkers than ever before. A good example of this comes when he's chinwagging with the two tramps while chowing down on a crispy fried Toto Coelo burger.
This is actually some seriously impressive acting from Simm, who superbly portrays a Master who's both out of control and out of his mind. Both his degenerate babbling and the frequent skull face are good echoes of The Deadly Assassin, which also portrayed an over-the-hill Master trying to recapture life again. We also get to see a return to the good old days with that underlying respect between The Doctor and The Master. It's far better than the cheap point scoring of Last Of The Time Lords – here at least Russell T Davies reminds us that the two used to go to school together: The Master appears to ask for The Doctor's help with the drumming in his head. Heck, he even seems to sacrifice himself by blasting bolt after bolt into The President's belly at the end of the tale.
"Would Steven Moffat make a Benedict Cumberbatch Master into a credible, fully-formed villain rather than a campy cutout..?"
But there's still that uneven attitude towards The Master. There's times when he's simply a cackling imbecile – the scene in which the world turns into The Master just seems to be one 10-hour suite of The Master laughing like a drain (and the whole scheme's a bit silly in the first place). As for his previous adventure, the whole evil schtick jarred with the silly CBBC approach to villainy. Sucking on knuckles while a woman gets sliced to shreds wasn't a good idea, and neither was all this relentless dancing to already outdated Noughties 'classics' while carrying out dastardly deeds. The whole approach just jarred, which is a shame, given that in his more subtle moments, Simm undoubtedly delivered the goods.
So, if Cumberbatch takes on this much-vaunted mantle, how will Moffat approach the character of The Master? Will he make him into a credible, fully-formed villain rather than a campy cutout? Will he resist the temptation to make him a male version of uber-smug River Song? We'll have to wait and see I guess (rumours of him turning up in the 50th anniversary tale mean that we'll have to wait until 2013).
The Master. A matter of do-right, do-wrong. It's behind the scenes that really meant The Master sometimes failed to live up to his potential. Less-than-stellar scripts. Pantomime Villain instruction manuals. Lack of direction. It's a shame that these all ganged up to kick The Master's reputation into time and space, because front of house, we have had some superb performances from the likes of Delgado, Ainley and Simm. The acting has managed to compensate for some of the script deficiencies and production howlers. Maybe The Master is a case of style over substance, but don't forget, he's still an iconic villain in the eyes of many Who fans and casual viewers. Now that's something to go “Heh heh heh” about.
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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