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Flashback: Return of The Master

January 31st, 2013 by Dave Bowling Comments

‘New’ Who has copped for a lot of flack from many sides over the years. Allegations were levelled at the show for being too populist, too light-hearted, for allowing the Doctor to actually touch his companions (and kissing?!), essentially for not being an exact duplicate of the Tom Baker era. And while the purists have a point to some extent, especially the fact that the TARDIS rarely left Earth and was in modern-day London a lot for a show based on time travel, there remains a lot to love about the Doctor’s modern incarnations.

Especially the return of one of his most dangerous foes. Ever since the first series, Russell T Davies had stated his intention to bring back the iconic villains from the classic series. Series one brought back the Autons and the Daleks, series two the Cybermen. Doctor Who only really produced five truly iconic villains over the years: the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Autons, the Master and Davros. So with three down and an announcement of the annual Dalek story being in the middle of the series it was pretty obvious who series three’s big bad was going to be.

Or so we thought. Subliminal advertising began with season two’s Love and Monsters when the Abzorbaloff’s newspaper mentions “Saxon” leading the polls. Relatively plain posters urging people to “VOTE SAXON” were seen towards the end of Torchwood’s first season and later appeared in Doctor Who’s series three. The enigmatic Mr Saxon is first mentioned by name in The Runaway Bride as the one giving orders to shoot down the Racnoss ship hovering over London.

Small snippets of information are released throughout the first half of series three. Harold Saxon is apparently a strong proponent of contacting aliens (Smith and Jones), he is a very important financial backer of Richard Lazarus’s genetic manipulation technology and knows some secret about the Doctor (The Lazarus Experiment). At the end of The Lazarus Experiment we got a preview montage of scenes from the next half of the season, including prominent shots of John Simm apparently wearing breathing apparatus (maybe a life support system?). Anyone familiar with the 1996 TV movie or Antony Ainley’s tenure in the 80s will remember that the Master took to body-snatching to extend his life and wasn’t technically a Time Lord any more, possibly how he’d escaped the Doctor’s notice.

However, Russ had a surprise in store. Utopia at first seemed like a knock-about farce episode to reintroduce Captain Jack Harkness. Derek Jacobi (left) portrayed the bumbling and clumsy Professor Yana, capable of building a supercomputer using glass, string and porridge. He was a harmless old duffer, apparently distraught at the thought of time travel meaning that, if he’d had the chance, he could’ve made something of his life thousands of millennia earlier. Your heart goes out to him. And then he pulls a pocket watch out of his waistcoat. One that has the same engraving on it as the one the Doctor stored his memories and genetic pattern in in the Human Nature/Family of Blood two-parter. Rather than be excited, the Doctor is horrified that another Time Lord survived, as only one of them would’ve fled the war. And we now realise that almost every aspect of the last year has been building to this.

I wish so much that somebody (Big Finish, I’m looking at you) could give us a series of stories featuring Derek Jacobi’s Master. He was fantastic, dripping menace with every look, every word. Tearing into his hapless assistant Chantho, demanding to know why she never asked him about the watch, before advancing on her with an electric cable and hissing the words, “I… am… The Master!” (seriously, just writing that gave me the shivers!)

Although if anything, John Simm’s dribbling lunatic is even better. Taking the newly regenerated Master back to the early 21st Century in The Sound of Drums, we find he has indeed taken on the persona of Harold Saxon and become Prime Minister. Without batting an eyelid he has his supporters lock down Downing Street and casually executes his entire Cabinet. As the audience comes to realise the Master has spent the past 18 months planning to defeat the Doctor, Simm plays the character like a hybrid of Tony Blair and Jack Nicholson’s Joker: scheming, strangely charismatic and clearly as mad as a sackful of badgers.

Scheming a takeover of Earth after eliminating Torchwood and Martha’s family, he has his army of Toclafane (basically the Zeroids from Terrahawks on acid) wipe out tenn per cent of the world’s population and ages the Doctor into a decrepit old wreck. We next see Earth almost 12 months on, having been turned into a giant factory. The slave labour population build the Master a huge battle fleet to reign death on the Milky Way and forge his own personal Time Lord Empire.

Sadly the third part of the trilogy, Last of the Time Lords, does let it down a bit. The whole ’12 months later’ thing can be forgiven considering that we find out the Master has been regularly killing Jack for fun only to have him reanimate, wiped out Japan in a wanton act of power and that the Toclafane are futuristic remnants of humanity in steel balls, kept in the present by the Master using the TARDIS to stabilise an otherwise impossible paradox. The denouncement, however, frankly blows and seems rushed. I can’t help but have a vision of Davies sat on set, thinking “bollocks, how do I heal the Doctor and save the day?” The simple answer: prayer.

The Doctor goes from being a midget Gollum to Jesus with telekinesis because the people of Earth think his name. Naff is not the word.

However, leaving this aside we also get the brilliant showdown between the Doctor and the Master on a ridge overlooking a missile complex, with the Master threatening to set the weapons off and end the world. The Doctor claims that he won’t do it, as the Master has run from death his whole life. Which in turn makes his being shot by his much-abused ‘wife’ and refusal to regenerate all the more satisfying. As he lies dying in the Doctor’s arms, David Tenant puts on a wonderful display of grief as the Tenth Doctor realises that once again he is alone in the universe.

Of course, like all truly great villains, the Master is never truly killed…

Dave was born at an early age to parents of both sexes. He has been a self-confessed geek for as long as he can remember, having been raised through the 80s on a steady diet of Doctor Who, Star Trek, Red Dwarf and (sigh) Knight Rider. Throw the usual assortment of Saturday morning cartoons into the mix and we have something quite exceptional: someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of utter tosh; a love of giant robots and spaceships fighting; and the strange desire to leap tall buildings in a single bound while wearing his underpants over his trousers. The death ray is currently in the works and one day you shall all bow to him, his giant space station and fleet of funky orange space shuttles...