Jason’s initial idea for From Inner Time was that we’d start off discussing stories featuring the Master, alternating stories from the classic and revived series in chronological order. Sadly, we never got past “The Mind of Evil” and “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords”.
In that spirit, here are reviews of three stories featuring the Master; “The Claws of Axos” and “The End of Time, parts 1 & 2” would have been the next stories we covered on the podcast. I’ve added “Planet of Fire,” a serial from the mid-’80s, for good measure.
“The Claws of Axos” (Classic season 7, 1971)
Who plays the Master? Roger Delgado
What’s his plan? Having been captured by the alien Axos, the Master has agreed to help in its distribution of the “miracle element” Axonite (which secretly has the power to drain the life-force of all creatures on the planet) in exchange for his life, his TARDIS and the death of the Doctor.
Is the story any good? I’ll be blunt, “The Claws of Axos” has a lot of logical flaws, stupid science, and poorly-written characters. But damned if I don’t love it anyway.
Most of the criticism I’ve read of this story tends to center around two supporting characters, petty bureaucrat Chinn and American agent Bill Filer. Filer works better for me than for many others—I basically see him not as a real American, but as a British writer’s idea of what Americans are like based on having watched a few too many imported cop shows—but it’s almost impossible to take Chinn seriously. At least actor Peter Bathurst seems to realize he’s playing a cartoon.
So what does “Claws” have going for it? Its primary asset is its psychedelic design. The Axos ship is supposed to be more organic than mechanical, grown instead of built, and the designers did a very good job of portraying that, albeit in a very 1971 sort of way. The Axons are very endearing in their humanoid form, with their gold skin and trippy body stockings; their monster costumes, baggy and covered with ropy tentacles, are so memorable that they were later repurposed (after a layer of green spray-paint) as the Krynoid costume for 1976’s “The Seeds of Doom.” Add in a few cool action sequences and Dudley Simpson’s electronic score and you just about make up for its flaws.
So to answer the question “Is the story any good?” the answer is a resounding “probably not.” What is is, though, is a whole lot of fun.
“Planet of Fire” (Classic season 20, 1984)
Who plays the Master? Anthony Ainley
What’s his plan? So he accidentally shrunk himself while experimenting on his Tissue Compression Eliminator (i.e., his shrinking-ray gun) and requires the healing numismaton gasses on the planet Sarn to restore himself to full size. But I guess his size precludes him from operating his own TARDIS directly, so he needs Kamelion to pair-link it with the Doctor’s TARDIS to get him where he needs to go? Something like that?
Is the story any good? Stuck between two explosive serials—”Resurrection of the Daleks” and “The Caves of Androzani”—”Planet of Fire” tends to get overlooked, and when it is remembered, it’s usually for the wrong reasons (e.g. Nicola Bryant’s bikini and Mark Strickson’s briefs). Does it really deserve to be forgotten?
As far as the negatives go—”reason and science good, superstition and religion bad” is a common theme for Doctor Who, and “Planet of Fire” doesn’t really do anything fresh or inventive with it. Almost none of the non-recurring cast are particularly interesting, with the one exception being the elder Timonov, a religious zealot but not an unthinking one. The script is plagued with bad dialog that trips up even the best actors in the ensemble (for example, note how Peter Davison has difficulty with the “mutated misfits” mini-rant at the beginning of part one).
That being said, it’s got a few positives. Anthony Ainley delivers his finest performance in the role of the Master (although ironically, he spends most of the episode playing Kamelion impersonating the Master). Peter Wyngarde shines as Timonov. New companion Peri Brown is feisty and likable, even if Bryant isn’t entirely up to the challenge at first (fortunately, she’ll grow into the role). The location work, shot in the Canary Island of Lanzarote, is spectacular.
Overall, it is a very blah story—not particularly good, not particularly bad, and overall not particularly memorable.
“The End of Time, parts 1 and 2” (Christmas 2009 and New Year’s 2010 specials)
Who plays the Master? John Simm
What’s his plan? He doesn’t seem to have much of one immediately after his resurrection, but once abducted by Joshua and Abigail Naismith, he cooks up a dilly, quickly hacking the Immortality Gate to turn every human (except Wilf and Donna) into him. He plans to do the same to the Time Lords when they show up, but the Time Lords quickly put the kibosh on that.
Is the story any good? It’s certainly epic. It needed to be: partially because David Tennant was (and arguably still is) the most popular Doctor since Tom Baker, partially because there’s a gradual raising of stakes over the course of showrunner Russell T. Davies’s season finales. Tennant and RTD’s last dance needed to be huge. A rematch with the Harold Saxon Master and the return of the Time Lords was one of the few threats that fit the bill.
Luckily everybody’s up to the challenge. Much of the script is goofy, such as the Vinvocci and the Master’s plan, but it’s goofy in the way that only Doctor Who can be: what other show would dare to turn everybody in the world into a duplicate of the villain? (Now that I think about it, I could see Supernatural trying it…) Tennant is rarely better in the role, and that’s saying a lot. Simm and Timothy Dalton (as the Time Lord President) pitch their performances appropriately: you can’t underplay these characters in a situation like this. Bernard Cribbins’s Wilf Mott finally gets to step out and have a day in the sun, and is the emotional center of the story.
It’s emotional, thrilling, bombastic, mysterious, and it sums up the first four years of the Doctor Who revival perfectly. It’s not perfect: I have a bunch of minor gripes with it, such as the wasting of David Harewood (as Joshua Naismith), but my only major complaint is Murray Gold’s score (particularly his “Master theme”—the swirly instrumentation that leads into the four-beat orchestral stabs—which just makes my stomach churn), and that’s pretty typical for this phase of the series.
Next month: Lackey binges series 11, Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Doctor.