Anthony Ainley: Master & Commander
Those eyes. Sparkling and glittering yet creepy. ‘Yep I definitely think this fella is scary’ I thought as I finished off my pizza and chips, watching as Adric was tied up in a metal web thing.
And that’s the first memory I have of the Master, Anthony Ainley.
Years later of course after finding out it was Castrovalva I had been watching, I have no recollection of any of his previous appearances, but strangely enough, from that moment on he registered with me and I’d make extra effort not to miss the show just in case he was in it. Battling against Peter Davison’s fifth incarnation, not since Pertwee had we seen so much of the Master pitting his wits against his old pal from Gallifrey, a move John Nathan Turner was more than pleased to use; especially since, unlike the Master’s previous portrayal by Roger Delgado, Ainley had a talent for disguise and many a time I sat there opened mouthed, gaping at the screen in shock when the Master finally revealed himself.
Anthony Ainley was born on the 20th August 1937 into a family of actors, although originally trained as an insurance clerk before he found himself drawn in to acting, enlisting into RADA. It wasn’t until the mid sixties that his career finally took off, appearing in such films as You only Live Twice (1967), Inspector Clouseau (1968) and Oh! what a Lovely War (1969) as well as a notable appearance in The Land that Time Forgot (1975) with Doug McClure.
However, with the tragic death of Roger Delgado and with the show under the new guidance of John Nathan-Turner, who he had previously worked with on in The Pallisers in 1974, Ainley was offered the role as the Master to see in a new more modern era in 1980. And what a fantastic start. The Keeper of Traken was an inspired choice of story to bring back the Master, with Ainley playing Nyssa’s father Tremas, before snatching his body and shocking everyone revealing himself as the Master, beginning a series of showdowns between him and Tom Baker in Baker’s final season, ending in dramatic fashion with the Fourth Doctor’s fall and the introduction of Doctor number five.
Ainley’s first appearance in The Keeper of Traken as Tremas was played convincingly; kind and warm, a strong leader and loving husband, and father to Nyssa. More disturbing therefore, was his subsequent possession by the Master.
But this is where it gets a little difficult. As a kid watching the Davision era, I always fondly remembered the appearances of the Master, the evil air about him and that chilling factor, he did scare me, of course not as much as Daleks or Cybermen, but he did chill me. But going back and re-visiting the likes of Time-Flight and The King’s Demons or The Five Doctors Ainley’s Master really is a mixed bag of the good and the not so good.
I never blamed Ainley himself, a consummate pro he is bound to follow the director and the script; but I can’t help but think they sometimes showed him up. His appearance in Time-Flight was a throwback to season 18, donning a disguise and playing the role brilliantly leads the viewers into a flase sense of security until he reveals himself. While that story was way too ambitious to produce on the shows budget at that time, it was a total contrast to The Five Doctors, where he could almost be playing at The Liverpool Empire in a production of Puss In Boots where his character is over the top and to me, un-Master like. Is he playing it for laughs? I blame the story and direction and the problem of bringing together so many big names and dealing out a decent share of the storyline – I always thought they just didn’t have one for Ainley.
Preceding The Five Doctors, The Kings Demon’s is short, but still stands out as one of my favourite Master memories, and it still remains so after all these years. Although short again, Ainley plays the disguise to near-perfection, although his accent is questionable and with the inclusion of Kamelion this two-parter is short and sweet and leads into events and continuation in Planet of Fire which would be his last duel with the Fifth Doctor, and again Ainley plays the part well even though the plot is a little low key for my tastes.
I must confess, I have never seen Mark of the Rani so that still stands out as a must watch when I finally get around to it, but there’s no doubt, apart from the lukewarm Trial of a Time Lord saga, Ainley saved his best for last in the final transmitted episode of Doctor Who. In Survival the Master has finally succumbed to one of his many villainous schemes and entices the Doctor into his trap to try and free himself from the planet, which is reacting in destructive ways to the temperament of its inhabitants. And its here that Ainley really, really shines, when he turned up in the tent with his yellow eyes I almost yelped! Ainley gets the chance to play the Master as he should be dark and evil, a throwback to Delgado and his earlier portrayals in season 18, and with an added dark humour. The Master and the Doctor play off each other best when the stories they are in give little snippets of their past lives, giving the humour just a hint of who they are, and this allows McCoy and Ainley to bring the best out of the characters and for Ainley a fitting end to his onscreen portrayal of the Master in just under a decade.
With the new series I had just a glimmer that one day we would see him back, but sadly he passed away on the 3rd of May 2004. A keen cricketer, a regular at conventions and my Master growing up, he will be sadly missed both as an actor and as a contributor to the world of Doctor Who.