Master and Commander: Remembering Anthony Ainley

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 open-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-1960s 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 Doctor Who under the new guidance of 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 by revealing himself as the Master in Logopolis, showdowns between him and the Fourth Doctor in Tom Baker’s final season, ending in dramatic fashion with the Doctor’s fall.

Ainley’s first appearance in The Keeper of Traken was played convincingly; kind and warm, a strong leader and loving husband, and father to Sarah Sutton’s character. More disturbing, therefore, was his subsequent possession by the Master.

But this is where it gets a little difficult. As a kid watching the Davison 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 the Daleks or Cybermen, but he did chill me. But going back and re-visiting the likes of Time-Flight, 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 false sense of security until he reveals himself. While that story was way too ambitious to produce on the show’s 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 while dealing out a decent share of the storyline – I always thought they just didn’t have one for Ainley.

Preceding The Five DoctorsThe King’s Demon’s is brief, but still stands out as one of my favourite Master memories, and it still remains so after all these years. Ainley plays the disguise to near-perfection, although his accent is questionable, and this two-parter is short and sweet. With the introduction of Kamelion, it leads into the events of 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 Classic 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 it’s 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, evil, a throwback to Delgado and his earlier portrayals in Season 18, with an added gloomy humour. The Master and the Doctor play off each other best when the stories they are in give little snippets of their past lives, tinging the humour with just a hint of who they are, and this allows Sylvester McCoy and Anthony Ainley to bring the best out of the characters. For Ainley, it’s a fitting end to his onscreen portrayal of the Master in just under a decade.

With the announcement that there would be a new series of Doctor Who, I had just a glimmer that, one day, we would see him back, but sadly he passed away on the 3rd May 2004. A keen cricketer, a regular at conventions, and My Master growing up, he is certainly sadly missed, both as an actor and as a contributor to the world of Doctor Who.