If you wanted an apt description of the Doctor’s nemesis, you could do a lot worse than Terrance Dicks. “You had the Doctor as Sherlock Holmes,” he’d say (I’m paraphrasing). “And the Brigadier was Watson. And so one day, I said to Barry ‘He needs a Moriarty…'”
There are worse ways to be remembered. Traditionally, the Master’s role in Doctor Who has been to turn up at the end of an episode, tear off a thin layer of prosthetics or a false beard and then try and take over the universe, only for his arch-rival / oldest friend /
brother to defeat him at the eleventh hour. But in this charity collection of short stories, lovingly curated by Paul Driscoll (see The Black Archive), the Doctor’s nowhere to be seen, and thus the bearded arch-villain takes centre stage. One suspects that Dicks – to whom the anthology is co-dedicated, along with Letts and a number of now-deceased Masters – would have approved.
This one is strictly off the books, meaning there’s no official involvement from the Beeb – a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective – and while the authors involved aren’t exactly household names, the optimist in me is hoping this will change for at least some of them. There are 21 contributions on offer here, ranging from the frankly pretentious (Bandages) to the prosaic (Conversion Therapy). In between lies a fertile middle ground of capers and catastrophes and extended what-ifs, as we gallivant across the universe by way of abandoned cruise liners and Gallifreyan prisons and Downing Street. Some contributions are glorified meditations, frozen moments that take place in the seconds during regenerations or crises: others read more like mini-episodes, replete with supporting characters and shrunken scientists and the odd explosion. Cheese, Beans and Toast opens with a diamond heist, in the company of a jewel thief who could easily have passed for Christina de Souza, given a bit of a rewrite. In Fallen Angel, a heavily injured Master lands in a churchyard where he is taken in by the local parson, who barely has time to lug him up to the vicarage attic before the narrative spins off at an unexpected, but entirely welcome tangent.
This being an unofficial anthology, the millstone of BBC continuity cast off from around its neck, some liberty taking is inevitable. There are old Masters and young Masters. Incarnations we never knew and ones instantly recognisable from the first mention of black leather gloves. Cliffhangers from old stories are resolved, the much-used “So, you escaped from…” rendered flesh. Old friends pop up and old enemies try out new schemes; loopholes are stitched and long-forgotten questions are answered, sometimes more than once. Nothing is sacred and no one is out of reach: The Devil You Know explores a staple of Classic Who from the safety of a parallel universe, while Parental Controls taps into the genesis of one of the Master’s lesser-explored incarnations, with amusing results.
The rogue Time Lord appears in every story, conquering planets, escaping death, and even acquiring the odd companion (notably in Auntie Mary, the anthology’s arguable high point). Nine times out of ten the stories function as simple dramatic irony: the underlings/ colonies/ societies either have no idea who the Master is, or simply mistake him for the Doctor, thus leaving the Macchiavellian misfit to wreak havoc while the audience watches from the sidelines, joining in with the occasional cackling. We also get an extensive look into the workings of his mindset during a 13-page soliloquy to camera (Master Chef), with the Master jotting down fiendish universe-conquering plots in a diary and treating his TARDIS like a valet, quaffing expensive port and ordering Jellied Ogron brain mousse and cigars while he’s plotting how to destroy his BFF.
Stories are arranged in a rough chronology, which is the way anthologies get done these days – a shame, as it does rather take the fun out of things. We hop down the Master’s timeline, occasionally veering off onto the road less travelled, but there’s seldom any real mystery about where (or rather when) we are: this is, for the most part, a fairly unambiguous collection of straightforward narratives, even with a reasonable amount of sidetracking. Instead, Driscoll and his fellow writers hone in on the details, and some of the most enjoyable moments occur when they’re poking fun at the show’s trademark conventions: “You need a summer wardrobe”, one erstwhile companion notes of Delgado’s perennially black ensemble, while Missy is humorously described as “like someone forgot to colour in Mary Poppins”.
It’s tempting, particularly now, to compare this to the likes of Joker – a film that spent so long describing the villain it forgot to introduce the hero essential to counterbalance him. Thankfully, the flaws that dogged Todd Phillips’ superhero thriller don’t apply here, largely because we’re never allowed to forget that the Master is half of an equation. While not without its faults (and the inevitable typo), this is an intriguing collection – more interesting than, say, The Missy Chronicles, if not always as polished – and one which allows its lead character(s) to breathe without ever losing sight of the symbiosis that’s key to their identity. The Doctor may not put in an appearance as such (we could tell you more, but we’d have to compress you), but nonetheless he lingers, ever-present and just out of reach, the shadowy figure behind the sidelines, the face at the edge of the mirror, as much a part of the Master’s psychic make-up as the Master himself is to that of the Doctor. Or, as Tennant once quipped, “I wonder what I’d be, without you?”
Master Pieces is available now from Amazon and from Altrix Books. Profits go to The Stroke Association.