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Posts Tagged ‘The Master’

It occurred to me the other day that if anyone in Doctor Who had the right to feel they’d been unfairly sidelined in the anniversary year, it would be Jon Pertwee. All the living Doctors prepared to be associated with the show were up there on screen (even if it was only via the Internet or Red Button), nine whole Patrick Troughton episodes were reclaimed, and William Hartnell had a flippin’ biopic made of him.

And yet of Pertwee there was nary a sign – even in the big anniversary trailer, the third Doctor was portrayed by a slightly dodgy lookalike. I expect some people will say that with Peter Capaldi looking set to channel Pertwee in a very big way in the coming season, we should be grateful for the respite, but beyond the costume we have no evidence that this is actually how he’s approaching the part.

I would be surprised if he did, given the show is still currently under Steven Moffat’s curatorship, because Moffat seems to have got it into his head as some sort of principle that the Doctor is, at least in part, a comedy character: I imagine Moffat’s notes on the depiction of the Doctor most often run ‘More cute. More zany’. Looking at a Pertwee story now one of the striking things about Jon is just how non-cute and non-zany his Doctor is. The costume is by a very long way the most whimsical thing about him, and even then I would say it was stylish and distinctive rather than full-on eccentric.

And to be honest, even though for a long while I’ve been less than enchanted with Pertwee’s bullying, egomaniac, Tory hippy of a Doctor, at the moment I’m finding it very refreshing to see the character played quite so straight and seriously. Even stories which are historically not well regarded sometimes have a straightforwardness and sincerity which comes as rather a remedy for the worst excesses of Moffat plotti-wottiness.

colony-in-space-master-jon-pertwee-roger-delgado

Take Colony in Space, from 1971, written by Malcolm Hulke. Like The Moonbase this is one of those stories with a basic-nominative title (it strikes me as significant that both tales had their titles significantly sexed up for their novelisation releases – Colony in Space is retitled The Doomsday Weapon, despite the fact that said McGuffin isn’t mentioned on screen until the climax is in progress), indicating it is part of a culture only accustomed to SF of a relatively limited level of sophistication.

The story opens with a very brief prologue in which the Time Lords, who are attempting to hang on to their War Games gravitas and mystique and not really managing it, discover the Master is up to no good as usual and decide to pack the Doctor off to stop him (thus providing a pretext for the show to do a non-contemporary-setting story for the first time in two years).

The Doctor and Jo thus find themselves in the year 2472 on Uxareius, a planet long ostracised because its name is so bloody difficult to spell right, but as it will be another three episodes before the Master arrives they occupy themselves by getting involved in the affairs of a struggling human colony. The colonists are occasionally threatened by the degenerate natives and more chronically troubled by the continued failure of their crops. Sudden attacks by what seem to be giant lizards and the news that another colony has been wiped out by the same creatures only add to their problems, but then the arrival of a shipload of miners from the Interplanetary Mining Corporation intent on exploiting the planet makes things even worse. Can these things be connected somehow…?

You can sense a certain narrative tension at the centre of Colony in Space, with the result that it is ultimately another of those slightly broken-backed six-parters which never really settles down to tell one story all the way through. Malcolm Hulke famously had a very good working relationship with Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts – he contributed more stories to the Pertwee years than anyone else, after all – but it’s fairly clear here that while Terry and Barry were keen on a sort of Forbidden Planet-filtered-through-Star Trek pulp space opera sort of story, Mac was rather more interested in an allegorical space western which neatly doubles up as a piece of anticapitalist agitprop.

The middle episodes of Colony in Space, prior to the Master’s eventual arrival, are as sustained an attack on Big Business as Doctor Who ever mustered. If anything as openly partial to socialism was broadcast in the series today, it would probably lead to the privatisation of the BBC and the Daily Mail-masterminded lynching of all the creative people involved. Hulke is too good a writer not to include a sympathetic IMC man (capably played by Bernard Kay) but the rest of them are thorough-going ruthless, callous, murderous bastards. Meanwhile, all of the colonists are decent, committed, homespun types, of course. It would be disingenuous to suggest that this is particularly deep or subtle writing, but it moves along smartly enough and you can sense the writer’s commitment.

Eventually it does just devolve into a series of back-and-forth reversals between the colonists and their persecutors, but by this point the Master has (finally) turned up and the Doomsday Weapon plot is coming to more prominence. You can sense Hulke isn’t quite as interested in this particular storyline, not least from the climax in which the Alien Guardian cheerfully agrees to blow up both himself and his entire civilisation for no especially convincing reason, while allowing the Doctor and Master to nip off smartly prior to the unhappy event (at least the Doctor pauses to say thanks before running out of the door). However, the fact the Master isn’t in league with IMC (they eventually turn on him as well as the Doctor) makes for an unusual and appealing story dynamic.

So it’s not especially subtle and it does seem to run out of steam in its closing stages, but I did enjoy Colony in Space on my most recent viewing of it (this in another of those rare stories I’ve only seen a bare handful of times). This is not least because of the self-evident fact that the writer really understands how to write for both the Doctor and the Master – this is a fairly mid-table Pertwee story, after all, yet it contains some dialogue which everyone writing the Doctor should have pinned up above their desk: ‘Are you some kind of a scientist?’ someone asks our hero. ‘I’m every kind of scientist!’ the Doctor snaps back, while later on we get the definitive ‘I want to see the universe, not rule it!’ The Master doesn’t get anything quite as good, but he at least has a plan which makes a vague kind of sense, and he’s quite capable of causing the Doctor serious problems without even resorting to brute force.

Recently I have found myself prone to imagining how current Doctor Who might handle some of the story material treated upon by the 20th century version of the show. By modern standards, Colony in Space would be a fairly significant story on a couple of counts – not only is there a companion’s first entry into and journey to another time and place in the TARDIS, there’s also a threat of universal domination by the Master. And yet this is the stuff of a routine mid-season 1971 adventure, not particularly dwelt upon – even so, care has been taken to provide a solid, coherent plot and numerous accessible characters. They made less of a fuss about some things back in those days, that’s for sure, but they knew how to get the important stuff right.

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Honestly, what kind of a proper bio-pic do you call this? Not a single goatee beard to be seen, no-one gets the matter of their tissues compressed to the point of death, and there’s no mention of Axos or the Sea Devils, let alone the Toclafane and the Untempered Schism. I ask you, whatever is the world coming to?

Oh, hang on: word in from the legal department is that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is – and I think emphasis is required here just to cover ourselves – not supposed to be the life story of anyone, living, dead, or regenerated. Glad we got that sorted out. It is, of course, a high-octane personal drama very much in a similar style to There Will Be Blood.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, who at the start of the film is serving in the US navy towards the end of the Second World War. With customary deftness and economy, Anderson establishes that Freddie is a deeply troubled soul – whether due to his experiences in the service or not is not explored – with a number of serious issues. He drinks, he is socially awkward, and he has a fixation with sex. He is also prone to outbursts of violence. All of this ultimately results in him becoming a homeless drifter.

However, at this point he falls into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-styled writer, explorer, physicist and theoretical philosopher. Dodd is the leader of a movement known as the Cause, offering a programme to help people deal with the traumas inherited from former lives (there’s a bit of reincarnation involved, apparently) – which is nevertheless, according to Dodd, rigorously rational. In fact it’s so scientific, it’s like science with an extra -ology! [Cut that out – much too risky – Legal Department]

Dodd takes a shine to Freddie (partly due to to Freddie’s special recipe for cocktails, which includes paint thinner) and Freddie joins the Cause, initially as an enthusiastic follower. But it soon becomes apparent that the relationship between the two men is one of unhealthy co-dependence, and hardly guaranteed to help either of them cope with life’s travails…

Well, there has been some talk that Lancaster Dodd is based on L Ron Hubbard, the sometime SF writer who founded the Church of Scientology, which may explain why Tom Cruise and John Travolta, amongst others, are conspicuously absent from the cast list here. (There have been claims that Hubbard told his peers in the SF community that writing was a mug’s game and the quickest way to get rich quick was to invent your own religion, but this sounds like a shocking calumny to me and I would never believe a word of it [Nice try, let’s see if it works – L.D.]) The film does a cheeky sort of dance on this topic, and Anderson has gone so far to say that Hubbard inspired Dodd, but the film is actually about drifters and seekers in the aftermath of a war, with the cult angle being entirely incidental. Is Dodd (and therefore, really, Hubbard) presented as a charlatan? The film comes very close in a few places, I have to say.

People occasionally suggest to me I should become the leader of my own cult – quite why I’m not really sure, and I’m equally uncertain I  want to know – but having seen The Master I don’t think I have the stamina for it anyway. Possibly I am being over-influenced by Hoffman’s portrayal of the Master, which is the latest in a long line of monumental performances he has delivered in films for Anderson and others. He is quite simply magnetic, and eerily plausible on every level. But he is very nearly matched by Phoenix, who is also utterly convincing as Freddie, albeit in a slightly different way: Hoffman’s turn is one of great subtlety and precision, while Phoenix has a much showier and more physical role. Watching the two of them together in this film, as they frequently are, is spellbinding stuff, although I think – when and if the Oscars are handed out – Hoffman comes out slightly ahead on points.

This is that kind of awards-conscious movie: classy, challenging, and thoughtful. It’s certainly not the sort of film you go to see just to relax and have a nice time – the film is fairly unflinching in some respects. In many ways it reminded me of Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, another burningly intelligent and brilliantly made film built around a great central performance – but one which, for me, struggled in terms of its actual narrative.

It’s the same here, really, particularly the ending – it seems intentionally oblique. Once again, the impression is one of the actors being encouraged to do their thing, with Anderson recording their work with his usual skill – but no real sense of an actual story in mind. Possibly I am wrong and just too dim. And, to be sure, the performances, direction, and photography make this film extremely compelling and satisfying for much of its length. It’s just that, once again, Paul Anderson doesn’t quite deliver the complete package.

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