One of the best, truest songs ever written is "My Perfect Cousin" by the Undertones, which, over the course of the last thirteen installments of Thrillpowered Thursday
, I've mentioned twice. That jealousy that kids feel about older friends and family can be really aggravating. I was always incredibly envious of Blake, who was my best friend from about the third through the ninth grades. He seemed to have everything! He was a year older, and had an older brother, and they had so many neat old toys, and remarkable luck in finding new acquisitions at garage sales and things, and lots - LOTS - more pocket money, and he always seemed to jump in head-first when I found something new to enjoy.
For a few weeks, after I discovered Doctor Who, he wasn't able to watch it, because his mother strictly enforced a 10 pm bedtime on Saturday nights. Hindsight showed soon that perhaps I shouldn't have always been so envious. But anyway, I told him about this amazing show that I'd found on Saturday nights. I told him about the Daleks and the Cybermen and the Zygons and the Anti-Man and Sutekh and the Kraals and Morbius and he agreed that it sounded incredible. Then I missed a week, and then I told him about the Cult of Demnos in medieval Italy and Eldrad and then, oh. I told him about the melting skeleton man. The Master, as played in the 1976 serial "The Deadly Assassin" by Peter Pratt, was a skeletal form in tattered blue robes.
It was a very good costume, and thanks to some fine direction and lighting, this absolutely convinced me that the Master was one of television's coolest villains. I drew this guy on notebook paper for months, killing people. He's described, in episode guides and such, as emaciated, the result of a failed attempt at regenerating a thirteenth time, which Time Lords are not supposed to try to do. Fanon suggests that the Master ran through most of his Time Lord bodies being killed time and again in failed bids of villainy, and that the character played by Roger Delgado in the early 1970s was the Thirteenth Master. Insistent on regenerating again after this body died in an offscreen adventure, he ended up horribly deformed and disfigured, his skull-like face barely holding on to melting skin.
Of course, "The Deadly Assassin" was Doctor Who's first spectacular retcon. "Genesis of the Daleks" had fiddled with the facts presented about those villains in 1963-64, but nothing like what this did. Prior to Philip Hinchcliffe's run as producer, the Doctor was thousands of years old and could live forever, barring accidents. "Pyramids of Mars" nailed down his age to 743, and this story emphatically stated that Time Lords could only regenerate twelve times. This meant that the Doctor, as played by Tom Baker, was the I-forgot-how-many-but-at-least Tenth Doctor (turned out to be the Twelfth), as shown in "The Brain of Morbius" just a month previously on WGTV. This wouldn't be retconned, formally, until 1982 and "Mawdryn Undead," with the first formal note, in the text, that the Doctor was firmly on his fifth body. The other eight actors seen in "Brain of Morbius" (production crew in fancy dress) have never been explained in the show. Fanon suggests those could be handwaved away as Morbius's earlier lives (or some really complicated and convoluted Gallifreyan mythology crap that nobody understands), but that is emphatically not what the show wanted the audience to think at the time. They wanted there to be several Doctors prior to the show's beginning.
It also massively changed the look and design of the Time Lords, and altered them from godlike beings to squabbling, hateful, petty politicians. It also should have been the last time Gallifrey ever appeared in Doctor Who. Every subsequent story set on the Time Lords' planet was lousy.
But back in 1984, I took all this as new. The Master had ALWAYS been a skeletal bad guy; when the Doctor and the other characters discussed him, I didn't understand that he had once been a suave, bearded dude in black suits. When the Doctor tells another character that he'd had "several" face lifts, I knew that he'd indeed had something like a dozen. I knew that humans were forbidden from ever going to the Time Lords' planet, and never, ever would.
A couple of weeks after this episode aired in its omnibus form on WGTV, Blake was finally allowed to watch it. He started with the movie version of "The Robots of Death," the title of which horrified his mother, and was also hooked. He even got to see the two "episodes" that I missed because my family went out of town, so he told me about the killer ventriloquist doll and the return trip to Gallifrey, and gave me the really shocking news that Leela, the companion who replaced Sarah Jane, had stayed behind to marry a Time Lord! He wanted me to go over everything that he missed again. I was completely emphatic about the particular awesomeness of three villains in particular: the seven foot-tall guns-in-head Cybermen, the weird pink outline monster that merged with a human and created the new bad guy Anti-Man, and the melting skeleton dude, the Master.
Over the next three weeks, we watched the new co-star, Romana, join the Doctor for the first three episodes of tracking down the Key to Time. We would talk on the phone Sunday afternoon and relish the awesomeness and lament the subpar special effects. Some other school friends who tried it out on my recommendation were particularly unsympathetic about the special effects. "I can't believe you watch that," a good friend in the seventh grade told me. "It's SO FAKE!!"
And then, on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, Blake called me with the most mindblowing news that I'd ever heard. He asked "Didn't you tell me the Master was a melting skeleton dude? Well, you're wrong, he's a guy with a beard. And there are only six Doctors, not ten or eleven. The new guy, the sixth, apparently starts in new episodes they haven't even filmed yet. Oh, and that Anti-Man thing is incredibly fake. It's just a big silver blanket! It's stupid."
What that asshole did was somehow find the American edition of the Radio Times
20th Anniversary special magazine, distributed in the US by Starlog. For a time, this was the ur-text of American fandom. Finally, we had an actual episode guide and lots of photos. The reason I can pinpoint the week he got it was that there was a photo of Mary Tamm in the purple outfit that we would see her wearing just a few days later in "The Androids of Tara."
I looked through this magazine with utter horror. Firstly, the revelation that the Master was once some boring human was a blow. They didn't even have a picture of the amazingly cool melting skeleton man, but I did draw Blake's attention to a sentence that explained Peter Pratt played him as emaciated. Worse still, the magazine spoiled that the Master would soon be returning to the show as another boring bearded human played by Anthony Ainley.
Oh, and what these idiots did to poor Anti-Man was just criminal. See, here's what that monster looked like onscreen:
This was a visual effect caused by mixing and superimposing a treated, high-contrast video recording of this costume onto the action:
For some reason, the STOOPID BRAIN-DEAD MORONS at Starlog - it had to be their fault, I was thirteen - put an UNFINISHED PICTURE in their magazine.
Some of these other old monsters in this magazine looked really cool. Some did not. The Axons: YES. The Chronovore: NO.
I really, really resented this magazine for a while. My hatred of spoilers comes straight from this experience. It spoiled Doctor Who's future and its past for me. As much as I love this fiction and its universe, I think those few months in 1984 when I did not know a darn thing more than what was on the screen were the very best of them. I knew that the show was old, but I also, somehow, knew that it was still running. Suddenly, I could see the limits and I could count the episodes. I knew how many more weeks we would have until the Doctor changed into this blond guy with the silly pants, and while I was briefly excited to count down how many more episodes until the Cybermen came back, something magical really was spoiled by reading it.
I don't know whether it was specifically this magazine that did it, or just Blake, in general, finding something that I enjoyed and one-upping me by buying the living hell out of it, but I started getting even with him. Seriously, I told him about Doctor Who and suddenly he knew more than me. I said I liked some comic, he'd buy more back issues than I could find. I started collecting Superman II
bubble gum cards a pack a time from the B&W Grocery, he'd complete a set. What I started doing was buying one issue of a comic, praising it, and throwing it away. (Well, metaphorically. One NEVER threw away comics.) I would say, for example, that I bought an issue of Jim Starlin's Dreadstar
and really liked it, and he would mow some guy's lawn for twenty bucks just to blow it all on Dreadstar comics, in which I had no interest whatsoever. Eventually, I started lying. I'd say that I read somebody's issue of Power Man and Iron Fist
at school, just so he would throw good money after bad buying as many issues as he could find.
Thirteen year-old boys are hateful, hateful people. But for putting limits on what was magic, he might well have had that coming to him.