The Master (TV series)

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The Master
Genre Action-adventure
Created by Michael Sloan
Written by Tom Sawyer
Michael Sloan
Susan Woollen
Directed by Ray Austin
Ray Aystub
Michael Caffee
Peter Crane
Robert Clouse
Sidney Hayers
Gordon Hessler
Bruce Kessler
Alan Myerson
Starring Lee Van Cleef
Timothy Van Patten
Sho Kosugi
Theme music composer Bill Conti
Composer(s) Bill Conti
Les Hooper
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
No. of seasons 1
No. of episodes 13
Production
Executive producer(s) Michael Sloan
Producer(s) Joe Boston
Nigel Watts
Running time 44 minutes
Production company(s) Michael Sloan Productions
Viacom Productions
Distributor CBS Television Distribution
Broadcast
Original channel NBC
Original run January 20  – August 31, 1984

The Master is a ninja-themed action-adventure TV series created by Michael Sloan which aired on NBC. The show focuses on the adventures of John Peter McAllister, an aging ninja master (Lee Van Cleef), and his young pupil, Max Keller (Timothy Van Patten). Most episodes focus on the mismatched pair driving around in a custom van, helping people in need along the way, similar to its more well-known contemporary, The A-Team. The Master lasted only 13 episodes before cancellation.

The series was edited into seven movies that were released on video in 1984 and 1985.

Cast and crew[edit]

Notable cast and crew members include:

Story[edit]

Premise[edit]

The Master follows the character of John Peter McAllister, an American veteran who stayed in Japan following World War II and became a ninja master. At the beginning of the series, McAllister, now an old man, leaves Japan for the United States in search of a daughter he did not know he had. This flight from his ninja life is seen as dishonorable by his fellow ninjas, including his former student, Okasa (Sho Kosugi), who attempts to assassinate him. Escaping with a minor wound, McAllister finds himself in the small town of Ellerston, where he believes his daughter resides. Along the way, he meets a drifter named Max Keller, who aids the ninja master in a bar fight, but is subsequently thrown through a window, a recurring event for the hot-headed Keller. Max desires to learn to fight like a ninja, but McAllister is reluctant to train him, feeling him to be too emotional. When Max gets involved in a dispute between Mr. Christensen (Clu Gulager), a ruthless developer, and the Trumbulls (Claude Akins, Demi Moore), a father and daughter who run an airport targeted by Christensen, McAllister decides to train him to survive.

The pair goes on to have many adventures traveling the country in search of McAllister's daughter, although the show is cancelled before she is ever found. Keller and McAllister often get sidetracked by oppressed people, and invariably McAllister uses his ninja skills to help save the day, hopefully teaching Max at the same time.

A recurring enemy is Okasa, the rogue pupil of McAllister, who continually tracks his old master down and tries to kill him. In the first episode, the two duel and McAllister wins. However, the old master refuses to kill his opponent, preferring to renounce his ninja ways, allowing Okasa to make further attempts in future episodes.

Episode list[edit]

What follows is a list of episode titles and their original air dates, with synopses added where possible.

1. "Max" (January 20, 1984) – See above, under "Premise".

2. "Out-of-Time Step" (January 27, 1984) – A ninja-guarded crime lord mistakes Max and McAllister for bodyguards hired by a nightclub owner the crime lord is trying to control.

3. "State of the Union" (February 3, 1984) – Max befriends a "biker chick" who is trying to organize a union at the cannery where she works; he and McAllister strike back when the cannery owner tries to strong arm the girl and the union.

4. "Hostages" (February 10, 1984) – McAllister is accused by a secret agent of helping a band of terrorists; to prove his innocence, he must help rescue the hostages that the terrorists have taken.

5. "High Rollers" (March 2, 1984) – A former girlfriend of Max's becomes a pawn in a Las Vegas heist when her daughter is held hostage to ensure her cooperation. The resulting adventure leads Max and McAllister to a deserted western movie set, where the Master makes himself very much at home.

6. "Fat Tuesday" (March 9, 1984) – During Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a reporter uses Teri McAllister's name as a cover for her own sources, hoping to bring down a respected local citizen who is secretly running guns to Arab terrorists. Max and McAllister become entangled as a result.

7. "Juggernaut" (March 16, 1984) – Max and McAllister help a mother and daughter organize the local farmers against an evil land baron. McAllister has more success romancing the mother than Max does with the daughter, and the old man's "pre-ninja" background as a military pilot is emphasized.

8. "The Good, the Bad and the Priceless" (March 23, 1984) – Caught between a criminal mastermind and an FBI agent posing as McAllister's daughter, the two leads find themselves forced to steal the Crown Jewels of England.

9. "Kunoichi" (April 6, 1984) – With the help of a female pupil, Okasa puts in motion a plan to frame McAllister for the murder of an old friend, who is now a prominent government official in Washington.

10. "The Java Tiger" (April 13, 1984) – Max and McAllister take a break from the search for Teri to help out a friend of McAllister's: a bumbling PI, based in Hawaii, who is on a quest for a legendary tiger made of gold. Unfortunately, a Bond-villain-like crime lord with a penchant for karate is also interested in the Java Tiger.

11. "Failure to Communicate" (May 4, 1984) – Max reunites with his estranged father Patrick, who is a pawn in a kidnapping scheme. Max is so preoccupied with family affairs that McAllister ends up chaperoning the two "damsel in distress" characters, played by Ashley Ferrare and Rebecca Holden, just about everywhere.

12. "Rogues" (August 10, 1984) – A high school friend of Max's is now a cop, on the run from a band of crooked cops. A woman who runs a gym harasses McAllister about being out of shape.

13. "A Place to Call Home" (August 31, 1984) – Max and McAllister protect an orphanage from greedy land developers, with Max playing surrogate father to a troubled teen.

Recurring characters[edit]

John Peter McAllister (Lee Van Cleef): Veteran of World War II and the Korean War who stayed in Japan and became the first Occidental ninja. Trained Okasa in the ninja arts. Took on Max Keller as his student upon arriving in America. A self-described "cantankerous old man who's lived alone a lot of years." He is a stern but fair teacher, and a skilled fighter, though his age is catching up with him. Often grumpy and sarcastic towards other men, both friend and foe, but somewhat more mellow around Max, and politely flirtatious or self-consciously "charming" towards women. Several pieces of his colorful history come out during the series: he flew P-40s during WWII ("Hostages", "Juggernaut"), visited New York in 1938 ("The Good, the Bad and the Priceless"), and attended a sort of conference of secret assassin organizations in the Far East in 1972, where he gave a martial arts demonstration ("The Good, the Bad, and the Priceless"). He met Brian Elkwood in Washington DC in 1948, and the two men were subsequently imprisoned together in North Korea, but escaped by using a motorcycle ("Kunoichi"). He has apparently visited Hawaii about twenty years ago: a friend who lives there has a daughter Max's age, whom McAllister remembers seeing when she was a baby ("Java Tiger"). He denies having filmed westerns in Almeria, Spain with actor Saul Robbins c. 1969 ("Rogues"), but his reactions to Robbins's claim to remember him seem to suggest otherwise-he was perhaps on some kind of secret mission for which the movie project(s) made a good cover. He "always wanted to be a cowboy" ("High Rollers"), but makes not wanting to dress up as one an excuse to turn down an ad exec who wants McAllister to shill for him ("The Good, the Bad, and the Priceless"). There are several recurring trains of thought that show up in his conversation, e.g. Eastern mysticism, but the closest thing he has to a catchphrase is probably "no kidding", said in an exasperated tone to people's more obvious statements.

Max Keller (Timothy Van Patten): A drifter who spends most of his time driving around in his custom van and taking odd jobs wherever he can find them. He has a pet hamster (or possibly a gerbil) named Henry who lives in a dash-mounted, wheel-shaped cage. There are several indications that he has some money to fall back on: his van's customizations (hamster cage, souped-up engine, semi-bullet-proofing), the fact that he keeps an expensive-looking dirt bike ("State of the Union") and can afford to rent an ultralight plane ("Hostages"). He often gets thrown out of bar windows. He has a bit of a temper, but is learning to keep that in check due to McAllister's training. Max never passes up a chance to get friendly with a pretty woman of his own age. Max is initially estranged from his father-a lawyer who sank into alcoholism ("Failure to Communicate") after Max's mother and older brother died in a plane crash ("High Rollers") -but the two men reconcile late in the series. Max's mother wanted Max to be an accountant. Max went to the high school prom with a girlfriend who wanted to be a dancer on Broadway but ended up working in Vegas and having a child by someone else ("Hostages", "High Rollers"). At the prom, he danced one dance with the class nerd, who he meets again in the course of the series and become involved with ("Rogues"). He grew up on the East Side of New York ("The Good, The Bad, and the Priceless"), though his father lives in California ("Failure to Communicate").

Okasa (Sho Kosugi): A deadly ninja warrior once trained by McAllister. He has sworn to kill his former master due to his abandonment of the ninja code. Has engaged McAllister on several occasions with different levels of success. He is also a master of disguise. By the end of the series, he has himself trained at least one "Occidental" as a ninja. In his last duel with McAllister, he believes he is winning, and even manages to break the Master's ninjato, but loses when McAllister turns his overconfidence against him. He sometimes takes espionage-related "jobs" while pursuing his former master, but is more often working at cross-purposes to the villain of the episode.

Teri McAllister: the "MacGuffin" that triggers McAllister's return to America by writing a letter to him. She is constantly on the move, and has been spotted in New Orleans (about six months to a year before she contacted her father; she was already using his surname at the time) Ellerston, Atlanta, and New York-working briefly but very successfully as a fashion model in the last city. She is secretive about her personal information, never giving out an address or a phone number. In her modelling career, she rebuffed the villainous fashion designer and jewel thief Simon Garrett when he tried to romance her, and was on friendly terms with Gina, an FBI agent posing as an executive at the modelling agency. After Teri moved on, Gina impersonated her in order to trap Garrett, becoming entangled with Max and the Master in the process. Teri does not appear to have been aware of Gina's profession, and Gina's impersonation is aimed at people who don't know Teri well, so her behavior in the role should not be taken as necessarily typical of the other woman's. Teri herself is only seen in photographs: she appears as a strikingly attractive woman, somewhere in her mid or early twenties (despite dialogue in "Fat Tuesday" indicating her to be 28 or 29), with dark blue eyes and heavy black hair. She is the result of a two-month affair between McAllister and a woman called Laura Kennedy, at the end of the Korean War. McAllister asks Gina with sincere curiosity about Teri's mother, in a way that suggests he still has some interest in the mother of his daughter (even though "nobody could live with Laura Kennedy" for long) and believes her to be alive. In addition to her brief modelling career, she was also a pilot of racing planes for a time (circa her visit to New Orleans). Most information about her comes from "Fat Tuesday" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Priceless", both stories about women who know her vaguely and use her name to trap a villain.

Ninjutsu mythology in The Master[edit]

The Master is an exemplar of the ninja of popular mythology rather than a realistic portrayal of contemporary or historical ninjutsu, but the series also has some surprising nods towards the actual practices of ninjutsu. For instance, most of the series (except the first two episodes) have the heroes using shurikens for a variety of nonlethal tasks-throwing them to disarm an enemy, or using them as hand-held knives to cut through window latches-rather than the more stereotypical and lethal uses of popular mythology. There is also some emphasis on the spiritual or character-building aspects of "ninjitsu", as the series calls it, using the older romanization.

The first few episodes hint at a complicated and intrigue-filled ninja mythos, but this was largely dropped as the series progressed, perhaps out of fear that giving McAllister a constant stream of Asian ninja adversaries (as opposed to just Okasa, whose business with the Master is personal) would be seen as racist.[citation needed]

The series makes reference to the ninja as a "sect" with different "Houses", apparently corresponding to dojos. The only two Houses represented in the series use a butterfly and a snake as their respective emblems. The former animal symbolizes the human soul in authentic Japanese tradition, the latter has no consistent significance. "Master", the title McAllister has, seems to mark him out as a high-level teacher and the head of a House, as does the silver medallion he wears. One succeeds to the headship of a House, by killing the current Master and taking his medallion (this is Okasa's objective throughout the series), but there are presumably less violent methods of succession as well. McAllister's tendency to end duels prematurely by feigning injury or luring adversaries to charge through windows or into dangerous electrical equipment always takes his duelling partners by surprise, implying that his methods are not entirely "honorable" by their standards.

Ninjitsu is represented as having had a dark and violent history, which it had turned away from during the time McAllister was involved. It is implied that the ninja are reverting to this darker and older tradition as of the series' time frame, and this may have been a factor in McAllister's departure from the "sect". Lika, a character from "Out of Time Step" is the only "Snake" ninja encountered in the series, and he preaches a kind of anarcho-nihilism that uses this fictional ninja history as a justification for committing crimes.

All the other ninja seen in the series are trained by McAllister or his pupils, and so belong in a sense to his House, which uses the butterfly emblem. The symbolism of this House's emblem (see above) and McAllister's heavy emphasis on the KI (or chi) and the process of character-building seem to indicate that this House specializes in Seishin teki kyoko, the ninja discipline of spiritual refinement.

Cancellation[edit]

While the early-to-mid-1980s may have been a great period for action movies, TV shows, and video games, particularly ninja or general martial arts-themed ones, The Master did not attract a large enough audience to remain on the air. The series was later edited into a format similar to that of the TV-movie, with two-episode VHS tapes being sold under a new title, Master Ninja, followed by a volume number. No official, Region 1 DVD release has been made. However, the first two episodes (Max and Out Of Time Step) have made it to the Martial Arts DVD 50-movie pack produced by Treeline Films.

Movies[edit]

The series was edited into seven movies that were released on video in 1984 and 1985.

  • The Ninja Master (Based on ep. 1 and 2)
  • The Ninja Master II
  • The Return of the Ninja Master
  • Ninja - The Shadows kill
  • Ninja - Warrior of the Night
  • The Ninja Strikes!
  • The Ninja Man

Mystery Science Theater 3000[edit]

The series was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show which features a man and two robots forced to watch cheesy B movies. The show featured the first two volumes of the re-edited Master Ninja tapes on episodes 322 (originally aired January 11, 1992) and 324 (originally aired January 25, 1992). Notable jokes included jabs at Lee Van Cleef's obvious stunt double and Timothy Van Patten's muffled speech pattern.

The third installment of the Master Ninja series was scheduled to air as episode 624,[citation needed] but it was eventually replaced by Samson vs. the Vampire Women. Both episodes were released on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume XX on March 8, 2011.

This Movie Sucks![edit]

The pilot episode of The Master was also featured on the similarly oriented show This Movie Sucks! which is hosted by Ed the Sock, Liana K, and Ron Sparks. Shown as part of the season two opener and shown as a double feature alongside the film Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, the showing was notable for Sparks' "Roninja" gag, which quickly became a favorite among fans.[1]

Influences for each episode[edit]

  • Episode 2, "Out-of-Time Step", borrows its plot from the Bruce Lee film Return of the Dragon. Guest star Charles Collins was in fact an old-time Hollywood dancer who starred in a movie called The Dancing Pirate, just as his character did. This is also one of the few times Henry the hamster is seen outside of his cage.
  • Episode 3, "State of the Union", is heavily influenced by Norma Rae, with Crystal Bernard in the Sally Fields role. The use of a Catholic church for union activities seems to be a nod to On the Waterfront. A longish scene which showed Van Cleef playing with Henry the hamster was used as a "stinger" on the second of the two MST3K episodes to feature this show. It is probably the most interaction any human character has with the hamster in the course of the series. This episode also features McAllister's ability to "play dead", and his use of a cross-shaped throwing weapon (apparently an alternate shuriken design) otherwise only seen in the show's opening credits.
  • Episode 4, "Hostages", is a tribute to the spy films and TV shows of the 1960s, with David McCallum of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. playing a sinister but morally ambiguous villain, and George Lazenby playing a spy who infiltrated McAllister's ninja sect in the past and drives a customized Aston Martin ala James Bond. Monte Markham also appears as a counterterrorist chief referred to only as Control, possibly a nod to the novels of John le Carré. Producer Michael Sloan's fascination with espionage would reappear in his work for The Equalizer.
  • Episode 5, "High Rollers", climaxes on an abandoned movie set meant to look like a Wild West town: the climax uses stereotypical "western" shots (tracking shots from Anders's/Van Cleef's ninja boots up his body, extreme closeups on Van Cleef's face), and McAllister talks a great deal about enjoying himself on the western set and feeling at home. A character refers to Revenge of the Ninja (starring Sho Kosugi) repeatedly. Art Hindle, playing the villain, also appeared in one of the first ninja-centered movies to reach America: The Octagon, starring Chuck Norris and Lee Van Cleef. This episode is also the start of a running gag, continuing through "Fat Tuesday" and "Rogues", about middle aged or older women fixating on McAllister and 'comically' stalking him. The episode's plot borrows from Ocean's 11.
  • Episode 6, "Fat Tuesday", features a woman who keeps getting McAllister confused with someone named "Leroy". The actor's full name was Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr., with "Lee" being short for Leroy. A scene where McAllister's arm is being bandaged shows off Van Cleef's anchor-shaped tattoo, a relic of his WWII service in the Navy.
  • In episode 7, "Juggernaut", Lee Van Cleef and the villain played by Stuart Whitman form a romantic quasi-triangle with the female guest lead. The two men had played a similar storyline together (with Carroll Baker instead of Diana Muldaur) in the film Captain Apache in 1971.
  • Episode 8, "The Good, the Bad and the Priceless," is a reference to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), which starred Lee Van Cleef as "The Bad". The episode also features an ad exec obsessed with McAllister's "look" (as Sergio Leone briefly was with Van Cleef's) and with hiring McAllister as a cowboy-themed spokesman for his product, in an apparent nod to Van Cleef's western-themed commercials for Midas Muffler and others. George Maharis, who played the villain of this episode, starred on Route 66, where Van Cleef had played a guest villain; Maharis is also, as Van Cleef was, an avid painter in his free time.
  • Episode 9, "Kunoichi", loosely borrows from The Manchurian Candidate, using the idea of an ex-Korean War POW who is supposed to assassinate a political figure, a Communist sleeper posing as an anti-Communist (Okasa's employer is an America-hating mole codenamed "The Hawk"), and a sweet-seeming but manipulative woman. Guest star Jack Kelly is best known for Maverick, which Van Cleef had guested on a couple of times; the two men had also appeared together in an Italian-made WWII movie called Comandos. The episode also features a rare scene of Van Patten interacting with the hamster. Kunoichi is a Japanese word for a female Ninja.
  • Episode 10, "The Java Tiger," features a villain played by Kabir Bedi. Bedi had been launched as an international star when directed in Sandokan (1976) by Sergio Sollima. Ten years before Sandokan, Sollima had helped launch Van Cleef on a similar path with The Big Gundown. The plot is an Indiana Jones homage (and perhaps a Magnum, P.I. homage, given the setting), but the Java Tiger macguffin may be a nod to Sandokan, whose emblem was a tiger.
  • Episode 11, "Failure to Communicate", borrows its plot from Akira Kurosawa's film High and Low, and its guest stars from all over (see list in earlier section). Ashley Ferrare had appeared with Sho Kosugi in Revenge of the Ninja, Doug McClure was a veteran of western TV shows, like Van Cleef, Edd Byrnes-though most famous for "Kookie" on 77 Sunset Strip-had made westerns in Europe, Rebecca Holden would be a regular on Knight Rider the following TV season. Marc Alaimo, who plays a villain here and would go on to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is one of two guests who tie this series to Star Trek, the other being Diana Muldaur. Mark Goddard is best remembered for Lost in Space and as one of Robert Taylor's men in the TV series The Detectives.
  • Episode 12, "Rogues", features the character of Saul Robbins, a hippie-like actor who meets Max and McAllister at a party, and (in another homage to Van Cleef's career) becomes firmly convinced that McAllister made spaghetti westerns with him in Almeria, Spain. McAllister also shows off his skills with a gun on a police firing range, and the woman who nags him about being out of shape is probably a nod to Van Cleef's inability to do much of his own stunt work.
  • The villain of Episode 13, "A Place to Call Home" is played by Jock Mahoney, here credited as Jock O'Mahoney. One of Van Cleef's very first roles had been on Mahoney's TV series Range Rider, and the two men died only a few days apart in late 1989. They had also appeared together in the movie Joe Dakota, together with Claude Akins, who had appeared in the first episode of The Master. The budding martial artist named Bobby in the episode is played by Kane Kosugi, son of Sho Kosugi, and the last moments of the episode—and the series—feature Sho, doubling Van Cleef as McAllister, sparring with Kane and letting him win. Dialogue from McAllister about ninjas being able to shape their bodies to fit through narrow spaces is perhaps another in-joke about the show's stuntwork. Writer-Producer Sue Woollen, after creating a number of strong-willed female guest characters who admire the male leads but see themselves as the equals of the two ninjas, not their inferiors, finally plays one: the woman who runs the orphanage.

Recurring elements[edit]

The Master was an almost non-stop action show. From brawls to high-speed car chases to explosions, the series was defined by its action content. As mentioned, Max Keller often got thrown through glass windows, and this was a sort of running gag. Some of the stunts and pyrotechnics were quite spectacular, while others were of a lesser quality. For example, one episode has McAllister performing a backflip onto the top of a semi-trailer truck, in which it is clear that the stuntman did a frontflip off of the truck and the film was simply reversed.

Also, Anders, Van Cleef's double, was of a noticeably slimmer build than the aging actor, making the two performers easy to distinguish from one another. Many of the stunts and fighting sequences featured Kosugi in a skull cap doubling for Van Cleef. Kosugi's motion and martial arts skill is easily spotted when he doubled for Van Cleef. The show also occasionally uses doubles for closeups on Van Cleef's hands, apparently to hide the actor's damaged right middle finger. A close review of some episodes (like "Kunoichi") indicates that Van Cleef was allowed to do modest amounts of swordplay and fist-fighting.

The series was part-buddy movie, and part-martial arts film. The series shares elements in common with the well-known film, The Karate Kid, also released in 1984: Both are stories in which a young American male is mentored by a wise, old martial arts master following some type of scuffle. The show's storylines often resembled those on The A-Team with the heroes going to different places and helping those in need. There is also a mild paranormal element to the show in the form of McAllister's mystical abilities: he can for instance go into a trance state to simulate death or withstand torture; and he seems to have low-level empathic/telepathic abilities that allow him to gauge the honesty and emotional state of people he is talking with, unless they too have been trained in the ninja arts.

Besides Okasa and a couple of one-shot ninja adversaries, the series mostly featured corrupt businessmen, and the occasional spy or terrorist, as villains. The writing styles of the show's several scribes are fairly easy to distinguish, with, e.g., Sue Woollen tending to write less violent episodes that emphasized relationships between the guest stars and regulars and portrayed the usual damsels in distress as relatively strong personalities. Injokes referencing Van Cleef's career in westerns appear in several episodes. The most frequently used weapons in the series are the shuriken (shuriken translates to knife or blade) or throwing star (which doubles as the series logo), the "sword" (the show's modern ninjatos it uses as the ninja dueling weapon of choice), the caltrop, the smokebomb and a type of chain with weighted ends called a kusari fundo which was commonly used as a flail or occasionally thrown.

References in other media[edit]

  • There is a link to The Master in the game Ninja Master by Firebird, for the ZX Spectrum and likely other systems as well. The theme tune to Ninja Master is exactly the same as theme tune of The Master.

References[edit]

External links[edit]