Thursday, April 25, 2013

80's TV Thursday: The Master

Remember this one?

It was sort of a "buddy" series featuring an aging "Ninja Master" and the brash and inexperienced youngster whom he takes under his wing and trains in the mystic Eastern arts of way of the ninja.

Yes, you're correct. This series actually did come out the exact same year as "The Karate Kid."

The Show Background
Lee Van Cleef plays John Peter McAllister, a World War II vet who stays in Japan following the war and is trained as a ninja into "the Butterfly House." Their enemies are members of the Snake House, although it's mentioned during the series that there are many different competing Houses.

As the show begins, McAllister, now an elderly man, returns home to the United States to try to track down a daughter he didn't know he had. Eventually, he comes into contact with the young drifter named Max Keller and the two slowly form a mentor/mentee buddy type of friendship, with McAllister eventually agreeing to train Keller in the ways of ninjitsu.

Elements of the 1970s "Shazam" show come into play as the two end up traveling around in a customized van and roaming the country getting into various adventures while searching for McAllister's daughter, who is never found by the end of the series.

Members of the Snake House, as well as one of McAllister's former pupils, a guy named Okasa, show up periodically throughout the series to fight with McAllister, giving us some real ninja-on-ninja action.

A Product of Its Time
Ninja-related stuff was becoming really popular right around the time this show debuted. I remember it was right around this time that I'd gotten a copy of The Best of Dragon: Volume I which recapped a bunch of stuff from the first 20 issues or so, including a Ninja "NPC" class (I'm sure no one ever used it as a playable class) and that was, I think, the first time I'd ever heard of a ninja and I wanted to know more about them. Voila! This TV show debuted and I thought it was perfect.

The popularity of "The Karate Kid" also had to help a bit... the show's format of the older guy and younger sidekick developing a buddy relationship while they go on adventures to help less-fortunate people is totally cliche, but also safe and a tried-and-true classic format that people were, and still are, comfortable with.

The Portrayal of Ninjas
This was the 1980s - it's all about action, kick-ass martial arts, and some pseudo-Eastern mysticism thrown in for good measure. This is a "romanticized" version of ninjas, based more on myths and legends than on any historical facts. The whole idea of the Butterfly and Snake ninja "houses" seems to be made up from whole cloth for the show.

Other than a few nods to the actual spiritual aspects of ninjitsu, most of the ninja portrayals are done for the sake of action with the familiar trappings of martial arts, ninja-tos, and shuriken.

How Cheesy Is It, Really?
Let's be honest - it was the 1980s. It was a cheesy action buddy series. It was actually lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so it has that going for it.

That said, as I mentioned above, it was a product of its time. This was the time of "The A-Team," with which "The Master" actually has a lot of similarities in terms of the actual storyline of the series. It's really focused more on being an action adventure series than a true depiction of an actual ninja master-student relationship.

There's also a recurring gag of the character Max being thrown through various windows.

Any Good Ideas for RPGs?
Well, sure. If you have a fantasy-Asia equivalent in your campaign world, or even just an idea that's reminiscent of the ninja, there's plenty of inspiration you could grab from this series.

The character of McAllister as portrayed by Lee Van Cleef is also a fun, easily-imitated idea of an aging master reluctantly pushed into passing on his accumulated experiences and knowledge to a younger generation. It's the same idea of Mr. Miyagi and Daniel or even Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke, but Van Cleef plays it a bit differently and provides a good archetype for an "older statesman" type of character that, frankly, I don't think we see enough of in RPGs. Most people are so focused on playing the charismatic, dashing young action hero that we forget that at times it's fun to branch out and try to play someone of a different age.

Is It Okay for Kids?
It's pretty harmless, cheesy 1980s style action, but there's plenty of fighting, both hand-to-hand and with weapons, and some of the pseudo mystical/spiritual aspects would probably be a bit hard to grasp for younger viewers. It all depends on how willing you are to expose your kids to the idea of "fighting can sometimes solve problems." Ultimately, the "good people" are helped by the wandering McAllister and Max, and usually cleverness wins out over brute strength, but there is fighting.

And there is a main character constantly being thrown through a window.

Here's the opening credits:

I'd love to hear your thoughts on your memories of this show.

For more posts on genre shows from the 1980s, just check out the Television label.

  • Format: 13 one-hour episodes (really about 45 minutes without commercials)
  • Where to Buy: As far as I can tell, this series has never been released on DVD but was released on VHS a long time ago. A few of them seem to still be available on Amazon from 3rd party sellers. You can also find some episodes on YouTube broken up into various parts of around 10 minutes each.
  • Price: N/A
  • Rated: Not rated
  • More Information: Wikipedia "The Master" entry

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: just tap water right now
Listening: "Treasures" by Thievery Corporation


  1. I have no memory of this one at all. I wonder if it ever made it over to this side of the Atlantic?

    1. Yes, we had it in the UK. I remember it being really cool (although memory of old TV shows is always rose-tinted). Main reason I remember it though is because a friend and I invented an A-Team RPG (while still at school in the 80s)- I statted up all the major stars of current TV action shows and I remember writing up the Lee Van Cleef character ;)

    2. Yes, "really cool" might be a bit of a stretch. :) But, again, at the time, I totally dug it, too. It was definitely "appointment television" for me.

      Kelvin, every time I post one of these, I honestly always think, "I wonder if they showed that in the UK?" because you're so good at commenting on my posts. :)

  2. This show came on right when I was playing D&D with my friends every weekend. One of my players was a big Sho Kosugi fan. He would bring a martial arts magazine with him, with swords, shurikens, Bruce Lee, Sho Kosugi and other related pictures. We would all talk about it at the table.

    Martial arts was a big thing with kids in my area during the mid 80s. Seemed like everyone was taking classes to learn karate. There were a endless list of martial art themed 80s movies we watched; Remo Williams, American Ninja, Karate Kid, Big Trouble in Little China, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal

    When MST3K got around to riffing on "The Master", I got to enjoy it all again from another perspective. I never noticed how out of shape Van Cleef was for a show and that almost all of the scenes where he is in "Ninja" guise are actually stuntmen. And Max Geller just seems so "trying to be cool but isn't" in that way that just screams 80s. And Max's changing girlfriends... one episode he is smooching on a very young Crystal Bernard. In another... Debbie Moore.

    1. Yeah, Demi Moore was in the very first episode. So funny.

      And, yeah, that Max guy with his huge mop of hair... you hit it on the head "trying to be cool but isn't" - that's so much part of those 1980s action adventure movies and TV series. They just don't age well at all.

  3. I loved this show as a wee one.

    But I also adored Manimal, so my taste was questionable.

  4. I remember this! I loved watching this show back when it was on. Watched it again in College, the MST3k versions, and thought "what the hell was I thinking??".

    Still though. If you ever played a ninja in D&D it was probably closer to this than the actual martial art.

    1. Hey Tim - yes, totally agreed. It's really drawn more from legends and myths and then exaggerated to take advantage of the current popularity of all things martial arts than it was a true depiction of the ninja.

      Just like D&D. :)


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