Doctor Who: a celebration of the Master

Andrew celebrates the many incarnations of the Doctor's arch-nemesis in his look back at the role of the Master in Doctor Who...


It’s pointless trying to make sense of the Master.

Over the years he’s been so varied in his ambitions, methods and madness that all you can do is rationalise his actions glibly. So, here goes: he’s the Doctor’s (very) arch-nemesis. They studied at the Time Lord Academy together, where their class consisted of other renegades with a penchant for portentous sobriquets (who calls themselves the Meddling Monk? Or, for that matter, the Doctor?). He claims to be in the pursuit of absolute power, dominion over all things, and to rule the universe. 

It’s quite clear that he’s mad, especially considering the varying quality of his plans. All he really wants is to annoy the Doctor, so no wonder the possibility of their being brothers was mooted several times. The Master has taken ‘Annoying Little Brother’ to previously unfathomable levels of Nietzsche-inspired ambition, and that’s why it’s best not to delve into his character.

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Whether he’s a time-travelling Bond villain, hate-inspired skeletal nightmare or psychopathic man-child, he’s still an important fixture in the show – let’s not diminish him by trying to make him sensible. Let’s just say it was the sound of drums or the Doctor’s childhood mistake that drove him insane, and leave it at that. The fun of the character lies partly in seeing how well the story can convince us that this time, just once, he might win.

The Master first arrived on screen in 1971’s Terror Of The Autons, seemingly a Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. He was charming, cunning, and utterly vicious. Roger Delgado was a perfect foil to Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. After a whole season of stories featuring the character there could’ve been a case of diminishing returns, but the Master’s presence could lift a story that was flagging. Brilliant as it is to watch Delgado charm his way through a story, it’s when he’s on edge that you really get a glimpse of the Master’s sadism. Never anything less than entertaining, and sometimes a chilling psychopath, Delgado’s untimely death in a car crash meant his farewell at the end of Frontier In Space is not the moment it should be. 

The Master only meets Tom Baker’s Doctor twice. The effect this has is that it makes each appearance special. The Keeper Of Traken was apparently ludicrously exciting on initial broadcast, back in the days where spoilers were easily kept. Fans look back on the character’s return, with Anthony Ainley having enormous fun being evil, as stupendous event television of its time.

Logopolis may contain some of the stupidest things ever broadcast, but you can’t deny the impact the return of the Master had, and the implications of part three’s cliffhanger: he and the Doctor must work together to save the universe. Previously hypothetical faeces have been verified epistemologically. Shit just got real. 

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More interesting was the version of the character played by Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beevers, part of Robert Holmes’ fondness for disfigured operatic villains.

Pratt was a singer by trade, and Beevers has a voice of purest silken evil. Hidden behind blistered skull make up, this Master is driven entirely by anger, rage and loathing. In order to do this, he puts the Doctor through one of the most nightmarish scenarios the series has ever come up with, while Holmes invents the concept of the Matrix before Neuromancer or the Wachowskis ever got near it. We see Gallifrey for the first time as a place of stagnation, but Holmes still devises a potent mythology around this and devises instruments of awesome power for the Master to try to harness. 

As ever though, the Master needlessly brings the Doctor into things. Yes, he needs a patsy, and he’s still incredibly dangerous, but if he’d used anyone else then his plan would have worked. This is a long-term problem. How are we supposed to treat him as anything more than an enjoyably daft obstacle if, even in a story where he very nearly succeeds, he does something as pointless as this? Even his biggest death toll (Logopolis‘ trillions) is achieved by accident. 

Perhaps it is no surprise that under Anthony Ainley’s tenure in the role he is there for entertainment value rather than to pose a threat. You can read the 80s Master as a clever piece of meta-commentary on the character, acting as if he knows he is always doomed to be defeated, and is popular enough to be invincible, so why bother doing anything too strenuous? Why not just have fun? Dress up? Turn up during the Doctor’s trial on a giant screen and casually mention something of drawer-dropping significance? Sure. Bring popcorn. It’s the Master, and he’s not exactly dangerous, but hell, it’s going to be a blast.

It’s not until his final and indeed the original series’ final story, that Ainley gets to tone down the parody version (He survives certain deaths with no explanation! He disguises himself in ridiculous costumes! He pretends to be a scarecrow for no apparent reason and then kills a dog!) and turn it into something more animalistic and cunning. While part three of Survival is a bit bewildering, it’s nice to see the Master return to his hypnotic, sadistically violent roots again, before we go back to something infamous for its camp value.

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Eric Roberts was cast as the Master for the Doctor Who TV movie after it was decided that Christopher Lloyd might be too expensive. In the end, Roberts cost more and was decidedly camper than Lloyd might have been.

It’s not as if Roberts plays the role like an oil-slicked deviant for the entire thing, but the bits where he does contain enough camp quotient for about a dozen Christmas specials. He does have fun with the role, and initially invests it with enough lingering malevolence that you can overlook the obviously Terminator-inspired costume, and enjoy him correcting people’s grammar.

Other elements of the Master’s modus operandi are present and correct too: a tortuously complicated plan, lots of collateral damage, needless involvement of the Doctor, and a weapon that looks vaguely sexual when taken out of context. 

Speaking of things that look vaguely sexual when taken out of context, the return of the character to our screens in 2007 was so exciting that it managed to popularise the use of the word ‘Whogasm’ after a certain YouTube video did the rounds.

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As with the Delgado and Pertwee match up in 1971, John Simm’s Master was a twisted version of David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, and one who – take note, aspiring writers – didn’t deliberately involve the Doctor in his plans, but made arrangements in case he turned up anyway.

Simm has a ball playing a less restrained character than usual, and the Master is probably the best thing about the episodes he’s in. It’s a shame that we’d have to wait another few years for a longer confrontation between the two, in 2009’s immensely popular but uneven The End Of Time, where the character had again developed new and inexplicable superpowers as he did in the TV movie. However, by the end of the story, the Master had sacrificed himself to save the Doctor and revenge himself on one mother of a retcon.

While the mania irked some, Simm’s Master did manage to really stretch the Doctor some way before he inevitably won, as well as being funnier and more entertaining than him for most of the story. The Joker to his Batman, so to speak.

While it feels right to have the character turn up in huge event storylines, it also makes clear the fun of having him turn up in mid-season episodes of no huge importance, just for some banter. It’s a tough balancing act involving the Master. Where does the character go from here? Does he even have a future? It’s clear that death is no obstacle to his return, but what approach to take? Does he turn up for an entire series, on and off, as a recurring foe that we get to know a bit more over time, or is he a series finale kinda guy? Is he still John Simm? Is Reece Shearsmith busy? He could work in so many different ways, it’s surely a matter of time before he returns.

Sure, he’s going to lose, but don’t tell me you aren’t looking forward to it anyway. 

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