You can never tell what your childhood friends will become. My best friend from Primary School is now an industrial designer, but that destiny wasn’t clear from our childhood activities of making a giant dartboard out of mud and attempting to complete Sonic 2 in under an hour.
Likewise, when the Master played with the Doctor on his Father’s estates, he probably didn’t know that his schoolfriend would ultimately become one of the most important beings in the universe, and that he would spend most of his life desperately attempting to attract his attention with a series of elaborate schemes.
‘You could almost say we were at school together’, said the Third Doctor, perhaps insulting Jo Grant over her lack of ability with the English language, but probably drawing a distinction between school and the Academy on Gallifrey. They definitely attended that together, as the Master reminds the First Doctor when he doesn’t recognise him in The Five Doctors (to be fair the Master does look slightly different, but then again so does the First Doctor). Despite being very good friends, there came a point where their paths diverged. The Doctor stole a TARDIS/was stolen by a TARDIS/had Clara tell him which TARDIS to steal (canon is in flux, the internet is the show’s equally contradictory footnotes), and went off to see the universe. We don’t know where the Master was at this point, but we can assume he followed shortly afterwards. Not to see the universe but perhaps not to conquer it either.
Since the character’s return in 2007’s Utopia, there have been two theories offered by the series for the Master’s behaviour. One is that the character was driven insane by a desperate Rassilon, attempting to find a way out of a time-locked conflict with the Daleks by implanting a maddening rhythm in the young Master’s head. The other is the suggestion that all the Master wants is to remind the Doctor how similar they are, to the extent that she raises an army of the undead for a bespoke Cyber-legion giftset. It’s an offer of friendship, which can be a very mild form of insanity. Ever had one of those friends who you just keep making excuses for because, and you’ve been denying this for some time, they’re a kinda terrible person? Clearly the Doctor has.
You can’t really blame the Master for wanting to reclaim the simple joys of youth though. Who among us hasn’t wanted to pull an nostalgic all-nighter involving multiplayer Goldeneye, endless twirly salt and vinegar crisps and Panda Pops? Maybe, as children, the Doctor and the Master would play the Gallifreyan equivalent (some version of Risk with the ultimate goal being control of time and space but without being seen to interfere)?
It explains a lot of the character’s perceived flaws. The Master doesn’t want to conquer the universe. He wants to play with his friend. Hence, the Master involves the Doctor in his evil schemes even though this means they’re almost certainly doomed to failure as a result. Why does he spends much of the Third Doctor era invading Earth even though it’s the only planet in the universe the Doctor can be on? Because it’s the only planet he can be on, and the Doctor welcomes his old friend’s appearance. After the dozens of deaths in Terror Of The Autons – hundreds of thousands narrowly averted – the Master is trapped on Earth, but the Doctor is rather looking forward to it.
Come the start of Season 9, he’s somewhat melancholy about the Master’s incarceration, but then the Doctor famously hates thickly accented tramps, rural policemen, and people with technical knowledge vital to the future of the colony. Who cares if they’re dead when his ex-bezzie is in prison watching kids’ TV? Some people wanted the death penalty, and who argued against that? The Doctor, with his inconsistent morality. Solomon kills a spaceship full of Silurians, and is consigned to death. The Brigadier does it and – possibly because the opportunity for revenge doesn’t immediately present itself (plus Liz would tut) – he becomes one of the Doctor’s best friends (could be a thing for facial hair admittedly, but it’s probably selective wrath depending on familiarity). The Master doesn’t really want to kill his friend either, only shooting him by accident in Frontier In Space, and missing him with a knife in a small room in The Sea Devils. He’s confident that the Doctor will overcome all these little, potentially fatal obstacles, and then discover that a missing scientist hidden in his own lunchbox.
The Third Doctor and the Master have a specifically friendly relationship due to the Doctor’s exile. Certainly they openly regard each other as tiresome, but there’s also a shared bond that is played upon, that they are both advanced aliens on a relatively primitive planet. This bond is why the Master calls on the Doctor after his debilitating and disfiguring accident on Tersurus, despite it being completely unnecessary for what is ostensibly the Master’s plan, and ultimately what causes it to fail. It’s almost as if the evil scheme isn’t actually that important. When the Master returns to catch up with the Tenth Doctor, there’s certainly a sense of former friends whose relationship borders on that of exes (enticing and enhancing slash fic) in Ten’s decision to essentially move in together and settle down (good job Rose wasn’t there, she’d be furious at the double standards). This time though, it’s overshadowed by the Master actually winning for a change, though this does give him the chance to revisit his childhood: the Doctor is staying over at his and they’re going to have a grand old time, even if the Doctor keeps ruining the mood by offering to talk about their feelings.
It’s harder to square Anthony Ainley’s Master with this long-term friendship, simply because Ainley’s Master isn’t really a creature of great depth and complexity, but mainly there to be a peacock, a superficially entertaining villain (‘Present, and enjoying myself enormously’), who the TARDIS seems to home in on. Then again, it’s partly the Master’s fault the TARDIS found the Doctor in the first place.
Clara showed the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal. Without her the Doctor would never have had all those adventures, but without the Master the Doctor would never have met Clara. Boring Fan Theory Time: The TARDIS always finding the Master is the equivalent of a polite but firm reminder to talk to your Gran because you haven’t chatted in ages, telling the Doctor it’s time to visit the Master because he’s gone to all the trouble of disguising himself as something theoretically resembling a French Knight. Plus, he’s their wingman. It’s only polite.
So that’s why the Master has come back: a belief in friendship by a sentimentalist: in the story, it’s the TARDIS, in reality it’s Steven Moffat, tying up centuries of animosity, posturing, bickering and light-speed overdrives by grounding a rivalry in a never-forgotten friendship. But Moffat is merely echoing a greater writer – whose work readers of this site may be familiar with – fabulist Garth Marenghi, who wrote the famous line ‘You and he were…buddies?’
Need I say more?
Oh, and by the way everyone: talk to your Gran.
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