One of my favorite TV shows is a science fiction series called Doctor Who. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, the series shares the adventures of a mysterious time traveler known only as the Doctor. He is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in his time machine, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), fighting evil.
The show is wildly popular in England where it enjoyed a 27 year run from 1963 to 1989 and a revived run that began in 2005. The secret of the show’s success is due in no small part to the Doctor’s ability of regeneration. When his body gets too old or suffers a fatal injury, he can repair all of his cells which cause him to assume a new form complete with a new personality, though his genius intellect and core values always remain intact.
While the Doctor has many iconic enemies I’ve always had a particular affinity to his greatest foe, the Master. The Master is a fellow Time Lord whose intelligence surpasses that of the Doctor. The two were best friends in their childhood, though the Master’s insanity and his desire to dominate sent their friendship off the rails at some unknown point. The two have shared a very complex relationship that has altered dramatically over the years and I’d like to spend this article analyzing that relationship.
When the Master was first introduced in Terror of the Autons, it was clear that he and the Doctor had crossed swords before. The Third Doctor (played by Jon Pertwee) summed up the Master (played by Roger Delgado) well when he said, “All he ever does is cause trouble”. The episode did a brilliant job rapidly building up the relationship between the Doctor and the Master.
The two are definitely foes and rivals, but I wouldn’t exactly call them enemies. Remnants of their past friendship still exist as the Doctor clearly respects the Master’s intelligence and the Master respects the Doctor’s tenacity and resourcefulness best demonstrated when he said, “He (the Doctor) is truly a worthy opponent. I admire him in many ways.” The two easily engage in civil conversation and smoothly join forces to stop the much greater threat of the Nestene consciousness.
While I wouldn’t call them enemies, per se, rest assured that this version of the Master was certainly a dangerous man. He killed without hesitation and had no issue with killing the Doctor, though “not without considerable regret” which clearly indicates a remembrance of friendship past and the fact that he does enjoy the intellectual challenge presented by the Doctor.
Arguably this first version of the long war between the Doctor and the Master was the best and due largely to the amazing chemistry between Delgado and Pertwee who happened to be real life best friends. Indeed their real life friendship adds dimension to the dynamic between the Doctor and Master, especially their past friendship.
So popular was Delgado as the Master that he appeared in every episode of his first season on Doctor Who and would return to plague the Doctor repeatedly over future seasons. This Master’s greatest weaknesses were his arrogance and his inability to think outside the box. His plans were incredibly brilliant, but if you found that one lynchpin and tugged, they all fell apart. And the Doctor, whose thinking always skipped the box, was always able to find the one hole in the Master’s machinations.
The creators of the series definitely had an end game in mind for the Master. Originally, Delgado was to have appeared in Pertwee’s final season in a story entitled The Final Game in which the Master would have died saving the Doctor and it would have been revealed that the two were actually brothers. Sadly, Delgado perished in a car accident prior to the final season. So hard did Pertwee take Delgado’s death that he nearly didn’t return for his last season and only did so after intense persuasion.
In one of those unusual twists of fate, Delgado’s death actually saved the life of the Master who would vanish for a few years before returning to engage the Doctor in battle once more.
It would be 4 years before the Master and the Doctor fought once more and things had really changed between them. For starters, the Doctor was now in his fourth incarnation (played by Tom Baker) and the Master was now hideously disfigured, looking like a withered skeleton. For another thing, there was no longer any semblance of friendship between the Doctor and the Master when they met again in The Deadly Assassin and they were definitely mortal enemies.
Delgado’s death forced the writers to create new motivations for the Master. The disfigurement was used to explain why the Master no longer looked like Delgado (it was the Delgado body, but his face had been shot by the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan, which added a further dimension to their eternal war). It was also decided that the Master was now in his thirteenth life which is the last in the life cycle of a Time Lord. Instead of seeking domination, the Master was now desperately searching for a way to survive. But if he were going to die, he was going to make sure that the Doctor joined him and that he was thoroughly humbled before doing so.
Limited by a mask, the BBC needed an actor with a powerful presence and awesome speaking voice for the role and they did well when they chose Peter Pratt for the part.
The Pratt/Baker dynamic was decidedly different from the Delgado/Pertwee version. While there was still an undercurrent of friendship between Delgado and Pertwee, there was none but the tiniest kernel between Pratt and Baker. Baker’s Doctor expressed admiration for the Master’s brilliance while Pratt’s Master acknowledged that “the Doctor is never more dangerous than when the odds are against him”.
Their conversations have a hard and bitter edge and Pratt’s Master would kill the Doctor with the greatest pleasure while Delgado’s Master would have done so reluctantly. I also appreciated that they decided to drop the idea about their being brothers (though the idea would be teased again before being buried once and for all in the revived series) as that is too common of a trope.
The Master would temporarily extend his life through his machinations in this episode and would return to haunt Baker’s Doctor in his last season in the role, though this time he would be played by Geoffrey Beevers in Baker’s penultimate episode The Keeper of Traken.
This episode would introduce Delgado’s permanent replacement, Anthony Ainley who bore more than a passing resemblance to the late actor. Ainley’s appearance would also alter the dynamic between the Doctor and the Master once again as the evil Time Lord finally achieved survival by using the powers of Traken’s keepership to steal the body of Tremas, an ally of the Doctor’s, to cheat his imminent death.
Ainley’s Master didn’t hide in the shadows as he returned in the very next episode, Logopolis, which was Baker’s final appearance as the Fourth Doctor. Now assured of his survival, Ainley’s Master brought back the desire to dominate exhibited by Delgado’s Master, but still retained his need to humiliate and kill the Doctor introduced by Pratt’s Master. Indeed, this need to embarrass the Doctor before eradicating him would often prove his undoing as it bought the Doctor enough time to wreck the Master’s plans.
However, Ainley’s first appearance as the Master was impressive as he finally obtained a victory over the Doctor, albeit a pyrrhic one. The Doctor managed to foil the Master’s primary plan of conquering Earth through the threat of its destruction by entropy, but the Master finally “killed” the Doctor when he sent him careening off of a scaffold which triggered his regeneration into his fifth life (played by Peter Davison).
Anthony Ainley would continue to challenge the Doctor throughout the remainder of the original series retaining nearly the same dynamic as that introduced in Logopolis. The only changes were in the actor playing the Doctor and the fact that the Master had now developed an ability to cheat death not unlike the Joker of the Batman comics, though, in the Master’s case, it was never explained how he escaped certain death every time he came back.
Ainley was often accused of overacting, though I think the worst he could be accused of was being a little broad. I personally don’t share that sentiment as most of his “overacting” was actually at the behest of the directors. Even then, Ainley would be able to muster an exceptional performance given the right script.
Some of Ainley’s best Master performances include his appearance in The Five Doctors where he shows signs of the friendship he once shared with the Doctor when he agrees to rescue the Doctor’s incarnations in exchange for a full pardon of his crimes and a new life cycle (the latter being of more interest than the former). His exchanges with the First, Third, and Fifth Doctors are well worth the watch especially with the slight changes in attitude he adopts with each Doctor. Another good performance is in Peter Davison’s penultimate episode, Planet of Fire, noted for teasing the idea that the Doctor and the Master were brothers. His two appearances with the Sixth Doctor (played by Colin Baker)in The Mark of the Rani and the final two episodes of the season long The Trial of a Time Lord are also noteworthy due to the fact that his villainy was well matched by Baker’s blustering arrogant blowhard of a Doctor.
But without question, his best episode was in the original series’ final episode, Survivial, where he faced off against the Seventh Doctor (played by Sylvester McCoy). Once more the Master had returned to simply trying to survive as he was losing his sense of self as he slowly changed into a Cheetah person due to being trapped on their planet.
What made this conflict so good was that he was facing a darker version of the Doctor who could scheme and manipulate as well or better than he could, but it was also the only time he got to play the Master the way he wanted to do it. Ainley played the Master with a subtle, understated menace that he had often attempted in other episodes before being directed to be broader with his performance. The restraint of his performance made his Master the deadliest he had ever been.
Alas, this episode marked the end of a series for a long while. An attempt was made by the United States to revive the series in 1996 when a telemovie was made by Fox and starred Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and Eric Roberts in the role of the Master.
Though the movie failed to restart the series, it did give us another chapter in the neverending conflict between the two Time Lords. The only real change in their dynamic was that this Master decided to forego the humiliation of the Doctor, instead embarking on a plan to steal the Doctor’s remaining lives which included the ingestion of a super deathworm (read The Eight Doctors to fill in the gaps left open by the film), then allowing himself to be captured and executed by the Daleks (arguably the Doctor’s other great nemeses), which would pass his life essence on to the deathworm which would then possess the Doctor. Things went awry causing the Master worm to usurp the body of a EMT and then attempt to steal the Doctor’s lives using the TARDIS’ power source, the Eye of Harmony. What was particularly notable about this battle was that the Master finally died when he was sucked into the Eye of Harmony.
But something as ordinary as death could never stop the Master.
Twelve years later the Master would finally return to war with the Doctor once more in the third season of the revived TV series. In the revived series it was revealed that the Doctor was now the last of his people as the Time Lords waged a war with the Daleks that was so devastating in nature that the Doctor was forced to destroy both sides as the Last Great Time War threatened to annihilate the universe.
The Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, still carried the weight of the war on his shoulders. While he was mostly a happy go lucky adventurer who would dive into the fray with an “Allonsy!!”, he also carried a dark edge and granted no second chances to his enemies. In his second season, a friend known as the Face of Boe told the Doctor, “You are not alone.”
This cryptic message would be explained when the Doctor met Professor Yana (played by Derek Jacobi) in Utopia. Yana was a brilliant, kindly, somewhat doddering old man who complained of a constant drumbeat in his head. Eventually, it was revealed that Yana was actually the Master (who had been resuscitated by the Time Lords with a new life cycle to fight in the Time War) who had made himself a human to hide from the Time War. The Face of Boe’s message referred to Yana’s name (You Are Not Alone).
When Yana finally regained his Time Lord nature, it made for one of the most brilliant moments of the series as Jacobi changed on the turn of a dime from the friendly professor to the epitome of evil. I truly wish Jacobi had a few more turns as the Master because he was brilliant. So cold blooded and murderous. Regrettably, he only got to be the Master for a few minutes as he was shot and killed by his assistant whom he had just electrocuted. However, the Master regenerated into a younger body (played by John Simm) and really changed the dynamic of their war.
Tennant’s Doctor wanted nothing more than to end their war since they were now the only two Time Lords left, but Simm’s Master was a more maniacal version of Delgado’s take. Once more, he wanted to dominate and best the Doctor, but he also served as a twisted mirror image to the Doctor as he mimicked his foe’s sense of humor and even began using a laser screwdriver, aping the Doctor’s reliance on his sonic screwdriver.
Of course, this Master still wanted to humiliate the Doctor and nearly defeated him as he suspended the Doctor’s ability to regenerate causing him to age into his true years rapidly and began treating him like the family dog.
Ultimately, the Doctor would turn the tables on the Master and he would be fatally shot by his wife. This Master actually got an emotional victory over the Doctor by refusing to regenerate so he wouldn’t be the Doctor’s prisoner. Knowing that his death would wound the Doctor, he smugly remarked, “What do you know? I win.”
Simm’s Master would return to battle Tennant’s Doctor in the latter’s final two episodes as the Doctor which altered the dynamic even further. In the two part, The End of Time, the Master was resurrected by a coven, but was sabotaged by his wife, resulting in a failing body with electropowers like Emperor Palpatine and an extreme hunger for flesh. It also gave a reason for the Master’s insanity as the neverending drumbeat in his head which drove him crazy was actually an implant from the Time Lords in an attempt to pull Gallifrey (and the Time War) into the present day.
It seemed as though the Master and the Doctor had finally reached the end of their personal conflict as the Doctor spared the Master’s life (killing him would have returned Gallifrey to its proper place) and the Master repaid the favor by protecting the Doctor from Gallifrey’s president, Rassillon, and finally exacting his revenge for the lifelong torment he had undergone due to his machinations and getting sucked back into the Time War.
But it wasn’t over yet.
The Master would return nearly 4 years later and things really got turned on their head.
The Master had escaped from Gallifrey and had regenerated into the body of a woman now calling herself the Mistress or Missy. Remarkably essayed by Michelle Gomez, Missy has the insane, murderous nature of her predecessor, but has an attitude towards the Doctor similar to Delgado’s Master. She’d kill him if she had to, but now she’s more bent on showing the Doctor that the two of them aren’t so different because as she states, “I want my friend back.” Like Pertwee & Delgado, Gomez and Peter Capaldi (the Twelfth and current Doctor) have an amazing chemistry. I also like the role reversal as Missy is the lighthearted character while Capaldi’s Doctor is more of an irritable crab. Also, like Delgado’s Master, Missy has plagued the Doctor in each of Capaldi’s seasons.
And this brings us up to the present day. Sadly both Capaldi and Gomez have announced their departure from the series at the end of this season, but it promises to go out with a bang as this season will feature the first multi-Master storyline with John Simm returning to the role to team up with Missy. I will be interested in seeing if the Master gets along any better with himself/herself than the Doctor does with his other selves.
The Master and the Doctor have had a most unique relationship over the nearly 40 year run of the series. They’ve been friends, foes, blood enemies, allies, and frenemies. It will be interesting to see what the series has up its sleeve when the Doctor (perhaps even the Thirteenth Doctor) meets the next version of the Master in the next chapter of their war.