The Many Lives of Doctor Who’s The Master

For Saturday’s virtual …And You Will Obey Me: Doctor Whos The Master at 50 on the Brit Track YouTube channel, panelists (and podcasters) Brian Doob, Michael Falkner, Sue Kisenwether, Rob Levy, and Dr. Scott Viguie, as moderated by Rob in the Hat, discussed The Master’s many incarnations, story arcs, and lasting impact on Doctor Who.

Since his introduction in 1971, during John Pertwee’s tenure as the Third Doctor, The Master has become nearly as iconic has everyone’s favorite TARDIS driving, sonic screwdriver wielding Time Lord himself. Played onscreen by nine actors over the last 50 years, he—and she—has popped up to wreak havoc on humanity, foil his one-time friend, and sometimes even lay mythology that pays off years later. Everyone agreed that Roger Delgado’s first interpretation was masterful, especially in “Sea Devils,” with Falkner saying there was no better Master. “I love that era,” he said.

“Yeah,” Doob agreed. “Wonderful portrayal from Roger Delgado.”

“He’s just so scary,” Levy said, who mentioned Delgado’s great chemistry with Pertwee.

Rob in the Hat pointed out that The Master was not the first “other” Time Lord to appear in the show, as there had been the Meddling Monk, but The Master stood apart. Levy gave a Saved By The Bell analogy, calling The Master Slater to The Doctor’s Zach, whereas the Monk was Screech. Until The Master, none of the Time Lords shown had been The Doctor’s intellectual equal nor used their creativity to showcase brilliance.

Doob also pointed out, rightly, that The Master is malevolent, while Falkner went further calling The Master and The Doctor two sides to the same coin—effectively brothers. Kisenwether agreed, stating that only different intent and end goals sets them apart: The Master wants to destroy humans and amass power, while The Doctor wants to protect humans.

With the psychological foundation laid by Delgado, the panelists walked through the many iterations, recapping story arcs and performances by subsequent actors. The next two versions of The Master were decaying corpses seeking new life in “The Deadly Assassin” and “The Keeper of Traken,” the latter of which ends with Anthony Ainley taking over the role during Tom Baker’s tenure as the Fourth Doctor. This period marked an interesting era, Kisenworth noted, as it established the mythology that Time Lords can amass new regeneration cycles after 13—something important to the new series.

While the “decayed” Master was not popular amongst the panelists, Ainley’s Master got props for going toe-to-toe with four consecutive Doctors (Baker, Peter Davidson, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy) and for being “unhinged”, “crazy”, “detached” from reality, and establishing the idea that he’s a character you can’t kill.

The Master next appeared in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie portrayed by Eric Roberts, on trial by the Daleks, still trying to get new lives, and crazier still, according to Dr. Viguie. This period, everyone agreed, didn’t make a lot of sense, even while picking up threads from the classic era.

Since then, the new series has had mostly success with The Master, honing in on what made him great to start—intellect, the right amount of crazy, and good storylines with sensical, malevolent motivation, all executed with aplomb by a great performer, including Derek Jacobi, who the panelists wish had had more screen time when he showed up as Professor Yana against David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. The Tenth Doctor, however, is mostly noted for going up against John Simm’s version, introduced as “Harold Saxon”, a man running for Prime Minister—a position he uses to take control of the human race. The panelists regarded Simm’s performance as very fun, but not all liked the story arc “The Sound of Drums” as it absolved The Master of his villainy. Kisenworth, however, found it “very effective” as a newbie to the show who didn’t have the burden of The Master’s canonical backstory.

During Matt Smith’s tenure as the Eleventh Doctor, The Master took on a radical new appearance: that of a woman called Missy, played by Michelle Gomez, which established that Time Lords could swap genders during regeneration. Doob called Missy “the Mary Poppins Master” and her reveal as “a high-point” in the series. Other than saying Missy/Mistress is a subservient term that declares women less than and wishing her name had been “The Master” after the reveal, Kisenworth too liked this version.

And finally, the most recent Master, played by Sacha Dhawan, against Jodi Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor has had a hard road to walk according to Dr.Viguie since the writing and stories just haven’t been there. However, Dhawan’s performance itself is good.

After touching on the books and audiobooks from BBC, Big Finish, Alec Macqueen—the latter of which Doob praised highly—the panelists gave synopsis of their current work and the podcasts where you can find them discussing The Master, Doctor Who, and all manner of sci-fi.

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.