Geoffrey BeeversRoger DelgadoEric RobertsAnthony Ainley
The Master
Medium: fictional character
Year: 1971-2006
Actor: Roger Delgado, Peter Pratt, Geoffrey Beevers, Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts
Keywords: SF
Series: << Doctor Who >>, the Master >>
Website category: Doctor Who
Review date: 8 July 2006
I'm kinda cheating here. Is this a review? Oh, who cares. I've just watched The Curse of Fatal Death for the first time and for me its big revelation was how much I liked Jonathan Pryce's Master. Incidentally Richard E. Grant's Doctor was also fun, which sheds light on the depth of Scream of the Shalka's failure with its lead character, although admittedly there poor Richard E. Grant was fighting against Cornell's dialogue, Flash animation and the director's editing choices. However even in that story, what's the best thing about Shalka? Yup, that's right. Derek Jacobi.
It's possible to think intelligently about how to turn the Master into an interesting villain. Two people in particular have done so on the Ratings Guide and I was so impressed that I'm just going to point you their way and sit on my hands. Thomas Cookson's article is great stuff, thoughtful and interesting. However what's most impressive about it is that it follows Mike Morris's blockbuster and yet doesn't feel like The Twin Dilemma following The Caves of Androzani. Has anyone sent Mike Morris's article to Russell T. Davies? Can someone give me an email address? It's probably inevitable that the Master will return some day, but it's also obvious that Russell T. Davies has reservations about the character.
The Master's popular image is that of a panto villain. One can't pretend that this reputation hasn't been earned, but there are also some interesting uses of the character lurking in the canon. Admittedly we're relying on the law of averages here. Even a blind man will accidentally hit a few bullseyes if he throws enough darts. Nevertheless that doesn't mean one can't proffer intelligent suggestions about making the character work in Doctor Who stories. Mike Morris does so and I think for writers his article's a must-read. Go to and click on Enemies. Incidentally I'm completely serious about wanting Russell T. Davies to see this.
The paradox about the Master is that he often works even when he shouldn't. I love Eric Roberts in the TVM, yet he's blatantly just having a laugh and playing it as camp as a row of tents. Similarly Scream of the Shalka's Master should theoretically have been dull. He can't move. He can't go anywhere. In Cornell's novelisation he's pretty much a waste of space... and yet Jacobi is "tear the walls down" great, a joy to listen to. Ainley and Delgado could both be terrifically watchable even when lumbered with atrocious dialogue and stupid story roles. Several stories would have been far more interesting had they never starred the Master in the first place. The Claws of Axos could have been a Season Seven story with the Master's "ruthless but necessary" decisions given to the Brigadier. However Delgado lights up the screen and transforms the dynamics of any scene he's in. He's like Spike in Buffy. As a black-hatted "bwahahaha" villain he's more fun than we deserve, but when interacting with heroes he's an absolute scream.
His hidden secret is that he's cool. It's unfashionable to admit this, but he is. We can all tut-tut that he's gauche and crude on a storytelling level, but when he hits the screen he can be absolute gold. His characterisation is as shallow as it gets, but you can have so much fun with it. He's evil. He loves being evil. He has fun being evil. He thinks it's hilarious to wind up the heroes, murder people and corrupt innocents into serving his malevolent purposes. There are two directions you can take the Master... either take him seriously and scare the living shit out of the audience, or just use him as a scene-stealing vehicle for a charismatic actor. It's not deep, but television doesn't have to be. They're both perfectly valid interpretations. Ideally I'd love to see a Master story that did both. He doesn't have to be suave (c.f. The Deadly Assassin), but when he is he's cool.
Okay, that's the lowbrow stuff out of the way. I'd like to apologise... but I can't, because I'm not sorry in the slightest. It's at the heart of the character's appeal. We didn't go apeshit for Delgado because we're all stupid, you know.
The other good thing about the Master is that he's whatever you want him to be. Because there's so little at the character's core ("the Doctor but evil"), he can be the personification of whatever evil your story's about. He can be Satan, the tempter. He can be the destroyer. He can be the liar. If you're not just churning out identikit hackwork and you've actually bothered to include a theme, the Master can address it. He's so intelligent and slippery that he can have a point of view on every issue and he'll do absolutely anything evil you want him to. Darwinism and "survival of the fittest"? The serpent in utopia? No problem.
Unfortunately the character has one big problem. He always loses. There's nothing we can do there. It's in his contract as the bad guy. By the end of the Saward era, even the writers had realised and he was just playing the sidekick to other villains (the Rani, the Valeyard and even arguably Glitz). Of course there's a simple solution... have him win! Permutations on this basic idea can be seen in The Sea Devils, The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis. It's not hard to think of ways to justify this. You could weaken him, as in Planet of Fire or even arguably his entire post-Delgado existence. Losing to the Doctor is also more forgivable if the deck was stacked against him from the start. You could give him a secondary goal, as in The Sea Devils or The Mind of Evil. Or alternatively you could just make the collateral damage so horrific that you're scared shitless of the guy even when he loses.
The first few years of BBC DVD releases neglected the Master. Suddenly we're getting Mark of the Rani and a boxed set of Keeper of Traken, Logopolis and Castrovalva, not to mention vague threats of Survival, but until then we'd only had The Five Doctors, The Claws of Axos and the TVM. Of those three, precisely one release wasn't "at the earliest opportunity" inevitable. However in longevity terms, the Master outranks more than half the Doctors. His stories even divide into seasons:
SEASON ONE (5 stories, 25 episodes)
Terror of the Autons (4)
The Mind of Evil (6)
The Claws of Axos (4)
Colony in Space (6)
The Daemons (5)
Well, that was easy. It's Pertwee's complete second year and it ends with the Master getting captured and put on trial.
SEASON TWO (5 stories, 26 episodes)
The Sea Devils (6)
The Time Monster (6)
Frontier in Space (6)
The Deadly Assassin (4)
The Keeper of Traken (4)
Appropriately this season even mimics the Pertwee season structure of 3 six-parters and 2 four-parters.
SEASON THREE (7 stories, 26 episodes)
Logopolis (4)
Castrovalva (4)
Time-Flight (4)
The King's Demons (2)
Planet of Fire (4)
The Five Doctors ("4")
Mark of the Rani ("4")
I think it works better in that order.
Again this season mimics the season structure of its era, this time Davison's. Ainley's tenure didn't end here, but these are his sequential stories which tend to start by explaining how he escaped certain death in the last one. The Trial of a Time Lord broke this pattern by having the Ainley Master familiar with an out-of-sequence Doctor (the Valeyard), after which the character disappeared for three years.
SEASON FOUR (incomplete)
The Trial of a Time Lord
The Destiny of the Doctors computer game?
Scream of the Shalka?
The Curse of Fatal Death?
And here things get messy, with a mish-mash of future-Masters and debatable canonicity. Do you count Destiny of the Doctors? Probably not, but its filmed clips are terrific fun and some of Ainley's best work in the role. Scream of the Shalka? It's obviously not canon (heh heh), but it was made by the BBC in a visual medium and "broadcast" on the internet... and again, Derek Jacobi steals the show.
Veering off-topic, you can also play this game with the Daleks and the Cybermen. The latter have two perfect seasons: 1. their black-and-white stories, and 2. everything in colour. You've got to squint a little with the Daleks, but throwing in the Cushing movies yields: 1. Ian and Barbara, plus the Cushing remakes. 2. the rest of the 1960s, with surprisingly little of it written by Terry Nation. 3. the 1970s (Terry's back). 4. everything else (and Terry's gone again).
I've always liked the Master. I'm even a fan of Anthony Ainley, who wasn't well served by his scripts. Look at the dialogue he had to read. When he's not being force-fed the scenery, he can be chilling. However it's notable that he hardly ever got opponents worth his mettle. The Master needs a rich supporting cast to murder, manipulate and deceive. Respect is due to Logopolis, but thereafter he was too often pitted against low-tech dolts (The King's Demons, Planet of Fire, Mark of the Rani). Incidentally some of the Master's best moments have been in Gallifrey stories (The Deadly Assassin, his early scenes in The Five Doctors and even The Trial of a Time Lord).
Yeah, I'd love to see the Master back. Call me crazy, but I'd even like to see them ship in Eric Roberts.