“That’s my best enemy. He likes to be known as the Master.” – The Third Doctor
On the Doctor Who television series, the Daleks are often referred to as the Doctor’s greatest enemies. However, our eccentric time traveler also has another arch-foe, an adversary of a more intimate nature, his personal bête noire: a fellow renegade Time Lord known as the Master.
The character of the Master was created in 1970 by Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts. Having compared the relationship between the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, they then contemplated who his Moriarty would be. The two of them devised the Master, a fellow Time Lord of the Doctor’s who was also in exile, but one without morality or conscience, who had devoted his existence to the acquisition of power.
The relationship between the Doctor and the Master has always been complicated and dysfunctional. Not only did they come from the same world, but they also attended university together, and at one time were even close friends. But then something occurred to sour that friendship, and they became bitter enemies.
We first saw the Master on television in “Terror of the Autons,” written by Robert Holmes and broadcast in January 1971. Portrayed by Roger Delgado, the Master was already an infamous criminal. Appearing regularly on the series throughout the next three years, the Master led a succession of alien menaces to attack the Earth, where the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was temporarily exiled by the Time Lords.
On the surface, the Master’s goal seemed to be one of conquest. But underneath it all you got the impression that he was causing all of this death & destruction primarily to annoy the Doctor. In “Terror of the Autons” the Master ostensibly comes to Earth to aid the Nestine Consciousness in a second attempt to invade the world. But in fact the Master spends the majority of his time not working to advance the Nestine scheme, but rather repeatedly attempting to kill the Doctor via all manner of complex, sophisticated death traps & ambushes.
The second story to feature the Master, “The Mind of Evil,” had the renegade Time Lord utilizing an alien mind parasite that could psychically kill people by manifesting their greatest fears. When the parasite is accidentally turned on the Master himself, the results are illuminating: it appears that the Master’s worst nightmare is of the Doctor scornfully, mockingly laughing at him.
In the next serial, “The Claws of Axos,” at one point towards the end of the story it seems that the destruction of Earth by the energy vampire Axos is unavoidable. The Doctor briefly appears to agree to work with the Master in order to escape the seemingly-doomed planet. Although skeptical, the Master was also rather pleased at the idea that the Doctor was ready to abandon both humanity and his principles in order to save his own skin. Of course this was just a ruse by the Doctor to trick the Master into assisting him in defeating Axos.
Following that, in “Colony in Space” written by Malcolm Hulke, the Master is seeking control of the Doomsday Weapon, a device capable of destroying entire planets. The Master wishes to blackmail the entire universe into obeying him. And when, after five episodes of padding, the Doctor finally catches up with his foe, the Master, instead of attempting to kill him, surprisingly offers to divide control of the universe between the two of them…
The Master: Doctor, why don’t you come in with me? We’re both Time Lords, we’re both renegades. We could be masters of the galaxy. Think of it, Doctor. Absolute power. Power for good. Oh, you could reign benevolently. You could end war, suffering, disease. We could save the universe.
The Doctor: No, absolute power is evil.
The Master: Select carefully, Doctor. I’m offering you a half share in the universe. You must see reason, Doctor.
The Doctor: No, I will not join you in your absurd dreams of galactic conquest.
The Master: Why? Why?!? Look at this. Look at all those planetary systems, Doctor. We could rule them all!
The Doctor: What for? What is the point?
The Master: The point is that one must rule or serve. That is a basic law of life. Why do you hesitate? Surely it’s not loyalty to the Time Lords, who exiled you to one insignificant planet?
The Doctor: You’ll never understand, will you? I want to see the universe, not to rule it!
This scene is well scripted by Malcolm Hulke. It is also played extraordinarily well by Pertwee and Delgado. Throughout the entire exchange you can see the Doctor contemplating the Master’s offer, mulling it over in his head, weighing the pros and cons. Likewise, the Master is genuinely perplexed that the Doctor isn’t being won over. As the argument continues, the Master becomes more and more frustrated. He just cannot comprehend why the Doctor isn’t willing to accept what to him is so readily apparent about the nature of the universe and existence. When the Doctor finally rejects the proposed partnership, the Master is absolutely furious, and in the very next second he is once again quite ready to kill the Doctor in cold blood.
So, even from the start, it was obvious that there was a lot going on beneath the surface when it came to the relationship between Doctor and the Master.
There are definite similarities between the Doctor and the Master. They are each brilliant, charismatic, sophisticated, and arrogant, as well as not altogether sane. But the Doctor has a conscience, a sense of right & wrong, an appreciation for the lives of others, things totally absent in the Master. One can look at the Master and see that he is the Doctor completely unencumbered by any sort of empathy. The Master is a sociopathic figure who casually uses and discards others, who finds amusement in manipulation and murder.
Dicks & Letts had planned to write one last story featuring the Master that would explore his exact relationship with the Doctor, an epic swan song for Roger Delgado to go out on. These plans came to naught when in June 1973 Delgado tragically died in an automobile accident. The character of the Master quietly disappeared until 1976, when the Doctor was now being played by Tom Baker.
Resurfacing in “The Deadly Assassin,” a serial written by Robert Holmes, the man who had scripted the villain’s first appearance, the Master was now a very different individual. Somehow having used up all of his regenerations, the Master, portrayed by Peter Pratt, was now literally a walking corpse. Seemingly driven on solely by willpower, the Master conceived a brilliantly apocalyptic scheme to renew his regeneration cycle, a plan that would have destroyed his home world of Gallifrey. Part of this plot required a patsy to be framed for the assassination of the Time Lord President. The Master’s ally / pawn Chancellor Goth protests that using the Doctor for this was too dangerous, and they could have manipulated anyone. To this the half-decayed Master stubbornly replies…
“Noooo, we could not have used anyone. You do not understand hatred as I understand it. Only hate keeps me alive. Why else should I endure this pain? I must see the Doctor die in shame and dishonor! Yes, and I must destroy the Time Lords! Nothing else matters! Nothing!”
Even at the apparent end of his existence, the Master cannot let go of his rivalry with the Doctor. His will to survive is equaled by his obsession with humiliating and then killing his old foe.
The Master next appeared in “The Keeper of Traken” in 1981, still in his grim reaper incarnation, now played by Geoffrey Beevers (who would later reprise this incarnation in several of the Big Finish stories). It was Beevers who observed that this incarnation of the Master, stripped of all his charisma, cultured airs and good looks, was “the essence of the creature,” revealed to all the world as an insane, hateful, murderous figure of death.
At the end of “The Keeper of Traken” the Master perpetuated his existence by seizing control of another living being and merging his form with his victim. As played by Anthony Ainley, he was rejuvenated into a form physically similar to Delgado, although now rather less charismatic, and certainly much more feral & insane. Still unable to regenerate, the Master embarked on a series of highly implausible, convoluted schemes to further extend his life and generate chaos & destruction. And no matter what he got up to, the Master always had to drag the Doctor into the proceedings in order to brag about his latest scheme before once again attempting to kill his longtime opponent.
Even after being exterminated by the Daleks, the Master found a way to survive as an ectoplasmic snake-like entity. Causing the TARDIS to crash-land in San Francisco in late December 1999, this remnant of the Master once again engaged in body-snatching, possessing an ambulance driver named Bruce (Eric Roberts). Knowing that this human form would not last long, the Master unsuccessfully sought to take over the body of the Doctor (Paul McGann).
The Master, reborn with (appropriately enough) a rather reptilian persona, manipulated the misguided teenager Chang Lee into helping him gain access to the TARDIS, telling the young man that he regarded him like a son. Later, though the Master quite casually murdered Chang Lee, as well as the Doctor’s friend Grace Holloway. Understandably enough the Doctor was outraged by these deaths, and he angrily shouted “You want dominion over the living, yet all you do is kill!” To this the Master’s only response was a snarled “Life is wasted on the living!” During their struggle, the Master was sucked into the Eye of Harmony and once again seemingly destroyed.
By the time David Tennant was playing the Doctor, it was revealed that the Master had been resurrected by the Time Lords to fight in the Time War against the Daleks. Instead the Master had fled to the end of time itself and transformed himself into a human being, losing his memory in the process.
Arriving at the end of time, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) encountered Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi). A brilliant but absent-minded scientist, Yana was a kindred spirit to the Doctor. The two of them got along brilliantly… at least until the Doctor’s companion Martha Jones recognized Yana’s broken fob watch as a chameleon arch, something which the Doctor himself had also once utilized. Her interest in the “watch” led Yana to open it, restoring him to his true identity: the Master. The kindly, benevolent grandfather figure was instantly supplanted by an icy, arrogant, ruthless murderer who shot his long-time assistant Chantho in cold blood. Before she succumbed to her wounds, Chantho also shot the Master. Mortally wounded, the Master regenerated into a new, younger body (John Simm).
It is certainly telling that the Master, stranded at the end of time and stricken with amnesia, became a figure very much like the Doctor. And once he regenerated, the Master, as played by Simm, was very much an evil reflection of the Tenth Doctor, possessing many of his qualities and habits, but none of his positive attributes.
By this point, despite their long enmity, the Doctor was desperate to mend the shattered friendship he once had with the Master. It appeared that he and the Master were the only two surviving Time Lords, the rest of their race having perished in the war against the Daleks. Unfortunately the Master, who had always been decidedly unbalanced, was now barking mad, totally unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s entreaties.
In “The Last of the Time Lords,” captured by the Master, the Doctor is reduced to a feeble old man, unable to regenerate. The gloating, sadistic Master keeps the Doctor as a pet, forcing him to witness his brutal conquest of the Earth. At one point the Master even has the Scissor Sisters song “I Can’t Decide” playing as he manically springs about his headquarters, pushing the incapacitated Doctor around in a wheelchair:
I can’t decide
Whether you should live or die
Oh, you’ll prob’ly go to heaven
Please don’t hang your head and cry
No wonder why
My heart feels dead inside
It’s cold and hard and petrified
Lock the doors and close the blinds
We’re going for a ride
That chorus certainly sounds like an apt description of the Master’s ambivalent feelings towards the Doctor.
At the conclusion of “Last of the Time Lords,” with the Master defeated and his year-long rule over of the Earth erased from history, the Doctor is ready to take custody of his arch foe. However, the Master’s abused wife Lucy shoots him. The Doctor realizes that if the Master dies he will once again be the only surviving Time Lord and begs his adversary to regenerate. But the Master wills himself not to. He would rather perish than become the Doctor’s prisoner. And, seeing how terrified the Doctor is of once again being alone in the universe, the Master says “How about that? I win.” With that he dies. The Master, a being who clung so stubbornly, tenaciously to life, looking for any means to escape death’s embrace, finally lets himself die just to spite the Doctor.
Of course, even dead and cremated, the Master finds a way back to life. He’s good at that sort of thing. “The End of Time” sees him and the Tenth Doctor once more face to face. Again the Doctor is pleading with the Master to end his latest scheme of conquest and accept his help. For once, we see the Master hint at regret and sadness at how twisted their friendship has become. But he is also possessed of a resigned conviction that things can never be the way they once were.
A few writers over the years have attempted to examine what led the Master to become the cold, ruthless monster that he is. David A. McIntee’s novel The Dark Path and Joseph Lidster’s Big Finish audio play “Master” each had their own ideas. Russell T Davies also took a stab at it in the revived television series. We learned that the future Master, at the young age of eight, looked into the time vortex as part of a Time Lord rite of initiation. The experience apparently drove him mad over time, and in the back of his mind he heard the incessant, unrelenting sound of drums pounding. Davies stopped short of categorically stating this was the cause of the Master’s insanity, suggesting it is only a theory on the Doctor’s part.
Davies returned to the pounding of the drums in the Master’s psyche in “The End of Time,” and we learn the horrible origin of the mental noise that has plagued him throughout much of his life.
In the final days of the Time War, the Time Lords, corrupted by their immense powers, and driven to desperation by their cataclysmic conflict with the Daleks, decided to re-create reality itself and ascend to a higher plane of existence. Unfortunately, this would wipe out all other life in the universe. The Doctor, realizing how dangerous and ruthless his own people had become, apparently destroyed both the Time Lords and the Daleks. The events of the War became “time locked,” unalterable.
The Time Lords, though, refused to give up. Rassilon, the resurrected Lord President of Gallifrey, hatched a desperate scheme to escape the time lock. On the eve of the War’s conclusion, Rassilon learns that the Doctor and the Master are the only two Time Lords who are destined to survive the conflict. Rassilon orders a signal beamed back centuries through the time vortex, to be intercepted by a young Master during his initiation: the sound of drums. This signal, which helped drive the Master insane, is something the Time Lords can now fix onto and use to break Gallifrey out of the time lock, freeing the Time Lords to rewrite all of existence.
The Master, the grand manipulator who sought control over all reality, learns in “The End of Time” that he has been someone else’s pawn all along.
At the conclusion of the story the Doctor managed to shatter that link. Rassilon, the Time Lords, and Gallifrey were all yanked back into the time stream, to once again perish at the end of the Time War. And this time the Master vanished alongside them.
However, as was revealed in “The Day of the Doctor,” Gallifrey was not actually destroyed. Instead it was hidden away in an alternate dimension. And so the potential survival of the Master once again became a possibility.
The Master did indeed eventually resurface to bedevil the Doctor. Now in his Twelfth incarnation, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) encountered Missy (Michelle Gomez), the Master regenerated into a female body. But she was still as insane and demented as ever. In the two part story “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” Missy succeeded in transforming billions of dead humans into an army of Cybermen. When she subsequently reveals that her manipulations have all been enacted in order that she could give the Doctor control of this Cybermen army as a gift, he is absolutely flabbergasted…
The Doctor: All of this… All of it, just to give me an army?
Missy: Well, I don’t need one, do I? Armies are for people who think they’re right. And nobody thinks they’re righter than you! Give a good man firepower, and he’ll never run out of people to kill.
The Doctor: I don’t want an army.
Missy: Well, that’s the trouble! Yes, you do! You’ve always wanted one! All those people suffering in the Dalek camps? Now you can save them. All those bad guys winning all the wars? Go and get the good guys back.
The Doctor: Nobody can have that power.
Missy: You will because you don’t have a choice. There’s only one way you can stop these clouds from opening up and killing all your little pets down here. Conquer the universe, Mr. President. Show a bad girl how it’s done.
The Doctor: Why are you doing this?
Missy: I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back.
This exchange very much parallels the one between the Doctor and the Master many years back in “Colony in Space.” Once again the Master / Missy is offering the Doctor the opportunity to bring order to the universe, to reshape it in his image. And whereas before the terms of the offer were “join me or die” here it is “join me or I destroy the human race.”
Christopher H. Bidmead once described the Master as “the devil incarnate.” That was an apt description. Not only is the Master an entity of pure evil who wants control over all existence, but he is also a figure of temptation. On various occasions he has tempted individuals with offers of power. In the end, after they (metaphorically) sold their souls to him, he inevitably killed them. The Master sought to bring the Doctor himself over to his side with the promise of equal control of the Doomsday Weapon. Now once again the Master / Missy seeks to corrupt the Doctor with the offer of absolute power. If Missy cannot prove that she is superior to the Doctor, then she is instead determined to drag the Doctor down to her level, to demonstrate to both herself and the Doctor that in the end he is no better than her.
As I was writing this post, pondering the question of what caused the friendship of these two Time Lords to transform into such a bitter, twisted enmity, a thought occurred to me. Perhaps it was not only the Master who changed. Maybe it was also the Doctor who became a different person.
In the very first season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1963-64, the figure of the First Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell, starts out as very unsympathetic. In the first few stories he is, at best, an anti-hero. If you want to be brutally honest, he is an asshole.
The Doctor is repeatedly insulting and condescending to Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton. He kidnaps the two schoolteachers in the TARDIS to prevent his granddaughter Susan from going with them and leaving him. In Earth’s prehistoric past he is willing to bash in the head of a wounded caveman with a rock, to kill in cold blood, in order to ensure his own survival. He selfishly sabotages the TARDIS so that he will have a chance to explore Skaro, resulting in him and his companions nearly dying from radiation sickness and then becoming prisoners of the Daleks. Afterwards, when the TARDIS malfunctions and hurtles back in time out of control, without any evidence he accuses Ian and Barbara of sabotaging the craft, and threatens to throw them out at the very next destination.
Finally, at the climax of “The Edge of Destruction,” a fuming Barbara reads the Doctor the riot act. She calls him out on all of the crap that he has pulled throughout the previous three serials. When the Doctor discovers that he was totally incorrect about what was wrong with the TARDIS, and Susan points out to him that he has acted horrible towards Ian and Barbara, the Doctor is forced to eat humble pie. He reluctantly offers up a mea culpa to Barbara, acknowledging that he was wrong and she was right. He acknowledges that “As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.” And from that point on the Doctor began his transformation into the heroic figure we all know & love.
If the Doctor became a better person through his travels and his friendships with human beings, perhaps the opposite is true of the Master. Perhaps he was once like the Doctor in the old days, arrogant, overconfident and manipulative, yet not truly evil. But along the way, traveling the universe alone, without the positive influence of others, without anyone to call him out on his mistakes or urge him to change his ways, all of the Master’s negative flaws were left unchecked and allowed to flourish, until eventually he became a monster.
That, I think, is the fascination of the Master as a character. He is the man the Doctor could have become under a different set of circumstances, if he had made different choices. The Master is his warped mirror image, an eternal reminder to the Doctor of what he still might yet become, a potent warning that he must ever keep himself in check, lest the same fate befall him.