Doctor Who: Let’s do the Time War again

“You weren’t there in the final days of the War. You never saw what was born. But if the time lock’s broken, then everything’s coming through. Not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres. The War turned into hell. And that’s what you’ve opened, right above the Earth. Hell is descending.” – The Tenth Doctor, “The End of Time”

When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, viewers were informed that the Doctor was apparently the last of the Time Lords.  All the other members of his race had apparently died fighting the Daleks in a vast, apocalyptic, realty-rending conflict known as the Time War.

Truthfully, the basic function of the Time War was to sweep the decks of the mountains of continuity that had accumulated during the original run of Doctor Who on television from 1963 to 1989.  It enabled showrunner Russell T Davies to start with a clean slate.  He was able to streamline things without having to resort to rebooting the series from scratch.  It worked elegantly in that regard.

The Time War also allowed Davies and his collaborators to offer a new perspective on the character of the Doctor.  The time traveler was now a haunted, battle-scarred figure suffering from survivor’s guilt and the knowledge that in order to save existence he had been the one to finally bring an end to the carnage of the War.

Of course inevitably viewers were curious to know what exactly had taken place during this infamous Time War.  Hints and allusions to the events were peppered throughout various episodes over the next several years, but we never actually saw any part of the conflict itself.  I believe that at one point Davies joked that he’d have needed a one hundred million dollar budget to bring the Time War to television screens.

Besides, much of what the Doctor mentioned, such as his recitation of the myriad horrors of the Time War in“The End of Time,” sounded like the sort of abstract, surrealist nightmares that would probably have been impossible to convincingly depict on TV.  When we were finally granted a glimpse of the War by Steven Moffat in “The Day of the Doctor” it was presented as a more straightforward conflict, with a billion Dalek spaceships laying siege to Gallifrey.  Which, of course, was still pretty damn dramatic.

We eventually learned that a previously unrevealed incarnation of the Doctor portrayed by John Hurt, the so-called “War Doctor,” was the one who fought in the Time War.  The conflict had apparently spanned centuries, during which the War Doctor became a weary old man.  Barring the use of archival footage of Hurt as a younger man, it would be impossible to show most of the War Doctor’s experiences.

Having said all that, I’ve often thought that the Time War would be perfect to present in comic book form.  After all, the only limit on what can be shown in comic books is the imaginations of the writers & artists.  I even thought of the perfect creative team: Grant Morrison and Richard Case, the writer and penciler who crafted many bizarre, nightmarish, reality-twisting stories during their run on Doom Patrol from 1989 to 1992.  Just imagine the creators who brought us such peculiar menaces as the Brotherhood of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, the Scissormen and the Candlemaker depicting the freakish, horrifying events of the Time War.

Engines of War

However, it never did occur to me that prose fiction would also be another medium in which to recount the events of the Time War, at least not until I spotted the novel Engines of War by George Mann for sale at Forbidden Planet.  I immediately grabbed it off the shelf, bought it, and started reading it.

Engines of War is told from the point of view of Cinder, a 21 year old freedom fighter from the human colony of Moldox.  Her name comes from the color of her hair, and from the fact that she was found among the burning embers of her home 14 years earlier after her entire family was wiped out by the Daleks.  Moldox and the other worlds in the Tantalus Spiral have been conquered by the Daleks, the majority of the colonists either exterminated or captured to serve as slave labor or experimental subjects.  Cinder is one of the few humans to have remained free, eking out a hard-scrabble existence among the ruins, fighting a hopeless guerilla war against their conquerors.

Then, very unexpectedly, the Doctor comes into Cinder’s life, his TARDIS shot down during a space battle.  Much like Cass from “The Night of the Doctor,” Cinder is initially angry at and frightened by him, believing the Time Lords to be just as bad as the Daleks.  However, her desperation to escape the desolation of Moldox is so great that she tentatively lowers her guard when the Doctor offers to take her out of the warzone and to safety.

Mann does excellent work developing the character of Cinder, and writing her interactions with the Doctor.  Contemplating the idea of something other than the day-to-day struggle for survival against the Daleks that has consumed much of her existence, Cinder starts to recognize the possibilities that life might offer.

For the War Doctor, so long involved in the war against the Daleks, Cinder is apparently his first extended interaction with humanity since his regeneration.  At first he is hesitant to take upon himself the responsibility for her well-being.  Like Cinder, the Doctor had resigned himself to the role of a warrior in a seemingly-endless conflict.  Now, once again traveling with a companion, however reluctantly, he begins to let down his guard, to care.  Cinder offers him an opportunity to reconsider his conviction that he no longer has the right to call himself “Doctor.”

The style of Mann’s prose reminded me of Terrance Dick’s work on the numerous Doctor Who novelizations.  Mann’s writing seems directed at the teenage reader, but it is certainly sophisticated enough that adults will also appreciate it.  Early on he succinctly describes the awesome, incomprehensible scope of the conflict:

Cinder had heard that in simple, linear terms, the war had been going on for over four hundred years. This, of course, was an untruth, or at least an irrelevance; the temporal war zones had permeated so far and so deep into the very structure of the universe that the conflict had – quite literally – been raging for eternity. There was no epoch that remained unscathed, uncontested, no history that had not been rewritten.

Of course, considering that it is set amidst the Time War, the book offers up plenty of examples of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 once described as “good old fashioned nightmare fuel.”  There is some really dark stuff between these covers.

A War Doctor's Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges  / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers
A War Doctor’s Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers

Before the Doctor can take Cinder to safety, he needs to learn what the Daleks are up to on Moldox and the other worlds in the Spiral.  Reluctantly the young human guides him to the nearest occupied city.  The Doctor is horrified to discover that the Daleks have harnessed the energy of the Eye of Tantalus, a vast temporal anomaly contained within the Spiral, and used it to create weapons that erase their victims from history.  Not only will an army of Daleks be equipped with the dematerialization guns, but the Eye itself is to be turned into a single massive weapon which will be used to wipe the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey from existence.

The Doctor travels to Gallifrey to alert the High Council to the Daleks’ plans, bringing Cinder with him.  Through her eyes, we see just how much the conflict has affected them.  The Time Lords had always been aloof, arrogant figures.  Now, driven to desperation by their war with the Daleks, the Doctor’s people have become utterly ruthless.  When the Lord President Rassilon is informed of the danger in the Tantalus Spiral, he immediately decides to utilize a stellar engineering device known as the Tear of Isha to neutralize the Eye.  The Doctor, however, realizes that this will wipe out all life in the Spiral, including the billions of humans imprisoned by the Daleks.

Cinder felt her heart lurch in her chest. She felt suddenly nauseous. They were going to do it. They were really going to murder every single living thing on a dozen worlds.

“Rassilon,” said the Doctor, clearly exacerbated. “You’re condemning a billion souls to a terrible death. More. How can you even consider it?”

“What are a billion human lives to us, Doctor?” said Rassilon. “They are but motes of sand on the breeze. They breed like a virus, infesting every corner of the universe. Where some die, others will take their place.”

There are several scenes in the novel featuring the Doctor and Rassilon sparring verbally.  Reading them, I was left longing for an actual live-action version of Engines of War.  It would be brilliant to have John Hurt and Timothy Dalton acting opposite one another, reciting all of this wonderfully dramatic dialogue.

Doctor Who Rassilon

The Doctor and Cinder realize that not only must they stop the Daleks, but also the Time Lords.  With both sides of the conflict in opposition to them, the odds seem near-insurmountable.

There are a number of excellent moments throughout Engines of War.  Even though the hierarchy of the Time Lords has become inured to the violence, to the cataclysmic loss of life, Mann indicates that the citizens of Gallifrey are genuinely frightened by the War.  At one point, looking over the landscape of the Time Lord capital, Cinder observes hundreds of tiny lights drifting up into the night sky.

“What are they?” said Cinder. “Paper lanterns?”

The Doctor shook his head. “No, although the principle is the same. Those are memory lanterns.”

“Memory lanterns?” echoed Cinder.

The Doctor glanced at her. “They all think they’re going to die,” he said. “All those people down there think the Daleks are coming for them, and that they’re going to be exterminated.” He sighed, and the weariness in his expression spoke volumes. “So they’re recording all of their thoughts and memories into those lanterns, and scattering them through time and space. It’s the last act of a desperate people. They’re terrified that they’re going to be forgotten, so they’re seeding themselves into all the distant corners of the universe to be remembered.”

I am curious about how much knowledge Mann had of the work that Moffat and his co-writers were doing on Series Eight when he was penning this novel.  There are certain parallels.  In “The Caretaker” the Doctor expressed his disdain for soldiers.  In response, Danny Pink declared “I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged. You see him? He’s an officer!”  Indeed, when we first see the Doctor in Engines of War, he is piloting his unarmed TARDIS, leading a large assembly of heavily-armed Battle TARDISes in an engagement with a Dalek fleet, organizing strategy, calling out orders to his fellow Time Lords; he is very much an officer.

At the end of Series Eight, in “Death in Heaven” Danny bitterly commented of the Doctor, “Typical officer, got to keep those hands clean.”   That is a theme that also runs throughout Engines of War.  Despite the fact that he has ostensibly embraced the role of warrior, the Doctor carries no weapons, only his sonic screwdriver.  On both Moldox and Gallifrey he relies on Cinder to destroy Daleks and knock out Time Lord security guards.  At one point, Rassilon’s obsequious lackey Karlax subjects Cinder to brutal interrogation by the Mind Probe, as much to verify the Doctor’s story as to fulfill his own sadistic glee.  Cinder barely survives…

She gasped for air.  “He’ll kill you,” she said, between shallow breaths. “He’ll kill you for this.”

Karlax laughed. “Oh no, not the Doctor,” he said. “The Doctor and I are old playmates. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.”

Mann also addresses the suggestion made by Davies that “Genesis of the Daleks,” when the Time Lords dispatched the Doctor back in time to abort the creation of the Daleks and he hesitated at committing genocide, was actually the first shot fired in the Time War.  Early on, seeing the horrific loss of life on Moldox, witnessing the atrocities being committed by the Daleks, the Doctor is burdened by the knowledge that if not for his indecision on Skaro many years before he might have prevented all this from occurring.

Towards the end of the novel, the Doctor and Cinder come face to face with the Eternity Circle, the group of Daleks tasked by the Emperor with developing the temporal weapons.  The head of the Circle explicitly refers to the Doctor’s presence at the birth of the Daleks

“Ah,” said the Dalek. “The beginning of the Time War. The moment that you, Doctor, taught the Daleks their most valuable lesson of all —  that emotion is a weakness that must be eradicated. That mercy has no place in victory.”

“Not a weakness,” said the Doctor, “but a strength.”

“If it had not been for your hesitation,” said the Dalek, its tone derisory, “for your inability to do what was necessary, then the entire War could have been prevented. The Daleks would have ceased to exist.”

Engines of War is very much concerned with explaining exactly how the Doctor arrived at the point seen in “The Day of the Doctor.”  What was it that finally drove him to solemnly declare, “No more,” to decide to utilize the Moment and wipe out the whole of the Time Lords and the Daleks?  What was it that convinced him that there was no other choice?

War Doctor

Mann shows us a Doctor who, as the story opens, is already burned out, bone-weary from an unending nightmare conflict.  And then he is faced with further horrors as both the Daleks and his own people pile atrocities upon one another, and each side reigns down scorn & mockery upon him for his perceived weakness and lack of resolve.  When the novel finally comes to a close with the Doctor experiencing yet another soul-rending loss, you can fully imagine that this is a man who just wants it all to end, who will do anything to stop it, who will tell the Moment Interface “I have no desire to survive this.”

If there is a weakness to Engines of War, it is that perhaps it references the history of the series a little too heavily.  It is inevitable that any novel set during the Time War is going to require allusions to a number of past events.  Nevertheless, the nods to specific televised Doctor Who stories do come quite frequently.  While for the most part Mann is able to fit them in seamlessly, on occasion they do feel superfluous.  By the time a character starts playing the Harp of Rassilon, well, I couldn’t help but feel that Mann was overdoing it just a bit!

Well, aside from that, and from events jumping back and forth between the different settings, Engines of War is a good read.  Mann effectively delves into a previously little-explored period of the Doctor’s life.  He is successful at not just conveying the cosmic scope of events only previously hinted at on the television series, but at utilizing them to explore the character of the Doctor.  Mann also examines how a conflict that rages across myriad planes of reality would affect the average mortal person on the ground, viewing the staggering events of the Time War through Cinder’s eyes.

As I indicated earlier, for a variety of reasons it is very unlikely that we will ever be provided an in-depth look at the Time War on our television screens.  Nevertheless, that conflict provides a rich backdrop against which to tell engrossing stories in other mediums.  Engines of War by George Mann undoubtedly proves that potential.

The Doctor and The Master: the best of enemies

“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.

Master Roger Delgado

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.

Master Peter Pratt

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.

Master Anthony Ainley

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.

Master Eric Roberts

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.

Master Derek Jacobi

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.

Master John Simm

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.

Missy Michelle Gomez

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.

Missy Master all incarnations

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.