Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The Master’s past lives
Mark Harrison | On 04, Jan 2020Reading time: 6 mins
If you’ve only watched Doctor Who since 2005, BritBox’s selection of 626 classic adventures featuring the first eight Doctors might look a bit daunting. Don’t know your Aggedor from your elbow? Turn on the TARDIS randomiser with us and follow our monthly guide to Classic Doctor Who, from 1963 to 1996.
“Call me Master.” If there’s one aspect of classic Doctor Who that has been translated surprisingly well into today’s age of blanket social media and online coverage, it’s the recurring appearances of The Master. To this day, the Doctor’s best enemy still has a pleasing knack for doing a Gene Parmesan (to borrow from Arrested Development) and turning up in plain sight when you least expect it.
For pure shock value, nothing is ever going to top the reveal of Derek Jacobi and then John Simm in Russell T. Davies’ 2007 episode Utopia. Later, although we could infer the true nature of Michelle Gomez’s character by that point in the series, her unveiling as Missy was largely under wraps before 2014’s Dark Water. And now, right at the top of Jodie Whittaker’s second run, Sacha Dhawan left the Who nation going “OHHH”, exactly as planned, at the end of Spyfall Part 1.
With more Classic Doctor Who on BritBox than you can shake a Sonic Screwdriver at, we’re running a series helping Who fans navigate the hundreds of hours available to stream (see our A to Z guide here). And so, with Spyfall still ringing in our ears, we look back at some of The Master’s classic incarnations and (without spoiling too much) suggest some landmark capers to get you started.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that The Master was originally conceived as a Professor Moriarty to the Third Doctor’s Holmes – a fellow Time Lord of equal intellect whose adventures were usually bent towards personal gain rather than helping others. Exiled to Earth at this point in his life, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor has to contend with his villainous plans while working as UNIT’s scientific advisor.
With his devilish appearance, Roger Delgado’s Master is a recurring villain in every serial of Season 8, starting with his introduction in Terror of the Autons and continuing through collaborations with various alien invaders and enemies. With his hypnotic powers and elaborate plots, he becomes a major thorn in UNIT’s side.
A fondly remembered story in The Master’s early arc is 1972’s The Sea Devils, which famously features a spot of swordplay between him and the Doctor. It’s in this story that we learn that the two Time Lords were once friends before going their separate ways, a direction that would later be reflected in Steven Moffat’s writing of Missy, and it’s fun to watch them spar like daft old gentlemen, even when the world is at stake.
What’s more, The Sea Devils gives us our first hint at the old villain’s enduring obsession with CBBC programmes, which continues with Simm watching Teletubbies in 2007’s The Sound Of Drums.
What to watch:
Anything from Season 8, starting with Terror Of The Autons (Season 8, 1971)
Based on appearances alone, The Master is undoubtedly the Third Doctor’s most iconic foe. As you’d expect, producers originally intended for him to return for a final battle when Jon Pertwee eventually left the show. Sadly, Delgado died in a car accident in 1973, meaning that the planned serial never came to fruition.
The Master didn’t appear again until a couple of years into the Fourth Doctor’s run. While Christmas specials with solo Doctors are fairly common in the modern era, it’s unusual that The Deadly Assassin finds Tom Baker’s Time Lord between companions (Sarah Jane had just gone, Leela arrived in the following story), as he’s dragged into a conspiracy on Gallifrey.
Appearing under heavy prosthetics to make him look emaciated and decrepit, Peter Pratt plays an incarnation of The Master who has used up his first 12 regenerations and thus attempts to harness an ancient Time Lord power source to try and steal more. Desperate and decaying, this version of the character is a far cry from the suave psychopath of previous adventures.
What to watch:
The Deadly Assassin (Season 14, 1976)
Geoffrey Beevers briefly donned the prosthetics for The Master’s next appearance, four seasons later, in a story that culminated with him stealing a new body. Played by Anthony Ainley, this new Master makes his debut at the end of the Fourth Doctor’s penultimate serial, 1981’s The Keeper Of Traken, and then goes on to antagonise the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors as well.
Indeed, Ainley’s Master is less driven by conquest over the universe than clinging onto life, either allying with monsters who have the power to augment his lifespan or trying to acquire more regenerations. Stuck with a familiar face, the character dons more elaborate disguises throughout the 1980s serials, usually unveiling himself at the end of the first instalment for a cliffhanger effect, so we won’t go into specifics about which stories feature The Master thereafter.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why Dhawan’s Master has a penchant for shrinking people, we see him go on a Tissue Compression Eliminator spree in Logopolis, his first full story, leaving a trail of miniaturised corpses in his wake.
What to watch:
The “Return Of The Master” trilogy: The Keeper Of Traken / Logopolis (Season 18, 1981) / Castrovalva (Season 19, 1982)
Ainley’s Master dispenses with disguises for his last scheme in the final Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) serial, 1989’s Survival, and immediately before the character returns to menace the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) in the 1996 TV Movie, he’s been executed by the Daleks. Although this bit of pre-titles exposition is omitted from the version on BritBox for some reason, the movie still starts with the Doctor transporting his old friend’s remains back to Gallifrey.
However, said remains have other ideas, and Eric Roberts becomes the fifth televised incarnation of The Master. Boasting fearsome strength and bestial eyes, he’s a more generic monster-man than any previous version of the character, but he carries forward the same latent camp quality as Ainley (“I always dress for the occasion!”) in his bonkers plot to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Like many aspects of the original series, The Master is somewhat flattened by the TV Movie’s narrow, Americanised take on the property. He may be a pantomime baddy this time around, but Roberts gamely chews the scenery and has a ball with it. As Fox decided not to pick up the feature-length pilot for a series, this is the only full-length TV story featuring Roberts, but like other Master actors who are still with us, he has also reprised his role in Big Finish’s official Doctor Who audio plays.
What to watch:
Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)
Classic Doctor Who is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.