“A Bond film is only as good as its villain” is an iconic phrase Bond fans swear by, as it does hold some undeniable truth. Considering that Jon Pertwee’s bold and dashing Third Doctor was inspired by the James Bond movie craze of the 1970s era, Doctor Who needed a supervillain, the antithesis to the series protagonist. So, the creative team behind the seventh and eighth seasons of the Classic era conceived the Master as a recurring villain of the show.
The show’s acting producer and script editor of the time, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, had deliberately chosen the Master’s title, as it equated to an academic degree, much like the Doctor’s. In the end, the Master was conceived and sketched out to be of an equal, perhaps even superior rank, to the series protagonist.
Conceptualized as a would-be universal conqueror, the Master is driven by two desires: control the universe and make the Doctor suffer. The latter of the two feels like the Master wouldn’t have liked to eliminate the Doctor, despite innumerous attempts suggesting otherwise, as the series’ protagonist is the only person like him in the entire universe — both renegade Time Lords sitting on the opposite ends of the same scale.
The Classic Era
The Master was introduced in Season Eight of the Classic Era, during Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Third Doctor, where the Doctor described him as a “very old friend” of his, and one could almost say they “were at school together,” reminiscing about their childhood friendship at the Academy on Gallifrey. They definitely attended the Academy together, something the Master reminded the First Doctor of when he didn’t recognize him in The Five Doctors.
Admittedly, the Master did look different since he undergoes the same regeneration process as the Doctor, but the fact is that they were once very good friends, whose paths diverged at some point. The Doctor stole the TARDIS and went on universal adventures as a force of good. So it would be safe to assume that the Master did the same, though his whereabouts were unknown at the time.
He appeared several times during Jon Pertwee’s tenure and was slated to appear in the Season 11 finale. But unfortunately, Roger Delgado, the famous actor portraying the Master, died in a car crash in 1973, and the original Season 11 finale episode was never produced. So instead, Showrunners made the Planet of the Spiders episode, in which Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor is fatally wounded and regenerates into the Fourth Doctor. But that wasn’t the end of the Master.
The series’ main antagonist appeared again in Season 14, portrayed by Peter Pratt. The Master is depicted in his final regeneration nearing the end of his final life. He attempts to gain a new regeneration cycle using the artifacts of Rassilon, but the Fourth Doctor hinders his plans, and the Master escapes after his assumed death. However, the Master managed to cheat death a couple more times after that and even tried to steal the remaining regenerations of the Eighth Doctor, but he wasn’t successful.
The Master in New Who
Despite being characterized as “a very old friend” by the Doctor, the relationship between the Master and the Doctor remained vague, at the very best. Some non-canonical references painted the two as brothers, or even perhaps old lovers at one point. All of that didn’t change the fact that the Master went around causing chaos and dragging the Doctor into his evil schemes, which were then, by default, doomed to failure. As if he was seeking attention while being confident that the Doctor would overcome all these potentially fatal obstacles.
When the Master returned to New Who and caught up to the Tenth Doctor, there was certainly a sense of former friendship based upon a “survivor’s remorse,” because at that point, Gallifrey was thought destroyed forever. For all intents and purposes, the Doctor and the Master were the last surviving Time Lords in all of the universe. The fact that they were both the last members of an empire no one thought would ever topple, weighed heavily on both surviving Time Lords.
Despite having somewhat of a friendly relationship during the Doctor’s third incarnation, seeing as both were exiled Time Lords, the new pairing in New Who brought more depth and dynamic to their relationship while also exploring the complicated history between the two characters that led them to act the way they do towards each other.
The Doctor and the Master reunited in Utopia, the eleventh episode of Season 3 of New Who, with the Master being portrayed by Derek Jacobi — before he regenerated to his younger self, portrayed by John Simm. And their relationship has gone from love to hate and vice versa ever since. The Master managed to conquer the Earth, which emotionally devastated the Doctor — something he’s keen on doing throughout the entire series. His hatred towards the Doctor goes so far that he even refused further regeneration only to spite the Doctor.
The Master is later resurrected by a cult, in The End of Time, where he attempts to bring Gallifrey back out of the time lock. He eventually succeeds, but when the world is pulled back, the Lord President, revealed to be Rassilon, attempts to kill the Doctor. The Master interferes and actually sacrifices himself to save the Doctor, in what he perceived is an act of revenge for what the time Lords have done to him.
Michelle Gomez’s take on the Master, now known as Missy, brought unseen depth to the character, next to total and utter insanity. Gomez’s Master only wished for her and the Doctor to be friends again despite remaining evil and cruel. However, she also wanted to show him that they’re not so different and that he can be morally compromised as well.
Not only that, but the viewership was shocked when Missy pulled out the Doctor’s Confession Dial, which Time Lords only give to their closest friends before their death. This is one of many hints pointing out that the Doctor and the Master were more than just rivals — they could very well be the best of friends.
Missy made several appearances in the show during Peter Capaldi’s tenure and exited the show in 2017 when Simm returned to the role, appearing alongside Missy in the first-ever on-screen “Multi-Master” storyline in the history of Doctor Who. In her final appearance, Missy actually stabbed her past self, allowing the Doctor to regenerate, thus proving she’s his friend. However, Simm’s Master shoots Missy with his laser screwdriver, knowing that he’ll regenerate into her when he dies.
With that said, the newest iteration of the Master has no love for the Doctor; he conquered Gallifrey out of spite and evil, converting dead Gallifreyans to a new race of Cybermen. His appearance is crucial here, as it drives the narrative forward, explaining that the entire history of the Time Lords was a lie based on the “Timeless Child” — a plot device somewhat explored in the final episodes of the Flux season. The Master’s reappearance has been teased in the final episode of the season when Time killed the Ravagers.
Their relationship has become more ambiguous over the years, and especially in the New Who, though nothing is clear cut, and everything’s open for a different interpretation. In the end, for the television series that centers on time, Doctor Who gives a brilliant perspective on what friendship, adversarial relationships, and even love and hatred can mean when the temporal distance of thousands of years and dozens of new faces and personalities come into play.
With two more specials to broadcast and an upcoming regeneration, it’s unclear just how the Timeless Child plot will unravel and who the next Doctor is going to be. Still, one thing is certain — we haven’t seen the last of the Master.