Doctor Who: The Master in the 2000s – “Dear me, how tiresome” (A Tale of Two Jacobis)

The Master in Scream of the Shalka and Utopia

You will still continue to obey me! The Marchester takeover reaches a new century with a typically contrary attitude. The Master had made the most of the Doctor’s enforced hiatus by getting himself exterminated by the Daleks. But when he returned things would be different. Not only did he have to overcome death, again, he also had to confront parallel realities while retaining an eerily similar appearance… Unlike his best frenemy.

Still, after the schism created not by the Great Time War, but the Great Managerial Decisions of the BBC, neither reality found him as quite the man he used to be. The Third Marchster… A select tale of two Jacobis…

IN SHOW BUSINESS DEATH HAS OFTEN PROVED GOOD FOR A CAREER, AND THAT’S CERTAINLY TRUE FOR ONE DISPICABLE CHILD OF GALLIFREY. After seeing out the Doctor with a roaring role in the Classic series 1989 finale, not only did the Master take main villain duties for the 1996 TV Movie, but also assumed an unprecedented spot in BBCi’s 40th anniversary webcast.

‘Sadly’, this retrospective jumps that erratic, vermicular and fatal holiday of the summer of ‘96 and heads straight to the 21st century he was so anxious to stop, when he wasn’t chewing the scenery. Jokerside glanced at that film for the show’s 2013 anniversary, with all the oddities that arose from the Master’s ‘final days’. However, his demise at the film’s close, an inescapable ‘curse of fatal’ type death, was subsequently picked up by two very different returns that resolved in two parallel universes. And of course, thanks to the ever-eccentric machinery of the BBC, they’re as co-dependent as they are incompatible. Yeah, and people wonder why fans are pre-occupied with canonicity… To make matters even more confusing, across the two realities there are some notable similarities to mull.

Scream of the Shalka (40th anniversary special, 2003)

“No, it’s not where we’re supposed to be”

Scream of the Shalka is a quite extraordinary sub-note in the Who pantheon. A brilliant gap-in-the‑market notion in the early years of the century from the ambitious and expanding Interactive side of the BBC. RIP. There’s lots to thank that ambition and vision for. This well documented production may even have been a significant catalyst in the 2005 reboot, helpfully allowing the BBC to realise that they did indeed have a full set of rights to revive the show. Light bulbs were quick to blink on.

But in acting so chivalrously, Shalka did itself out of a job and risked banished itself as a footnote. Fortunately, it’s the story’s quality rather than its oddity that’s earned it longevity – even a novelisation and home media release. Yes, the most difficult thing about this uneasy relation is that it really is very good.

Masterful set-up

“I seem to attract the military”

Producer James Goss drove the passion of the project, over some challenging landscape. And he got an awful lot right, especially in hiring the ever-reliable and inspired Paul Cornell. Goss also packed the production out with a high punching cast. Over the years, Richard E. Grant’s performance has come in for some stick, but it’s really not as phoned in or lazy as has been suggested. His arch Doctor sits nicely in the centre of a fine cast that included Diane Quick and Sophie Okonedo. Cornell crafted a classic and creepy tale in the Quatermass-mould, an innovative invasion that was in many ways a lighter precursor of the process Russell T Davies would undertake for the television reboot. It’s no surprise they came up with some similar solutions in the changed media landscape of the new century. Rightly ignoring regeneration, as Rose would, Shalka introduced a new Doctor with a notably sharper and fluctuating personality, coping with in-built angst as he struggled to shake off the grief of losing an unseen and un-named female companion. In this continuity, much to his chagrin and resentment he’s continually dispatched to problem areas by those unseen and unnamed… We can only assume that the Time Lords had a new PR team in.

On the ground, some familiarity is dismissed. There’s no Brigadier here, but a hotline to the Secretary General (of the UN) and a new set of military ‘allies’. It’s a clear and successful attempt to nod to the past and set the agenda for a potential future, as befitted the first BBC commissioned Doctor Who since 1989. And amid the changes, an intriguing skeleton in the closet was the greatest nod of all. A mysterious presence lurking around the dark console of the TARDIS. An affable ally of a Master. Or so it seemed…

The struggle for dignity

“Now, where shall we begin..?”

In a series of short scenes, this Master cuts a memorable figure. Superbly voiced by Derek Jacobi, his is an incarnation very much in the Delgado mould. In many ways, this is Cornell’s love letter to that Master. But the trick here is that he’s never a major threat. As if he’s trapped in a time loop of the last few minutes of almost every one of the Delgado incarnation’s plots – forced into joining forces with the Doctor.

Still the presence of the Doctor’s Moriarty can’t help to remind us that a Doctor is defined by his enemies. Unsurprisingly for the author who crafted some fantastic alien societies in his Doctor Who prose work, a real strength of this story is the Shalka. A monster unlike anything Who’s seen before. Physically they may resemble any number of insectoid or maggot-type creations, but they not only have a well-developed technology based on their sonic scream, but as bioplasmic beings have the potential to build their husk bodies into any shape they want. The novelisation explains that this ability is strictly governed by a hierarchy there isn’t time enough to expand on screen. With a strict and unperturbed opinion that anyone else is a lower life form, there is an ambiguous tone to their reveal as the personification of (planetary) death. Not predators, but death incarnate. The end of the world, planet-wide carnage. It’s a nice scope. “We bring extinction to the entire human race”. References to the Fendahl might be dripping quietly in the corner of their caves. The Shalka neatly take the mantle of Who villain and much of the threat the Master would have previously considered his life’s work. And it’s when these monsters easily gain access to the Doctor’s TARDIS that we meet what’s become of the twisted Time Lord, swamped in shadow in a strikingly lit console room.

Difficult choices

“Every day presents a new challenge to one’s dignity”

So, there’s the Master, effectively in the Eighth Doctor TARDIS, informing the Shalka that he’s the dearest companion to the owner of the craft. He’s a dapper gent, all calm and suave (only hesitating when his minor transgressions risk detection), and he’s still scientifically superior. His first act is banish the Shalka from the craft by reflecting their “tiresome” screams.

 “Why did I choose continuing existence? Listening to him being right all the time, when I had the option of a slow, painful death…”

As we soon discover, this isn’t an insidious reveal of the true villain. This Master’s actually a robot construction of the Doctor’s, containing the Time Lords consciousness but with strict programming parameters that are suggested to include an inability to leave the TARDIS. Quite presumably then, he’s a direct continuation of the Master’s deranged and very final death in the Television Movie. And his place of death, in the heart of the TARDIS, may well provide another explanation for his anchoring in the time ship aside from the Doctor’s caution. This Doctor, although wonderfully crotchety, self-absorbed and distracted is right to be wary, as the Master will of course switch allegiance at any opportunity. That means siding with the Shalka or attempting to hypnotise Alison – the Doctor’s female companion archetype that he simply cannot tolerate. At least the Doctor was shameless enough to admit that the Delgado incarnation was his favourite, unless it was a particular request from the unlucky, disembodied consciousness.

Conflicting comedy

“This is the fast-track invasion plan. Get you to do it for them.”

Cornell’s script happily marries comedy and horror. It’s dark from the sinister start. There’s the sad death of home-robbed Matilda that forces the helpless Doctor’s hand, and then Kim. Only seen as a statue, before Alison describes how she was compelled to kill herself by smearing lava over her body. There’s the body horror and then, near the end, Who’s best zombie horde since The Curse of Fenric (how sad Shalka came 14 years but only a few stories later). A surprising amount of the comedy comes from this Master’s conflict with his new position. It’s all a little fan-pointed: the more you realise this is the Master’s deepest hell, the more you might get out of it. But he forms an odd couple with the Doctor. They’ve clearly been travelling in this formation for some time, but the Doctor’s wonderfully dismissive of his constant companion (one of Cornell’s neat characterisations) and not a disturbed a mote by his infidelity (“I can explain” “You don’t have to”). Relentlessly humiliating for the Master, good thing he rises above it.

This android Master’s silhouette is often seen in shadow amid stunningly dark imagery, as if to compound his constraint. Cornell gifts him with a witty script, with a distaste for everything, especially the Doctor’s most infuriatingly human trait. And maybe even that’s a throwback to the movie in this well thought out adventure.

“I am by no means fond of you.”

In a late confession to Alison, the companion in waiting that he can’t stand, we learn more about this Master. Always lurking near the console, of aid during a dark time in the Doctor’s life, accepting of one last chance of salvation… Although, he’s right to suspect that they’ll never reach Bognor Regis. As wonderfully savvy and naïve as ever. It’s a Time Lord friendship reignited although it’s clearly taken a lot of constraints to make it ‘work’. A rare insight into the interdependence of these allies. Cornell’s novella adds almost as much to this TARDIS dynamic as it does to Shalka society that the animation could only hint at.

The Master’s Doctor

“I’m a homeless person myself – it’s the first thing I am”

A quick not on the Master’s Doctor we find here, I think I can say that. This ‘Ninth Doctor is angry, perceptive and full of deflection through witty references to Pachelbel, Lon Cheney and the D’Oyley Carte. “They keep putting me in places where terrible things are going to happen” he complains, explaining much of his put upon personality. This Doctor has reason to be gruff. When confronted with his death, or someone else’s, he’s notably contrite as his persona hardens. But the standards are still there: “I don’t kill” he barks during bouts of necessary but frequent non-lethal violence.

Some kind of legacy

So Shalka was written off as soon as it was released. A token nod at a token time – during those difficult few years of computer rooms, dial-up and roll loading flash files. But it has a fair claim to not only opening the revival’s doors, but changing the bulb at the top of the Police Box as well.

Reasonably, New Who was already formulating in Russell T Davies’ mind as Cornell was crafting his own reboot. The mirrors of what was there from the start and what developed over time are notable.

By the time the Master returned to the show in the third series, the programme had transformed into a cohesive bar of soap. So for all the highs and lows of his or her’s mania, it’s no surprise that the friendship between the two Time Lords is far more to the fore. This is no human friendship. At the end of Series Three, the Doctor would offer the Master an eternity in his TARDIS, but the John Simm incarnation would refuse what Jacobi’s accepted. And of course, Simm’s predecessor was none other than Jacobi himself… A persona that was echoed across universes. Or at the very least, a clearly a memorable performance.

Elsewhere, the Doctor turns up at Alison’s house to meet her for the second time, just as his parallel self would with Rose. This Doctor has an edge, using of people like Greaves with precognition of the Twelfth Doctor (“I’m just popping out to do something eccentric” – dialogue more New Series than Classic). Later, he asks the terrible of his companion in waiting, pushing his past loss and personal concerns to one side for the sake of the planet. And then there’s David Tennant’s brief cameo. Working next door at the time he couldn’t resist asking for a part. Just a brief appearance in Doctor Who would surely have been a huge feather in that fan’s cap…

Particular mention must go to one of the story’s stand out set-pieces. The Doctor’s assured death as he falls into a black hole, on the phone at the edge of despair – ”I will have my last words, blast you”. Until he neatly realises he can take advantage of his TARDIS cell phone. Wonderful stuff, and with a definite reference in the Doctor’s TARDIS plunge come Series Eight’s Death in Heaven.

The lost nine

In the glowing hindsight of the revival…

But for all the great ideas Shalka brought to Who, from the depths of the BBC’s complete apathy – there’s that saddest of things. A decision made for the right reason that ultimately proved damaging. Why a new Doctor? As Paul Cornell relates in his making of, the producers rightly thought a regeneration would cause the biggest splash. They were right. But in the glowing hindsight of the revival, had they used the Eighth Doctor Shalka could have been merrily awarded canonical status. It would have nicely bridged the 17 year Itch of McGann’s Doctor, triggering a whole spate of new adventures for that lesser seen incarnation without necessarily affecting the New Series much at all. Still, this effectively cell-shaded odd couple of vampiric Doctor and deceitfully bearded frenemy are a pleasure to have around.

It would be four years before we got another reminder of how well the Doctor and Master could work together.

Utopia (Series 3, 2007)

“It’s not all bad news”

Scream of the Shalka was banished to non-canonical status, at the most a small parallel universe, amid the fanfare of the show’s return in 2005. But Paul Cornell would join the opening writer roster for that first series and later return to pen an adaptation of his glorious Human Nature New Adventure for Series Three. And in a neat turn of fate, it would be that brilliant tale that laid down the method of the prime Time Lord antagonist’s return.

“The Professor was an invention, so perfect a disguise that I forgot who I am”

Yes, we had to wait until the third series of the show’s hugely successful comeback to get a hint of the Master, but in the show’s convoluted timeline, he’d been back far before that. There had been a ship load of red herrings before, playing on fandom. Most notably when a suited Anthony Head posed chillingly next to a sign saying ‘Master’ in the Series Two trailer. In fact, it said Head Master. Gits. Still, we should have known better. But there was a pattern to follow.

Two sons

“Boys and their toys”

An impressive feature of the Davies years is that the big bads returned in the same order as they had in the original run. Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, Davros. Even the Macra managed to slot in the right place. But the return of the Master was going to top the lot, as he’d been around without us even noticing. And considering Human Nature was followed by Blink, that’s saying something.

“We’re going to the end of the universe”

Utopia is really a simple tale of two men, both on the verge of discovering themselves. The mysterious and out of time Professor Yana and the returning Captain Jack. After Jack’s survival at the end of the first series, Davies had been quick to explain that the charismatic time agent wouldn’t return until the third series. That return, and even Torchwood’s advent all helped obscure Utopia’s real obsession. Still, a zippy start topping up the TARDIS at the Cardiff rift picks up from the end of the spin-off show’s first series and sees Jack catching a lift on the exterior of the TARDIS as the machine tries to chuck him off. Utopia is deceptively well plotted. Jack’s presence not only casts a shadow over the over enthusiastic Tenth Doctor but explains away the irregular jump to the far, far future. And where better place to find the Master than the end of the universe…

More alternatives

“Another human hunt, God help-him.”

Utopia is a simple, high octane, bleak throwback of a story that in hindsight makes the perfect bridge to bringing back a character who’s not only one of the hero’s best known foes, but also a risk to the new lone Time Lord dynamic. And considering what was set to happen to the character over the next few years it’s a wonderful chance to see another alternative Master. What if he hadn’t been inadvertently driven mad (as we would find out some time later) and had joined the Doctor? For yes, though the secrets held off a spine-tinglingly long amount of time, the kindly Professor Yana we meet is merely a disguise. A particularly good one he remarks, although there must be a fair amount of self-persuasion in that.

“Even my title’s an affectation”

Inexplicably, the sound of drums threaten to break-through at the strangest times – not when Yana hears of the Time Lords (that may have been too obvious), but certainly when he sees the TARDIS. And this old man, crucially in his Edwardian garb, a brilliant scientist, still manages to surpass the Doctor’s grasp of science and engineering without his faculties intact as he acts out the opposite of his former self; in pursuit of unification and utopia. Perhaps the only pause the episode’s allowed, there’s that wonderful chance for the Master to work with the Doctor – with some telling joking around – for once not out of bad luck or foiled plans. And behind it plays the soaring Murray Gold piece we would soon associate with Gallifrey.

On the way to this Master discovering his true identity and heritage, Davies has a lot of fun. Still, at the time, with the evidence mounting, the expectant fans couldn’t be too sure.

A Different Future

“Not even Time Lords came this far”

Ah, the hints are all there. Utopia’s brilliant at it. Putting the Doctor instantly on edge in the far future – just look at the way he stands coldly over Harkness’ body as the Torchwood theme creeps into the score. By pairing up almost two series after his departure, we get to see the Davies masterplan in full motion, from the cutaway look on Martha’s face at the talk of regeneration to her aside, “good old Rose”. That simmering resentment of companions would add extra texture and believable motivation for the following finale adventure. And in the darkness, under a sky without stars, there’s that wonderfully frenetic soundtrack from Murray Gold, backing Who’s best homage to the zombie genre. Yes, even beating The Curse of Fenric and Shalka. In the last outpost, everything’s wonderfully old school, with paperwork, guns, water collection, wire fences extending that idea that the best future is framed in the present. There’s a real sense of post-apocalyptic dystopia, seen through the 21st century, it gets better on every viewing.

Again, that parallel that would become important in the following episodes, as the very centre of Yana’s goal twisted.

The myth of Utopia

“Everything’s dying now”

Because out there somewhere is the promise of Utopia. Amid the understandable modernity of it all Davies lets wonderful throwaway lines slip through; about human evolution and Yana’s recall that “they say there was time travel back in the old days”.

“Indomitable, that’s the word”

On the way there’s the chance for flashbacks to The Christmas Invasion, The Parting of the Ways and even Human Nature when the mechanism of the Master’s return becomes clear. If it wasn’t building and consolidating the masterplan it would pass for Doctor Who’s clip show. As it is, the show’s flexing its well-earned muscle.

“Blimey, end of the universe is a bit humbling”

And when the big reveal comes, set against the adrenaline rush of the last minute push to send the last rocket to Utopia it’s one of New Who’s highlights. Jacobi, an assured touch of class throughout, endures a fair build-up including some guest soundbites from previous incarnations, before making the most of his short but dastardly turn. Considering the incarnations to follow, it’s almost as though Jacobi’s stint used up all that suppressed rage and hate in one sharp push, allowing frippery and facetiousness to gain more of a foothold. He’s wonderfully cold, and even his irritating assistant (another reference to the Doctor) manages to grasp a chan-gut-wrenching-tho from her death as well as setting the Master’s game-plan for the series finale. As he says, “As one door closes, another must open”.

“I am the Master”

Perhaps it’s strange that the Master’s first murder in many decades fails, but then he’s likely out of practise. It’s a sad end to that unrequited romance, but so satisfying that it’s almost one he lives to regret. In a fleeting glance no words are exchanged between the Doctor and the Master. Surely much of that’s down to the psychic connection, although that would later fail to register for Missy and the Doctor (although, perhaps a psychic network was interfering then).

Once the Master’s brilliantly put the TARDIS door on latch there’s the curious and deliberate attempt to mirror the tenth Doctor.

“If the Doctor can be young and strong, then so can I… The Master reborn”

To think Utopia almost promised to be a moment of calm after the sublime Family of Blood and Blink. What next we thought? Well, nothing short of the best cliff-hanger in the show’s history. And best, we’d find out that the Master’s been with us ever since the Runaway Bride. Things were about to get magically timey-wimey. Reborn the Master was, and things were about to get very desperate.

Next Time: Marchster concludes as the Sound of Drums warm up…

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