Doctor Who: The Master in the 1990s – “I’m glad one of us is amused”

TV Movie The Master Eric Roberts


One MaRCHster long-read to unite them all…

As the Doctor Who: The Movie reaches 20 years old, this is it – a special bonus MArchSTER looking at 1996’s peculiar and divisive incarnation of the Master. An irresistible glance, as oddly, the cycle of the Doctor’s Time Lord rival almost came full circle…

“Humans, always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there”

OVER A DECADE AFTER DOCTOR WHO’S SUCCESSFUL RETURN TO BRITISH TELEVISION, THE WEIGHT OF HINDSIGHT HANGING OVER THE DOCTOR’S SHORT FORAY ACROSS THE ATLANTIC COULDN’T BE GREATER. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a film that struggled to accommodate the wealth of the show’s history, while refusing to fully reboot from the roots of its original run, ended up dipping into the past so much. And through the trials and tribulations that marked its emergence, despite its resolutely fin de siècle setting, how fitting that the American TV Movie paid tribute to the Master in the decade of his first appearance…

The Television Movie (1996)

A history of villainy

“You want me to kill you?”

The path Doctor Who took to America was long and tortuous. Even when it reached production, the sheer number of stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic made tough going. There’s no doubt that between the stand-offish/love the property found at the BBC of the time and evangelistic/waning interest among American production companies, casting demands, excessive script notes and strengthening Canadian dollars that impacted its Vancouver production, what reached the screen wasn’t quite what anyone expected.

Philip Segal was the producer who saw the opportunity and pushed to bring the property, left fallow by the BBC. Having fond memories of watching the show while growing up in the UK, before he emigrated to the US and ultimately joined Steven Spielberg’s Amblin, His single-minded passion lies behind its very existence.

When pre-production finally swung into gear after years of protracted placing of jigsaw pieces, creating the Bible for the potential American series fell to writer John Leekley. A writer who grew an obsession with Pertwee era-Who during development, but was set to become one of the franchise’s lost figures. His outline was canon-defying, pitching previous Doctor Who mentor, ally and enemy Cardinal Borusa as the Doctor’s grandfather, aiding his grandson on a quest to find the Doctor’s his missing father Ulysses. The plot of what would become the series’ back-door pilot, drafted in 1994, fell to the Doctor’s escape from Gallifrey, a trip to London and a meeting with Churchill during World War II. Segal blamed this on his Third Doctor and UNIT obsession and a “bad case of Dad’s Army”. Leekley’s ensuing Indiana Jones-styled script pushed Steven Spielberg out of the frame, coincided with the arrival of Trevor Walton, Fox’s head of TV movies, and ultimately forced the writer’s removal. Robert de Laurentiis entered, steering the script away from Borusa, introduced a comic companion but retaining Leekley’s concept of the Master as the scripts main antagonist.

When the script fell to writer Matthew Jacobs in 1995, a wonderfully unruffled interviewee on the subject, whose father incidentally had a guest appearance in the 1966 serial The Gunfighters, he was aided by the BBC’s Jo Wright in an executive producing (and key holding) role during the sharp run-up to production. As Jacobs has said, ““My script was basically Doctor Who am I?” World War II was out, Gallifrey too, and continuity returned with the inclusion of Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. With minimal dialogue, he was set to regenerate into Paul McGann who had seen off a number of rivals including his brother Mark to land the main role. With the canon reinstated, the Master was confirmed, continuing the antagonism that led back to his first appearance in 1971’s Terror of the Autons.

But in a production that aside from its great BBC investment, enjoyed a British director, star, two executive producers and writer, at least, the villain was what Segal called a “line in the sand”. Fox and Universal insisted on a named American actor from a prescribed list, which Segal circumspectly added was a triumph of “commercialisation over creative rationale”. And so the Master took an unexpected new form…

Wasted Chances

“What do you know of last chances? … I have wasted all of my lives because of you Doctor”

Like the Doctor, we see two incarnations of the Master. First comes his shortest screen incarnation in the static and rather obscure form of Canadian Gordon Tipple. His opening narration was ultimately left on the cutting room floor, instead oddly falling to a Doctor we wouldn’t see for nearly half an hour. Onscreen, in a bizarre minimalist neon execution, with ear-splitting screeches of not-quite-right “exterminates”, the Master meets his end on the endlessly reanimated Skaro. The closest look we get to him is the close-up of his reptilian eyes, eyes that can’t possibly be confused with the Cheetah virus we saw the Master succumb to in Survival, seven years prior to the TV Movie’s broadcast. But from a distance, before his brief disintegration, this Master doesn’t look far off the dapper form of the Ainley or Delgado variations. Off-screen, Tipple certainly has the looks to carry off that malevolently beardy tradition.

But once dispatched and handed over by all too cooperative Daleks, it’s not long before the Master enacts his rather strange escape strategy: critically wounding the TARDIS in the time vortex. It’s understandable that he doesn’t truly want to return to Gallifrey, but there’s little plot here. Everything that transpires is utterly arbitrary. As refreshing is it to find a Master who hasn’t planned to any great extent, not even over-the-top plotting on a pathetically small scale, we’re witnessing the last gasp of the survival years.

Enter the dragon

“My name is not Honey”

The brunt of the survivalist Master’s final days is borne by Bruce, the San Franciscan paramedic otherwise embodied by Eric Roberts. Roberts take on the Master was roundly vilified at the time, and endlessly blamed on compromise in behind the scenes debriefs. to criticise the Master for chewing the scenery though, is rather disingenuous given this is Who’s most pantomime character.

We’ve see the Master as a husk before, before being a slightly more emotive husk, then a body-seizing zombie throughout the 1980s. We’re back to zombie mode in the TV Movie, although this is one far more informed by Captain Black than the sturdy future-Elizabethan Trakenite Tremas he had adopted a decade and a half before.

Various expanded universe material has attempted to explain the run up to the Master’s execution from where we last saw him, seemingly succumbing to the Cheetah people virus amid imminent volcanic destruction. In transmission terms, the Dalek’s interest in placing him on trial could only fall to his nefarious alliance with them during Frontier in Space. Big Finish’s Mastermind, a Companion Chronicle that allowed the TV movie’s Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso to circumnavigate copyright restrictions and enter the expanded universe in other roles, bridged the gap using their ‘default’ Master, the form seen mildly rejuvenated in The Keeper of Traken played by the far-from Eric Roberts form of Geoffrey Beevers. They even managed to confirm his snake form’s full name as a Deathworm Morphant. Before that, Terrance Dicks’ The Eight Doctors stated the Morphant was a deliberate, death-defying invention of alien convenience the Morg, while the comic The Fallen noted they were indigenous to Skaro. Appearing in the TV Movie more often as a slug or puddle of gloop than in serpentine form, the Master has remarkable speed and dexterity – the leap to leave the TARDIS through the key hole is particularly impressive.

Kitting up

“I always dress for the occasion”

That unfortunate paramedic called to the Seventh Doctor is clearly known at work and in a happy marriage despite his snoring. The movie makes it clear that Bruce’s is a dead body which this snake-form Master wears like a glove. A glove that won’t hold together long, unlike his previous Ainley incarnation. Seizing the body via Bruce’s mouth in his plasmic snake form is a far cry from the laughter aside dissolve that ended his days as a husk. Indeed, as this Bruce incarnation of the proceeds to deposit and suck up possession through his mouth, it appears he’s developed quite an orally fixated serpent.

The flexible gloop that allows him to possess at will is a handy trick, but this Master seems to have little need for such accoutrements. This Master’s powers of mesmerisation are their most impressive for years, at one point summoning Chang Lee across the TARDIS console room without even saying ‘obey me’.

There is the implication this is aided by his now completely reptilian eyes, a characteristic carried over from his pre-execution body. While this incarnation may be most remembered for his leather jacket and sunglasses combo, a leap to Americana from his first dapper appearance that was too much for many, it serves a purpose considering Bruce’s profession and those giveaway pupils.

There is a character journey, from the Master’s early unfortunate, black-eyed drooling on the end of Bruce’s bed to his extravagant end. His odd, robotic beginnings may capture most memories, and indeed the pace of the film doesn’t quite do it justice before it’s shoe-horned into the script with the line “It took me a minute, with the talking and the walking”.  But once this incarnation gains his swagger 40 minutes in he’s quite entertaining. Indeed, he’s particularly at home in vehicles. Whether correcting Grace’s grammar or wryly misinterpreting Chang Lee’s comment that he “kills him” in the ambulance or putting on a show in the TARDIS. True, the Master’s panicky and strange aversion to the fire extinguisher that the Doctor uses on him (stranger still, only once) is never explained – presumably that’s partly because it ruins his looks. But in a film of both humorous and pleasing oddities, where Grace is the stunning and stunningly brilliant Doctor, Trustee of the San Francisco Institute of Technological Advancement and Research but seldom moves beyond lightheaded and naive protestations and Chang Lee calls his deadly gang rivals “wimps”, that throwaway scene doesn’t stand out.

Bringing evil back

“This can’t be how it ends”

This Master still has a tendency to play up his malevolence with an unlikely air of invulnerability. At first, it’s difficult to keep in mind that this is still the same direct incarnation of the Time Lord that spanned back to The Deadly Assassin. Then he was a husk quite possibly but not definitely at the very end of his Delgado incarnation. Worse, that may mean Bruce is a continuation of the Master who assumed terrible obvious translated pseudonyms. The Master who later went to the horribly drawn out pretence of playing Kalid in Timeflight and Sir Gilles Estram in The King’s Demons opposite the Fifth Doctor. So many years later he’s happy to head into a hospital full of people who know his meat-glove body before he’s nailed the right mannerisms and gleefully peel off a decayed fingernail. It can only be a judgment on his earlier terrible disguises.

As his forgiving nurse friend says, “Oh Bruce, you’re sick”. As he replies, irony undetectable, “Thank-you”. Still, although there’s no comparable depth of plan, it does recall some of the insidious perseverance of his Husk form; happily plotting with the last of his energy and even simulating his own death to reach his goals. In the TV Movie, perhaps it’s the severe deadline – something that had seldom bothered the Master before…

Simple Plot

“I must find the Doctor, this body will not last long”

Ah yes, the Master’s plot. It’s is ridiculously quick and simple in itself, just requiring a hugely complicated set of events that the Master clearly doesn’t fully understand before he embarks on it and on that is almost constantly derailed by incidents solely caused by his arbitrary sabotage of the TARDIS at the head of the film. He managed to land the TARDIS in an evocative timeframe where the Doctor realises the McGuffin he needs to fix the TARDIS before he’s left the machine, before he fully understands the Master’s involvement, before he’s even reached his eighth incarnation.

The Doctor’s regeneration, although again arbitrary, suits the Master as at least it provides a fresh body. As dismissive of regeneration as he is, the film isn’t. The Master’s rebirth as Bruce is balanced with the Doctor’s delayed regeneration, the juxtaposition of resurrection and serpent all too clear. From that point, the Master’s goal is simply to take the Doctor’s body for his own. He and the Doctor are both careful to state their resurrection cycle is limited to 13 regenerations. And as this Master is happy to make light of wasted regenerations as he blames the Doctor for Chang Lee’s benefit, he is straightforwardly accepting his own villainy. As if there ever was, this incarnation has no chance of any redemption. That arc falls to Chang Lee, the companion the Master picks up for very little purpose, while the Doctor gains Grace.

Assassination games

“Unspeakable crimes”

Dismissing the Ainley years, the unsaid implication of the Master’s plot is that any body other than a Time Lord’s would not be fit for purposes. Even the Master’s rather shocking discovery that the Doctor is half human fails to impact his plan or the method.

Perhaps the Master had confidence in the simplicity of his plan because he’d tried it before… While he had no Time Lord body to upgrade this time and was forced to seize the body of his “rival Time Lord”, The TV Movie bears a great similarity to the plot of classic serial The Deadly Assassin.

As soon as John Leekley’s series Bible leaked in the pre-internet outrage 1990s, there was concern that any prospective series would remake classic stories. Segal has subsequent explained this away as misunderstanding, but tent-pole stories were clearly dominent in the mind of the creators.

As recalled in the first MaRCHster long-read, Series 14’s The Deadly Assassin found the Master enacting an intricately plotted masterplan in the heart of Gallifrey that would secure him domination over the Time Lords, a new cycle of regenerations and eliminate his rival all in one. While the TV Movie finds the Master requiring the Eye of Harmony to guarantee his future, this time it is not forgotten in ritual but sits in the Cloister Room of the TARDIS. The suggestion is that it’s the sole Eye, rather than the source of all TARDIS power (although no other TARDISes are mentioned). It’s the Doctor who suggests that it hasn’t been opened for 700 years, but there’s no suggestion that refers to the events of The Deadly Assassin. He’s also somewhat surprised that the Master managed to open it at all. Of course, as we discover along with the Master, that’s because it can only be opened by human eyes, a revelation that soon leads to the wry discovery that the Doctor is half human. It’s all kept wonderfully ambiguous in some lean dialogue that’s been a feast for the expanded universe.

The Master’s plot needs a limitation as he’s clearly shown entering the TARDIS twice through unknown means – and it can’t have been through the keyhole. He even digs out some fine Gallifreyan robing in his size for the end game, but it’s a great shame we never get to see this TARDIS’ cloakroom. The design of his cloak finery is wonderful, especially in the oddly autumnal confines of the large un-cloisterish Cloister room, but his hubristic and pointless donning of Gallifreyan garb is probably the most out of character act this short-lived Master’s commits.

Come the end, this Master’s plot is undone by his reliance on slaves, hubris and classic lack of thinking things through. At least that final element is consistent throughout this incarnation. It was always ropey pulling in Chang Lee with a sob story while simultaneously threatening and bribing him. His ability to cheat the Doctor and get anywhere near succeeding falls to his inherited abilities as a Deathworm Morphant, controlling Grace through his projectile gloop, a handy trick which appears able to either kill, burn or possess at his will.

As this Master carries no redemptive qualities, his plans collapse ends up not with the volte face as defined the 1970s and much of the 1980s, but a straightforward punch-up and death during some dodgy temporal bluster which would set the template for New Who. It must be those reptilian eyes that lead a flash of light to inexplicably alters his death leap mid-jump. But there’s no doubt, as he rejects the Doctor’s help, before ambiguously calling his name, His death is absolute. And interestingly, rather than sucked into the Eye of Harmony, he seems to explode in its clutches.

It’s a very flash in the pan story this Master undertakes, seemingly embracing and rejecting the gothic at every turn. Packed full of ideas, adding qualities never seen before in rogue, it’s greatest shame is that the idea of a decomposing, desperate Master with a very limited timespan is under-developed. Come the end, on the verge of victory, he’s changed very little from his possession a day or so before. A fact, perhaps, down to the face behind the face.


“Life is wasted on the living”

Certain unexpected moments of the TV Movie, often with little real consequence, continue to overshadow the TV Movie. When it comes to canonicity, its position as a token movie produced across the Atlantic lends it a healthy ‘take it or leave it’ charm (or aversion, if you’re that way inclined).  Interesting and conflicting theories have sprung up in explaining the Master’s entrance, his subsequent survival, the TARDIS redecoration and the Doctor’s true lineage. Not to mention that kiss. Oddly, such strong continuity as the Seventh Doctor provides came at the insistence of Philip Segal, who wanted to build on the existing 26 years of continuity. It was the BBC who rejected this, albeit through wholly pragmatic eyes (Sylvester McCoy wasn’t a popular Doctor, why use him?). When the series returned to the BBC nine further years later, it was easy to see the difficulty that this mid-1990s experiment set itself by deliberately plugging the Master and Doctor into direct continuity from the off.

Aside from their backstory, the closing fisticuffs between the Master and Doctor was a direct lead in to Survival, upgrading from the sword fights the two engaged in during the early 1970s and built from the strong influence of Holmes and Moriarty. The Eye of Harmony, although relocated, the Time Lord finery in clothing and design, the Staff bearing Rassilon’s face and everywhere, his emblem – the weight of at least 20 years of Doctor Who is evident. But much of it was at best strange, at worst wasted on a predominantly American audience. It expects familiarisation with the concept of regeneration to the point of choosing an opening narration from a character who wouldn’t be ‘born’ for 20 minutes or so, to the point the plot is built around it. And some utterly strange things emerge from this clash of continuity. Take the comic relief morgue porter who’s tremendously disrespectful to the corpses in his care. Horrendous, but dramatically fine because it’s okay, as we all know that the, or a, Doctor will live.


“What are you waiting for?”

Much as it hurts in this Master-focussed series, the most important thing the TV movie brought us was Paul McGann and his fine incarnation of the Time Lord. His success in the expanded universe brought him a well-deserved send-off for the 50th anniversary but his one main feature length appearance in Doctor Who will always explicably link him to the Roberts version of the Master. A Master we will surely never see again. The show’s successful return in 2005 allowed McGann’s exit in 2013’s The Night of the Doctor. And it’s been fascinating to watch the past 11 years of New Who pick up so many of the strands and ideas that this brief and rather railroaded foray to San Francisco left hanging.

The tone and budget expanse of the TV movie had an effect of course, in a show that was otherwise looking across the Atlantic to contemporary science fiction and fantasy. Dramatically there’s the heightened role of the TARDIS, the deus ex machina ending and sentimentality of a time machine that uses something that looks much like regeneration energy in hindsight to resurrect the two slain companions. At the departure, there’s the warning to one friend, then the companion’s refusal of the role– surely something that any subsequent series would have reversed, and wouldn’t be seen again until Donna Noble. Grace herself is a more developed companion than the original series offered up, despite falling into tropes unbefitting her achievements despite the Doctor’s sage predictions. Mind you, much the same was true of imbecilic Dr Harry Sullivan. We would have to wait until 2007 to see another MD join the TARDIS crew. There’s the kiss of course, or kisses. This Doctor is not as averse to saying goodbye as he once was. This is when the new Doctors began. Continuing up until, well all the way to his Twelfth incarnation it seems.

And then there’s the Master, who would be part explained away by the non-canon Scream of the Shalka in 2003, returning to a more classical look albeit in an android form, presumably the Morphant consciousness having been salvaged from the TARDIS’ digestive system. When he made his triumphant and canonical return to the show at the end of the third series in 2007, the Time War had rendered his quest for survival irrelevant. He returned with regenerative abilities, the body of a Time Lord, a companion, and when facing death would again refuse the Doctor’s help. In the TV Movie, the Master’s Palpatine-like “Unlimited Power” moment when he’s close to taking the Doctor’s lives foreshadows his ‘Masterplan’ in The End of Time. The Master makes it clear in opposition to the Doctor, he’s no fan of Earth or humans at all.

More than a bridge, this brief zombie of a Master can now be seen as the last chapter of the arch-enemy’s years of survival. When he was at his blackest to the Doctor’s white. The intrigue and subtle menace of his first appearance was long gone, but it would return. He’d run the gamut of supernatural survival in years to come and will again, no doubt cheating certain death while he – or she – is at it. There would be plenty more humiliation to come, but as a token flash to end the classic era’s Master, a rather spectacular conclusion it is.

After all, as the Doctor says, “He’s on his last life, fighting to survive… In the fight for survival, there are no rules”.

Explore the rest of the MaRCHster series – starting in the 1970s and continuing with the Tale of Two Jacobis in the 2000s

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