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‘Doctor Who’s The Master: He’s Moriarty, But in Space!

5 Minute Read
Jun 12 2024

Every great hero needs a great villain, and it’s hard to find a better baddie than The Doctor’s best freinemy. But who is the Master from Doctor Who?

Welcome, fellow Whovians! Doctor Who is brilliant for many reasons: the playful historical jaunts, the wonderfully moving moments, and, of course, The Doctor themself. However, in the words of Norman Osbourne, “The one thing they love more than a hero is to see a hero fail, fall, die trying.” While The Doctor has had their share of deadly foes over the show’s run, one of them always seems to challenge them in a unique way. I am referring, of course, to The Doctor’s personal antithesis, The Master.

An image of the different incarnations of The Master, including some very interesting choices of shirt collars.

The Master is a renegade Time Lord like the Doctor, but that is the only similarity the two share. Where the Doctor is kind, insightful, and clever, the Master is cruel, deceitful, and conniving. Though the Doctor has gone down darker paths, nothing can compare to the atrocities committed by the Master. They are selfish and bitter, blaming the Doctor for all their shortcomings. The two are at once best friends, mortal enemies, and potentially lovers (though that may just be another game the Master is playing).

While not quite at the level of the Daleks for me, I absolutely love the Master. A villain that can so utterly undermine everything a hero does while also being engaging themselves and (arguably) not entirely wrong makes for great watching. While I would never defend the Master in a court of law, I can understand how they came to be the way they are. They are a masterclass in trauma reaction: some (the Doctor) want no one to feel what they felt, while others (the Master) want EVERYONE to feel it. It also helps that the Master is wickedly intelligent, and all of their plans seem thought out, wide-ranging, and almost foolproof. But it is, in fact, usually the Master themselves that ends up unraveling their plan.

The Master: Gazing Into the Void

The Master’s origins are hotly debated. Some say they were a fellow student of the Doctor’s who went by the name Magnus. They had a falling out of an unknown slight, and he left Gallifrey shortly after. However, to hear the Doctor tell it, the Master was one of their oldest friends. They were children together on Gallifrey and went through their trails together. While the Doctor was able to gaze into the void of time, whatever the Master saw drove them insane. From that moment, they became selfish and greedy, with little regard for “lesser” life or even the lives of their fellow Gallifreians.

An image of The Master from 'Doctor Who' in 1971: To the left, he stands sternly, waving a gloved hand. To the right, he's seen from the shoulders up with a mischievous grin.

Over the span of their many regenerations, the Master has always acted with regard only for themselves (and occasionally the Doctor, but only as an extension therein). They unsealed Gallifrey to restore their body, annihilated a whole civilization to override their regeneration limit, and may have even been responsible for the Dalek war. The Master has even attempted to re-write history and was successful on multiple occasions. He even split his personality in half, a feat recently repeated by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Doctors.

The Master is the Perfect Foil of the Doctor

While the Daleks are certainly The Doctor’s most hated enemy, The Master is their real archnemesis. Since they’re both Time Lords, they have the same level of intellect, technological understanding, and psychic presence. Where they differ, however, is that The Master lacks any empathy. They care little for the things they destroy, and are seemingly happy with the thought of just themself and The Doctor remaining in the universe (and sometimes not even The Doctor).

An image of the Tenth Doctor and The Master standing back to back in front of the TARDIS for BBC 'Doctor Who' promotional material.

Like The Doctor, The Master escaped Gallifrey in a stolen TARDIS, though the timeline is unclear as to exactly when. The prevailing theory is that they left shortly after The Doctor, likely to pursue them into the stars. Unlike The Doctor, however, The Master rarely travels with a Companion. There have been a few notable exceptions (Chantho and Lucy Saxon), but both were relatively short-lived. Chantho may not even count, since they didn’t even know The Master’s true identity.

READ MORE: Doctor Who: It’s Bigger on the Inside — The TARDIS Breakdown

The Many Faces of Madness

Like The Doctor, The Master is able to regenerate their form when mortally wounded. However, they have some control over the process, and many of the early regenerations shared similar physical features. The Master has far exceeded their allotted regenerations, however, and has had to resort to devastating schemes to prolong their life. On more than one occasion, they have existed in a sort of half-life, once as a living corpse and again as a destabilized being, thanks to a failed resurrection ritual.


Like the titular Doctor, this has given several prominent actors the chance to step into the dark Time Lord’s shoes. Fans of the original series are likely most familiar with Roger Delgado’s Mesmerist Master. Delgado intended to continue his tenure to the end of Jon Pertwee’s run, but he, unfortunately, passed away in 1973 when the car he was traveling in went out of control and plummeted into a ravine. Fans of “New Who” are probably more familiar with John Simms’ charismatic Harold Saxon. The foil of the Tenth Doctor and nearly the cause of his death, Saxon was a compelling villain, and his final death left many wondering if that was the last we’d see of them.

For my part, Michelle Gomez’s Missy is my favorite incarnation of The Master. I liked her unhinged portrayal, which felt less psychopathic than Simms and more playful, sinister, and dangerous. It also gave more credence to the romantic attachment between the two Time Lords, though whether that is at all intended or just a new face of the Master’s obsession is unclear.

Author: Clint Lienau
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