Monday, 6 June 2011

A Controversial Position

I come before you now with a statement and an admission.  Knowing what I do of the tendencies of Doctor Who fandom, I’m prepared to be branded a heretic for the first, marked as a fool for the second, and forever banished to a nice cell in Block Theta of the Stormcage for both. Or at the very least slagged off in the comments section.  However, in the immortal words of Super-Chicken’s faithful assistant Fred, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.  So here goes.

The statement: For a long time, The Master was a lousy character.

Yes, I get that he’s the Doctor’s greatest adversary who doesn’t carry a toilet plunger; yes, I get that he’s the Professor Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes; yes, I get that he’s the Doctor’s mirror image, the evil reflection of his personality, the dark counterpoint to his shining goodness, blah blather bleat. But the fact remains that, throughout the original series, the Master never really does much more than stand around announcing his nefarious schemes, having periodic fits of maniacal laughter, and basically coming off like Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the Roger Corman version of Thunderball, the one where the budget didn’t stretch to hiring a Persian cat(This film does not actually exist, but don’t tell me you wouldn’t pay to see it.)

No disrespect whatever to Roger Delgado, who could invest the most ludicrous speeches with conviction and dignity as if giving his Iago at the National Theatre and who had the greatest goatee ever grown by a human chin.  I can’t blame Anthony Ainley either; you try being menacing while dressed as an Elizabethan Klingon. The less said about the unfortunate sod in the burn-victim makeup, the better; I hope he was well paid. However the fact remains that the Master was always a collection of evil mastermind tropes, a fact that was thrown into stark, hilarious relief by Jonathan Pryce in Steven Moffat’s script for the Comic Relief parody The Curse of Fatal Death. To this day, when rewatching The Last of The Time Lords, I keep checking the line of John Simm’s suits for telltale signs of Dalek Bumps.

Even Russell T. Davies, in interviews given during his first series, confessed he wasn’t certain he’d be bringing the Master back—at least, not until he could devise a way to make him more than The Guy With The Black Moustache Who Sneers. Which, I’m sure we’re all agreed, he and Sir Derek Jacobi and John Simm finally did, brilliantly.

So. The classic version of the Master: not a good character. That’s the statement.

Here’s the admission:

I love Eric Roberts as the Master.

There. I said it.

Roberts played the role in the 1996 TV Movie imaginatively titled Doctor Who, an abortive attempt by producer Philip Segal, in partnership with BBC Worldwide, Universal and the American Fox Network, to launch a new television series starring Paul McGann as The Eighth Doctor. Those who know about this project need not be told that Whovians are widely divided over it. Granted, that’s not saying much: Whovians possess the rare talent to make anything a divisive issue. But it's true that it's a miracle that the thing got made at all, given that every single decision had to satisfy Segal, director Geoffrey Sax, the BBC, Fox, Universal Television and the lady in Craft Services who served the tea.  Roberts was one of those compromises-by-committee, being apparently the only actor in the civilised world who a) possessed sufficient name recognition for American audiences, b) fit the available salary budget and c) actually agreed to accept the part.

Eric Roberts has had something of a checkered career. I'd be the last person to try to sell the man as a major thespic talent of our age on the strength of his role in, say, D.O.A. But the acting profession can be a very hard dollar even for the best of actors, and in a situation common to all working performers, Roberts has been very good in a number of roles, and has done the best he could do in the things he had to take to keep food on the table. Alas, we as an entertainment-consuming people are incredibly unforgiving of perceived failure, a tendency that has tended to turn Mr. Roberts’ name into a facile joke.  I submit that, in this instance at least, the gentleman has nothing to apologise for.

The Master of this movie seems to be writer Matthew Jacobs's reaction to many of the shortcomings I pointed out at the beginning of the article. No longer is the character an urbane, debonair blackguard quoting from 101 Nefarious Aphorisms for All Occasions; he's been disintegrated, turned into a box of CGI goo, and has been reduced to crawling into the mouth of a hapless working stiff simply in order to possess his body and have a pair of legs to walk around with. This would tend to play merry hell with anyone's psyche. This Master isn't just evil; he's batshit crazy, which by itself turns him into a much more interesting character and a juicier role to play.

I can't speak to Roberts' motivations for taking the role, though I suspect that it had as much to do with paying his bills as anything else. But he seems to have said to himself, "All right; I've got this silly TV show playing a ridiculous bad guy in a dumb science-fiction story. Might as well enjoy myself." And oh, does he ever. He has enormous fun making the Master as flamboyantly weird as possible. His Master is more than just crazy; he knows he's crazy, he's getting the biggest kick out of being crazy, and he just doesn't care. He loves it.

Take this scene, in which the Master, having just possessed the body of an unfortunate EMT named Bruce, goes to the hospital where the Doctor's body was last known to have been seen.  Roberts is dressed in black leather jacket and sunglasses, playing the scene as if he hasn't quite worked out how to use the body, speaking in an unnerving and surpassingly creepy monotone, the whole thing an obvious and playful reference to The Terminator:

Hey, Bruce. Why the shades?

I had a bad night.

Did you want something?

What happened to the gunshot wound I brought in? I've got orders to move him.

He died.

Oh yeah. Well. I've got orders to move his body.

(As he says this, The Master peels off one of his own fingernails, leaving a bloody pad, completely oblivious to the pain, then casually tosses it away.)

Where is it?
(leans closer; with urgency)
His body.

Haven't you heard? The body's gone. Stolen!

Okay. Where are his things?

The kid that brought him in ran off with them.

The Asian child.

"The Asian child?" Bruce, you're sick!

(he means it)
Thank you.

In other scenes, the Master lies through his borrowed teeth to enlist the aid of others, which Roberts plays like the world's best used-car salesman, utterly confident in his line of bullshit and hardly bothering to conceal his own glee at fooling the stupid humans.  He also has genuinely scary moments, such as the one where the Master calmly murders the wife of the man he's possessed, gently shushing her screams with a dainty finger to his lips.

It all comes to a magnificent head at the movie's climax, wherein the Doctor and his arch enemy face off inside the TARDIS' Cloister Room for a final showdown.  For the scene Roberts is dressed in a fantastically elaborate version of the classic Gallifreyan Time Lord Ceremonial Robe.  It's been reported that Roberts wasn't entirely able to take the costume seriously on set, and he has no qualms about sending it up:

"I always dress for the occasion." (Actual line.)

Kind of hard to blame him under the circumstances. Still, camp outfit notwithstanding, Roberts completely commits to the operatic tone of the climax, declaiming his lines with relish and giving the proceedings all he's got, through his inevitable, special-effects-laden defeat.

Doctor Who fans may quarrel about the merits of this movie. (Hell, they may quarrel about what River Song likes for breakfast.)  They may prefer the traditional Master to the movie's admittedly unconventional and slightly satiric version.  But that's all to the good; if we all liked the same things, all blogs and fan forums would become boring, rather pointless places. For myself, I'll go to my grave admiring the attempt to put a little fun back into the Master, to invest him with humour, madness and a sense of play. It's hard to deny that Russell T. Davies and John Simm saw the usefulness of this approach.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a shuttle to catch. I have to report to Stormcage in the morning.

Thank you for your attention. Lock and load!


  1. I do like Simm's Master when he first appeared and I wished Jacobi had more Master screen time. I am still not keen on Eric Roberts Master and I don't really know why. But Ainley will always be my favourite Master.

  2. For me Roger Delgado was the one and only true master. There is a great dicumentary regarding the master on the Terror of the Autons dvd. Check it out.

  3. As a relatively fresh "Whovian," I haven't seen enough to form strong opinions. I do have to thank you though for bringing this gem to light. I've been trying to absorb as much information about the Doctor as I can. Although I'm certainly glad this pilot movie didn't catch on, it was certainly entertaining.