MasterPieces: The John Simm Master

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Tony hears the sound of drums.


There have traditionally been two types of Master: the natural Master, who comes by his or her body by the normal process of regeneration, or (in Ainley’s case) complete possession, and the unnatural Master, either disembodied or forced to steal an existence in order to survive. The first tends to play the role for character, the second, mostly for plot.

There’s also a loose correlation between the ‘type’ of Master and the success with which they’ve historically been played, and also with their ‘fit’ to a particular Doctor.

Roger Delgado, despite being in real life a very pleasant and amiable man, could have been born to play the dead-eyed gentleman psychopath of the universe, and he rarely, if ever, looked forced on-screen. He was chosen specifically to be the Anti-Pertwee.

The two ‘crispy critter’ Masters – Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beevers – were not chosen specifically to play the Anti-Baker, and such was their emaciation they were forced to play the role largely on plot, to find their way back to a body. Anthony Ainley’s Master was not Doctor-specific either, and having stolen his body, he was forced from the beginning to be a Masteralike of Delgado’s version; it was more important that he looked like what had come before than it was to let him be his own villain. While little is ever heard from the CGI-snake Master, Eric Roberts (bless him, what did he think he was doing up there?) played the Master, again having stolen a body in his outing, purely driven by the plot to get more bodies, rather than as any kind of appropriate Anti-McGann.

When the series became a hit again in 2005, it was more or less certain that the Doctor would face off with his ultimate adversary at some point. But which Master would it be? Another re-tread of the Delgado Imprimatur, all beard and convoluted plans and gloating? Or someone new and naturalistic, someone that would be genuinely fearsome and scary and funny and dark and aimed squarely at providing the antithesis of whichever Doctor he encountered?


Sir Derek Jacobi works beautifully as a bluff, delivering the delicious oddity of his Hartnell-inspired Professor Yana, a man the Doctor admires, and a great insight into what the Master could be if ever he underwent a ‘reverse-Valeyarding’ and had an incarnation that was dedicated to peace and scientific progress – an idea which Geoffrey Beevers played in the Big Finish story, Master, long before Professor Yana ever heard the sound of drums. We think only briefly of the meaning of it all when he gets headaches and a drumming in his head – the noise that drives the Master mad had never been mentioned before, which meant we didn’t know to look for it. When the fob watch is revealed though, the tension and the excitement ramp up, goaded and whipped on by the incidental music. It could be anyone, any Time Lord, hiding out at the end of the universe from the terror of the Time War, but we know, we just know who it is, who it absolutely has to be. The first time you ever see this scene, it’s one that gets you off your seat, and when the kindly Yana looks into the watch, it’s a harrowing scene – we have already been primed in The Family of Blood to think of the Time Lord ‘disguise’ as a real person – as John Smith in the Doctor’s case, a real, decent human being, denied his existence and validity by the necessity of a Time Lord reclaiming his life. And here it is again, the same sensation of watching a good man die, right in front of us, the new Master’s first victim.

When Jacobi becomes the Master proper, it’s oddly wrong, oddly ill-fitting – when Ainley pulled the same trick in The Keeper of Traken, he went on immediately to inhabit his new body with a degree of gleeful hopping about Logopolis, killing for fun. With Jacobi, it’s all in the eyes, and there is a seething hatred and resentment there that harks back to the Peter Pratt Master. It’s delicious to speculate what would have happened had the Jacobi Master continued, escaped to do battle with the Tenth Doctor (as we learn he was found abandoned as a child, this must surely be a new incarnation of the Master who electrocutes Chan’tho – would he have gone on to become the Anti-Tennant, we wonder). But of course he doesn’t – being ‘killed by an insect’ as he puts it, and determining, almost deliberately it seems, to mirror the Doctor in his youth and strength, and regenerating on-screen and in the Tardis, turning, screaming, into John Simm.

The Simm Master explodes on screen and begins immediately matching David Tennant’s Doctor, trait for trait. It’s all there in his first five minutes – there’s the post-regenerative chattiness, there’s the techno-skill, flying the Tardis with gusto, there’s the glint of mad humour and the smile. And there – right there at the end of Utopia – is something new and modern. When the Doctor says “I’m sorry”, Simm’s spitting of “Tough!” is visceral and dangerous; it’s a boot to the Doctor’s face, and a note of the savagery behind Delgado’s suavity, Ainley’s chuckle and Roberts’s…whatever-that-was.


Simm goes on to imitate Delgado not in any of the trappings of his Master (though the red-lined jacket is a nice touch), but in the fundamental philosophy of what a ‘natural’ Master is. This time, he is absolutely the Anti-Tennant, and the terrifying thing about the script of The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords is that it’s the ultimate version of the Pertwee scripts – disguise, hypnosis, cunning plans and world domination – but given a brave new twist. Simm’s is the Master who won. This is a devastating proposition, because the Master is no ordinary villain – he’s the philosophical opposite of everything the Doctor stands for, embodied in an equal, who can argue his corner and make the viewer question the Doctor’s position. It’s the combination of the scale of what the Master does to the Earth once he’s won it – “the only person to get out of Japan alive…”, and the unbridled glee with which Simm delivers his ‘stark raving bonkers’ Master, complete with dancing, disco and decimation, that makes his Master something fresh and vibrant in those two episodes.

And then of course, the production team, having well and truly had its cake with a fantastic, energised Anti-Tennant Master, decides to eat it too, and give us Simm as the body-snatching Master, the ‘other’ Master. And like disembodied Masters before him, Simm has no option but to play the character subsumed by plot, this time knowing his body is ‘born to die’ but multiplying almost endlessly and aiming to stop the drumming in his head. The End of Time is a busy script, but Simm manages to deliver the furious need of a disembodied Master more effectively in the burger-chomping scene than either Pratt or Beevers were allowed, because he keeps (largely) his own face and delivers the performance through his own interpretation of the Master as a creature propped up and kept sane by nothing more than ravenous consumption. Again, the Master is victorious in this story, though it feels (like the character himself) more hollow and reversible this time, less powerful and meaningful, and when events spin out of his control, the Master falls back on another old trope – the idea of joining forces with the Doctor to confront the greater threat. What is unique in the Master’s long on-screen history though is what Simm does in his final moments – he makes us sympathise with the Master, driven mad by ‘grown-ups’ who abused his mind if not his body; he is the child who never stood a chance, and grew up determined to be noticed. Simm’s exit might be a cliché, but it’s arguably the best and most worthwhile cliché in fifty years of Doctor Who.


When the Master next returned, the production team had to do something utterly different with the character, because John Simm’s incarnation cast long shadows, and because, essentially, with two bites at the cherry, Simm had the opportunity to play both versions of the character, the natural and the desperate, so both versions had been recently seen by the audience. John Simm, as the reborn Master, had stamped his face on the New Who version of the renegade Time Lord, reinvigorating everything that had come before and recharging it for the 21st century audience. Missy, when she finally revealed herself, would have to reference the long history of the character, but would also be forced to free herself of Simm’s shadow by taking the role in a completely new direction.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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