Doctor Who loves to give us surprise twists – especially when it’s the same twist used repeatedly. But what makes the Master’s return always work so well as a genuine surprise?
We know this twist off by heart by now. We’ve seen it so many times in Doctor Who in so many different forms. Sometimes, it’s a mysterious and hidden figure who’s kept in the shadows. Sometimes, it seems to be a completely new enemy. A couple of times, they’ve even been introduced in the form of a friend. But regardless of how the episode begins, the major twist is always the same: it was the Master all along!
Why does this twist work so often, though? Especially when Doctor Who has so many other major villains to draw from. Out of all of them, why is the Master the one writers and showrunners love to use for a surprise reveal?
There are a few reasons. The first is that the Master is a villain that the largest possible audience is guaranteed to recognize. Now, Classic Series fans will recognize names like Sutekh, Omega and the Rani. But while these names are major to us, they only appeared in one or two stories at most on TV. As a result, the general audience is unlikely to have even heard of them.
The Master is different. While the character wasn’t introduced until Season 8, the character not only quickly made an impact, but proved to be an extremely popular and successful villain. In fact, the Master had appeared in twenty television stories before the New Series came along. That’s four times more appearances than Davros made, and he’s someone that’s almost as iconic. So when Russell T Davies wanted to bring in a major popular villain for his third series as showrunner, the Master was an easy option. He’s as iconic to Doctor Who as Lex Luthor or the Joker are to comics.
Master of disguise
But why the surprise? We’ve gone into detail on why the Master is an easy enemy to bring back, but not why the return is so often handled as a surprise.
There are two key reasons that stand out. First, there’s the fact that the Master is a Time Lord, and just like the Doctor, they can regenerate. So they can disguise themselves in plain sight until they’re ready to reveal who they are, as both Michelle Gomez’s and Sacha Dhawan’s incarnations enjoyed doing.
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Speaking of disguises, this brings me to the second reason why reveals are often so effective. Even when it’s a Master that we’re familiar with – no, especially when it’s a Master that we’re familiar with – the evil Time Lord loves to put on a disguise.
This was true for both Roger Delgado’s and Anthony Ainley’s Masters, although it was more for the latter that the disguise would be used for a major cliffhanger. It was a surprise that Steven Moffat clearly wanted to use for John Simm’s Master in World Enough and Time. It’s just a shame that the BBC completely ruined that surprise in the name of ratings, especially as it was a well-constructed one, too.
Lastly, surprise Master reveals are so often used because let’s face it – we love them. We all have a favorite Master reveal moment: whether it’s the return of the decayed Master in The Keeper of Traken, or Professor Yana opening the watch in Utopia, we all have a particular favorite take on the classic twist. While it shouldn’t be a twist that’s used too often, we always love it when it’s handled right.
What’s your favorite Master reveal? Do you think the Classic or the New Series handled the Master’s surprise returns better in general? Let us know in the comments below.