Gordon Tipple ("The Old Master")

SNAKE EYES!

He might have had a 'blink and you'll miss it appearance in the TV Movie, but Gordon Tipple really was a bona-fide incarnation of the Master...

[Published in Doctor Who Magazine #497 (Panini UK Ltd, April 2016), pp. 42-43. Posted here by kind permission of DWM editor Tom Spilsbury.]

“I'm probably going to get in trouble for this,” admits Canadian actor Gordon Tipple, “but I’m not a huge Doctor Who fan.”

So when in early 1996 he was first offered the part of 'The Old Master', exterminated in the opening scene of the Doctor Who TV Movie, did he know what he was letting himself in for?

“Oh, I was certainly familiar with the series and how it had been around for a long time. Going way back to my childhood in the 1960s and collecting monster magazines and stuff like that, I remember articles about Doctor Who and pictures of the Daleks. We couldn’t watch it in Canada then, but we knew about it.”

Born in 1953, Gordon grew up in London, Ontario. A childhood friend was David Boswell, the cartoonist who later created the cult comic strip Reid Fleming, The World's Toughest Milkman. So was Gordon into comics as a child?

“Oh, absolutely. Marvel and DC Comics, and of course Mad magazine. When we were kids, we thought that was just the funniest thing going. We thought it was real, cutting-edge humour.”

“David and I also had a fondness for horror and cheesy monster movies. As kids, we would try and put horror make-up on ourselves using latex rubber. At the time they called it ‘mortician's wax’, and I recall going with David down to a drugs store to try and buy some. The chemist there really gave us the third degree. He thought we wanted to disguise ourselves to pull off a bank robbery!” He laughs. “We eventually convinced him, and he relented and sold it to us. So yeah, we were playing with make-up and effects.”

Does this childhood interest in horror explain the path of his later acting career? His CV is full of roles in horror and science-fiction: as well as Doctor Who, Gordon appeared in four episodes of The X-Files, and two episodes of The Outer Limits.

“Yes, I like that stuff,” he says. “But it wasn’t really my choice to do those specific kinds of things. I’m at the mercy of my agent who puts me out for audition, the cast directors who are willing to see me, and then whether producers and directors like me enough to hire me. So I do all kinds of work. But then, when you get to do something like The X-Files, it’s a lot of fun and brings out the kid in you: ‘I’m going to get horribly killed? Oh, I’m going to love doing this!’”

In fact, Gordon has been killed in a lot of film and TV. He laughs. “Yeah, I was joking about it with a friend the other day. It seems to be, ‘This character really dies a horrible death, who can we get to do it? Oh yeah, there’s that guy…”

Was it his skills at dying that led to Doctor Who – where he’s killed off within the first minute? Again he laughs. “For the audition, as I read my line of dialogue they were just focused on my eyes and eyebrows. I have rather pronounced eyebrows, and they wanted me to be as expressive as I possibly could. So that’s what got me in there.”

We’ll discuss that line of dialogue in a moment, but once Gordon’s eyebrows had secured him the role, “they sent me to an optometrist’s shop downtown to fit me with those reptilian-looking contact lenses. I don’t wear contacts – just glasses for reading – and these things were really thick and uncomfortable. So they just put in one. There was a photography studio upstairs, and they sent me up to be photographed so the production office could see what I looked like. I then go back downstairs to the shop to have the contact lens taken out – and walk straight into a woman who’s come into buy new glasses. I scared the living hell out of her!” He laughs delightedly. “So we knew it looked good.”

When it came to recording, the contact lenses caused Gordon a lot of discomfort.

“My vision was obscured, but I was able to see just enough to get around. The problem was how quickly they dried out. The optometrist had to be there and was constantly putting on eye-drops so I’d be able to actually remove the lenses later.”

Gordon recorded his scenes at the sound stage in Burnaby, Vancouver, being used for the production. For the close-up of the eyes, he was also peering through a mask.

“Originally, in the wardrobe fitting, they had me in a kind of leather bondage mask,” he laughs. “You just saw my eyes, and there was a little vent for my nose so that I could breathe. Everything else was covered. They ended up modifying that so it covered just part of my face, because I also had that goatee thing going on.”

A goatee beard had been sported by the Master in two previous incarnations.

“I think the make-up department was given images of the guys that had gone before and tried to match me up.” Then it wasn’t a real beard? He sighs, trying to remember. “I’ve had a goatee off and on several times in my life, so I’m not sure. But looking at the image of me on set, that does look bigger than what I would have had.”

Gordon Tipple's own photos,
as featured in DWM #497
What Gordon does remember, though, is “the suit that they made for me. You don’t get a chance to see it in the little bit I’m in, but it was this black fabric that looked like little snake scales, and it had red piping. I regret not asking if I could buy the suit at the time. It was very, very cool!” In fact, the suit can be seen in the TV Movie – at the end, when it’s worn by Eric Roberts’ Master, along with his magnificent robes.

As well as the suit, Gordon wore an oddly shaped hat that looked – when seen looking down from above – like the pupil of his reptilian eyes. He was then encased in a sort of cylindrical prison. Director Geoffrey Sax explained in a book on the making of the TV Movie that these sets and effects, though looking computer-generated, were physically created.

“Yeah, that prison was a real thing that they built. Those glowing tubes were this material where you put a light on it and it glows back at you. And they wanted a physical reaction from me when I die. Watch the hat, and you see me moving.”

As broadcast, Gordon’s brief appearance and death are accompanied by narration given by the Doctor – as played by Paul McGann. But the original script has narration by Gordon – and it was recorded. DWM emailed him a link to an audio track. “This is wild lines for Scene 1 apple”, says the voice of one of the crew – possibly director Geoffrey Sax. Then, in a gruff, menacing voice we hear Gordon:

“I hereby make my last will and testament. If I’m to be executed and thus cruelly deprived of all existence, I ask only that my remains be transported back to our home planet by my rival Time Lord and nemesis – he who calls himself the Doctor.” (Readers can find this clip at tinyurl.com/TippleTalks)

There’s a brief pause, and then the crewmember asks for another take, “a little bit quicker, for variety.” Gordon obliges.

“I’m amazed you were able to find that!” he enthuses now. “That was really something. And when I heard it, I remembered the circumstances. After we’d done the filming, we just sat off at the side of the set and they recorded me. And it was wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am – we were done.”

It’s a very different voice to the gently spoken man DWM is chatting with today.

“I don’t recall getting direction per se,” he says. “I guess I was thinking of making it determined, you know: ‘You’ve got me now, but not for long; I’ll be back to get you!’ That was my basic motivation.”

Recording on the TV Movie had originally been scheduled to run Monday to Friday, but Gordon recorded his material on Saturday, 10 February 1996 – the weekends being added because of the complex demands of the shoot. The extra filming day meant that Gordon was “very isolated – I was the only actor on set.”

Did that mean he didn’t meet the other cast members? “No, I didn't, unfortunately. I was hoping to get a chance to meet Eric Roberts, but no such luck. But that also meant I got a chance to look round. They put a lot of effort into making the sets, which were really terrific.”

And what kind of atmosphere was there on set?

“A definite sense of urgency,” he remembers. “You can hear it in that clip – they did the two takes and it’s ‘okay, we keep moving. Thank you very much.’”


His work on Doctor Who was done.

At what point did he learn that his dialogue wasn’t going to be used?

“I didn’t find out until after the fact. I think I saw it when it was televised and of course, my first thought was, ‘That’s not my voice!’” And how did he feel about it? “It’s no big deal. I’d been acting for a while and it’s not a rare occurrence. Pretty much every actor I know has had a situation like that. Your first thought is, ‘Oh my God – I must have been awful.’ But that’s not necessarily the case.” He laughs. “It’s a strange business, acting. You get used to it.”

DWM explains that late in the day the production team thought it better to have the Doctor introduce the story, to give him more of a role from the start.

“I’m inclined to agree,” says Gordon.

He said that acting is a strange business. Gordon spent one day on Doctor Who 20 years ago, but in October 2014 he was a perfect “zero” answer on the BBC One primetime quiz show, Pointless – where contestants had to name actors who’d played the Master, but not give answers other people had thought of. He’s delighted by that. Does he get recognised a lot?

“A bit. The first time was maybe ten years ago or so. I was at an audition and another actor came up to me and said, ‘Scuse me, are you Gordon Tipple? Everybody’s talking about you on the internet.’ I thought, ‘Oh God, what did I do?’ It was because of Doctor Who. I said, ‘Well that was a lot of fun, doing that little bit,’ and told him what I’ve told you. He said, ‘Oh, man, they would love to hear what you have to say.’” So did he go online? He laughs. “I like to keep a low profile. But I’ve had a bit of mail through my agent. Doctor Who fans are really organised – they include self-addressed and stamped envelopes! So I’m happy to send back an autograph.”

In fact, Gordon’s daughter Erin is “a huge fan. When she meets people at parties and they know her dad was in Doctor Who, she’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m the Master’s daughter.’” He laughs. “Knowing I was going to speak to you, she gave me a lecture on what’s been happening in the series. After half an hour, my head was spinning. I thought it was terrific.” So does Gordon know that the Master is now a woman? “Oh yeah.” He doesn’t mind? He laughs again. “I could come up with some real smart-ass answer, but let’s refrain.”

How does Doctor Who compare to the attention Gordon gets from having been in The X-Files and other popular shows?

The X-Files is still very popular. It’s not uncommon for me to be in a store or restaurant and somebody’ll go, ‘Hey, you’re that guy...’ He cites the 1995 episode Humbug as one that seems to stick in people’s minds. “I played a guy called Hepcat Helm in this story about a freakshow. But I think Doctor Who takes the prize for people’s interest. It’s great that it has fans who are that passionate about it.”

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