Terrance Dicks (script editor) on creating the Master


Former Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks recalls how he co-created a classic villain with "overtones of dominance, villainy and conceit."

[Published in The Essential Doctor Who Issue 4 THE MASTER (Panini UK Ltd, March 2015). Posted here by kind permission of Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury.]

“I've told this story many times,” says Terrance Dicks, who's happy, nevertheless, to describe the origins of the Master once more. The character was first devised in February 1970, as Dicks and producer Barry Letts made plans for Doctor Who's eighth season.

“We went to the BBC bar at Television Centre to talk about it,” says Dicks. “We needed what our head of serials, Ronnie Marsh, called a 'wow factor' to open the new season. Now, people had said that the Doctor, especially Jon Pertwee's Doctor, was a bit like Sherlock Holmes – brilliant, arrogant and so on. So I said to Barry, 'What we need is a Moriarty – an equal but opposite version of the Doctor for him to battle against.' Barry and I were always on the same wavelength and he quickly got what I meant. He said: 'I know just the person to play him!'”

Letts had been an actor before becoming a director and producer. In 1959, he played the Prince of the Isles of Nowhere in the television production, The Three Princes, opposite Roger Delgado as the Prince of the Sun. “Barry said that was a typical part for Roger,” recalls Dicks. “He was dressed in black velvet and stabbed Barry in the back.”

Dicks didn't know Delgado – though he knew his work in TV and film. “I thought 'Yes, he'd be perfect.' We didn't think about anyone else. We modelled the part round him. Then, in the morning I said, 'I've got it: we'll call him the Master.' That comes from the master of a Cambridge college” – Dicks studied English at Downing College, Cambridge – “but it also had the right overtones of dominance, villainy and conceit.”

If that was the part, what was Delgado actually like in person? “Roger was a most modest and charming man, and very unassuming. He took his place very happily in the company. People playing villains are always nice – I believe this is true of Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee too. I suppose they get it out of their system. It's the ones who play the heroes – like Pertwee – that you have trouble with!”

In fact, Dicks recalls a clash between Delgado and Pertwee. “Certainly, they got on very well and it was a good working relationship. But there was a problem at the very beginning. Radio Times did a cover announcing the Master, in which Roger is dominant and Jon is in the background. Jon came in very indignant because people had come up to him thinking that Roger was taking over Doctor Who! He was not pleased about that. But that was the only bit of strain between them, and it wasn't Roger's fault – really, it was ours. We should have thought of that.”

Delgado appeared in 22 of the 25 episodes in the 1971 season of Doctor Who. “Yes, he was the villain in each of the stories,” says Dicks. “They were a trio: Pertwee, Roger and Katy Manning [as the Doctor's companion, Jo Grant]. The three of them got on very well, socialising and everything. That was a good time.”

Did Dicks socialise with the Master, too? “No, I never socialised much with actors. But I would see him at the read-throughs and then at rehearsals. I went to rehearsals in case the scripts needed tinkering with.” Did Delgado ever want his character or dialogue reworked? “No, Roger didn't have to give notes, he just had to be Roger. He was such a natural for the part. He was absolutely born to play it. He was incredibly trouble-free.”

“You asked how they got on – Pertwee and Roger. One thing I remember is that Pertwee had a tricky back and if he had to do anything energetic it would go out. Then he'd yell for Roger. I remember coming into the studio and seeing Jon flat on the floor. There was Roger with his foot in the middle of Jon's back, heaving at his shoulders – he knew the trick of setting Jon's back again.” He says. “It was quite a sight. But that was one of the things between them.”

At the end of The Daemons, the closing serial of the 1971 season, the Master is finally captured and driven off to jail. The story was filmed in the village of Aldbourne in Wiltshire. “The director used people from the village as extras,” says Dicks. “He told them, 'This is the villain. You must all boo and hiss as he goes by.' But they all liked Roger so much they cheered and clapped instead!”

Though Delgado proved a huge success as the Master, Dicks and Letts were wary of featuring him so prominently again. “If in every story the villain is the Master,” Dicks explains, “a certain monotony and absence of surprise creeps in. Secondly, people were saying, 'If the Master's so smart, how come he never manages to kill the Doctor? And if the Doctor's so brilliant, why can he never capture the Master?' We decided to have him pop up occasionally. You'd have a story where the villain wasn't the Master and people would forget him – then he could reappear with a bang.” The Master appeared in 12 of 26 episodes in the 1972 season and just four episodes the following year.

“That was fine for us but it was a problem for Roger. He came to Barry and said, 'Look, people still think I'm in Doctor Who all the time, so I'm losing work and money. I think I have to leave.'” Was he angry or upset about that? “Oh no, he was very apologetic and didn't want to cause us any trouble. He liked being in the show but he couldn't afford to be working only half the year. He really was the nicest and most charming man. I can't emphasise that enough.”

Letts and Dicks began to make plans for writing Delgado out of the show. “We said, 'Do you want to just disappear mysteriously or go out with a bang?' Roger said, 'Oh no, give me a really good death scene.' We talked about that. It never got beyond more than casual conversation, but we would have had a story where the Master and the Doctor were forced to fight a common enemy and at the end the Master would sacrifice himself to save the Doctor. But before we could really work on that, the tragic news came of Roger's death. It was awful. I remember both Jon and Katy were shattered by it.”
Flirting in The Sea Devils

Does Dicks have a favourite moment of Delgado as the Master? He considers. “I really like the scene in The Sea Devils (1972), where he's in prison watching [children's show] the Clangers. I added that to the script to fill up a few minutes. In the same episode, the Doctor visits him and they talk like old friends, sparring – and it turns into a duel. I think that's all great stuff, one of their best interactions.

“Roger was always a great pleasure. He was a great loss to the show.”

Master version

“It's very much a hiding to nothing for the actor,” says Terrance Dicks when asked about other incarnations of the Master, “because Roger was incomparable.”

“Anthony Ainley [who played the Master in the 1980s] was not unlike Roger in his portrayal. That was pretty good. I had him in The Five Doctors [1983] and I very much liked his scene with the Time Lords in that – there was something of Roger about it. Derek Jacobi was good [in Utopia, in 2007]. John Simm [the Master from 2007 to 2010] was good, too. They are both very good actors, and it helps to get a big name. But as I say, because of Roger being the first and because of Roger being Roger, I don't think anybody else has ever come close.”

“Then there's this latest thing of the sex change, which I'm not particularly in favour of...” Dicks, of course, is referring to Missy, the female incarnation of the Master played by Michelle Gomez in the 2014 series. He sighs. “There are these ghastly rumours from time to time that the Doctor will be a woman – which I am irrevocably opposed to. I'm hoping that changing the sex of the Master will satisfy that need and they'll leave the Doctor alone.”

Missy kisses the Twelfth Doctor in Dark Water, and it's suggested that she's always fancied him. “I couldn't possibly comment on that, says Dicks. “It's the fans who do the speculation and the theories. We just get on with making the show.” Can he not see any flirtation going on between Delgado and Pertwee in their adventures onscreen? “Not especially, no.” He laughs. “If I may so, that's a typical piece of fan nonsense.”