Reconsidering Eric Roberts’ Masterful Performance in Doctor Who

    In 1996, Doctor Who returned to television screens for the first time since its cancellation in 1989. The revival took the form of the made-for-TV movie, simply titled Doctor Who (with The Movie often colloquially added on), and featured a perfectly-cast Paul McGann as the Eighth incarnation of the iconic BBC hero. The Doctor was not the only Time Lord the production resurrected, however, with Eric Roberts stepping into the role of the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the Master. With previous incarnations having been portrayed on-screen by the likes of Anthony Ainley and the great Roger Delgado, Roberts had big shoes to fill, and the general consensus in the years since has been that he didn’t quite fit them.

    However – spend long enough in fan circles and you’ll soon realise that Roberts’ portrayal of the Master is often judged on a single line in a single scene of Doctor Who: The Movie, his only on-screen appearance as the character. The Doctor is being held captive inside his own TARDIS by possessed surgeon Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) and misguided gang member Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), both of whom have fallen under the influence of Roberts’ Master. As the Doctor tries to plead with his two would-be companions, the Master interrupts the scene by descending a flight of stairs in full, lavish Gallifreyan ceremonial robes, relishing every step the staircase has to offer. As he reaches a level midpoint, the Master turns to face the Doctor and his victims, declaring in no uncertain terms and with a theatrical flick of his wrist: “I always dress… for the occasion”.

    This scene (until the ongoing revived series arrived under the stewardship of Russel T. Davies) represented the camp peak of Doctor Who and, as such, has been the subject of intense scorn and mockery in the twenty-three years since the TV movie’s broadcast. It’s near-impossible to find a decent opinion piece on Doctor Who: The Movie without a cheap shot being taken at Roberts’ Master and that particular line. As is often the case in fandom, it has become far too easy to focus on one easily-digested surface-level criticism of a character (or text) in order to run with the popular crowd and enjoy easily-won reverence. It’s very easy to ignore, for example, that Roberts is an accomplished, dependable character actor with an Academy Award nomination under his belt. If one looks beyond first-impression aesthetics, Eric Roberts’ Master does not deviate from the history and mechanisms of the character. Instead, cleverly and with deceptive subtlety, his interpretation honours the performers and portrayals that preceded him in the role.

    “Now look into my eyes…”

    The Master, despite being a Time Lord from Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous, has always quintessentially been an upper-class aristocratic villain in the mould of Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu, and Dracula. Indeed, the character begins Doctor Who: The Movie in this guise: an unidentified but altogether familiar previous incarnation is exterminated by the Daleks and subsequently (and without much explanation) takes on a parasitic, snake-like form on the hunt for a new body. In this form, the Master eventually encounters and possesses the body of Bruce, an ambulance driver from modern-day San Francisco; thus, a new American accented incarnation of the Master is debuted. Much criticism of Roberts’ Master focuses on the character’s lines and their delivery. Statements and quips such as, “I never liked this planet, Doctor”, “Life is wasted on the living”, and, “I have wasted all of my lives because of you, Doctor! Now I will be rid of you!”, take on a somewhat bizarre quality when delivered by a scenery-devouring Roberts in an accent somewhere in-between his native Mississippi drawl and an Edward G. Robinson gangster. However, one wonders how strange these lines would sound delivered by, say, a Roger Delgado or an Anthony Ainley. Indeed, delivered by those two performers these lines would sound very much like classic, prototypical Master dialogue, giving us as viewers an opportunity to look a bit closer at Roberts’ performance and his incarnation’s characterisation: in Doctor Who: The Movie, the Master is literally a prototypical upper-class English aristocratic villain trapped within a Twentieth Century working-class American body. This is what grants Roberts’ dialogue – and his delivery of it – such an eccentric, theatrical, and delightfully weird quality. Both within the fiction of the piece itself and meta-textually as character and performer in symbiosis, the real Master within is the same Machiavellian schemer viewers have always known – the casing is simply new.

    Once the serpentine Master possesses Bruce’s body, physical changes take place immediately. Cruel and cowardly, the Master strangles Bruce’s wife (presumably to death) while newly sporting snake-like eyes with a bright, sinister glow. It is no coincidence that in the Master’s last televised appearance before The Movie (in Sylvester McCoy’s final BBC serial “Survival”, and as portrayed by the late Anthony Ainley) also featured the character in a stolen body possessed of a malign influence, as well as bright yellow eyes. While perhaps not an intentional, direct homage, this nonetheless represents a serendipitous and pleasing consistency in the Master’s long, chequered character journey. Furthermore, once fully in control of Bruce’s body, the Master indulges in what all noteworthy Time Lords should, post-regeneration* – a costume change. His new ensemble includes a long, black leather coat with matching gloves, and a pair of designer sunglasses hiding those evil eyes. This outfit has been criticised as an attempt to update and “Americanize” the Master’s look. It absolutely is both of those things, but that’s not to its detriment, and I’d argue the costume is actually consistent with the character and his infamous fashion sense. The buttoned-up leather coat is somewhat evocative of the iconic Mao suit as worn by Roger Delgado when he squared off against Jon Perwee’s Doctor in the ‘70s (or was it the ‘80s?); however, it’s much more patently similar to the black velveteen tunic worn by Ainley in the 1980s. Especially evocative is how Roberts wears the jacket’s collar turned up, cloaking his head in a villainous black shroud and creating a strikingly similar look to Ainley’s in the twentieth anniversary episode “The Five Doctors”, in which he wore a black cape with an upturned collar. Roberts’ black leather gloves also pay subtle homage to Delgado’s incarnation, who was prone to wearing similar garments.

    Throwing shade.

    Throughout their entire televised history, a defining characteristic of the Master is a penchant for disguise and a desire to hide their face. While not a full-blown disguise, the Master’s sunglasses in Doctor Who: The Movie represent a continuation of this devious trait, providing a subtle way for the character to disguise their features and thus disguise their intent (much like how the character wore spectacles as part of their disguise in 1971’s “The Daemons”). Indeed, only when the character removes his sunglasses – revealing his true identity – does Chang Lee become beholden to the Master’s will. Taking all the character’s costume choices into consideration, one could reasonably argue that – within the context and fiction of the series – the Master dresses as consistently with his character as possible, given the limited means available to him in San Francisco in 1999. Only when he has access to the Doctor’s TARDIS does the lavish occasion dress make its appearance (even then, the robes are not entirely without precedent – the Master does wear a similar ensemble in the finale of “The Daemons”, which also deals with the character’s pursuit of prolonged life and higher powers).

    Eric Roberts’ performance does pay tribute to what came before in one additional way that may represent an uncomfortable truth for certain factions of Doctor Who fandom – the show itself, but particularly the character of the Master, has always embodied a significant element of camp. Both Delgado and Ainley’s interpretations exhibited a penchant for the theatrical (complete with eyeliner), a flair for the dramatic, and relished any chance to don an elaborate – and often entirely unnecessary – costume in order to pull off a needlessly elaborate scheme. Delgado, Ainley, and Roberts’ portrayals also all parade an unhealthy borderline-obsession with the Doctor and gaining control of his body for their own nefarious purposes. Whether Doctor Who fans choose to acknowledge this, it is a defining aspect of the Master’s personality (bolstered by subsequent – and even more unconventional – portrayals by John Simm and Michelle Gomez), and one which Roberts’ performance reinforced fabulously.

    Eric Roberts recently returned to the role of the Master for Big Finish Productions, appearing in the audio dramas The Diary of River Song and Doctor Who: Ravenous 4. On social media, calls have been made for Big Finish to “rehabilitate” and “redeem” this incarnation of the character, sadly proving decades-old criticisms persist. On the contrary, Big Finish should instead embrace how very different – and yet, entirely familiar – this version is, and lean into the delightful weirdness of the character and performer. Eric Roberts’ legacy on Doctor Who may very well be surmised by that one infamous line, but that’s not a bad thing at all, and should be celebrated. Roberts paid tribute to what came before, while paving the way for even more eccentric interpretations in the future. Literally, aesthetically, and by sheer strength of performance, Eric Roberts did indeed dress for the occasion – he is the Master.

    *The author is aware that, according to the rules of Doctor Who, the Master’s possession of Bruce does not technically constitute a regeneration. Please don’t point that out.

    Steven Sloss
    Steven Sloss
    Steven Sloss is a freelance writer specialising in Japanese special-effects and science-fiction media, an independent director of audio dramas and podcasts, and the world's foremost appreciator of Austin Powers in Goldmember.

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