The Doctor, the Master, and the Boundaries of Friendship

“Time Lords are friends with each other, dear.  Everything else is cradle-snatching.” – Missy to the Doctor

The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, in the constellation of Kasterborous.  All Time Lords possess the ability to regenerate, meaning when they are near death they are born again in a new body with a new personality while retaining their memories.  Barring accidents or being killed again during regeneration, a Time Lord is essentially immortal.  No matter how much I watch Doctor Who, I can’t fully comprehend that sort of life.  I am a finite being so I can’t fathom traversing all of time and space for millennia.  I love thinking about it!  I love speculating about it!  But I’ll never – no matter how long I ponder – fully understand what such a life would be like.  As a result, I can never fully understand the Doctor’s relationship with the Master.  The Master is another Time Lord, the Doctor’s childhood best friend who grew up to become one of their greatest enemies. 

Despite the atrocities the Master has committed, the Doctor never fully gives up hope they can be redeemed, that their friendship can be reborn.  Is that madness?  Is that love?  Is it tragic or is it beautiful?  Thinking about the Doctor and the Master leads me to contemplate my own friendships, too.  

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The Third Doctor and Jo Grant – one of my favorite Doctor and companion teams :). / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

The Master (Roger Delgado) first appeared in Classic Doctor Who Series Eight (1971).  The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was in exile on Earth when a Time Lord appears to warn the Master has come to Earth:

The Doctor – “That jackanapes!  All he ever does is cause trouble.”
Time Lord – “He’ll certainly try to kill you, Doctor.  The Tribunal thought that you ought to be made aware of your danger.”
The Doctor – “How very kind of them.”
Time Lord – “You are incorrigibly meddlesome, Doctor, but we’ve always felt that your hearts are in the right places.  But be careful.  The Master has learnt a great deal since you last met him.”
The Doctor – “I refuse to be worried by a renegade like the Master.  He’s a, he’s an unimaginative plodder.”
Time Lord – “His degree in cosmic science was of a higher class than yours.”
The Doctor – “Yes, well, er, yes, well, I, I was a late developer.”[1]

At one point, when they have the Master in prison, Jo Grant (Katy Manning), the Doctor’s assistant at UNIT, asks the Doctor, ”You felt sorry for him, didn’t you?  You wanted to come down here and see that he was alright.”  The Doctor replies, “Well, he used to be a friend of mine once.  A very good friend.  In fact, you might almost say we were at school together.”[2]  While it’s clear Delgado’s Master[3] very much wants the Third Doctor dead and wants to conquer the Earth, their connection is obviously strong.  They fall easily into alliances when their aims align, even if they quickly find themselves at odds once the moment passes.

Their relationship drives the Master’s machinations, too.  When the Doctor and Jo realize the Master is working with the Sea Devils to destroy humanity, the Doctor asks, “I still don’t see why you want to help them.  What can you possibly gain?”  The Master replies, “The pleasure of seeing the human race exterminated, Doctor.  The human race of which you are so fond.  Believe me, that’ll be reward in itself.”[4]

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The Master – in real life, Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado were good friends and Pertwee has cited Delgado’s untimely passing as one of the reasons he decided to leave Doctor Who, saying going forward without Delgado’s Master opposite his Doctor just didn’t feel right. / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

This has been the Master’s modus operandi for fifty years (of Doctor Who stories, in universe their battle has gone on for centuries).  Of the 618 episodes (and counting!) I’ve watched of Doctor Who and Classic Doctor Who, the Master is responsible for some of the most existentially uncomfortable moments I’ve seen on the show.  Their schemes have a way of haunting me, crawling under my skin and into my mind, in the way no others do.

To give just two (of the most disturbing :8) examples, the Master (John Simm) will travel to the end of the universe – the year 100,000,000,000,000!!! – to enslave the last remnants of humanity, turn them into monstrous killing drones he calls the Toclafane, and bring them to Earth in the year 2007 to hunt and kill their ancestors as Earth descends into a militaristic dystopia with the Master ruling all and the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) imprisoned.[5] 

The one-two emotional punch is jarring.  We learn the race closest to the Doctor’s hearts, the race they devoted so much of their life to experiencing, celebrating, and protecting, has survived!  We make it to the end of everything and are still trying to build a spacecraft to reach a fabled Utopia where we can continue to thrive.  Yay!  But, for all the times the Doctor has saved humanity and the Earth, the Master arrives at our end to enslave the last humans and turn them into his bogeymen killing machines.  This is…unsettling to say the least.  If Doctor Who is a story of hope and celebration of all humanity is and can be, the Master haunts the shadows at the end of this story to ensure our finale is a dark and tragic one.

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Simm’s Master / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

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The Tenth Doctor / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

Don’t worry.  It gets worse.

The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman)’s search for the afterlife leads them to the 3W Institute in the heart of London.  There they find Missy (Michelle Gomez) – when the Doctor asks, “Who’s Missy?”  she replies, “Please, try to keep up.  Short for ‘Mistress.’  Well, I couldn’t very well keep calling myself ‘the Master,’ now could I?”[6] – and a matrix data-slice (a Gallifreyan hard drive) on which she is storing human consciousnesses.  Missy asks the Doctor, “Imagine you could upload dying minds to that.  Edit them.  Rearrange them.  Get rid of all those boring emotions.  Ready to be re-downloaded.  Meanwhile, you upgrade the bodies.  Upload the mind, upgrade the body.  Cybermen from cyberspace.  Now, why has no one ever thought of that before?”[7]  Missy is stealing the consciousness of the recently deceased and turning their bodies into Cybermen.  But it gets worse still.

When Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), Chief Scientific Officer and Head of UNIT, asks the Doctor how long Missy’s been doing this, he replies, as she has a TARDIS, “How long has the human race had a concept of an afterlife?  Turns out the afterlife is real, and it’s emptying.  Every graveyard on planet Earth is about to burst its banks.”[8]  We’ve believed in some form of an afterlife for as long as we’ve evolutionarily existed as human beings, with archeological evidence as far back as the Middle Paleolithic.  We’ve had a concept of the afterlife for 70,000 years.[9]  Missy takes our source of solace and hope – a life to come – for as long as we’ve existed and makes it a foundry for Cybermen, stripping away what makes us human at the moment of our death.  The implication this is what the afterlife has always been is left hanging in the air.  I rarely rewatch these episodes as it’s so uncomfortable to think about!   

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Missy, the Twelfth Doctor, and her macabre Cybermen / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

So how does the Doctor respond to these schemes?  Well, obviously, the Doctor thwarts them.  But after the ordeal with the Toclafane and a year of the Master holding the Earth hostage in a dystopian hell, the Doctor forgives the Master[10] and can still look at him and say, “You’re a genius.  You’re stone cold brilliant, you are.  I swear, you really are.  But you could be so much more.  You could be beautiful.  With a mind like that, we could travel the stars.  It would be my honor.  Because you don’t need to own the universe, just see it.  To have the privilege of seeing the whole of time and space, that’s ownership enough.”[11]  

And after the stealing everyone’s consciousness as they die thing?  The Doctor was summoned to a distant planet as Missy had been apprehended and sentenced to death as, per this planet’s customs, only another Time Lord can kill her.  The Doctor imprisons her in a vault, promising to guard her for 1,000 years, but refuses to kill a friend. [12]  As he guards her, he works to redeem her.  The Doctor believes Missy can change.  Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) ask why the Doctor would ever trust Missy after all she’s done.

The Doctor – “She’s my friend.  She’s my oldest friend in the universe.”
Bill – “Well, you’ve got lots of friends.  Better ones.  What’s so special about her?”
The Doctor – “She’s different.”
Bill – “Different how?”
The Doctor – “I don’t know.”
Bill – “Yes you do.”
The Doctor – “She’s the only person that I’ve ever met who’s even remotely like me.”
Bill – “So more than anything you want her to be…good?”
Nardole – “Are you having an emotion?”
The Doctor – “I know I can help her.”[13]

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The Doctor and Bill discuss his relationship with Missy. / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

After allllllllllllllllll the horrific things the Master has done, the Doctor forgives them again and again.  The Doctor believes in them again and again.  The Doctor tries to help them again and again.  So…does this make sense?  Is this healthy?  Is this right?

I remember talking about friendships early on in my time in therapy.  As I discussed those closest to me, my therapist told me everyone who was with me at the beginning of this journey wouldn’t be with me at the end.  As we grow, as we get healthier, our friendships naturally change.  Some people grow with us and some we outgrow.  I’ve had a Missy or two in my life.  I’ve had friends who’ve disappeared on me without a word of explanation.  I’ve ended friendships when I’ve seen they’re no longer healthy and my needs aren’t being met nor my boundaries respected.  I’ve shifted boundaries around friendships I realized weren’t as healthy or safe as I once thought, keeping them in my life but sharing less (the difference between someone asking, “How was your day?” and my saying, “Ugh, it was a day,” or feeling safe enough to break down crying).  I’ve friends who receive all I am and all I learn; friends who are safe.  And I’ve friends who have worked beautifully with me to make sure our friendship grows closer and stronger.

All this is to say, friendships come in all manner of forms – some last forever, some need to change or end, and some disappear without a clear reason – and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring, understanding, and identifying all those forms of friendship in my own life.  So when I watch the Doctor and the Master interact, I can’t help but wonder…should the Doctor still be trying to salvage this friendship?  Are they even friends anymore?  Can they be?

While the Doctor doesn’t want to give up on the Master – and despite the Master’s fixation on destroying Earth and the human race to hurt the Doctor – it’s clear the Master is fixated on the Doctor, too.  We learn the Master was hiding from the Time War in the year 100,000,000,000,000, having used a chameleon arch to become human.  It fascinates me how, in hiding, he essentially role plays the Doctor.  As “Professor Yana” (Derek Jacobi), he’s this brilliant, scientifically inclined older man who is working to build a rocket ship to Utopia to save all of humanity.  He’s even doing this with a companion!  Chantho (Chipo Chung) is by his side the entire time.[14]

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Chantho with the Master moments before he regains his memories. / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

All the love, faith, and time the Twelfth Doctor shares with Missy works!  When the Doctor, Missy, Bill, and Nardole find themselves on a colony ship where the Mondasian Cybermen are being born, they also encounter Missy’s former regeneration, Simm’s Master.  He does his best to pull her back to their villainous ways but we see the Doctor’s faith rewarded.  Missy tells him, “Oh, because [the Doctor]’s right.  Because it’s time to stand with him.  It’s where we’ve always been going, and it’s happening now, today.  It’s time to stand with the Doctor.”  Furious, the Master says, “No.  Never.  [yelling] Missy!  I will never stand with the Doctor!”  She says, “Yes, my dear, you will.”[15]

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Missy and the Master mere moments before the turn on each other. / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

The Master kills her for choosing to stand with the Doctor just after she kills him for refusing to and, despite her redemption, her next incarnation will be one of the Master’s most maniacal.  Sasha Dhawan’s Master opposes Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor.  The Master isn’t just killing again but reveling in it, telling the Doctor, “When I kill them, Doctor, it gives me a little buzz.  Right here, in the hearts.  It’s like…how would I describe it?  It’s like…it’s like knowing I’m in the right place, doing what I was made for.”[16]  The last time the Doctor saw the Master, Missy was leaving with Simm’s Master.  She never knew Missy planned to return and stand with her.  Now, she sees the Master as monstrous as ever.  Frustrated and angry she asks, “When does all this stop for you?  The games, the betrayals, the killing?”  It’s all rooted in his warped relationship with the Doctor, something the Master is conscious of and freely admits as he replies, “Why would it stop?  I mean, how else would I get your attention?”[17]

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Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

Dhawan’s Master will literally become the Doctor.  Having captured her, he forces a regeneration where the Doctor takes his form and (somehow) his consciousness.  The Doctor doesn’t just look like the Master; the Master is the Doctor.  Bouncing up and down in the TARDIS the Master gleefully yells, “C’mon Yaz!  Let’s save a civilization!  Let’s fix history!  Rescue a sick animal!”  He soon says, “I’m gonna tarnish the name of the Doctor.  I’m gonna make it a bad word like ‘fear,’ ‘pain,’ and ‘destruction’ so that when people hear that word in the future they will quake in fear.”  Yaz shouts, “If you think I’m gonna let you…” and the Master cuts her off, screaming so rabidly we see spittle flying from his mouth, “I AM THE DOCTOR NOW!  I AM THE DOCTOR!”  Ultimately Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Inston-Vee Vinder (Jacob Anderson) reverse the process and, as the regeneration energy swirls around him, the Master looks to the sky and begs, “I erased you Doctor.  Don’t let me go back to being me.”[18]  The pain is evident on his face.

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The Master talks to Yaz after having taken over the Doctor’s form. / Photo Credit – BBC Studio’s Doctor Who

What do we make of all this?  The Doctor needs to believe the Master/Missy can be redeemed, no matter what horiffic actions they’ve done.  They don’t want to be alone – the last of the Time Lords – and they want to believe the only person they’ve “ever met who’s even remotely like” them is good, perhaps to reassure them they’re good, too.  The Master is fixated on the Doctor’s attention, looking to destroy what the Doctor loves.  Still, the Master tries to walk the Doctor’s path to redemption and become like the Doctor but when it seems to fail, with a current of self-hate running below it all, seeks to become the Doctor and thus make the Doctor like them.  Speaking of their relationship, the Doctor tells Bill, “We had a pact, me and him.  Every star in the universe, we were going to see them all.  But he was too busy burning them.  I don’t think she ever saw anything.”  Bill asks, “And you think that if she did, she’d change?”  The Doctor tells her, “I know she would.  I know it.”[19] 

It’s hard to see this as a healthy friendship.  Heck, it’s hard to see it as a friendship at all.  But, am I even in a place where I can judge the Doctor and the Master’s friendship?  As I said at the top of this piece, can I even wrap my mind around what the life – and relationships – of a Time Lord would entail?

When the Doctor goes missing, Missy seeks Clara’s help in finding him.  Clara tells her, “He’s not your friend.  You keep trying to kill him.”  Missy replies, “He keeps trying to kill me.  It’s sort of our texting.  We’ve been at it for ages.”  Snarkily Clara says, “Mmm.  Must be love.”  Missy brushes her off, “Oh, don’t be disgusting.  We’re Time Lords, not animals.  Try, nano-brain, to rise above the reproductive frenzy of your noisy little food chain, and contemplate friendship.  A friendship older than your civilization, and infinitely more complex.”[20]

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Clara and Missy search for the Doctor. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

This point is reinforced when Missy, with the Doctor monitoring from the TARDIS, goes on her first “mission” with Bill and Nardole to prove she’s on the track to redemption.  As Missy does her schtick as “Doctor Who,” she keeps referring to Bill and Nardole as assistants or companions or pets or snacks.  Bill corrects her, “Yeah, and he calls us friends.”  Missy says, “Ew, Doctor.  But think of the age gap.”  Over their coms the Doctor replies, “Stop mucking about and concentrate.  Nardole, do something non-irritating.”  Nardole says, “On it, sir!” while Missy continues, “Time Lords are friends with each other, dear.  Everything else is cradle-snatching.”[21]

I think Missy’s right.  She has to be.  When you’ve millennia of shared experiences – seeing and doing all a Time Lord can see and do – as the Doctor and the Master have, can any other friendship really compare?  Can anything else even come close?  While I can never understand the infinite complexities of a friendship stretching across millennia, I can understand the familiar echoes I see in it.  And ok, so the relationship doesn’t seem entirely healthy – at least not by human standards (and probably not by Time Lord standards either, “texting” or not) – but that doesn’t make it bad.

I admit I have “unhealthy” friendships I’ve intentionally chosen to keep in my life because, unhealthy or not, they’re important to me and add something I value to my life.  As a diabetic, I’ve a different relationship with the words “healthy” and “unhealthy” than I think many do.  My pancreas stopped working when I was nine-years-old.  It’s unhealthy but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong or toxic.  It means I need to be mindful of how it affects my life and I need to relate to it differently than I do with my other properly working organs.  But it’s still a part of me.  In some ways, it makes me who I am.  I think some friendships can be like this, too.  Sometimes that can change.  I’ve done work with people I love very much in our “unhealthy” friendship and, together, we’ve worked to strengthen our relationship and make it healthier and safer than it was before.  And sometimes that doesn’t change and the relationship remains “unhealthy” but still very much a part of me.

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From enemies… / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

Perhaps, for as much as I can understand it, this is what the Doctor and the Master share.  Perhaps it’s an “unhealthy” friendship that still means very much, a relationship that adds something to their lives that no other relationship could – a relationship that helps make them who they are.  I’d be hard pressed to say the Doctor’s hope in the Master is “wrong” just as I’d struggle to call the Master “evil” when we see their wounding and trauma so clearly bubbling just below their actions, horiffic though they are.  Most of all, it’s obvious they – no matter how we define their relationship – are important to one another, for better or worse.

We all have people like this in our lives.  Those friendships may be tragic but that doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful in their own way, too.  This piece was originally published on 23 November 2022 – Doctor Who Day!  I don’t know how you plan to celebrate, dear reader, but may I make a suggestion?  Maybe (in addition to watching lots of Doctor Who of course) you take a moment to call to mind some of the beautifully complex, wonderfully messy relationships in your life.  Call to mind some of the safe, strong, mutually symbiotic ones, too, where you are fully seen, heard, and accepted just as you are.  Let your grateful energy flow out into creation.  Maybe you can let a few of these people know how much you love and appreciate them and how thankful you are for their presence in your life, too :).  Allons-y!

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…to friends. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

[1] Berry Letts, dir. “Terror of the Autons: Episode 1,” Doctor Who, season 8, episode 1, BBC, 1971.

[2] Michael Bryant, dir. “The Sea Devils: Episode 1,” Doctor Who, season 9, episode 9, BBC, 1972.

[3] While Doctor Who discourse traditionally discusses the various incarnations of the Doctor based on their numbered regeneration – the First Doctor, the Ninth Doctor, etc. – the Master’s incarnations are most regularly differentiated by the actor who played them – Delgado’s Master, Dhawan’s Master, etc. – as the number of lived the Master has had isn’t quite as clear as the Doctor, Timeless Child included.

[4] Michael Bryant, dir. “The Sea Devils: Episode 3,” Doctor Who, season 9, episode 11, BBC, 1972.

[5] Colin Teague, dir. “The Sound of Drums” and “Last of the Time Lords,” Doctor Who, season 3, episodes 12-13, BBC, 2007.

[6] Rachel Talalay, dir. “Dark Water,” Doctor Who, season 8, episode 11, BBC, 2014.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rachel Talalay, dir. “Death in Heaven,” Doctor Who, season 8, episode 12, BBC, 2014.

[9] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 89-90.

[10] Colin Teague, dir. “Last of the Time Lords,” Doctor Who, season 3, episodes 13, BBC, 2007.

[11] Euros Lyn, “The End of Time Part Two,” Doctor Who, New Years Special 2010, BBC, 2010.

[12] Daniel Nettheim, dir. “Extremis,” Doctor Who, season 10, episode 6, BBC, 2017.

[13] Rachel Talalay, dir. “World Enough and Time,” Doctor Who, season 10, episode 11, BBC, 2017.

[14] Graeme Harper, dir. “Utopia,” Doctor Who, season 3, episode 11, BBC, 2007.

[15] Rachel Talalay, “The Doctor Falls,” Doctor Who, season 10, episode 12, BBC, 2017.

[16] Lee Haven Jones, dir. “Spyfall Part Two,” Doctor Who, season 12, episode 2, BBC, 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jamie Magnus Stone, dir. “The Power of the Doctor,” Doctor Who, Centenary Special 2022, BBC, 2022.

[19] Rachel Talalay, dir. “World Enough and Time,” Doctor Who, season 10, episode 11, BBC, 2017.

[20] Hettie MacDonald, dir. “The Magician’s Apprentice,” Doctor Who, season 9, episode 1, BBC, 2015.

[21] Rachel Talalay, dir. “World Enough and Time,” Doctor Who, season 10, episode 11, BBC, 2017.


2 thoughts on “The Doctor, the Master, and the Boundaries of Friendship

  1. As a huge fan of Doctor Who I love the Doctor and Master’s relationship. The idea that they met at school, grew up together, becoming best friends but then choose different paths and are now enemies fascinates me! Your analysis of their friendship being unhealthy was brilliant and is very true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I am very proud of this piece and I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed it so much! I agree with you, too. I think the relationship between the Doctor and the Master is one of the most fascinating in all of Doctor Who. Their being childhood best friends adds so much to their becoming enemies that the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Weeping Angels (as exciting as they all are!) just can’t ever replicate.


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