This 'Doctor Who' Character Saved The Show
The Master was a lifeboat when 'Who' was drowning.
As someone who has wasted far too many hours on Doctor Who, I can tell you there are a lot of places in the show’s history where one could aruge, “this show should’ve been cancelled”. Most notably is the transition between The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and The Third Doctor (John Pertwee), and a bizarre gamble the showrunners took to change the series. Early Who is filled with failed gambits in storytelling, and the only reason the show overcame these follies was the presence of a single, incredible actor bringing his mustache-twirling game at full evil. With the show mid showrunner switch and an almost-certain reboot, let’s talk about the godsend that was Richard Delgado.
When the show regenerated its Second Doctor, we got our first real look at the Time Lords and their planet. To punish Doctor Two for meddling in the affairs of time and space, they forced him to regenerate into a new form and grounded him without a working TARDIS on Earth in 1970. For a show about a box that travels through all over existence, this was a pretty big gamble to trap our anti-hero in England. But hey, that makes budget stuff a lot easier to handle, when you don’t have to build an entirely new civilization every week.
Did it work? Hell no. The entire first season put Doctor Three up against a series of very stingy bureaucratic baddies, who were often trying to build some kind of machine or factory work, despite warnings of adverse environmental impact. Picture the movie Ghostbusters if Walter Peck from the EPA were the hero and the Ghostbusters were the bad guys. That’s essentially what this entire season is: Doctor Who as Walter Peck.
Then the show introduced an evil Time Lord just as powerful and witty as The Doctor, bent on the destruction of Earth.
Richard Delgado (a half Spanish, half French actor) became the face of evil. After his first appearance on the show, there is hardly a storyline in the next three years that doesn’t focus on his meddling. And that was a very good thing. One of the problems of the Big Bads on Who is that most of the aliens are just impossible to understand — or at very least an unpleasant listening experience. Daleks and most other monsters or robots love loud staccato bursts filtered through a computer, and in six hour long story arcs this can become grating fast.
So Delgado’s Master became something of an Evil Broker in this world. Aliens would come to Earth with plans to conquer it, and The Master would reach out to act as a kind of middle man, networking between various evil entities and business to make the downfall of Earth a real possibility. Since The Doctor winds up trapping The Master on Earth, most of these plans also involve The Master planning to betray his new evil friends at the last minute, in order to claim Earth for himself and destroy The Doctor by much more vicious and personal means.
Delgado became the face of evil for the show, especially in a period where many of the better known villains and species were not allowed to be used. He brought more personality and entertainment to the screen than this era’s Doctor, and episodes without The Master wind up being colossal disappointments.
More importantly than his villainy is actually the friendship and heightened humanity Delgado inserted. From the outset, his Master plays murderous troll to The Doctor, but they are such evenly matched nemeses that a curious camaraderie exists from the outset. Adding to this, almost every instance of The Master helping Evil Aliens with a dastardly plan involves a late in the game betrayal wherein The Master has to beg The Doctor for help — and then the two go about saving Earth as best pals.
In a tragic series of events, Delgado had to ask the Doctor Who writers to remove him from the show, because he could not find work elsewhere after becoming a fixture on the show. They agreed, and wrote out an arc called The Final Game where it was rumored The Master would be revealed to be The Doctor’s brother, and The Master would sacrifice his life to save The Doctor. Unfortunately, it was never filmed.
Delgado died on location in Turkey whilst shooting his first comedy role in the French mini-series Bell of Tibet. He was killed, along with two film technicians, when the chauffeur-driven car in which he was traveling came off the road and plunged into a ravine. As such, he has the sad distinction of being the first major Doctor Who actor to die.
Since then, The Master has been performed by at least nine other actors on the show, but pop culture should always default to the original bearded jumpshoot nightmare man with a vague collection of mind-control superpowers and a zest for being pure, delightful evil. Doctor Who has enjoyed a more than fifty year run, but it never would have gotten beyond 1972 without the help of the perfect character actor in the perfect role.