Well, we've reached the end of another year and it's time to observe a tradition. For the next month or so, I will be listing a preference of some sort that I have for Doctor Who. In previous years, I have listed my Top Ten Favorite Who Stories and I've ranked my Doctors From Worst to Best. This year, I'm going to look at his arch rival and list his incarnations from least favorite to most.
It was a tricky choice. I started tinkering with the idea of top ten companions. I even worked on something about favorite seasons of the show. But that multi-incarnation team-up in World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls just had me thinking too heavily about how much I've enjoyed the Master's many varied interpretations. In the end, I decided this needed to be my end-of-year list of preference. I hope it sparks as much discussion as my other lists have.
As usual, we need to set a few stipulations. It will be most important to note that we can't number the incarnations like we have the Doctor. Mainly because we're really not sure of that numbering. For the most part, the incarnations will be indicated by the actor who has played them. Although, one or two of them will go by specific names and/or nicknames.
I would also like to note that, just like my list of Doctors last year, the writing of the character affects my appreciation as much as the portrayal. In the case of, at least, one very popular incarnation - the lack of variety in the plots of several stories that we saw him in will have a strong bearing on his ranking. You'll see what I mean when you get there.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE
There are certain incarnations who have just received too little screentime and, therefore, can't be accurately appraised. So they won't be included in this list. These include Gordon Tipple's Master - who we only see for the briefest of instances at the beginning of The 96 Telemovie before he is vaporized (in a weird bike helmet, no less!). The "Baby Master" that we first see in the flashback sequence of Sound of Drums also won't get any mention beyond this particular sentence. Finally, I also won't be ranking Derek Jacobi, anywhere. Yes, he is in an entire episode. But, most of the time, he's Professor Yana. He only casts off his Chameleon Arch identity and displays his true self for a matter of minutes before he changes to John Simm. Those are some gloriously evil minutes, don't get me wrong. But it's still not enough time to allow him a proper space in this list.
Okay, now that we've eliminated certain portrayals. Let's get into it. We'll start with my least favorite Master. More than likely, he's at the bottom of just-about everyone's list, too.
THE ERIC ROBERTS MASTER
By no means do I wish to disrespect what Eric Roberts did with the role (although, many fans do!). In my opinion, he's actually a pretty solid actor. I may even prefer him over his sister. He's particularly good at playing villains. The whole Expendables movie franchise owes, at least, part of its success to the fact that he was the baddie in the very first installation and did an excellent job in the role.
But one of the biggest problems The 96 Telemovie has is that the Master is only so well-written. And we are accustomed to seeing the character played by someone British. An American in the part is, perhaps, harder to accept than a female Doctor (which, when you think about it, is really strange!). Inevitably, these obstacles really get in the way of being able to enjoy what Roberts did with his extremely brief stint.
Having said all that, I do think he does quite well with what he's been served. Roberts definitely has a sense of presence and really makes the character chilling. This is an extension of the descent into madness that we've been watching the character take over the last few incarnations. I don't know if Roberts actually watched previous portrayals in order to accomplish this - but he's definitely made the Master that bit more mad as he seeks to stay alive even though he's reached the end of his regeneration cycle. I would even go so far to say that he does a fantastic job with that aspect of the character. The Master is so close to a final end that he's cast off almost all shreds of sanity and is now completely out of control.
In all honesty, I pin very little on Roberts for the lack of success that this incarnation has. The bigger problems lie in the writing. Even then, I would not say that the character was poorly-crafted. It's more that we needed a better way for these two great rivals to battle each other. The Master has tried to steal the Doctor's lives before - but this is a very strangely-contrived way of going about it. Particularly when you're trying to re-introduce a show to a new audience. We needed a simpler telling of the tale. But a strange protoplasmic villain trying to get his nemesis to stare into the heart of a slightly mystical artifact in order to remove his soul and take over his body was not the best way to present this most iconic of characters. And that has a strong bearing on how we appreciate this version of the Master. That, and the simple fact that it is hard to accept an American in the role (again, very strange that this affects me so much!)
Having said all that, the Eric Roberts Master very nearly didn't make the bottom of this list. Up until very recently, there was an incarnation of the Master that I appreciated less than Roberts.
Many fans malign the Eric Roberts Master way more than I do and also have him at the bottom of their list. But, to be truthful, I still think he's pretty good. I do feel Roberts gives us an enjoyable interpretation of the role. He's just not given the best of material to work with.
He is also, without a doubt, the Master who has the most fun with the outfits he puts on!
Okay, that's Part One. We'll keep moving along and sending out new posts every few days as we finish off the year. Some of my other rankings may surprise some of you.
If you want to read more about the Master - I did a serious exploration of his timeline a short while back. Here are all the posts on it: