Today marks what would have been the 99th birthday of Roger Delgado.
In an acting career that was so tragically cut short when he was killed in a car accident in 1973 Delgado appeared in numerous film and television roles, but for generations of Doctor Who fans he will always be the man who brought us the Master.
It’s testament to Delgado’s iconic performance that while successive actors to play the Doctor have stepped out of the shadows of their predecessors to make the part their own it has been far more difficult for later iterations of the Master to do the same.
Delgado made his debut in Terror of the Autons, the first serial of Jon Pertwee’s second season. From the very first moment he steps onto screen he absolutely owns the role of the renegade Time Lord. This is a confident, authoritative and charismatic performer who brings a touch of class to proceedings whenever he is on screen.
At the end of that first story the Master manages to escape the clutches of UNIT and we have a closing scene where the Doctor looks off into the distance and states how much he is looking forward to doing battle with his foe again. In many ways it is a very odd scene. The Master has spent the whole of the story murdering numerous people in various unpleasant and macabre ways as he looks to help the Nestene conquer the Earth. It’s hard to imagine the Doctor expressing a similar sentiment had he just done battle with the Daleks or the Cybermen. Despite this reservation and even without the later revealed context of their past relationship you can almost see what the Doctor means. Delgado’s Master is such a charismatic figure that any time spent with him is frankly a joy even if he spends much of that time doing devilish and treacherous things.
Delgado would appear in every serial in Season eight and while this decision undoubtedly lessens the dramatic weight of his reveal each time you certainly never get bored of seeing him. He is an incredibly rare thing, a truly likeable villain who still manages to remain a credible threat. When given the right material to work with he is simply magnificent. When the scripts are less impressive he somehow still manages to elevate it with the sheer force of his personality and his not inconsiderable acting talent. His one-on-one scenes with Pertwee are always a delight and it’s clear that in much the same way as the Doctor must raise his game when competing with his new foe, Pertwee does the same when faced with such a talented actor.
The story goes that after Terrance Dicks had come up with the idea of introducing a Moriarty type figure for the Doctor as Holmes it was Producer Barry Letts who immediately said there was only one person who could play him. Letts had previously directed Delgado and his decision to get him on board as a recurring character must rank among the most perfect and exceptional casting decisions in the show’s long history.
For subsequent actors to take on the role, exiting the shadow of Delgado has proven to be a massive challenge. Anthony Ainley was a good performer and enjoyed some very strong moments in the role, but he inevitably suffers when in direct comparison with the original and for many people still the best to take the role. The success of different versions of the character is of course subjective. I would argue though that the most successful attempts to follow Delgado have been when they have moved in a very different direction and thus distanced themselves from those direct comparisons. The most obvious examples of that are Peter Pratt’s portrayal of the corpse-like Master in The Deadly Assassin or Michelle Gomez’s female take on Missy. This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of the actors to have taken on the role since Delgado, but is just another indication of the indelible mark he made as the character.
For many actors it can often be a frustration when after a lifetime of work they still get largely associated with just one role. With over 120 credits to his name on film and television including appearances in series like The Saint, The Avengers and The Man in the Iron Mask there was certainly far more to Delgado than just the Master. But with the affection he is held in by Doctor Who fans never dimming and his contribution to the show so admired it is a guarantee that even 44 years after his death his life and work will continue to be remembered and celebrated.
As he stepped into the world of Doctor Who for the very first time he stated “I am usually known as the Master.”
The Master he was, the Master he is and the Master he will forever be.