This one off incarnation of the Master is to date the only version to have been played by an american actor. Technically if one where to include spin off material then the Delgado Master, the Deformed Master, the Ainley Master and this version are all the same incarnation of the Master. According to spin off material the deformed Master is exactly the same incarnation as the Delgado one.
The Delgado incarnation was the final regeneration of the Master and thus the deformed version was not a new incarnation merely a deformed version of Delgado scarred either by an accident or by old age. Thus Ainley’s Master was not a new incarnation either as the deformed version merely stole Tremas’s body. When Ainley’s body is destroyed by the Daleks and the Masters “essence” or mind steals the body of Bruce a medic played by Roberts it is still the same incarnation as Delgado. Once again the Master has not regenerated into Bruce, he has merely stolen his body.
It is not until Roberts Master died that the Delgado incarnation finally died for good and then we get a new incarnation when the time lords resurrect the Master from his death in the 96 movie to fight in the Time war. Sir Derek Jacobi is the first actor if you include the spin off material to actually play a different incarnation of the character to Delgado.
Now I think its safe to say that Eric Roberts version of the Master is probably the least popular version of the character. John Simm has more than their fair share of detractors but he also do have a lot of support from fandom as well, whilst Roberts is almost universally panned.
Personally I don’t see why as I felt Roberts gave a fine performance as the Master. I also felt that the way the character was written was very true to the original series as well, surprisingly so in fact considering this was an attempt to bring the show back after years away, not only on British television, but on American television too.
I also feel that the Roberts version of the character is a perfect continuation from the character in the classic Who as well, and in some ways leads into the version we see in the new series as well.
Of course this is not to say I don’t have problems with Roberts version. At times the way they make the character dress makes him look like a poor man’s Terminator and there are some moments where Roberts is far to OTT such as when he is sprayed with a fire extinguisher and gargles “I cannot be injured this way”.
Still overall his characterisation was spot on. The movie continues on from the storyline first begun in “The Deadly Assassin” where the Master is searching for new lives and once again we see how the Master is perfectly willing to sacrifice billions of innocent lives to save his own. By this point however the Master has become even more desperate than the deformed Master.
By this point he is literally like an animal screeching and lunging himself at the Doctor in a pitiful attempt to prolong his life. His more animalistic nature also rather nicely ties into Ainley’s Master too who was infected by the Cheetah virus (another little nod to “Survival” are his yellow eyes). Gone is all the great ambition and sophistication of Delgado’s Master.
The Master is now a truly pathetic creature clinging to life without even really knowing why, just simply because he is afraid. I love it when the Doctor says to him that all he uses his lives for is too kill showing that is all he has become now. Just a savage animal that kills to survive.
I feel that this is where we see the Doctors attitude towards the Master change too. In the Pertwee era the Doctor had looked on the Master as his equal whilst in the later classic era he viewed the Master with utter contempt and hatred because of what he had done. However I think that at the end of this movie when he watches the Master scream and struggle in his death throes he takes pity on him as he see’s just how pathetic the Master truly is and how far he has fallen from the suave, charming intellectual he once knew.
This to me later paves the way for the 10th Doctors attitude to the Simm Master whom 10 looks on with more pity than outright hatred like 4 did to the deformed Master. I feel that Roberts and McGann play off of each other brilliantly here. You can see shades of Simm and Tennant here as its the same situation the Doctor offering help and the Master throwing it back in his face out of petty spite. We had never seen that type of interaction between them before.
At the same time I also feel that Roberts captured the Masters twisted sense of humour. I particularly liked the moment when he describes taking Chang on as the son he never had before he kills him two minutes later. I often felt that the Master was simply mocking the type of relationship the Doctor had with his companions.
We also saw how the Master still despite his degeneration and desperation maintained his wits about him, as he was able to manipulate and twist the mind of Chang to help him. I got the impression that the Master didn’t really need Changs help, in fact he could have easily possessed him like he did to Grace, but he simply enjoyed manipulating this vulnerable human. This again is another trait we see among other incarnations of the Master both before and after, such as Simm taking advantage of Lucy Saxon.
Overall I’d rate Roberts as a decent version of the Master. Not up to par with the first three, but then again he didn’t have as much screen time either. I can’t really fault this version of the character apart from a few silly moments (which to be fair all the Masters had).
The writers and Roberts got everything right about the character. His manipulative and sly nature, his burning hatred of the Doctor, his craven cowardice, and they actually carried on from his last appearance by showing the Master having degenerated mentally further by the Cheetah virus.
Next up the Russell T Davies era Masters.