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Look of the Week: The tailored playful menace of the Master on Doctor Who
Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!
2020 kicked off with a sartorial bang, courtesy of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), her companions, and new friend O (Sacha Dhawan) going full James Bond. “Spyfall, Part 1” delivered black-tie thrills and a very fun twist, leading to more mayhem in the following episode.
Warning: Spoilers for Doctor Who ahead.
Rather than being a pal from MI6, O is actually the Doctor's former childhood BFF and current best enemy: the Master. And just as every Doctor gets a new signature style, so does a Time Lord who has previously been described as the “quintessence of evil.” Even those who want to destroy the universe know the importance of a signature outfit. In fact, villains often take the title of best-dressed.
Part of the big revelation is a result of how unassuming O's clothing is in the first episode before costume designer Ray Holman unleashes the Master’s true style identity. In Australia, his low-key khaki vest and button-down aesthetic fit with the nerdy analyst persona. When they go undercover at the casino-themed party, his tuxedo is the least flashy of the group.
But when the mask drops, he looks far more comfortable in his fancy attire. As O, he was playing modest and nervous, a man not comfortable out in the field. The Master has no such qualms and is very much feeling himself in this particular jaw-dropping moment. He can hardly contain his glee, which brings a new dazzling quality to his formal getup.
“A little chaos is a wonderful thing,” the Master observes in "Spyfall Part 2," which involves several clothing changes across different periods. In 1834, he looks dapper in a top hat and floral waistcoat before zapping people at random. The exquisitely tailored layering means he is period-appropriate but also stands out in the crowd. Paris is known for being chic; however, it is 1943, so couture is the last thing on anyone's mind. His choice of clothing (and friends) leaves a lot to be desired — but you can’t fault him for the accuracy. It is his final ensemble that has left us particularly giddy, which mixes a variety of influences and places him at the top of the most stylish Master list.
As with the Doctor, this character has a penchant for visually striking garments, from the original Master’s (Roger Delgado) black Nehru jacket to Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) Victorian governess threads giving her the air of a deranged Mary Poppins. Drawing from the past, the 19th century also provided Derek Jacobi’s version of this arch-nemesis with his wardrobe. When traveling through the centuries, it impossible not to indulge in the trends across the era.
He isn't the best-dressed Master, nor was he the most subtle, but Eric Roberts as this character did have a point when he announced, "I always dress for the occasion!"
Dhawan is wonderfully unhinged in his depiction of this villain, delivering a playful menace in his performance. He is also a total smokeshow. This level of chaotic energy coupled with that face is a winning formula, which is backed up by his chemistry with Whittaker. As they dance around each other, the complex shared history of their characters is apparent. Sure, they are best enemies but no one knows what she is going through more than the Master. This is a bond that cannot be broken easily; they share a home and a Gallifrey origin story.
Costume design tells a deeper story than simply looking good, as it can also emphasize a link between characters. It is worth noting the Master’s main ensemble consists of trousers that have been slightly rolled up, mirroring the current Doctor's cropped pants.
The dramatic conclusion of “Skyfall, Part 2” unveiled the Master’s new signature look and while some of the detailing wasn’t clear in the dark warehouse sequence, BBC America later released images that showcase everything from the color of his socks to the fabulous matching plaid pants and vest. Blue and purple are the dominant color theme; the latter might read as Joker-leaning, but I see it as being a complementary nod to Whittaker’s coat lining.
These two characters are opposite sides of the same coin, possessing an inescapable shared history. After all, this is not the first time the Master has mirrored the Doctor — see Missy’s accent and overall style with the 12th Doctor — and the frock coat is another touch in this department.
In terms of costume design, Holman is incredibly collaborative with the actors — he drew on the favorite places of the actors when crafting the tuxedo looks — and the same applies to the Master. On Instagram, Dhawan explained that he sent Holman a template of ideas, which included Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys and Teddy Boys. The image at the center is of Smutty Smiff, a founding member of the late '70s rockabilly punk band Levi and the Rockats.
“He came back with something pretty spectacular,” Dhawan noted, and we cannot agree more. The inclusion of Teddy Boys is a great style inspiration choice because they reflect the Master’s sensibility, both through the eccentric clothing and the anti-establishment stance.
Born out of the drudgery of post-war Britain, the youth subculture put a contemporary twist on the Edwardian-era Dandy. Considering this Master had to endure the 20th century — “I’ve just had the most infuriating 77 years of my life" — without his TARDIS to aid travel, it isn't surprising he would pick up some tips along the way. Notably, his choice of clothing leans into the Teddy Boy aesthetic because he shares their love of chaos. Choosing a performer like Alex Turner also makes sartorial sense as he has shifted from a Mod to rocker look, which is a natural style progression from the Teddy Boy. This sneak peek into the design process underscores the notion that inspiration can be sourced from a variety of pop culture and historical references (as Holman did with the 13th Doctor’s signature costume).
For now, the Master has been contained, but he has sowed the seeds of doubt in the Doctor about their true identity, which will likely drive the rest of the season. And while there are still plenty of unanswered questions, it is clear that Dhawan has made quite a striking first impression as this iconic character.