The final part of the "Villains Trilogy": three standalone episodes that explore how the Doctor and his archenemies are Not So Different in the end. The other two parts are "Omega" and "Davros". The trilogy also thematically paved the road for the next episode, "Zagreus", although that episode is not standalone and is instead part of the Eighth Doctor's Story Arc.
The Seventh Doctor surprises a sniper just minutes before an assassination attempt and, while waiting for the target's parade to arrive, offers to tell him a story...
In a dark old manor home, as a storm rages outside, friends have gathered to celebrate the birthday of Doctor John Smith, a disfigured but kind gentleman, who was once found wandering the streets of their home, Perfugium. John has no memory of who he was or where he had come from, and he's been living in Perfugium for ten years, with married couple Victor and Jacqueline as his closest friends. Now, having inherited a manor, a maid and a cat from a kind old patient, John simply wishes to enjoy the company of friends. And he'd rather forget the curse that's supposedly on the house — as well as the grisly murders of prostitutes that are going on outside, with Victor, a detective, being in charge of their investigations.
As the clock ticks and the wine bottles get emptier, the group of friends is surprised by the Doctor, who stumbles into the house weakened and babbling on about "DEATH". The Doctor — realising that the name "Dr. John Smith" is taken today — introduces himself as Dr. Vaughan Sutton. He tells John stories about another life, about a world outside the mansion and outside Perfugium. John feels an instant connection to a fellow man of science, and the two quietly start a friendship, with John telling the Doctor about Victor's overly scientific mind and Jacqueline's naiveté. Victor insists that every murder, every act of evil, must be provoked or performed by a deranged, sick mind. The evil are either meant to be cured or to be examined for scientific purposes. John would like to discover more options, and wonders what other motivations for evil might exist in the world. Meanwhile, Jacqueline herself acts oddly, even going so far as to slap the young maid, Jade, in the face. And suddenly, without provocation, the cat is murdered as gruesomely as the whores of Perfugium were, and what seems to be a poltergeist slams a copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the Doctor's face.
The Doctor, who's perfectly aware of just who John is, can see an obvious clue when it hits him and explains to John just what's going on. Long ago, when two boys on a planet far away were playing by the stream together, one of them was nearly drowned by a bully. The other took up a rock and, to save his friend, killed the bully. The two boys quietly burned the corpse, but their lives had changed forever — one ended up running away and became the Doctor, and the other, wrecked with guilt over having committed that murder, became the Master and turned into one of the most accomplished killers the universe had ever seen.
Meanwhile, Jade finds herself humming a tune about one who sits inside your head, and lives among the dead...
John is horrified to discover that the memory of being the Master is deep inside him, but before he and the Doctor can discuss it further, Jade reveals herself to be Death incarnate. She mocks the people gathered there — Victor for having committed the gruesome murders just to keep the whores away from Jacqueline, Jacqueline for being in love with John but never admitting it because of his low status in society, the Doctor for no longer merrily playing the spoons or mixing his metaphors, and John for being unable to cope with his past life.
The Doctor explains that he manipulated the entire situation, having made a deal with Death — insofar as such a universal concept can be said to have a consciousness — in order to grant the Master ten years of normal life. According to the deal, the Doctor would murder the Master at the end of that decade. But the Doctor can't bring himself to do it, and while Victor and his wife face the revelations that were made, the Doctor begins to realise that his mental image of the Master simply never included being loved or having friends... even if the Doctor would give anything to be a friend to the Master again. Victor, meanwhile, succumbs to Death's influence on everyone's mind, goes into a violent rage and murders Jacqueline, which greatly pleases Death. Death also reveals that this is certainly not the first deal she made with the Doctor... the first one was many years ago, on Gallifrey, after the Doctor murdered a young boy and begged Death, in a dream, to make his friend pay for it instead of himself. The Doctor can't believe the memories that are revealed to him, and realises with utter horror that the Master was supposed to be the one going around saving galaxies, and he himself might have ended up destroying entire chunks of the universe as Death's herald.
He and the Master are given a choice, since Death has the power to reset time, to erase memories and to create entire new scenarios just to please herself. The Master, now back to his old self, explains that his regular consciousness has been lurking helplessly in the back of the "John Smith" persona for ten years, waiting for a chance to strike — but he doesn't consider himself Death's pawn, but rather the other way around. Still, he understands his bond with the Doctor. The Doctor offers to make Death another deal and let John Smith, not the Master, choose what to make of his future, at the cost of the Doctor having to commit the murder of an innocent.
And that's why he told the story to the sniper — he plans to take the gun and commit the act himself. But he still can't go through with it, and the sniper gleefully reveals himself to simply be Death, taking great pleasure in watching the Doctor struggle with morality. John is given an opportunity to save Jacquelin's life by killing Victor before he can kill his wife, with the implication that if he takes a life, he will become Death's servant once more. The story ends where it began, with Victor and Jacqueline arriving at their old friend's house to celebrate his birthday, only to find him waiting with a knife. But as the events of that terrible night have not happened, Jacqueline does not understand why John is behaving this way, and she is horrified when he threatens to kill her husband. John is torn with indecision; if he kills Victor, Jacqueline will live, but she will not understand why he has done this and he will be doomed to become the Master once more.
"Master" includes examples of:
- And I Must Scream: The Master inside of John Smith.
- Anthropomorphic Personification: Death.
- Ax-Crazy: The serial killer that plagues the town. Is Victor.
- Awful Truth: One of the real reasons the Doctor keeps trying to save the Master - in their childhood, he killed a bully to defend the Master. But when Death came to select him as her Champion, the Doctor chose to give her the Master instead, partly helping push him into the spiral of madness he eventually became sunken into.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Death, if she's being honest when she says she never expected the Doctor to be corrupted and kill the Master anyway. Also the Master himself in a way, since the Doctor ultimately fails to reform him, although that's a given really.
- Bait-and-Switch: Torvik's death was actually caused by the Doctor.
- Batman Gambit: A failed one done by John Smith and Jacqueline.
- Because Destiny Says So: The reason why Death made her deal with the Doctor to transfer the memory of him killing Torvik to the Master. According to her the Doctor should've turned out to be the Master, but "others" had plans for him.
- Beat Still, My Heart
- Beneath the Mask
- Big "NO!"
- Break Her Heart to Save Her: At the very end, Dr. Smith pretends the Master has taken over earlier than expected, and verbally tears Jacqueline to pieces to try to get her to leave.
- Blue and Orange Morality: Discussed.
- Call-Back: The Doctor goes by the name of Vaughan Sutton.
- One that doubles as a Call-Forward; the Zagreus verse shows up.
- A rather subtle one: the murder on Gallifrey almost exactly mirrors the First Doctor's attempt to murder a caveman using a rock.
- Catchphrase Interruptus: "I am your master and you... ..."
- Character Development: The Seventh Doctor's is darkly lampshaded — he no longer plays the spoons, or mixes his metaphors. He's too busy destroying planets and toppling empires.
- Compelling Voice
- Continuity Nod: A few references to Bernice Summerfield.
- Deal with the Devil: The deal with Death.
- Demonic Possession
- Downer Ending
- Dramatic Thunder
- Evil Counterpart: This episode's premise is akin to "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" (originally a novel by Paul Cornell) except it's not the Doctor as John Smith...
- Evil Is Petty
- Failure Is the Only Option
- Foe Yay
- For the Evulz: Dr. Smith and the Doctor have more than a few long discussions about the nature of evil, and how to comprehend an individual that, instead of a concrete motive for their actions, just was. The Doctor says he knew someone whose actions often fitted that description, long ago. The Master personally refutes simply being labeled "evil".The Master: Evil? I crave power, dominion, knowledge of the forbidden and secret. So much more than simply "evil".
- Foreshadowing: Jade sings the Zagreus poem, and wonders where it came from.
- Also the colour green being the colour of death.
- Framing Device
- Good Scars, Evil Scars
- Gothic Horror
- Go-to Alias: The Doctor meeting John Smith forces him to abandon this for himself, and he goes for Vaughn Sutton.
- The Grim Reaper: The maid Jade is actually a disguise for Death herself and she really likes her job.
- The Grotesque
- Gypsy Curse
- Healing Factor: The Doctor (as a Timelord) heals from a lightning strike fairly quickly.
- Hearing Voices
- Heroic BSoD: The Doctor when he learns he was supposed to have become the Master.
- If I Can't Have You...
- I Need a Freaking Drink
- Internal Homage: To "Human Nature" by Paul Cornell (back when it was still just a novel, not yet a TV episode). The novel starred Seven as "John Smith", and featured a pet cat. This episode subverts both concepts quite horribly.
- Jack The Rip Off: Victor.
- Laser-Guided Amnesia: Dr. Smith. It's not exactly a secret who he was.
- Morality Chain: Jacqueline is one for The Master / John Smith.
- Horribly subverted with her to Victor.
- Narrator All Along
- Never One Murder
- Noodle Incident:The Doctor: "It's been a long time since I've been attacked by a book!"
- Not So Different: Ohh boy. This was already a major theme in the preceding episodes "Omega" (with Five) and "Davros" (with Six), but Seven and the Master take it to whole new levels.
- Orphaned PunchlineVictor: "So I said, fetch me EVERYTHING on the menu!"
- Ouija Board
- Out-of-Character Alert: The people are slowly turning more menacing inside the house by a presence.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: I!! WILL!! NOT!! KILL!! AGGHHIIIIM!!"
- That Poor Cat: The original Human Nature novel introduced Wolsey, the Seventh Doctor's pet cat, who'd stay part of team TARDIS for years and years. In this episode, John Smith also has a cat. It's ripped open halfway through the story.
- The Reveal: Several.
- Sadistic Choice
- Say My Name
- The Scream
- Spot of Tea
- Tomato in the Mirror: You know it's coming, but it can't be easy for the kind hearted Doctor Smith to find out he's actually a mass-murdering psychopath.
- Or for the Doctor to discover that he was supposed to be the Master, and the only reason he didn't become the mass-murdering psychopath was because he sold out his friend.
- Wham Line: Jade's reveal at the end of episode 3.Jade: Why, me sir? I'm Death.
- Out of the blue, you have Jade reciting the Zagreus poem while washing dishes...Jade: They say he sits inside your head, / they say he lives among the dead, / they say he eats you when you're—What an odd verse. / They say he sits inside your head...
- Out of the blue, you have Jade reciting the Zagreus poem while washing dishes...
- What You Are in the Dark
- Whole Plot Reference: Very blatantly to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The others actually groan once Seven starts reciting from it. But as it turns out, the episode is like the novel in more ways than one.
- You Can't Fight Fate
- Your Worst Memory: The Doctor initially introduces the murder of the bully as the Master's worst memory, being the moment that made him the Master in the first place... except it turns out that it's actually the Doctor's worst memory. He killed the bully, then sold the Master to Death in order to escape becoming her servant - hence why he had the moment wiped from his mind until this adventure.