Doctor Who's Sacha Dhawan: 'I'll never, ever forget playing the Master'
The actor behind the Doctor's most fearsome foe on how the role changed the path of his career, researching his predecessors on Wikipedia, and what lies ahead.
The feature-length Doctor Who episode airing tonight (23rd October) on BBC One is a landmark outing for a number of reasons: as part of the BBC's centenary celebrations, it'll include "Easter eggs and kisses to the past" which nod to the long history of both the show itself and the broadcaster without which, showrunner Chris Chibnall has argued, it would've disappeared from our screens long ago, but it also marks the end of the Chibnall era and the departure of his lead actor, Jodie Whittaker.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Sacha Dhawan – a stalwart of this era as the latest incarnation of the Master – seems less certain as to whether The Power of the Doctor also marks the end of his own time with the show.
"I'd love to come back," admits the softly-spoken actor, who off-screen couldn’t be further removed from his frenzied portrayal of the Doctor’s nemesis. "But sometimes I think... have I done my bit with it? Is it time for me to get my teeth into new characters?"
Debuting in the two-part 2020 story Spyfall, Dhawan's take on the Master was warmly received by Doctor Who fandom. "The fan community is immensely supportive, but they're honest as well, and I appreciate that – you get told if they don't like something! So I was really nervous, it coming out on New Year's Day and the reveal... and seeing the reactions was really moving for me. It was unlike anything that I'd done before – Doctor Who is a real event, it means so much to people."
The type of encouragement he received from fans surprised Dhawan – they were supportive, he says, not just of his casting as the Master but on a more personal level. "I've been quite open about struggles with mental health, or Crohn's disease, and they're just so brilliant – I see comments on Twitter or if I'm doing a Comic Con, I get to meet fans and it's really special.
"It's more than I ever expected. Going into the centenary special, I had a bit more of a spring in my step because I understood the community a bit better and I really wanted to do the episode justice for them and give my incarnation a really good send-off."
Dhawan's casting might not have happened at all, though, had he stuck to his plan of taking "a little bit of time out" from acting in 2019 – but the call to play the Master was, he says, "an offer I couldn't refuse". By pure coincidence, the call came while Dhawan was working with one Peter Capaldi on a project at the National Theatre Rehearsal Studio. "As life and the universe would have it, a former Doctor was sitting in front of me – it was something I had to listen to in that moment."
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A week later and Dhawan was on a plane to South Africa to begin filming on location. He credits his Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, with helping to quell his nerves in the early going. "Jodie was the first person I met in South Africa, in the make-up trailer – I was so nervous, but her charisma and charm and warm personality just totally put me at ease. She welcomed me into the pack.
"That was really the start of a job that was more than just a job. It was like being welcomed into a family – and with where I was at that time, it was just what I needed. That was the break that I needed."
Though this wasn't his first brush with Doctor Who – he'd previously played Waris Hussein, director of the first ever Doctor Who serial, in 2013 docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time – Dhawan wasn't all that familiar with the iconic villain he'd be playing. "I could recall John Simm, his version of the Master, but other than that... so I actually went on Wikipedia. The source of all knowledge!"
But he quickly decided it wouldn't be helpful to spend too much time swotting up on previous incarnations. "It's steeped in so much history, but I didn't want to get too bogged down by it because it could end up stifling me a little bit. I was really keen to just kind of let rip a little bit and start making some bold choices as an actor."
Dhawan sent a self tape to Chibnall and Doctor Who's executive producer Matt Strevens to give them a steer on the approach he'd be taking, but says his performance on set ended up being "kind of different" to that first attempt. "Once you're in that environment, your adrenaline kicks in and you just embrace taking the handbrake off and seeing what happens – and as nerve-wracking as it is, something magical can happen. I really felt that it did on that."
His role in The Power of the Doctor will mark his fifth appearance on the show and Dhawan says he's still keen to "keep the audience guessing a little bit" and reveal new sides to his Master. "That's something that I've always continued, even coming back for the centenary – I didn't want people to think, 'Oh yeah, we've seen Sacha's incarnation, now we're gonna get more of the same.'"
Though he'd decided not to actively seek out previous portrayals, watching footage from classic Doctor Who – and in particular the performance of the first actor to play the Master, Roger Delgado – for a Blu-ray special feature did end up having an impact. "In the space in-between Spyfall and coming back [for series 12's two-part finale Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children], I did end up watching some of the original and I really like his stillness. I thought that was fascinating and something I would really love to incorporate."
His desire to keep his portrayal feeling fresh also factored into how often we saw Dhawan's Master on-screen – he was absent from 2021's six-part serialised story Flux, and two special episodes that followed it earlier this year. "Chris was like, 'We want you back – how many episodes do you want to be in?' and I said, 'Wow, I need to think about this.'
"I've been very fortunate that when I've come in, I've been part of big episodes, big events – me kind of cropping up all the time, I worry that people get might get a little bit sick of me! So I actually really liked kind of disappearing for a bit... and then coming in again at the last minute.
"I still feel by the end of the centenary special, there's that question of... have we really seen my version of the Master? Is there more to discover? I think there's always more to unpick with it."
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Like so many Doctor Who alumni before him, Dhawan has already signed up to reprise his role for a Big Finish audio drama (though even he isn't sure exactly what to expect from his Call Me Master spin-off as he's yet to see any scripts), but if his time on the television series is truly at an end, he says his biggest takeaway from his time spent playing this character is the permission it gave him to "just be bold, be fearless, be unafraid".
"Being the Master in this universe has really encouraged me to do that," he says, once again considering his next steps. "Before I came into it, I was in a bit of a weird place. It couldn't be a more perfect stepping stone to embrace myself a little bit and and be bold. It's not making me go, 'Oh, I wish I was doing more Doctor Who', it's actually empowered me to kind of reach for the stars.
"I hope as an actor I'll keep evolving and keep being as bold, or even more bold, more instinctive. The Master has really helped me to find that as an actor, which is why I'll never, ever forget playing it."
Read more about Doctor Who:
- Doctor Who’s Sacha Dhawan would “love to come back” to face Ncuti Gatwa
- Doctor Who star pays tribute to Jodie Whittaker: 'Best I’ve worked with'
- Jodie Whittaker says "rage" over Doctor Who casting was "terrifying"
- Doctor Who "would not exist" outside of the BBC, says Chris Chibnall
- Doctor Who's Jodie Whittaker says Ncuti Gatwa will be "extraordinary"
- Doctor Who showrunner promises "very different" regeneration scene
Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor will air at 7:30pm on Sunday, 23rd October on BBC One. The series is available to stream on BBC iPlayer with episodes of the classic series also available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.
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