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Assumed Identities: Behind the Masks in Doctor Who

Doctor Who loves masks. You have to look pretty hard to find a Who story with no masks at all, though many of them are monster costumes, latex, ageing make-up, or stuntmen in wigs. The show also boasts an unparalleled range or fabulous headgear, but that’s a whole other article.

However, if you narrow down the definition to characters wearing removable* masks which cover their face for some reason within the plot, it becomes more interesting. Why is that character wearing a mask? What’s the writer or director doing with it? And where is Who tipping a wink to other genres and ideas? Are the masks theatrical or conspiratorial, ritual or nefarious, for protection, power, disguise, or escape? Or are they just to frighten the kiddies? Let’s rummage through the costume cupboard and blow the dust off a few classic masks.

*So, sadly, I can’t count the glorious Bruce Purchase’s Cyborg headgear in The Pirate Planet.

Under the Surface

On top of the pile is the only Who story with Mask – sorry; masque – in the title. We’re firmly in mad underground cult territory here, ritual and anonymity being the surface reason for a masque. People’s personalities change when masked; just ask a primary school teacher or a police officer at a face-painted football crowd event. You think you can get away with stuff if no one knows who you are. Wherever there’s a mad cult in Who, there’s a mob of skulking mask-wearers. Usually with hoods and occasionally with concealed weaponry.

But as the mask in the title suggests, there’s a different story underneath. Under Mandragora’s gilded exterior is the age-old question, are you wearing the mask or is the mask wearing you? You put it on to gain its POWER and it eats you. Don’t try this at home.

In the end though, the story turns out to be not about a power-mad cult or even an alien like Azal, but an energy, an irresistible force pitted against an immovable object.

When the Doctor puts on a mask in this story (given to him for the masked ball) and does battle with the helix entity, it’s not accidental that he’s a lion; the king of any jungle he materialises in.


No, I’m not counting companions dressing up as Robomen or whatever, or we’ll be here all day. Nor do I count doppelgängers, like Patrick Troughton and the Dodgy Mexican. I’m including only the use of specifically a face mask to assume a different identity. So the first story that leaps to mind features a doppelgänger, with two scantily-clad Sarah Suttons, much to many fans’ delight. But the mask-swapping assumed identity goes to the mad brother, capturing ‘our’ Nyssa while wearing the Doctor’s pierrot mask.

We’re in ‘masked ball farce’ territory here as much as murder-mystery, but a good day out was had by all.

Apart from Adric.

Wearing a Different Face

The Master: He has A Thing about latex. Seriously, that use of latex masks of his own face that he likes to force onto dead bodies so that the Doctor thinks it’s him and he can escape… It’s not Freudian at all, is it? Maybe he uses his own face masks to con himself that he can always escape death, provided he sacrifices someone else in his place. He’s at it from his first ever story, after the shoot-out with the yellow bus. He’s such a wonderfully theatrical villain: masks of comedy as well as tragedy suit him perfectly. So, when he dons a hood ostensibly for ritual purposes in The Daemons, it’s more a sort of cosplay. Its the chanting he can’t resist. The less sense he makes, the happier he is.

On that note, let’s fly swiftly through Time-Flight territory here – the mask he’s been chanting under for so long was one of his more convincing disguises in realisation, if not in motivation. It fooled me, possibly because my mind was so distracted by trying to work out what on earth it was all supposed to be about. If anything.

The Doctor: Usually his disguises involve cross-dressing as a Domestic, but that moment in Deep Breath where he nicks the Master’s idea and turns is 180 is superb. And not a little gross too. Wearing the actual face of one of Clara’s captors and flinging it aside with flair at The Perfect Moment. ‘That’s how you disguise yourself.’

Here’s a bit of trivia: the mask is actually of Matt Smith, so Capaldi is literally ripping off the face of his predecessor.

Others stealing faces: Another famous latex face is Julian Glover’s magic mask in City of Death. The compression technique that got all that green spaghetti underneath the Count’s face must have given the Foamasi in The Leisure Hive the idea. Maybe he got it from Raxacoricofallipatorius.

A special mention here for The Mind Robber; the ‘Assemble Jamie’s Face’ game isn’t strictly a mask, but results in Jamie wearing someone else’s face for an episode. And behaving a little differently. A nice take on the mask wearing you.

Mask of Horror

The nightmare fodder of ‘Something Else wearing the face of a loved one’ is at the heart of the classic image of android Sarah being unmasked. It’s even more scary when Zygon Harry takes a pitchfork to Sarah. Somehow, Plastic Mickey in Rose doesn’t have quite the same impact.

So let’s plunge fearlessly into the darker shadows of Who history, where masks are definitely there to scare…

The series of face-coverings in The Deadly Assassin Matrix are plot device threats; the Doctor doesn’t know who or what is trying to deal with, so he’s ‘in the dark,’ powerless compared to his pursuer. The enemy is more frightening because you can’t see his expression or identity; it’s harder to fight an enemy you don’t know and can’t read. And it retains the mystery of whodunnit.

The Idiot’s Lantern‘s faceless, expressionless ‘masks’ are eerie for the same reason as in The Deadly Assassin – we can’t read them. The painted on eyes in Image of the Fendahl or The Fires of Pompeii serve the same purpose – they hide real expression, keep us excluded, uninformed, on the back foot.

The classic mask covering the opposite of what it portrays is, of course, the Clown. They crop up in Deadly Assassin’s matrix nightmare, again in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and a classic Sarah Jane Adventure, Day of the Clown. A whole brilliant Big Finish season is built on it.

Clown faces are scary because they say one thing and do another. Shakespeare knew it well; ‘One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’ The mask-wearing ‘baddies’ in The Beast Below are actually called Smilers – enough to make anyone suspicious.

The Host in Voyage of the Damned are brilliant masks – two sides in one single face. If you cover half and look at one side only, they tell a very different story. Here, the masks show duplicity – their creator’s ulterior motive.

Russell T Davies claimed they were inspired by The Robots of Death and you can definitely see where he’s coming from.

Are you my Mummy? No Dear; I’m David Maloney.

If we’re looking for masks that set out to scare, then David Maloney knew what he was doing. And Steven Moffat stole from the best.

Gas masks are scary, and their deceptive possibilities can be part of the plot. The general scariness of not knowing who – or what — is behind them makes The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances so good. Are they removable? Yes, but only by nanogene magic. I’m on thin ice here. And no, Victorian diving-bell-type masks don’t count. The thing about gas masks, though, is that they refer to both the horrors of war, the countless collateral damage to civilians, but also the hidden threat they’re supposed to protect you from. The thing that could kill you is invisible.


The most common ‘invisible thing that can kill you’ in Doctor Who is radiation, so a few of the more – er – interesting facial coverings are brought out to protect the wearer from that deadly energy. The Terminus guards’ masks were intended to pick up on the Norse flavour of the whole thing – and, like the rest of the story didn’t quite work, were hot inside, and hard to speak through.

There’s an Invisible Man hint to the victim from The Faceless Ones, who you wish were faceless but, rather disturbingly, looks like a melting skull, so is sensitively swathed in bandages and hat. A mask created to protect the fragile public from seeing anything that might disturb them. There’s still that intrigue – we want to see inside, but we don’t – the same ‘peepo’ game little children enjoy. Things are always more scary if half-glimpsed and imagined, rather than fully revealed. The Ambassadors of Deaths’ final reveal of blobby blue horror beneath their helmets benefited from the slow build up.

Talking of invisible men: Omega. Can we count this one? I said the mask had to be removable, which this one was, with the help of a Two-Three manoeuvre, but it wasn’t covering a face; just an empty space.

For three episodes, it had been highlighted as a huge, glowery, imposing mask, with the biggest ‘who’s inside?’ lure. A beautiful rug-pulling moment there from writer and director. Haunted young me for weeks! At a deeper level, it’s another example of what happens when you create a powerful persona and believe your own propaganda. Politicians and demagogues beware.

Phantom Masks

No, not imaginary ones, but ‘of the Opera’ masks. Borrowed from the iconic story of a living ‘ghost,’ revenge, beauty and the beast, and tragedy. These kind of masks are a very fast short cut to a lot of meaning. They also manage to be scary, visually arresting, and can reveal more about the person wearing them than they conceal.

Greel’s medieval knight-style mask echoes his verbal ‘jousting’ with the Doctor, but belies the exact opposite of chivalry. It hides someone abusive, desperate, and actually falling apart behind it.

Sharaz Jek’s is much more complex. Superficially skull-like, referencing the fact he deals in death, drugs, and weapons. A deeply damaged person, seeing all in black and white, two sides to his traumtised personality too. The mask’s association with bondage is no accident, as he and Morgus play out their power games. Jek has taken the shame and anger he felt at his betrayal and disfigurement, and transformed it into a commanding identity. You can’t help but feel sorry for him when it is stripped away, his enemy/reason to go on already dead, his beautiful hostage dying, his base falling apart around him. His mask was his skin.

No wonder The Caves of Androzani always scores so high in polls. It has layers.


Koquillion: A spectacular mask just to frighten the kiddies, or to hide a much darker story underneath? Where on earth do we go with this potentially inappropriate tale of child abuse, fetishism, and attempted genocide? A deeply damaged man has compounded one deception on another, wreaked havoc he can’t amend. It’s like Bennett wants to be caught, he’s created such an obvious, OTT monster alter-ego. Again, it shows the use of masks to remove moral scruples, to allow yourself to do what would be unimaginable if people could identify you. ‘It wasn’t me – it was the monster.’ If only all abusers were so easily identified and unmasked.

Much more affecting is Barbara’s assumption that the pet is a monster; chosen by the vulnerable Vicky as perhaps able to protect her from another monster, or because it is a safe version of what frightens her. A teddy bear, in fact. Children’s programme my backside.


Ashildir’s highwayman mask in The Woman Who Lived. Well I’m barely convinced we can count this as mask – it’s costume. Yes, she’s using it as a fake identity, but there’s little attempt at actual anonymity here. It’s cosplay again. Maybe she and the Master had a fling at some point.

And while we’re on masks as costume choices, Lady Christina’s jewel-thief mask is only there so she can do the shampoo commercial reveal of long flowing hair thing. This was a cinematic story, complete with popcorn and eye-candy.

As to the Ghost’s mask in The Return of Doctor Mysterio… well, superheroes need a costume, or how would we recognise them? It’s there not so much to hide the ‘mild-mannered’ ordinary guy underneath, but to publicise the identity of the hero.

Androids in Masks

Talking of mild-mannered heroes, can I get away with including D-’you’re not as dumb as you look’-84 from The Robots of Death? Wearing the black mask of a Dum instead of the green of a Voc, so he could go about his detective duties unquestioned. Yeah, I know it’s the whole costume, not just the mask, but they’re so beautiful, and inscrutable. They press the same buttons in our psyche as the Clockwork droids.

The Girl in the Fireplace grandstands masks of beauty and Versailles style, lovingly crafted. The characters wearing them can remove them and are using them to disguise their real identity/nature/murderous purposes, to fit in anonymously at the Royal Court. Which says a lot about Court politics. They are particularly menacing because they are beautiful, smiling, and inscrutable. Other androids have worn masks to move amongst humans unaware, but none so beguiling as these. Contrast the Santas in The Christmas Invasion.

The mask used by the Tereleptils’ android in The Visitation was an interesting case – a cultural reference to Death, used to spread the plague. One of those claims on cultural tropes Doctor Who so likes to play with.

For My Next Trick

I’m going to cheat a little with the use of a helmet rather than mask as a tease or bluff. We saw Lynx remove his helmet – that peepo tease we enjoy so much – in The Time Warrior, long before Vader removed his in Jedi. But the director and writer fool us along with Sarah in The Sontaran Experiment. Under that helmet is revealed… Not Lynx! By Moffat’s era, we’d be calling that fan-trolling.

They play the same sort of trick in The Leisure Hive, using The Great Helmet of Cultural Significance as plot device, and to hide the Doctor under all those clones we’re supposed to think are Pangol. They even play the ball and cup game with Romana for a while – which one is the real Doctor under? By Silence in the Library, the white helmets that hide dark shadows add real spookiness to the game – who turned out the lights?

Mask Masterclass

The Beast Below brings together so many of these elements. Even before the titles we get the ‘Smilers’ being raging scowlers underneath; there to scare. Within the text, Liz 10 says her mask is so she can go about her realm incognito, a bit like Henry before Agincourt. Given she still flounces round with a bearing as regal as any coronation, I don’t think she has ‘anonymity’ in her toolkit, but it serves a purpose. Next, it serves as a plot device; being created specifically for her youthful face, but 300 years old, it tells the Doctor that Something is Going On.

Before all that though, the director is using it to create an air of mystery – what’s behind the mask? Who is that? Why a mask, and what is she up to? It gets viewers intrigued. For writers, there’s the visual short-cut of a particular kind of mask; it looks superficially a bit like a Venice Carnival mask, but has strong hints of the revolutionary mask in V for Vendetta or Mr Robot. A queen about to turn society upside down…

Finally, just like Mandragora, or any good story with masks to the fore, it signals that the whole story is not what it looks like on the surface.

A bit like Who itself; it wears many, many faces, and there’s always something else going on!

What’s your favourite Who mask, and did any scare you as a child? Let us know in the comments.

Bar Nash-Williams

Assumed Identities: Behind the Masks in Doctor Who

by Bar Nash-Williams time to read: 11 min
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