Exploring the legacy of queer Doctor Who actor Derek Jacobi

David Ferguson takes a dive into some of the work of renowned queer actor Derek Jacobi.

The image shows Derek Jacobi in a Victorian style blouse and waistcoat standing in front of the Doctor Who Tardis.
Image: BBC

It’s interesting to see when people discover an actor’s work. This is especially the case with an actor with the longevity of Sir Derek Jacobi. Some people, for instance, may have seen him for the first time in the recent Sandman episode ‘Calliope’ (which dropped out of nowhere along with ‘A Dream Of A Thousand Cats’ after I’d written my Sandman piece or I would have mentioned him). 

Personally, I first noticed him as The Master opposite David Tennant’s Doctor in Doctor Who but only really took notice when he appeared alongside another Sir, Sir Ian McKellen, in Vicious – I could easily write a similar piece about Sir Ian McKellen but I digress – More on Doctor Who and Vicious in a bit.

Jacobi started out as a theatre actor and eventually came to the attention of legendary actor Sir Lawrence Olivier, who invited him to become a founding member of the National Theatre. 

He also had various TV roles but his big breakthrough came in 1974 with I, Claudius. He won praise for his portrayal of the stuttering Claudius. (I recently watched the series and highly recommend it). Jacobi has stated that its success in America led to him getting roles on Broadway. 

He went on to do numerous theatre, TV and movie jobs. He won an Emmy for his appearance in Frasier. He starred in Gladiator and had longer roles in series like Cadfael, where he played the lead character. There are just too numerous roles for me to mention.

As I said, in June 2007, he starred in Doctor Who. Jacobi has stated that it was one of his dream jobs (the other being a spot on Coronation Street, there have been offers but he didn’t feel the roles were right so far). The Doctor Who part was for one episode ‘Utopia’ but it has turned into a recurring role for Big Finish Productions, starting 10 years later in 2017. Jacobi plays The Master in stories that occurred before the TV episode. 

Jacobi brings to life a sinister and calculating version of The Master, dubbed The War Master as the stories take place during The Time War. 

There have been seven volumes of audio plays released. The most recent volume, Self-Defence, released in June 2022, sees him opposite David Tennant again. Again, highly recommended.

The other Jacobi role I love is Stuart Bixby in the sitcom Vicious, starting in 2013. Critics have said that the show didn’t know what it was but I saw it as a traditional sitcom updated for a modern audience. There were numerous recognisable sitcom favourites like recurring gags and characters that are mentioned but not seen. It modernised things by turning these on their heads in numerous ways and there’s quite a bit of swearing. 

Of course, it was nice to see a gay couple front and centre and, for me, it was great that it was an older couple too. I really enjoyed Jacobi and McKellen “camping it up as much as they liked” (Jacobi’s words) and thought the show had a lot of heart too. 

Sadly, it was cancelled by ITV in 2016 but they got to do a really touching finale in 2018. Jacobi has said it was one of the roles he’d still be doing if he could, so go check it out. Whatever the role, his work is worth seeking out.

Make sure to follow David on Twitter for more pop culture news.

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