We've looked at the evolution of the Master in three previous features, charting the change from the Anti-Pertwee of Roger Delgado's incarnation, through the Naked Evil years of Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beevers, to the Playful Obsessive of Anthony Ainley, through the brief and blood-curdling Derek Jacobi awakening and John Simm's rebirth of the character as the Anti-Tennant. The Master in all his incarnations has always been uniquely written. Being a fellow rebel Time Lord, he above all others is able to challenge the Doctor on a philosophical level, to say "Blah blah universal peace and wonder. You're so wrong it's infuriating, and I'm going to conquer this world or destroy this galaxy, just to watch your face fall when you realise I'm right.' He is and always has been obsessed with proving the Doctor's worldview to be utterly childish and naive, his plans a punch in the face to the Doctor's wide-eyed wonder at the universe.
So then what are we to make of the latest on screen Master to blaze a trail of destruction across the Doctor's life? What of Michelle Gomez's Mistress? What does she add to the mythos and the legend of this unique character in Doctor Who history?
Firstly of course, and let’s get this out of the way, she’s a female incarnation, so she proves on screen the idea that Time Lords can change their sex when they regenerate. There has been much outrage in pockets of fandom at this idea – some claiming she’s just a ‘stolen’ body, others that this regenerative sex-change capacity is unique to the Master (though The Doctor’s Wife made it clear this was not the case). But no – as far as we know, it was a perfectly normal regeneration that turned the Master into the Mistress (and NB – even if it was a body-theft, that’s still a valid incarnation of the Master, otherwise, Anthony Ainley’s whole career in the role is null and void, and so is the Eric Roberts version).
Does her new femininity bring anything unique with it though? It’s important to remember that this is Steven Moffat’s Master, and while he’s eager to fill the show with strong female characters, they’re not – to put it kindly – a particular speciality of his, so it’s easy perhaps to dismiss the new elements of the Mistress’s personality as underwritten, or explained as ‘the bananas incarnation.’ But look a little closer and there is method in the madness.
The Master has always been obsessed with the Doctor, his plans have always been ‘devious and over-complicated’ (to quote the Rani), and he’s always been a master of disguise. All of this is very much to the fore in Missy – the plan seems more over-complicated than ever, and the obsession with the Doctor very much the driving force for the whole Nethersphere operation. And what better disguise could there be than a physical transformation into something the Doctor’s not expecting – a female form? So there are definitely touchstones of Masters past and venerable in Missy. John Simm introduced a ‘barking mad’ element to the character to deliver some unpredictability, some turn-on-a-dime frailty that could see him smile one minute, and order the decimation of the Earth the next. Gomez, if anything, takes that element and runs right off the screen with it, while adding a particularly personal cruelty to her make-up. Where Simm deliciously killed off the British Cabinet and sat drumming his fingers, and decimated the Earth, Gomez is up close and personal, obliterating people because she can, and demanding they ‘say something nice’ so she can have a happy memory of them.
The Master often works best when he’s very specifically the antithesis of a particular Doctor – Delgado was the Anti-Pertwee, Simm, the Anti-Tennant, and both were perhaps the most successful, the most shocking incarnations of the role, because they matched and bounced the personality of their particular Doctor back at him. So is Gomez the Anti-Capaldi? Yes, beyond a shadow of doubt – he’s against bantering, she’d banter with a brick wall if it stood still long enough; he’s full of self-doubt, she’s the spirit of blissful self-possession; he seems uncomfortable with his physical body, so what better way to accentuate that than to kiss him, to make him confront it, and his naivety or hypocrisy about it? Plus of course, he barely registers that Clara’s a female – or indeed that there are such things as females – throughout his first series. She’s undeniably a female incarnation, reveling in the newness of it, even camping it up to oversell the point, and heighten his confusion, his wrong-footing at the world as she has remade it.
There’s still more originality in the Gomez mistress though. The ‘playing to the gallery’ tactic is something Simm’s Master was able to do in The End of Time, but for the essence of Gomez’s Mistress, look at the Osgood scene. Every Master would have escaped from the handcuffs, absolutely, but Delgado’s Master would have hypnotized Osgood into becoming his slave. Ainley’s would have bargained for his life. Simm’s would have offered the way into the Doctor’s affections, and then, when free, would have become a tower of male rage. Missy’s use of Osgood’s psychology – the oh-so-desperate desire to be thought useful, to be thought worthy, by the Doctor, even the insecurity over how she smells – is dark, and cruel beyond the point of need. The use of the ‘sisterly confidence’ trick shows the Mistress has an implacable disregard for the humans she uses, and the chatty, terrifying countdown she employs to intimidate Osgood even further is monstrous to a degree that no plan to take over the world, no plan to build an army of Cybermen, could ever be, because she takes the time to do it, like a cat playing with her food. The killing of Osgood is the scene that stamps Gomez’s Mistress very firmly on the Master blueprint – that additional, personal cruelty is breathtaking and a fresh dimension of unpredictability to the character, and, even when Osgood pleads that she’s more useful alive, Missy can’t resist the opportunity for one more twist of the hope-knife, agreeing with her, recognizing a good point, well made – and then blasting her in the head anyway. It’s awful and wonderful in the same instant, this blowing away of the cobwebs of understanding we think we have about the Master. Followed immediately by the scene where she blows the side of the plane out to fling Kate Lethbridge-Stewart out into what we think is oblivion, it announces a tearing up of the rule book. The Mistress is unknowable and unreasonable, and two of the Doctor’s friends pay the real price of her unpredictability. We’re not in safe ‘Battle of the Time Lords’ territory any more, boys and girls.
If the terrifying unpredictability is a new character dimension for the Master, then the ending of Death In Heaven proves why only a female Master could do the things she does. The ending is oddly weak, looked at one way – she builds the army of Cybermen, they can weaponise the dead. She’s won. The universe will not be likely to be able to stand against her.
Then she hands the army over to the Doctor. The audience blinks, and asks ‘What just happened?’ Missy doesn’t want to conquer the universe – Missy wants her friend back, but she wants him back on the strict understanding that she shows him what he really is; manipulative, and determined to make the universe in the image of his idealism, just as she has always been determined to make the universe in the image of her power. She has looked at his doe-eyed optimism about the universe and said ‘Oh alright then, if you must, go and make it that way – but don’t pretend you don’t want it all to look the way you look, to believe the things you believe. Accept what you are, and who you are, and then, let’s be friends again.’
From the Gentleman Psychopath of Delgado, through the Naked Evil and the Playful Obsessive, Missy stamps her incarnation on the world of Doctor Who right there. She is the Psychological Adept, and she’s also the Ultimate Realist, the Master who can admit the things no other Master could – that she’d remake the universe in the Doctor’s image if it would get him to realize they’re the same, if it would get her her friend back.
And of course, she saves the best for last. Telling the Doctor where Gallifrey is, priming him to go and look for it, she gives him hope again, knowing perfectly well how he’ll react to finding it isn’t there. It’s one last psychological suckerpunch, and she knows – just as she knew Osgood would fall for it – she knows the Doctor will go, and find the empty space in the cosmos where Gallifrey once was, and will rage and roar and tear his hearts in two that he believed her.
This is the Master no previous incarnation has had the strength to be. It’s no longer about conquering the universe, though she’ll still do it to get the Doctor’s attention. In Missy, Moffat and Gomez delivered a Master more complex, more personally cruel, and more psychologically honest than any before.