Doctor Who: The Master in the 2010s – “I need my friend back”

The Mistress, Time Lady and Cyberman

You’re still obeying me? Excellent. The MaRCHster takeover reaches the current age end with quite possibly the Master’s most successful comeback. But the Twelfth Doctor, made for the kind of rivalry that was denied his predecessor, encountered a Master very different to previous iterations. this was one intent on taking us all for hellluva ride. Far removed from the tin-pot schemes of the 1980s and all those miserable constraints of survival, the time of the Mistress was upon us. A tale of … Hey Missy!

Dark Water and Death in Heaven (Series 8, 2014)

IT LOOKS LIKE THE MASTER, NOW THE MISTRESS, IS BACK FOR GOOD. SERIES EIGHT WAS EMPHATIC ABOUT IT, BEFORE SERIES NINE WAS PLAYFUL… Showing her face in almost every episode during 2014, the Master’s total appearances were very nearly 25% greater by the end of that year than the beginning. All those little asides may have seemed arbitrary, even after the great reveal of Dark Water, but programme credits ensured they were canonically embedded every time. Add in her appearance in the opening two-parter of Series Nine and that rogue’s easily amassing a frequency of appearances on a par with her/his early 1970s arrival. Time to stop mixing pronouns and determiners – we all know who we’re talking about. And Missy is undoubtedly already in the league of Delgado’s dapper ‘80s incarnation and Ainley’s smug ‘80s successor. Michelle Gomez’ recent nomination for a BAFTA, something Peter Capaldi’s Doctor astonishingly didn’t achieve for his work in Heaven Sent alone, can’t be underestimated. This incarnation, quite impossible to follow, will be around some time. And there are signs that the show itself is moving in her wake. As if in acknowledgement, the last series saw the current grey haired grump of a Doctor developed an increasing penchant for velvet jackets and capes last seen during the master’s prime.

Masterful appearances The Master in Doctor Who
How the Master’s canonical* appearances stack up in 2016. (*with the honorary inclusion of 2003’s Scream of the Shalka)

40 years on from his arrival, the Master’s life cycle has reached ever new levels of absurd drama. Yes, even more than his bug-eyed husk scheming on Gallifrey or years hidden in a garden on Traken. In fact, after the slide from suave villainy to desperate skeleton during the 1970s and those ridiculous grasps at ongoing survival through tenuous plots of the 1980s, the 21st century has set a new bar for villainous highs and impossible odds of survival lows. Last decade, the Master’s return was hidden in plain sight, through rumour and electioneering. It was a light but neat exploration of what Moffat inadvertently branded the show’s timey-wimeyness in that same series; a counter-balance to the alternative timeline year of hell that formed from his actions in the last episode of the series. The Master who fought impossibly, and gothically, back from the dead to see off the Tenth Doctor at The End of Time was never quite the same as a result. He was still brilliant, still unhinged, but with flashes of skull that recalled his death-tempting slumps of the past. He wasn’t a complete incarnation and was last seen dragging Rassilon and the Time Lords back into the Great Time War from which the cowardly rogue had previously taken great pains to escape. If the Master was going to return it would have to be breaking the Time Lock and overcoming the mystery of Gallifrey that has done much to distinguish the New Series from the Classic

A new world

“Those words from me are yours now”

The world the Mistress slowly returns to is a whole lot bleaker than the one the Master left, but that’s partly down to her convoluted scheme. From the Twelfth Doctor’s debut in Deep Breath Series 8 is a bleak one over all, dogged by death and war, taking breaks in the dainty, absurd teatime surroundings of the show’s mysterious new Mary Poppins. The quick, sad and blunt beginning of Dark Water reconfirms that thanatopsis, as if it was needed. There’s still a light spin on a tried Moffat trope as the old lady’s confused voice, employing that well known Tenth Doctor line, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” tells Clara that Danny Pink is dead. And so that strange relationship comes to a close in an extraordinary opening to a season finale that’s even more bizarrely the show’s first two-parter in three years. It doesn’t quite scan considering the previous series of the pair’s relationship, but sets a fast rolling beginning not for the drama but the concept. So begins a story that starts and ends in deceit, in fact it’s riddled by it.

“Never trust a hug. It’s just a way to hide your face”

Of course, Danny’s death isn’t all it appears and there’s even a chance of salvation come the end. It’s a knowing deceit; how could the audience ever be expected to believe this twist. It’s an action that triggers huge personality shifts. Before Clara’s resumed her predilection for impersonating the Doctor in crisis situations, an effective but strange sequences has her creeping around the Console Room locating the seven TARDIS keys then threatening the Doctor. Perhaps more believable with the longest serving but also most concertinaed companion, although followed by the Doctor’s peculiar act of “curiosity” as he calls it, it’s clear that not one of the regulars are in character.

“Time can be rewritten”

“…With precision, with great care. But not today.”

To be clear then, all the way up to its iconic finale, Dark Water is not an adventure that worries about place or time. It lives in a conceptual realm, immediately concerned with getting these characters to a hell of paradox and death, but getting the slush of the psychic interface out of the way early on. That ambition is not uncommon in a peak episode Steven Moffat finale, nor is the strange pacing. That it doesn’t strictly feature a parallel universe or alternative realities, that there’s no nursery rhyme or prophetic mantra, puts it a step up from the finales of Series Five and Six.  And any alternative existence is a side-note in this resolution to the series arc. It’s most important function is to establish a tone in which the new Mistress can be unveiled.

A new Hell

“Guard the graveyards”

Moffat’s afterlife fits into a grand Who tradition, particularly the edgy bureaucracy that Robert Holmes had masterfully brought to alien societies. It’s odd, disturbing and dark, although oblique and impossible to tie down in Moffat’s hands. Despite the difficult and deliberately confrontational concept at the heart of Dark Water’s light plot, the concept of death and afterlife has been inherent to Who for some time. Indeed, the difficulty of balancing that with comedy, mainly Chris Addison’s distracting Seb, is far more difficult than confronting the afterlife over Saturday tea. Moffat creates a reductive, bureaucratic system, blurred with real life and leaving many questions hanging as tension and danger drop on single line cast offs (“We’ve got a burner in number twelve…”). Physically, it’s quite the achievement, Doctor Who’s first twist on a Dyson sphere with a nod to the bureaucratic heart of the Star Wars universe Coruscant. But this Nethersphere never quite makes sense on the physical side, nor aligns with the unreal dwellings of Missy seen sporadically throughout the series, but then again, it doesn’t really matter as… None of it’s true.

That unreality, the answer to the series-long riddle that has hinged on this Mary Poppins figure, is down to a classic piece of Who-lore, again invented by Robert Holmes. It’s Time Lord Matrix technology, the advanced computer database/artificial construct that has allowed for all manner of artistic license since the mid-1970s. For once, there is no need for Moffat to pull in that parallel universe or premonitory rhyme through paradox. Instead there is Who’s ultimate re-writing tool. And Missy has apparently nabbed it in her escape from Gallifrey. Although crucially, this isn’t the crazed manipulation of the Matrix seen on Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin or broken into, but at the whim of the Valeyard, at the tail of Trial of a Time Lord. Them. It was a blunt hammer of surreality, used by the Doctor’s foes to break his mind as well as cause his physical death. Not this time, where ironically considering her general state of mind, the Mistress has a far more coherent construct in mind for those trapped inside.

Gender Games

“Very realistic”

Missy herself, despite managing to retain her mystery until the end of Dark Water, is soon revealed to be just as much a detached and self-absorbed psychopath as her predecessor. That said, she’s a step forward in achieving the ideal mix of comic relief and unsettling terror for the New Series under Moffat’s leadership. Big on strategy, utterly deranged: she’s fascinating.

The Master’s change of gender ticks loads of boxes. It confronts, confounds, exacerbates the constant gossip surrounding a female Doctor – while steering heat away from the good Time Lord for an incarnation at least. Although, come that  next regeneration it might serve to tangle things further. It also confronts the criticism levelled at female characters during the early years of Moffat’s tenure. By the conclusion of Series 8, with the Mistress joining the family of Kate Stewart and instant favourite Osgood at UNIT, as well as Clara who was well on her way to becoming the show’s longest serving companion, Doctor Who was dominated by strong and women.

The gender shift also lets the Master cut loose like never before. That comes with a risk considering the Master’s fine history of disguises, both terrible and middling, alongside the occasionally pathetic pseudonym. But Michelle Gomez’s performance is enough to power away from the misdirection of the sporadic Missy’s appearances and create a scene-stealing persona in the context of Series 8’s most unreal environment. It’s no wonder that on her sneaky and deceitful first appearance, her suggestion that she’s a Random Access Neural Integrator, or RANI, fell very flat as a red herring. There would always be naysayers, something Moffat’s style of story creation can beg for, but they must be lessening with each appearance. There’s no doubt that Missy is the Master and will continue to be so for some time to come. Especially considering how many times she’s already definitely died.

If the easy gender realignment now fact in Gallifreyan sexuality puts anyone off, they best have a good look back at the Loom system of cousins that was swiftly emerging as part of the Cartmel Masterplan in the late 1980s and subsequently explored in Marc Platt’s New Adventure Lungbarrow. That was far healthier…

Little reasoning

“It’s probably time to explain why you’re always feeling cold”

In the year following Dark Water, Missy’s second coming was explained away with a joke at the 1980s’ expense. Back to the good old days when the Master would escape absolute and certain death with a shrug of ‘obviously’. Under a showrunner structure, Who lives in a vastly more coherent world now, so any digs like that cheapen the character and actually undermined the conclusion of The Magician’s Apprentice when Missy perished once again. As the second MaRCHster long read dug into, following his 1970s slump, a great deal of the Master’s plotting had then been based around pure survival. Following the Harold Saxon incarnation’s quick fall back to that survivalist necessity in 2009’s The End of Time, it’s a breath of fresh air to find survival utterly removed from Missy’s agenda, but not only that. Following Roger Delgado’s tragic, early death, the show took great interest in in exploring the ‘regeneration’ and early years of subsequent iterations, whichever side of the Atlantic. But with Missy, fully formed and full of plans, came a mystery not seen since the Master’s husky interlude in 1976.

The rhyme and reason for the Master’s reappearance is brushed aside but not with disdain. There’s more a sense of sexual tension combined with an ambiguous anger at the Doctor for abandoning her. The Mistress, as unhinged and uncaring as she is, must be aware that it was the Doctor’ who saved Gallifrey. It’s incredibly unlikely any intervening meetings could be slotted in considering the weight that’s put on her mysterious appearance. But since the demise of the Tenth Doctor, the anniversary special had taken us and every incarnation of the Doctor back to Gallifrey, saving the planet and we can only assume laying the seed of escape for one of their darkest sons. In Series 9 we’d see a regenerated Rassilon, and it’s easy to imagine that both he and Missy gained their current form from that resolution of The End of Time.

Appearing to the Doctor first under the pretence of the RANI – the kissing android – a lot hinges on Missy’s ability to keep her identity and plan away from the Doctor, something the Matrix helps greatly. But of course, it’s also essential that he’s lured in. in fact, Missy has taken greater pains to wrap her scheme into the Doctor’s life than any previous incarnations. In fact, it’s all about him.

The Dark Water

“How can you win a war against an enemy that can weaponise the dead?”

The Dark Water is a glorious MacGuffin, and a complicated one whose use doesn’t become fully apparent until the second episode. It’s more a surprise that it turns out to have a legitimate purpose than its first appearance is deceitful. It’s most surprising that such care is taken to explain how shocking the concept is. In effect that exposition is padding, building up the Cybermen but mainly misdirecting as giant neon signs signal how shocking the idea is. Considering the injustice that the New Series has continually bestowed on the Cyber-rogues, it’s also no surprise that they’re revealed to be a mere tool in the Series 9 finale. It was their first appearance since Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver, itself a concerted effort to upgrade the Mondasians and make them scary again. All that is undone, in a story that plays fast on the heritage of classics from their heyday, The Invasion and The Tomb of the Cybermen, but most importantly reveals them to be a mere gift. In their new tombs, the chairs provided for the skeletons are pointless, the full skeletons themselves, an extraordinary and curious addition to the idea of Cybermen. It’s fortunate they have a visionary at the helm. Despite the difficulty with continuity, huge climaxes and emptying fish tanks, Rachel Talalay’s helming is rugged and stylish. That’s a saving grace amid the clutter of references that extend from them. Of course, with a St Paul’s set-piece UNIT has to arrive. And they even go on to capture the Mistress once again. Few of the Master’s 1970s adventures remain unreferenced.

The Cyber Crutch

“Humankind, bring out your dead”

Dark Water is a mash of ideas, packed with exposition and intent on fooling us through various Missy sketches, and has very little plot of its own. Any scrutiny of the separation of the physical body from the dead, the danger of cremation and the way those deceased retain consciousness in the Matrix, even how that consciousness is transported there, let alone why Missy greets some of them, isn’t explained. Even less explicable is the positioning of the master’s base of operations, where Matrix and TARDIS collide and quite how those doors lead to the steps of St Paul’s. Of course, much of that is irrelevant, as it pays tribute to the greatest hits of the Cybermen themselves. But as Dark Water climaxes with a restaging of 1968’s The Invasion, that reference, to a commanding story that found the Cybermen at full strength, but more controlled than ever, is a telling one.

“Stop making a fuss, it’s too late – all the graves of planet Earth are about to give birth”

Throughout the 1970s the Master often assumed positions of power to exploit force and power. He was more than happy to make deals with the devil and on occasion he took that literally. At the end of the Delgado incarnation, The Time Monster found him take up the role of Professor Thascalos to exploit time experiments and foolishly attempt to harness Kronos. Ad adventure later, the original’s final appearance, he inveigled his way into the role of an imperial Commissioner as part of a grand plan that saw him ally with the Daleks. That would ultimately lead to his execution at their hands in the TV movie, but he hadn’t learnt.

The mode of his return to the New Series put the Simm incarnation in the perfect position to employ the Toclafane as his powerful army. And for once, it was based on a promise he could actually fulfil. So, on one level, the Master’s alliance with the Cybermen in Dark Water was more a question of when rather than if. But, it’s a remarkably one-sided affair even considering the parties involved. Seemingly lacking Cyber Controllers or Leaders, these Cybermen fall away for the Master’s grand plots and theatricality. It’s a grand concept, utilising the entire of the Earth’s dead as fodder for the great zombies of the Who universe. But in the event, the fresh fiends spend the entirety of Death of Heaven standing around. It makes their Graveyard March of The Next Doctor look like the original Marathon.

“Delete”

It didn’t take long for the original Cybermen to rely on a human or non-Cyber priest for their plans, a concept fully in place by The Invasion. But Dark Water highlights that what they need far more than a leader is a great plot. It was exacerbated by the location filming that publicised their inclusion in the finale as soon as cameras rolled. But come the adventure, these Cybermen must be the least homicidal even seen on screen. They’ve been space-strated in the New Series like the Sontarans before them. The concept of conversion is undermined, and as much as we’ve become used to the problematic idea that love can overcome conversion… Dark Water finds it ‘upgraded’ to a contractual opt in. No wonder it’s not just Danny Pink who can overcome it.

The reveal of the Cyberised Danny brings a curious return to quite graphic body horror, referenced but hardly taken on in New Series Who. It’s a state that needs to be shocking to tackle the shorthand emotion at stake between Clara and Danny. Production art shows that Danny’s decomposition could have been even more gruesome, but it’s effective even as this new cocoon approach to conversion slightly distorts the purity of the Cyber race.

Aside from this, as much as this finale represents a great step back for the mighty, and mute, Cyber Legions, their general massed presence adds huge weight of dark destruction behind the all new Mistress.

New Danger

“The dead outnumber the living”

Once Missy’s name is out, her plan underway, Death in Heaven is a curious spectacle. It’s talky, although absurd. It’s not without action, but spends a great deal of its extended running time in a graveyard. Fortunately, it’s also sporadically broken up with acts of supreme, dedicated and unpredictable evil by the Mistress. So how dangerous is this incarnation?

“Me and my boys, we’re going viral”

Smarmy, deranged, a master strategist and under Moffat, even deadlier than ever before it appears. It’s key in her merciless dispatch of the cheerful Doctor Chang, king of the first episode’s exposition. That small sequence shows the issues of combining such an unsympathetic villain – she’s no antihero although would impossibly wander into that territory come the following year – with one of the show’s most enjoyable characters. It’s tricky.

And it’s rooted in the Doctor’s series-long struggle. While he’s spent considerable time tussling with whether he’s a good or bad man, Missy knows exactly what she is: “Well look at me, I’m bananas”

While the Mistress unravels her plan she is captured, effectively the first time UNIT have managed it since The Daemons, to be held in the sky like Hannibal Lecter – another reference to The End of Time and reflection of how dangerous she is – while the response protocols to her plot elevate the Doctor to President of Earth. It’s a plan in place to ensure his cooperation, but also one in direct relation to The Last of the Time Lords.

Missy is an incarnation that needs no drums. Consciously and deliberately loopy, quite understandably the product of his and her history.

Assassination games

“I’m going to kill you in a minute. I’m not even kidding”

The death that steals most attention is her meditated take-down of Unit’s protected aircraft, Boat One. Osgood was another great success in the latter emphasis on supporting female characters, so her death – let alone the Mistress’ similarly merciless dispatch of Kate Stewart – is quite a statement. It really is quite menacing, deliberate and malicious. See, the way she crushes Osgood’s glasses after vapourising her… Previously, the vast majority of the Master’s kills might have been seen as amoral, part of a grander plan. With Missy there seems to be a specific intent and enjoyment. It’s no mistake that Murray Gold’s music takes on a touch of the comic Grand Guignol, another nod to that difficulty in framing this unframable character. If there’s an equivalent to this new dynamic, it’s not that Missy is the Doctor’s Moriarty but his Joker.

It’s worth noting that the Doctor’s escape, a freefall catch-up to the falling TARDIS recalls that great uncanonical Master adventure Scream of a Shalka. Away from the Matrix, we’re in a heightened reality all around.

“There’s a woman out there who’s very keen for us to stay together”

Where else would the truth out but a graveyard, packed with disorientated Cybermen.

This Mistress incarnation is happy to give away her plan, after her predecessor snapped “I don’t think so”. But just as he had jumped around time, this time she just might have the deserved smugness to do brag. Having been up and down the Doctor’s timeline, a brave choice considering his recent tangles with the great Intelligence (Stupidity), the overall impact of this incarnation becomes clear. It was she who manipulated the Impossible Girl, drawing Clara and the Doctor together and keeping them together. It’s a tangle, a slight reverse of the Series 3 plot. It confirms that whenever the Master appears in this new era, there needs to be a long and deep plan behind it befitting a Time Lord nemesis. Conversely, considering the importance of the Impossible Girl’s actions, it casts this frenemy in role of a sometime Guardian Angel.

Yes, there’ a new edge to the relationship, in spite of the killing. And there’s always a contradiction.

The eighth series finds the Doctor repeatedly confronting and dismissing various incarnations of the military on Earth, the future and in deep space. That’s boiled down here to his final confrontation with ex-soldier Danny Pink. And that’s the heart of Missy’s scheme, although the deliberateness of Danny’s involvement is unclear considering her timeline flexing.

Missy has assembled the vast Cyber army for the Doctor, an army for who Danny terms “the blood soaked old general”. The two are pitched into roles different from usual, although there’s a telling link in the Mistress once again using humanity as the packhorses of her scheme. This time from the past, not the future. “Nobody thinks they’re righter than you” says Missy as she contrives, as his oldest friend, to give the Doctor the army he needs to conquer the universe.

Of course it’s the one soldier not obeying (or so it appears) who can disrupt her plan while she’s distracted and Danny seizes his Gladiator moment at “Earth’s darkest hour”. Defeated, Moffat tackles the issue of the unmanageable Master just as Davies had done at the end of Series 3. This time, the stakes are more individual. Clara, ready to execute the rogue, the Doctor ready to take her place to save her soul… But in the end, both are saved by the ridiculous Cyber Brigadier, after he’d already saved his daughter. On one level, it’s a lovely way for the Brigadier to finally get his man, or woman. On the other side, it rather demeans Danny’s noble effort and is nowhere as lovely a sign-off as the Brigadier warranted under the Eleventh Doctor’s watch.

And then, just after the climax of the complex military line that ran through the series, the zombie Brigadier wins a salute from the Doctor. The emphasis couldn’t be much vaguer, but we must presume the Mistress is correct and the Doctor is fighting his real personality.

“You win”

And why? “I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back.”

The Mistress may highlight the inherent conflict at the heart of the Doctor, but she also inadvertently solves it. Who else could do that? Come the conclusion he realises that it’s not about being good or bad, but her action, or offer, affirms him in the belief that he’s in fact “an idiot with a box and a screwdriver”

It’s the stark reminder of the friend who he grew apart from, against Clara and Danny’s loss and their distinct differences that does him the world of good. Emotion tries to form the heart of this otherwise rather cold finale, as the Doctor’s continued to wander into the Mistress’ arbitrary web. If it all seems a little self-serving, it really is. But come the end, it’s the personalities that take centre-ground, while the swipes and homages continue to ping around them.

A major difference between the Master and the Doctor is empathy and capacity for pain. Having no capacity for pain, Missy has no sense of the pain inflicted on others. Once again, that results in her downfall here. With such an abrupt ‘death’, one that has far less effect on the Doctor than on board the Valiant many years before, that gulf only appears to be getting hardened for both. Missy is propelled by far more than the sound of drums.

A Gallifreyan future

Seeing as it’s goodbye, shall we break a habit?

Of course, it all ends on a double-deceit. For all the good the Mistress’ action have on the Doctor’s latest persona, she leaves a puzzle amid her dangerous present that ensures her story’s not yet finished. In defeat she confirms the return of Gallifrey, giving the Doctor the planet’s coordinates. It’s an integral storyline for the universe’s last two remaining Time Lords just as it had been from that phone call during The Sound of Drums. And it typically seeds more deceit, between the long companionship the Mistress had created. In a café, Clara pretends that Danny’s returned (instead of sacrificing himself for the life of his young victim) while the Doctor tells her that the coordinates of Gallifrey were correct. “For once she wasn’t lying” says the Doctor, lying.

Both lie to each other to free the other one run into their own lie, at least until the Christmas special.

Series 9 would develop the Doctor and Mistress relationship while confirming the truth behind Gallifrey’s return. His difficult friendship with the Mistress would be confirmed as he hands his will and testament, his Confession Dial, to her, seemingly well aware that she survived the graveyard. It’s hard not to consider that as a nod back to the Master’s final request that the Doctor return his body to Gallifrey after Dalek Justice was enacted way back in the TV Movie.

A breath of fresh air and certainly a new lease of life in more than normal senses, the yin and yang was re-established at the climax of Series 9. And somehow it remains more complex, compelling and endless than ever.

Coming later this spring: A bonus MaRCHster in honour of the Television Movie’s 20th anniversary.

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