New Who and the Master
|Above, from left to right: Missy, the Master, and a Cyberman in "The Doctor Falls".|
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
Recently I have been thinking back to my favourite Doctor Who serial: the trilogy of episodes which conclude series three of the revived show (2007) - "Utopia", "The Sound of Drums", and "Last of the Time Lords". The serial was groundbreaking for New Who in numerous ways. It ramped up the excitement by being its first three-parter (previously there had only been standard one-parters and the odd two-parter here and there). If you did not know the Master was returning, "Utopia" would have completely taken you by surprise, as it was unprecedented for the third episode before the end of a series to be the beginning of a series finale. It would have been utterly out of the blue, and all the more exciting because of Murray Gold's thrilling soundtrack and Derek Jacobi's performance (representing the classic series Masters* - the way he says "not to worry my dear, as one door closes another must open" before letting loose the vicious Futurekind is delectable).
*(Before transforming into John Simm's modernised Master, who perfectly parallels David Tennant's Doctor).
The fact that it is the first three-parter really helps to get across to the audience how important this villain is. After all, he is the first Time Lord apart from the Doctor to be introduced in the revived programme (they were supposed to be extinct). For the first time, it takes three, not one or even two episodes for the Doctor to "defeat" him (and even then two of his last words are "I win"). At the end of "Utopia", the Master is victorious, at the end of "The Sound of Drums" he is more victorious still - for the first time in New Who a villain successfully conquers the Earth (for more than a few hours). Not only this, but he unprecedently culls over a tenth of its population, and utterly defeats the Doctor, transforming him into a pathetic invalid sipping out of a dog bowl or later kept in a cage. He enslaves Martha Jones' family and has Captain Jack Harkness chained up. He obliterates Japan, turns Russia into a massive shipyard, and carves Mount Rushmore into a graven image of himself. He infantilises the human race into whimpering slaves before preparing to inflict his tyranny on the rest of the universe through conquest. He rules Earth with an iron fist for a whole year and the Doctor's companions literally need to turn back time to make sure none of this ever happened in the first place. Truly, this trilogy really enforces the fact that the Master is not only a threat, but the most threatening Doctor Who villain of all time (as he is, basically, an evil parallel to the Doctor and therefore his equal).
Sadly, I don't think the Master has ever been given a story to rival this trilogy since. He reached his pinnacle as soon as he began. While The End of Time was similarly epic and a fitting finale to the Russell T Davies era (of course Davies had to bring back the Time Lords as the finale - it was the last great classic series return we were all waiting for), the Master turning the human race into versions of himself does feel a little campy (but the Davies era was filled with campiness - so perhaps this adds to the fittingness of this finale to conclude Davies' tenure). It's as if Russell T thought, "hmm, how can I make The End of Time *more* epic than the Master's last appearance when the Master literally conquered the Earth last time we saw him? I know! This time he'll not only conquer the Earth, but turn the human race into Masters!". Also, what confused me about this story was: if the Master is apparently weak and dying and losing his life force, then why is he effectively a supervillain with enough life force left to fly in the air and fire bolts of energy out of his hands?! (But that's a nitpick, of course).
The Master then took a hiatus for four years, but returned in series eight as a female version of himself called the Mistress (Missy for short). Although "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" explored some interesting concepts, it was a bit dull and higgledy-piggledy and contained many elements which didn't really make much sense. Michelle Gomez is a talented, likeable actress and could be very fun and entertaining in the role in all her Doctor Who appearances, but also now and again slightly annoying.
Missy returned in the first story of the next series (2015) - "The Magician's Apprentice"/"The Witch's Familiar", a bland, uninteresting fan-servicey regurgitation of themes from Genesis of the Daleks. This is the first episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor's two archenemies - Davros and the Master (Missy), meet, but nothing of substance is made of this event. For the first time to my knowledge since The Five Doctors, the Master appears as an anti-hero(ine) and works alongside companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). Clara doesn't seem terribly unhappy with this partnership, and enjoys a good bit of banter with the Mistress, despite the fact that Missy was literally responsible for her beloved boyfriend's mutilation and death in the episode before last ("Death in Heaven", in which Clara also attempts to murder Missy for this). Anyway, this begins the theme in the Steven Moffat era of the Master being the Doctor's friend rather than enemy.
After the 2016 hiatus Missy next stars in the 2017 series, in which in a quite out-of-the-blue and not terribly well-handled or particularly interesting manner, we gradually see her turn good. She helps the Doctor and Bill Potts defeat the Monks in a disappointing finale to an otherwise decent three-parter called "The Lie of the Land", and friendily pilots the TARDIS on behalf of the Doctor in the cheap Scottish tourism advertisement "The Eaters of Light". In the penultimate episode, "World Enough and Time", Missy appears as a fully-fledged anti-heroine, although by the end of it she returns to her wicked ways when "Razor", who tricked Bill into becoming a Cyberman, takes off his mask to reveal John Simm's Master, returning after seven years. I saw through the Razor disguise pretty easily, but only because the BBC, greedy for viewers, had spoilt the return of John Simm months in advance. If the Corporation had not done this Razor's mask reveal would have been a thrilling surprise. Who would have otherwise thought that Simm would return, after over seven years, when he had long since been replaced by Michelle Gomez as Missy (who was starring in this very episode)? Multi-Master stories were unheard of. But, alas, it was not to be.
"World Enough and Time", by the way, I think is one of the greatest Doctor Who episodes ever. Firstly, the time-warping black hole concept was an excellent bit of real science injected into a sci-fi show which under Moffat has been a magical fairytale for too long. Watching Bill trapped in a technological dystopia for ten years while the Doctor ever so slowly acts to save her was gut-wrenching. And I have never seen the Cybermen depicted better. Using the original Tenth Planet Cybermen wasn't just fan service - the clinical look they have about them really adds to their creepiness, and the prescient horror of Dr Kit Pedler's Cyberman concept - that this is where human medical technology could lead: (to paraphrase a surgeon in the episode) "curing" your pain by stopping you from caring about it.* Already we are seeing the beginnings of this in the "anti-depressants" drug culture we have deteriorated into.
The conversion of Bill Potts into a Cyberman was a deliciously sadistic, tragic warning to everyone - this is where we could be headed. In my opinion, Bill should have remained a Cyberman. In the next episode, "The Doctor Falls", she miraculously resists Cyber brainwashing ("because she's a main character, so she's special, right?!". Just like Danny Pink and Yvonne Hartman before her. I realise Moffat provided an in-universe explanation for this, but the invulnerability of main characters always comes across as unrealistic to me. I did like Yvonne Hartman's rogue Cyberman scene, however), and is miraculously saved from her Cyber body by a sentient puddle. This wasn't a bad ending for the character, but what would have been better, in my opinion, was if she had been a fully converted Cyberman. She then emotionlessly could have tried to convert/kill the Doctor in "The Doctor Falls", forcing the Time Lord to poignantly put her out of her misery (or lack thereof). The deliciously bleak Black Mirror-esque ending of "World Enough and Time" would have been preserved as a warning to all.
Unfortunately, alack and alas, Steven Moffat has proven himself a soppy writer who doesn't understand how to kill off protagonists. He would be awful as a screenwriter for Game of Thrones! Despite having penned some of Doctor Who's greatest sci-fi horror scripts ("The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances", "Blink", "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead", "Heaven Sent", "World Enough and Time"), his tenure as showrunner has seen the programme infantilised as a soppy, self-congratulating, feelgood fairytale in which, as he wrote in "The Doctor Dances", "everybody lives!". In "The Doctor Falls" his soppy side overcame his sci-fi horror genius to produce an episode which, to me, was a bit of a big dumb action film. "World Enough and Time" contained the thought-provoking science fiction, and "The Doctor Falls" was merely its second half, containing all the action which otherwise would have been in it (although, to be fair, Bill's realisation that she is a Cyberman in "The Doctor Falls" is still rather sick, and the Cyber-surgeons who come to kidnap children are employed to eerie effect).
Now, to return to topic, "The Doctor Falls" wasn't a particularly great Master episode either. After all the hype of the return of John Simm, he doesn't really do anything. The Cybermen are always the main threat. At one point, as if out of boredom at having nothing to do, he says to the Doctor - "we're off now" (referring to him and his future self Missy) or something casual to that effect.
I don't think Moffat really ever knew how to write the Master. Now his tenure is over and Chris Chibnall will be taking over the show, I wonder what will happen with our second-favourite Time Lord? One of the results of the aforementioned Master trilogy being so epic was that this has caused all writers since to use the Master sparingly, out of reverence to the character. Unlike the Daleks and Cybermen, which have been appearing almost every series (in the case of the Daleks, literally every series), the Master has had relatively long gaps in-between his/her appearances - three years from "Last of the Time Lords" to The End of Time and four years from The End of Time to the Missy story arc. As Moffat seemed to like lessening the importance of Doctor Who villains by overusing them and avoiding hyping them up, he naturally did the same with Missy and we saw her all too often. Regardless, particularly as after the Moffat era fans are sick of the show congratulating itself over its own continuity, I think Chibnall will take a break from the Master and other recurring villains for a while (at least if he has any sense). Not to mention the fact that Missy turns good then is killed off in "The Doctor Falls" (but boy oh boy have we seen that before - Davies did the exact same thing at the end of his own term as showrunner. Will Chibnall reverse Moffat's decision to turn the Master good? Will the Master's version of "goodness" simply be another type of evil? Or will Chibnall use a pre-Missy incarnation of the character, like Simm or a previously unseen avatar?). I think, as the Master of New Who tends to reflect the current Doctor (John Simm's character reflected Tennant's exciteable, eccentric-in-a-cool-way Doctor, Gomez's Missy reflected a middle-aged, quite "alien", Scottish Doctor), the next Master, if there is one, will be a woman if he/she appears in the Jodie Whittaker era (which may not happen. Like with Matt Smith, the Master may skip a Doctor).
But Doctor Who is a programme on which anything may happen, so I don't want to be too speculative. All I hope is that the next Master story is a good one, as since the "Last of the Time Lords" trilogy I think every Master appearance has been disappointing in one way or another, as I have just explained. Lately I watched Terror of the Autons, the Master's first ever story, from 1971, in which he is played by Roger Delgado (1918-73). I enjoyed it (the Autons are very creepy), and I feel like I would like to see a "back to basics" Master in Doctor Who in the future, fulfilling the role the Master originally filled - that of being Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes. The character could return to weaving cunning plots to ensnare the Doctor throughout time and space, and making alliances with evil aliens in vainglorious attempts to achieve universal domination. Basically, it would be interesting to see the Master fully re-assume the Svengalian trickster persona he had in the classic series.
Or perhaps the Master as a character could develop in some new direction. Or perhaps Missy's suicide really was the end of the character as we know it (though I am doubtful). But as we wait for Chibnall to make that decision, I can't help but mourn the 2007 trilogy - the best New Who Master story, probably for many years to come.
Before I end this article, I would just like to make one clarification - no, I don't think the trilogy is perfect. The scene in which the loving thoughts (prayers) of everyone on Earth somehow reflect off of satellites and cause the Doctor to be restored from being a little Dobby-like creature, and float cruciform through the air towards the Master before saying "I forgive you", like some sort of space Jesus, is quite campy (Russell T strikes again!) and drifts from the realm of science fiction into science fantasy. The satellites - the Master's Arkangel Network - were used to lightly brainwash people into trusting him. How could they possibly have gained the power of age-reversal?! The scene was also unnecessary - Captain Jack Harkness later destroys the TARDIS (which has become a "paradox machine"), which causes the events of the previous year never to have happened - so surely the Doctor's age would have been reversed anyway? The whole plot of "Last of the Time Lords" should have been focussed on destroying the TARDIS rather than saving the Doctor - it would have made a change if the Doctor needed saving for once, and would have bigged up the Master even more. But I can see why the scene was included, and I don't particularly regret that it was. It symbolised how the one thing tyrants can't do, is stop people from thinking. I just wish this theme hadn't been carried out in such a fantastical way.
*I realise in The Tenth Planet a Cyberman remarks that they feel no pain, but I still think this brilliant line by the surgeon is worth it. I have explanations for why the Tenth Planet Cyberman might have said this - perhaps this is simply how he expressed the fact that they no longer cared about pain so it was irrelevant to them (perhaps as they no longer care about pain - it is just an ordinary part of their existence - Mondasian society has forgotten about it as a concept). Or perhaps these later Mondasian Cybermen of The Tenth Planet are simply a different, upgraded model to the chronologically earlier Cybermen of "World Enough and Time", who no longer feel pain (they do seem to be a different model - unlike the Cybermen of "World Enough and Time", the Tenth Planet Cybermen do not wear gloves, and do not have in-built weapons systems).