Doctor Who: Why the Return of the Master Feels Like Such a Narrative Step BackwardPhoto Courtesy of BBC America TV Features Doctor Who
The Season 12 premiere of Doctor Who was generally a pretty great episode. A proper two-part adventure, “Spyfall” features everything from Bond-esque car chases and disturbingly familiar dystopian technology companies, to glowing aliens seeking world domination and even an appearance by Ada Lovelace. As an episode, it does everything a season premiere needs to do, including setting up an arc for the season, bringing on a worthy antagonist for our hero(ine) to face off against, moving the series in an exciting new direction, and reminding us why we all love it so much in the first place.
Unfortunately, however, the premiere’s most unexpected narrative choice comes with a heavy cost, and one whose ramifications we’ll likely not fully see until Doctor Who’s twelfth season has run its course.
The shocking revelation that former MI-6 agent “O” is actually the Master—a villainous Time Lord with a penchant for trying to kill the Doctor, enslave humanity, or destroy the world—was certainly a bold and unexpected twist. In hindsight, the move smartly plays into several previous Doctor Who Master-centric tropes, including the character’s love of disguises; his original introduction during Jon Pertwee’s Bond-like Third Doctor era; his alliance with a random group of aliens he means to manipulate and ultimately betray for his own ends. Sacha Dhawan and Jodie Whittaker have crackling chemistry together, and certainly settle into the role of centuries-old frenemies with quickness and ease. And having a clearly defined adversary has done wonders for the Thirteenth Doctor in just a pair of episodes, allowing Whittaker to play a more multi-faceted version of character than ever before.
In short: There really is a lot to like about this particular resurrection, and it certainly points toward an exciting season that explores some of the series’ foundational lore.
But this twist also erased some of Doctor Who’s best storytelling in recent years, resetting several key aspects of the Master’s character and his relationship with former childhood BFF for no apparent reason other than simply because it could. By explicitly returning the Master to more familiar and overtly villainous ground, Doctor Who takes a rather massive step backward, sacrificing the complex character development that took place the last time we saw him.
The last time we saw him, of course, was when he was a she.
Then, the Master was the Mistress, known as Missy (Michelle Gomez), a deranged Mary Poppins-esque figure responsible for many crimes, including everything from building a Cyberman army of the dead to committing casual murder. But she also managed to discover something that felt like grace during the back half of Season 10, finally reckoning with the sheer volume of lives she’s taken and poor choices she’s made. Her attempt at reformation was ultimately so successful, it brought about her own death, as her decision to do good so enraged one of her previous incarnations that he killed her for it. And all of this happened a little more than a season ago, so it’s not like we’ve had a ton of time to even miss the character that much, let alone process the fairly significant shift this represented for her and for the Master’s legacy.
Of course, anyone who’s ever watched Doctor Who always knew that Missy’s death would never mean the end of the Master, no matter how fitting an ending to her story it was. This is a character that’s inexplicably returned from the dead nearly a half dozen times, and generally with no explanation as to how it happened. That’s just how this show (and this character) rolls.
But to go from Missy, who finally chooses the side of the light without hope, witness or reward, to this latest version of the Master who seems to be all about just doing some cool evil stuff for the lulz again feels so very jarring. And that’s because it doesn’t include or acknowledge any aspect of the journey we just watched this character go on.
Dhwan’s Master is entertaining, to be sure, but seems very deliberately built in the mold of John Simm’s version, complete with maniacal giggling, obsessive drumming, and vicious, unexplained bitterness towards the Doctor. This Master seems to contain very little of Missy, the incarnation who cried over her previously evil ways and who desperately wanted her friendship with the Doctor back. And there’s no explanation for, or even basic acknowledgement of, this change onscreen. Instead, it’s just sort of like Missy never happened.
Which I guess is fine, if Missy/the Master isn’t a character whose development you as a viewer particularly care about. But the story also treats the Doctor’s development as though it never happened either, and Twelve was deeply changed by his years attempting to rehabilitate his former friend. Not that you could tell that from the interactions of their current versions now—and that’s a problem.
Doctor Who thrives because of its constantly rotating cast of characters, and its ability to bring in new Doctors and companions as story needs—or actor contracts—dictate. This regular influx of new faces helps the show feel fresh even as it digs into stories that can often feel familiar. But the concept of regeneration simultaneously provides narrative consistency, at least when it comes to its lead character. At the center of everything, is the Doctor. Sure, the Doctor is a woman sometimes, or a snarky older Scottish gentleman, or a handsome youngster who’s fond of bow ties. But this show works because no matter the regeneration, it’s still the same character underneath.
Otherwise, what’s the point of watching, if everything resets along with the Doctor’s physical form? If this character isn’t, still, the sum of the lives they’ve lived—at heart, the same person—even as they embrace their new selves, then why should we care about their experiences, if they don’t matter longer than a particular regeneration?
The Doctor, whether the First or the Thirteenth, is a being who has suffered tragedies and triumphs, who has seen everything the universe can offer and still manages to find the wonder in it every week. Someone who has grown and learned as her journey has continued, and who has evolved in ways both large and small. Part of the appeal of the Doctor is that she’s an old soul. She’s seen more than we’ll ever be able to understand. It’s changed her, sure, but she’s never forgotten it. The Thirteenth Doctor won’t be exactly like the first, sure. But she is still the First. And the Fourth. And the Ninth.
The same should hold true for the Doctor’s nemesis, as well. The Master has and should be more than just a quippy bad guy that shows up whenever the story needs a convenient enemy for the doctor to fight or something to connect the show to its own past. Like the Doctor, the Master’s journey is one that’s defined by the lives he’s lived—even the ones he stole from others. He too is a sum of his various and often extremely scarred and broken parts.
While bringing back such an important legacy character kicked off Season 12 in a truly explosive fashion, it’s a mistake to ignore Missy’s legacy or behave as though her road to redemption wasn’t one of the most significant arcs in the show’s history. Both Thirteen and the Master deserve better—and so does the prickly, contentious relationship that still sits at the center of this show. Here’s hoping Doctor Who realizes that—sooner rather than later.
Doctor Who airs Sunday nights on BBC America.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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