DOCTOR WHO - Yes, Mistress

Tony Fyler revels in a new direction for a classic villain.

I joined the WarpedFactor crew back in July 2014, and the first piece I wrote here proposed a theory on different ‘kinds’ of Master, while paying tribute to John Simm’s interpretation of the arch-villain. This was how I ended that piece:
“If – as begins to seem inevitable given the rushing whisper of fan-gibber – the Master is to be reborn again in Peter Capaldi’s first series, it can only be hoped he will at least at first be a ‘natural’ Master, delivered as the Anti-Capaldi. And he will have a lot of history to live up to – much of it very recent. The ghost of John Simm’s Master will not be easy to erase. But that of course is what rebirth is all about.”
Well now – what to say about the Mistress, and about Michelle Gomez’s addition to the canon of Masters we have known and loved. ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ springs to mind.

Missy, or the Mistress as I’m going to insist on continuing to call her, is, as far as we know, a perfectly ‘natural’ incarnation, regenerated into being, rather than the result of a body-theft. And is she the Anti-Capaldi? Well let’s see: he’s cold and remote, she’s warm and purring. He hates banter, she’ll banter with a brick wall if you give her enough time. He’s full of self-uncertainty, she knows precisely who and what she is. He hides a tender heart beneath a gruff exterior, she pouts and asks you to say something nice before casually obliterating you. He barely registers the fact that there are men and women, she revels in the femininity she now possesses, both for its own sake and as a way specifically to wrong-foot him. They both have Scottish accents, but beyond that, she’s absolutely the Anti-Capaldi, more calculated to throw him off balance than, for instance, the Charles Dance Master that had been rumoured would have been. Michelle Gomez’s Mistress is the better choice precisely because it’s unexpected and dynamically off-kilter, which is what the Master has always been to the Doctor – the one who can say ‘You’re so wrong it’s funny, and I’m going to destroy this planet or that galaxy just to prove it and to make you cry.’

Gomez as Missy, pre-reveal, had an ethereal, sing-song, creepily demented tone, delivering an ‘afterlife’ run by the nicest imaginable nutter on the bus. Once she and the Doctor have confronted each other though, the Mistress comes truly into her own element. Her plan is of course hugely convoluted (as befits the Master right from his first on-screen Delgado outing). Her disguise is apparently so good that even the Doctor doesn’t know she’s a Time Lady till he feels the double-pulse, much in the way that the Doctor didn’t know Kalid or Sir Gilles Estram was the Master in the Ainley days. And her casual delight in disposing of the Doctor’s ‘moreish’ friends channels Simm’s ‘barking mad’ Master in spades. But Gomez and Moffat are not afraid either to add to the legacy, and among the new elements are things that will stay with the viewer when all the who-ha (ahem) of ‘The Master’s a Woman!’ has died down. There’s an element of Simm in ‘You know the best thing about knowing? Not telling you,’ but there’s also a new combination of the vicious and the flirtatious, the overtly having a laugh at the foreknowledge of pain – a cruel sucker-punch she sets up for belated delivery when it turns out of course that she’s given the Doctor hope, knowing he’ll have to go and look for Gallifrey himself, and knowing it will break his hearts all over again to find she was lying to him. It’s a knife-twist that would have been beyond even the Simm incarnation, explicitly because it’s delivered through the male-female dynamic, the idea of temptation, deceit and cruelty delivered with extra punch because we as viewers are informed by stories of ancient myth – Eve and the Forbidden Fruit, Samson and Delilah, Medea and Jason and so on.

Many other Masters would have escaped from the handcuffs of course, but none would probably have done it quite the way the Mistress does – the appeal to confidence, to the psychology of the so-much-wannabe-companion Osgood. Dangling the idea of pleasing the Doctor, playing on Osgood’s insecurities about her looks and her “smell,” working the ‘girlish confidence’ tactic for possibly a little more than it’s worth, and, when the ‘secret’ is revealed, turning very much into a Whovian Hannibal Lecter, letting Osgood know that her life is about to be senselessly snuffed out, then bantering till the very end. Similarly, the keynote of the Mistress in Gomez’s portrayal, which she correctly ascribes as ‘bananas,’ is marked out by the senseless ‘let’s do this’ expedient of blowing out the doors of the plane and sending Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, we’re sure at the time, to her death. Between them, those scenes show the strength which is unique to the Mistress – you can neither reason with her, nor predict what she’s going to do next. The ‘bananas’ element makes Gomez’s Mistress one of the most genuinely frightening creations of recent years, because if you can neither reason with her, nor predict what to do to keep everyone safe, then suddenly we’re on shaky ground, and the true raging psychopathy of, for example, the Peter Pratt Master comes surging to the fore.

It’s a danger undercut somewhat by the reason she’s doing all this – to gift the Doctor an army of Cybermen, to force him to confront himself: the only way to save humanity is to take the Cyber-army and go and ‘save the universe’ – by which of course she means admit that he, like her, wants the universe to be made in his image of it. On the other hand, if the danger is undercut by an ending that harks back to Terror of the Autons, to Logopolis and to The End of Time, with the two of them working together to eliminate the threat, it is at least a far more psychologically pleasing resolution than any of those stories had in terms of their relationship. Her trap isn’t really the Cyber-army – that’s just what she calls ‘collateral damage.’ Her trap is forcing the Doctor to admit he’s just like she is, and ultimately, as he admits, she wins this game, for all his fine speeches and Danny’s sacrifice. He’ll ultimately kill her to save the soul of Clara – and even in that, the Mistress wins, because he’s killing to make the universe the way he believes it should be. He proves her point for her.

Ultimately, Gomez takes the whole history of the Master, absorbs it, gives it an eye-flash and a dash of lippy, then runs off with it, cackling, adding massively to the canon of the character in terms of psychological warfare and the long game. What is perhaps the ultimate legacy of her first outing in the role though (she can’t possibly be really dead) is the admission that no male Master has ever been able to make – ‘I want my friend back’. That she wants him back entirely on her terms, and is prepared to kill, to destroy planets, and importantly, to let the Doctor have the universe the way he wants it, backed up by a Cyber-army, if it gets her what she wants shows both a reverential echo of the past – these two give the universe a meaning for each other – and a brand new and dare I say essentially female strength of character, facing up to truths that no male Master has ever had the cojones to admit. Capaldi as the Doctor was always going to dominate the screen any time he was on it. Gomez delivers a brand new evolution of his arch-nemesis in her Mistress and delivers what Delgado did for Pertwee, and Simm did for Tennant – an antithesis just as powerful, just as hypnotic, and just as screen-devouring, to make you believe in the genuine danger of the character.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at
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