When “Missy” first debuted in sneak peek pictures of Doctor Who’s season eight, fandom was quick to point out that she looked like pretty much every other femme fatale that Steven Moffat has put on television in a past few years: dark-haired updo, pale, bright lipstick, cheekbones ablaze. Yet while those complaints may be valid, some of the ire directed toward the character is gendered in a distinctly uncomfortable manner.
Spoilers for the Doctor Who season eight finale below.
It has been so exciting to get the Master in a female regeneration. Similar vestments aside, in many ways she seems to be the real femme fatale Moffat was always angling for these past few seasons—it just took some time for him to realize where his favorite trope should obviously live. Adding the Mary Poppins twist makes her extra creepy and appropriate for such an off-the-wall character.
But because Steven Moffat sometimes forgets to give female characters agency or their own stories, there has been a lot of talk about how the Master’s behavior as a woman has been tinged with sexist undertones. Outside of context, I can perhaps see the argument, but within it? Yeah, it doesn’t work for me. Because if you take the long view of the character, there is very little going on here that isn’t stock-and-trade for the Doctor’s “best enemy.”
There was some aggravation over the character changing her name to “the Mistress,” as the name “Master” has no reason to be divided down a gender line. But Missy was clearly using the altered title as a disguise to prevent herself from being recognized ahead of time. There doesn’t appear to be any gendered reasoning behind that move, or even the use of “Time Lady” in the end; it was all pouty-lipped ribbing at the Doctor’s expense. And frankly, the character has had a penchant for disguise throughout the show’s history, even at times when it didn’t service the plot. It’s something the Master has always seemed to enjoy.
The idea that a female Master wouldn’t be so gorgeously vampy is also incorrect. The Master exists (even in the suave, mustached clutches of Roger Delgado) in a place of camp. The Master overdoes everything. The Master fights the Doctor with a broadsword and becomes half-a-cheetah and tries to have the Doctor strangled with a telephone cord and dances to the Scissor Sisters on a flying aircraft carrier. The character is as affected as they come. The insistence that the Master wouldn’t or shouldn’t use a more feminine-specific brand of camp after being gifted a whole new realm of possibilities as a woman is ridiculous. Please, give us all of it.
There also seemed to be an issue with the Master referring to the Doctor as her “boyfriend.” Given that the characters (to our knowledge) have never had a romantic entanglement, the idea that she would suddenly desire to use the term rubbed some fans the wrong way. The mode of thinking was, she’s only doing it because she’s a woman and stereotypes tell us that all women are obsessed with relationships. The Master magically wants to date the Doctor now that she’s female. The Master now refers to the Doctor more intimately because she’s female…. Never mind the fact that the Master once asked the Doctor if he was asking him out on a date when he was a guy.
Is it a problem that the Master only feels comfortable using romantic terminology toward a male Doctor as a woman? We can certainly argue that. But in terms of the Master referring to the Doctor as her “boyfriend” being out of character? That’s straight up wrong. The Master has always viewed the Doctor as her—or his—boyfriend. Always.
No, I’m really sticking to this one.
Okay, we can have another long conversation here about the sexuality of both characters, the potential lack of sexuality in Time Lords overall, the idea of homosocial and homoerotic subtext throughout the show’s history, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the fact that, to some extent, the Master has always believed that the Doctor belongs to her. This belief is a driving force for the majority of the character’s actions, stretching all the way back to the Master’s first appearance in the Third Doctor era. Back then, the Time Lords were still in the universe and the Doctor had been grounded by his people, forced to stay on Earth with a TARDIS he couldn’t remember how to pilot.
The Master shows up and tries to take over a bunch of times. The Doctor stops him through a variety of creative methods. Now, wouldn’t it have been easier for the Master to foster his megalomania on another planet where the Doctor wouldn’t interfere with his infernal plans? Of course it would. Why didn’t he? Because he wanted to bother the Doctor. He wanted a playmate to match wits against. While the Doctor was essentially confined to a kennel, the Master showed up on the premise of antagonism and intrigue. I’m gonna do a bad thing! Better stop me!
The jealously factor was one also sited in terms of reactions that were more “ladylike” and the result of the Master now being a woman. As though the Master has never been jealous before. As though the Master has never been specifically jealous of the Doctor’s companions before. Sure, part of the reason that the Master has a track record of abusing companions is because she wants the Doctor to suffer through their suffering. And sometimes the Master tries to get kind of seductive with them as well (poor Jo Grant), or mirror the Doctor’s relationships with them (poor Lucy Saxon). But ultimately? The Master has always hated companions because they get all of the Doctor’s focus and affection. He choses them every time. It’s why (as not cool as it was) Osgood died in the season eight finale—the Doctor made a critical error in potentially offering her a spot on the TARDIS in front of the Master. That’s when the threat of murder comes up, immediately thereafter. The Master only vaguely keeps it together with Clara because she hand-selected Clara to be the Doctor’s companion.
Why would the Master care about any of that in the first place? Well, the idea of them being old school friends started back in the classic series, and only got more pronounced in the new one. Confirmation from John Simm’s run of the character placed their friendship back even before their Time Lord training would have started. The Master was the Doctor’s best friend before any of this companion nonsense. Or perhaps… the Master was the first companion. The Twelfth Doctor’s dialogue in “Death in Heaven” was particularly telling in that regard:
I had a friend once. We ran together when I was little and I thought we were the same. When we grew up, we weren’t.
“We ran together.” A term reserved only ever for companions. And if the Master was there first, wouldn’t it stand to reason that she resents being constantly replaced? Because we know the Master doesn’t hate the Doctor, even if they are “enemies.” The show’s history easily proves that.
There is a well-known line from the show where the Master claims that “a universe without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about.” Following that utterance, he proceeds to rescue his old friend from a series of traps as four of his incarnations make their way to the Tower of Rassilon. When the Doctor was in his Sixth body, the Master again rescued him from a darker aspect of himself—the Valeyard—who almost had the Doctor imprisoned by the Time Lords for breaking the laws of time travel and committing genocide. The Master came to the Doctor’s defense and proved that he had been framed. Without being called on, by the way.
Still, it’s safe to say that he likes certain versions of the Doctor more than others (just as he seems to tolerate certain companions better than others). While he has never truly come close to ending the Doctor’s life permanently, he had no compunction about bringing the Fourth Doctor’s reign to an end by dropping him off a telescope dish. This brings about the Fifth Doctor, who actually seemed to mix with Anthony Ainley’s version of the Master much better. The Master has a vested interest in their personalities playing well together—further proven by Derek Jacobi’s version of the character regenerating into Simm’s indelibly Tenth Doctor-appropriate incarnation.
This female version of the Master has a perfect push-and-pull with Capaldi. She’s zany and inappropriate and just edgy enough to accommodate the Twelfth Doctor’s darkness. And if you need any further proof of that match, the man who doesn’t like hugging or being touched anymore actually kisses the Master when she offers him some clarity on his continued purpose in the universe. They’re a pair. They always have been.
And now she finally feels right in admitting the purpose of this cosmic game of tag—she wants her friend back.
None of this is out of character. It’s a natural build that the character has been working toward over decades of screen time. The idea that Missy’s actions and verbiage are all the result of her current gender isn’t giving the character the credit she deserves. The Master has been far more melodramatic in previous attempts to get the Doctor’s attention. We all remember the fact that he once made a point of dying in the Doctor’s arms to prove his importance to the man, right? If anything, the Master’s most recent plan was far more direct than anything she’s plotted in years: Lure you out. Be clever. Wish Happy Birthday. Give present. Be friends again.
Being a villain who feels jealousy and possessiveness, who enjoys theatricality, who calls their best enemy their boyfriend, is not an inherently female practice. It is everything the Master already was. Did we ever consider that perhaps it’s just easier to note through a female prism because we are accustomed to heterosexual/social normativity? Because Michelle Gomez’s version of the Master is far from tone deaf—she was created to expand on the story that Doctor Who has been crafting for years.
And I dearly hope she returns for another round.