You Mean All This Time We Could
Have Been Friends?
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 481
The casting of Michelle Gomez as the latest incarnation of the Master brought reactions from all sides. Many were praising the actor's strong performance and fresh twist on a favourite villain; some (thankfully only a few) deriding it as "stunt casting" and "political correctness". Despite all the hubbub about the character, though, the truly revolutionary message of the Master's gender change appears to have gone unnoticed.
One significant point about the Master, or Missy, is that the Time Lord's basic character doesn't change from incarnation to incarnation, at least no more than the Doctor's does. Although they are distinct personalities — Anthony Ainley's penchant for outrageous dress-up, Roger Delgado's Bond-villain persona, John Simm's manchild with anger issues — they are all anarchists, fond of stirring up trouble for the sake of it rather than pursuing a fundamental agenda, and somewhat addicted to formulating complex (often poorly-thought-through) plans. The common anti-Missy complaint, "why didn't they just bring back the Rani if they wanted a female Time Lord villain?" is missing the point. The Rani is a fundamentally different character; she is a scientist at heart, who develops master plans with an end in view — however bonkers the plan and/or the desired outcome may be — rather than just wanting to see the world burn. A new incarnation of the Rani would have been a new incarnation of the Rani. Missy isn't anything like the Rani. She's the Master, mad schemes, drama, and all.
Furthermore, the dynamic between the Doctor and the Rani is quite different to that between the Doctor and the Master. The Rani is a long-standing rival, to be outthought and defeated like any other mad scientist. The Doctor and Master, by contrast, are pretty much the embodiment of the word "frenemies". They had been friends once and, although they'd gone on to take opposite moral stances, there is still a certain mutual respect and affection. Even their incarnations run in parallel lines: a Bond villain to oppose Jon Pertwee's ITC-spy-series-inspired playboy, a costumed eccentric for Peter Davison's understated Edwardian gentleman, a decaying skeletal nightmare for Tom Baker's horror-film protagonist. Possibly it's the fact that both Doctor and Master share an anarchic streak which the likes of the Rani don't have; possibly it's because they're both itinerant meddlers rebelling against the strictures of Time Lord society. But one of the most poignant aspects of "Utopia" is that the Doctor and Professor Yana did actually get on very well; you have the feeling that, had things been different, the Doctor and the Master could have been genuine friends.
Missy, meanwhile, was perfectly in line with the Master's previous incarnations. She is still chaotic evil in orientation, given to plans along the lines of setting up a Cyberman factory in St Paul's Cathedral or stopping all the airplanes in the world just to get UNIT's attention. She doesn't do the companion thing, aside from occasional alliances of convenience or deception. She's something of a flirt, but Roger Delgado was charming the Queen of Atlantis long before the Doctor admitted to any kind of dancing, and the less said about Eric Roberts' incarnation in that regard, the better. She's not a dress-up addict, but then, not all the Masters have been. There's nothing about Missy that's off the Master spectrum.
Does it make a difference that she's female? Yes, of course it does. The situation with Missy is not unlike that of Starbuck in reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Starbuck is essentially the same character in both the 1970s and 2000s series; a hard-drinking, gambling rogue with a longing for home and family, but with an abusive upbringing which makes it difficult for them to connect emotionally. However, some of the behaviour which viewers excused in male-Starbuck — mostly to do with his somewhat adventurous sex life — was condemned in female-Starbuck. So I'm not saying that it makes no difference at all that the Master's chaotic persona is within a female body; people interpret brilliance and chaos differently when you're female. But, and I stress this, it still doesn't change the Master's basic character. You could imagine just about any Master scene with Missy in the role, and, of course, vice versa.
Which brings me to the truly revolutionary thing about Missy. It's not that the Master's gender changed. It's that her relationship with the Doctor didn't.
Missy and the Doctor are still frenemies. He still tries to outthink her, and she him. He tries to block her plans and have her brought to justice for her crimes, but he won't participate in her execution, and indeed offers to take on her rehabilitation personally. They collaborate, willingly or not, sometimes. They don't become lovers, they don't spout sexist banter at each other. The Doctor doesn't regard Missy as any less dangerous — or any less redeemable — than any other incarnation of the Master. There's no tension between them beyond the same old frenemy relationship.
The message is: men and women can be friends. And enemies. And all the complex categories in between. They can be lovers, sure. But they don't inevitably have to be.
Just to stress how revolutionary that little message is, may I remind you that the current vice-president of the United States has gone on record as saying that he won't have dinner with a female colleague unchaperoned, lest his sexuality get the better of him, and social media are, as I write, full of men saying that they're afraid to speak to their female colleagues in case it gets misinterpreted as sexual harassment (and unfortunately there's more than a few women also saying that the victims of workplace sexual harassment should just put up with it). What Missy's relationship with the Doctor says is: chill out. You can be friends with women, you can work with women. Women are human beings.
And it's not just the Doctor. Bill is a little surprised to learn that Missy was once a man, but it doesn't particularly affect how she relates to her. UNIT are not particularly bothered either, treating Missy more or less the same way as they treated the Delgado Master. The Master himself is the only one to voice any complaint, when he meets his future self in "The Doctor Falls", but in the end it bothers him less that she's female, than that she's become a reformed character. Being female matters, but it's not the determining factor in how people relate to her.
Mentioning UNIT brings us to another, less-discussed, point. That particular organisation has had a complete gender shift in the top ranks. The Brigadier, the scientific advisor, the computer expert... they're all female. This has incurred far less fan complaint (possibly because the new Brigadier is the old one's daughter, rather than a new incarnation, possibly because we've already had one female Brigadier), but UNIT stories are still about people running around thwarting alien invasions. In fact, being female made far less difference to the character of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart than it did to Winifred Bambera, who writer Ben Aaronovitch promptly paired off with a guest star in a way that no one apparently ever contemplated doing with Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. The message of post-millennial Doctor Who is clear: you can have friendships and professional relationships with people of all genders.
Which, finally, leads us to the logical conclusion: that the Doctor's own gender change need make as much, and as little, difference to the character as the Master's. It doesn't need to be "Curse of the Fatal Death", with Joanna Lumley making boob and sex-toy jokes. It can just be the same Time Lord, with the same friendships, the same relationships with companions, the same connections to human and other societies out there.
In these days, that's the best possible message to send.