Doctor Who: Flux – Is the Grand Serpent the Master in Disguise?

The suit, the plan, the snake... Either Craig Parkinson's The Grand Serpent is an incarnation of the Master, or somebody wants us to think he is.

Photo: BBC

Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who: Flux Episode 5 ‘Survivors of the Flux’

The first Master story my son ever saw was ‘Spyfall’, last year (yes, it was only last year). A bit later we finally began the pilgrimage and watched the entire New Series over the space of eight or nine months. ‘Spyfall’ clearly had an impact, because every time a new character in a suit turned up, he’d immediately point to the screen and tell me “That’s the Master!”

So, when a mysterious, arch, obviously evil figure in a dapper black suit shows up and people begin to ponder whether he could, in fact, be our favourite renegade Time Lord (now that the Doctor doesn’t count) my first response is scepticism. And yet the recurring and oddly superfluous seeming character of The Grand Serpent does seem to have an awful lot of evidence stacking up against him.

Exhibit A: The Look

Doctor Who Flux The Grand Serpent

For someone who’s supposed a “Master” of disguise, it’s got to be said that the Doctor’s greatest frenemy has an extremely signature look. Gender, ethnicity, and accent are all up for grabs, but the Master is a sucker for a svelte little black number. And the Grand Serpent’s wardrobe definitely fits the bill. Stylish, dark, elegant, a bit showy-offy. The streak of white hair is a nice touch and absolutely feels like the sort of thing the Master would throw in to look “distinguished”, the golden serpent adornment the sort of flare he can’t resist.

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Craig Parkinson very much looks the part, with hands made for steepling, an arch eyebrow where required, and a mouth perfectly suited to curving ever so slightly at the edges as he realises the Doctor has yet to understand the full genius of his plan. There’s no arguing that if the Grand Serpent does turn out to be the Master, nobody is going to throw their hands up in shock and shout “But no! You couldn’t be!”

Exhibit B: The M.O.

Doctor Who Flux The Grand Serpent and Sontaran

We are introduced to the Grand Serpent as an intergalactic dictator, a bloody warlord who will use peace talks as an opportunity to hunt down his political rivals, your standard Evil Emperor who probably goes to the same clubs as Darth Sidious, 40K’s God Emperor and Emperor Zurg.

And yet, when we see him in ‘Survivors of the Flux’, this is very much not the vibe he gives off. This time the Grand Serpent is a lone operator, using murder and subterfuge to worm his way into an organisation he wishes to control. He seems, frankly, a bit too comfortable in this role for someone who would normally outsource their murdering and blackmail. The fact is, for all their talk about wanting to rule the universe, the Master has always preferred to do their own dirty work.

The Grand Serpent has access to time travel (probably) with Kate Stewart theorising he single-handedly took over UNIT from its very origins in the space of a week or even a day, which feels like a very Masterly move. When he murders people he reveals his identity, saying “I prefer to be called…” and he says the Grand Serpent, but the cadence of the delivery feels very familiar.

And let’s look at that nom de evil plot for a second. The Master does have a bit of a history with murderous alien snakes. In fact, they used to be one (see the ill-fated Paul McGann movie).

We’ll delve into his actual motives in a bit, but for now, let’s look at his Grand Plan:

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A: Adopt a disguise
B: Charm and murder his way into an organisation
C: Assume control of and subvert that organisation
D: Reveal that you’ve been working with a hostile invading alien force the whole time
And then, one assumes: E: Betray/get betrayed by the hostile invading alien force
And finally, F: Be forced to team up with the Doctor to stop the invading aliens, again.

If none of that will convince you, how about this: The name he assumes when he infiltrates UNIT is “Prentis”. Master and Apprentice? Now you might say, ‘That’s a really crap pun’, to which I say, ‘The prosecution rests’.

Exhibit C: The Personal Connection

Doctor Who Flux Episode 5 Jemma Redgrave Kate Lethbridge Stewart

There is also the question ‘How does the Grand Serpent, the Dictator of an Alien Empire, know what UNIT is?’ or even ‘How does he know about Earth in general to convincingly infiltrate one of its militaries?’

Now, aliens are popping to Earth all the time – we have a thriving alien refugee population from Zygons to the denizens of Trap Street – but still, he seems very familiar with the territory. He says of UNIT “I’ve been around it a long time”, which feels like a sly, Masterly wink to camera.

The Grand Serpent also has a bit of a reaction when he walks into a UNIT laboratory to see the Doctor’s TARDIS. In if he is the Master, he must find it hilarious that Pertwee was stranded here for years trying to repair his own TARDIS while his employer had a functioning spare in a room down the hall. And when Kate Stewart tells him she knows “someone you don’t want to argue with”, the Grand Serpent visibly gulps. He knows who she’s talking about.

What Is His Plan?


Okay, so if the Grand Serpent is the Master, and not just a swish villain in a dark suit, what’s his plan? This part, at least, is easy. The Master has one guiding motivation above all others, and it isn’t even to conquer the universe. It is straight-up survival. To survive, he will frame the Doctor for assassinating the President of Gallifrey and harness the power of the Eye of Harmony, he will bodily possess an alien, he will turn into a snake and possess a paramedic, he will flee to the end of the universe and turn into a human baby, and do some weird ritual with a bunch of cultists in a women’s prison.

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Yes, she also stabbed himself in the back, and he also shot herself, at the same time, we’ll get to that, but we can agree that staying in the Not Dead Yet Club has always been one of the Master’s prime motivators. And now the universe is going to end.

The universe is going to end, and it looks like the safest place to be is planet Earth – either because it will be the last place to fall, or because the Master knows Division will swoop it up and drop it in the new universe at the last second. Either way, there’s never been a better time to conquer it.

Except, and bear with me here, is the Master actually planning to conquer it? What if, and here we are going to the outer edge of outlandish and crazy theories, I know, but what if the Master is actually the good guy here?

The Master isn’t just landing on Earth to save himself; he’s disarming all its defences to open the way for, judging by the Next Time trailer, a whole host of other alien refugees. Alien refugees which, frankly, the Doctor was a bit Daily Mail about in her holo-message to Yaz.

This harks back to an older fan theory. When we last saw Missy, she was dying on a forest floor having been shot with a deadly laser that prevented regeneration, so that the John Simm incarnation of the Master could stop himself having a redeemed, goody-goody future.

The next time we see the Master, played by Sacha Dhawan, he’s gone full-on Cackling Bad Guy again. Could be standard regeneration character reboot. But when John Simm Master asks if he turns into Missy, she is very vague on the topic.

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What if, the theory goes, John Simm regenerates into Sacha Dhawan? It kinda ruins the neat symmetry of Simm’s Master regenerating on a ship full of Cybermen, then Missy turning up with an army of Cybermen the first time we see her, but it could work. And if that’s the case, could the new “Grand Serpent” Master be a post-Missy incarnation? A (slightly, kind of, not very in light of all those UNIT murders) redeemed Master?

If the Master did decide to be the hero and try to rescue a bunch of innocent refugees from a galactic calamity, what would he do? I don’t know. But I imagine the plan would look something like:

A: Adopt a disguise
B: Charm and murder his way into an organisation
C: Assume control of and subvert that organisation
D: Reveal that you’ve been working with a hostile invading alien force the whole time
E: Betray/get betrayed by the hostile invading alien force
And finally F: Be forced to team up with the Doctor to stop the invading aliens, again.

Doctor Who: Flux concludes on Sunday the 5th of December on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and BBC America.