This feature contains spoilers for Series 10 of Doctor Who, including The Doctor Falls, from the very beginning.
Peoples of the universe, please attend carefully. In life, nothing is certain but death, taxes and the Master coming back to Doctor Who every once in a while. First appearing in 1971’s Terror Of The Autons, Roger Delgado’s original incarnation even appeared in every single story of the eighth season, with various nefarious schemes designed to threaten or simply annoy the Doctor.
Over the rest of the classic series, he menaced later Doctors as the decrepit Peter Pratt, the full-on Kentucky fried Geoffrey Beevers, the wry, murderous Anthony Ainley and the 90s action movie baddy Eric Roberts. He was a master of disguise, a scavenger, a bodysnatcher, and as he remarked that one time, he’s always drrressed for the occasion.
But in the new series, successive showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have focused on the character as a link back to before the Time War, whether as an ancient rivalry or a forgotten friendship. Davies gave us Derek Jacobi’s closeted fugitive (arguably his best ever disguise) and John Simm’s vainglorious psychopath, while Moffat introduced Michelle Gomez as Missy, and zeroed in on that old friendship over the course of his final season.
This spoiler-free recap of the character was partly for the purpose of those who missed the earlier warning – if you’re not fully caught up with The Doctor Falls or the rest of series 10, we’re going to get into major plot details and speculate upon what’s next for the character, and you need to look away now. This is Daphne the spoiler squirrel, and you will obey her.
“This is where we were always headed. We shoot ourselves in the back.
Missy and/or The Master will return, we’re certain of that much. However, you wouldn’t know it to look at The Doctor Falls, a grand tragedy in which the pre-destined death of both the Simm and Gomez incarnations of the character at once is almost a footnote. Missy stabs the Master in the back, so that he can run back to his TARDIS and regenerate into her. In return, the Master gives Missy a full blast with his laser screwdriver, apparently disabling her ability to regenerate.
A multi-Master story could hardly end any other way, especially with the process by which Simm turned into Gomez remaining unexplained until now. It’s a golden opportunity that Moffat grabbed with both hands, but it’s a little more surprising that he’s closed the door on Missy as completely as he did. Where Missy’s betrayal is an act of self-creation, the Master’s is an act of self-destruction, which is a beautiful contrast of their two personalities.
Simm’s Master has always been fuelled by rage and hate – he burned “like a whole screaming planet on fire”, as Missy put it. Whether you’re with him or against him, he still hates you to death. Earlier in The Doctor Falls, he explains that his return from his last, not-entirely-selfless act of attacking Rassilon and saving the Tenth Doctor was the result of a “mutual kicking out” on Gallifrey, out of which he immediately wound up engineering the events of the last two episodes and playing a part in the creation of the Mondasian Cybermen.
He’s headed for a fall all the way through the episode for that, and for his cruelty towards Bill (Peter Capaldi does the work of a hundred sweary Malcolm Tucker lines in one glare, during that “old bras” exchange) and the Doctor. But all of this makes him the perfect foil to his future self, who’s spent the season going cold turkey and genuinely trying to be good. She entered this story trying to be “Doctor Who”, but relapsed quickly, as soon as a familiar face tempted her back to her old ways.
Of course, as the Master goes back to his TARDIS, there’ll still be a few brand spanking new Cybermen down below. This episode’s priorities are elsewhere, so the connection is never made explicit, but Missy’s behaviour in Series 8’s two part finale is interesting in light of this episode, given how Missy’s plan involves a bunch of Cybermen and trying to make an earlier Twelfth Doctor see things as she does.
She may not remember her recent encounter with her past self, but it’s interesting how from a chronological point of view, the events of this story might have influenced the Mistress’ next big plan. That makes her whole arc the kind of circle that Steven Moffat enjoys so much – she spends her whole life getting back to the point where she dies because she sides with the Doctor a little too late.
The Master’s warped psychology is what makes him/her so entertaining to watch in relation to the true north of the Doctor’s moral compass. With that in mind, will Missy’s contrite personality stick in future incarnations?
As Gomez put it in the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine: “Even the worst psychopath can’t be entirely bad. It’s basic math. A positive cannot exist without a negative, and so there always has to be a thread of goodness in somebody. What makes you thoroughly evil, I believe, is when you recognise that thread of goodness – you’re aware of it, you’re conscious of it – and you still decide to be evil.”
When the Doctor pleads with them both to stand with him, he explains that he’s doing what he does because he will eventually fall where he stands. They refuse and, crucially, they both fall anyway. The two of them, laughing as they die, bitter and friendless, feels as definitive an ending for this character as we can imagine.
But as we’ve said, he or she will be back, because the Master has appeared to die and come back, without regenerating, countless times over the years. For example, at the end of Planet Of Fire, one of three very dark stories that closed Peter Davison’s era, the Doctor lets the Master burn alive. Anthony Ainley was back five stories later to annoy Colin Baker’s Doctor, with no explanation as to his return.
In the new series, the writers have been more diligent about the hows and whyfors of the Master’s trademark resurrections. Jacobi was given a new regeneration cycle by the Time Lords to fight in the war, Simm got the Goblet Of Fire treatment from his acolytes in The End Of Time, and Gomez gives Clara an entertaining presentation on faking her own death in The Witch’s Familiar. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for future writers who want to use the character to come up with something similar.
The character may well remain visible in other media in past incarnations. Jacobi has recorded a season of stories as “the War Master” for Big Finish, which will be released later this year, and DWM recently ran a comic strip called Doorway To Hell, in which the Twelfth Doctor tangled with the Delgado Master. The TV series could mess about with past incarnations and leave Missy as the last incarnation chronologically, but somehow we doubt that ending will stick, even if the death and return of Gallifrey is less prominent in episodes to come.
The smart money would be on Series 13 or 14 having an episode in which a mysterious guest character reveals he is the Master or she is Missy at cliffhanger time, and they’ll probably be as well suited to the next Doctor as Simm was to Tennant or Gomez was to Capaldi. Even if Chris Chibnall or any other future writers of the show eventually wind up circling back around to the ending we get here, the treatment and development of the character in The Doctor Falls, and in this tenth series, has given the Master a 21st century revamp as thorough as that of the Doctor.