A farewell to Doctor Who's Missy

Contributed by
Jul 14, 2017

While the long-announced departure of Peter Capaldi from Doctor Who is coming this Christmas, there's another major character who bids her farewell at the end of Series 10. It's with a heavy heart that I -- as a loyal viewer --- wave goodbye to Michelle Gomez's Missy.

It is one of my great worthless bits of pride that I actually managed to nail the prediction during the show's eighth series that the mysterious, scheming figure would end up being a female regeneration of the Doctor's longtime frenemy, the Master. I called it early, stuck to my guns, and by the end of the series, when her identity was finally revealed, I pumped a fist in epic triumph. I still remember the cheers and accolades of my friends in the room as they looked at me and said, "Oh hey, yeah you were right. Good for you."

I was fascinated by Missy from the get-go. I'm an admitted Series 8 apologist, I felt like the show was speaking directly to me with the running themes of identity and one's sense of self during a particularly transitional period in my own life. I was wrestling with my own identity right along with the freshly regenerated Doctor. The Missy reveal brought much of that together into a perfect package with a neat little bow. While not explicitly a transgender character, she was still a character that we had historically known as male who was now a chaotic livewire of a woman, portrayed diabolically perfect by Gomez. She was a brilliant example that even when you think someone's identity is completely locked, they can still surprise you.

Each incarnation of the Master works as a reflection of the Doctor they're faced off against, from Roger Delgado's buttoned-up nehru jackets set against Jon Pertwee's magician flair, all the way through John Simm's manic pixie dream boy twisting of David Tennant's goofy, often childlike energy. Gomez's Missy is no different. When Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor was trying his best to be a cold, grumpy man, Missy sizzled with every possible emotion on the edge of her sleeve. She's brash when he's calculating, she's crass when he's cool. When she returns in the Series 9 premiere two-parter, she's an unhinged pinball crashing off the walls while the Doctor enjoys a quiet contemplative chat with the seemingly dying Davros.

While I would have liked it to have just a little more time to incubate, and perhaps at least just a tiny bit more of a sense of it being earned by the narrative, her final arc, which really takes hold in the second half of Series 10, was an interesting and welcome shift for the character. In a TV series that sets itself apart from most others in its genre by featuring a protagonist who will almost always choose words over weapons, someone who consistently tries to stress, sometimes quite literally, that very few things are truly evil, it makes sense that a character who is so often referred to as the Doctor's oldest friend would eventually have to, in her own way, come to be less of a true antagonist.

It's a mark of Gomez's skill as an actor that she is able to dance the line of whether Missy's face turn is sincere or a ploy to lure the Doctor into a trap, right up to and beyond the moment she runs into her own previous incarnation, the John Simm Master. Her own struggle with her shift, if not truly into good, at least into "chaotic neutral," feels like a real internal battle; it genuinely feels like Missy is unsure which way she's going to go at any moment.

When we first met her character in her full glory, at the end of Series 8's Death in Heaven, her motives have less to do with pure destruction and more to do with wanting to prove to the Doctor that she and he are not all that different after all. She believes the Doctor is one bad decision away from being just like her, and she needs him to see that. Two seasons later and we see the Doctor presenting the exact opposite version of that, that she could be one choice away from standing for something like he does. The unshakable faith the Doctor has in her ability to pull herself up with him matters. We can see it in her eyes as he pleads with her to stand with him, believing she can after everything she's done.

This is why, when she finally does make the decision to betray her own former self (a slightly heavy-handed metaphor, but on a show that trades in them), it feels real. It feels like it was always where the character was headed. Her choice to stand with the Doctor feels as much in line with the overall theme of the show as his efforts to never give up on her in hopes they can be friends again. It is heartbreakingly perfect that she is thwarted from doing so by her own past self. She dies a hero without actually getting to save the day because the blood on her hands refuses to let her. And the fact that she accepts her fate with a cackle and shared laugh with herself is pitch-perfect for the character in all of his or her history.

Dialogue aside, I don't believe that we've seen the last of the Master on Doctor Who. The character has "died" before, and the show does occasionally shelve villains that have been used frequently (the Daleks have only had cameo or one-off appearances throughout Capaldi's run, for example), so while I don't expect a future regeneration to show up during Chris Chibnall's proposed five-year plan for his tenure as showrunner, I know we'll probably see a version of the Master, male or female, again. But to that future actor, you've got a tough jacket to fill, because with all due respect to Simm, Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley et al., I can say without pause that Missy was my Master. I loved the way she burned.