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After a decidedly slow burn, the Season 12 premiere of Doctor Who just revealed that the greatest villain in the entire series has shockingly returned. And now the biggest question is how? Unlike Season 11, it's clear that Jodie Whittaker's second season of Doctor Who won't be dodging hardcore references to the show's long history, and instead will be dealing with Time Lord mythology head-on. But figuring out the timeline of this specific villain might get wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey really fast. Here's why.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Doctor Who Season 12, Episode 1: "Spyfall Part 1."
Okay. After a complicated plot involving interdimensional aliens, global espionage, and a domineering software mogul, the entire plot of "Spyfall Part 1" turned out to be a distraction for the real twist: Actor Sacha Dhawan, who we thought was playing a helpful MI-6 agent code-named "O," is really ... the Master!
Why is that such a big deal? If you're kind of new to Doctor Who lore, know that the Master is, just like the Doctor, an alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. And just like the Doctor, the Master has had several physical incarnations. In fact, the previous version of the Master went by Missy (Michelle Gomez), and she was, as far as we knew, the final version of the Master. And that's because she was killed by the Master (John Simm), who was, actually, her former self. Got that?
A bit more background: In the penultimate, Peter Capaldi Season 10 episode, "The Doctor Falls," the Doctor (Capaldi) briefly convinced Missy/the Master (Gomez) to join the good guys, which a time-traveling previous version of the Master (Simm) hated. And so, as he was dying — presumably regenerating into Missy — the Master killed their future self, permanently.
Unless that's not what happened. In "Spyfall," the new Master (Sacha Dhawan) tells the Doctor that "everything you think you know is a lie." Now, this could refer to the fact that the Master seems to be manipulating the fabric of reality (Where did Barton go? What's up with the flying house?). But what if it refers to the exact regeneration cycle of the Master?
We always assumed that Missy was the most recent version of the Master relative to John Simm, but we don't actually know that for sure. In fact, in the Season 10 episode "The World Enough and Time," Missy suggests she's not sure how many regenerations she's had since she was John Simm, saying, "I'm a bit hazy on the whole regeneration thing, I'm afraid."
So right here, two seasons ago, when two versions of the Master briefly teamed up, there might be a hidden clue as to how Sacha Dhawan's version of the Master can even exist. The short answer is time travel (duh), but the slightly longer answer might be that up until this point we actually haven't seen the regenerations of the Master in the correct order.
In other words, this Master might be an incarnation in between John Simm and Michelle Gomez. Or, more interestingly, he could be a version of the Master who predates both John Simm and Derek Jacobi.
Back in the Season 3 episode "Utopia," it was revealed that Professor Yana (Jacobi) was really the Master, but that he had amnesia because — wait for it — his DNA had been rewritten by a chameleon arch, which is Time Lord technology that turns one species into another. Now, the entire plot of "Spyfall" revolves around the DNA of people being rewritten, and because we know the Master is involved, that could suggest he's using Time Lord tech to do this.
It also could suggest that this "new" version of the Master might predate the Time War. In the David Tennant era, we got the impression that the Doctor saw the Master die during the Time War. But ... we don't know which version of the Master was on Gallifrey when the Doctor saved the entire planet in "The Day of the Doctor."
To put it another way, it's possible the Doctor created an alternate Gallifrey in "The Day of the Doctor," one that housed the version of the Master from before the Time War. This wouldn't negate any of the Masters the Doctor met after that since all of those events would be required in order for the Doctor to save Gallifrey in the first place.
So, this is the theory: Sacha Dhawan's Master is either a version of the Master in between John Simm and Michelle Gomez, or he predates all of them, which would make him the Master who follows, weirdly, Eric Roberts, who played the Master in the 1996 TV movie, Doctor Who. (There's also the possibility that the Doctor rescued yet another version of Gallifrey in the Season 11 finale, "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.")
In any case, the fact that this version of the Master met the Doctor, as he says in "Spyfall," when "the Doctor was a man," might imply future episodes of Season 12 could give us a flashback to when that happens ... which could mean a retro Doctor cameo. But which one? Matt Smith? David Tennant?
For longtime fans, the Master using a disguise in conjunction with time travel is old hat; this was essentially exactly what the Master did in "The Sound of Drums" in Season 3, except back then, instead of pretending to be an MI-6 agent, the Master got himself elected prime minister. So, how did this version of the Master slip under the Doctor's nose again? And what does he want? This time, clearly, the Master has different goals. Because if the interdimensional aliens are on his side, and he's (maybe) using Time Lord tech to rewrite people's DNA, the endgame is murky.
One thing is for sure. If Doctor Who sticks to using time-travel shenanigans to attack the schemes of the villains, then it seems likely that the answer to what happens next to the Doctor and her friends might not actually be something that happens in the future at all. Instead, it's possible that the key to the new Master and his evil schemes might lie in the Doctor's past.