On the Mistress

Series 9 of Doctor Who is soon to begin, and one character returning as a semi-regular is Michelle Gomez as the tenth on-screen actor to be in the role of its most commonly-recurring individual antagonist.


Series 9 of Doctor Who is soon to begin, and one character returning as a semi-regular is Michelle Gomez as the tenth on-screen actor to be in the role of its most commonly-recurring individual antagonist.

But first, a few things about word use. Unlike the Doctor, this character has had incarnations of both the male and female sexes. Whereas the Doctor is referred to as "he" and "him", this character isn't so simple. Right now, the name used by this character is "the Mistress", given the current sex being female. Male incarnations used the title "the Master". To avoid confusion, I'll be using the word Mistress, since that's the title the Mistress uses presently. And since there's a case to be made that both "he/him" and "she/her" can apply to a character whose different forms can be of different sexes, for clarity, I'll be using "they/them", given that the majority of the Mistress' incarnations have been male, despite currently being female and possibly male again the future. This isn't to make this a social politics post, which is actually about the Mistress' role in Doctor Who, but to define the terminology used in it to make sure it's easy to understand.

When we first meet the Mistress in Robert Holmes‘ Terror of the Autons (Roger Delgado), the Doctor shows an awareness of the Mistress when the Time Lords warn him of the Mistress’ presence on Earth. Even they consider the Mistress dangerous. In their first Doctor Who appearance, the Mistress was established as a Time Lord/Lady known to the Doctor already. Narratively, that gave the Mistress, from the beginning, a presence and significance, comparable to the way Arthur Conan Doyle introduced James Moriarty (who’s also female in the series Elementary) in The Final Problem.

The trouble was, we came up with this idea of the M[istress], Barry and I – well, me actually – because we were talking in the BBC bar about how the Doctor is like Sherlock Holmes, and I suddenly thought, he needs a Moriarty.

Terror of the Autons was simply the first appearance of the Mistress, who’d go on to become Doctor Who‘s primary single antagonist, but the Mistress/Doctor relationship would be explored in many future episodes. Don Houghton‘s The Mind of Evil (Delgado) would show the Mistress’ fear manifested as a gigantic version of the Doctor laughing at him. In Guy Leopold‘s The Dæmons (Delgado), the Doctor says that the Mistress reminds him of Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan.

The story concludes with the Mistress’ capture, which would be continued in Hulke’s The sea Devils (Delgado) when the Doctor visits the Mistress in prison. The dialogue exchanged is the first implication that the Doctor and the Mistress were once great friends, the central theme of any story-lines involving the Doctor and the Mistress, especially in the recent Death in Heaven (Gomez) by Steven Moffat – the story’s driven by the Mistress’ desire to reconcile with the Doctor by proving that they’re the same.

And in Russell T. Davies‘ The Sound of Drums (John Simm/William Hughes), we learn the Mistress was enrolled in the Time Lord Academy at the age of eight, looked into the Untempered Schism and was driven insane, hearing a drumbeat in their mind since that time. Davies’ The Sound of Drums (Simm/Hughes) is something of an origin story for the Mistress, whose role as a villain, with dictatorial comparisons and portrayal as a dangerous criminal is, narratively, because of that moment as a child. The fact that a friendship is maintained between the Mistress and the Doctor is two-sided: for the Mistress, the Doctor isn’t achieving his full potential as a Time Lord; for the Doctor, the Mistress is misguided due to an unfair circumstance beyond their control. They pity each other, but for different reasons – the Doctor’s pity of the Mistress is because of the friend within that the Doctor’s seen, but was corrupted by the Time Lords in their mandatory initiation ceremony. From his point of view, the Mistress didn’t choose to be the way they are, and could be a good person again if what the Time Lords did were to be reversed.

In The Trial of a Time Lord (Anthony Ainley), a scene by Robert Holmes is key, as the Mistress is the person who reveals the Valeyard’s true nature as the Doctor’s dark side. The popular opinion is the Mistress is an evil version of the Doctor, but that isn’t true. The Mistress, as shown in the story, is not the way they are by choice. The Valeyard is. He chooses to be corrupted. But the Mistress is a more interesting character than the Valeyard, because as a character, the Mistress isn’t defined by their relationship to the Doctor. The Valeyard needs the Doctor to be validated as a character, but the Mistress doesn’t, which proves the strength of the character – would they be able to carry their own story? The Mistress definitely can, due to having the element of audience empathy because of their involuntary mental state. It makes for a complex character, which is why the character’s arguably becoming more interesting since that element was added by Davies and developed by Moffat. In Davies’ Last of the Time Lords (Simm), the Mistress chooses not to regenerate as an escape from the insane noise in their mind. The Doctor had said he was going to keep the Mistress in the TARDIS to “care for” them. Perhaps the Doctor named himself so from the desire to specifically fix the Mistress and make them right again and restore their friendship? Perhaps the Doctor is actually defined by the Mistress and not the other way around? In Moffat’s Dark Water (Gomez), the Mistress claims to be “programmed for self-repair”, an allusion to regeneration. But perhaps there’s more to this? Davies’ The end of Time (Simm) directly confronted the Mistress’ head-drums, and gave the Mistress the opportunity to do so as well. When the Doctor next meets the Mistress, the Mistress claims to be fixing herself, but the Doctor doesn’t yet know who “Missy” is. The dramatic irony is that the Mistress is telling the Doctor she’s getting better, but not in such a way as having to admit this to him straight-up. In Moffat’s Death in Heaven (Gomez), the Mistress is trying to amend their friendship. The Doctor himself had been trying to do so all along, which makes it an important development in their relationship. But the Mistress was still not entirely sane, because they thought giving the Doctor an army to show their similarities would do so. For the Mistress to have a role in Series 9, there needs to be further development still. Perhaps the Doctor could do the same, by instead proposing that, rather than he being the same as the Mistress, the Mistress is the same as him. And those ideas are not the same. One suggests that the Doctor is also a psychopath. He’s not. When discussing the Mistress’ “origin” at the Untempered Schism, he claims that the Mistress did go mad, but that he simply ran away. Exactly why the Doctor ran away is still a mystery, and always should be. When the mythology’s stripped-away, Doctor Who‘s about a man travelling space-time helping people. Why he does so should never be fully revealed. And therefore we’ll never know exactly what his motivation is, but he made it clear that this was an alternative to actually becoming insane. He’s committed psychopathic acts, but has always been aware of them and felt guilt. The Doctor’s storyline in the New Series is someone relapsing into insanity. The Doctor’s fighting his own inner Valeyard, aware of what he could be. The Mistress either isn’t or just doesn’t care.

So perhaps we should instead turn to licensed spin-off media about the two characters? In Joseph Lidster‘s Master (Geoffrey Beevers), the Mistress claims to be Death’s Champion. While this sounds an interesting concept, it’s really no more a generic fantasy expected from a psychopath. In Matt Fitton‘s Death Match, the Mistress claims to have met Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychology and psychoanalysis, one method of which is existential-humanist therapy, which attempts to surface subconscious desires based on the knowledge that eventually nothing will matter when the world inevitably ends. Unfortunately, in the same story, the Mistress claims to have also destroyed planet Raskalar for pure entertainment. The Doctor would be right to want to help the Mistress, his best friend.

But there are some fans who believe that there’s more to the Doctor/Mistress relationship than being friends. In Moffat’s The Time of the Doctor, the Doctor mentions inventing an android boyfriend. While not a part of continuity, Paul Cornell‘s Scream of the Shalka (Derek Jacobi) features an android version of the Mistress – still named “the Master” – who can’t operate outside the Doctor’s TARDIS, in a similar arrangement to what the Doctor proposed in Davies’ Last of the Time Lords (Simm). Jacobi was the Master in continuity proper in Davies’ Utopia.

Davies himself wrote more tension between the Doctor and the Mistress than anyone, especially in a scene from The end of Time (Simm), in-which the two wonder what they’d be without each other. Adding to matters, another non-“canon” episode, also by Moffat, The Curse of Fatal Death (Jonathan Pryce), includes “the Master” being upgraded with Dalek hemispheres resembling breasts, and marrying the Doctor, who’s now in her Thirteenth incarnation and female. The scene in Moffat’s Death in Heaven (Gomez), in-which the Mistress kisses the Doctor, could be an attempt by Moffat to canonise this idea, but in the reverse, as a female incarnation of the Doctor would be accepted much less than of the Master. And since “Missy” hadn’t revealed her identity to the Doctor, that impulse could link back to her remark about “self-repair”, to open-up to the Doctor without him realising, not to mention the line,  “My heart is maintained by the Doctor”. After confronting her psychopathy in Davies’ The end of Time (Simm), the Mistress could be attempting to embrace her true desire for the Doctor, perhaps? That’s an element of existential-humanist therapy, after all. Is their relationship one of repressed sexual or romantic desire? In Moffat’s Deep Breath (Gomez), the Mistress does call the Doctor their “boyfriend”.

Given their fantasy as “Death’s Champion”, this is just as much confirmation as we need of that element of their relationship being so, at least from the Mistress’ perspective. She’s probably just fantasising about the Doctor actually being her boyfriend. In Davies’ The Sound of Drums (Simm), upon discovering that the Doctor’s the only other living Time Lord, the Mistress responds to his suggestion that they’re both all they’ve got with the question, “Are you asking me out on a date?”. Even in the Doctor Who television feature by Matthew Jacobs, Eric Roberts’ Mistress had a less subtle sexual subtext – dripping out of the TARDIS lock as a drop of slime…

…forcing themselves down Bruce’s throat, and then standing topless saying “I need the Doctor’s body”. Even when giving the name “Master”, she came-across overtly sexually. And then there’s the way they sneezed on people and covered them in slime…

Regardless of what’s really going-on between the Doctor and the Mistress, it’s clear that the Mistress is a psychopath who needs the Doctor’s help to leave the dark place they were put in by the Time Lords. The Mistress may justify what they’re doing, and the Doctor may condemn it, but as the hero of the story, the Doctor needs the Mistress equally. Not as a villain to defeat, but as the most important person in his life – former friend, and unlikely enemy, the Mistress is the reason the Doctor’s so eager to help – not just them, but other people who are swaying on to the Dark Path.

The Mistress actors:

Roger Delgado

Peter Pratt

Geoffrey Beavers

Anthony Ainley

Gordon Tipple

Eric Roberts

Derek Jacobi

John Simm

William Hughes

Michelle Gomez

Notable stories featuring the Mistress:

Terror of the Autons, featuring Roger Delgado, by Robert Holmes

The Mind of Evil, featuring Roger Delgado, by Don Houghton

The Claws of Axos, featuring Roger Delgado, by Bob BakerDave Martin

Colony in Space, featuring Roger Delgado, by Malcolm Hulke

Deadly Reunion, with the likeness of Roger Delgado, by Terrance Dicks

The Dæmons, featuring Roger Delgado, by Guy Leopold

The sea Devils, featuring Roger Delgado, by Malcolm Hulke

The Time Monster, featuring Roger Delgado, by Robert Sloman

Frontier in Space, featuring Roger Delgado, by Malcolm Hulke

The Deadly Assassin, with Peter Pratt, by Robert Holmes

Dust Breeding, with Geoffrey Beevers, by Mike Tucker

Master, with Geoffrey Beevers, by Joseph Lidster

Trail of the White Worm, with Geoffrey Beevers, by Alan Barnes

The Oseidon Adventure, with Geoffrey Beevers, by Alan Barnes

Mastermind, with Geoffrey Beevers, by Jonathan Morris

The Light at the End, with Geoffrey Beevers, by Nicholas Briggs

The Evil One, with Geoffrey Beevers, by Nicholas Briggs

Requiem for the Rocket Men, with Geoffrey Beevers, by John Dorney

Death Match, with Geoffrey Beevers, by Matt Fitton

The Keeper of Traken, with Geoffrey Beevers and Anthony Ainley, by Johnny Byrne

Logopolis, with Anthony Ainley, by Christopher H. Bidmead

Castrovalva, with Anthony Ainley, by Christopher H. Bidmead

Time-Flight, with Anthony Ainley, by Peter Grimwade

The King’s Demons, with Anthony Ainley, by Terrance Dudley

The Five Doctors, with Anthony Ainley, by Terrance Dicks

Planet of Fire, with Anthony Ainley, by Peter Grimwade

The Caves of Androzani, with Anthony Ainley, by Robert Holmes

The Mark of the Rani, with Anthony Ainley, by Pip & Jane Baker

The Trial of a Time Lord, with Anthony Ainley, by Robert Holmes and Pip & Jane Baker

Survival, with Anthony Ainley, by Rona Munro

Destiny of the Doctors, with Anthony Ainley, by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who: the television feature, with Gordon Tipple and Eric Roberts, by Matthew Jacobs

Scream of the Shalka, with Derek Jacobi, by Paul Cornell

Utopia, with Derek Jacobi and John Simm, by Russell T. Davies

The Sound of Drums, with John Simm and William Hughes, by Russell T. Davies

Last of the Time Lords, with John Simm, by Russell T. Davies

The end of Time, with John Simm, by Russell T. Davies

Deep Breath, with Michelle Gomez, by Steven Moffat

Into the Dalek, with Michelle Gomez, by Phil Ford and Steven Moffat

The Caretaker, with Michelle Gomez, by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat

Flatline, with Michelle Gomez, by Jamie Mathieson

In the Forest of the Night, with Michelle Gomez, by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Dark Water, with Michelle Gomez, by Steven Moffat

Death in Heaven, with Michelle Gomez, by Steven Moffat

The Magician’s Apprentice, with Michelle Gomez, by Steven Moffat

The Witch’s Familiar, with Michelle Gomez, by Steven Moffat

LEGO Dimensions, with Michelle Gomez, based on The LEGO Movie by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Author: alexsigsworth

Basically... run.

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