Written by Lexidenton
For nearly half a century, the Doctor has been in part defined by their ongoing, extremely complicated rivalry with that cunning jackanapes we all love to hate: the Master.
From the moment we first experienced Roger Delgado’s charming roguery in 1971’s Terror of the Autons, the Doctor’s dark reflection cemented themselves into our hearts and minds as a fascinating counterpart to our hero. Every Sherlock needs their Moriarty, every Batman their Joker.
For a relationship that has lasted so long, it’s only logical that writers have experimented with different aspects and angles with the pairing- from best of friends and bitter archenemies, to potential siblings and even scorned lovers. Oh, and that one time they cosplayed as a snake (the 90s were wild, folks).
Through it all though, the highs and the lows, you can’t keep a good Master down. They’ll always be back to delight and torment in equal measure. For if Rule 1 is the Doctor lies, Rule 2 must surely be the Master dies… only to immediately return.
And thus we come to our newest and incumbent Master, Sacha Dhawan, whom I think I can safely say has been a beloved highlight of Series 12. Bringing in a whole new flavour to the Chibnall/Whittaker era, he is simultaneously charismatic, ridiculous, chilling, and heartbreakingly poignant (and if I may say so, rather quite fetching). Indeed, it was much of a shock in Spyfall to discover that not only was the Master back in full force, but he had destroyed Gallifrey itself. Deadly Assassin Master, eat your hearts out.
At first, many- myself included I must admit- were worried at this once more villainous Master taking place chronologically after Michelle Gomez’s now iconic take of Missy. Not only was she the first female incarnation of the character, but arguably the first Master to have a fully realised character arc. Many did not wish to see this development needlessly undone. Personally, I was hopeful that the next Master could potentially be more of an anti-hero interpretation, furthering on from Missy’s views in Series 10. A Master sincerely trying to do good in the universe, but using a slightly greyer shade of morality and different methods from the Doctor.
While Dhawan’s Master does not take this path, the way he has been depicted so far in his writing and performance has more than satisfied me. Not only do I personally think Dhawan’s Master and storyline is great within itself, I also believe it makes Missy’s arc even greater and meaningful than before.
It has been firmly established, even within Classic Who, that the Doctor and Master were childhood best friends at the Academy together.
Within Modern Who, the Masters have rather interestingly been heavily coded as abuse victims repeatedly. Even before the revelations of The Timeless Children, the Time Lords have not been depicted as heroic figures, but a rather brutal, corrupt, elitist regime that did not treat their people well. This is most explicitly shown in the John Simm era, with the young Master being forced to see the Untempered Schism, and what Rassilon and the High Council did to him. We can only speculate as to what other horrors they had to endure growing up.
This has left the pair in a complex codependency- the two lone rebels against all the bullcrap. Yet while the Doctor has found slightly healthier and productive coping mechanisms, the Master unfortunately has spiralled the other way, and now perpetuates the abuse and cruelty done to them unto others.
Sadly, an all too real occurrence.
With Missy though, we see the character after all these long years make a meaningful choice to offer an olive branch to the Doctor.
She’s a Master yearning for the halcyon days of genuine friendship and camaraderie, not simply the twisted game they play.
In Series 8, she offers the Doctor an army of Cybermen, in an attempt to force peace across the universe. Twelve is already a Doctor struggling with insecurities and identity issues, so she sees this as her opportunity to make him more like her. For if the Doctor is just like the Master, perhaps they’ll finally feel complete.
The Doctor, of course, rejects this offer, yet the amiability of these two persists.
While Series 9 shows them both in their respective fields of morality, they remain allied nonetheless. And then with Series 10, we see the flip of Series 8- the Doctor also wanting the Master back, wanting her to be more like him. Only this time, unlike the Doctor, Missy agrees to give it an attempt.
And it works.
The Master finds herself, reconnecting emotionally with the Doctor so much, to the point that she’s willing to kill her past self in order to stand and do the right thing.
The unwanted, abused, hated outcast of Gallifrey finally feels she has a place to be, a purpose. She makes the willing choice to be better and become everything the Doctor wanted her to be.
She loses a life in the process, but she must surely consider it to be worth it.
And then she becomes Sacha Dhawan’s Master, who discovers the dark truth of the Timeless Child.
Imagine the one person you’ve considered your only friend for millennia; the one constant amongst the darkness of your life; the person you’ve literally just killed yourself and died for, that you’ve actively been trying to emulate; the one you’ve viewed as your equal against an abusive system- you find out that person is not only responsible for said abusive system, but the only reason you even exist is because of them.
The Master realises he’s not the Doctor’s equal and constant, but instead barely even a footnote in her long, long life. No matter how hard he tries to be better, to escape the trauma and abuse done to him, he can’t get rid of the piece of the Doctor- that very abuse- from inside of him.
He can’t escape himself.
And so he’s become a walking embodiment of self-hatred. He snaps, flying fully off the wagon, so to speak.
He wants to burn it all down, everything the Doctor has or cares about. She now represents in his mind all that has ever hurt him.
The Doctor destroying Gallifrey was the character’s lowest point, something that haunted their soul and felt they eternally had to redeem themselves for. But in 2013, we saw the Doctor do everything they could to save Gallifrey- in both Day and Time of the Doctor.
The Time Lords would never again be what they once were, and in Series 9 they still screw the Doctor over, but at least a piece of it would be safe and sound, stowed away.
It represented redemption and victory, a major win for the character that healed their scars and eventually allowed Thirteen to become a classic style Doctor again, the first of the modern era, unburdened by the emotional baggage of the Time War.
Only for the Master to destroy it.
And so Gallifrey has now become a much more personal wound. It was not to win or end a war, but purely an act of cruelty to hurt the Doctor specifically.
All her hard work is gone.
She’s alone again, only this time at the hands of her best friend.
For the Master, it’s no longer about being the Doctor’s equal, it’s once more about perpetuating the abuse. He has been hurt, so he shall hurt her. It’s about proving he never needed her in the first place, that he’s better in every way.
Anything she can do or has done, he can outsmart and improve.
His creation of the Cybermasters is purely just to show he can create a race of his own greater than hers, from the very ashes of what she made.
Indeed, the usage of the Cybermen themselves is an interesting parallel. While I assume not an intentional choice, it remains thematically resonant.
The Cybermen were Missy’s original olive branch to rebuild the friendship, and now they’re the catalyst for the Master’s ultimate victory over the Doctor, with their friendship now at the lowest, most broken point it’s ever been.
And the true poetic tragedy is that even if he conquers and crushes everything, no matter how much he ultimately wins- he still won’t be happy, because he can’t accept himself.
To apply a mythological perspective, the Master very much reminds me of Sisyphus: a Greek figure cursed by the gods to eternally roll a boulder up a hill. No matter how close he gets to the top, it will inevitably roll back to the bottom.
No matter how evil or good the Master tries to be, they’ll continue to be unhappy and alone, because they can’t overcome what was done to them.
In conclusion, I not only adore Sacha Dhawan’s Master as an excellent interpretation of a rather broken soul, but feel it completely elevates the character arc of Missy from its original intent.
Rather than undoing a redemption, it adds wonderful layers of complex and heartbreaking tragedy to the character and mythos.
All we can really ask now is- where do the Doctor and Master go from here?
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