You Were Expecting Someone Else: The Missy Chronicles

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And so begins the endgame of an era, in which I traditionally wander around a bit and look at other things before actually resolving the era. We’ve two more Capaldi-era stories and five entries to cover them with. And today we dip into the BBC Books line for the fourth time this era because I want to talk a little more about Missy, and the alternative is Big Finish’s box set and, well, we don’t do that anymore. So instead we get BBC Books’ anthology of Missy-centric short stories.

Like most BBC Books products, it suffers from the obvious problem of dead weight writers. I’m sure Peter Anghelides is a lovely person (although really you’d think I’d have been burned enough times by the BBC-sanctioned pro-fan class to just stop with that assumption), but there’s simply no reason why one of the writers of The Ancestor Cell should be writing new release Doctor Who material in 2018 except for the fact that they haven’t actually changed editors since the book after that. And yes, there’s also an inevitable firmly adequate story by James Goss and an effort by Cavan Scott that includes metaphors like “a look that would wither Krynoids” and “I’ll gut you like a gumblejack if you use that tone again,” both of which are, charitably, about as well crafted as a Bandrill ambassador. 

But sometimes Richards’ EDA-era rolodex makes good, and this time it offers the delightful double dose of Paul Magrs and Jacqueline Rayner. Magrs is in particular a self-evidently brilliant choice for this—his brand of campy and postmodernist wackiness is an utterly delicious fit for Missy. His story features Missy as a 1920s governess with a bafflingly elaborate plan involving a sentient wish-granting teddy bear named Teddy Sparkles. It’s insane and at one point features a failed attempt to alter timelines that results in 1925 London being attacked by dinosaur skeletons. (“I’ve done it all wrong! I’ve mixed up plain reality with awful whimsy… and now there’s chaos everywhere!,” Teddy says, in the greatest Second Doctor line ever written for another character.)

Rayner’s inclusion, meanwhile, both avoids the deeply embarrassing goof Big Finish managed of having no female writers on Missy (although in this instance the TV series is just as bad—if we continue the assumption that the last scene of Eaters of Light was Moffat, Rayner is presently the only woman to have written Missy) and results in one of the most hilarious and delightful stories in the anthology. It’s an epistolary story taking the form of messages between the Doctor and Nardole coordinating Missy’s shopping lists while she’s in the vault, some automated e-mails from an Amazon-equivalent, a couple of news articles from the St. Luke’s Gazette about a robotic chicken attack, and a series of messages sent by Missy through the two-way space-time telegraph with time-scoop facility she builds with a helmic regulator, azimuth sprockets, sulphuric acid, mercury, and some sugar in which she attempts to incite various historical women into mass androcide. (Highlights include an advice column about annoying things men say and appropriate responses such as “IDIOTIC MAN SAYS: ‘You must be a witch.’ RESPONSE: Summon a demonic entity. While he’s distracted by the demonic entity, burn him at the stake. Don’t forget the marshmallows” and her suggestion to Florence Nightingale that the Lady with the Anti-Tank Missile sounds so much more interesting than Lady with the Lamp.)

But let’s not focus too much on the qualities of individual stories. Let’s instead focus on the general notion of a Missy story, especially since The Lie of the Land makes it explicit that she has Doctor-equivalent adventures in her own right. Obviously, however, there are going to be differences between her stories and the Doctor’s. How, then, are these differences handled in practice? Well, several approaches exist, and indeed the book is broadly organized according to them. (It’s set up chronologically from an adventure explicitly set shortly after her regeneration to one set on Floor 507 of the Mondasian colony ship in World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls.) The first, appearing in Goss and Scott’s stories, is simply to lean into the sociopathic sadism and engage in a sort of lurid “look at all the funny awful things she does” spectacle. It’s telling that both of these were firmly among the unsatisfying stories, and the result feels like a camper cousin to the most immature excesses of the 90s “mature readers” boom. 

The second approach, used by Anhelides and Magrs, is what we might call the split decision approach. In it, Missy has some flavor of evil scheme, but to at least some extent it fails to pan out, and Missy ends the story frustrated. This at least has the advantage of not committing the story to “isn’t sociopathy fun,” but ultimately exacerbates the problem that has plagued all previous versions of Missy’s character, which is that they do not so much seem like a terrifying counterpart to the Doctor but like ridiculous schlubs who can’t win. It’s one thing if the Doctor always defeats them; it’s another if they don’t even need the Doctor to lose.

The final approach, meanwhile, is the one that explains why The Missy Chronicles is an interesting idea in a way in which The Tales of Harold Saxon or Gordon Tipple Gone Wild is not: hinge the resolution of the story on the possibility of Missy’s redemption. Rayner does this by having Missy’s scheme fall apart in the face of the Doctor’s intervention while also suggesting that her basic interest in getting women to rise up is not, as the Doctor assumes, a baroque attempt at changing history to alter her imprisonment but just that she’s read the history of Earth and is pissed off at all the damn sexism. The final story, meanwhile, by Richard Dinnick, exists largely to highlight the character differences between Missy and Harold. (This seems like a good time to enshrine the official new way of distinguishing between incarnations when one is not simply going by actor: Missy, Harold, Emile, Giles, Bruce, and Pizza-Face.) 

It is this approach that most gets to the heart of why Missy is a uniquely interesting take on the character. (Well, one of two hearts, the other being “she’s a girl.”) Moffat hasn’t just settled on a sublime bit of casting, he’s also broken the basic concept of the character open and given it an inspired reengineering. His basic observation—that the Doctor and Missy are friends—has been hinted at and even made semi-explicit by Davies, albeit in the sense of them having fallen out. But Moffat is correct to notice that Harold is really unique among the character’s incarnations in not being easily read as the Doctor’s friend. Though clearly not the textual intent, both Emile and Giles can easily be read this way, in a way that simply isn’t true of “constantly hears drumming in their head” or “wants to be a woman.” And so it manages the rare feat of both fitting previous data and putting the character on a distinctly new footing.

Moffat’s further explanation that their friendship is one “between a hunter and a vegetarian” perhaps fails to give either group quite enough credit (or perhaps gives each a bit too much), but it’s insightful as to the dynamic. It’s not simply that this is a dysfunctional friendship—indeed this is probably the key way in which it differs from its explicit mirror of the Doctor and Clara. What goes wrong between the Doctor and Missy is that they are doomed to disappoint each other. (Indeed, it works to read the anguished venom of the Doctor’s “you let me down” to Clara in Dark Water as a line primarily informed by his relationship with Missy, just as “do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make any difference” is implicitly also an explanation for the Doctor’s eternal forebearance of any sort of vengeance on her.) But it also sets up a viable counterweight—an underlying reality that the two have a basis for friendship. 

Indeed possibly the most interesting thing that Moffat ever did with Missy was simply to stop making her an antagonist. Only in Dark Water/Death in Heaven is she straightforwardly a villain, and even there one of the big twists is that she’s not actually trying to take over the world, she’s just giving the Doctor a really fucked up birthday present. In any sane world, this should be a far more controversial change to the character than her gender. I mean, sure John Nathan-Turner gave them about 140 times as many words as Jo Grant in The Companions, and for that matter had them vaguely on the Doctor’s side in both The Five Doctors and Trial of a Time Lord, but moving them out of the villain list and turning them into, as the cover of The Missy Chronicles puts it, a frenemy is still a massive shift in what the character is.

And yet it works, and indeed works better than making them a straightforward villain. Even the weakest of the stories here is a better use of the character than The King’s Demons (which Rayner rather delightfully has the Doctor bring up as one of her more puzzling schemes) or, for that matter, The End of Time. And more to the point, the inadequacies here feel like ones that are easily fixed. Rayner unsurprisingly comes closest to showing the way by having Missy pursue the entirely sympathetic cause of gender equality through slightly over-murderous ways. And this, in short, is clearly the most promising option—one that functions by, essentially, actually making her work as a cracked mirror of the Doctor as opposed to a banal obverse. Having her function as the Doctor only wrong gives her the ability to tell new kinds of stories that neither leave her as an impotent figure that doesn’t even need the Doctor to be defeated nor turns her stories into juvenile edgelording.

And this, as much as gender switching the character or the sublime casting of Michelle Gomez, is the real triumph of Moffat’s redesign of her: the arc away from using her as a straightforward villain and towards something altogether more ambiguous and full of potential. It remains to be seen what the long term potential of this idea is, and indeed whether future showrunners pick up on it or regress the character back towards their roots. But for all its evident flaws, The Missy Chronicles decisively shows that the move has legs beyond the immediate benefits of Moffat’s writing and Gomez’s performance, firmly cementing the fact that Missy is a triumph of conception as well as execution. 

Comments

David Anderson 4 months, 3 weeks ago

If Chibnall isn't planning to cast Jodie Comer as Missy as we speak my sense of the man is all wrong.
I want Comer as the Doctor when Waller-Bridge takes over as show runner.

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Vadron 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Personally, I'd much rather the Mistress stay dead for a while yet. Such a fantastic 'Definitive Master Death Scene' deserves better than to be treated as just as disposable as "oops I tripped and the TARDIS ate me" or "oops I let myself die to spite the Doctor but don't worry my cultists have got my magic ring I'll be back mwahaha".

Also, I shudder to think what a Chibnall-written Master would be like. I mean, *maybe* he'd surprise me, but I don't want to chance it.

(Of course, it may already be too late. I do give him enough credit that his comment about classic-villains now being fair game for Series 12 cannot plausibly refer to just the Judoon of all things — though I suspect the 'Vote Saxon' posters are just a fan prank.)

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Przemek 4 months, 3 weeks ago

If Chibnall ever brings back the Master, I expect him to be an obnoxious social justice warrior. Y'know, just so that the Doctor can prove him wrong.

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Vadron 4 months, 3 weeks ago

…You know, I just love how Chibnall is so inept at writing political commentary that the leftists can make jokes about how they expect the villain to obviously be a "SJW" piece of cardboard that the Doctor can prove wrong, and the rightists can make jokes about how they obviously expect the villain to be a racist sexist piece of cardboard that the Doctor can prove wrong.

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David Claughton 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Hmm, Jodie Comer as Missy ... maybe. Although it wouldn't do to keep the Eve/Villanelle feel for the Doctor/Master pairing - it's a very different dynamic, in many ways the exact opposite of Doctor/Missy.

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prandeamus 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I want Waller-Bridge as *Missy.* (Which is not to say she can't be show runner)

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Vadron 4 months, 3 weeks ago

"The End of Time" did gesture at the whole Master-Doctor-as-friends thing, what with the Harold's quiet sadness at the thought that the Doctor could really bring himself to kill him, and his subsequent risking of his own life to save the Doctor from Rassilon. I think that helped Moffat's reinterpretation considerably because it now seemed to stem organically from the circumstances in which we had last seen the Master.

(In this regard, "WEaT/TDF"'s retcon that Harold had time to fully revert to his sociopathic Doctor-loathing self before he turned into Missy kind of harms the arc, delightful as it was as an excuse to see John Simm again.)

—————

Also:

"Missy, Harold, Emile, Giles, Bruce, and Pizza-Face"

I may be thick, but which one's Emile and which one is Giles? Peculiar order, at any rate. Did you rank them by preference here? Or by perceived fan preference? You'd think so, except you yourself have noted that there's a sound argument that Pizza-Face was the Master at his best in the classic series, so…

…and unless I'm very wrong, you left out Derek Jacobi. Leaving out Jonathan Pryce, Gordon Tipple, Edward Brayshaw, Itzy Friedman and Philip Newton, I can understand. I disapprove but I understand. Jacobi, though?

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Titus Brendronicus 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Emile I believe is a "Mind of Evil" reference (Emile Keller), while Giles is a "Kings Demons" one of I'm not mistaken (Sir Giles Estram)

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Vadron 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Ooh… Good lord, you can't expect a fellow to remember *all* of the rubbish anagrams, can you? Thanks.

Doesn't explain the lack of Jacobi, however.

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Dan L 4 months, 3 weeks ago

(Disclaimer: obviously none of this matters, but my brain enjoys sorting and categorising so here we are.)

Jacobi's Master is at least easy to fit into that scheme - he's Yana.

"Bruce" and "Pizza-face" fit less well, though, since unlike Missy, Harold, Emile and Giles they are not names the Masters took for themselves, with Bruce being the name of the man he stole the body from and Pizza-face being entirely out of universe. We could call the Beevers Master "John", as he took the pseudonym "John Smith" in the audio play "Master" (which happens to be by far the best pre-Missy Master story, and also prefigures the modern emphasis on their former friendship), but we do struggle with Roberts because he wasn't around long enough to don any ridiculous disguises, so I think Bruce is the best we can do there. It does suit him, too.

I'm now racking my brains trying to remember whether or not the Alexander Macqueen Master adopted a pseudonym in Dark Eyes. Pretty sure he did but I can't remember his name.

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Vadron 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I prefer "War Master" to "Yana" as the name for the Jacobi Master, because Yana was the name of the human he became, who should, I think, be considered a person in his own right, just like John Smith from "Human Nature". Heck, as soon as he's himself again at the end of "Utopia", the Jacobi Master seems downright enraged by people calling him "Professor Yana". ("THATISNOT! MY NAME!!! I…am……the MASTER!").

As for the Masterminator, I do know Big Finish brought him back in a River Song story, and he does also appear as a ghost-in-the-TARDIS in a couple of novels, according to the Tardis Data Core Wiki. So maybe there *is* a pseudonym to be found somewhere in there — I'm fairly sure the River Song story has him disguising his true nature from her for a while.

Plus, he *did* technically use "Bruce" as an "alias" of sorts, inasmuch as he used the fact that he was wearing Bruce's body to get into the hospital. (Or am I misremembering? Been a while since I watched the TV movie, really.)

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Daibhid C 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Looking at the TARDIS Wiki page "The Master's aliases" (because of course there is), it seems that the Roberts Master called himself "Richard" in a River Song audio, and the Maqueen Master called himself "Harcourt De'ath" in "Eyes of the Master".

(Also, apparently there was an audio trilogy where the Macqueen and Beevers master swapped bodies, and they both had aliases, but it's probably simpler if we don't use those...)

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 months, 3 weeks ago

As you can imagine, there is no way in hell I’m using Big Finish audios to name incarnations of the Master, which helpfully tidies up the Big Finish exclusive incarnations as well.

I’m pointedly not fond of the War Master. The War Doctor is named such because he breaks numbering and because it acknowledges the degree to which he does not consider himself to be the Doctor for the bulk of that incarnation. The Jacobi iteration of the character does not have either problem, and giving him a name rooted in symmetry with the Doctor seems misguided, especially since it’s difficult to argue that the two incarnations ever met given Tennant’s complete failure to go “hey you look familiar...” in Utopia.

As for Pizza Face, if you really want to break the punchline of the joke to restore the symmetry I was deliberately breaking with that name I suppose you can, but I’m puzzled as to why you would do that.

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Vadron 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Big Finish had to jinx it to bring back Jacobi for a bunch of audio stories, but my favorite interpretation, based on Professor Yana's comment that his earliest memory as a human is that he was found as a "naked child", is that the child Master we saw in that overwrought 11th Doctor comic storyline was in fact the younger self of the Derek Jacobi Master, who is the one that the Doctor knew.

Not only does it make the comment fit with what we otherwise know of Chameleon Arches (they don't de-age you, they just make up a false backstory for you), but it takes care of that selfsame "but why doesn't Tennant recognize him?" issue you raise.

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Christopher Brown 4 months, 3 weeks ago

This reading would imply that The Witch's Familiar is the turning point for Missy, which is delightful. I've always preferred Davros as the Doctor's arch-enemy, and in retrospect MA/WF firmly enscones him as such while transitioning Missy toward her new and much more effective role.

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James 4 months, 3 weeks ago

On the subject of Big Finish and reviews, briefly, this made me laugh: https://twitter.com/PercyIvorWoo/status/1145369034730496000

Peter Ware, who edits DWM: "Oh!! That's very unfair, Andrew, to suggest that DWM reviews are not "*actual*" reviews. I listen to all BF's Dr Who output, to ensure that the reviews are both fair and accurate. Bottom line is that BF's output (IMHO), is for the main part, excellent."

First of all, he listens to ALL Big Finish output? Second of all, he deems it mostly excellent?

Is that bias or bullshit I can smell in the air?

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James 4 months, 3 weeks ago

That whole debate between Andrew and Peter is downright hilarious. Andrew is on the money, whereas Peter either has a very low bar for quality or dare not be honest.

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CJM123 4 months, 3 weeks ago

If he's listening to all of their output, of course he thinks it's excellent because it will be completely crowding out things that aren't Doctor Who-related.

He won't have the ability anymore to actually take a step-back and compare Big Finish to science fiction in general, or audio drama in general, or even BBC shows in general. Because he'll have it as his baseline.

Or it encourages such a passive experience he hasn't thought a Big Finish through in a while.

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Vadron 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I think your first explanation's on the money. It's like that XKCD comic about the two people locked in a box with nothing but a bunch of photos of someone eating a sandwich, who eventually come to have deep, complex intellectual disagreements about the relative artistic value of this or that picture.

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Daibhid C 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I think I'd argue that Goss also attempts to split the difference, in a different (and, IMO less successful) way, aiming for "“look at all the funny awful things she does ... to people who sort of deserve it". Because in this story her victims are Officially Terrible People -- they even belong to a club for it. The main difference between this story and "Missy attempts good in a bad way" isn't so much what she does (although the depiction of it does indeed edge into edgelording) as why -- she doesn't really care that they're bad people, or even that they're sexist, except to the extent that this now affects her.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 4 months, 3 weeks ago

“IDIOTIC MAN SAYS: ‘You must be a witch.’ RESPONSE: Summon a demonic entity. While he’s distracted by the demonic entity, burn him at the stake. Don’t forget the marshmallows”

I wish Thirteen had read that column

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Aristide Twain 4 months, 2 weeks ago

Oh, to have binged it all only to realize it's almost over by the time I catch up… still, it's been a heck of a ride. This… book? series? blog feature? whatever you wish to label the Tardis Eruditorum… is truly one of the most amazing things about "Doctor Who" lying around the Internet. Well done and thank you.

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Przemek 4 months, 2 weeks ago

It truly is.

Also, you can buy (some of) it in book form!

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Beverly J. Miller 4 months, 1 week ago

Hmm, Jodie Comer as Missy ... maybe. Although it wouldn't do to keep the Eve/Villanelle feel for the Doctor/Master pairing - it's a very different dynamic, in many ways the exact opposite of Doctor/Missy.

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