Doctor Who season 12 presented a number of questions that call the entire 57 year history of the franchise into question. The season finale presented viewers with the apparent reality that what has been considered canon for the series has been tainted by an unreliable narrator — the Time Lords of Gallifrey themselves. This revelation, however, is presented by one of the series most unreliable narrators and one of the Doctor’s oldest frenemies, The Master.
The questions raised by the season 12 finale will likely be explored in future seasons, but there is one question that viewers have had since the season 12 premiere: how did The Master return to plague the Doctor, and where does this iteration of the character fall in the character’s timeline? The last time we saw a version of the character was when The Master was Missy, who was killed and apparently without hope of regeneration in the season 10 finale. Again, while the season 12 finale was short on definitive answers, there have been enough clues presented throughout the season to help us piece together an informed theory of which came first, Missy or The Master.
Spoiler Warning: we’ll be talking about aspects of the season 12 finale, which is (at the time of this writing) less than a day old. If you’ve not watched the season 12 finale yet, you’ve been warned. Spoilers follow.
The Master, as portrayed by Sacha Dwahan, is the latest iteration of the character. However, we’re dealing with a series that has time travel as a core element, so just because this is the current version of the character doesn’t mean that this is the “latest” version of the character. We have seen characters interact with the Doctor in a non-forward progressing (from the Doctor’s point of view), non-linear way in the past. The most notable example is River Song.
From a character perspective, this version of The Master has more in common with the pre-Missy version of the character portrayed by John Simm. Both of these versions of The Master are insane and singularly obsessed with bringing the Doctor low by making the Doctor watch as humanity is enslaved or wiped out and Gallifrey is returned to prominence as a warped version of who the Time Lords once were.
This most recent version of The Master is the one who learns and reveals to the Doctor the truth of the Timeless Child. The Master holds the Doctor prisoner in the Matrix, where he shows her what he has learned, which is that the Doctor was first discovered as a young girl and brought to Gallifrey by the planet’s first interstellar explorer. Prior to learning the truth, The Master has always known the Doctor as the viewers have, a line of regenerations beginning with the first Doctor, portrayed originally by William Hartnell.
The season 12 finale leaves The Master’s fate unknown following the detonation of the death particle weapon. Prior to the explosion that wiped out organic life on Gallifrey, The Master bonded with the Cyberium, the collected knowledge of the Cybermen, akin to the Matrix of the Time Lords.
Missy is first introduced in season 8, as a foil to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. Like her predecessors, Missy is obsessed with the Doctor, but her insanity is less manic than either the John Simm version or the Sacha Dwahan version of the character. Missy seems to have moved beyond the rage that is at the heart of both of the other two versions of the character. Over the course of her run on the series, Missy is even able to move from antagonist to reluctant ally, standing beside the Doctor in the final days of that iteration of the character. While these characteristics don’t necessarily define Missy’s place on the continuum, it does suggest late-stage growth of the character.
In the season 9 premiere episode “The Magician’s Apprentice”, Missy tells Clara, the Doctor’s companion at that time that she has known the Doctor since he was a little girl. If this is a true statement (which is not a given, since Missy tells Clara that she could be lying), then it does suggest when Missy exists in relation to The Master. Iterations of The Master up to and including The Master as portrayed by Sacha Dwahan only knew of the Doctor as a male. If Missy does in fact know the Doctor as a little girl, then that knowledge would have been acquired when The Master accessed the Matrix and learned the truth about the Timeless Child.
“Since always. Since the Cloister Wars. Since the night he stole the moon and the President’s wife. Since he was a little girl. One of those is a lie. Can you guess which one?”
We’re first introduced to Missy — though she is not identified as such at that time — in bits and pieces throughout season 8, when she is building an army of Cybermen. While this does not expressly place Missy in the continuum, it is interesting to note that such a strategy would make sense if Missy followed The Master in the continuum, as The Master bonded with the Cyberium. This thematic element is carried forward to Missy’s death, where she betrays the John Simm version of The Master, who was instrumental in rebirthing the Mondasian Cybermen. It is this double-double-cross where the John Simm version of The Master speaks to Missy of regeneration.
“Don’t bother trying to regenerate. You got the full blast.”
Many inferred from this quote that Missy would be incapable of regeneration. It would have been a beautiful, full-circle turn for the character to find herself at her final death standing beside the Doctor once more. Notice, however, that The Master never said that Missy couldn’t regenerate, only that she shouldn’t bother trying. As mentioned before, The Master is an unreliable narrator at best. Could the most compelling piece of evidence as to where Missy falls on the continuum have been misconstrued by viewers all along? We witness Missy’s death, but we never see what happens after.
As one might expect, Doctor Who has yet to give us a definitive answer to how Missy might have regenerated into The Master, or if The Master actually follows Missy in the continuum at all. That said, the evidence does seem to indicate — be it coincidentally or thematically — that The Master as portrayed by Sacha Dwahan in season 12 likely precedes Missy.
Where do you think the various iterations of The Master fall in the continuum? Let us know in the comments below!