You know that old saying — if you have an ax and you replace the handle, and later on you replace the blade, is it still the same ax? Welcome to Doctor Who— a show whose handle and blade have been changed so many times it might not even be an ax anymore. The venerable not-so-cult-anymore sci-fi show began its newest season (the 11th of the modern incarnation of the show, the 37th in all) on Sunday, 8 October, after nearly a year-long wait. This isn’t just any new season, either: It’s one of those rare times when everything changes — lead actor, supporting cast, showrunner, producer, the majority of the production team, and even the composer (something that hasn’t changed since Murray Gold took up the baton and synthesizer in 2005). Even the way the show is filmed is new. And new showrunner and head writer Chris Chibnall revealed last week that this season would include no elements from the show’s storied past, other than the Doctor and his (sorry, her) time machine, the TARDIS. So is it still Doctor Who?
The short answer is “yes.” Led by new star Jodie Whittaker — the first woman to take on the iconic role of the Doctor — the series, at its core, still adheres to the formula that makes Doctor Who the unique show that it is. It’s still about a mysterious time traveler knocking about the universe righting wrongs and challenging bullies of all sorts (“When people need help, I never refuse”). The Doctor still picks up companions along the way — those ‘average joe’ types that are there for the audience to identify with and connect to, who get to have all the amazing experiences that we don’t get to have. The show is still about weird aliens and strange monsters and how encountering them affects the Doctor, the companions, and the people around them. It’s still about hope.
But this season — and this first episode in particular — is, for the most part, a clean slate. Yes, the show has 55 years of history behind, but just like when it returned to screens in 2005 after the original series having been canceled in 1989, you don’t have to have any prior knowledge to understand what’s going on. So what is going on? Well, luckily for viewers, not a whole lot. The basic alien-threat-on-earth premise isn’t exactly thin-on-the-ground, but it did have to leave a lot of room for the Doctor and new Companions to be firmly established. The new 60-minute episode length helped with that, giving time for both aspects of the episode to be developed (with the side-effect of the pacing seeming a good bit slower than modern Doctor Who is usually known for).
And the characters are a pretty strong bunch — Graham (played by Bradley Walsh), Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), Yasmin (Mandip Gill) and Ryan (Tosin Cole). Each is connected in a different way, with different backgrounds, different skill sets, different perspectives, different challenges. There’s nothing overtly or obviously special about any of them, which is what makes them special — they rise to the occasion in spite of the shocking strangeness of the situation they find themselves suddenly in. But part of that is due to the Doctor — she inspires this in others. You want to rise to the occasion because the Doctor thinks you can — or makes you believe that you can. This Doctor immediately embraces these stray people, gathers them around her, makes them part of her posse, gives them the opportunity to contribute their skills to solve the situation at hand. Every part of the team is valuable. There is definitely a camaraderie in its infancy between these characters that I’m looking forward to seeing develop over the course of the season.
Jodie Whittaker, at the core of the show, is brilliant. She immediately channels the essence of who the Doctor is. She’s quirky, funny, serious, caring, compassionate, stern, and decisive, sometimes all at once. She’s mercurial, but with a sense of purpose and a drive to assist and protect.
While the episode is an easy jumping on point for new viewers, it doesn’t leave more established viewers behind. While everything is presented in a way to make inexperienced viewers feel welcome, there are still moments that longtime viewers will identify with. Subtle moments. Not necessarily nods, not really callbacks, and definitely not overt homages — we’ll call them familiarities that remind us “legacy fans” that this is the same show that William Hartnell, Tom Baker, David Tennant, and Peter Capaldi once helmed.
No matter how good a new Doctor’s first episode is, it never ends up being a fan favorite (with the possible exception of Matt Smith‘s “The Eleventh Hour). It takes time for the new production team to gel, it takes the actors time to settle in, it takes the writers a minute to get the rhythm of the actor’s deliveries and personalities, and the chemistry between them. And through that process, each Doctor’s era improves immensely. This episode was a good one, definitely, but no matter how long Whittaker stays on the show, whether it be one season or ten, this won’t go down as one of her best. The pacing is undeniably slow. The alien threat is on the throwaway end of the spectrum (a common complaint with adversaries in debut stories, whether it be the Sycorax in “The Christmas Invasion,” the Atraxi and Prisoner Zero in “The Eleventh Hour,” or even the long-established Autons in “Rose”) and has drawn comparisons to The Terminator as well as two Star Trek aliens. Some of the exposition is a bit clunky. But on balance, there were also great things about it. We get to see the Doctor as tinkerer, inventor and maker once again. We get a fresh take on the character that we’ve known for decades that’s both new and familiar at the same time. The photography is stunning. The new composer (Segun Akinola) is a radical change from Murray Gold, and he brings a more abstract, amorphous style to the show.
This season seems to be heading in a confident new direction. If you’ve ever been curious about Doctor Who but have never watched it before, give this season a try. If you missed the 7 October debut, you can catch repeats on BBC America or you can attend a Fathom Events screening at cinemas across the country on Wednesday and Thursday, 10 and 11 October. If you’re in the Atlanta area, look for the Wednesday night screening at the Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24 hosted by local Doctor Who conventionWHOlanta(view details on Facebookhere). Climb aboard the TARDIS and enjoy the adventure!
Sherlock has Moriarty. Superman has Lex Luthor. The Road Runner has Wile E. Coyote. And the Doctor has the Master.
Every great hero has his arch rival who serves as his equal and opposite. The one with whom he or she is evenly matched—dark to light, good to evil. It’s the person who drives the hero to greater heights, the one who ensures that the hero never slacks, never lets down his or her guard. In 1971, the Doctor Who bosses realized that while the Doctor had Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Yeti and other recurring threats, what he needed was a single figure to challenge him at every turn, someone who could match the Doctor scientifically and intellectually. In other words, he needed a nemesis. And thus was the Master born.
The Master is a Time Lord. In fact, he and the Doctor grew up together, attended the Academy together, and used to be friends. But their paths diverged, the Master craving power and control, and the Doctor pledging to stop him from causing harm to others as well as to established history. Being a Time Lord, he can regenerate like the Doctor can, and thus has been played by numerous actors over the past few decades. Unlike the Doctor, he has had both male and female personas. The most recent incarnation of the Master, played with panache and sass by Michelle Gomez, refers to herself as the Mistress, or “Missy” for short. She has been a regular thorn in the Twelfth Doctor’s side since his first season. She has had a recurrent presence in the story arc that has run through the 2017 season, in which Missy has been condemned to death and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has pledged to guard her body, locked away in a vault, for 1,000 years. Missy isn’t dead, though. As she told the Doctor’s previous companion Clara, “Death is for other people, dear.” Not only is Missy not dead, but it seems that she’s undergoing a change of hearts (Time Lords have two of them, you know)—she seems to be renouncing her evil ways and adopting the good. But is it genuine? Or is she luring the Doctor into a trap?
The answers will come this weekend as Series Ten airs its finale, “The Doctor Falls.” But it’s not just Missy that the Doctor has to worry about, or even an army of Cybermen (check out part one of this article), but for the first time in Doctor Who’s history, we have a teaming up of two incarnations of the Master: Michelle Gomez’s Missy and the previous iteration played by John Simm from 2007-2010 (but here with a decidedly classic look about him, with his mustache, goatee and high-collared black jacket). There have been occasions on which multiple Doctors have worked together—usually coinciding with some notable anniversary for the show—but this is the first time that multiple Masters have met on screen.
To get you prepared for this week’s finale, here are the five essential Master stories that will introduce you to (most of) his/her past incarnations and give you a sense of who the Master really is.
“The Dæmons” (1971) The Master made his debut in “Terror of the Autons,” the first story from Season Eight, also the introduction of the Doctor’s new companion, Jo Grant. He remained a prominent figure throughout that season, appearing in all five stories across 25 episodes. Played by Roger Delgado, this Master was a dark, swarthy character with a penchant for elaborate disguises and a love of good cigars. The quintessential villain, the “evil mustache and goatee” look suited him impeccably. Though a thoroughly despicable character, Delgado’s Master was not without humor, élan and occasionally warmth. Subsequent stories clearly show a mutual respect and even a long-buried affection between the Doctor and his wayward chum, especially in the following season’s “The Sea Devils.” In “The Dæmons,” the Master, disguised as a village vicar, attempts to awaken the demonic forces of Azal, a cloven-hoofed beast that resembles images of the Devil. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and UNIT battle gargoyles, a heat forcefield, and inexplicable happenings to thwart the Master’s plans (and be on the lookout for a UNIT sergeant named Osgood!). The story offers good discussions of the “magic vs science” variety in a script that relies heavily on witchcraft, incantations and iconography. In the end, it’s Jo’s self-sacrifice to save the Doctor that destroys Azal. “The Dæmons” shows the Master at his devious, conniving best. Delgado and Pertwee, over the course of three seasons, add a great deal of dimension to the relationship between their characters. Over the decades, the Master has remained one of the key figures in the series’ mythology, and while there’ve been some great actors playing him/her, the on-screen dynamic between Pertwee and Delgado has rarely been bettered and the depiction of the “my enemy was once my friend” scenario was largely forgotten about until the Master’s rebirth in the modern series.
“The Deadly Assassin” (1976) Roger Delgado played the Master for three seasons and had asked to written out the following year, as he’d lost other opportunities of acting jobs because of his work on Doctor Who. However, in the summer of 1973 during the break between seasons, Delgado was killed in a car accident in Turkey. The Master lay dormant for the next few years until Season Fourteen in 1976 when Peter Pratt took over as a very different kind of Master. “The Deadly Assassin” is an extremely important story in the history of Doctor Who for a number of reasons. Mainly, it introduced many of the aspects of Time Lord society that we now take as writ, including the Matrix—the repository of all Time Lord knowledge and experience. Additionally, it establishes that Time Lords can only regenerate twelve times for a total of thirteen lives. Pratt plays a Master that we learn has gone beyond his natural life span and is basically refusing to die. He has, by the sheer force of his will, continued to exist without regenerating as a rotting, decrepit walking corpse. He’s desperate to escape death and regain his ability to regenerate and will destroy Gallifrey if necessary to do so. To achieve this, he lures the Doctor (Tom Baker) into a trap—he stages the assassination of the Lord President of Gallifrey and frames the Doctor for it. The Doctor is caught, swiftly put on trial and is about to be executed . . . until he escapes his fate by declaring his candidacy for President! “The Deadly Assassin” is a political thriller of the first order. The mental battle waged between the Doctor and the Master inside the surreal landscape of the Matrix is gripping and unlike anything the series had ever done before. The Doctor defeats the Master (spoiler!) but doesn’t destroy him, and the decaying Master makes one further appearance in Tom Baker’s final season.
“The Five Doctors” (1983)
In 1981’s fairytale-like “The Keeper of Traken” the corpse-like Master steals the body of Tremas, freeing him temporarily his decaying state. Played by Anthony Ainley, Tremas (get it? It’s an anagram of ‘Master’) is a fair and gentle man and a loving father to Nyssa, until he is violated by the Master. From that point on, Tremas is gone and the Master once again roams the universe. “Logopolis,” the first proper story of the Ainley Master, shows the Master at his ambitious and nasty best, literally issuing an ultimatum to the entire universe from a radio telescope on Earth. As the Doctor attempts to thwart the Master’s plan, he falls from the radio telescope to his death, but regenerates into a new body. In “The Five Doctors,” the show’s 20th Anniversary episode, the Doctor (Peter Davison) and his previous incarnations (all except for the Fourth, as Tom Baker chose not to participate) are taken out of time. The Time Lords have tracked him to the Death Zone, a dangerous area of Gallifrey. They recruit the Master and send him into the Death Zone to find the Doctor, and in exchange for his services grant him a new regeneration cycle. Once in the Death Zone, of course the first Doctor that he encounters is the Third, played by Jon Pertwee, and while it’s cool to see these two characters spar a bit, the chemistry isn’t quite there the way it was between Pertwee and Delgado (granted, it isn’t a terribly long scene so there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity to establish a rapport). Unable to convince any of the Doctors that he actually is there to help them, the Master forms a quick-thinking alliance with a squadron of Cybermen (a bit of foreshadowing to the Series 10 finale, perhaps?). In “The Five Doctors,” Lord President Borusa says of the Master, “You are one of the most evil and corrupt beings this Time Lord race has ever produced. Your crimes are without number and your villainy without end,” a description the Master seems rather pleased about. There were times that the Ainley Master became a bit cartoonish, but that’s not the case in “The Five Doctors.”
“Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords” (2007) Doctor Who was canceled in 1989; the Master appeared in the final story, ironically entitled “Survival” (check it out, it’s one of Ainley’s best peformances). When an attempt at a revival was made in 1996, with a made-for-television movie co-produced by American network Fox starring Paul McGann as the Doctor, the Master was right there by his side (played at turns sinister and flamboyant by Eric Roberts). So when Doctor Who finally did return to television as a proper BBC series in 2005, an obvious fan question was “What about the Master?” The premise of the new series was that the Doctor was the last of his kind, the result of the Great Time War. No more Gallifrey, no more Time Lords. So obviously that meant, by default, no more Master, right? Hardly! The Master made his reappearance at the end of Series Three. “Utopia” is one of the really great episodes of modern Doctor Who, highlighted by the appearance of Sir Derek Jacobi playing Professor Yana, a pleasant, caring and well-meaning scientist who of course turns out to be the Master. Only he doesn’t know it—he has no memory of being anything other than Yana. But when his memories start to reawaken, and realization of who he truly is reemerges, Yana’s personality begins to change. Jacobi gives a stunning performance as a man tormented by these new thoughts of evil, but eventually surrendering to and embracing his true nature. The five or so minutes that Jacobi plays the fully awakened Master is incredibly powerful and a bit terrifying. When Jacobi first declares, in this repellent, sinister whisper, “I … am … the MASTER”, it’s one of the most riveting moments in Doctor Who history. But at the end of the episode he regenerates into his next incarnation (the first time we’ve seen a Master regeneration), played by John Simm. Simm’s approach is very different, playing an over-the-top, manic, whirling dervish of a Master. It’s like the Master on speed, but just as deadly and menacing as before. And the back story is changed, too. We learn from the Doctor Tenth (David Tennant) that as children, Gallifreyans are taken to the Untempered Schism (a rift in the fabric of time) and made to face the time vortex in its raw state. That moment is one of the defining moments of each child’s life. Most come away unharmed, but one little boy was driven mad by it. From that point on, the Master has heard a drumbeat in his head, driving him and tormenting him. While definitely a more frenzied take on the character, the Master was once again well-matched to the Doctor, now played by the rather hyper David Tennant. At the end of the story, the Master is gravely injured, and the Doctor urges him to regenerate, reminding him of all the things they’d done together. The Master refuses, though, and dies. The Doctor mourns the loss of his seemingly irredeemable ex-friend and the death of the last living member of his own race. But surely the Master couldn’t die that easily. . .
“The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar” (2015)
In 2014, Oscar winner Peter Capaldi assumed the mantle of the Twelfth Doctor. After having not appeared during the Eleventh Doctor’s era, it was time to reintroduce the Master once again, but this time with a twist. Now played by Michelle Gomez, the Mistress was teased throughout Series Eight with enigmatic little cameos until her full reveal in the final two episodes of the season, in which she has struck up an alliance with Cybermen (hmm, another foreshadowing of the Series Ten finale, perhaps?). The story ends with Missy admitting that the whole reason for the crazy scheme was so that she could be reunited with the Doctor—“I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back.”—and we’re suddenly brought full circle back to the Pertwee/Delgado relationship. The following season kicked off with a fast-paced two-parter involving the Daleks and their creator, Davros. The Doctor has gone missing and seems to be preparing himself for death: his last will and testament has been delivered to his closest friend—Missy. She explains to the Doctor’s companion, Clara, that theirs is “a friendship older than your civilization, and infinitely more complex,” which very definitely sounds like a summation of the Pertwee/Delgado relationship just as much as it does the Capaldi/Gomez one. Gomez’s take on the Master/Mistress is a very interesting one. At the WHOlanta convention in Atlanta, GA in 2015, she revealed that she grew up watching Delgado’s Master on screen. At the same convention, Katy Manning, who played Jo Grant, said that she could see Delgado in Gomez’s performance. And yet she also has the element of dangerous insanity from Simm’s Master as well as the pompousness of Ainley’s and even a bit of the flair of Roberts’. Like Delgado, she is well paired with her Doctor. In “The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar,” she exudes a confidence about who she is and what she wants, and she takes any actions necessary to achieve them, whether it be pushing Clara down a pit, enslaving her within a Dalek casing, offering to help the Daleks steal the Doctor’s TARDIS, or killing a UNIT operative just to illustrate to Clara that she’s not “turning good.” But in the current season, she seems to be adopting a new morality. Has she genuinely changed her ways? And if she has, will re-meeting her former self (John Simm) sway her? Or is she laying a fiendish trap for the Doctor, playing on his hopeful nature?
The finale of Series Ten of Doctor Who airs on BBC America Saturday, July 1 at 9:00 p.m. It stars Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts and Matt Lucas as Nardole. It features Michelle Gomez as the Mistress, John Simm as the Master, as well as the 1966, 2006 and 2013 iterations of the Cybermen.