The Great Gallifreyan Sex Change, Part I

If you’re interested in the current news that the Doctor will be played by a woman, please see this post.

capaldiWARNING: Contains spoilers.

I’ve just watched the latest episode of Doctor Who. In which the mysterious, manipulative villainess who’s been intriguing me throughout the season is finally revealed to be none other than…


Oh (time) lord, here we go.

This headache-inducing article has already been published, featuring a wide range of spectacularly boss-eyed reactions from the Who hardcore. The only one I can relate to in any way is the first one, which talks about imagining the singer in a band you lke changing gender. It’d force you to reinterpret their material, rethink your understanding of the person, change the relationship you have with that person’s music. Perhaps in some cases you’d find, unpleasantly, that the reason you felt a particular song spoke to you was actually something you were putting into it yourself, and the singer showing their true self brings you face to face with that. People never like facing their own crap, and gender transitions often force that process.

darkwaterFair enough. That one’s almost deep as a reaction. Though it fails to take into account the fact that it *is* possible to relate to someone’s creative output on the personal level without it being purely about gender. One can have good friends of all genders, after all.

What’s making me roll my eyes about the episode itself is the way it’s handled, though. Of course the Master snogs the Doctor, because that makes the OMG SEX CHANGE!!!1! plot twist so much more squicky. Provided you weren’t revolted by the whole kiss scene to start with, which I in fact was. I’ve been of the strong opinion that Who does not need Doctor/anyone romance since the godawful Rose and Ten years – Rose was a superb foil for Christopher Ecclestone’s harder-edged character, but paired with David Tennant’s woozily emotional Doctor the whole thing just degenerated into sentiment. I skipped quite a few of those episodes. Plus, Missy as a character embodies an archetype I instinctively dislike; I don’t want to see a character like that anywhere near the marvellously emotionally incompetent, apparently asexual (thankyou, Capaldi, finally a return to proper Who tradition) Doctor. The whole kiss thing is a cheap piece of theatrics designed to make straight male viewers uncomfortable when the twist comes. Working like a charm, as well – for shame, Britain.

tumblr_inline_mzrjqt1wLo1s5bt5vIt is, I will admit, in character for the Master as written to do something quite that barking mad. I absolutely adored John Sim as the Master; the obsessive, manic energy, the utter fixation with the Doctor as his only link back to a past that had destroyed his mind – that was deep, stark and fascinating as played out between two men. (Fine, the potential for interpreting it as UST was pleasant fannish fun, but I actually really liked it purely as canon). Now it works differently: the Master’s irresolvable obsession with the Doctor as his saviour becomes the Mistress’s… what? Ill-fated crush? Given Capaldi’s masterfully sexless Doctor it’s still clearly doomed to go nowhere, but I feel somehow that the Master as a character has been short-changed. I think the tension between Master and Doctor will lose complexity, and therefore bite, because of this change. I mean we have no idea what even counts as female for a Time Lord, there have been various technologically-mediated suggestions made over Who’s history about how Gallifreyans reproduce and it would seem that something as base as hormones might be irrelevant for them – but the audience of hormone-soaked primates watching it will sure as hell interpret the Master/Mistress/Unexpectedly Revived Eternal Nemesis’s behaviour according to their hormone-based expectations. I just think that stands to fall flat on its face unless the writers really see it coming.

(One of the best laughs in the article I link above is exactly this point, in fact – the one who thinks that if the Master is really the Mistress then doesn’t everything become all completely sex-changed everywhere in the Universe and doesn’t Sarah Jane’s boyfriend have to turn gay and and and… they’re time lords, you colossal blithering gimp! Your pathetic human concept of gender does not flipping well apply! What the Master “is”, in terms of human, binary gender, is “something entirely different we don’t actually have a name for”. Read the memo, really.)

This said there were two things I liked about the episode – firstly the cybermen twist, which I was genuinely not expecting. I mean OK, it’s the Cybermen *again*, can we not have something more creative, but the way they pushed the focus onto the human core of the creature and reminded us that the whole horror of Cybermen is exactly that they *were* once people was really nice. It actually chimed in well with the Master too, if you conceptualise them (I refuse to say her or him) as a character damaged by a hostile environment, consumed by something alien to their being, and in a way controlled by something else. The Master has more agency than the average Cyberman footsoldier, but as played by John Sim the character was utterly driven by insanity, by the overwhelming pressure internal to a gifted but damaged mind. Violation of death is also a pleasantly relevant theme given the Doctor’s unexpected new lease of regenerations *and* the Master’s mysterious reappearance – I’ll be interested to see how that gets handled.

55089The other thing I loved was the costume. A brain-rotted Victorian matriarch is oddly fitting as what John Sim’s Master might regenerate into in any case, and on the deeper level it works very well as part of the series – it alludes to the long history behind Doctor Who and the sweeping social changes that have come about since the series’s inception. In the Master’s insanity we also see a reflection of the awkward task the modern Who writers face of acknowledging that long history without becoming trapped by it.

I think, though, that I know what the one missing element of the New Master will be for me. I think that as written and conceptualised in this series, the character will err too much on the crazy side and lack that marvellous, villainous sense of humour we used to see in the Masters of the Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley eras. It was absent from John Sim’s Master as well, but Sim had such intensity and verve that he carried the character entirely without it. I don’t get the impression Gomez is quite that good. I hope I may be proved wrong, although that kind of finesse would in all fairness be against the grain of most previous Who “improvements”.

The big problem I’ve got, though?

Why does the character with the sex change have to be the bad guy?



4 thoughts on “The Great Gallifreyan Sex Change, Part I

  1. gwen f says:

    It’s a shame that they killed off the Corsair before we met them. They were, after all, one of the good ones.

  2. I’ll be a lot less irritated if the whole kiss thing is demonstrated by the next episode to just be the master fucking about.

    On the plus side, I did find that the whole thing had an appropriately vintage feel to it. Like… “There’s a sinister threat, we unveil a monster… *then* discover it’s all being orchestrated by the Master”. There’s a classic Master vibe there, which Simm’s stories didn’t have.

    • Felix Pearce says:

      Yes, agreed on both counts… but then Sim’s Master was Tennant-era, and they pretty much threw the rules out entirely while Tennant was around. As I say I don’t think Sim *needed* so much of the support structure because he really made the part his own, so I think it’s probably a good thing they’ve brought that underpinning back again in the new series.

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