In Doctor Who’s new two-part episode Spyfall, fans were treated to the return of the Master, the iconic Time Lord nemesis of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) who’s appeared throughout the sci-fi drama’s decades on-screen.
Now played by Sacha Dhawan, the Master has previously been brought to life by actors including Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts and Derek Jacobi, and the two most recent incarnations – portrayed by John Simm and Michelle Gomez respectively – actually teamed up to face Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor in 2017.
But it seemed the Master’s lives were ended forever when Gomez’s Missy died without regenerating.
Of course, reports – and on-screen depictions – of the Master’s death have been greatly exaggerated before, and he more or less always finds a way back to life (remember when he was a walking corpse for a while?), so it’s not too surprising to see that Missy found some way to beat the odds. But the more we see of Sacha Dhawan’s new Master, the more we’re wondering... is he the incarnation we think he is? Or is he an earlier version of the Master?
You see, the last time we saw the Master/Missy, he/she was in a very different state. Gomez’s incarnation had started to turn over a new leaf thanks to the efforts of Capaldi’s Doctor, and in her final scene elected that it was time to “stand with” the Doctor rather than against him.
Dhawan’s Master, however, seems to have now completely reverted to his earlier villainous state, got his hands on a TARDIS – which Gomez’s version was never seen to have – and gives no sign or reference to the Doctor’s attempts at rehabilitation. We’re also given no explanation as to how the Master survived a death that he himself (or at least John Simm’s version) had pronounced as truly, finally fatal.
So what if he didn’t survive? What if, actually, Missy did die and end the line of the Master’s incarnations, and Dhawan’s Master is merely a 'hidden' earlier incarnation? Doctor Who has played with similar ideas before, after all – John Hurt’s War Doctor was introduced in 2013 as a previously-unknown regeneration between the Doctor’s eighth and ninth bodies – and it doesn’t seem out of the question that this new Master could be the incarnation before Missy.
In fact, many fans online have latched onto the theory since the latest episode, pointing out that this particular twist wouldn’t undo the storyline and character work of series 10 while still allowing there to be a new and deadly Master on the prowl.
Notably, we never actually see John Simm’s Master turn into Missy – it’s just suggested that this will happen, and she says memories of her change are “blurry” – and as a still-evil Time Lord in possession of a TARDIS, Simm’s version of the character is much closer to Dhawan’s than the last appearance of Missy was. And he’s still alive! Which, minus an explanation, as far as we know Missy wasn’t.
Fans have also latched onto a reference Missy made to her past atrocities that could tie into the Master’s destruction of Gallifrey, though it seems likely this would be more of a coincidence than an intended callback.
Of course, it’s also possible that Dhawan is from a different part of the Master’s life cycle entirely.
The “heartbeat of a Time Lord” Morse Code reference at least implies that he exists later than Simm’s Master, but really the only shared memory he and the Doctor have is from 1981’s Logopolis. Given how many times he’s stolen bodies, been resurrected or given a new regeneration cycle, who knows how many extra Masters there are out there that we’ve never seen? The possibilities (and scope for Big Finish spin-offs) are endless.
But when it comes to the TV series, will we ever find out the full truth? Well, maybe not. At the moment it seems pretty unlikely that the series will bother explaining a complicated bit of lore that most casual viewers won’t care about anyway, especially when it’s not like the Master hasn’t inexplicably returned in the past (in fact, implausibly returning from the dead is kind of his whole deal).
The Master is back – what more do we need to know than that?
After all, even during the plot-heavy days of Steven Moffat showrunning Doctor Who, we weren’t told how Missy had survived the Master’s fate in The End of Time until much later. In the current series, Whittaker’s Doctor also has a good reason not to ask what happened, as Capaldi’s Doctor never saw Missy’s death, or found out that her last act had been to try and help him. To the 13th Doctor, the return of an evil Master is probably more or less what she would have expected.
But we can’t help that hope that showrunner Chris Chibnall has another twist up his sleeve, and that there may be more to this new Master than meets the eye. If nothing else, he seems to share Missy’s love for purple…
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sundays