Michelle Gomez is set to return as the new Master, Missy, in Series 9. Gomez and Capaldi had a wonderful, deadly chemistry last season that rivaled, though I would say failed to top, that of Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado. She’s as worthy as any to bear the name Master, but there’s something that’s been bothering me.
In discussion about the gender swap of the character, I’ve been very quick to point out that gender swaps upon regeneration are canon. In “The Doctor’s Wife,” the Eleventh Doctor mentions The Corsair occasionally being a woman, and in “The Night of The Doctor,” the Eighth Doctor is offered an elixir that would cause him to regenerate female if he chose. One female Doctor is at least semi-canon, the alternative timeline Doctor played by Arabelle Weir in the Big Finish audio play “Exile.” Time Lords can switch genders on regeneration. It’s established fact.
But it leaves behind a question: Did The Master regenerate or is Missy a stolen body?
Despite the fact that The Master has been played by half a dozen different people, she has regenerated on-screen just one time, when the Jacobi Master voluntarily gave up an older body for the younger, more vital Simm Master. This was literally the first time the character was seen properly regenerating in Time Lord fashion since debuting in “Terror of the Autons” in 1971.
In fact, the driving force of The Master’s character beyond wanting to rule the world/universe was that she was on her final regeneration and wanted to steal The Doctor’s remaining ones. Every Master since Delgado — Peter Pratt, Geoffrey Beevers, Anthony Ainley, Gordon Tipple and Eric Roberts — has been the same incarnation as the original, either in decayed form or in stolen bodies.
So what happened to give The Master back the ability to regenerate?
In the 1996 movie, the Roberts Master was defeated after falling into the Eye of Harmony and presumably the Time Vortex. River Song later remarked in her diary in the game The Eternity Clock that she could hear an American screaming in the walls of the Eighth Doctor’s Tardis. What happened afterward is unclear as it relies mostly on non-canon sources. What is known is that the Time Lords eventually rescued The Master, who appeared in a new form portrayed by Alex Macqueen in the audio series Dark Eyes. Context clues lead the listener to assume that this form is the one that directly follows the Roberts Master.
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The Master was rescued by the Celestial Intervention Agency, the group tasked with cleaning up history for the Time Lords but who also often serve as wet works and other dirty deeds. They would have been aware that fragments of Time Lord DNA, which would have still been present in the Deathworm Morphant The Master used to take over the body of Bruce and become the Roberts Master, could be added to existing Time Lord physiology to trigger rebirths. Morbius had done that very thing even after being reduced to mere brain fragments. It’s possible, even likely, that in returning The Master to life for the upcoming Time War, they forced this DNA on another Time Lord.
Whether the Jacobi Master is an older Macqueen Master or a later incarnation (a missing War Master, if you will) is impossible to say at this point, but what matters is that The Master was once again a full-fledged Time Lord. The fact that the Jacobi Master was so willing to abandon that incarnation makes it probable that it was an early incarnation, maybe even the first of a new cycle. Certainly the Simm Master had the ability to regenerate. The Tenth Doctor expected it after the Simm Master was shot by Lucy Saxon, even if The Master denied the process.
Here’s where it gets dodgy, though. The Simm Master was reborn, though in an abnormal, vampiric state that partially resembled versions immediately following the Delgado Master. There’s no real reason to expect this altered form to still have regeneration abilities, since by all logic the Simm Master could have simply regenerated to cure whatever caused the strange hunger and skeletal appearance.
When last we saw the Simm Master, it was as Rassilon and Gallifrey were being pushed back into the Time Lock (and we still don’t know how Missy escaped from that lock). She seems to be to all intents and purposes Gallifreyan still, though it’s telling that the Twelfth Doctor doesn’t immediately recognize that just as the Eighth didn’t recognize the Roberts Master initially. Is Missy a proper, gender-swapped incarnation of a Time Lord, or just another humanoid host holding The Master’s essence as she schemes? The latter is probably the most likely, and in keeping with The Master’s long history on Doctor Who.