Over the weekend, Doctor Who’s Missy, Michelle Gomez, was engaging in an entertaining Q&A on twitter. Almost inevitably, the possibility of a spin-off series for Missy was mooted, something that Gomez sounded enthusiastic about. There have of course been spin-off series from Doctor Who before – two of them being led by the great Elisabeth Sladen – and every so often, rumours of new offshoots are mooted. Indeed, in the middle of this very article being written, the BBC announced Class – Coal Hill School fighting off monsters (could a cameo from Ian Chesterson be too much to hope for?). Usually though, many fail to materialise, and it’s easy to see why: either they’d be far too expansive and expensive to realise on screen on a BBC budget (which is why we should all be eternally grateful to the Big Finish audio dramas), or there simply isn’t enough story to sustain a supporting character – however entertaining and popular – in their own series that would be different enough from Doctor Who to justify their own series (so, there won’t be any Jenny: Daughter In Space any time soon). Despite all that, former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies managed to knock two enormously successful shows out of the park, riding on the Doctor’s coattails and making Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures instantly recognisable brands.
Now that current showrunner Steven Moffatt has announced his own spinoff series – which at first glance, sounds like it could be The Sarah Jane Adventures with an expanded cast, it seems reasonably unlikely that Missy will indeed get her own series anytime soon. In some ways, that’s easy to stomach – Michelle Gomez is far too good an actress to necessarily want to be shackled to a single character for the next few years – but it’s instructive to note that The Mistress is about the best choice to pick from Doctor Who to front a spinoff, even more so than Clara, who is quite the most well written character Moffatt has written (yes she is, stop complaining at the back).
At first glance, River Song is perhaps the most obvious choice to be chosen to headline her own series, but that’s wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it suggests the rather ugly idea that there’s only room for one genre TV show to be headlined by a strong female lead, but it’s the second reason that’s most compelling. River’s entire MO is her enigma. Indeed, her catchphrase is a teasing ‘spoilers!’. She is playing a universal poker game in which she holds all the cards. It has never occurred to River that she’s not the star of her own show, even when everything she does is to serve The Doctor. The difference with Missy is that she simply doesn’t give a damn. The main reason why she doesn’t let us in on her plans is because she is – like The Doctor – mostly making it up as she goes along. It’s also worth considering what kind of show would best serve River, and it’s frankly difficult to imagine one in which she exists as a character with true agency. It’s an unfortunate fact that despite the power hair and smart talk, River Song is a character that literally only exists because of The Doctor – she is born to murder him, dies to save him, and even after death hangs around to haunt him. The only show that River Song makes sense in is Doctor Who. Perhaps it’s more helpful to ask what sort of show can take on a spin-off character.
It’s instructive, therefore to look to where it has worked before: namely, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and that certainly seems to be the spirit invoked by first impressions of Class. The Sarah Jane Adventures has many things to recommend it, but by far the most important is the significant charisma of the lead, Elisabeth Sladen. What is undeniable is that The Mistress also has considerable (if gleefully warped) charm. You can be very sure that right now there are hundreds of kids across the world working all possible hours to create their own Missy costume for Halloween this year. Of course it should be acknowledged that The Sarah Jane Adventures is a CBBC television series, and a spinoff show in this mould featuring the latest incarnation of The Master will require some mental dexterity on our part to accept Missy as the lead of a children’s television series. She is, after all, an unapologetic mass murdering psychopath with a bit of a kink. This, by anyone’s reckoning, is a difficult sell as the heroine of a kid’s TV show. But, at the risk of stating the obvious: the same character originally appeared in a kid’s TV show.
(By the way, it’s unimportant when you believe the character was first introduced: back in Terror Of The Autons as The Master, or as Missy in Deep Breath are equally valid, although it’s understandable if you consider all incarnations called ‘The Master’ to be fundamentally different from any incarnation called ‘The Mistress’. Having said that, those who can’t get on board with Gomez being a true Master are quite possibly watching the wrong show.)
The Mistress would excel in a spin off show aimed at young kids simply because of (in spite of) the fact that she didn’t belong there. Perversely, putting her in an environment like a CBBC show where she would undoubtedly have to be neutered would be genuinely compelling. The Mistress works best as a caged animal, and seeing her frustrated, smashing up against the glass until it cracks would be enormously fun to watch. The Pertwee era would be a good model here: trap a frustrated timelord on Earth, tethered to an organisation they had no particular love for, while robbing them of most of their power and none of their intelligence. It hardly needs pointing out that in this show, The Mistress wouldn’t be allowed to kill as many people (if any) as she does in Doctor Who: but rather than be a narrative nightmare, the BBC contractual obligations of stopping Missy killing the supporting cast would be easily attended to by smart writers, as was proved with the likes of Spike’s chip back in the days of Buffy.
One complaint currently levelled at The Mistress in series nine of Doctor Who states that she has swapped her icy menace of last year for a more broad pantomime villain approach. This is both accurate, and misses the point. Of course Missy is acting like a panto bad guy: she’s not the debonair hypnotist with the hazily defined intention of taking over the world, nor is she the snarling camp with a unexpected talent in hopscotch. Like a cat who already knows it’s going to kill the mouse, The Mistress would happily spend an afternoon delivering an Armageddon to a developing planet .. only to travel back twenty four hours to do it all again. Moffat’s script is careful to warn us not to get too distracted by the arch enemies arch camp, as evidenced in the scene when she demands a bevy of snipers on her – and manages to kill them anyway, seemingly in response to a slight from Clara.
This, incidentally, underscores an important aspect to the Michelle Gomez version of The Master. Compared to her, the Delgado and Ainley incarnations seem a little … how can we put this? A bit thick. This is no criticism of the Masters in the classic series, but rather a recognition that as Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock, their character development was often reduced to moustache twirling while exiting stage left. Pretty much every plan that The Master concocts in the classic series is doomed to failure because it’s self-evidentially stupid and mainly powered by his own vanity with an over reliance on playing in the dressing up box. Interestingly, the strongest contender for exception to this rule is Survival, where The Master’s plan is refreshingly small scale, and – crucially – he’s not entirely in complete control of his faculties. His plan arguably has the highest success rate of the classic series, so it’s appropriate that as a result The Doctor is mostly off screen for the next fifteen years. The John Simm incarnation of The Master, incidentally, largely gets a pass on this criticism of stupidity, if only because his Master is quite demonstrably insane, and his plans, while wacky, are comparatively coherent – they’re all about returning the world to a status quo that The Master feels able to operate within.
By contrast, the Mistress (there’s genuinely no good reason that we can see to refer to her with just one consistent name even if the official BBC one is Missy: Michelle Gomez has proved she owns all three) is quite clearly the cleverest thing in the room, and it’s evidenced by just how silly she is. The Master is often sold as the dark mirror image of The Doctor, and there’s no clearer proof than this than the scene where she taunts Clara to stab her in the back (allowing her the opportunity she was denied in Death In Heaven). The look on Missy’s face isn’t evil: it’s frustrated boredom. Yes, it’s true that if Clara had indeed attempted to attack her, then Missy would have snapped her neck in a heartsbeat, but it’s clear that she’s genuinely hopeful that Clara might be the one to cure her boredom.
It’s not for a kid’s television show to carry the weight of all representation (actually, it is, but that’s more pressure than most shows are equipped to cope with), but it bears softly repeating that one of the many joys of The Sarah Jane Adventures was having a show aimed at schoolkids that placed a woman in her fifties front and centre. In a world where, this sort of move is certainly rare, and still considered brave. There’s also the not incidental point that is treated by everybody as entirely incidental: that Missy used to be a man. Members of the transgender community may not necessarily have chosen a mad murderer to be a representative of that community, but it’s absolutely vital that Missy’s past gender is known by everybody, and important to absolutely nobody. Everyone simply accepts who she is without question.
This is why a broad strokes kid’s show would work so well for Missy: simply because she doesn’t belong there, and would spend the entire series smashing up against the constraints. It’s Michelle Gomez’s electric eyed performance that would whirlwind around, impossible to control, delirious and unpredictable. In the meantime, we have Class, (which of course we will discuss at length very soon), and it’s too early to see how the world of Doctor Who can match in with the universe of OFSTED inspections, but we should certainly hope for the best. Say something nice, in fact.