For many fans of Doctor Who, the series is a fun action-adventure romp about an alien stranger who travels through space and time. But for the dedicated few who get caught up in the weeds of the prolific show’s canon and are confused by the return of the Master, the stars of Doctor Who assure you that its latest big twist doesn’t “erase” anything.
On Sunday, Doctor Who cast members Jodi Whittaker, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill appeared live at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan for a Fathom Events post-screening Q&A of “Spyfall,” the two-part Season 12 premiere.
In conversation with IGN’s Terri Schwartz, Whittaker, who stars as the Thirteenth Doctor, talked about the new season’s big twist: The return of the Doctor’s nemesis, the Master. Played by actor Sacha Dhawan (Iron Fist), the Master initially appears as a friendly MI6 agent codenamed “O.”
Whittaker said Doctor Who wouldn’t be itself if the didn’t invent new villains and reintroduce old ones in equal doses. Hence, after a whole season featuring mostly new villains, the Master is back in a major role.
“I think, why would this show survive and have the fanbase and love of the creators and people involved if it doesn’t use its extraordinary archive of particularly amazing villains?” Whittaker said. “There is the joy you don’t have to shoehorn it, but you’ve also got the pleasure of, we have our own [villains] now. We gave you Tim Shaw. We’ve got our own and that potentially in 20 years someone encounters monsters from one of our seasons.”
She added, “We’ve had some boxes ticked but the Master brings such an extraordinary dynamic because it’s a new actor as well. So the joy is that [it] never erases everyone’s hard work, but you can be surprised because you cast someone you weren’t expecting. That’s why you love the regeneration of the Doctor.”
Here’s where Whittaker’s quote gets interesting: The new Master in Doctor Who doesn’t “erase” a thing, meaning the Master’s previous storyline in is still canon. Despite “Spyfall” never pausing to explain how the Master is alive after Season 10’s “The Doctor Falls,” Doctor Who isn’t forgetting it happened even if it’s never mentioned for the rest of Dhawan’s tenure as the Master.
This means that either the Master found a way to survive their apparent death in Season 10, or, Sacha Dhawan’s Master is an “older” incarnation never before seen. And because it’s time travel, the Master is currently experiencing events in the new season that takes place prior to their death.
Let’s back up. In a storyline that concluded in “The Doctor Falls,” the penultimate episode of Season 10 (the last season to star Whittaker’s predecessor, Peter Capaldi), the Master was killed by, well, themselves. Michelle Gomez and John Simms, two actors playing different versions of the Master, killed “each other,” though what happened next was kept vague.
But at the end of Part 1 of “Spyfall,” “O” reveals himself to be the Master, the cunning, wise-cracking Time Lord and longtime enemy of the Doctor. It was the big twist of the premiere, though it was topped by another big one at the end of Part 2 — the destruction of their home planet, Gallifrey. Again.
As Whovians know, the Doctor and the Master are Time Lords, an alien species that can “regenerate” into new forms after horrific body trauma. (This concept was made up by Doctor Who’s writers in 1966, who needed to recast the show’s aging lead in the midst of its initial popularity.)
We know from “The Doctor Falls” that Gomez’s “Missy” was the final incarnation of the Master, meaning her death is the last moment in the Master’s own timeline. When she “kills” John Simms’ Master, she activated his regeneration process, but whether Simms’ Master regenerated into Missy or into someone else — possibly Sacha Dhawan? — is unknown.
It is unlikely Doctor Who will piece together this puzzle so soon. Whether it’s answered this season or a decade from now, the real question this season is the matter of Gallifrey’s destruction. How has the planet fallen after the Doctor saved it in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” from 2013? We know the Master did it, as vengeance for what he claims is a “lie of the Timeless Child,” a thus-far cryptic mystery still to be explored.
“They lied to us,” Dhawan’s Master says at the end of “Spyfall.” “The founding fathers of Gallifrey. Everything we were told was a lie. We’re not who we think. You and I, the whole existence of our species built on the lie of the Timeless Child.” Whatever the Timeless Child’s “lie” is, we know one truth: The Doctor is back.
Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern on BBC America.