John Simm’s Master made a return to this week’s Doctor Who, in an episode titled “World Enough and Time”. It’s part one of a two-part finale that concludes the show’s tenth series with the second part next week.
Written by outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s been no surprise that John Simm would be coming back this series as the Master – a Time Lord, like the Doctor, and the Doctor’s archenemy. The BBC confirmed it some time ago, and in last week’s post-episode teaser it was flagged as something we’d see this week.
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It’s very strange, then, that they saw fit to disguise him for the majority of the episode, setting up a big reveal in which he literally whips off his mask Scooby Doo-style. And the way they’ve gone about it seriously lessens the impact of his return.
We first see the Master with his identity concealed as a scraggly-haired old man; he’s in the bowels of the ship which double as a (creepy) medical unit. Bill has been taken there by some scary looking white-hooded dudes after an incident in the upper part of the ship which leaves her with a huge hole in her chest. She’s in need of medical attention, and he seems to be looking after her.
As regular viewers, we twig who he is straight away. Going into the episode, we’re primed and waiting for the Master’s appearance. So if they’ve hidden John Simm behind latex make up, hobo clothes and an Eastern European accent (is that what it is?) for the benefit of concealing his identity from the viewer, it’s a grave miscalculation.
Moffat Knows We Know
But that can’t be why they’ve done it. They’re cleverer than that. And the audience is certainly savvier than that. Yes, the Master historically has been a fan of disguises – aficionados of the classic series will remember this – but this is 2017 and what was appropriate then doesn’t necessarily work now.
The script, at times, suggests Moffat is speaking directly to a clued-up audience. In other words, Steven Moffat acknowledges that he knows that you know who this character is. When Bill asks the disguised Master if the people she encounters in the white hoods feel pain, he initially says no – but subsequently admits it’s a lie, saying: “It was a clever lie but you see straight through me.”
He is not only speaking to Bill – referring to his lie as it’s written in the script – he’s also speaking directly to the audience, about the lie that is his disguise, and the audience’s ability to identify him. This suggests Moffat isn’t disguising the Master to wrongfoot the audience.
Robbed of a Big Reveal
That’s not to say a disguise couldn’t have worked. Would it not have made more sense to make a bigger impact with the Master’s re-introduction to the series? An end-of-episode reveal not only to Missy – who had her own high-impact reintroduction in this series – but also the audience would have been a shock moment, and added an extra layer of valuable suspense as well as a greater anticipation for the next part.
Had the BBC kept John Simm’s return under wraps, this could have been a great dramatic moment of the series – one befitting the first ever multi-Master storyline of the show’s history.
They would have absolutely had to rethink the Master’s disguise, of course – but it’s not the first time the Master has pulled off a convincing charade in the rebooted series. When he was first introduced, he had been disguised as a biological human – in the form of Derek Jacobi’s Professor Yana – before regenerating into John Simm’s likeness after he’s shot.
Becoming human again could be problematic for this particular storyline involving Mondasian Cybermen, but there would surely have been a way around it which allowed the creative team to introduce another actor to play the disguised Master. They could have ditched the latex and properly concealed his identity.
He Has His Reasons – But Do They Stand Up?
After the Master reveals his identity to Missy, he tells her – and us – that his disguise was necessary because Bill would have recognised him as the former Prime Minister. If you remember, the Master had formerly held power in the UK as Harold Saxon. But the problem with this is that Bill’s held captive anyway – she’s being kept in the bottom half of the ship the Doctor landed the Tardis on. It wouldn’t really have mattered if she knew his identity, especially considering what was about to happen to her – forever consigned to Cybermandom.
The Master’s motivations seem to be gaining her trust. Though there wasn’t really much point in duping her, it’s likely he’d be able to win her trust another way.
Having Fun With It
It seems, then, that the disguise is perhaps simply a way for Steven Moffat to have fun with the episode – and it does allow for Simm to embrace the identity he creates and he delivers a pretty funny comic turn. And partly because of his broad comedy, the episode is arguably one of the most chilling Doctor Who episodes there has ever been.
With some genuinely unsettling scenes of horror throughout, the mix of comedy and horror creates an unnerving tone that will give you the willies. Time is a major theme of Doctor Who and a particularly key one in this episode – if only the BBC could turn back time and rethink the way they executed the Master’s return.
Doctor Who Series 10 concludes with Episode 12, called “The Doctor Falls”, which airs in the UK on Saturday July 1.