The Significance of Missy: A Look at Gender Flips in Doctor Who Series 8 and 9

Oct 10, 2015 · 11 min read

By Valerie Estelle Frankel

Missy arrived in season eight alongside the Peter Capaldi Twelfth Doctor. At the end of the first episode, “Deep Breath” (801), the villain finds himself in a beautiful garden, confronted by a woman in dark Edwardian dress. She assures him he’s gotten his wish and achieved heaven. “Hello. I’m Missy. You made it. I hope my boyfriend wasn’t too mean to you,” she says sweetly. Many wondered if she was somehow River Song, or Romana, or one of the many women romantically attached to the Doctor through the centuries. In “Dark Water” (811), she hints at this further:

Though she critically observes Clara and the Doctor on their adventures, providing a bit of an arc theme, she doesn’t seriously make her mark until the two-part finale. The Doctor takes Clara on the ultimate journey to find Danny Pink, telling her, “We’re going to hell. Or wherever it is people go when they die” (“Dark Water”). They reach the Nethersphere or the Promised Land. There, Missy, claiming to be a welcome droid (Mobile Intelligent Systems Interface), grabs the Doctor and kisses him hard, shoving him against the wall. The Doctor is stunned.

Viewers are far more stunned when they discover who she truly is. She drops the ball just at the end of “Dark Water,” saying her name is really “Short for Mistress. Well, I couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now could I?”

Neil Gaiman opened the door a bit further in “The Doctor’s Wife,” when he drops a line about the Doctor’s gender-switching friend, the Corsair having been a woman on occasion, “herself a couple of times, oh she was a bad girl.” Upon his regeneration, Matt Smith does in fact touch his hair and wonder if he is a woman this time. Missy’s gender-swap seems another positive step — first the Doctor’s greatest nemesis, a series main character, becomes female. Then, perhaps, the Doctor will get a chance.

For decades viewers have been clamoring for a female Doctor — not just the sweet human sidekicks, but the all-knowing, all-powerful Doctor should have a chance at being female. Critic Courtney Stoker protests:

Obviously, many top British actresses, including Helen Mirren and Lara Pulver (Irene Adler in Sherlock) have expressed interest in playing a female Doctor. Russell T. Davies, creator of the Doctor-Donna and the TARDIS-powered Bad Wolf (both companions imbued with Time Lord power before the Doctor confiscates it) adds:

Steven Moffatt, famous for introducing two young, hot companions in miniskirts rather than educated Martha or sassy Donna, is also known for having no female writers on his staff. Fans haven’t been too hopeful for a female Doctor under his reign. Joanna Lumley did play the Doctor regenerated from Rowan Atkinson’s Doctor in a Comic Relief special actually written in 1999 by Steven Moffat. More little teasers emerge when Clara tells the Doctor to go be king of Gallifrey

Death in Heaven with Clara and The Doctor

Regeneration has alternately been identified as choice and randomness: Romana chooses her next incarnation and River Song says she’s concentrating on a dress size. For the Doctor, things appear completely random (though thirteen incarnations have all been white, British males). In “The Witch’s Familiar” (902), Missy muddles the issue further:

Missy also says she’s cared about the Doctor “Since the Cloister Wars. Since the night he stole the moon and the President’s wife. Since he was a little girl. One of those was a lie. Can you guess which one?” (“The Magician’s Apprentice” 901). Once again, these are more like suggestions that the Doctor could turn female that substitute for any intention to actually do so. Even Missy’s sudden arrival appears a bone tossed to pacify the fans — there’s a female Master — that should be enough.

It’s also disturbing that Missy, having gender-flipped, falls desperately in love with the Doctor, like many of the companions. Certainly, the Doctor is central in the Master’s life — the childhood friend he’s always measured himself against. But smooching? On some level this suggests that being female means falling romantically for the Doctor, succumbing to emotion rather than playing out rational, chesslike plots against him. Her attempts at sisterhood are a caricature:

Missy in Death in Heaven

Missy, of course, is quite mad, telling a colleague to “say something nice” before she murders him. She agrees that Osgood would be more useful alive, noting, “Oh, yeah, that’s true. That’s definitely true. That is a good point well made. I’m proud of you, sister. But did I mention bananas! Pop.” This madness vaguely echoes River’s and the TARDIS’s in “The Doctor’s Wife.” Is the Doctor, possibly the great mind in history, particularly attracted to mad women?

Mad women are the weakest in art — generally the victims of male cruelty as boyfriends and fathers shape them with torture. The Master was driven mad by the patriarchal Time Lord Council that destroys children in its initiation, as shown in “The Sound of Drums.” But Missy’s current sexual frenzy and Doctor-obsession seem particularly feminine. Her Edwardian dress mirrors the First Doctor’s (also the current Doctor’s, a bit), emphasizing her total identification with him. On her return to his life, she constructs a plan to destroy earth and turn it into Cybermen…but she does it for him, not for herself. Thus she follows the companion pattern of a life catering to the Doctor, focusing on his growth not her own.

The Doctor foils her plan, Missy is killed, she returns to life. This time, along with her Doctor fixation, she finds herself working with Clara. It’s revealed in “Death in Heaven” that Missy was the one who set them up, finding the Doctor a sweet, unthreatening best friend who will push him the right way because “she’s perfect.” Missy of course is not the good girl, but the worst of the bad girls, a genocidal maniac. Here Clara is a tool in Missy’s hands, but Missy’s total obsession makes her less empowered herself — the Doctor is everything in both their universes.

When Missy returns in “The Magician’s Apprentice” (901), she’s instantly competitive with Clara, inviting her to a meeting so they can find the Doctor, but also so Missy can emphasize her status as the Doctor’s real best friend:

In “The Witch’s Familiar” (902), she saves Clara’s life, then hangs her upside down and threatens to hunt her with a pointy stick. On their quest for the Doctor, Missy uses Clara as Dalek bait, then finally locks her inside a Dalek to be her secret weapon. She’s clearly using Clara, insisting, “Every miner needs a canary.” But her methods reveal there’s more going on. Her jealousy of Clara is growing fiercer as the Doctor shows interest only in his companion:

Missy in Witch’s Familiar

At episode end, she confronts the Doctor while Clara is trapped in the Dalek shell and unable to communicate.

She wants the Doctor to kill Clara himself, proving to Missy and to him on various levels that he doesn’t need a human companion but a Time Lady as his perfect mate. The Doctor finally sees through the trap and saves Clara. His condemnation of “Missy, run.” makes it clear that, while still not a murderer, he understands exactly what his oldest friend tried to do to him. She remains unfazed, continuing to believe that her murders and attempted murders are still their “form of flirting,” something she can pick up again the next time. Her parting shot is also interesting, as she adds: “In a way, this is why I gave her to you in the first place. To make you see. The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend.” Clearly, it’s the Doctor’s job to come to understand his soulmate lives within bad girl (and formerly male supervillain) Missy. She intended Clara to be a path to the Time Lord and Time Lady living happily ever after. Though she’s failed, one assumes in a few more episodes she’ll try again, spending one hundred percent of her screentime focused on winning the Doctor to her side. Until then, best of luck, Missy. You’re an interesting character and a small step towards gender equality on Doctor Who. But perhaps your step is still too small.

Works Cited

Dowell, Ben. “Russell T Davies to Step Down as Doctor Who ‘show-runner’.” The Guardian Monday 7 July 2008.

Stoker, Courtney. “Maids and Masters: The Distribution of Power in Doctor Who Series Three.” Chicks Dig Time Lords. Ed. Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea. Illinois, Mad Norwegian Press, 2010.

Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of many books on pop culture, including Doctor Who — The What, Where, and How, Sherlock: Every Canon Reference You May Have Missed in BBC’s Series 1–3, The Catch Up Guide to Doctor Who, and Doctor Who and the Hero’s Journey. Many of her books focus on women’s roles in fiction, from her heroine’s journey guides From Girl to Goddess and Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey to books like Women in Game of Thrones and The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen. Once a lecturer at San Jose State University, she’s a frequent speaker at conferences. Come explore her research here.

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Legendary Women

A collection of stories about positive women role models in media, real-life women and female-centered charities to know, heroines on television and other media, and also feminist criticism of media issues from new media to books to film.


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Legendary Women

A collection of stories about positive women role models in media, real-life women and female-centered charities to know, heroines on television and other media, and also feminist criticism of media issues from new media to books to film.