The BBC has confirmed that Michelle Gomez is returning to play the character I am stubbornly continuing to refer to as ‘The Master.’
Leaving the issue of cross-gender regeneration to one side, my main gripe with Gomez’ portrayal of the Master was the utter insanity she brought to the role, leaving one struggling to see any continuity from the late great Roger Delgado. This view has softened somewhat with the grudging admission that John Simm played the character with an equal insanity, albeit somewhat dulled down in The End of Time.
But that led me to ponder something as I grumped about today’s news story on the bus to work. In my other life I’m politically active, and one of the themes that most interests me is the difference between how the two traditional wings of politics view human nature. The left, on the whole, believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity, and that the ills we face in this life are principally due to corrupt systems – if a person is bad, it is not by their choice. The right, on the whole, take a Hobbesian view that humanity is corrupt by its very nature, and systems only ever reflect that fundamental corruption – if a person is bad, it is by their own choice.
We’re all very aware that the creative types at the BBC are not shy of working their personal convictions into their works (which is questionable for a publicly funded broadcaster …) – and I was struck by the great efforts made to emphasise the Master’s insanity – and moreover that his (or now, her) actions are because of this insanity rather than some personal choice – hence the shock when the Tenth Doctor realises the drumbeat in the Master’s head is physically real. As if to ram home the point, Simm’s Master’s (almost) final words, were to roar at the Time Lord High Council: “You did this to me!”
Except, let’s be honest, that’s wholly unsatisfying.
Patrick Troughton is universally and deservedly recognised for his deep portrayal of the Doctor – and his famous speech from The Moonbase shows us why:
“There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”
There is something within us as the viewer that resonates with the idea that there is such a thing as evil, and a choice. Delgado’s Master was palpably frightening because it gave a glimpse into what the Doctor we know and love would be like if he lost his moral compass. The Cybermen (in their truest form) are frightening because we see us in them, not like Cyber-Danny or Cyber-Brig (basically humanity in mech-suits) but rather humanity removing all fundamental goodness. And of course the Daleks were a vivid reminder of humanity’s flirtation with fascism – viewers growing up who remembered the war had no difficulty believing in the concept of evil.
As I pondered on this, I have now reached the point of wondering whether the famously left-liberal leaning BBC have allowed their philosophy to inform their writing. If we examine our own hearts, we quite like the idea of the Master not being responsible for his own actions – that the responsibility lies with the Time Lords, he cannot help being bad, and somehow if he were ‘fixed’ he’d be just as good as the Doctor. All of us prefer the idea that someone or something else is to blame for when we get it wrong. Except this philosophy is very much the philosophical equivalent of a security blanket – far from empowering humanity, it dehumanises us by taking away the one thing within our power – the power to choose.
What resonates with the viewer? It was when the Doctor threw the command of the Cyber-army to Danny, not because he was a good man, but because he made the choice. It was when the War Doctor decided to end the Time War because it had to be done; when the Doctor put his own life at risk to save Peri in The Caves of Androzani; the countless times the Doctor and his companions have resisted evil against overwhelming odds, because it was the right thing to do. What resonates with the viewer? It was Tom Baker holding two wires in Genesis of the Daleks and pondering ‘Have I the right?’ He recognised it was his choice, and therefore his responsibility to live with the actions.
I may yet overcome my reservations about a female Master, but end this madness! Allow the Master to be evil because she has chosen to be, as Delgado once did, rather evil from compunction as the new producers have been so determined to do.