Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And today, Tibère, on his own this time, opens a book, for a change, and chats about The Missy Chronicles, the recent anthology about everyone’s favourite evil Time Lady. Spoilers after the “read more” tag.
Additionally, a bit of an advertisement – if you want to hear a bit more about the book, you’ll be able to catch DoWntime guest contributor (and Clara expert) Ruth Long on the Trap One podcast that way !
Well, if one is to talk about the Missy Chronicles, one first needs to talk about what these recent anthologies published by BBC Books have been all about. They tend to be a bit light on character, in a way – their primary purpose seeming more to be a collection of short, fun little stories about a cool character we want to see more of. The River book they made a couple years ago is a perfect example of that, with only Jenny Colgan’s story hitting any sort of key character notes and the rest consisting of pleasant and well-written Who runarounds (yes, I’ve been taking notes for a future Follow the River, why d’you ask).
The Missy Chronicles mostly follows that pattern. If you’re looking for an in-depth examination of the character and her complexities, you’re probably going to be disappointed by most of the things past the first and best story – but really, Missy is just fun to be around, and while I wouldn’t go proclaiming that this specific volume is a literary masterpiece, it’s an infectiously entertaining, if a tiny bit uneven, read, with a diverse panel of writers that allow for some very different and creative takes on the character. There are much worse ways to spend ten bucks.
The first story, “Dismemberment”, by James Goss, is also by far the most challenging and interesting of the bunch. It’s not that it’s incredibly inventive – Master gets wronged, Master devises an evil plan and basically takes out a bunch of people like if she were a slasher villain, it’s a cool, but not fundamentally groundbreaking premise. What truly elevates it are its politics: the Master is part of an evil lodge of British aristocrats and now finds herself expunged from that environment. Her vengeance, while initially an act of petty, wounded pride, ends up becoming, as the story moves forwards, a key character moment for the Master in general: it’s the moment where, in the arc of their lives, they stop benefiting from institutional power and privilege and end up as a force of pure chaos throwing the chessboard away. It’s not just a contrast with John Simm’s evil Tory – the Master, even at their most camp, always was affiliated with figures of power, dressing themselves up as a priest or a knight, dueling with their best friend/enemy like a pair of distinguished aristocrats. But here, here things change – and the imagery invoked is truly delightful. Really, the whole story is – albeit darkly so: Goss is very good at balancing horror and comedy, like with this offhand observation that one of the chairs in the club is made of the tanned hide of someone’s wife. But really, it goes beyond that: there’s something deeply meaningful at work here – a refutation of social order that goes beyond what the Master has ever done before: look at the way Missy uses Biblical imagery against the people that have wronged her, causing a rain of blood echoing the Plagues of Egypt to manifest – between this and the perversion of Saint-Paul’s Cathedral in “Dark Water”, there’s an almost Satanic quality to her. And in a post-Milton world, Satan is easily sympathetic – more sympathetic, anyway, to contemporary audiences, than the pompous bearded face of some Machiavellian male white genius.
The best part of an already stellar story, though, comes when Missy goes to find the slaves owned by some of the fine gentlemen at her club. I mean, it’s already a very good idea to have her confront an order of prejudice far greater than everything she has ever suffered, but the story goes beyond that, having the very name “Missy” be bestowed upon her by an emancipated slave that has, as an independent woman living in the periphery of society, at the edge of two worlds. The change of name from Master to Missy was already interesting but this makes the subtext literal: she gets rid of the baggage associated with that moniker and adopts a new one as she enters the African-American folklore as a sort of trickster spirit, of vengeful and dangerous supernatural creature (not necessarily a goddess – she is more a facilitator than anything, offering the slaves a chance to take their revenge on their owner; I don’t think the story falls into any kind of colonialist traps, thankfully). It’s an incredibly interesting association, and it’s a fun coincidence that the book came out quite close to Simon Bucher-Jones’ “Book of the Enemy”, which theorizes that the Faction Paradox’s ties to vaudoo, in the Who continuity, is done because the embody a counter-narrative to the Time Lords, just like vaudoo did to white oppression. Missy’s new name, with these ties to a discriminated against minority, becomes just like that – the sign of a counter-narrative rising. The age of Whittaker is upon us, folks.
Speaking of, that’s a great impromptu idea to jump a bit forwards and talk about Peter Anghelides’ “The Liar, the Glitch and the Warzone”. Which, as you may have heard, features the Whittaker Doctor, albeit in a very minor capacity – the fun in the story resides, beyond some pretty well-structured timey-wimeyness, in how it inverts, without you even realizing it, the traditional set-up of a disguised Master fooling the Doctor and manipulating events to their advantage. It’s a very-well executed take, really – there’s some really nice call-backs, like the Doctor ending up yet again behind the mask of a Plague Doctor (see that deleted scene from “The Woman who Lived”), or some more information about the sinking of Venice, that had already been teased in the Guy Adams story of the River collection; a lot of Missy being callous and evil ; and a writer that really insists on this idea that she’s a social predator, in a way, ready to respect “worthy” foes like the Doctor, and to an extent Clara, but merciless when it comes to the little people (see how she treats Bill in comparison to Clara, that’s honestly very telling). But really, the main joy of it all is that we’re getting a female Doctor and Master in the same story. Go back ten years – no, not even, just five years, and try imagining, from that place in time, that this would happen someday. You gotta love Who. Could use a few less J.K. Rowling references, though. There are other books in pop culture, y’know, and Who has already payed homage to her, probably way more than she deserves.
The alternative Who media has many roles, and of the ones it assumes must often, for better or worse, is to be a sort of curator of continuity, tidying up the canon in as neat an ensemble as possible. In that anthology, the heaviest slice of continuity is probably contained in Cavan Scott’s “Lords & Masters”, dealing with Missy’s escape from Gallifrey and the complications arising from it. I must admit I initially wasn’t too fond of it – the hail of references and allusions it hits the reader with isn’t necessarily unpleasant (the idea that the Simm incarnation forced Rassillon to regenerate by making him eat his precious magic diamonds is lovely), but it’s heavy and a bit artificial. It’s probably the kind of things that work better in audio, where you get the thrill of emblematic characters and voices returning and acting out their parts. Also, as it turns out, Missy is a surprisingly character to get the hang of – her voice is tied in a rather primal way to Gomez’ performance and Moffat’s writing, so trying to recreate it, with its raw, intoxicating mixture of charm and feral killer instinct, is a tricky exercise. Goss does it best, although it’s still not quite bull’s eye, Rayner and Anghelides pull it off, but the rest, well, it could be better. She comes off as a bit too whimsical here, at least in the first half. Because yes, that story improves a lot as it goes on – it was foolish of me to underestimate Scott, who is a very talented writer, really. There are hints of the Forge arc, him and Mark Wright’s magnum opus, as the story shifts into the exploration of a laboratory of time technology and takes some truly brutal turns. Bones get crushed, hands get severed, the guest cast gets savaged. Missy gets to be truly, properly evil there – after all, it’s still early days, and the kind of cruelty she exhibited towards, let’s say, Osgood, is still very much present. Putting it just after “Dismemberment” therefore offers quite an interesting contrast – nice bit of editing there.
After that comes Paul Magrs’ “Teddy Sparkles Must Die!”, which I’ll admit wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. No disrespect to Magrs, who is of course one of the most important creative voices in the Who world – it’s just I tend to have difficulties adhering to his more comedic work (on the other hand, his fairytale pastiches and more serious dramas I do lap up), with some notable exceptions. This, sadly, wasn’t one of them – the joke of Missy being a Mary Poppins-like nanny isn’t unfunny per se, but it’s really obvious (I mean, “Death in Heaven” points it out pretty explicitly) and I’m not sure it has the potential to sustain an entire story, however short. The children’s book style, while a very well-crafted pastiche, probably hurts the potentially really interesting emotional stakes, too – seeing children having their lives derailed into paths of boring conformity and ennui and eventually rebelling against that is a fascinating hook, but they remain too thinly sketched to really create empathy. I do see the appeal of the fast-paced, neverending flow of craziness that is that tale, though, and there are genuinely great moments – the switch of the narrative duties to Missy is an inspired bit of crack, and the final scene manages to be sweet in all the right ways. But the story remains, for me at least, too far from its thematic and emotional core, and from Missy’s character, who is really only ever seen from an outsider’s perspective that caricatures her into some kind of childhood villain, a Rumpelstiltskin-like figure, to truly hit.
Jacqueline Rayner’s “Girl Power!” on the other hand, is a pure riot. It’s the only one to truly figure the Doctor for an extended period of time, which could be a problem, but the choice of pre-series 10 Saint Luke’s campus as a setting is a godsend, fleshing out meaningfully some quite underdeveloped but really interesting aspects of Steven Moffat’s swansong series. And … There’s just not a whole lot of ways to say “this is amazingly, incredibly funny”, is it? Missy’s sense of threat is maintained, largely thanks to Nardole’s over-the-top panic, but from her buying lists to stellar Twelve/Nardole banter, this is a true laugh-out-loud one. Space Amazon grilling a bunch of local chicken and offering the college robot, laser-eyed versions as a replacement is the kind of gag that a Terry Pratchett at the peak of his powers could have done, and it had me howling. But beyond the (oh so very) fun aspects, there’s quite a bit of interesting character stuff going on – it’s not amazingly deep, and doesn’t have the richness of Goss’ opening story, but it’s very well-crafted nonetheless, with Missy basically educating herself on femininity and women’s histories and trying, in her own, slightly misguided (and possibly still self-interested – the story smartly doesn’t spell anything out, even if the truth is rather obvious) way. When on top of her game, Rayner is without a doubt the best comedic writer of the expanded universe, able to marry true hilarity with high-concept ideas (the epistolary structure, here, which is very, very inspired and helps the humor a lot) and stellar character beats – this is not quite “The Grel Escape”, but it’s still a proof of that fact.
The final story also shares a series 10 setting, but alas, doesn’t hit nearly as well as Rayner’s – Richard Dinnick’s “Alit in Underworld” is probably the weakest tale in the anthology. Setting a story during the space between the two parts of the finale is a potentially inspired idea, but it also limits what can be done – it’s hard having much of an impact when the final line of the story has already been written. The story tries to lead to a moment where Missy realizes she will have to eliminate her formal self and bring her own ascension and rise – which in theory works quite well, bringing the book essentially full circle, but sadly, that beat feels very much unearned, the story doesn’t really making explicit why she comes to that realization. Most of it is just devoted to the Master, Missy and the young girl Alit exploring the depths of the colony ship – which on one hand allows for some pretty compelling worldbuilding fleshing out the very interesting setting of that two-parter, but isn’t intrinsically tied up to Missy’s own becoming and relationship with her former self. The end result, while not unpleasant or offensive, feels very unfocused and without much point – really, all the essential beats were already covered by “The Doctor Falls” and Dinnick fails to add anything meaningful. Still, it rounds up the anthology in an adequate enough way, be it only for the structural symmetry.
There are some frustrating issues with the book as an ensemble – the writing of Missy, and a certain unwillingness to engage with the depths of her character –, but I do feel like the individual heights of “Dismemberment” and “Girl Power!” are more than enough to justify buying it. Let’s hope that, since Missy audios are apparently confirmed, they will bring Goss and Rayner, these eternal geniuses of Who, onboard.