Doctor Who’s biggest innovation in recent years is probably transforming the Master, that evil Time Lord, into an evil Time Lady named Missy. And the show obviously aims to capitalize on that surprise, because Missy is back in the two-part season opener, right after the show killed her off in the last season finale.
We were lucky enough to talk on the phone with Michelle Gomez, who plays Missy, about her view of the character—and what it felt like to come back so soon after her character’s apparent demise.
“It took me by surprise,” says Gomez. “I didn’t expect to come back so fast. I felt like I was on a sort of Missy boomerang.”
Gomez adds that she sort of thought maybe Missy was supposed to be dead: “I was vaporized! I thought that was me done. But here I come hard on the heels of the last series. I guess that’s basically what Doctor Who is: something that takes you by surprise.”
Missy is “like a cockroach, in a way. She’s a big, fat, black cockroach that just won’t die,” laughs Gomez. “You can squash that bug as many times as you like, but she’s just going to keep growing another arm, and another leg, and she just won’t die. So because of that, she just sort of plays with death. She doesn’t have any respect for it. It’s just all a game to her. If she can’t die anyway, then she might as well have a lot of fun with it.”
In the season opener, “The Magician’s Apprentice,” we get more hints that the Doctor really does sort of think of Missy as a friend, as well as a deadly nemesis. Gomez says we’re just seeing another layer of their relationship. “You’re just seeing the fact that there’s a lot of history between them, and you can’t just play one thing, because it’s not very interesting.” So you can’t just see the Doctor and Missy being angry with each other the entire time. “There’s something in this series that kind of generates where they came from, and the fact that they have this history.”
Adds Gomez, “Possibly they were incredible friends at one point, but the relationship just went really sour. And that, I found, an interesting layer to play. And I guess a bit more real as well. I mean, they’ve knocked around the universe together for hundreds of years. And I guess that’s what comes across a bit more this season.”
But you should never take anything Missy says at face value, says Gomez, including her claims that she and the Doctor are besties. “She has many tools at her fingertips, and one of them is manipulation,” she says. “She’ll get you to do whatever she needs you to do, however she needs you to do that. And if that means that she’s going to make you think that she’s your friend, then be careful. I just wouldn’t ever trust that woman. Or that person.”
Missy “has a few powers. She can travel through space and time. She can hypnotize you. She can read your mind. She can also manipulate anyone—any situation—and so she’s just doing what she has to do, to get what she has to get done.”
Missy generally only tolerates other people, or uses them to her own ends—but she does seem (the operative word being “seem”) to like Clara. After all, she chose Clara to be the Doctor’s traveling companion, in the beginning, and seems to have some investment in her. “She admires her in a way,” because of her bravery and youthful spirit. At one point, Gomez remembers, Missy looks at Clara and says, “I chose well.” And maybe Clara reminds Missy of herself, “many aeons ago.”
Gomez says that she and Peter Capaldi have a certain amount of shorthand because they’re both from Glasgow. And having that kind of familiarity together on set invites a whole lot of other stuff that wouldn’t be there otherwise. “It’s just very relaxed,” she says, “It’s a really good strong working relationship, and we genuinely find each other quite funny as well. It just makes for there being a little bit of extra chemistry, and a little bit of magic on the day, that you can’t borrow or buy.”
“There’s a history and the Master and the Doctor that goes back hundreds of years,” says Gomez, and the fact that she and Capaldi come from the same town means that they also share some roots. And that helps them seem like they’re from the same place and have something in common, on screen.
Meanwhile, Missy doesn’t really have much time for the Daleks, says Gomez. “They’re not very nimble. They’re not very graceful. She loves her Cybermen, there’s something very cool about them. I, as a fan, am quite partial to the Daleks myself, and especially the ones that are going to turn up in this series. They’re actually a thing of great beauty in a way.”
Adds Gomez, “Missy just has disdain for anything or anyone, even if you’re an inanimate object. That’s her bottom line: a sort of default sense of disdain for anything, really. There’s a sense of arrested development for Missy, emotionally, around age 13 or 14,” she laughs. “She’s just sort of over it. Everything’s just like, ‘Oh, whatever.’”
She won’t say whether Missy is back later on in this season of Doctor Who—but she does say that she’s willing to keep playing the character for years, if they want her to.
“I am having so much fun with this character,” says Gomez, “probably a little too much fun. Occasionally in a career, you get one or two chances to just really enjoy your work and have it not feel like work—even though it is hard work. It’s just a blessing. I’ll play her as long as I can, as long as I’m standing. I’d play her in a wheelchair. I love Missy. She’s great fun.”
Doctor Who returns this Saturday at 9/8c on BBC America.