In Extremis: Doctor Who’s Missy and the Art of Virtue

Doctor Who series ten spoilers incoming…


Last Monday morning was tough enough to begin with, but coupled with the fact that the previous night had seen me put myself through the Doctor Who series ten finale “The Doctor Falls,” I could not help feeling oddly grief-stricken at the loss of one of my absolute favorite characters.

In all seriousness, I even told a few fellow Whovians that I felt like someone I actually knew in actual life had actually died, and the grief was real. It was incredibly childish and silly of me, but I was silently mourning pretty much all morning last Monday. This character became so real for me.

She is still so real for me.

Yes, you guessed it.

The character is Missy (short for The Mistress), otherwise known as the future female-regenerated version of the Doctor’s lifelong archenemy/childhood friend, The Master.

When Missy first made her appearance in the two-parter finale “Dark Water” / “Death in Heaven” at the end of Doctor Who series eight, I…

…well…

I couldn’t exactly help laughing my head off and getting giggly everytime she reappeared onscreen to either blow something up, jump out of something, get up to some hilariously sinister plan, or just say something utterly ridiculous and—in all honesty—quite horrible.

So to answer your question, yes: she is insane.

Missy, as she is introduced in “Dark Water” is one of those insane-and-scattered-brained-yet-somehow-simultaneously-organized-and-wack psychopaths who has a passion for wreaking havoc on their frenemy and making them go *gasp* with their compromised morals and trying (for the umpteenth time) to achieve world domination.

Missy starts out as something akin to her previous incarnation (the Simm!Master, who we will refer to simply as Simm in this post) and shares many of the same characteristics as James Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock.

But she was hilarious all the same, and I developed a really weird soft spot for and Squishy Woman Crush™ on her, because at the same time all of her creepy-yet-hilarious-full-fledged sadism was happening, I was laughing my head off. Should I be embarrassed?

But at the same time, I was very intrigued.

Because…she also helps The Doctor? But then she does something that doesn’t help and then she decides its her way or the highway…but then she comes back again and saves him?

What exactly does this womansorry, Time Lady—want?

Throughout Missy’s first few adventures with The Doctor, you get a sense of yearning from her. She wants to have the old days of friendship back: for things to be as they once were with her and The Doctor, when they were friends and weren’t trying to kill one another (as horrible as that sounds).

It isn’t until series ten, when she is to be executed at the hands of The Doctor for her many, many crimes that she actually starts to show a genuine desire to turn good, and I really started rooting for my favorite Time Lady. Obviously, skeptical in the extreme, but incredibly hopeful.

To be fair, we are talking about the self-proclaimed Queen of Evil™ here. I had to be a bit wary.

Please. I’ll do anything. Just let me live….

I’ll be good. I promise. I’ll turn—I’ll turn good. Please teach me—teach me how to be…good.

Missy from Series 10 Episode 6, “Extremis”

The Doctor hears the desparation in her voice, he spares her from execution, and she is sentenced to live inside a vault guarded by The Doctor for a thousand years. Over the course of those one thousand years, The Doctor hears her saying things he never believed he would ever hear her say.

She cries.

She thinks.

She remembers all the people she’s killed.

And over and over and over again, in the wake of The Doctor’s mercy, she tells him that she’s changed. She listens to him. She does what she’s told (to the best of her naughty ability). She makes those small, good choices that make him stop and wonder.

She tells him that she wants to be good.

She wants to learn what goodness is.

And throughout the entirety of the tenth series, we hear the oft-repeated proverb about what goodness is:

Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit—without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.

Recurring Verse Throughout Series 10

This is where I fall in love with Steven Moffat’s storytelling techniques: he defines goodness/virtue and asks us to measure the actions of the characters by the definition of goodness. Are they good?

Each of the characters—at some point or other in series ten—finds themselves in a situation where they are without hope, without witness, and without reward, and it is only then that the audience can examine them and find if they are truly good.

When they have no hope.

When no one is watching.

And when they aren’t promised anything for their goodness.

(Bill Potts remaining good even as a Cyberman, The Doctor choosing to fight to the death in “The Doctor Falls” when he’s all alone and has no hope for survival, etc.)

This is where Missy’s death was actually so significant. In her death, she solidified every doubt in the audience’s mind: her death confirmed that she was good.

Spoiler alert: Missy was killed by her former self, The Simm!Master (whom fellow Whovian Shay and I hate with a bitter hatred and have vowed to enter the Whoniverse to track him down and make him pay).

You can almost say she killed herself, if you interpret it another way.

In a final decision, she stabs her former self with a poison-laced knife, giving him about fifteen minutes before regeneration. She tells him that it’s time to do what they should have done all along: stand with The Doctor. In angry retaliation at what he fears he will become, Simm blasts Missy with his sonic, disabling her ability to regenerate or rejoin The Doctor in the final battle.

Honestly I could go on and on about you-are-your-own-worst-enemy symbols here, but for the sake of time (and my emotional health) we will just plow on.

Simm gets away and Missy is left alone in the woods to spend her last few moments with tears in her eyes and looking at the sky.

The worst part about Missy’s death?

I had hoped that her and The Doctor would be on equal ground and would renew their friendship…that The Doctor would understand that Missy did change and truly was good.

And that didn’t happen and it crushed my soul.

Missy did turn good…except no one was there to know it.

But (oodles of thank yous to Shay who helped me see this), looking at it a different way, her death is a moment for the audience to see Missy at her truest self. Her death scene is her time of measurement: the audience is expected to measure her up against the show’s recurring definition of what goodness is.

Is she good when she’s alone? Is she good when she only has a few moments left to live? Is she good when there is no reward for her decision of goodness?

Is she good even when The Doctor isn’t watching her?

And the answer is yes.

Virtue is only virtue in extremis.

In extremis is Latin for “on the edge.”

Missy’s redemption was unseen, unrewarded. She had no hope. She knew she was dying. I would even go so far as to theorize that maybe she remembered killing herself when she was Simm. Why wouldn’t she? She said she remembered throwing him up against the wall earlier in the episode. What if Missy remembered killing herself as Simm because she turned good?

Maybe she could’ve made the conscious decision to join her formal self and evade death. Who knows?

Either way—whether she knew or not—she still had no hope, she was unwitnessed, and she had no reward.

I’ve had discussions with friends before about whether or not humanity is simply motivated by unconscious egoistic drives, and a lot of times we are tempted to think we’re only motivated by self-interest, even if the self-interest looks self-less.

But true, unadulterated virtue is when there is nothing whatsoever in it for us and even then we are still good for Christ’s sake.

When I say for Christ’s sake, I’m not swearing, by the way. I mean actually doing good for the sake of Christ.

Even when there is nothing in it for us do we make the decision of goodness for God’s sake. Goodness for the sake of goodness, for God is good.

This is why Missy has become such a special character to me. She was pushed to the extremis and despite everything she had done up until that point—all the good, all the bad, and all the very bad—she made the choice for good for goodness’ sake.

Her death was one of the saddest moments in the entire tenth series, but coming to this realization of it as a manifestation of the extremis proverb in her life, it made her death so satisfying, fulfilling, and beautiful.

Because being virtuous is an art. It’s arguably one of the only traits that is the most beautiful when no one knows about it.

Of course you’ll do good when everyone has their eyes on you.

Of course you’ll act honorably when people are holding you accountable.

It’s when no one sees, when no one is offering you anything, and when you’re not even sure you’ll be benefited by virtue that being virtuous is the most beautiful.

That’s why the heartbreaking manner of Missy’s death was so beautiful.

While it went unnoticed by The Doctor, it was the greatest way she could have died:

She died solidifying her virtue in extremis.

*goes to cry in a corner*

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and stress-read The Missy Chronicles, because reading about my favorite Time Lady ruffling eighteenth-century men’s feathers and being a governess with a talking stuffed bear named Teddy Sparkles is going to cure my grief.

*coughs*

Thank you for coming to listen to my woes.

Special thanks to my sister Ally, Maribeth, Shay, and Parker for letting me cry Whovian tears on their Whovian shoulders all week. I love you guys so much. *sends hugs across the interwebz* You guys are my ultimate geek squad, and I am so grateful for your souls!

Ooh, and my assemblage of items for my new Doctor Who cosplay is complete, and now all I have to do is figure out my hair. Makeup and clothing is all sorted…I’m just trying to do something with this uncooperative stuff atop my head.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, then let me enlighten you: I am cosplaying Missy.

I might add that my wee Scottish accent is quite amazing, if I do say so myself.

I am tremendously excited to share this with you all! 😉

*squeals*

Weeeeeeeeee 😆

Look at me, I’m bananas,

Emily

One thought on “In Extremis: Doctor Who’s Missy and the Art of Virtue

  1. MISSYYYYYY *cue loud sobbing from me, tears completely drenching my laptop, running off my bed, and beginning to flood my bedroom floor*

    Alrighty but thIS WAS SUCH A GOOD EXPLORATION OF WHY SHE’S SUCH A GREAT CHARACTER AND WHY SHE MEANS SO MUCH TO US!!!! THANK YOU for writing it and putting it here on your blog, ahhgg!!! I Loved It!!! (oh and thanks for the shout-outs! I’m glad our conversations have been beneficial in more ways than just causing each other to scream and cry about our favs more than we already do!! 😂😊)

    I have to admit, it took me a while to realize the depth of meaning in Missy dying alone, “without hope, without witness, without reward” myself. For a while, I was just utterly heartbroken and confused as to why Moffat would make that decision for her — after trying so hard and long to prove herself to the Doctor, why would he make her die cold and lonely in the dark, and then force the Doctor to stand by himself in his “final hour”?? (it wasn’t really, we know that now, but HE sure thought it would be at the time) Isn’t he the one who has spoken so strongly about his belief in Doctor Who’s themes of hope?? We know he likes to torment us and break our hearts, yes, but he often manages to do so in ways that still speak of strength and beauty of hope and redemption. So WHY ON EARTH would he end Missy’s arc — the arc all about redemption and struggling to be better and trying to become “good” — in apparent hopelessness?? Why would he show the Doctor fighting so long and hard for her, for the belief that she can be good again, sacrificing his freedom and the safety of himself and his friends for the hope that she’ll make the right choice… only to never let him see the fruit of his efforts???
    But then I saw where someone else had mentioned that Missy’s last stand in the forest was the culmination of everything the Doctor had been trying to teach her, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy and a bittersweet acceptance of the goodness she’d tried so long to understand. And it all made sense. It still hurts a lot and my heart will probably always be achy when I think about it — and I desperately want to know that the Doctor DOES eventually find out about her desire to stand by his side again — but it means so much more now that I understand.

    And while this might be a little off-track, I have to say it… I’m also still not over the fact that that “in extremis” line that so inspired the Doctor and Missy was written by my other favorite lady, RIVER SONG HERSELF. There’s something really special in how much that pushed the Doctor to be better, motivating his resolution to look after Missy for that one-thousand years, and how it became his mantra throughout some of the darkest moments he had to face.
    “Only in darkness are we revealed – goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit, without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis. This is what he believes, and this is the reason, above all, I love him.” (ya know, I still have to wonder just how Nardole got that diary back out of the Vashta Nerada-infested library… hmmm…) That’s just such a powerful way to understand true goodness, and the way Moffat seamlessly wove it into a season following the themes of identity and goodness and striving to be the best that we can… man that guy has all my respect as a creator. I mean, you can’t help but appreciate how he can write such meaningful, poignant stories, even if he IS also an utterly devious little imp who really seems to take a sadistic level of enjoyment in hurting his characters and their fans. 😝

    Ok this has become a L O N G comment, so I’m signing off now — I can’t wait to see the rest of your cosplay!! AND to talk to you about Thirteen whenever you get to watching her seasons!! 😁

    – Shay ❤

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