I have been enjoying this latest season of Doctor Who quite a bit. I think they’ve finally given Peter Capaldi a good run of solidly-written episodes to really show off his take on the character, his companion Bill has been very well done, and as a fan of the classic series I’ve enjoyed the return of some of the classic antagonists.
(We’re going to get into spoilery territory here, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who. Proceed on your own advice)
I’ve also been enjoying the storyline with Missy, and her (apparent) desire for atonement for their past crimes and (apparent) desire to be a better person now. I said on Twitter a couple week ago that I would very much like this apparent desire for redemption to be real, and although the latest episode (ending with Missy standing, apparently thoroughly content, next to her past incarnation and Bill who has been horribly converted into a Cyberman) makes it all look very doubtful. I still want it to be true, though.
In part this is because Michelle Gomez has, I think, given a really compelling performance throughout the storyline. I should take a moment to say that after a wee bit of initial scepticism I have adored her in the role overall. Gomez channels just enough of past Masters (she gets a certain facial expression that Anthony Ainley used to use exactly right) to remind you that this is the same character, but has till carved out something entirely unique with her casual contempt for the people around her and almost bored attitude towards death. It has, then, been interesting to see her playing this character apparently regretting all this villainy, and she’s sold it very, very well. The scene where she asks the Doctor if they can now be friends again was really touching, and for a moment at least you really believed Missy wants, very badly, to have her oldest (and probably only) friend back again. You can tell that the Doctor wants to believe her as much as I do in the audience, although he doesn’t quite trust it, and the audience knows that he is probably right.
I have always kind of been a sucker for villain-redemption stories in general, though. Done well, they can provide an entirely new life for a character; in this case, a redeemed (or at least kind-of-redeemed) Master would be an intriguing character to have around. In the X-Men comics I read growing up, Magneto became (to me) much more interesting once he moved from being a villain to (sometimes reluctant) ally. Walter Skinner was a much better character once he was, somewhat exasperatedly, on Mulder and Scully’s side than when he was trying to shut them down. Missy (or some version of the Master, as this is apparently Michelle Gomez’ last season in the role) as a similar figure for the Doctor would be interesting territory for writers to explore, I think.
Done well, the story of a villain’s redemption is immensely satisfying. To cherry-pick a really easy example, the eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is a wonderful ending to the original Star Wars trilogy. Even the film’s most iconic villain can be brought back to the good side in the end. I think, personally, this is part of why I like villain-redemption stories; I think I probably would like to believe that even the very worst people can eventually be persuaded that they’ve been wrong and convinced to change their ways. I don’t think I’m alone in this; one of the most beloved Christmas stories is basically this happening to Ebenezer Scrooge.
However, there are problems. On Doctor Who, we know, if we know anything, that an appearance by the Master (Missy incarnation or not) isn’t an appearance by the Master until it ends with them cackling like a maniac and revealing their diabolical plot. This is, along with some kind of disguise, one of the essential elements of a Master story, and we’ve already had the disguise.
This is part of the wider problem with redeeming villains in general. For a writer, if you turn your villain away from being a baddie, you get one compelling story out of it, but if you’re continuing to write in that world, you’ve now deprived yourself of an engaging villain, and you’ve already got a hero. Missy the antagonist, the weaver of plots and architect of horrible schemes, is far more useful to the writer than a reformed ally is ever likely to be. This, I think, is why a lot of redemption stories in comics and ongoing series tend to be temporary: however good the reformation story was, in the end the character works better as a villain, and so back they go to the other side of the chess board.
I am reminded, as well, of one of the more ‘meta’ parts of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 comic, where an alternate-universe version of Reed Richards is musing on whether Ben Grimm can ever be cured of being the Thing. Reed concludes that they live in a universe of stories (very Gaiman there) and that this unfortunately means that any cure could only be temporary, because Ben is a much better story as the Thing. Likewise, Missy is probably a better story, or makes for better stories, as a villain, and so I’m fairly confident that she’ll end up there sooner rather than later.
There’s yet another problem with redeeming villains. There is a point at which it is reasonable to question whether or not they deserve to be redeemed, whether or not they can reasonably be forgiven, and whether we can ever see them as anything but monsters. In the case of Missy, this is a character who has done evil things on an immense scale. Never mind the sheer number of beings they’ve killed, either personally or through things they’ve done, this is a person who destroyed a significant chunk of the universe through one of their anti-Doctor schemes in Logopolis. Can you ever really say to such a person, ‘well, it’s ok, we’re all good?’
I kind of touched on this a while ago in the blog regarding the controversy over Marvel’s ‘Captain America as secret Nazi’ plotline. There are some things, I think, that your characters don’t get to come back from, or at least, that your audience isn’t required to accept villains coming back from. In my view, secret Nazi Cap is one of those. Michelle Gomez’ winning performance aside, it may be reasonable enough to say that the Master is another. And yet, Darth Vader, the brutal, terrorizing, torturing, arch-villain of Star Wars, for some reason I’m all right with. It is, for me, a difficult equation to try to balance. I’d like the villains to be redeemed in the end, but as an audience it’s probably not always possible to accept and as a writer you may be pushing your luck with what you’re asking of your readers.
I guess we ask ourselves this about real world people all the time. Can people who have committed terrible acts ever be forgiven for them? Are they condemned forever? I suppose in some ways it would be comforting to think that no matter what mis-steps we make, that we can always be forgiven if we’re truly sorry for what we’ve done (thus the selling point of at least one major religion), but can we practically believe it? Is society required to actually do it?
Now, Doctor Who hasn’t come out and explicitly addressed any of this territory, and nor did Star Wars, not really, but I think one final reason why villain-redemption stories are compelling is that, done well, they make you think of all these issues. Part of the power of fiction is to thrust these conundrums upon us and ask us to wrestle with them, and the question of Missy, whether she genuinely wants to atone or is just waiting to drop her latest bomb on the Doctor, and whether her atonement could ever be enough for us, are interesting puzzles for an audience to pick at.
I don’t really have answers for the sticky questions above. Except perhaps that yes, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed for everything he did as Darth Vader, but he gives his life to earn it.
I also saw Wonder Woman. It was, I thought, a really good movie, for a variety of reasons. However, I’m not going to write blog post on it. After I got home from the film I made a Facebook post about how I had liked it and a very intelligent friend of mine posted back: “What did you like about it?” This took me me back to long-ago conversations when I was doing my MA. This friend is, I have to emphasize here, a thoroughly wonderful person and an amazing companion for both serious and light-hearted times, but every so often the conversation would wander around to scholarship, and sometimes even my research, and then they would ask something like ‘what did you think about it?’ or ‘and what did you conclude?’
In that moment I was (as I guess one is) intensely aware that this person is much cleverer than me and far more well read and that I mostly didn’t want to say something that was ignorant, ill-conceived, stupid, or all of the above. I also lack(ed) the conversational artistry to extract myself from such situations with clever nothingness. In my memory, I usually said something thick and waited for oblivion to come. (I should say, too, that I know my friend was either trying to be helpful, taking an interest, or both. I knew it then. I still never did well under those suddenly serious eyes. Squirm squirm.)
All of which to say that there has already been a good deal written about why Wonder Woman is a good and probably important movie by people who have a better perspective on it than me and articulate the arguments better than I will. It’s not terribly important that the world has my perspective on Wonder Woman, beyond that I think it’s good and that you should go see it, and I don’t want to say anything ignorant, ill-conceived, or stupid.
I did answer my friend’s post though. I hope they didn’t think I was very thick.