‘Missy: Series Two’ reviewed

“Oh, no, it’s a sequel!” Kevin Burnard on the second volume of Missy audio adventures.

“Lisa McMullin’s The Lumiat, a daring assault on recent Doctor Who continuity with some rich perspectives on the Master as a character… is the deepest dive into why Missy does what she does that Big Finish have yet done, as the character who knows her best questions why she bothers with these futile schemes, and whether she might just be capable of good.”

It’s strange to think Missy has been off our screens for three years now. Perhaps the most loved incarnation of the Master so far, Michelle Gomez’ anarchic stamp on the role has been massive, and it didn’t take Big Finish long to capitalise on it, giving her a very successful box set of her own, as well as guest appearances facing off against River Song and the Eighth Doctor. Now she’s back for her second series of solo audio adventures. The results are more of the same, just bigger, but the anarchic energy feels a little less thrilling when it starts to become familiar.

That’s not a problem for the first episode, Lisa McMullin’s The Lumiat, a daring assault on recent Doctor Who continuity with some rich perspectives on the Master as a character. Missy, now armed with a TARDIS after the events of the previous set and a companion she’s dredged up with a few threats and a disastrous picnic, sets out in a desperate bid to get the Doctor’s attention, and ends up with more than she bargained for. The plot is a mad dash through increasingly ridiculous schemes designed for the Doctor to thwart, some more compelling in of themselves than others, but all serving as an effective scaffolding for the real heart of the story. This is the deepest dive into why Missy does what she does that Big Finish have yet done, as the character who knows her best questions why she bothers with these futile schemes, and whether she might just be capable of good.

It’s in these scenes that the story really comes to life, fleshing out her character arc through The Doctor Falls and her final stand to be good. To say more about her mysterious sparing partner would give away all the fun, but suffice to say it’s a huge concept that’s already thrown flowchart-making fans into an excited tizzy. More importantly, this narrative means both ends of Missy’s arc are held in contrast, her gleeful villainy and her heartbroken need for moral validation, and the results give Gomez her best audio acting to date. The Lumiat is this volume’s standout piece, and easily the most interesting character exploration Big Finish has done with Missy so far.

From the most daring and conceptual story of the set, we go to the first of two straightforward sequels to the original Missy set, each by the same writer. First up is Roy Gill’s Brimstone and Terror, which brings back Missy’s former charges as a Governess, Oliver and Lucy, and throws in Strax the Sontaran for good measure. Whereas in his previous installment, A Spoonful of Mayhem, Gill satirized Mary Poppins magic nanny narratives, here he hops influences. This time, Missy has taken command of a boarding school for boys that Oliver is enrolled in as part of a mad scheme involving a child army, some very special jewels, and a literal winter goddess, the setting shift allowing for loving homage to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Lindsay Anderson’s If….

The story itself is ultimately tremendously straightforward, but the engagement with these influences and literary theory prove compelling. Missy is explicitly a postmodern force here, interrupting Oliver’s exposition narration to demand he get with it and trolling fussy establishment types over her status as a “queer” figure. Missy’s plan in this story even revolves around Victorian conceptions of her gender, forced to scramble for power through different venues as a result of repressive society. It’s a less emotionally focused engagement with the character than the previous story, but a solidly compelling one, exploring the gray area between chaotic subversive and anarchic liberator. The plot ultimately fizzles, depending on unseen antics by absent characters and some heavy plot borrowing from A Spoonful of Mayhem to resolve a ridiculous plot to get the Doctor’s attention. It’s the sort of plot the previous episode sent up, now played relatively straight. Strax’s involvement also ends up feeling perfunctory despite some great lines, and actor Dan Starkey’s juggling of additional characters and disguises can be a little frustrating to distinguish at times. But for one inclined to pick at critical theory and literary influences, Brimstone and Terror is full of intriguing details moulded by a strong vision, and well worth mulling over. 

The third episode, relative newcomer Gemma Arrowsmith’s Treason and Plot, is another fairly slender romp, this time revolving around Missy’s attempts to hitch a lift from a passing time-traveler by messing with the events of the gunpowder plot, putting her into conflict with a hapless rookie Time Agent. It mostly serves as a loose scaffolding for some comedy set-pieces; fortunately, most of them are genuinely hilarious. Missy forcing Guy Fawkes and co to run laps and do push-ups set to some of Joe Kraemer’s most serene scoring is a particular riot, though shenanigans around the delivery of the Monteagle letter come close. I could quibble about Time Agent Rita Cooper being a bit too loosely tied into events, and not getting quite as much personal growth from her rookie mission gone wrong as I’d like to hear, but she’s just one more appealing performance in a story full of them, and it helps the simple plot breeze by.

However, I do have to question the overall editing and structure of the set at this point. This is the third consecutive story about Missy hatching ridiculous schemes just to get another time-traveler’s attention. Especially after The Lumiat was about how fundamentally pointless and ridiculous Missy’s schemes are, it’s grating to get two stories about pointless and ridiculous schemes. I had a genuinely good time with both Brimstone and Terror and Treason and Plot, but I can’t help but think I’d have had a better time with them if they hadn’t come after The Lumiat challenged me and raised my expectations. I suspect my feelings for the set, though positive, would have been far more glowing with the stories reshuffled, building to The Lumiat as a concluding story. Instead, we get Too Many Masters.

Too Many Masters is the second of the direct sequel stories in this set, John Dorney penning a rematch between Missy and Rufus Hound’s Meddling Monk after the events of the first set’s Divorced, Beheaded, Regenerated. The previous story has gone down as something of a fan-favourite, a simple but tremendously enjoyable farce in which Missy and the Monk wind up betrothed and constantly daring each other to follow through with the wedding. As with then, this is a fairly light story, mostly focused on giving space for comedy set-pieces using Hound and Gomez’ endless skills for getting laughs. However, this time, the world of King Henry VIII’s court has been swapped out for a space opera with classic Who monsters the Ogrons, and they take up a lot of the room.

Ultimately, your mileage with Too Many Masters will depend on how funny you find the ape-like space primitives. If the reveal that female Ogrons are hairy and stupid as “the others, only curvier” makes you guffaw, for example, you’ll definitely have a good time here. Personally, I don’t have much patience for them, and this story failed to land for me as a result. If the jokes in a comedy don’t land for you, it’s not going to leave much else to enjoy. Rufus Hound and Michelle Gomez continue to be winning talent who I love hearing face off, but I have their previous outing for that, and it sounds like there’ll be more showdowns to come. I don’t feel the need to go back through this story for a couple brilliant exchanges when other sources for that banter exist!

The score, by Joe Kraemer, hits a bit of a wall in this set, as well, after his fine work on the first volume. While I did notice a little bit of incidental music I was unfamiliar with, it’s largely recycled from his previous work on the previous Missy set, as well as some sections from the Paternoster range and other works. This isn’t inherently a problem, but some of the recycling feels more elegant than other bits; the exoticist riff for a genie in the first Missy set, for example, feels downright out of place for a visit to the Black Archive in The Lumiat. I understand the need to compose on a budget, especially for a composer used to far higher profile projects, but that doesn’t excuse pieces being reused in tonally inappropriate ways, and it took me out of several scenes. There’s good work in the foundations, they’re good pieces, but the final execution feels muddled.

And that, ultimately, is the impression I’m left with for this second volume of Missy audio adventures. I had a genuinely good time with most of these stories, and enjoyed as many of them as I did the previous set. But it just doesn’t have the same lightning-in-a-bottle feel. There’s just a few too many odd choices and recycled beats, which, while good in of themselves, don’t work as well when put together. I’m thrilled this set exists. Michelle Gomez’ incarnation of the Master is one of my favourite characters in all of Doctor Who, and I’ll happily follow her to the ends of the universe, even if it means dragging my way through a million Ogrons. But fun a time as I had, I wish this whole set was as daring and challenging as the character at her finest.

❉ ‘Missy: Series 2’  is available now to own as a collector’s edition box set at £24.99 or download from the Big Finish website at £19.99. For a limited time, the digital download of Missy series one is available at 33% OFF, alongside a selection of discounted Big Finish titles featuring Missy’s former incarnations as the Master: https://www.bigfinish.com/collections/v/the-master These sale offers are valid until 23:59 (UK time) on 15 July 2020.

❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.

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