Beginning with the young single mother Nancy in ‘The Empty Child’ (2005) Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who stories have often included strongly written female characters. His creation of female roles reached new levels of variety and controversy with his transformation of the Master into the Mistress, or Missy for short. Until 2014 this recurring villain, a Time Lord like the Doctor, had been played by male actors, primarily Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley and John Simm. In 2014 the role was recast and recreated with Michelle Gomez playing the Master regenerated as a female. Reaction from reviewers, from fans and from online anti-Moffat ‘trolls’ has been diverse. While there has been near-unanimous praise for Gomez’s performance as Missy, the re-gendering of a male character created anxiety among some fans that this transformation could be the prelude to recasting the Doctor as a female. Her reappearance in the opening two episodes of the 2015 series has again prompted critical praise for Gomez as well as commentary on the possibility of a female Doctor.
Amidst all the hype on the re-gendering via regeneration, one point was almost overlooked, which is the type of female Missy chose to become. In teasers across Peter Capaldi’s first season audiences saw glimpses of Missy as a politely spoken woman wearing old fashioned clothing. When she appeared, bloggers and reviewers pointed to the visual resemblance between Missy and Mary Poppins, or rather Poppins as she was in the 1964 Disney film. Missy wears respectable Edwardian attire, including a long skirt, cameo brooch and straw hat. This visual connection is seen especially the scene in ‘Death in Heaven’ when Missy floats down to earth holding her umbrella with her feet turned outwards in a classic Poppins pose.
This comparison was both misplaced but also unwittingly accurate. There may be a visual resemblance, but there is a disjunction in terms of behaviour between Missy’s psychopathy and Mary’s sweetness, the disjunction being from the nanny as played by Julie Andrews and adapted by Walt Disney. Den of Geek’s review captures it well with the observation that Missy was Mary Poppins ‘filtered through gin and the works of Edward Gorey’. So while Missy looked like Mary Poppins, it is more accurate to say that she looked like Disney’s version while behaving nothing like her.
But Missy’s behaviour is a fascinating restatement of the sinister associations that have gathered around nannies in British literature, including the original Mary Poppins books themselves. Missy is a reclamation of Poppins as she was before Disney got hold of her. The sinister implications of the character have been shown in other media such as the mock trailer for Scary Mary, which recut scenes from Disney’s film into a horror movie trailer. It should not be surprising that Moffat is like other Doctor Who writers in tapping into the deeply sinister resonances of British children’s fiction. Terrifying children and eerie situations involving the childlike recur throughout Doctor Who. The little girl in ‘The Family of Blood’ who skips along laneways in pre-World War One England looks like one of E. Nesbit’s Railway Children, but kills people. The peg dolls and dolls’ house in ‘Night Terrors’ are deeply disturbing, not least because the dolls giggle as they kill. Their uncanny effect and the sinister setting of a dolls’ house come to life suggests a lineage with M.R. James’s ghost story for children ‘The Haunted Dolls’ House’ (1923). A jack-in-the-box is a part of a tense cliffhanger in ‘Kinda’. Something childish that is also nightmarish is a good description of the Kandy Man in ‘The Happiness Patrol’ who not only makes sweets that kill but is a killer made out of sweets. In ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ the bumptious school boy Cyril is like Billy Bunter gone bad. In an example of the often unexpectedly high levels of graphic violence in 1960s Doctor Who, the last we see of Cyril is a shot of his smouldering, shrivelled corpse on the floor after he has been electrocuted in a deadly game. His demeanour and appearance brought to mind famous children’s literature but with a nastier edge added courtesy of Doctor Who.
And we can consider nannies, who are also archetypes from British literature. Highly perverted versions of the traditional Edwardian nanny have been antagonists of the Doctor, including Matron Cofelia of the Five Straighten Classabindi Nursery Fleet, Intergalactic Class’ in ‘Partners in Crime’, who nurtured her charges but tried to kill everyone else. Now there is Missy who in ‘Dark Water’ and ‘Death in Heaven’ (2014) is a frightening figure holding an umbrella, wearing Edwardian garb, speaking sternly and, we learn, reanimating the dead but converting them to Cybermen (although the program also missed an opportunity in suggesting Missy’s TARDIS may have been a handbag that was bigger on the inside than the outside). Missy’s dialogue draws upon the traditions of the strict nanny as she chastises the Doctor: ‘Now, now, children. Naughty, naughty’. However the twist is this nanny also will kill her charges. One is Dr Chang, whom we learn Missy has brought up since childhood. Missy kills him, but also insists Chang display good manners while she murders him: ‘I’m not going to kill you until you say something nice.’
Her conduct hardly brings to mind a spoonful of sugar, or a sung exhortation to feed the birds for tuppence a bag or indeed much else from Disney’s film. However, it is arguably the case that Missy is a far more authentic distillation of the magical nanny from the original books than Disney’s version. The original books by P.L.Travers are now far less well known than the Disney film, but they offer a reminder that Travers’ character was sinister, a quality captured in Missy’s deranged villainy. Travers’ first book, 1934’s Mary Poppins repeatedly stressed Mary’s threatening demeanour. She had hypnotic influence whereby Michael Banks found that ‘Mary Poppins’ eyes were fixed upon him, and Michael suddenly discovered that you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her’. The parallel with the Master’s signature hypnotisms is uncanny, including the line familiar from the 1970s Delgado incarnation ‘you will obey me’. Travers also stresses Mary’s abruptness and her capacity to frighten children; at one point in the first book she gives a ‘warning, terrible glance’. This Mary is more in line with Katie Nanna, the unpleasant nanny played by horror movie actress Elsa Lanchester in the Disney film, or the gun wielding nanny in the 1967 The Avengers episode ‘Something nasty in the nursery’. Also there was the tendency to infantilise their charges that these nannies shared, a relationship captured in Steven Moffat’s scripts when Missy unveils her army of Cybermen and shouts ‘Cyber dears, look at mummy’, before demonstrating her control over their minds by forcing each to engage in synchronised physical actions. The tragedy captured in the scene is that each cybernetic creature contains the reanimated mind of a deceased human, now stripped of humanity, of free will and volition and of dignity as their ‘nanny’ humiliates and patronises them.
But no matter how stern or frightening she was in the original books, Mary Poppins commanded the fascination of her charges and Jane and Michael Banks accompanied her on many adventures. In her most recent appearance, Missy exerts a similar influence over Clara, the Doctor’s companion. Missy abuses, manipulates and attacks Clara, but also beguiles her and at the start of ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ (2015) the pair of them team up and exchange banter with each other as they stride into the Dalek’s headquarters. While Missy, like Mary in the books, is captivatingly sinister she also is a good companion in adventure and Clara’s only hope of getting in to help the Doctor.
Perhaps the lesson this nanny imparts to Clara as they team up for adventure is one familiar from a children’s rhyme: ‘always keep ahold of nurse/For fear of finding something worse’.
Note: The quotes from P.L.Travers’ Mary Poppins are from the book first published in 1934 and reprinted by Collins in 1998.
Dr Marcus Harmes lectures at the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia. He has authored books including Doctor Who and the Art of Adaptation (2014) and the entry in the Devil’s Advocates series on The Curse of Frankenstein.