Northern Hearts, Northern Soul

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I’ve always loved The North (Capital T Capital N). I lived in Yorkshire for almost two decades and because of this it’s been especially interesting to see two wildly different explorations of Northern masculinity grace the small screen recently in Doctor Who and The Witcher. Sacha Dhawan’s take on The Master, and Joey Batey’s astonishing work as Geralt’s Disaster Hypeman Jaskier in The Witcher, are both explorations not just of the traditional Northern stereotypes but of how far they’ve evolved.

Dhawan first, who didn’t so much kick the door in on ‘Spyfall’ as buy the house, rig the door with explosives, set it on fire and then show us a detailed video of how he ‘Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions’ ed out of the smoking ruins. This is The Master at their most mercurial: a dog chasing cars who is fueled not only by deep love for said cars, but desire to see them ground beneath their heel while getting a pat on the head. Dhawan shifts effortlessly from the gentle, placid spy the Master is playing to a whirling tornado of murderous glee, uncaring of whoever stands in his way because really, who would? This Master balances Harold Saxon’s plans within plans with the ‘I’ll just do it myself’ can-do attitude of earlier incarnations, giving us something brand new in every sense. There’s a feeling with this Master that not only have they just arrived, but they’re not sure what they want to do most: burn the world or untie the Doctor long enough to explain how they did it. Dhawan’s performance unsettles veteran and new Who fans alike, never more so than when they and 13 meet in the past.

This whole scene is A Lot, but the dramatic heart is the ‘call me by my name’ moment. Look at how Dhawan and Whitaker play the power dynamic, look at who’s really in control. Yes, The Master makes their arch-rival kneel. Yes, the visual is deliberately charged in a manner designed to make fanfic writers punch the air and take frantic notes.

But what sparkles isn’t the surface-level dom/sub dynamics. Rather, it’s the Doctor’s strength. Thirteen isn’t weak, isn’t remotely cowed. She’s annoyed that her best friend and nemesis has to go through all this to get to a point where she can maybe talk to him. And what happens once she’s said the right thing? He talks to her, opens right up. From her point of view it’s picking a linguistic lock to get to the next stage of the game. From the Master’s it’s trying on a new accent, possibly a new gender depending on where this incarnation fits sequentially, and a new mindset to see how to best hammer it from a tool into a weapon. Missy gave us murderously charming eccentricity, Harold Saxon flamboyance. Here it’s every drunk Northerner deciding to mess with their partner for kicks. ‘Couldn’t hear you, love’ has never carried more malice.

If the script had left The Master here, it would have been great, and very much in keeping with the characters’ recent fondness for mirroring the Doctor (Enthusiastic Brit character actor! Scot with fully equipped combat eyebrows!). But the genius of the episode and of what Dhawan does with the role lies in what comes next. The final scene of the episode sees the Doctor, on the Master’s suggestion, return home to find Gallifrey in ruins. Once she does, a message from the Master plays in the Tardis control room, explaining that they burnt the world because they discovered the lie at the center of Time Lord life. It’s not presented as gloating, if anything the Master assumes Thirteen has herself already figured it out. Rather it’s a concise, muted statement of fact from someone whose regeneration finally settles in around them. The Master has discovered that lots of planets really do have a North and, up there, they’re unbound. Free of the limitations of their past, desperate for friends to join in and without any moral restraint whatsoever.

The North remembers. And so does this Master.

And then there’s Jaskier.

The first season of The Witcher arrived just before Christmas and is very, very good. Magnificently black Slavic humor mixed with superlative writing, welcome interrogation of genre and gender alike and Henry Cavill being really, seriously, startlingly excellent in the lead as Geralt of Rivia.

Played by Joey Batey, Jaskier is a Northern Working Man’s Club Comic in Hell. He’s quick-witted, has absolutely no manner of impulse control at all, and clearly falls in love with Geralt the moment he sees him. As the show goes on, the two men’s paths cross at various times in their lives. Jaskier changes Geralt’s reputation as a butcher and Geralt (basically) stops him getting killed and (technically) stops him getting into more trouble.

Superficially the relationship is grumpy Don Quixote/Comic Relief Sancho Panza but as the series goes on two things become clear. The first is that Jaskier’s role in the show is vital. He’s not just an entry point for viewers, he’s both comic relief and a control for Geralt. Jaskier gets into trouble and beaten up. A LOT. So much so that one of the show’s best episodes is based around him ‘hiring’ Geralt as a bodyguard. Similarly, time and again we’re shown Geralt and Yennefer have the magically-enhanced longevity to view the world very differently to others. We’re also shown how painfully aware Jaskier is of his own mortality and what he does about it. He doesn’t just ground the show, he grounds Geralt and that’s one of the reasons they both get on and act like (as the video above shows) actual five year olds from time to time.

The second is that, just as Sacha Dhawan does with the Master, Batey refuses to sit on top of the trope he’s playing, Jaskier as the best act the The The Phoenix never booked is great. But Jaskier as an individual in his own right is even better. Not just the bard in constant need of rescue, he’s the world’s first PR flak. Jaskier is vital in redeeming Geralt’s reputation after the catastrophic events of the first episode and he’s never off the case, always looking for more material and more chances to get into bed with more people he shouldn’t be. And also help Geralt.

In a recent interview, Batey openly discussed the fact that Jaskier falls in love with everyone he sees. To continue the metaphor from above, Jaskier chases cars to tell them how much he loves them. And to have them applaud his singing, obviously.

Brilliantly perceptive, pathologically insecure and at times little more than a set of vocal chords with a libido, Jaskier is a glorious hot mess. But he’s a fiercely unapologetic mess who clings to the ideals of myth as a tool for social change. In other words, he’s OUR mess. Geralt’s life, and The Witcher, are better for having him in it.

Doctor Who Series 12 is on iPlayer now and DVD and digital release shortly.
The Witcher Season 1 is on Netflix now.