I think Russell T Davies has finally done it. His attempts, in writing a finale, to perpetually outdo the previous finale have finally resulted in his overreaching himself and producing something that, while not necessarily a poor story, in many respects fell flat and failed to measure up to the previous years’ finales. There were good and bad aspects to this finale, but, ultimately, I think that, in its overblown extravagance, it came up a messy and unpolished story. Bringing back the Master and following a story about his diabolical conquest and tyrannising of the world was a decent story premise in itself, I just think it could have been played out a lot better—I think the story got overly caught up in the magnitude and epicness of it all such that quality of storytelling suffered as a consequence.
Among the fandom, particularly fans acquainted with the classic series, John Simm is something of a love-it-or-hate-it incarnation of the Master. Personally, I thought Simm as the Master was one of the genuinely great aspects of this finale. Simm’s Master was manic, menacing and delightfully deranged. I love that. I loved the maniacal, unhinged characterisation of the Master that Simm gave, and it’s easy to tell that Simm absolutely revelled in playing the Master that way. He looked like he was having splendiferous, rollicking fun playing the demented megalomaniac, making for a wonderfully entertaining and convincing performance. He also had a great dynamic with David Tennant as the Doctor—I really got the sense that these were two estranged friends (acquaintances?) with a complicated history and an even more complicated relationship. I came away with the impression that the Doctor and the Master were equally matched in wits and charisma, the last two Time Lords in existence. The dialogue between these two, particularly in The Sound of Drums, was electric. I also thought the Doctor’s grieving over the Master when the latter died at the end of Last of the Time Lords was profoundly moving, expressing so much more about the Doctor and the Master’s relationship than words could.
Moreover, I like the way the story gave the Master a depth of character and background that was previously absent in the otherwise uncomplicatedly camp and diabolical villain. The Master was changed by the Time War just as the Doctor was: the Master ran and hid himself away at the end of the universe to escape the war. There’s a quality—fear, submission—we never saw in the goatee-stroking Master of the classic series. The Master was also shown to have this condition, the unrelenting drumming in his head, which perhaps drives his endless destructive machinations. I appreciate this addition to the Master’s character. It offered a deep-seated and believable reason—madness, insanity—for the Master’s evil, which went some way in ceasing requiring our having to accept that the Master just hates everything for no particular reason. The Master is an enjoyable character whom it is always fun to see, but he needed some depth and development of his character backstory to be a convincing villain, which this story went a good way in providing.
In terms of plot, as I said, the story had a good idea which could have been better executed. The Toclafane, the Master’s laser-happy minions, struck me as a particularly ill-conceived idea. I don’t necessarily object to the idea of the Toclafane’s being the wretched humans of the distant future “saved” and brought back by the Master—which was suitably horrible—but the robotic sphere devices and those sickly-sweet childlike voices made them so comical that the horror of what they were was largely negated. That said, the idea that the Toclafane are what ultimately becomes of our species is truly gruesome (the blank look of defeatism on the Doctor’s face, like that of a man trying to come to terms with emotional trauma, really brought it home for me). That knowledge made it even more horrific when the Toclafane proceeded to execute the grandfather paradox on an unthinkable scale “because it’s fun” (although the sequences showing the Toclafane’s mass murder would have worked a lot more effectively without the overweening music). These were some very dark and grisly ideas, it’s just a shame the Toclafane seemed to be floating robotic spheres with Tellytubby voices.
I thought the device of leaving the Doctor helpless at the mercy of the Master, and to be helpless as the Master commits unspeakable atrocities against the world for a full year, was really effective. It did something that we don’t see happen enough in Doctor Who, which is showing the Doctor fail, showing the bad guys win, and showing that the Doctor won’t always save the day. Although we watch this show to see the Doctor save the day, and, of course, in the end, he always does, showing the Doctor lose so completely, and so undignifiedly, like this, has the healthy effect of disabusing us of the notion that the Doctor will always be there to save us. That said, I really liked the, erm… I don’t know how to describe it other than as a “religious” aura surrounding the Doctor when the “power of prayer” restored him and transformed him into a kind of angelic, godly figure, of whom the Master, wide-eyed with disbelief, trembled in fear. Coupled with the “I forgive you”, I don’t know how you could see that as other than a religious subtext. The message was that the Doctor was humanity’s salvation; the Doctor will deliver humanity from evil against all odds. That’s a glowing, heartwarming message, and made for a very emotively powerful scene, but my sense tells me that the show shouldn’t be going down the route of making the Doctor into a godly, messianic figure, given that he’s just an ordinary Time Lord (or is he?).
The Doctor’s being rendered helpless by the hands of the Master at the end of The Sound of Drums also made for an opportunity for Martha step into the Doctor’s shoes. She truly showed how extraordinary she was in her almost single-handed efforts in bringing down the Master and restoring the Doctor to a body that lent itself to combatting the Master. Her exit was understated but actually quite lovely, if bittersweet, given the heart-wrenching departure of Rose only a season ago. The tone of her exit (“So this is me… getting out.”) was a testament to how poorly treated her character was by the writers this season. I don’t blame Martha for feeling compelled to leave after such a short time with the Doctor; she groaned continually under the shadow of Rose, and she clearly deserved more than what she got from the Doctor, who seemed to be consciously spurning her emotional needs. For the Doctor, Martha really was just the rebound girl with whom he never had (nor really wanted to have, except perhaps after she’d finally decided to leave) anything like a genuine bond. I felt quite sorry for her.