Thoughts on: The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords

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.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: Utopia

Although Utopia forms a linked three-part narrative with the final two episodes of the season, I tend to consider it separate from The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords so will be giving a separate review from the latter two episodes. Utopia was fairly light on plot—there’s not much in the way of a complication or conflict to be resolved in this story, unless ensuring the success of the Utopia voyage counted. The threat of the Futurekind to the remnants of human civilisation represented the inkling of a substantive plot, but ultimately this and even the Utopia voyage itself proved to be peripheral to the focus of this episode. As such, although I’d normally considerably fault a story for such dearth of… well, story, I feel that it would be unfair not to overlook it here as the objective of this story was not on such substantive plot issues, but on setting up the finale. The whole episode was leading up to the revelation of the Doctor’s great arch-nemesis of old, the Master.

Derek Jacobi, playing Professor Yana and/or the Master, was absolutely phenomenal. He brought a theatrical majesty to the production that truly put everyone else to shame. David Tennant, who was by no means anything short of wonderful in this episode, looked positively average next to the acting genius of Jacobi. He portrayed both Yana and the Master masterfully (sorry). As Yana, he depicted powerfully the gentle old scientist’s internal trauma as echoes of his old life returned to him, brought on by the appearance of his old adversary, the Doctor. Yana’s transformation into the Master was chilling, Jacobi invoking the dramatic style of the stage in portraying adeptly, physically and verbally, his character’s fundamental metamorphosis from sweet old man to sadistic megalomaniac. The revelation of the Master in general was spectacular, one of the most dramatic and captivating sequences the revival has given us. Jacobi summoned up one last spell of theatrical intensity in the Master’s regeneration scene to give us what will surely live on as one of Doctor Who’s greatest moments.

Another great aspect of this episode was the welcome return of Captain Jack Harkness. I echo those who say his presence was missed in Series 2, but it was excellent to see him back again with the Doctor. He added a touch of humour and frivolity that made the majority of this episode a lot more engaging than it would otherwise have been. A much beloved character who’s always welcome in Doctor Who, Jack had great chemistry with the Tenth Doctor. They were very amusing to watch together, particularly their banter in the scene Jack was removing the engine clamps in the irradiated room. Martha didn’t have a particularly big role in this episode, making it, in my calculation, only the second episode where Martha wasn’t absolutely brilliant (the other being Blink, where she had all of 15 seconds of screen time). I’m a bit peeved that, even in the final throes of the series, Martha’s character is still living under the shadow of Rose. I think she’s justified in being resentful, and I think her character was poorly treated by the writers in that, even now, she’s still the “rebound girl”, Rose’s replacement, rather than a companion with a personal connection with the Doctor in her own right.

John Simm, in his few moments as the regenerated Master, was positively electric and terrifying. It seemed, in the apparition of Simm, as though the Doctor had finally met his match, a kind of demented version of himself, just as manic and as brilliant as he was. My heart was pounding at that point—the episode had just reached an exhilarating crescendo leading into… that cliffhanger. Yes, I couldn’t possibly write about Utopia without mentioning that torturous cliffhanger. Surely that has to be one of the best cliffhangers in the show’s history? Having decided beforehand to watch Utopia today and leave the final two episodes for tomorrow, it certainly left me with the urge to forge ahead…

Rating: 8/10.

Review: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways

Not a “quickie review” because I thought this story merited a full-length review.

Where, oh, where do I start? The magisterial finale to Series 1 never fails to blow me away. It was just a perfect, flawless finale, resolving the first series of the revived series exquisitely. To my mind, although Pandorica is my personal favourite, Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways is still the best and tightest finale of the revived series—it exhibited a standard of writing and production that hasn’t since been matched (although Pandorica comes close). Unlike certain stories in Series 1 (*cough* Aliens of London *cough*), it has aged exceptionally well and retains an X-factor about it making it highly re-watchable.

It seemed to start indubiously enough. “You have got to be kidding me…” the Doctor said incredulously as he found himself in what seemed to be a futuristic Big Brother House. That opening was funny enough, but, nevertheless, from the otherwise comical outset it was clear that there was some mysterious force at work. Indeed, the episode employed a favourite plotting device of 1960s Doctor Who of beginning a story in an ostensibly innocent setting before gradually revealing more and more of the circumstances in which the Doctor has found himself, until the true magnitude of the threat is laid bare. It was really effective in stories like The War Games and works really effectively here, a slow build-up of suspense and plot, keeping the viewer gripped. The moment when this episode started to get sinister was when Fitch was disintegrated by the Anne Droid as the “weakest link”, and then when Crosbie is evicted from the Big Brother House.

The Doctor has come to some horrid places in his travels, but the Game Station has got to be one of the most repulsive. This is Satellite 5, and this is what has become of the human race since the Doctor last visited. The human race is reduced to ogling helplessly over their television sets, their lives consumed by watching mind-numbing game shows which kill their contestants as entertainment. A comment, obviously, on the increasingly television-dependent society of the modern world, where we increasingly live our lives vicariously in front of our TVs, often mesmerised by mindless reality television and asinine game shows.

Of course, it becomes clear that the Daleks are responsible, having been manipulating the human race behind the scenes for generations. The look on the Doctor’s face when the Dalek ships are revealed makes the skin crawl. They were all supposed to be dead—the Doctor saw to that. To see them again, I would imagine, would evoke a mix of indignation, grievance and vengefulness. He said it himself: if the Daleks survived, it means his people died for nothing. He killed his own people in vain. Unfortunately, though—and this is one of my minor criticisms of the finale—we didn’t get to see that in the Doctor. He was astonished, of course, to see so many Dalek ships again, but, apart from that, the Doctor seemed relatively unfazed by the sudden apparition of the Dalek legions. “Oh will you? That’s nice. Hello!” said the Doctor jovially as a Dalek greeted them over a viewscreen. If this were Matt Smith’s Doctor, he would be literally spitting with rage and disbelief. Eccleston has said that he thought he overdid the humour when he played the Doctor. Although I think he was fine, superlative even, up until now, with this I can see what he was getting at.

In any case, the production did a superb job of creating an ominous atmosphere around the Daleks in this episode. The Daleks have always been a slightly corny monster, but they were a truly scary and foreboding presence in Bad Wolf. We didn’t get to see the Daleks until the very end of the episode when the Dalek ships themselves were revealed. Whovians like us would have known, of course, who was behind it all, but, for the regular viewer, the eventual revelation would have been big. I remember being desperate to find out who the enemies were when I first saw this episode, and was suitably surprised when the Daleks were finally revealed. The sound effects also, in no small part, effectively created an ominous and intimidating aura around the Daleks. All this made it all the more awesome when the Doctor defied the Daleks. “You will obey or she will be exterminated,” said the Daleks. “No,” replied the Doctor. How succinct; how perfect. His declaration that he was going to save Rose, save the Earth and then, and I quote, “wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky” was one of those fist-pumping “Doctor” moments that I love writing about.

We discover that the Daleks are not “pure” Daleks, but Daleks created from harvested human cells. It’s a truly grisly, horrible thought, but it made for an interesting spin on the Daleks as we’ve traditionally known them. I almost felt sorry for these Daleks. They had been ensconced in their ships for hundreds of years, “hiding in silence”. The human inside them had driven them insane. They had begun to worship their Dalek Emperor as a god. They hated their own existence, begat of human remains. The Doctor was right that that made them more dangerous than ever. A self-loathing monster is truly something to fear.

The Parting of the Ways, though, was notable for its character-driven story, particularly for resolving Rose’s character arc. The Doctor tricked Rose into travelling back to her home, wanting to protect her. “Have a good life. Do that for me, Rose,” the Doctor’s hologram exhorted Rose. But she couldn’t. Rose had come too far just to return to her ordinary, safe, pre-Doctor life of work, sleep, chips and Mickey. Rose didn’t want to be home and safe. She wanted to be 200,000 years in the future, in mortal danger, helping the Doctor fight a hopeless battle against the Daleks. She would do anything to return to the Doctor, even if only to help him escape, and tried all she could to get the TARDIS to take her back to him. Every fibre of her being militated against meekly accepting defeat. Rose has changed because of the Doctor. The Doctor has shown her a “better way”. “There’s nothing left for me here,” she says—she knows, and he knows, that she belongs with the Doctor now, even if it means losing her life for him. When she’s finally able to return to the Doctor, by communicating with the heart of the TARDIS, it’s the gratifying culmination of her series-long character arc that’s seen her changed thoroughly by her life with the Doctor.

She’s also changed him. The Doctor, when the moment came, could not bring himself to activate the delta wave, killing all Daleks and humans alike. He knew the consequences of his reticence—the unleashing of the Daleks upon the entire universe—but ultimately his nerve failed him. This isn’t the man who said “Everything has its time and everything dies,” coldly as he looked on as Cassandra died, begging for mercy. This isn’t the man who was prepared to blow apart a Dalek to save a base full of people. This isn’t the man who was responsible for the genocide of two entire races. Rose has changed him, just as he’s changed her. When they first met, the Doctor was suffering from the trauma of the Time War. He was full of blood and anger and revenge. He’d been desensitised to killing and death, and cynical about life. Rose helped him recover. Rose reignited his love of life and his moral drive, and saw him become again the man he thought had been lost. The Doctor’s arc was subtle, but it was obvious what had happened to him over the course of this series when he couldn’t bring himself to do what he had already done once.

Between them, the character arcs of Rose and the Doctor were the highlight of this series and what this series was ultimately about. It culminated, of course, in Rose’s return to the Doctor as the Bad Wolf. Both Rose’s and the Doctor’s respective arcs had led them both to this moment. And what a glorious moment it was. Rose, the eerily angelic Bad Wolf, disintegrates the Dalek legions, ends the Time War, with the power of the time vortex. It was a really exhilarating resolution. Rose’s presence was unearthly and hair-raising. Some don’t like it and see it as a deus ex machina like cop-out, and to an extent it was, but, for those who revel in the character-driven plotting that formed the focus of this series, it’s a really gratifying and satisfying culmination. It would be a finale ending that would not be matched again, even by the superb Pandorica.

And then there was that regeneration. It was subtle, understated, but brilliant. The Doctor, although overjoyed that the Daleks had been vanquished, was obviously pained inside by his impending departure. He was not concerned with explaining to Rose what was about to happen—he was experiencing his last seconds of life, and his apprehension, and his sadness, showed through his jovial facade. He did, however, make sure he told Rose before he left that she was fantastic. And she was. And in the words that tied up the Doctor’s character arc: “And you know what? So was I.” No longer the self-hating, vengeful, traumatised, lonely war survivor. He had made peace with himself. He was a new man. Enter the Tenth Doctor.

Rating: 10/10.

Quickie review: Boom Town

This was a vastly better Slitheen story than Aliens of London/World War Three. It built on the few strengths of Aliens of London whilst rolling back the cheesiness and Marvel Who-y-ness. This episode was pitched at a more mature audience than its prequel. It was darker, more sombre and more intelligent. It dealt with themes of homicide, justice and mercy. We saw Blon Fel-Fotch captured by the Doctor, who promised to take her back to her home planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius to meet the justice of her people. “Not my problem,” said the Doctor when Blon objected that she would be met with the death penalty upon returning home. By any measure, Blon deserved the highest punishment of the law for her crimes, but… death? Is it really right to kill someone for their crimes? That was the point the episode was discussing, and it was telling that none of the Doctor’s entourage could look Blon in the eyes as they held her prisoner, awaiting sentence. It was also interesting the way the episode portrayed Blon as unable to face up to her guilt and that she deserved punishment—she tried to justify herself in a number of ways, that she had changed, that she was not all bad, that she was captive to her violent upbringing, but never did she admit guilt or sorrow for what she’d done. Some monsters will blame anyone and anything but themselves. The episode also waded into murkier waters when it was revealed that, at the very moment Blon was imploring the Doctor to believe that she could change, her plan to trick the Doctor and destroy the world was proceeding. Was the point being made that some people are irredeemably evil? In any case, the entire sequence between Blon and the Doctor in the restaurant was really compelling viewing.

It was interesting, in this episode, to observe how the Doctor’s character arc has (subtly) progressed over this series. “Not my problem,” sounds a lot like “Everything has its time and everything dies,” from The End of the World. But observe how the Doctor, although insisting that Blon must be taken back to her planet to be dealt justice, nonetheless seemed somewhat unsure of himself. He, too, couldn’t meet Blon’s eyes. Moreover, he seemed relieved when Blon regressed to an egg after looking into the heart of the TARDIS. He isn’t the cold, PTSD-stricken war survivor that we met at the beginning of the series anymore. Imperceptibly, he’s changed, and the way this character arc was carried out over the course of Series 1 was really well-written and -executed, culminating, of course, in the amazing finale.

The Rose-Mickey drama was really well done. As a paid-up Moffat partisan, even I’ll admit that if there’s one thing RTD was good at, it was character drama. It wasn’t often in Classic Who (never, in fact) that we got to see the unhappy effect of the companions’ travels on the people and the lives they leave behind. Rose left Mickey behind, and it obviously hurt him considerably. I felt bad for Mickey, and rather annoyed at Rose that she couldn’t see how much she’d hurt Mickey, how inconsiderate it was to leave him, and how galling it was that she should expect Mickey to remain loyal to her, obediently awaiting her beck and call like a trained lapdog. I don’t dislike Rose as a character for that, it makes her flawed, which is good, as her character was just becoming slightly too much of a perfect Mary-Sue before now. That said, the blame can’t be placed all at Rose’s feet—Mickey had the opportunity to come with them in the TARDIS at the end of the last Slitheen incident, but declined. It’s just slightly hypocritical to be berating Rose for leaving him out in the cold when he could have come with her long ago. Either Mickey is just a bit of a bitch or that was a slight authorial oversight on RTD’s part.

The sequence in which Blon was bathed in the light of the heart of the TARDIS was really well produced, it all seemed very ethereal, with the Doctor seeming almost angelic as he spoke out of the ghostly TARDIS light. The moment when Blon raised her eyes, a look of perfect tranquillity on her face, and whispered “Thank you…” was really hair-raising—eerie, but in a good way.

Rating: 8/10.

Quickie review: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

I’ve mentioned before that watching this story when it first aired, aged 10, is my most vivid memory of Doctor Who as a child. It was my childhood “hiding-behind-the-sofa” moment, those terrifying gasmask-wearing zombie people having seriously frightened 10-year-old me, although, unsurprisingly, I could barely tear my eyes away from the screen. I was terrified then, but I’m glad now that I got to experience the sensation of being terrified by Doctor Who as a child — the way Doctor Who is supposed to be experienced. This story did exceptionally and perfectly what Doctor Who has traditionally done best — scaring children. It was claustrophobic, and suspenseful, and skin-crawling, and apprehensive and… how many ways can I say really effing scary?

It’s less scary for mature viewers than for a 10 year old, of course, but many elements of the production are still highly effective to induce fright and uneasiness even in an adult: the creepy, nagging “mummy…” motif, the gasmask people themselves, with their zombie-like animation (and those vacant, ghoulish eye-sockets, which I remember particularly vividly from when I was a child), and those freaky “pop-up” moments such as when we get our first look at Jamie, an eerie, gasmask-clad figure in the distance atop a rooftop, when the gasmask people in the hospital suddenly spring up at Dr Constantine’s beckon, and the scene in Jamie’s “room”. Also, do I need to mention the absolutely horrifying moment when Dr Constantine morphs into one of the creatures? I think it was that particular moment that scarred me as a 10 year-old, both scaring me off Doctor Who for years (yes, I know, but it’s true) and causing me to contract an irrational phobia of gas masks from that day forth (I’m still not totally okay around them). What can I say? Moffat really knows how to scare kids.

This was an exceptionally well-written script. The scare factor alone propels this story into the company of the greats, but the sheer incomparable quality of the writing entrenches it there. Nancy was a really well-constructed character, played admirably by Florence Hoath, who truly endeared herself to us as her character. Nancy is ample evidence that Steven Moffat can write female characters, and write them superbly. The story was also interspersed with a couple of wonderful little scenes, like Rose and Jack atop his spaceship, dancing while the bombs fell all around, and the Doctor and Rose together in the hospital storage room. The latter, in particular, represented well-written character insight for the Doctor, an adorable little scene where the Doctor shows his vulnerability re Rose and “dancing”. These moments really show the strengths of the two-part format — you wouldn’t get that in a single episode story.

The script also shone in the emotive sequences, its addressing the mother-and-child relationship. “There isn’t a little boy born who wouldn’t tear the world apart to save his mummy,” was wonderful. In particular, the resolution scene where Nancy reveals to Jamie that she is his mother was perfect: “I am your mummy. I will always be your mummy. I’m so sorry. I am so, so sorry… *hug*” was just beautiful. I’ll happily admit to tearing up slightly at that point, even upon a rewatch. The Doctor’s triumphant, jubilant reaction to the nanogenes’ curing everybody — “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!” — was truly joyous to watch, and was an absolute stroke of screenwriting genius, the soaring coda resolving the rousing final movement. Perfect.  I also think I should mention that “Go to your room!” is possibly the most awesome thing Nine ever did.

This story is, without question, a masterpiece. In my opinion, it is easily the best story New Who has ever done, and undoubtedly deserves its place amongst the most esteemed annals of the Doctor Who corpus.

Rating: 10/10.