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.

On a female Doctor and sex-change regeneration

The regeneration of the Master into Missy has brought to the fore debate over the prospect of a female Doctor. The debate among the fandom about whether the Doctor should one day regenerate into a female form onscreen has been as vociferous as any debate about UNIT dating, whether Susan named the TARDIS, or whether or not Adric was an annoying tit. It was first established that sex changes for Time Lords were possible when the Eleventh Doctor remarked in The Doctor’s Wife that another Time Lord, the Corsair, had regenerated into a woman “a couple of times”. Subsequently, in The Night of the Doctor, the Sisterhood of Karn divulged to the Eighth Doctor that, with their “elevated” Time Lord science, they could bring about a controlled regeneration, even to change him into a female. Now that a major male Time Lord character has been shown onscreen to have regenerated into a woman, the prospect of a female Doctor has become more real than ever.

Personally, while I thought the Master’s sex change was very successful, and while I’m not completely closed to the idea of a female Doctor, I do have significant reservations. For one, I think portraying the Doctor as a female would be incongruous with the essential nature of the character. The Doctor, to me, is an intrinsically male character — not overtly or stereotypically male in that he’s some kind of chest-beating ape, but still very much a masculine character. Paul Verhoeven explains it well. He’s a father figure to the universe, a defensive and loving dad. It’s clear he sees himself in a very paternal way — he feels he has an obligation to look after the universe, to protect his charges from bullies and meanies of all sorts, to step in and give a helping hand, as a father should. He loves and is loved by the universe as a fatherly protector.

As well as this, there’s my personal subjective preference for the Doctor to remain a male character. I’ve come to love this character, the Doctor, independent of any of his individual incarnations. When I think of the Doctor, no individual incarnation springs immediately to mind, but I think of a number of essential traits that make this overarching character, this person, who he is: heroic, principled, selfless, eccentric, lonely, mysterious — and a man. I very much get the feeling that, throughout his various incarnations, despite looking and feeling different after each regeneration, the Doctor remains the same person, and it’s very important to me, for my investment in the character, that the Doctor always feels like the same person. To an extent, at least, I’d feel that the Doctor had become a different person if the Doctor were to become a woman. After thirteen or however many incarnations as a man, I think I’d feel that I couldn’t recognise a female Doctor as the character I knew and loved; that a female actor is likely to depart in a fundamental way from how the character has been portrayed in the past would only exacerbate this feeling. Think of it as if a loved one or a very old and dear friend suddenly decided to get a sex change. After the operation and after that person has assumed their new identity, I think most people would feel that, although that person bears a resemblance to the person they used to be in many ways, it would be as though the person one knew and loved had essentially gone, or at least changed to the point of unfamiliarity. That’s because sex is not just biological happenstance — the sex organs you happen to possess — it is a fundamental part of what makes a person who they are.

All that said, I said I’m not completely closed to the idea. Although I have my reservations, I’m willing to be open-minded, and consider any proposal for a female Doctor on its merits. If a female were to be cast as the Doctor, I’d certainly watch with an open (even interested) mind and be willing to embrace the change. I could very well be wrong: a female Doctor might not be as incongruous as I expect, and I might identify with her as recognisably the character I love. At the same time, I think my reservations are legitimate, and I can’t help but be sceptical and respectfully opposed to the idea. However, I think it may, at least, be worth road-testing the concept of a female Doctor in a one-off episode in which the Doctor inadvertently turns into a female for the duration of the episode. The way the Doctor, as a female, relates to his/her dumbfounded companions would be worth watching, although I think the idea might have worked better with Matt Smith’s Doctor (with the Ponds) than with Peter Capaldi’s: I can imagine Twelve turning into worse-than-everybody’s-aunt, played by Judi Dench or Maggie Smith.

Sex-change regeneration

There’s also the more academic matter of in what circumstances Time Lords can regenerate into the opposite sex. Personally, I’d rather that it not be established canonically that regeneration is completely random with regards to sex, and that Time Lords are equally likely to regenerate into the opposite sex as remain the same. That is, I don’t want it to be established that Time Lords, as one participant in such a debate amusingly put it, are a race of bisexual gender-fluid sequential hermaphrodites. That’s not because I’m a bigot, it just blatantly contradicts all history of portrayal of Time Lords on the programme, and would seem like a liberty taken with the canon for narrow political reasons, as a way of championing transsexualism.

The evidence is that one Time Lord, the Master, has regenerated into a woman after more than one regeneration cycle of being a man. All the other Time Lords we’ve seen have always regenerated into the same sex, with one offscreen exception (the Corsair). This doesn’t exactly suggest that regeneration is completely random with regard to sex. Furthermore, it hasn’t even been established that the Master’s latest female incarnation was the result of regeneration; given that the Master has a history of stealing bodies, and that his last body in The End of Time was basically an imperfectly reanimated corpse in a state of irreversible decay, it can’t be discounted, without further clarification, that Missy’s body was also stolen in the same way he stole the body of Tremas on Traken.

So sex-change regeneration is possible, but, until it is established otherwise, it can be assumed it is anomalous or unusual, rather than the norm. Personally I entertain three theories (which are not mutually exclusive) as to the circumstances in which Time Lords can regenerate into the opposite sex. The first is that same-sex regeneration is the norm, and that opposite-sex regeneration is a very rare, freak occurrence. The second is that, when Time Lords can control their regeneration (as Romana and the Master, and even the Doctor, it is implied, have been shown to be capable of doing), they can, if they have a sufficient degree of control, choose to regenerate into the opposite sex. As to why the Doctor’s regenerations have always (thus far) been random, I expect he either doesn’t know how (perhaps he snoozed through that class in the Academy), or doesn’t care enough, to control his regeneration. My third theory is that there needs to be an external influence on the regeneration to bring about a sex change, such as the potions the Sisterhood of Karn offered to the Eighth Doctor to control his regeneration. The three theories are not mutually exclusive, but the point is that sex-change regeneration at least seems to be unusual, and that some explanation is needed.

Thoughts on Dark Water/Death in Heaven


I thought I’d begin this blog by offering my review (of sorts) on the series 8 finale, Dark Water/Death in Heaven.

In general I quite enjoyed the finale. I found a lot to like, and found myself utterly captivated by the unfolding drama more than once. However, there was also causes for criticism. Dark Water was, in my opinion, as close to a masterpiece as Doctor Who has come since 2005: it had a superb high-charged emotional scene (the volcano scene), the Doctor-companion relationship was taken unrepentantly to daring pastures new, there was a heavy religio-metaphysical-philosophical theme, the menacing return of the Cybermen in a style harking back to The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Invasion, the revelation of Missy as the Master, and all-round genuine thrills and chills, not to mention ended on a torturing quadruple-pronged cliffhanger. However, Death in Heaven was rather a letdown after the exemplary first half. It felt messy, poorly paced, and, after presenting the audience with a confusing twist, ended the conflict with a wholly unsatisfying resolution. The letdown of DIH rather brought down the quality of the finale as a whole, which is unfortunate, as the first half was exceptional.

What I liked

  • Missy — Michelle Gomez’s performance as Missy was absolutely superlative. A female incarnation of the Master was always going to be a gamble for Doctor Who, but Gomez pulled it off brilliantly, definitively making the character her own. She played a compelling Master/Mistress, a deranged and psychopathic Mary Poppins whose sense of humour unsettles just as much as amuses. Missy exuded both menace and madness, but also showed her human (or at least less inhuman) side in that brief moment where she pleaded with the Doctor, “I just want my friend back.” I certainly don’t think we’ve seen the last of Missy, she’s too compelling a character to kill off (the fact that she was visibly atomised notwithstanding).
  • What happens after you die? — the compelling concept, at least for the first half of this finale, was life after death, a refreshingly serious and heavy theme for this new series of Doctor Who, especially when much of New Who has been very much Marvel-style action stories. I didn’t mind that paradise/the Promised Land/the Nethersphere turned out to be a Matrix data slice (Time Lord technology) set up by Missy to “harvest souls” (so to speak) for her undead Cyberman army — that’s to be expected with Doctor Who, and I don’t think I’d have been happy if Doctor Who presented a definitive view on the afterlife or religion.
  • The graveyard scene — speaking of the Doctor-Master relationship, the dialogue between the Doctor and Missy in the graveyard was excellent. Apart from adding depth to the Master’s character that, to a degree, was lacking with John Simm’s Master, in Missy’s apparent motivations for creating an undead Cyberman army (“I want you to see we’re not so different… I just want my friend back.”), it satisfyingly culminated the running theme in series 8 of “Is the Doctor a good man?” Although it was a little confusing as to what the answer to that question was; he mentioned something about his companions, which seemed fair enough.
  • The volcano scene — in this scene, the dynamics of the Doctor-Companion relationship were taken further than ever before. We saw Clara betray the Doctor, not only blackmailing the Doctor by threatening to destroy the Doctor’s access to the TARDIS, but making good that threat when the Doctor would not concede to her impossible demands. It was a high-charged scene that had me more gripped than I can remember with Doctor Who. Not only that, but the scene was followed with one of those fist-pumping, heart-warming moments when the Doctor agreed to help Clara get back Danny, saying that he cared too much for her for her betrayal to make a difference. To Clara, at least, that was the moment when it became clear that the Doctor was a good man, a great man. And he is.
  • The Cybermen in Dark Water — the Cybermen were never more menacing and threatening in this finale than when they weren’t doing anything.
  • The Doctor’s domestic abuse of Sexy — finally we have some progress on the searching-for-Gallifrey plot. Missy knew where Gallifrey was, supposedly having escaped from it. I particularly liked the scene in which the Doctor entered the co-ordinates given to him by Missy into the TARDIS, only to find, to his violent disappointment, that he had been deceived. The rage of the Time Lord is always a sight to behold.

What I didn’t like

  • The Cybermen’s portrayal — the Cybermen felt threatening when they were sitting in their tombs, but, for the rest of the finale, they were quite rubbish. The zombie Cybermen with uploaded minds was an interesting idea that didn’t quite work out. That’s because New Who (and, admittedly, much of Classic Who after the 1960s), completely misses the point of the Cybermen in portraying them as little more than killer robots, a cross between Terminator and Iron Man. The Cybermen may as well be robots, without need for human bodies or minds. When the Cybermen are portrayed in this way, interesting ideas with potential, like the zombie Cybermen in this serial, come to nothing, when the entire zombie-Cyberman army are made into unthinking automatons that obey a magic bracelet. Apart from this, the Cybermen did not feel like a threat at all during this finale, except when they attacked the Valiant (that moment when the Cybermen’s head appeared at the plane window was scary, I’ll admit). The maudlin feel-good “love beats Cybermen” meme again destroyed all the work the episode had (unsuccessfully) done in making the Cybermen feel threatening. I hoped the Cybermen would be rehabilitated in this serial, having been given poor stories since 2005, but I was disappointed.
  • So… why was Missy interested in Clara again? — the hints throughout the series about Missy’s pseudo-celestial role in bringing the Doctor and Clara together suggested that Missy’s interest in Clara would be one of the big arcs that would be resolved in this finale. And so it was, sort of. This was explicitly addressed in the finale, but it wasn’t quite clear what Missy’s interest in Clara was. Missy seemed to be saying that she brought the Doctor and Clara together because she thought they’d hit it off. There was also something about Clara being an instrument to bring the Doctor to 3W (which was far from assured, from Missy’s point of view). If this is really all there was to it, my faith in Steven Moffatt, generally strong, has suffered a significant blow. Knowing Steven Moffatt, there may well be more to this than it seems (and Clara is returning for the Christmas special), but it is equally likely that Moffatt thinks this revelation is more clever and impressive than it actually is. From my point of view, if there is no more to this mystery, it would be completely unsatisfying and infuriating.
  • No explanation for sex-change regeneration — after it was revealed that the Master had become a woman, a tide of debate in the fan community was unleashed about Time Lords’ ability to regenerate into the opposite sex, and, more specifically, the prospect for a female Doctor that Missy’s identity had potentially opened. Although not closed to the prospect of a female Doctor, I am nevertheless quite sceptical. I also don’t like the idea that Time Lords are basically asexual in that they have no “base” sex and could, by default, regenerate at random into any sex or none — the history of the programme seems to contradict this idea. In any case, for these reasons, although I’m not necessarily opposed to the concept of Time Lords swapping genders, I was hoping for an explanation as to the circumstances in which a Time Lord could regenerate into the opposite sex, and preferably that it wouldn’t be established that regeneration is random and that the Doctor is equally as likely to regenerate into a female as a male form. By leaving the question hanging like that, and by having the Doctor act as though the Master being a woman is nothing out of the ordinary, the idea that the Doctor could randomly regenerate into a woman has been virtually de facto confirmed until it is established otherwise.
  • The Doctor’s anti-soldier prejudice — We see more of the Doctor’s inexplicable and absurd prejudice against soldiers in his dialogue with Colonel Ahmed, which we first saw in The Caretaker in with respect to Danny Pink. I felt sorry for poor Colonel Ahmed, who looked visibly hurt by the Doctor’s insensitive and disrespectful remarks. I know I’m not the only one wondering where this anti-soldier prejudice of Twelve’s, amounting to outright contempt bordering on loathing, has come from. The Third Doctor never seemed to have a problem with the Brigadier and co. when he was working with UNIT (Three’s irritation and mild annoyance was not the same thing as Twelve’s callous loathing). I very much hope this isn’t an instance of woefully misguided characterisation in an attempt to make some delinquent political point, which would be more offensive than anything Doctor Who has come out with in its 50-year history.
  • The resolution — It was confusing and unsatisfying. The Doctor gives the bracelet to Danny who orders the Cybermen to destroy themselves in the atmosphere. Why couldn’t the Doctor have ordered the Cybermen to destroy themselves again? Is it because he didn’t want to appear to be an officer, or he didn’t want to order CyberDanny, CyberBrig, the CyberPonds, CyberSarah-Jane, etc, to their deaths? Whatever it was, it felt like an anti-climax, and Danny’s speech was eye-rollingly platitudinous.

Dark Water rating: 10

Death in Heaven rating: 7

Combined finale rating: 8