Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Colin Teague, 2007
When I reviewed The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang and said season finales generally disagreed with me, this story is a large part of the reason why.
I don’t want to be a massive bitch, but everything about The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords is either baffling, or just plain irritating. In common with all but the best of Russell T Davies’ output, this story is perversely overcomplicated, with a disjointed plot structure, while the reliance on armies of CG’d flying robots - particularly in contrast with the smaller scale of The Big Bang - feels a desperate attempt to disprove the concept that less can be more.
Series three, perhaps even more so than those preceding it, is abysmally uneven in tone, and this finale is the epitome of its inconsistency. John Simm’s Master, as I feared from his appearance in Utopia (which, incidentally, I thought was bad - before seeing this two-parter; all is now forgiven), is entirely devoid of menace – or, indeed, of pathos, when the script calls for it. Couldn’t we have been treated to an extended outing for the Jacobi version?
In fact, the handling of the Master’s return is tonally rather inexplicable: the lame conceit of a weapon directly paralleling the much-overused sonic screwdriver (which is further weakened by an unnecessary and baffling link to The Lazarus Experiment); the somewhat unpleasant implications of the sexual excesses Lucy Saxon has to endure; the thumpingly mundane conversation with the Doctor in The Sound of Drums, which verges hilariously on homoerotic Time Lord phone sex; and, more generally, the plot treading water to delay their final confrontation.
What makes this Master worse is that I can see what they were going for; a kind of gleeful demented, self-aware version of the archetypal villain. I’m watching the second series of Twin Peaks at the moment, the antagonist of which (in one form… Spoilers!) is portrayed in a similar way, but with a much more effective balance between an unnervingly sinister side and an almost comedic spiteful glee. That would be fine. But this Master comes across as a heavy-handed attempt at reinvention, with an approach that doesn’t seem to come naturally to John Simm. He’s not funny, he’s not scary, he doesn’t ever seem deranged; rather, ‘wacky’ at best. We don’t need a wacky Master.
Add to all this an apparently bullet-proof Corsa; an underuse of Captain Jack which negates his reappearance in the series, chained up in the inexplicably purple-lit bowels of the Valiant; plus the unfathomable inclusion of a god-awful chart song (which immediately dates the episode) – yet another example of this era misguidedly shoehorning pop cultural artefacts into the series.
Arguably one of the most effective moments among all this is entirely divorced from the main action of the story: the flashback to Gallifrey, which, while not doing anything unexpected design-wise, is a well-realised addition. It does seem slightly presumptuous of Davies to provide a perhaps unnecessary backstory for a pre-existing character, but – as I cringe at the prospect of some ill-judged revelation – at least the temptation to reveal the Master and Doctor as brothers was resisted. I have to say though that this moment only appeased me by targeting the anorak within (Deadly Assassin AND War Games-style costumes...!).
Essentially, I just wish someone had had the guts to strip this story back – a straight conspiracy thriller could have been made suitably taught and involving for a season closer, but, alas… Similarly, the idea of a global disaster actually occurring should have been admirable in televised Doctor Who – instead, in cramming an entire apocalypse into one episode, the concept feels wasted.
In fact – as a measure of quite how disheartened I am by this story – I found myself looking back on the TV Movie with affection. At least then, in the Time Lords’ last on-screen confrontation, there was a fairly even tone. I mean, here, what did we get? Oh, the Doctor’s been turned into Dobby the house-elf. Mmm. And then, we're meant to accept the saccharine "I do believe in fairies!" conclusion as being ‘uplifting’. Hang on, no; if my love for the character of the Doctor weren’t so deep-seated, he’d have lost all his credibility the moment he was turned into a computer-generated gnome.
I know it’s a slightly dangerous game to start talking about taking things seriously in Doctor Who, but come on – the gnome-Doctor is such a ludicrous idea (or, at least, so dubiously handled) that it destroys any remaining shreds of integrity the story might have otherwise retained. Oh, and then, we’re meant to care when the Master dies? Seriously? Okay, I like the emotional element the new series brought to Doctor Who, but when arbitrarily bolted on to any given situation it does loose something of its power.
And this is disregarding the fact that Martha’s plan was bobbins – the Doctor patently not having enough time to impart anything useful, and her global preaching apparently not having been especially effective, considering that everyone we meet has only heard of her, not the Doctor.
Not to mention the enormous cop-out of the ‘time turning back’ ending, which is as dishearteningly weak (and not to say, predictable) as it is hackneyed. Let's just not even go there.
I find it quite hard to pin down specifically, but much of my aversion to this story stems from something slightly off in its tone. I suppose this is most obviously apparent in the way the regulars are degraded – but it’s the apparent domestic abuse of Lucy Saxon that gets me. No real attention is drawn to her black eyes, but this still feels like a huge miscalculation. While I’m absolutely fine with the sexual content, drug use and violence in the New Adventures – an adult-oriented series – it feels wildly distasteful for a self-declared family series to include this. It can’t even be argued that it's in some way raising awareness about a real life issue, because it’s being used as shorthand to show how ‘bad’ the Master is, as if pulpy megalomania and domestic abuse are comparable. Instead, it demeans something hideous.
Even discounting this tonal misstep, this is a story where almost everything feels as if it has gone slightly awry – all the more galling by comparison to Human Nature, where the opposite is true, only a handful of episodes earlier.
PS: Captain Jack as the Face of Boe. Okay, so, by The End of the World, et al, Jack’d be quite old, to put it mildly. But why would he mutate into an (obviously alien) GIANT HEAD. With weird multiple ball things hanging off it. (Well, okay, maybe it is Jack…)