I Can't Decide...
(The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords Reviewed)

I’m composing this review over two time zones and two airports. Today is a travel day as we head down to Des Moines and Lincoln to visit the in-laws. Typing this in Detroit’s Concourse C, I’d say that Vivian has had a good day so far. She’s old enough, now, to appreciate the flight. Remarkably, she’s managed to keep her patience, though I’m reluctant to type this down, lest I jinx this.

The flight from Toronto to Detroit was uneventful, and we were lucky enough to have a no-show, which allowed Vivian her own seat. Not that she was interested in using it, of course.

(Update): Arrived in Des Moines after two uneventful flights. Despite concerns about overbooking and an elevation of the threat level to orange, we cleared through customs quickly and had extra seats on both planes.

It’s been a busy weekend with a lot of travelling. Yesterday, after the Blogstravaganza, I zipped home as fast as I legally could, because I just had to watch Doctor Who’s third season finale, Last of the Time Lords. I’ll say this for Russell T. Davies; it’s hard to recall the last time I’ve so eagerly anticipated an episode of any program. It’s been at least a couple of years.

And despite the risk that something so anticipated would end up disappointing, this didn’t happen, in my opinion. The episode is quite controversial and appears to have divided fandom. I’ve heard some very negative reviews from individuals whose opinions I strongly respect, but I can’t see where they’re coming from. It’s very interesting. Again, I’ll say this for Russell T. Davies; love this episode or hate it, it still forces a strong opinion out of you. One thing you cannot call Last of the Time Lords is timid.

Indeed, I am in two minds about this story. More after the break.


A Classic, More or Less

(Image courtesy the BBC)

Okay, so after the Master steals the TARDIS at the end of Utopia, the Doctor and company escape the onslaught of Futurekind using the predicted cop-out of having the Doctor repair Captain Jack’s temporal wristwatch on the fly. However, before we get a chance to shout “cheat!” at the screen, the action kicks into high gear (for those of you who still want to shout “cheat!”, bear up, because Russell to his everlasting credit, isn’t going to end Utopia here). The new Master is clearly Mr. Harold Saxon, who has been rising in the ranks of British politics since his mysterious appearance eighteen months previous, and is now prime minister of Britain. Immediately, his reign of terror begins.

With the bulk of the British population under the thrall of the Archangel Satellite Communication and Mind Control Network, the Master kills the British cabinet, assassinates the President of the United States, and unleashes six billion deadly spheres (which he refers to as the Toclaphane — a Time Lord word meaning “bogeyman”) and sets about enslaving the planet. The Doctor, Jack and Martha are first on the run from the law as terrorist suspects, and then prisoners of the Master, as all of the Doctor’s attempts to thwart his old enemy come to naught. In the end, as death rains down on humanity, it’s left to Martha Jones to save the world. Can she do it?

The critical moment of The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords probably comes at the beginning of the second part where, one year after the Master’s takeover of the Earth, he comes traipsing into his control room (and I mean really traipsing in), grabs up the Doctor in a wild dance and lip-syncs a song whose lyrics include “I can’t decide whether you should live or die” (Scissor Sisters, I Can’t Decide). This wild scene is such that there are only two possible responses. People are either going to (a) love it to little bitty pieces or (b) hate its guts and its children. And the way people react to this scene is perhaps indicative of their reaction to the story overall.

The Sound of Drums is pure set-up; a methodical taking down of the Doctor and company to the brink of defeat. The cliffhanger which leaves the Master ascendant grabs you by the ears and pins you painfully in front of the television screen for a whole week (okay, maybe not literally). It all lives and dies on Last of the Time Lords, and give credit to where it’s due: Russell T. Davies gives it his all.

Last of the Time Lords is a wild rush, blowing past any plot improbabilities, any flaw in characterization, any needlessly messianic moment, with the same verve and vigour displayed by John Simms’ Master. The story exudes a confidence that couldn’t help but win me over. If there were serious plot contrivances, I didn’t notice them. Even though the Doctor was left with a heck of an explanation job following the climax (“let me get this straight: the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom are both dead and you can’t justify your whereabouts? Very interesting. Hey, why are you three running for that blue box?”), I didn’t particularly care. Russell T. Davies worked all of his strengths — his appeal to emotion; his sense of pacing; his sense of epic — and managed to hide or work around his weaknesses in a story that I had no choice but to like.

Two people deserve credit for this reaction: Murray Gold and Freema Agyeman. Earlier this season (see my review of 42), I wondered if this composer was double booked, as I was noticing a strong recycling of themes in 42 and the Dalek two-parter. Turns out, the bulk of his attention was here. The music and the sound editing was critical in setting the mood of this tale, and there was excellent use of pop tunes. Whatever confident swagger the episode possessed would have been rendered just plain silly without the music to back it up, and Murray Gold was up for the challenge. The Last of the Time Lords sounded bold and epic. I can’t identify any specific themes that stand out (as the final refrain of Doomsday did), but Murray Gold knows his place here, and the music works to build the action rather than take its place.

Then there’s Freema Agyeman as Martha. After establishing herself with Smith and Jones and Shakespeare Code, I felt that she receeded somewhat in later episodes. She was playing third fiddle to the Doctor and Captain Jack in Utopia and hardly had any screen time at all in Blink. She spent a little too long in frustrated lovesickness, but The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords redeems her. As the Master knocks back every effort of the Doctor and Captain Jack to bring him down, it’s left to Martha Jones to save the world. And she does. Returning to Britain one year after the Master’s glorious takeover, she shows resilience, intelligence and street smarts to go with her book smarts. The Master mocks her for not absorbing the whole of the Time Vortex, like Rose, but it’s Martha who builds the resistance out of nothing. It’s Martha who walks around the world.

Second to Martha Jones is Adjoa Andoh as Martha’s mother, Francine, who redeems her earlier suspicions with her stalwart support of the Doctor against the Master. Over her year of hell she has come to trust her daughter, and most importantly that lesson gets a chance to stick. And while it was easy to paint Martha’s mother poorly, it’s still clear where Martha gets her resilience and determination from.

Of course, this is a story about the Master, so John Simms takes centre stage, a position he clearly relishes. With all subsequent Masters after the original playing shades of Roger Delgado, Simms’ youthful, roguish performance is a refreshing change that lends a manic energy to the production. There is considerable depth here too, as you get a definite sense that the manic performance is covering up some major issues inside. The Master is still hearing the sound of drums in his head referred to in Utopia, and it is driving him insane. John Simms and David Tennant also strike sparks off each other when they get scenes together. I could have used more of this, in fact.

But Russell shows considerable skill himself. You can see it in his ability to depict a year in hell based solely on hearsay. Through some good lines and excellent acting, we can be told about the burning of Japan, the rocket shipyards stretching from the Black Sea to Vladivostok, the “radiation pits of Europe”, and our imaginations do the rest. Really, it was good that Russell T. Davies didn’t show us all of this, because it could hardly compete with what our minds could make up, but it is still a considerable risk. Hearsay is a cheap special effect, and it can look it. Russell could not have pulled this off unless he had the audience rooting for him, which harks right back to the episode’s confident swagger established from the Master’s dance dance revolution. You’re either going to love this episode, or hate it. There is no middle ground.

Dear Russell: Less is More

As good as this story is, it’s far from perfect. There is a definite sense of opportunities missed; chief among them being the character of Lucy Saxon. She was mysterious enough in The Sound of Drums to have fans speculating whether she was the “daughter of mine” in Family of Blood (also named Lucy) or if she was, in fact, Romana. I can see how it would be difficult to fit either explanation into the narrative, but without some payoff for her character, Lucy Saxon becomes just another human that the Master has enthralled. She has few motivations, and not really much of a character arc, making her an individual whose primary purpose is to stand around, look pretty, and then shoot the Master at a convenient moment. This woman is less of a character than she is a plot device.

Then comes the Doctor and the Master’s final confrontation on the mountains overlooking the south England shipyards. What was the point of all that? The elements hearken to the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty (you’d only need a cataract somewhere), but nothing really happens. The two characters merely threaten each other with little pieces of electronics. The Doctor does talk the Master down in a nice character moment (that plays up well when revisited in the Master’s final scene), but why move the characters from the flying sky fortress at all?

A few other items were dropped into the script, and then dropped from the script, as it were. Consider the Doctor’s comment that if a Time Lord absorbed as much energy from the time vortex as Rose did, he’d become a god (“a vengeful god”). The line is significant enough that it must foreshadow something, but clearly not anything in Last of the Time Lords. Possibly these lines of dialogue were inserted to be used in season four or at some point afterwards, so I’ll reserve judgement, but then there is the case of Martha’s brother Leo. A lot was made over the fact that he was in Brighton, and thus not arrested with Martha’s parents and Tish… and then we never saw him again. If he’s that extraneous, why have him around in the first place?

Although one possibility does raise its head: Martha’s parents and Tish were with Martha in the sky fortress when the paradox broke and time reset itself. Martha’s parents, Martha and Tish all remember the events of the year that never was, whereas Martha’s brother does not. Is anything to come of this?

And just what were the sound of drums echoing in the Master’s head? Despite the retroactive continuity suggesting that they arrived the moment the Master stared into the time vortex, they’ve never been mentioned before, and only come into play after the Master’s apparent resurrection at the hands of the Time Lords. They are also distinct enough that the Master ends up transferring their tone to the Archangel satellite communication and mind control network, thus enthralling most of the population of Earth, so what are they? No real explanation is offered.

In addition to the lost opportunities, there are other elements where the story would have been more effective if the producers and the crew had just dialled it back a bit. Even though the story as a whole is so far over the top that the writers had to bring in a floating sky fortress, some elements go so far that they alienate the audience — or, at least, me. The Doctor’s aged makeup looked fake and put me off certain scenes. It diminished my enjoyment of the end of The Sound of Drums, as the Doctor was reduced to little more than reaction shots, and when you have limited your hero to just a few reaction shots, it’s a mistake, in my opinion, to bury him under five tonnes of latex.

Then there was the decision to age the Doctor further and turn him into Gollem, even though I was actually better able to buy this than the initial aged makeup. Perhaps it was the visual of the Doctor trapped within the birdcage as an effective shorthand showing how far the Doctor has fallen. Others, however, are not so kind, and I can see why. It was a risky move, and for some members of the audience, the risk didn’t pay off. Erin is certain that the scenes would have come off better, more realistically, if the depiction of age and weakness had been done more through acting and less through special effects, as then we would have had more opportunities for John Simm and David Tennant to act to each other.

And while I have no problem with the Doctor’s solution of turning the Master’s Archangel satellite system and worldwide mind control device against him, I do agree that the imagery was needlessly Messianic. Mind you, the series has been building toward this straight from Smith and Jones and Gridlock, and I’m not yet ready to call all of these references tiresome, but again other fans and viewers might be a little less kind.

What saves Last of the Time Lords is David Tennant. He pulls several scenes from total loss to total believability with his own strong reactions. The revelation of Captain Jack as the Face of Boe? Downright stupid, in my opinion, until we have David Tennant’s flabbergasted reaction. The scene with the Doctor forgiving the Master was genuinely moving, both in the way it was scripted and the way it was played, but the scene where the Doctor begs the Master to regenerate only works because David Tennant makes it work. Intellectually, I have trouble with the Doctor spitting in the faces of all those that the Master has tortured over the past year, and it is only seeing the whole of the Time War and the Doctor’s incredible loneliness come crashing down on him that makes the scene work for me.

In Conclusion

I’m prepared to call The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords the best season finale of the revival. It’s as epic as any of the others, and the plot holds together with a minimum of contrivances. Yes, seeing the ninth Doctor complete his journey and regenerate was moving, but Last of the Time Lords doesn’t have an ending that is literally the God from the Machine (Jesus from the Machine isn’t the same thing). I am torn between rating this episode third best of the season, or fourth (behind Human Nature / The Family of Blood)

But it is telling that the best episodes, for me, of the past three seasons have not included the two-part season finales. It’s getting predictable that each season has to end in an epic-shattering crash, and Russell T. Davies is going to find it hard to top not only himself, but the expectations the audience puts upon him to pull out all the stops. I have nothing against season-spanning story arcs and themes that coalesce around finales, and I would say that the Saxon plot was Russell T. Davies’ most successful season-spanning plot of the revival, but Russell may find it difficult to go to the well again and again. The best thing about Rose’s departure story was not the fanboy-cheering battle between the Daleks and the Cybermen, it was the story of the growth of Rose and her friends and family. Russell was able to incorporate the character story more in with the narrative here, but he is leaving several tools in the toolbox by requiring that every season end big. Better that the seasons just end, with good storytelling and character arcs fulfilled.

Then again, Russell T. Davies probably shouldn’t listen to me (as if he would). One thing he has tried to do is push himself and his limits. Bold is better than timid most days of the week, and this season’s finale has been anything but timid.

Random Doctor Who Notes

  • When the Master comes traipsing in at the beginning of Last of the Time Lords, you notice that the Doctor has a rather resigned look on his face, as if it’s not unusual to see the Master lip-syncing to pop tunes. Mind you, given the evil of the Master, I’m betting there’s mandatory karaoke nights.
  • Though not much time is spent showing or explaining the motivations of the Utopians, Russell T. Davies is able to paint a picture of humanity’s far flung future, and it’s not a pretty one. With evocative lines describing the furnaces of Utopia, Lucy’s reaction to the memory, and the Utopians’ frank admission that they’d cannibalized themselves (“made ourselves beautiful”) and their regression to a childlike state says quite a lot with a very little. Fundamentally, I buy into it. I can see the humans’ growing desperation as the end of reality nears, and they realize there truly is no way out. Harkening back to my review of Utopia, when I said that only the humans, not the Daleks nor the Time Lords, had the privilege to witness the end; I’m suddenly confronted with the realization that this isnt such a privilege after all.
  • With the Utopians’ desire to stave off the inevitable so clearly painted, I feel that some continuity geek should point out that the Utopians are far from the only race to try and escape the end of reality. According to the New Adventures, beings from the previous universe tried to do so as well. From this you have the Great Intelligence, the Celestial Toymaker and other mad immortals. Clearly, desiring to carry on beyond the end just does not go well.
  • In an e-mail, Cameron says what I was thinking: “Oh, good, the Master uses the word ‘decimate’ properly! … Okay, maybe not so good.”
  • With what I said about Lucy Saxon being nothing more than a plot device, I guess there is some chance of development if indeed it is her who picks up the Master’s ring at the end. But is it her? Yes, she has Lucy’s red shoes and (possibly) her red fingernails (somebody should check this), but if it is her, why not show her face? Why not get a reaction shot to counterpoint her vacant stares and final willingness to pray for the Doctor? I guess we’ll find out later if the new ring-bearer is Lucy Saxon or not. Perhaps in season four?
  • (Update): A quote from Wikipedia: “Reggie Yates is credited as playing Leo Jones; however, the character Leo only appears in this episode as background (in the scene in Martha’s family’s home, through a window). The audio commentary for the episode mentions that Leo was originally to appear in an earlier scene with Martha, but Yates was double-booked and the scene was re-written, with Leo replaced by Thomas Milligan.” Ah. So Leo was supposed to die. That would have added something to the story, I think.
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