Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Sound Of Raspberries

Doctor Who
Utopia, The Sound Of Drums and Last Of The Time Lords
Series Three, Episodes Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen

Brace yourself.  Russell's getting his finale on again.

You know the drill by now: large scale destruction, a classic Doctor Who monster, a parting of the ways.  Russell T Davies obviously felt pressured to step it up for his third year, so we've got a three-parter set over a year (bouncing from 2007 to the end of the universe), in which probably a billion(ish) people snuff it, and a whole secondary human race gets mutilated as well.  Mission accomplished?  Er, yes and no.  It's big, all right.  But you know what happens to bubbles of a certain size.

"For God's sake, John, fine, you can be in the finale.
Now stop inserting yourself into the title sequence."
"Heh.  Inserting myself."
The first episode, Utopia, is the best by miles.  It's nearly all setup – which is why it doesn't count as a separate story, so there – and though there's not much substance, there is plenty of excitement.

After Captain Jack (literally) hitches a ride on the TARDIS, our heroes arrive on a barren planet.  The last of humanity are preparing to blast off to "Utopia", with the help of a fustery old professor.  No one really knows what Utopia is, but it's got to be better than here, where they're constantly harassed by the savage, pointy-toothed Futurekind.  Unfortunately their rocket won't fly, and the Professor's work is at a dead end.

This isn't the first time Russell T Davies has used a satirical utopia to spur on his characters (although it's the first time he's given up all pretence and actually called it Utopia), and as usual, they're wrong.  The Futurekind are a pretty big hint about what their future really holds – they serve almost no other purpose – but in the meantime, the Doctor meets Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi), who's adorable, and the two of them get on famously.

It's a lovely, layered performance from Jacobi, containing several hints of what's really going on here.  He wears inexplicably Edwardian clothes.  He's paired with an adoring young friend, Chan-Tho, pretty obviously to draw parallels with the Doctor.  (And to achieve Russell's lifelong dream of having a character end every single sentence with "though".)  He wishes, just once, he could be recognised for his achievements.  And he keeps hearing drums.  Spotted it yet?  If it were any more obvious, he'd have a William Hartnell wig and a police box.  But it's quite exciting waiting for the penny to drop, even on repeat viewings.

Meanwhile, in an abrupt break from tradition, Captain Jack gets some character development.  He's understandably upset that the Doctor abandoned him in The Parting Of The Ways, but the Doctor apparently feels that Jack is "wrong" now that he can't die, and it's sheer Time Lordy instinct to avoid him.  This is an odd fit for someone as friendly as the Doctor, and it ignores the fact that he left before he saw Captain Jack alive and well again.  (He was a bit busy regenerating at the time.)  However, a discussion between the two, where the Doctor asks Jack if he wants to die, takes David Tennant to an unusually dark place.  I like new stuff, and I like this.

We'd better make the most of her.
Oops!  Too late!
There are several lovely moments for Martha, such as a hilarious info-dump about the Doctor's regrown hand (I love her tone of voice when she says "You've got two hands!  I can see them!"), and there's some great business at the end, when she realises what's going on with Yana (hold that thought) and tries to keep from spilling the beans.  Freema Agyeman puts across Martha's mingled shock, horror and excitement beautifully.  Isn't she great?  And she gets to rage (understandably) and sulk (unfortunately) about Rose, whom we still can't stop talking and reminiscing about, apparently.

Yeah, about that.  Knowing this is Martha's last story makes it all the more painful.  Why do we keep dwelling on Rose?  What's it for?  It's obviously deliberate, using Rose over and over again to stop Martha gaining a place in the Doctor's affections, but why?  Does it make the Doctor more interesting?  No, it makes him rude.  Does it make Martha more interesting?  No, it just pushes her out of the TARDIS.  Hey, I'm sure there are Rose fans out there, high-fiving each other and crying every time they hear the R word, but it's a non-starter for anyone not irrationally obsessed with this one character.  No doubt we're meant to cheer when Martha decides to learn from her experiences, leave the TARDIS and live her own life – which is how companions should leave, by the way – but the damage it does to the Doctor, who has spent most of this series behaving like an ungrateful jerk, is a total own goal.

Anyway, we've still got two episodes to cover (!), so back to it.  The Doctor fixes the rocket (because he's clever, i.e. he has a sonic screwdriver, how fascinating) and everything goes great until Martha notices the Professor's got a fob watch.  You guessed it!  He's a Time Lord in disguise!  As we've already ticked off Daleks and Cybermen, it's time to meet the Master.

Suggested in 1971 as (literally!) Moriarty to the Doctor's Sherlock Holmes, he's been portrayed differently through the years.  He was a suave, bearded gent (Roger Delgado), an emaciated monster desperate to survive (Peter Pratt, Geoffrey Beevers), the bearded guy again but with added camp (Anthony Ainley), and an all-camp point-thoroughly-missed American ex-ambulance driver (Eric Roberts).  In which direction does the new one lean?  Well, once Jacobi discovers his inner Master (during the episode's thrilling ten minute climax), it's a mixture of all the good ones.  He's bitter, malevolent, intelligent and scary.  (And okay, a little bit hammy.)  He's everything I want from the Master.  But then, after one of the show's best cliff-hangers, with the TARDIS stolen and the Futurekind about to burst in, the Master regenerates into John Simm.  And this three-parter promptly begins its nose-dive.

Gaze into the mousey little face of terror.
When The Sound Of Drums begins, we whiz back to the present (throwing that brilliant cliff-hanger right out the window, oh well) and see that the Master has installed himself as Prime Minister.  He has lingered through all of Series Three's modern-day episodes, turning Martha's mother against the Doctor, presumably to drive him and Martha apart, because um.  (Wouldn't that prevent them from going to the future / opening the fob watch / getting him a TARDIS?  What was his plan before the TARDIS miraculously turned up?  And how come he can make Masterly plans when he's a human?  John Smith couldn't.)

Anywho, he's got a wife, who may or may not be hypnotised.  (She continues the "Master Is Like Doctor!" routine begun with Yana and Chan-Tho, because some viewers didn't get the memo.)  And he's got the Toclafane: billions of psychotic spheres that are, in fact, those optimistic humans from Utopia.  They conquer the world instantly, murdering ten percent of humanity as a show of strength.  This creates a paradox – future humans killing past humans – but that's okay, because the Master cannibalised the TARDIS into a Paradox Machine.  (So it's red now.)  When the Doctor gets uppity, the Master uses Lazarus technology to age him to the point of uselessness.  Game over.  This Master gets results.  Terrifying, right?

Not exactly.  This Master is naughty, impish and zany.  In many ways, he's comic relief.  (He also works as a satire on politicians, and the power of personality to overcome a complete absence of policy.  This is as subtle as all Doctor Who satire, which is to say: CLANG!)  Obviously intended to parallel David Tennant's more exuberant mannerisms (so, his worst bits), Simm's Master is one of Russell T Davies's dodgiest impulses – juxtaposing horror and comedy, the broader the better – personified.  He camps it up, chews the scenery, and tries very hard to be funny whilst he kills people.  There's an entertaining dimension to this if you're in the right mood, and don't have nerdy opinions on What The Master Should Be Like, but as a terrifying counterpoint to the Doctor... oh dear.  It doesn't work.

The Master is driven by an urge to survive.  (Or has been since Roger Delgado died and they had to re-jig his character.)  Fair enough.  And there's lip service paid to that, at the end when he refuses to blow up the Earth and take himself with it.  But no, that's not what this Master is really about.  (And he chooses death immediately afterwards, so nuts to all that, then.)  He's damaged.  Insane.  He needs help, and despite all those atrocities, the Doctor wants to fix him.  Altogether: awwww!  No, wait, he's a scary villain, not a sympathetic John-Simmy diddums!  Honest!

The Master's plan is, essentially, fire missiles in all directions.
It's been done.  By Futurama.
As a joke.
Infusing anything with over-the-top comedy is like sprinkling raw onion on your dinner: whatever it was before, it's now pretty much onion-themed.  But the Master's pantomime antics, combined with the undercurrent of he-really-just-needs-a-cuddle, completely undoes the menace Derek Jacobi (briefly) brings to the part.  The Doctor's attitude is the cherry on the cake, enabling some of the gloopiest, writes-its-own-fan-fiction-iest bromancing you're ever likely to witness, with dialogue like "Are you asking me out on a date?", just to drag any form of subtext screaming into full view.  Subtle it ain't.

Neither of them comes out of this well.  Nice as it is for the Doctor to take the sympathetic way out, it comes at a high cost.  Millions of lives are lost, the entire Earth suffers for a year, and the Doctor – the guy you're here to see – spends most of the final episode sat in a wheelchair feeling sorry for himself.  Doctor Who?  More like Doctor Why Don't You Get Off Your Arse And Do Something.  Once again, it's up to Martha to put in the leg-work.

I should be thrilled about this, because I love Martha and it's great that she gets to do something important, but brave as she is, this doesn't actually say anything about her.  Martha spends a year travelling the world and telling people about the Doctor, so that when the time comes they'll all think "Doctor" at the same moment.  This (thanks to the Master's network of hypnotic satellites, designed to keep people scared) will somehow transmit their thoughts to the Doctor (who has coincidentally aged and shrunk) and somehow make him briefly invincible and able to fly (and restore him to his proper age and size, as well as rebooting his clothes).  Somehow.

Setting aside how stupid this all is – and dear god, it's the Stupidpocalypse – this isn't empowering for Martha.  She's just following the Doctor's orders, and she's put in her place yet again when the Master (!) harps on about how great Rose was by comparison.  As for the plan, it's (literally) all about bigging up the Doctor – who just sat there and let millions of people die, waiting to enact his I Do Believe In Fairies master-plan, quietly hoping there'd be a reset button at the end of it.  (What if there wasn't?)  Meanwhile, Jack fixes the Paradox Machine by shooting it with bullets, and everything goes back to how it was before the Toclafane killed everybody.  Except it's after they killed the US President, because... you can't win 'em all?  (And oh yeah, those future humans still get mutilated and become the Toclafane, because whoops, forgot that bit.  They're in another dimension now, probably called The La-La-La-Pretend-It-Never-Happened Place.  Presumably with the Futurekind, who you've forgotten about by this point.  Admit it!)

I do believe in plot contrivances mixed with ridiculous religious symbolism,
I do, I do...
The Master is now the only loose end (well, not the only one!), so his wife helpfully steps in and shoots him.  Why not?  It's not as if her character serves any other purpose, and it saves the writer the effort of thinking up a proper comeuppance.  (The Doctor's best idea is to bundle him into the TARDIS and keep an eye on him.  Yeah, that'll work.)  Cue much sobbing and there-should-have-been-another-way-ing from David Tennant, and an epilogue with Martha deciding that enough is finally enough.  I'll miss her; I have no idea why they thought it was a good idea to sabotage this companion from the get-go, but Freema Agyeman did wonders with it all.

So, three episodes, and really a whole series, building towards... what, exactly?  Martha deciding it was time to go?  Well, okay, but there were episodes this year (42 and Blink) where they seemed to put the tension behind them and act like good mates, and the rest of the Doctor's behavior never made sense in the first place.  The horrible Mr Saxon/The Master, then?  Well, okay, but his character is so thoroughly cocked up that by the end, one is not so much in awe of the Doctor's nemesis as feeling sorry for a lonely, unbalanced guy with severe tinnitus.  Call me old fashioned, but I think the Master should slot more into Category A there.  Especially on his first go.

This story's emotions and ideas generally don't work.  (And something's definitely wrong with a story that requires this many flashbacks.)  The tension isn't really there, either: the moment you see millions of humans murdered in the present day, followed by a One Year Later caption, any semi-intelligent viewer will simply wait for the inevitable reset.  It comes as expected.  (Except for the President and the Toclafane, both left WTF-ingly in tatters.)  As for the plot, cut out a cross section and you'll find one word (rhymes with "frollocks") stamped through it like a stick of rock.  How did the Doctor time all this a year in advance, with no idea that he'd be canary-sized by the end of it?  How come the hypno-satellites work in reverse?  How does shooting the Paradox Machine make everything nice again?  How does thinking "Doctor" turn him into a youthefied flying Jesus Jedi?  How... why... what?  Trust me, don't.  It's like looking into the abyss.

Is this the worst of Doctor Who?  Well, the plot's appalling and the characters are a mess, so it's up there.  (Or down there, I should say.)  It's certainly the worst finale so far, botched and misjudged in most important respects.  Still, that first episode is very exciting, and the cast put in tremendous effort throughout.  It's not their fault things like "tone" and "threat" got utterly lost in the mess.  However, it is definitely the mess I take away from this one, as I run screaming in the opposite direction.  Last Of The Time Lords?  If we're lucky.


  1. I always felt it was a missed opportunity that the Jack/TARDIS sequence in the vortex wasn't the actual title sequence.

    1. In the commentary, Russell suggests they'll make it so retroactively in a future Special Edition! It's worth noting the obvious cut from Jack to the Futurekind babbling about humans, and what an odd teaser this is; sure enough, it's only because they can't cut from Jack to the titles!

    2. One thing I'd love is special titles - but only on occasion. For example, when everything turns into "Bad Wolf" at the end of Turn Left, it would've been fun to kick immediately into the titles for The Stolen Earth (I always felt this should've been done anyway, considering the first scene is a bit 'meh' after the previous cliffhanger) and have "Bad Wolf" scrawled on the TARDIS in the title sequence.

  2. Also:

    "and she's put in her place yet again when the Master (!) harps on about how great Rose was by comparison."

    Made worse by the fact that, uh, how would the Master ever know about Rose? You can argue he hacked the TARDIS databanks and, uh, watched all the Doctor's adventures to catch up or something but that's rubbish. It's just yet another Writer's Obligatory Mention of Rose Tyler.

    FWIW, I fully agree. I actually like The Sound of Drums (LotTL is where everything really goes down the drain), and Utopia is excellent. ('Tis also why I consider Utopia it's own story, so it's not lumbered with the absolute shitfest that is LotTL.) As a whole, sadly, it's poor. But there is some good stuff in the first 'half' of the trilogy.

    (Also fun that, if you slightly tweak/rearrange title title initials, you get "SOD/U/LOT"!)

  3. Thank you so much. It's become the stuff of legend amongst the listeners to my podcast that I loathe The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords with such power that I could probably stop time itself. I love Utopia and Jacobi and, like you, see the arrival of SIMM as the moment it all goes tits up. This is a great piece which sums it all up for me, without actually having to write it myself. Result!

  4. I really need to finish The Writer's Tale some day, because I'd just LOVE to know what the hell RTD was thinking when he penned this train wreck.

    Utopia is excellent start to finish. I often think it would have made a fantastic series finale by itself - the Doctor, Martha and Jack stranded at the end of the universe about to be eaten by cannibals, the Doctor's nemesis having nicked off with his TARDIS. It would definitely leave the audience wondering what would happen next. But just stopping and thinking about that possibility for a minute reveals what a silly idea it actually is - even if we did somehow have two more episodes before this one to make this the thirteenth episode, how on earth could RTD structure one of his silly Christmas romps to follow on from this and restore the status quo? What of all the hanging plot threads about Mister Saxon and Martha's family? No, Utopia needs resolution in a follow-up finale. Shame about what we actually got then.

    Like Lewis, I like The Sound of Drums (a bit) - it's a completely different tone, and one that is arguably misjudged, but there are some sparkling moments throughout. The bits where Saxon gasses the ministers and where the reporter gets sliced up are satisfyingly awful and absurd. I like the design of the Toclafane, and their creepy voices, and even the eventual revelation about what they are. The perversity of the Paradox Machine is kinda cool. And the Master's snide little quips about 'the Girlie and the Freak' are great fodder for making us love to hate him. So, not the worst episode of the third series, but it pales in comparison to Utopia. I weep that we didn't get Jacobi for a bit longer - he was just absolutely chilling in the role.

    But as Lewis says, the third episode of the finale is where it all falls down. Don't get me wrong - I still think Martha is a brilliant companion, and I rather like her getting a last chance to be super capable and dependent, but as you say, it turns out that all she's really doing here is being the disciple to the Doctor's Jesus, awaiting his mystical return.

    I suggested back in your review of The Shakespeare Code that that episode sets up the narrative logic for the resolution of the third series - that words have an almost magical quality to them, that they have power to transport and transform. Gridlock subtly expanded on that theme - words, and particularly words within a religious context, can be a source of hope in adversity, even when they are ultimately empty and in truth often merely encourage complacency (and what is Gridlock but a metaphor for Christianity, a whole population endlessly waiting for salvation, for a liberation that won't ever come if nobody actually DOES anything to fix things?). I rather think what RTD is getting at here in the finale with the Doctor resurrected by the power of prayer is that the Doctor is the messiah we SHOULD have, a man who at least does have the decency to show up and save the day when the whole world is crying out for him, unlike a certain someone else...

    Shame it all comes across as so much fan-wank, then.

    There are also Unfortunate Implications here - the (black) woman's place is as helper and devotee, while the role of saviour goes to the (white) man. Science and reason are trumped by magic and superstition. The sinner may be forgiven even the massacre of millions. A triumph of progressive ethics and morality this is not. (...cont’d).

  5. (...cont’d...)
    One thing I would like to bring up is that I've always felt that Series 3 is something of a vindication of Martha - not Jones, but the sister of Lazarus in the New Testament. The story goes that when Jesus visited with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, Martha played the good hostess while Mary sat at Jesus' feet eager to learn, and when Martha came out to scold her sister for abandoning her responsibilities to their guest Jesus praised Mary. The message is actually really progressive for the society that produced it - a woman should not be confined/relegated to the role of hostess/housekeeper, but should be allowed access to education and the liberation that it brings. Rose is very much the Mary to Martha's (ahem) Martha. Martha Jones is intelligent, questioning, capable and dependable, and completely overlooked by the man she essentially (and even literally at one point) serves. While he reserves his praise for someone less grounded in reality. It always struck me as a little unfair that the Biblical Martha's qualities were dismissed out of hand - the practical, sensible, reliable (and perhaps skeptical?) woman goes unappreciated for her efforts while praise is directed at the fawning, imaginative, fanciful and uncritical woman. RTD's treatment of Martha Jones to me seems influenced by the Biblical tale, but of course Martha Jones learns through her travels to have an appreciation for the romantic and magical that she got along fairly well without at the start of the season. It's easy to see this as a strict transition, but I think the intent was actually that she learns to draw strength from both sides, and that the nourishment and enrichment of her imaginative side made her stronger, so that she was finally able to demand better from life and walk out on her neglectful friend with head held high. But the whole thing was a little botched of course. It really comes across as Martha remaking herself in Rose’s image, until she comes to her senses and reconnects with who she is. The message is clear - if you want to travel in the TARDIS, check your self-respect at the door.

    Finally, it's hard now to look at this trilogy as complete since RTD came back to it and expanded on it with his final episodes - it is, inextricably, linked to the brief return of the Time Lords and the end of the Tenth Doctor, its themes of death, resurrection and loss being restated in the RTD era/David Tennant swan song, and thus constituting the real heart of the Ninth/Tenth Doctor arc. They are, ultimately, RTD’s Big Point, whether he meant it that way or not. While containing some of the worst excesses of the RTD era, I think between them this trilogy and the final two specials might just be RTD's most genuine and heartfelt Doctor Who scripts - we all suffer heartbreaking setbacks and crippling losses, but we Carry On.

    How very British ;)

  6. *I meant '..super capable and competent' but somehow that became '... and dependent' - oops ;)