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."
"THAT'S ENOUGH, JOHN."
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!
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.|
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.
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...
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.