Season 29 Episodes 12 & 13 – The Sound Of Drums and Last Of The Time Lords, by Russell T. Davies

May 11, 2008

review by Martin Odoni.

Well, what can I say?

Cue a very long sigh.

How about, “Bloody awful”? Really, that’s the nicest thing I can say about the stories, they were that terrible.

Every typical cliche and lazy shortcut in Russell T. Davies’ writing was there once more, and in spades; feeble, unsubtle and misplaced attempts at comedy (the Master miming to bad music while dragging the aged Doctor around his Cloudbase), unnatural plot exposition (Martha announcing her activities over the last year to the Master for no apparent reason), incomprehensible technobabble and sorcery-babble to set up the plot (the TARDIS being turned into a ‘Paradox Machine’ allowing temporal anomalies to exist in the physical universe – yeah, right, how does it do that exactly?) and then again to resolve it (an awful lot of people in a telepathic network round the world saying the same name at the same time causes someone to suddenly grow two hundred years younger – again, deus ex city, HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?!?), a liberal splashing of stupid points to many of the supposedly-intelligent protagonists (if they could destroy the Paradox Machinery just by firing a few bullets into it, why didn’t they just do that before the Toclafane arrived? Idiots!), and some more blatant and uninspired rip-offs of scenes from adventure movies (the Earth spinning in reverse to portray time running backwards, a la Superman, a dark enemy burned on a funeral pyre, a la Return Of The Jedi, and a ring lifted from the ashes of a corpse to the ‘chilling’ sound of disembodied laughter, a la Flash Gordon).

Add in glaring plot self-contradictions, such as the Toclafane clearly outnumbering the human remnant that went hunting for Utopia at least a thousand times over, yet supposedly being the same people, some lay-it-on-with-a-trowel political commentary about Bush and Blair (you know, I get the feeling that RTD may not altogether like the BB double-act, dunno where I get that impression from; maybe the fact that the US President remains dead at the end while everyone else comes back to life) and about domestic violence (wasn’t Mrs Master’s eventual betrayal of her husband almost as predictable as Hugh Quarshie’s extermination in Evolution Of The Daleks?), some truly hideous over-the-top music from Murray Gold, and a dreadful feeling at the end of ‘they’ve-hit-the-reset-button’ (the entire year is just undone, just like that? Sheesh, that’s not just a cop-out, that’s cowardly writing of the lowest order…) and you have, quite possibly, the worst story since the revival.

In terms of pure plot-progression, it’s a mess. The first episode starts with a lame cop-out, with the previous week’s cliffhanger hurriedly brushed aside by the most predictable resolution since someone asked, “This Saddam Hussein bloke; is he guilty or what?” Captain Jack’s Timejump implant is broken, but we all just knew that the Doctor’s magic screwdriver would fix it just like that. So, almost everything from Utopia is neatly tidied up within thirty seconds of the teaser. The start of the next episode suddenly leaps us forward a year out of nowhere. During this time Martha goes round the world and just… tells people a story, while the Doctor sits around on Skybase for the whole time and does basically nothing. And the Master decides to have a conversation with him about his new Timelord Empire fully a year after it could have sounded at all natural. Meanwhile, the phase of the plot where Martha is captured is completely meaningless. Martha clearly doesn’t have to be present on Cloudbase for the chanting of the Doctor’s name to work, so why is it she claims that she deliberately got caught? The only reason she appears to be on the Cloudbase at all is so she can info-dump her ‘plan’ to the Master for the benefit of the viewers. In fact, if she really wanted to get captured, why did she bother hiding under that blanket while the Master was looking for her, why did she look so damn scared even when no one could see her face, and, above all, why didn’t she run for it when the Master was about to shoot her instead? For that matter, why didn’t the Master shoot her?

Other plot incongruities, non-explanations and contradictions abound; why does being aged nine hundred years make the Doctor’s skull shrink and his eyes get bigger? Why can ‘permanently’ fusing the TARDIS’ navigational controls so that it can only visit two time zones keep a Time Lord from travelling freely, if it can’t keep him from completely rebuilding the TARDIS into a ‘Paradox Machine’? If the fusing of the circuits is permanent, why is it that at the end of the episode the Doctor suggests a wide variety of destinations to Martha, none of which include twenty-first century Earth or the end of time? For the same reason, you have to ask how he winds up sinking the Titanic; did the Titanic not sink till 2007 or something ***? Or is the Titanic not due to sink until the year one hundred trillion, and all those people from 1912 really just died of mass-hallucinations? How come the Titanic managed to crash through the TARDIS wall at all, given that said TARDIS has fallen off cliffs before and survived completely unscathed ****? Why does the Master kill his Cabinet ministers immediately after his Election despite needing to maintain the illusion of his role as Prime Minister for some days afterwards? Surely it would be easier to do that if he didn’t have to conceal a stockpile of corpses in number 10. Why is the President still dead when time is reversed to the point before the Toclafane arrived? It was the Toclafane themselves that killed him. Are we seriously expected to believe that Martha was able to tell three billion-odd people the Gospel According to Doctor Who in the space of a year? And that she was able to convince all of them that this mythical demi-god was real so easily?

So many other details go unexplained, even completely unexplored. Who the hell was Lucy Saxon anyway, and why was she so eager to see the Master succeed? Why did the Master treat her as an equal when she’s a human? (I mean, he married her! The Master married a human! Why would he marry into what he thinks of as an ‘inferior’ race?!?) What exactly was the ‘sound of drums’ supposed to represent? How did the Doctor know about the countdown so early? How did the whole world manage to synchronise every clock on the planet to the exact same second? Has RTD never heard of time zones? What happened to the Toclafane that had manifested before the invasion and the paradox? Why weren’t they still there after the reset button was hit? Equally, what happened to the satellite network? Or the Cloudbase? Or the three hundred million seething Americans who would surely be baying for British blood after watching the Prime Minister effectively declare war on them by murdering their President live on global television? None of this is examined at any stage. Not one bit of it!

Characterisation is becoming a real b*gger in this series, especially the Doctor and the Master themselves. The Doctor is no longer a scientist and traveller, he’s not even just a sorcerer. He really is being written as the new messiah. His TARDIS keys turning people near-invisible are more sorcery-babble, clearly derived from the Somebody-Else’s-Problem Field in Life, The Universe And Everything. And the Doctor can be aged hundreds of years with the Master’s own sonic magic wand. (Eh? Didn’t the Doc say in School Reunion that he can’t grow old, only regenerate?) Then he can be turned back by lots of people shouting his name. Awwwwww, how heart-warming. And how totally non-explanatory. Meanwhile the Master is being portrayed as a schizophrenic, complete with stereotypical imaginary voices and noises in his head. Now on the one hand it’s nice for the character finally to be given some kind of motivation for his evil – one of the reasons he was always so dull in the past was that his megalomania was never explained – but this is a hopeless, jarring piece of retcon, as there was never the slightest indication of him having such a disorder in the past.

RTD has a real obsession with scale for its own sake, doesn’t he? Things always have to be BIG with him, it makes you wonder if he has subconscious issues below the waistline. It’s not enough for the story to be set in the future, it has to be in the year five billion, or maybe the year one hundred trillion. That’ll be BIG, which means it’s more intelligent and dramatic, right? It can’t just be a deadly virus, it has to be a deadly virus that kills a whole world in seven minutes. It can’t just be an alien invasion, it has to be an alien invasion that sees six billion torture droids from Star Wars tumble out of the sky and wipe out the population, leaving the handful of survivors to live in holes and slave camps.

In fact, I almost wouldn’t mind that, except that RTD always seems to use ever-growing scale as a substitute for a new plot. Think about it. The end of each season of New Who has been effectively the same; a huge robotic army attempting to conquer the Earth. The only real distinction is that the number of invaders involved has gone up a scale.

Same with the far future stories. It’s as though RTD thinks, “We’ve gone 5 billion years into the future a few times. So now we need a new story? Okay, we’ll go a few trillion years into the future. That’s different, right? So it’s a new story, right?” No, Russell, all you’re doing is altering the parameters, and making them sound increasingly ridiculous in the process. It’s not a different story just because there are more Toclafane this year than Cybermen last year. How many Ice Warriors will there be at the end of next year? Two trillion?

And the performances… well, John Simm is just not the Master. In fact, his hamming performance suggests to me that he knows the story is rubbish and he’s really taking the rise out of it at every opportunity. He’s good at what he’s doing, I guess, but it’s just not the Master, it’s a parody of David Tennant’s Doctor. Freema Agyeman does well in patches on what proves to be her final outing, while DT himself is a rare redeeming feature of the story, with what is actually an impressively restrained and deep portrayal of the Doctor’s torment. John Barrowman is largely in hanger-on mode for the two closing episodes; only really there to give the Doctor a method of time travel without the TARDIS, and to do some shooting when the Paradox Machine needs destroying.

Oh, and Jack’s the Face Of Boe, is he? Is he? Is he really? Really? He is, is he? Well, in response to that, RTD, I have a request for you; will you please stuff your scripts and your ‘dramatic revelations’ up the hole you write out of? The two characters clearly have nothing whatsoever in common, so I ain’t buying it, but in any case, so flipping what if they are the same person? I just don’t care. The Face Of Boe is a head in a jar of water. Apart from making the odd cryptic remark here and there, he doesn’t actually do anything. So why does the series always insist on making such a huge deal out of him? (The whole ‘Jack-Is-Boe’ revelation thing just feels like it was tacked on at the end to sound ‘kewl’; RTD wouldn’t do that of course, now would he?)

That bit at the end with the Titanic, by the way, and with the Doctor saying “What?” over and over… RTD, could you please stuff your own-joke-recycling machine up your writing hole as well?

Ah well, that’s that for one more year then, and a terrible note to end on. Shame really, as season three was largely a big, big improvement on the drossy season two. Several good episodes early on, and some truly excellent material in the late-middle stages. But the abysmal conclusion has really left us with a badly-tarnished jewel.

RUSSELL T. DAVIES HAS GOT TO GO.

Well all right, I know he’s set to leave at the end of next season anyway. But I’d much prefer it if he just concentrated on producing the series and left the scripting to writers who actually know something about the genre!

Oh, must remember to give a score. I give the concluding two episodes a total mark of 2/10, which I guess means it was better than Love & Monsters. So I can correct myself; that’s the nicest thing I can find to say about it.

*** The overwhelmingly misnamed Christmas ‘Special’, Voyage Of The Damned, unreviewed on this blog, gives us the answer that it was a spaceship from the future called Titanic, not an ocean-liner.

**** The Children In Need vignette, Time Crash, also unreviewed here but set immediately after this episode, unconvincingly retcons the notion that the TARDIS’ past invulnerability stems from deflector shields that were not switched on in this instance.

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