Bumper conclusion to my Series 3 reviews...just in time for Series 4.
Originally transmitted 16th June 2007
If the Doctor describes Captain Jack as a still point in the universe then the same could be said of ‘Utopia’ within Series 3. This could be best summed up as a game of two halves.
Davies’ script is more tightly focused on character development and exposition to fill in those gaps in our knowledge that have been waiting to be occupied for some time. Thus we get an explanation for the Doctor abandoning Jack, what exactly happened to Jack when resurrected by Rose and a bit more of Boe’s enigmatic message. All this is complimented by copious flashbacks in a ‘story so far’ re-cap. And then the stillness is shattered by a customary sucker punch from Davies.
Hope the audience has been paying attention up until this point because all of the above is pretty much the driving force for the first half of the episode amidst a rather budget-strapped background story of the last humans attempting to escape to Utopia from the savage, ‘Mad Max’ wannabes, the Futurekind. Some nice little nods to ‘The Time Machine’ (the Morlocks and the Eloi) and ‘When Worlds Collide’ but it’s a bit of a flimsy, sketchy B plot on which to hang the slow burn of the story proper – that of Professor Yana.
It’s a typical Davies touch. Set up a fairly predictable pulp 50s SF scenario but then let that dwindle into the background as the mystery of Professor Yana takes hold. And this is food for Graeme Harper too as he quite stunningly turns up the heat until by the second half and the appearance of the fob watch you fully comprehend the Series 3 tagline ‘two worlds will collide’ with his frenetic inter-cutting of multi-jeopardy paying off with that utterly sublime last act. If you weren’t giddy with excitement at that point, I would check yourself into a clinic for the seriously under-whelmed.
And Jack is the still point. He’s the axis around which two relationships turn, one mirroring the other – the Doctor/Martha and Yana/Chantho. Time Lords and their companions. And it is interesting that the Doctor tows the Time Lord party line opinion on immortals and immortality – ‘just wrong’ – and we all remember what Rassilon thought of the curse of immortality in ‘The Five Doctors’. The scene in the radiation room between Tennant and Barrowman is subtly played out by both actors, their genuine chemistry paying dividends, and leaves you wondering how Jack’s going to cope with the Doctor’s obvious wariness. Will Jack’s immortality be something to sacrifice later down the line?
Derek Jacobi as the unconscious Master, the humanised Time Lord as an echo of ‘Human Nature’, was definitely the highlight of the episode. He found a profoundly moving emotional core in the script and gave a, pardon the pun, master-class in performance. With a subtle physicality he took us through the slow re-awakening of the Master where towards the final reveal, there are tears running down his face as his troubled mind clicks into focus and realisation complimented by some wonderful sound design that included the voices of Delgado, Ainley and even Eric Roberts that I’m sure left classic series lovers with a fixed grin on their faces. A truly triumphant sequence that ends with a turn on a sixpence reveal to camera of Yana’s loss of humanity and the emergence of the Master.
So many parallels to the Eccleston/Tennant regeneration too, with the standing up bodily renewal and the manic Simm testing out his new voice, layered in to ensure viewers really understand what has happened. I think it may be too early to judge Simm’s version of the Master until we get into the story that follows from this introduction.
And we still don’t know why the Master was turned human, nor how he escaped from the Eye Of Harmony after being sucked into it in the 1996 TV Movie, but I suspect much of that will not be referred to as Davies really doesn’t like being a slave to continuity. One thing’s for sure, he’s up to no good with the Doctor’s severed hand.
So, we’ve got a lovely taster for the real showdown with some impressive character moments, particularly from Jacobi, but it’s an episode that only stands up because of the raw power of that second half.
The Sound Of Drums
Originally transmitted 23rd June 2007
"You’ve been watching too much television”
I really think Russell T. Davies needs sectioning. How mad was that 45 minutes of television? That was uber-television written by a caffeine fiend with one finger stuck in an electric socket. It was terribly messy, very explosive, often daft and profound within the space of minutes, scattered with pop references and crowd pleasing scenes, over wrought but often subtle and yet it left you with an amazing high.
See it once and you’re left wondering just what the heck you’ve sat through and you feel both cheated and grateful, thrilled and disappointed. But it’s a Russell script. You need to see it more than once. Preferably, go out somewhere in between viewings and try a bit of rain-soaked reality just to put things in perspective. Believe me, it works.
OK. With one bound and they are free. Fine. Most of us had sort of worked out that the Doctor, Martha and Jack would get away from the Futurekind via Jack’s vortex manipulator. If you didn’t see that coming and you’re complaining it’s a cop-out from last week’s cliffhanger then you didn’t grow up on Saturday morning serials at your local flea-pit and get an appreciation of audience expectation whilst driving narrative forward. It’s a classic Flash Gordon ‘get out of jail free’ card. Enough said apart from mentioning that maybe it shouldn’t have been the opening scene of the episode because Colin Teague’s decisions on pacing and editing often trip the episode up.
The clock is ticking and Russell doesn’t have time to spend back with the Futurekind because he has a huge amount of exposition to dump into the episode to set up for the finale. And perhaps this is where the problem lies with the ‘messy’ feel you initially get from a first viewing of ‘Drums’. There is an awful lot of chatting, nattering, talking going on. It’s a big risk to take whilst also turning up the heat and trying to belt along to another cliffhanger.
‘Drums’ essentially ties up much of the Saxon threads that have been running through the series, explains a lot of the questions about the new Prime Minister whilst also giving us our first full-on encounter with the regenerated Master. Full-on. John Simm careers through the episode being utterly demented, funny, charming and so very, very hard. There are times when he does tip over the edge into self-parody (some of the cabinet scenes, the first meeting with President Winters) but he’s sensitive enough as an actor to know how to pull it back and defuse it with some ruthlessness. Overall, he’s good and the entire scene between him and Tennant over the phone demonstrates the power of both actors to create an on-screen chemistry even though they are not face to face in the scene. It’s certainly one of the best scenes in the whole episode and for my money Tennant underplayed it and quietly stole off with the honours.
The pop references are a mixture of the lazy and the inspired. The cameos from Widdecome et al…well they are becoming a tad repetitive as a device. I really didn’t think they were necessary, not because they aren’t funny but because they are simply an over-used bit of flummery. Bit tired and I’m surprised Russell decided to repeat himself so blatantly. Oh, look and there’s Skybase from ’Captain Scarlet’ and the Teletubbies (itself an amusing nod to the infamous scene of the Master watching ‘The Clangers’ in ‘The Sea Devils’) and the whole notion of a politician like Saxon being a creation of the Master did have a bit of Jeffrey Archer’s own subterfuge about it. And let’s not forget the nod to ‘Logopolis’ with the ‘Peoples of the earth…’ line and also bringing UNIT back into the fold.
The other great scene here is the outlaws – Jack, Martha and the Doctor – sitting down and eating chips together. Tennant, with some help from The Mill, effortlessly conjures up the Gallifrey back-story for us and gives us a glimpse of the young Master looking into the vortex and being driven mad. He is the vengeful god in opposition to lonely god it would now seem. The CGI for Gallifrey was not that impressive but suitable for the comic book strokes that essentially make up most of ‘Drums’. Lovely to see the old Time Lord cossies again too but how much will this mean to a younger audience who are still coming to terms with the existence of the Master? Fan pleasing it may be but, again, Russell’s taking some big risks front-loading the episode with this and the Master’s revival.
Whilst all this is going on, there is a plot unfolding. I liken this to plate-spinning. How many plates can Russell keep spinning all at once without some of them falling to the floor? Quite a few it would seem as the narrative busily unfolds with the desperate journalist trying to reason with Mrs. Saxon (lovely work from Nichola McAuliffe), the gripping destruction of Martha’s flat, the arrest of Clive and Francine, the infiltration of the Valiant (magnificent budget-busting set from Ed Thomas), the killing of the President and the descent of the Toclafane whilst the Doctor is forcibly aged (brilliant prosthetics on Tennant) and the decimation of the populace (‘Lovely word. Decimate’).
It’s the Toclafane that remain both the episode’s biggest mystery and laziest device. Their descent, whilst spectacular, is Russell reaching for his bag of tricks too many times. It’s a repeat of the previous finales from Series 1 and 2 and it simply suffers and lacks impact because it’s no longer original. They’re nasty little things but by not revealing exactly what they are you are left feeling these villains have no real personality to latch onto. You need to fear them and it’s a failing that Russell just doesn’t quite manage to instil that fear here. And the ‘Rogue Traders’ dance number booming out whilst destruction rains down on the world is a barminess which slightly cheapens the climax of the episode for me.
And can I say again how good Freema Agyeman was? Martha’s anger and desperation in this episode helped add further emotional depth and she’s now going to be the focus of the finale it seems. This bodes well for some kind of final restitution with the Doctor after that telling scene with the Doctor and Jack about the perception filter. ‘You too…’ says Jack and perception can only be but a cruel irony at a time like this. This was Barrowman’s best scene along with the revelation about him working for Torchwood in a fairly undemanding outing for the character this time round.
If anything sums up the episode it’s the word ‘antithesis’ – the Master and the Doctor are the reverse of each other, the equal of each other. And they could easily cancel each other out. The structure and pacing of ‘Drums’ does the same. It’s a ramshackle, uneven, audacious and often hilarious bag of tricks with broad comic-strip brush-strokes (it felt like ‘Batman’ and ‘James Bond’ at times) off-set by silent self-reflection from the leading characters. This isn’t the best episode of this year’s series but its epic giddiness and madness manages to please despite an over reliance on formula. And it leads into the finale proper which in turn may well put this episode into a very different perspective.
The Last Of The Time Lords
Originally transmitted 30th June 2007
"Will it stop...will the drumming stop?"
Strange that we’ve had two episodes provoking the same reaction in me: disappointment and delight. It’s a very odd feeling, perched on the edge of your seat, gripped by a piece of television which you know is going to tumble over a hair-pin bend and plunge down a hillside at any minute. As an experience, it’s both ambitious and reckless.
Russell T Davies is now not only frantically spinning numerous plates but he’s also trying to eat off them at the same time as he unveils his narrative. It’s a good, complex story…on paper. I just think it fails, rather badly, in some of the execution.
As soon as ‘One Year Later’ appears on the screen it’s quite obvious that by the end of the story we’ll be back to square one courtesy of the Paradox Machine. It’s a narrative trick that’s become very familiar to television audiences and Davies obviously feels that it’s time for Doctor Who to pull the same trick. No good complaining about it now – it was obvious this was the way the finale would be resolved. The good ol' reset button.
Having said that, the grimness of this post-apocalyptic setting shifted the gears of the story after the over-indulgence of the Master’s humiliation of the Doctor set to a ‘Scissor Sisters’ song. I don’t mind the series referencing songs but again on this occasion it felt a little crass and overdone. The Doctor living in a tent with a dog-bowl outside...how utterly bonkers is that?
The Jones clan and their failed attack on the Master better underlines the frustration and humiliation being metered out and the way hope can bring the survivors of the apocalypse together. The running themes through the season – faith, hope, redemption – are writ large throughout the story, often crudely and simplistically.
The journey across the world that Martha takes is a grand narrative that is hard to compress into 50 minutes and it almost comes off. We are on very sure ground when we get to Martha and Milligan helping Docherty knock out one of the Toclafane. We get great twisted plot points, certainly head and shoulders above the crass elements as outlined above, with the revelation of what the Toclafane are and Docherty’s betrayal. It was a genuinely disturbing moment when Martha realizes she’s talking to the mutated Creet, last seen as a blonde haired poppet in ‘Utopia’. It would seem the Doctor sent the survivors on Malcassairo to Hell rather than Heaven.
He’s turned humans into monsters, as the Master quite rightly points out. For me, this is one of three plot points that make the episode worthwhile. This revelation, the ‘death’ of the Master and Martha’s final choice not to be a typical companion are the major movements that illustrate the Doctor’s ability to be both sinner and saviour. Davies is very heavily emphasising the semi-mystical - religious qualities that have been running in parallel through 'Gridlock' 'The Lazarus Experiment' and 'Human Nature'. The Doctor as Christ picks up on the whole Word made Flesh dogma of Christianity. Certainly this reaches the height of silliness with the Doctor’s floating, glowing form swishing across the room and then him offering forgiveness to the Master. Better to have de-aged him and just got on with it because the whole, shining body of Christ metaphor is truly awful.
The Gandhi-like concept of using non-violent means – words actually - to defeat your enemies is to be applauded and the Doctor forgiving the Master is a magnificent way of pulling the rug from under him. It’s the worst thing the Doctor could have done to him. The ‘death’ of the Master was a very powerful moment, Simm and Tennant both providing the story with an emotional breakdown and an end to the Master’s dark Dionysian orgy of destruction. The drumming does indeed stop. The fact that this scene then turns into a victory of sorts for the Master is the icing on the very big cake we’ve all been trying to eat. The acting from both leads is terrific.
However good that scene is, it is totally undermined by two things – the clichéd ‘Return Of The Jedi’ funeral pyre and the super clichéd ‘Flash Gordon’ recovery of the Master’s ring. These scenes don’t add anything at all to the power of the ‘death’ scene and they are easy, convenient ways to keep the plot going. Too many lazy cliches fail to enrich this grand narrative. It’s typical Davies plotting and characterisation – he sets up some stunning piece of character development and then ten minutes later can’t resist putting in a crass pop reference or forgets his set-up and contradicts his own rules. It is one of the dangers of being both the show-runner and the writer. And don’t get me going on the 900-year old wizened little Doctor. Fancy reducing your leading actor to a piece of CGI that doesn’t convince and what is an intended humiliation for the Doctor then also spills out into the execution of the scenes. It doesn’t work.
And so the paradox is undone and the whole year of Martha traipsing across the world carrying the Word Of God is just a memory for those pinned to floor of the Valiant. The power of thinking and the power of words revitalises the Doctor and all is re-set. The world is recreated in the Doctor’s image – the human race once again doesn’t know who he is and that’s the way he likes it. At this point I had a flashback to the 1996 TV Movie and suddenly realised that an awful lot of 'Time Lords' felt very familiar - countdowns, taking time back, the Master....
Martha is a changed woman by the conclusion of the story and although the Doctor senses this change he decides to bluff his way into keeping her on board. It’s a brave decision for the series to take the companion out of the narrative just at the moment we think she has become more than the typical companion. She’s just as good as Rose but she’s got her own counsel now and realises it is time to ‘get out’. Martha’s growth has been one of the consistent threads of the series and it quite beautifully pays off here with a fantastic performance from Freema. I’m sure we’ll be seeing her again soon.
Finally, the Titanic crashes into the TARDIS. Oh, well. The beautiful ‘departure’ of Martha is completely undercut by a daft looking conclusion. The Davies formula strikes again. Never mind, we can at least savour some wonderful performances from the leading actors apart from John Barrowman who basically didn’t get a great deal to do apart from shoot the Paradox machine. But…wouldn’t that destroy the solar system? I clearly remember the Doctor’s warning even if the writer doesn’t. Perhaps that’s why the Titanic crashed into the TARDIS. It seems to sum up the state of the narrative in this particular episode too.
Series Three has been the most consistent run of episodes so far but it saddens me to think that both ‘Drums’ and ‘Time Lords’ are not the best of this run and of the Davies’ episodes this year ‘Gridlock’ is far better than these. They are very entertaining episodes but I feel that repetition and formula, leaps of logic and cod mysticism are starting to spoil the party. Epic in scale they may be but they only work on that very human level that exists between Martha, the Doctor and the Master. Without them, they are fairly hollow experiences.
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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