...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Day 2365: DOCTOR WHO: The Sound of Drums


And to think that I LIKED that NICE Mr Sam Tyler in "Life on Mars". A TIME TRAVELLER, looking for a place to HYDE… the CLUES were all there, but I did not spot them!

So, I am SHOCKED to discover that SAM TYLER was a MASTER-LY disguise after all!

Daddy Richard had better explain it all…

This was an episode of moments, racing crazily from one to the next, linked by zest and fun: Gallifrey, Cloudbase, the Doctor's "somebody else's problem" trick with the TARDIS keys and many more, mainly, I admit, moments of John Simm being deliciously bonkers.

Didn't the Master just deserve to be billed as the lead and John Simm to get his own title sequence?

Perhaps I'm just channelling the baby elephant, but I really enjoyed all the goofy behaviour: "This is funny"/"This is NOT funny"; "[muffled] It's a gas mask." [removes mask] "[clearly] It's a gas mask."; or "Are you asking me on a DATE?!" The soundproofed door and the prolonged screaming really worked for me too – especially Simm hamming it up as the Master hamming it up with his "ooh, how dreadful," pose. And who wouldn't want to take the Michael out of po-faced President Winters.

The late John Nathan-Turner, when he was producer of Doctor Who, was said to watch the performance of Anthony Ainley as the Master and call down to the studio floor: "could you UP it a little, please!" Faced with Simm's "Sunny Delight"-ed Master performance, the spirit of JNT would have been silenced.

Then of course, there was that special appearance by the Teletubbies: yes, obviously it's a perfect and charming nod to the classic moment in "The Sea Devils" when the Master (Roger Delgado) was seen to be whistling along to "The Clangers"; but more importantly it returns to Russell's essential characterisation of the Master, as touched upon last week, as a selfish child. Personally I'd pitch it at five, but it's obvious that the scene showing a flashback to the eight-year-old Master's childhood induction to the society of Time Lords is as much to say "this is all about arrested development" as it is to say "ooh, look: big collars!"

Not that we didn't love it for the collars too, and special mention for the young Master wearing the black and white robes as sported by the Time Lord tribunal in "The War Games" – and even more for seeing the child's pupils turning into the Vortex as if to say he's become "bonded to time".

Oh, and while I'm mentioning costumes, we also loved the sight of the Master standing on the runway with his jacket flying in the wind, flashing its Jon Pertwee scarlet silk lining.

Not that he couldn't turn on the darkness too, particularly for that telephone conversation between the Doctor and the Master. "How can Gallifrey be gone?" is perfectly delivered. And the more intriguing yet probably throwaway "…when I saw that Dalek Emperor take control of the Cruciform". Does it mean anything?

It's a performance that has been compared – favourably – to Batman's Joker, but I tend to think that the Joker is almost compelled to by funny by his psychosis; the Master is having a laugh because he enjoys it. It's not that he's insane, in fact he seems more rational than he has in ages; it's just that he has no moral restraints at all.

If you think that people are bad, why not just kill them? It's a perfectly sensible question, particularly if you're operating on the level of a five or eight year old. And if it's okay to kill some people, why is it not okay to kill anyone you want?

(Of course you can construct a proper answer along the lines of needing a shared system of behaviour predicated upon mutual safety because otherwise civilisation, particularly the highly organised and technological variety that we depend upon, is impossible; the alternatives are the Futurekind or the Daleks. But that's just a little bit too complicated for someone who has only got as far as questioning "because it's wrong".)

It's fair comment to say that the early Downing Street scenes are quite reminiscent of "Aliens of London"; but it's simplistic to criticise on that basis. Politics doesn't stop, so why should satire? Two years ago we killed off Prime Minister (probably) Blair and had his, er, fat deputy take over in a plot that ridiculed massive weapons of destruction. Now we see a new Prime Minister whose speeches make everyone feel warm and good, but who doesn't appear to have any policies at all. Is it at all possible that Russell has done New Labour, but felt that the other side deserved a bit of a slapping too?

Although speaking as someone who didn't enjoy the insulting naivety of "The Amazing Mrs Pritchard" I did particularly love the "traitorous" cabinet, who'd deserted their own parties for the poll-conquering unknown, all getting their just deserts.

The Doctor Who website episode guide for "The Sound of Drums" has the subtitle "Be careful What You Vote For" and I would say that a popular TV show taking time out to remind people that voting is a responsibility, that they have to think about what people stand for, is definitely a worthwhile thing.

Doctor Who has often had a bit of a "message", whether it was environmentalism or Buddhism or just plain be nice to one another. Russell T's version seems to like pushing the "don't be a mindless zombie" angle. That – rather than any lack of ideas – is probably behind the repeated "mistrust of mobile phones" motif. Buying into mass culture, at least buying into it unthinkingly, is bad.

I should also point out Mrs Saxon, though, who does appear to have chosen to be evil. She's a strangely fascinating addition to the mix: I mean for starters what on Earth possessed him to decide he wants a wife? And even more bizarre, unlike the Countess Scarlioni who somehow managed to overlook discovering that her husband is a one-eyed green scaly alien, Mrs Saxon seems fully clued up on Harry's real origins and even his doomsday plan. I hope we learn more about her in the final episode; by this point, I'm almost expecting the Master's moment of triumph to be followed by her reaching for the zip in her forehead…

What all these moments almost but not quite disguise is a plot that is to a certain extent marking time. Utopia finished with the reveal of the Master; Last of the Time Lords begins with his big "and now I destroy the world" plan. In between, we have classic "episode three" territory, somewhere that the new series hasn't been used to going because of the shortened one/two episode structure.

Doctor Who Magazine's excellent articles "The Adventure Game" suggested that the successful Doctor Who story (or indeed any story) should follow a pattern of "Investigation", "Complications", "Crisis", "Climax and Resolution". In the traditional four-part classic Doctor Who story, episode one sees the Doctor investigate his surroundings to find where he is, who's about and what's going on. Episode two then expects us to reassess the situation, either by revealing some unforeseen information or character twist, or just by revealing who is really the Master in disguise this week. Everything has to come to a head in episode four, although the final cliffhanger is also often the choice for the moment of crisis. Which leaves you the question: "what to do in episode three?"

The very shortness of the new series stories means that all of these have become compressed. We've become used to the "moment when we learn who's behind the plot" and the "moment of crisis" coming almost simultaneously.

Now, with a three-parter to contend with, we find that that tricky middle episode has a tendency to become all about moving the pieces around the board to get into the expected places for the climax. Of course we expected the Doctor and friends to get back from the end of the universe (in fact, Alex was a bit peeved with the opening, feeling it a bit of a cheat a "with one bound they were free", but I just felt it was a quick "yes, Richard you correctly spotted Chekov's Time Vortex Manipulator, well done now let's get on with things".) But we also expected the Master to be revealed as Harold Saxon, Martha's family to be rounded up, the Doctor to be captured, the benevolent aliens to turn nasty, the doomsday plan to be revealed and so on…

It's not that there are any bad moments (though your mileage may vary according to Master madness tolerance), and much of it is wonderful – again I refer you to Gallifrey which left us uplifted and sad at the same time. Alex had been sure that they would let us see Gallifrey by the end of this season, ever since the word was used in "The Runaway Bride" but certain since the description in "Gridlock", and of course he was right.

But you would lose very little plot if Jack's time teleport had just taken them directly to the bridge of the Valliant.

Still, some people think that small, beautiful moments are what life is all about.

Let's talk timelines, then. Martha tells us that it's only been four days since she first met the Doctor (at least from Earth's point of view) and they've missed Election Day. So, Monday, Royal Hope Hospital was kidnapped to the Moon, Monday evening is Leo Jones' birthday party, Tuesday evening we all dress up for a bash at Professor Lazarus place, Wednesday morning she's off into time and space, elections are always held on Thursdays in Britain, and this is Friday.

Of course this means that Martha's sister Tish gets a brand new job twice in a week, which does make her seem rather dizzy not to spot how odd this is.

We also finally sort out that Mr Saxon was Defence Minister, not Prime Minister, at Christmas for the Racnoss attack; and thanks to the detective work of the unlucky Mrs Rook, we know that Mr Saxon has been around for eighteen months, since just after the downfall of Harriet Jones. All of which means that (a) the Doctor's adventures on Earth are still happening in chronological order, and (b) we're back to being roughly a year in the future i.e. "Smith and Jones", "The Lazarus Experiment" and "The Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords" all take place in one week in June 2008 (eighteen months after "The Christmas Invasion").


Well, not quite perfect. Winters actually describes himself as President-elect: American's hold their elections in early November, but the President doesn't take office until January, so this would seem to imply that it ought to be December and not June. It would have been amusing to pitch this as December 2007, or a fortnight before "The Runaway Bride" and imply that in fact the Master will still be Prime Minister at the end of the story… but his use of footage of the "Christmas Star" (not to mention his slight complicity in the slaughter of six-hundred million people) rules that out of contention.

On a similar fanboy note, at the end of "Utopia" the Doctor fuses the TARDIS co-ordinate settings. The Master – with a cry of "oh no you don't" – still manages to dematerialise, but he can only take the ship back to the last place it left. Am I the only one thinking "fast return switch"?

Now, with only one week to go, time for some wild prognostication: no spoilers, only speculation…

How will they get out of this? The cliffhanger sees the Doctor aged to a thousand and three, Captain Jack being killed over and over and Martha on the run, while the Master takes absolute charge and unleashes his Toclafane allies.

Well, the minor thing I suspect is that Martha's brother Leo has got to have something to do, with the significance given to the Master's secret police not having picked him up.

But who are the Toclafane? Are they the enemy that Russell and Rob Shearman came up with in that fortnight when it looked like the Daleks were off the menu? Will they follow the usual pattern for the Master's alien allies and turn on him, thus requiring the Doctor to come to his rescue, or can we expect better than that?

I think we can also expect a big reveal about their true nature. It's implicit from the Doctor's insistence that that is "just a made up name for the Bogey Man" and the Master's promise that "if I told you, your hearts would break", even before we see one opening up in the trailer. But what's inside?

The obvious candidates are the Daleks (as usual, for a season finale); the humans from the year one-hundred trillion (fleeing the endless dark; and the Master did take the map to Utopia); and possibly the children of the Time Lords (the Doctor mentions that faced with the Vortex, some were inspired, i.e. became the Time Lords, some went mad, i.e. became the Master, and some ran away, and he never stopped them. Plus the title, obviously).

In fact, the Master says that the Time Lords resurrected him as a weapon of war, but that's what they told him. Last week I'd misunderstood the sound of drums in Professor Yana's head to be the insistent pressure of the Master trying to get him to notice the watch, the equivalent of John Smith's dreams of the Doctor and his adventures. But the Master has returned and the drumming hasn't stopped.

So then I wondered whether it wasn't something more, whether the Time Lord's hadn't brought him back not because he is a warrior but because he is a survivor. In the BBC's Eighth Doctor Adventures, Lance Parkin's conclusion in "The Gallifrey Chronicles" is that the Doctor lost his memories because he stuck the whole of the Matrix into his head for safe-keeping. Might Russell be borrowing from the books again? Might the Time Lords have used the Master as an escape capsule? Might, no less, that insistent drumming be the Last of the Time Lords?

Actually, probably not, since we later learned that the drumming first chose him when he gazed into the Vortex as a child.

The real question, of course, is whether the Master will escape, or even survive. It looks like he holds all the cards, but I really don't think that the Master knows what he's let himself in for.

It would be a terrible waste of John Simm to have him play the Master for two episodes and then kill him again (even if we are to assume he now has another ten lives left after that).

On the other hand, Martha has seen the Doctor aged to an unsurvivable degree and might be expecting him to have to regenerate (rather than just, say, reverse the Master's reversal of the Lazarus machine – come to think of it, the original is probably still in Lazlabs; it's only been a couple of days!). Suppose a regenerated Master posing as the Doctor says "Quick, Martha, best be off; Where's your TARDIS key?"

"Master, I'm sorry" said the Doctor. Not sorry for anything he had done but, I suspect, sorry for what he knows he's going to have to do.

Next time… He is, he was, he remains far more than just "The Last of the Time Lords".


Unknown said...

I thought the drumming might be representative of a Time Lord heart(s)beat as heard by an unborn child. A human (if it could remember) would hear a boomp-boomp noise, a timelord foetus would presumably hear boomp-boomp-boomp-boomp. How this all fits in with what's going on though I'm not so sure. I'm pretty sure that the toclafane are children, so it's all mixed in there somewhere. Recent series of Dr Who have had an overriding theme to the stories. This one seems to be about the Doctor losing his uniqueness - perhaps we'll see a return of the timelords? I'm also a little concerned that the toclafane look a little dalek-y, particularly like some of the Spielberg concept drawings before they used the Master in the 199something movie.

Onlinefocus Team said...

I look forward to your analysis of tonight's episode!

pbristow said...

Hi! Not quite sure now how my Saturday morning Google-fest led me here, but I read your very thorough review, and spotted something amiss:

"... and some ran away, and he never stopped them."

I think you've misunderstood the line there. The Doctor mentions the three responses his people had to "meeting" the vortex. Some were inspired, some ran away.. and some went mad.

Martha asks: "What about you?"

Doctor: "Oh... [EMBARASSED, EXAGERATED SHRUG] ... The ones who ran away! I never stopped."

I.e., the Doctor's habits of a lifetime have been shaped by that moment just as much as the Master's were. He runs away from Gallifrey; He tries to run away again when they catch up with him; He tries repeatedly to escape his exile rather than be tied to one planet; He runs away from his UNIT responsibilities after his regeneration; He runs away from facing Sarah again after having left her in "South Croydon" (Aberdeen); He *always* rejects any offer to "stay with us"; And most recently, he's run away from a life of commitment with Rose.

Paul B. =:o}