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...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Day 2372: DOCTOR WHO: Last of the Time Lords…?

Saturday:


It is all over for another year! What are my daddies going to do!

And what will Dr Who do next? Christmas on the Titanic: that promises to go down well. Will there be a special guest star? We should be so lucky!

Oh, I suppose I had better let daddy finish his reviews…

So, now we know. The Master would rather die than appear in "Scream of the Shalka". Seems a bit harsh…

Okay, this was the climax of Doctor Who's third season in the new millennium and while the season as a whole has been more consistent and of higher quality than the preceding two, "Last of the Time Lords" seems a little more muted than either "The Parting of the Ways" or "Doomsday".

In part, that must be because the death of the villain is never going to hit us as hard as the death of one of the leads. In part, it's that we haven't had as long to get to know John Simm's Master as we had with first Christopher Eccleston's ninth Doctor and then Billie Piper's Rose. Even though he fairly explodes across the screen, we barely knew him, and I would rather have seen him escape at the end, for no better reason than to see more of the Doctor's dark mirror. It would have given an interesting and alternative dynamic to the fourth season to have the Doctor effectively in pursuit of the Master across time and space…

Also, there isn't really enough space in the story given to understanding just how much it means to the Doctor to have another Time Lord back, even if he is the Master. Which is a shame as it would have made a great counterpoint to Martha's unrequited love, with her effectively asking: "you'd rather have your worst enemy than me?" And it might have been interesting to explore whether the Doctor was holding back from defeating the Master because he didn't want to be alone any more.

So, this should have felt more like the capstone of three years of developing story for the Doctor as "lonely god", but instead it felt more like a sidestep into the land of might-have-been.

With that in mind, I think it may improve once it's not being looked at as "the big conclusion to Doctor Who", and becomes just a story that is in between other stories; when the weight of importance is lifted from it.

Where I described part two, "The Sound of Drums" as a series of moments, moving the plot into place, this third part was a series of set pieces: Martha on the beach, Martha spying on the rockets, Martha capturing a sphere...

It's the most marvellous moment when Martha, on her knees awaiting execution, just starts laughing at the Master. It's the point where, essentially, she has done what she always wanted and become a Doctor.

And we loved the fact that the whole Time-Lord-killing gun scheme was a bluff, and that it was the perfect device to fool the Master. Lethal and ludicrously over-complicated, just like all of the Master's schemes.

Meanwhile we have had the aged Doctor working with the Jones family to set up an attempt to seize the Master's laser screwdriver and turn it on him. It failed, obviously, but was this sequence just to show that the Master was still outclassing the Doctor? It would seem extraordinary that the Doctor would leave it a year before trying something like this. Or was this actually the Doctor trying – and succeeding – in provoking the Master into making that broadcast that actually reassured Martha that the Doctor was still alive? It is interesting that he instigates the doomed scheme only after the Master tells him that Martha has returned to Britain.

The Master gets his set pieces too: the opening dance number, energetically reminding us of the situation under his new order; the quiet scene with the caged Doctor, intercut with Martha opening the sphere, when he explains the exposition; and the street scene when he walks the Earth to take Martha prisoner.

They're interesting in the way that they contrast the different sides to his character. We begin with the wild, unrestrained side, but later we get brooding and, when taking Martha, he is focused and intense. He's clearly relishing his power, even when it's just to have fun – but also take note of Lucy Saxon's bruising, and the Master's casual psychological torment as he picks out today's beautiful woman to be his "companion". It seems quite likely that Martha's sister, Tish, has suffered from his "affections" too, judging from the scene where she says she'll kill him even if it costs her her life. But this case of apparent old-fashioned misogyny gets its comeuppance as, for the second time in as many lives, the Master is destined to be shot by his female companion. A message, Russell? Treat your companion properly? Or don't forget the little people? Or maybe just Girl Power!?

The Master "plays" rough and doesn't care whether anyone else gets hurt. But he isn't merely unhinged. His plan may seem crazily audacious but he does appear to be using the resources he has methodically to take over the universe. And getting a good way towards succeeding.

And it's good to see what the Master would actually do with a planet if he got his hands on one. Not that we can say we were terribly surprised that this consisted of reducing the population to slavery, building an immense number of extremely phallic war rockets and erecting statues to himself all over.

Actually, nice as the giant statue of the Master was, if you're going to say that he's carved himself into the face of Mount Rushmore, why not show us Mount Rushmore? (For a laugh, you could have added President Reagan as well.) When Martha recalls her travels, it might have been fun to see icons of the Master all around the world, towering over the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. Even if we were constrained to the one – and let's be fair, the Mill were quite busy with this week and last week's episodes – why not at least have him bestriding the White Cliffs of Dover?

On the other hand, as the Master grows enormous, the Doctor dwindles away until he's barely in his own story.

I must admit I wasn't terribly convinced by the "David Tennant under a ton of latex" look, and then reducing him to a pixie (yes, alright, everyone's made the Gollum/Dobby comparisons already) was really even worse.

In the first place, as a Time Lord, shouldn't the Doctor have an extraordinarily long life even between regenerations? The first Doctor must live something like four-hundred plus years (the second incarnation claims to be four-hundred and fifty in "The Tomb of the Cybermen") and he doesn't look ridiculously old. And the Doctor is fairly reckless with his lives, compared with other Time Lords, usually succumbing to misadventure rather than age. Shouldn't the tenth Doctor need a lot more than a hundred years to put the grey hairs on him? And then, secondly, maybe it's supposed to foreshadow Jack's human body dwindling away from him to become the Face of Boe, but did anyone really believe in the Doctor shrinking like that? Without the Tissue Compression Eliminator?

(And just who made up his mini-me suit? I can hardly see the Master doing the fine needlework, perhaps it was Lucy between putting on her vamp nail-varnish and practicing her pistol shooting… just in case.)

With the Doctor reduced to a CGI shadow of his former self, it seems ironic that Martha is spending her time bigging up his legend. Alex suggests that – like the Daleks not being in the New Adventures – his absence makes room for the myth of the Doctor to be bigger.

But obviously the biggest set piece is the climax, and that is all the Doctor's.

Some people have felt that the religious, particularly Christian, iconography was too strong. The "prayers" of the people are answered by a figure glowing with light bringing a message of forgiveness.

Other people just see it as an updating of the "I do believe in fairies" scene from "Peter Pan".

(Still others have suggested that it's all a metaphor for the sixteen years without Doctor Who on the television; that people were "crying out" for the new series to return; but when it does come back, the super-fan who kept alive his own miniature version of the series, reacts with horror. No, I don't believe a word of that myself.)

But I do have more of a problem with the underlying theme: the Doctor essentially wins by convincing humanity to become a single mass mind all thinking the same thought. Now, that's usually the very thing that he tries to put a stop to! The Daleks (in "The Evil of the Daleks") and the Cybermen (in "The Age of Steel") are brought low when he re-introduces individuality.

More than that, in a story about the dangers of unfettered childish behaviour – the Master and the child/human Toclafane both exemplify this – a solution that relies on calling on a higher power is essentially treating the human race as children too.

Now, fair enough, he gives it up straight away and sincerely expresses the belief that it is good that everyone has forgotten him. But it still seems a little… ill-fitting with the rest of the series' philosophy that the individual is more important than the mass.

There is, I admit, a certain niceness to the symmetries involved. Russell has clearly pitched the Master as the anti-Doctor, hence his mocking sense of humour to deflate any situation and his ability to pull a random technological solution out of his hat. And this means that the Master both uses and enjoys using the Doctor's strengths against him.

In that sense, it is entirely right that the Doctor wins by using the Master's own strengths back against him in turn: the Archangel network and the mass hypnosis.
And it's quite cleverly done, of course. With no radio and television, the only way to co-ordinate a world-wide "think-in" is to use the Master's own self-admitted weakness for a ticking countdown.

Incidentally, the "Floaty Magic Doctor™" with his "laser-deflecting powers™" has reminded many of the climax of 1972's "The Mutants", in which heroic native of Solos, Ky, "evolves" into a psychedelic floating superbeing, and this has suggested an interesting retcon to me. We never see any of the other Solonians evolve into this superbeing form – though we do, unexpectedly, see a creature that looks like a mutant Solonian crashland a spaceship in "The Brain of Morbius", so maybe they don't. Perhaps what happens is that Ky becomes the "psychic focus" if you like of the Solonian species, in just the same way that the Doctor becomes the focus of the humans in "Last of the Time Lords", hence their similar appearance and powers.

Or maybe not.

I don't actually object to rolling back the "year that never was" at the end. Not only is it explicit that the Master is over-writing the "real" history of that year with his own version (something that has always been a big wrong in the Doctor Who universe) but moreso that the time reversal had to be earned. There is still a cost at the end, paid by Martha and by Martha's family in grief and tears, but more than anyone paid by the Doctor who loses Martha because of this, just when he has paid the biggest cost of all, and is alone again.

The problem with the "take back time" solution – science fiction's very own "and it was all a dream" – is that it negates the events that happened, betraying our emotional investment. But that isn't what happens here; quite the contrary, Russell even has his characters state that the events did happen, because they remember them.

This is entirely in keeping with the Russell T Davies vision of Doctor Who where the story is always about those people at the eye of the storm. For all of the hugeness of the events that he depicts in each of his three season finales, the story really comes down to the decisions of a small family at the heart of events.

On the other hand, I would rather there had been something a bit cleverer than just shooting up the Master's Paradox Machine involved. It leaves you asking yourself why the Doctor didn't just pull the plug when he first found out what the Master had done – his remarks then, that it might blow up the solar system, make the final resolution seem a little cavalier at best.

Just a line of dialogue could have solved it – something to the effect that the Doctor would use all that magical human-faith power to allow the paradox to be erased without blowing a big hole in the universe.

And it does seem awfully easy for him to just have the TARDIS fixed again afterwards. Never mind the damage that the Master did, there's also the small business of the Doctor fusing the co-ordinates "permanently". Surely if the Doctor can fix them, then so could the Master.

In fact, you could link my two complaints and have a single correction fix them both, if the plot depended on the Master's Paradox Machine being powered by all those human minds thinking in parallel. Then, when the Doctor manages to get everyone to just do their own thing at the crucial moment, all that individuality could break the spell.

On the other hand, Russell is to an extent contrasting the idea of people working together with the selfish behaviour of the Master and of course the sphere/children too.

Yes, of our three options last week (Daleks, Time Lords, humans from Utopia) the Toclafane sphere's turned out to be humans – or, as Alex correctly put it, heads in flying battle armour: that'd be new series Cybermen evolved into Daleks, then.

It's an interesting nod back to the Master's first appearance, though – no, not Nestene control spheres; I'm being controversial and suggesting that the War Chief and the Master are one and the same person! "Humans, the worst monsters of them all" is, of course, the theme of "The War Games" and nicely counterpoints the Master's view of the Doctor's favourite species. It makes it seem less of a coincidence that the Doctor reprised his "indomitable" speech during "Utopia". This duality of human nature reflects the conflict between Doctor and Master.

But particularly horrid to make them children's heads. I'm reminded of Mr Shakespeare, appropriately enough this season (Martha, deadpan: "I’ve met Shakespeare"), as the Universe enters its dotage and the humans literally enter second childhood before ending up sans eyes, sans teeth sans literally everything. And of course, the spheres all have one mind too – as explained when the one that Martha opens speaks with the memories of the child she met in "Utopia". Only Russell T Davies could let a Blue Peter viewer win a role in Doctor Who and then turn them into a decapitated death-sphere. Lovely.

In fact, the end of the universe is an incredibly bleak view of the ultimate fate. And without the Master-created paradox, the last of humanity will be the sphere/children abandoned at the end of time. Perhaps Russell's been watching too much "Torchwood". Or perhaps we will return to this line of thought in future stories. The failure of Utopia doesn't have to be the final end – the Big Finish adventure "Singularity" suggested that there were humans left at the end of time who were abandoned when the Time Lords made a new Universe for most living beings to escape into. Those events are probably in question after the Time War, but perhaps the television series could revisit something similar.


The finale to a season that has often seemed reminiscent of earlier stories then concludes with a homage-a-thon of, in rapid succession, "Superman" (time rolling back over the Earth), "Return of Jedi" (the villain's funeral pyre), and "Flash Gordon" (a "mystery" hand picks up the villain's ring to the sound of his maniacal laughter) seems calculated to have been a "best of…" for science fantasy.

Who was that mystery woman who picked up the Master's ring? Well, for a start can we please quell the insane fanboy speculation that it's the Rani. It really, really isn’t. In fact it seems likely that it is the Lady Macbeth of the piece, Lucy Saxon herself.

Why would she collect the ring after killing her husband? Well the possibility that suggests itself is a post-hypnotic command from the Master. The Doctor is quite right that the Master always puts his own survival first, and a failsafe backdoor to resurrection would certainly be in character, even if it undermines the viciousness of his spiteful death. And with Russell having done "The Doctor's Wife" with the Master, can we completely rule out him using the Master for the old "he'll regenerate into a woman" canard? I feel that, traumatised and victimised by the Master's treatment of her, Lucy genuinely shot him of her own volition, only afterwards finding herself compelled to find the ring. Alex suggests a tricksier alternative: that the Master's command included shooting him dead if it looked like he was going to be caught by the Doctor. Either way, after apparently killing him off for good, Russell has in fact left open the possibility of a rematch.

And then surprise and sorrow at Martha leaving. It's been quite a journey for Miss Jones, but she's been magnificent and I'll miss her, even if she is going to be coming back occasionally. Rumours are already circulating that the next companion will be a boy, which would be nice, although I'd rather like to see Sally Sparrow and Lawrence Nightingale get a trip in the TARDIS as their reward for saving the Doctor's life. Just one trip.

Martha's decision to go made perfect sense in the story though. She's grown up over this year, graduated from the school of Doctor, and is ready to make her own way. It's like a proper story with closure and everything, sad but strong and very Russell T Davies.

Essentially repeating the cliffhanger from last year with RMS Titanic in the Catherine Tate role was not particularly clever, though. Would have been better – in my opinion – or at least different to have seen it from the outside: Martha, and after all this year has been her story, hears the whoop of the foghorn and turns in time to see the TARDIS suddenly disappear as though smashed sideways out of her space and time, leaving her holding the Titanic's lifebelt and delivering the "What?"s.

"Last of the Time Lords" is a story that leaves me strangely ambivalent. Somehow it didn't seem to deliver on the promise of the last ten minutes of "Utopia", or even on the earlier highs of the season. And yet I enjoyed it, enjoyed it for all of those brilliant moments and set pieces, for John Simm being a loon and for the emotional centre of Freema's Martha and David Tennant's hearts-broken Doctor.

Still, what do I know? Eight million people watched this on Saturday, making it another top ten position for Doctor Who and they gave it an Appreciation Index rating of 88 out of 100, joint highest for the third season. The series goes from strength to strength. Role on Christmas.

Next time… it's not over yet! The Doctor and Martha journey into a whole new dimension: the second! Let's get animated for "The Infinite Quest".



5 comments:

James said...

My theory is that the Hand belongs to Joanna Lumley. I have no logical reason for believing that, I just do.

Presumably you are also now aware that Martha not only returns in the next series, but turns up in Torchwood? I'm praying she doesn't have sex with Guppy.

Overall, I agree with your ambivalence. It was a good episode that was almost on the verge of greatness. The big reveal about the Doctor's and Martha's plan was a fantastic piece of television, but I too was unsure about the Dobby Doctor. Also, when the Paradox machine had been destroyed, how come the "Reapers" didn't show up? Apart from budgetary constraints of course? If they aren't needed, why didn't time just go "wibbly wobbly" in reverse in Father's Day?

Fundamentally, I'm unconvinced that a whole year can just cease to be without it leaving traces. It would be too much of a cop out for there to not be consequences; we need the temporal equivalent of anthropocentric climate change. Hopefully this will be a thread picked up in the next series.

(talking of plot threads, I want to see a return of the Time Lord-Dalek-Human hybrids - surely one must have survived. And Henry Van Statten. And Adam Mitchell. God these series are too short!)

Chris Black said...

After the profound pleasure of seeing Jacobi as the Master in 'Utopia', I found the 'Sound of Drums' a great disappointment. When the US President asked "Are you taking this seriously?" he was expressing my own thoughts... I actually think I would have preferred Jacobi and Simm to have exchanged roles (although perhaps Simm redeemed himself in his dying seconds)

So for me , "The Last of the Time Lords" just had to be an improvement on the previous weeks show, and thankfully it was.

As you so correctly point out there were a few dodgy weaknesses in the plot. It seems doubtful to me that Martha can spread the word around the whole surviving population about what they must do... and the Master never gets to hear of it.

All in all, nothing like as good as last year's final episodes....

Knife and Spoon said...

I've not really heard from anyone who enjoyed this episode, apart from my Mum - which makes me feel even more alone in my Who-love than usual. I felt that, in this episode alone, Dr Who actually showed some of that 'darkness' that people bandy words about so often.

Simm's Master is so cruel, so unpleasant, I actually found myself longing for his comeuppance. Davies even made a paradox-plot work, for me - the Master's little line about being a Time Lord, having the right to do crazy things with causality itself. Between him and his torture of the Doctor, and the nasty reality of the Toclafane (is Utopia the new Year 5 Billion? I hope so...) I found the whole story frightening, full of dread and horror, in the way I always imagine the 1970s episodes must been.

There were irritating flaws. The Tardis, magically fixed. I missed the usual jokes and japes, and to be honest, why was Mulligan there, while Captain Jack and Leo just sort of dropped out of the story? - but I thought the Peter Pan moment was excellent. Perhaps it's how I read it - not as a world crying out for the Doctor, but a world uniting, and not in aggression but in hope. The story could have better stressed the Master's hypnotic signal keeping the populace cowed and afraid - and perhaps if they had thought of anything *but* the Doctor... But I thought it was excellent that an exercise in mind-control was shown to be overthrown, even if it did take fifteen million people, or something.

Was much sadder about Martha's abrupt exit, if only because it felt, on some level, she'd been forced out of the programme by overwhelming snarks and snides from the audience. Somebody on OG wrote 'thank god the wooden doll has done', and it just made me remember how sick I am of online fandom. I'm going to avoid OG and their ilk in future. Talk about spoilers...

I do love your reviews, though. Always thoughtful, always clever, always witty. Thank you for writing them, and long may you do so.

Millennium Dome said...

Ooh, ooh, I can answer this one!

"…why was Mulligan there, while Captain Jack and Leo just sort of dropped out of the story?"

The answer is because Dr Milligan was apparently written in as a last minute replacement when Reggie (Leo Jones) Yates agent double booked him! It was, of course, supposed to be Mr Leo who met Martha on the beach… which would all have made a lot more sense.

We were very sad about losing Miss Martha too, and we know what you mean about the (inexplicable!) negativity from fans online – after reading some of the Outpost Gallifrey threads we all decided that, whatever Daddy said above, we actually rather loved this episode too!

Ghost said...

If you got the info re: Reggie/Leo off the commentary, it says that both he and Milligan were to meet Martha on the beach.

This implies to me that Milligan wasn't a replacement for Leo, but that Leo was meant to be in that scene.