Doctor Who: “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords”
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Doctor Who: “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords”

What the hell was that!? (Also, “Time Crash”)

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Doctor Who

"Last Of The Time Lords"

Season 3, Episode 13

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F

Doctor Who

"The Sound Of Drums"

Season 3, Episode 12

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Let’s start with the grade, shall we?

For the previous two-parters, I’ve given each episode its own individual grade in an attempt to reflect which half of the overall story was more effective. For “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords,” I’m doing something different. I don’t actually think that the latter deserves the full-on “A,” nor do I think the former deserves the outright “F.” (Although, if you flipped those grades around, you might be able to convince me.) The individual grades next to each episode need to be understood as a joint grade for the entire story: the rarest of all A.V. Club grades, the “A/F.” As my editor Todd VanDerWerff explained in his review for the American Horror Story episode “Continuum,” the “A/F” grade can be taken to indicate an episode that’s either “Absolutely Fascinating” or an “Atrocious Flop,” and most likely both at the same time. To paraphrase what Todd said of “Continuum,” this is a two-parter that reveals the folly of slapping a letter grade on television, for the very best and the very worst stories often have far more in common with each other than either does with the average or mediocre. 

As such, there can be no more appropriate grade for the madness that is the third season’s concluding two-parter. After all, this story isn’t like earlier misfiring two-parters like, say, “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three” or “Daleks In Manhattan”/“Evolution Of The Daleks,” both of which have workable, potentially even intriguing premises and a handful of decent elements but are ultimately brought down by their flawed, often bonkers execution. “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords” isn’t even really like “Bad Wolf”/“The Parting Of The Ways,” another season-concluding story that features its fair share of tonal whiplash. That earlier two-parter had its strengths and its weakness, but, crucially, it was possible to tell one from the other. In today’s story, the strengths are the weaknesses, and vice versa. Depending on one’s perspective or even just one’s mood, every last thing that happens in this story is the best or the worst, the smartest or the dumbest, the most triumphant or the most cringe-worthy thing in all of Doctor Who history. 

Let’s step back for a moment and place this two-parter and its grade in the appropriate context. After all, this is a show that routinely confounds our expectations of what good television should look like, because its constant reinvention and endless potential for adventure—and the generally massive gap between said potential and the show’s budget—mean the audience must constantly learn and relearns the show’s rules. Just looking back at the recent run of generally stellar episodes, it only barely makes sense to judge stories like “42,” “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood,” “Blink,” and “Utopia” by the same set of evaluative criteria, because each sets out to do such fundamentally different things with the Doctor (or even, in a couple of those cases, with the absence of the Doctor). That’s the simultaneous thrill and frustration of watching Doctor Who: You really never, ever know where this show is going to go next. In “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords,” that exhilarating, maddening unpredictability operates not at an episode-to-episode level, as it has done throughout the preceding 29 classic and revived seasons, but at a scene-to-scene, even line-to-line, level. Everything about it defies any sensible critical classification, and so the “A/F” grade it must be. With all that in mind, let’s talk about the Master, Martha, and everything else.

“The Sound Of Drums” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 6/23/2007)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“I thought you were going to say he was your secret brother or something.” “You’ve been watching too much TV.”

Rarely has a story shown such contempt for its own supposed narrative, as “The Sound Of Drums” loses interest in its apparent plot and starts anew once every 10 minutes or so. Indeed, the main reason I consider “Utopia” a related but fundamentally distinct prologue to this story, as opposed to the beginning of a true three-parter, is that the subsequent episode summarily dismisses what had all the makings of one of Doctor Who’s most thrilling cliffhangers: the Doctor, Martha, and Jack stranded without the TARDIS at the end of the universe, with the Futurekind bearing down on the other side of a broken door. “The Sound Of Drums” is the rare story that manages to open with an anticlimax, as the trio rushes through a couple quick flashbacks and some horribly stilted exposition to explain just how they escaped their predicament. But then, this entire episode is a race against time, as Russell T. Davies’ script has to get us from the TARDIS trio’s arrival on modern-day Earth all the way to the Master’s total victory in just 45 minutes.

This isn’t the first new series story to veer wildly from plot to plot; hell, “Bad Wolf”/“The Parting Of The Ways” managed to go from a Big Brother parody to the annihilation of Earth and the creation of a living god in only about a dozen narrative moves. But today’s story positively revels in how quickly it burns through story. The apparent hook of this story is that the Master has become the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, but then he kills his entire cabinet in the very next scene. The mysterious woman from “42” enlists Francine and Clive Jones to trap Martha and her time-traveling companions, but the story drops this character—and, with her, any tangible link to the Mr. Saxon arc that the show has built up over the course of the season—as soon as Martha drives away from the ambush. Indeed, Tish’s new job at Downing Street as Harold Saxon’s assistant appears to be an important plot point, perhaps foreshadowing a dilemma in which Tish is forced to choose between Martha and her charismatic, hypnotic employer, rather like in “The Lazarus Experiment.” Nah. The Master has her publicly arrested the very moment he loses interest in subterfuge.

As ever, there is a weird sort of genius to this whiplash-inducing approach to plotting. Think back to “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three,” the last story in which an alien impostor became prime minister. There, it took the Slitheen family two entire episodes just to get their hands on some silly launch codes. Here, the Master’s control of Downing Street is a fait accompli, and he rules all of the United Kingdom with hypnotic impunity. “The Sound Of Drums” keeps ramping up the tension because the Master keeps revealing that the apparent weaknesses and gaps in his schemes are really decoys and traps. After three seasons of furtive aliens—even the mighty Daleks were reduced to skulking around the Manhattan sewers—it’s oddly exhilarating to behold a villain who only barely bothers to conceal his plans, and then only to ensure the Doctor’s ultimate ruin. For once, the monster is playing from a true position of strength, and the Master isn’t just here to mindlessly kill everyone like a Dalek or a Cyberman would—at least, that’s not all he’s here to do. A line of Rose’s from “The Empty Child” comes to mind: “Finally, a professional.”

Because it’s one thing for a villain to come up with an absurdly convoluted plan just so that the Doctor has a mystery that will take all 45 minutes to solve. It’s quite another when the Master has devised a plan whose every detail is designed to break the Doctor’s hearts. It’s in the Master’s aptly if megalomaniacally named “Masterpiece” that this two-parter most lives up to its insane, Grand Guignol ambitions. He takes the Doctor’s beloved humans and turns them into murderous, psychotic conquerors. He gives these deranged far-future humans a name—the Toclafane—that makes a mockery of the Doctor’s few cherished memories of his past on Gallifrey. He unleashes unimaginable carnage on not just the Doctor’s favorite species but in his favorite era. His plan willfully shatters all sense of causality, mercilessly attacking the very cosmic order and interconnectedness that the Doctor feels and, in so feeling, knows he is still a Time Lord. The Master holds the entire paradox at bay with the aid of the Doctor’s beloved TARDIS, twisting the show’s most important iconography into the engine of history’s destruction. He even robs the Doctor of his prized youth and vitality, perhaps because he believes the Doctor is nothing without these illusory traits, but also perhaps for no reason beyond the petty personal pique that the Master emerged from the Chameleon Arch to find himself trapped in the humiliatingly frail body of Professor Yana. It all makes the Dalek Emperor’s attempt in “The Parting Of The Ways” to make the Doctor acknowledge himself as the destroyer of worlds look rather paltry by comparison.

But the Master’s plan isn’t just about breaking the Doctor. As the Master reveals in his big explanatory monologue, his trip with Lucy to the end of the universe and his grandiose plans of conquest with the Toclafane all represent a grotesque parody of the Doctor and his companion seeing the universe and saving humanity; the Master cuts to what he identifies as the Doctor’s fundamental dream—the union of Time Lords and humans, however defined—and presents all this as its realization. Incidentally, this scene features John Simm’s—not to mention Alexandra Moen’s—absolute best work in the episode, with Simm’s cold menace and restrained fury likely the best indication of how he wanted to play the Master throughout, and it’s all the more remarkable when you consider he delivers his lines to Dobby the house elf. In that scene, the story subtly picks up on a theme threaded throughout the new series: Humans, for all their follies and their missteps, always endure. Both “Gridlock” and “Daleks In Manhattan” note that some version of New York City survives through all history, and the Doctor pays homage to his legendary words in “The Ark In Space” when he celebrates humanity’s indomitable survival in “Utopia.” But the Doctor might have done well to recall another line spoken by a past incarnation in a satellite silently orbiting a deserted Earth. As the 9th Doctor once observed, “Everything has its time and everything dies.” In “The End Of The World,” that line carried with it a bleak but strangely comforting truth. After gazing upon the Toclafane, it no longer seems so strange.

As I noted in last week’s review of “Blink,” Doctor Who promises infinite adventure, but its universe is not infinite, at least not temporally speaking: There is a beginning and there is an end. The Doctor understands this, or at least the Time Lords did, judging by the culturally imprinted fear of the end of the universe that he displays right at the start of “Utopia,” a fear that he then gleefully dismisses because, as always, his curiosity is too big for even the cosmos itself to contain. But when the boundaries of reality are not waved right in front of his face, he knows enough to stay away, perhaps sensing that the final, absolute end of all creation could only ever unfold like the hell that the Master describes. The Doctor chooses to look away from the universe’s darkest horrors, whereas the Master made his companion—his wife, whatever that even means here—look upon her species’ horrific fate, removing all her hope forever. The Doctor has always spoken so highly of humanity’s potential, and that’s because he measures the species by how they acquit themselves during their great journey into the universe, with a special emphasis on the actions of his chosen companions. The Master, ever the absolutist, judges humanity solely by its final, most ignominious moments.

There was some discussion in the comments last week that material this dark doesn’t really belong in Doctor Who, that this is to some extent a violation of the show’s core optimism. Indeed, there is a nasty, almost sadistic streak evident in Davies’ script that found better expression in the following season’s “Midnight” and in the Torchwood miniseries Children Of Earth. A particularly brutal case in point is Creet, the adorable moppet in “Utopia” who told Martha that the sky was made of diamonds. It’s the callback to that line in “Last Of The Time Lords” that confirms Martha’s worst suspicions about the Toclafane, as we learn that Creet and presumably everyone else in “Utopia” was cannibalized, mutilated, and stuffed into this mad group consciousness. What makes all that particularly brutal is that the part of Creet was cast as part of a Blue Peter competition, with young aspiring actors across Britain competing or the right to play the unwitting symbol of humanity’s degeneration. In fairness, Creet actor John Bell—who has since carved out a very good career for himself, most notably playing Bain in The Hobbit movies—say he recalls loving this revelation when he first learned of it, but still.

Besides, Davies’ script strongly implies, if not outright confirms, that humanity had already begun to transform themselves into the Toclafane before the Master and Lucy even arrived. That detail does rather tip the scales of the argument in the Master’s favor, leaving the essential hopelessness of “Utopia” intact. The story ends with the Toclafane trapped at the end of the universe, dismissed and forgotten, with all their insanity and their crimes only serving to distract from the fact that they are victims too, betrayed by nothing more than the timing of their birth. I’m sympathetic to the idea that such unremitting grimness doesn’t really belong in Doctor Who, especially when just a little bit of tweaking could have lessened the brutality of humanity’s fate without undermining the rest of the story. But even allowing for that, “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords” remains fascinating on a thematic level, and it could have more than earned its underlying nastiness if the story’s resolution offered a suitably hopeful and inspiring counterweight, or if the story were able to anchor this more operatic material in the characters of the Doctor and the Master.

Yeah… about all that…

Stray observations: 

  • In this post-Avengers world, it’s easy to assume that the Valiant is a homage to the comics version of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. And hey, it might well be. But that thing will always be a tip of the hat to Cloudbase and Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, as far as I’m concerned.
  • This Week In Mythos: This section is working overtime this week, folks, and even all this isn’t an exhaustive list; I’m leaving out all the new series references, for a start. We see our first glimpse of Gallifrey since “The Five Doctors,” and it’s our first ever look at the planet at the time of the Doctor and Master’s childhood, complete with burnt-orange skies that recall Susan’s description of the planet way back in “The Sensorites.” The Master enjoys The Teletubbies, recalling his fascination with The Clangers in “The Sea Devils.” The Master refers to those selfsame foes, plus the Axons from “The Claws Of Axos.” His order that “Peoples of Earth, please attend carefully” is nearly identical to his address to the entire universe in “Logopolis.” Martha’s suggestion that the Master is the Doctor’s secret brother is a reference to a longstanding fan theory—one that Russell T. Davies found silly, apparently—and a rumored story point in what would have been Roger Delgado’s final outing as the Master, had he lived. The Master eats jelly babies, the 4th Doctor’s iconic sweet. President Winters refers to himself as “President-Elect of the United States of America,” which is intended as a reference to the 7th Doctor’s introduction of himself as “President-Elect of the High Council of Time Lords” in “Remembrance Of The Daleks.” Davies apparently wasn’t aware of the actual usage of the term and why it doesn’t really make any sense in this context. I once got into a deeply boring argument on the old Gallifrey Base forums about how that line could be made to make sense, but the three main possibilities are these. One, Winters and his team decided to consciously emphasize his position as an elected leader. Two, he simply misspoke, upping the George W. Bush parallels. Three, it’s just a show, and I should really just relax.

“Last Of The Time Lords” (season 3, episode 13; originally aired 6/30/2007)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

Because he never looked at her twice. I mean, he liked her, but that was it. And she wasted years pining after him. Years of her life. Because while he was around, she never looked at anyone else. And I told her, I always said to her, time and time again, I said, ‘Get out! So this is me, getting out.”

I made a joke about it earlier, but I don’t honestly care that much that this story turns the Doctor into Dobby the house elf. (Or Gollum. I’ll hear arguments for Gollum, but it’s Dobby all the way as far as I’m concerned.) I don’t care that the Doctor is effectively his own deus ex machina, turning into a magical, glowing version of himself who can repel laser blasts and rather unconvincingly levitate. We’re getting closer with this next bit, but I still don’t really care that this transformation is caused by all of humanity just believing hard enough—especially when there is a bit of well-deployed technobabble about the Doctor attuning his brain to the Archangel Network—or that it really makes no sense that Martha, great as she is, could have worked out the intricacies of such a complicated plan just from a simple sentence from the Doctor: Seriously, what countdown could the Doctor have even been referring to at that point? Sure, every aspect of the resolution falls somewhere between silly and asinine, and any one of these elements is more than enough to earn “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords” the “F” half of its “A/F”. But as hokey as these ideas are, they aren’t inherently awful; these are errors of execution that all conceivably could work in just the right combination of circumstances. It’s a mistake to dismiss the resolution out of hand for such superficial reasons. Because once you dig deeper, it gets so, so much worse.

After all, consider the two crucial, successive lines that the glowing Doctor says to the Master. First, he declares that the one thing the Master can’t do to humans is stop them thinking, and then the restored Doctor loudly declares, “Tell me the human race is degenerate now, when they can do this!” But what, exactly, did they do? The human race collectively swapped blind obedience to one Time Lord for blind faith in another. That’s not necessarily a bad or even misguided trade, but it doesn’t actually speak to anything that makes humans special or beautiful or whatever else. Martha was phenomenally brave and resourceful to travel the Earth, spreading the Doctor’s message, but their sentiment is not so much a rejection of the Master’s message as it is an inversion. The Master makes humanity—both its 2007 and 100,000,000,000 incarnations—into tools of conquest and destruction, whereas the Doctor makes humanity and its capacity for hope and faith into the tools he needs to foil the Master. That’s not that awful in strict narrative terms, but it’s hollow. Yes, humans are capable of these higher emotions, but what is it that they are actually choosing to believe in?

This is where we get to the other fundamental problem with how the Doctor is used in “Last Of The Time Lords.” The aging of the Doctor isn’t so troublesome because of the cheesy special effects or the old-age makeup that only looks somewhat convincing from one precise angle; honestly, David Tennant is just about able to sell the ancient Doctor solely through his labored breathing and the looks in his eyes. No, this decision cripples the story because it effectively removes the Doctor from the story. Far more so than the early exit of Mr. Saxon’s mysterious operative, this is the development that throws away so much of the character work that Doctor Who has done over the course of its third season. While the henchwoman’s claims that the Doctor was dangerous were always obvious manipulations of the vulnerable Francine, there was still a vital ring of truth of them because this season has spotlighted the Doctor’s flaws both large and small. He was ready to destroy the Racnoss in “The Runaway Bride.” He talked past Martha in “The Shakespeare Code,” so unable to get over Rose, and then he lied to her in“Gridlock”—really, just everything to do with his treatment of Martha, and even all that has nothing on his treatment of Jack. The Doctor needlessly risked people’s lives in “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood.” He let his curiosity get the best of him in “Utopia.” He spends “The Sound Of Drums” more focused on reuniting with a fellow Time Lord than saving the Earth or ensuring the safety of Martha’s family.

The Doctor has had his reasons for all these actions, and many of them were perfectly justifiable in context. But the Doctor of the third season has been a flawed, complicated figure, a man too besotted with his own brilliance and too oblivious to his own weaknesses. Both “Utopia” and “The Sound Of Drums” suggest that it’s high time the Doctor be confronted with his own mistakes, but that never really happens in “Last Of The Time Lords.” The Doctor’s glowing restoration only works if he is an unambiguously benevolent figure; he is syncing his mind up with the Archangel Network, after all. So the Doctor becomes a cipher, a blank slate to which other characters can react. Indeed, if any companion ever had a valid grievance with the Doctor, it’s Captain Jack Harkness, and the Doctor spends so much of “The Sound Of Drums” sitting in self-righteous judgment of the man that he abandoned. The story skips their reconciliation and proceeds straight to the happy farewell. Yes, they had their hearts-to-heart chat in “Utopia,” and Jack mentions he had a lot of time to think during his year in captivity, but that means only Jack is forced to be truly introspective. Jack gets over the Doctor, but the Doctor never really deals with why Jack would have to do that in the first place.

The same is true of Martha, who gets the best character moment of the story with the line quoted up top. It’s pivotal moment in her evolution, a proud counterpoint to the utter, lovelorn dependence that Rose demonstrated in “Doomsday.” It’s a moment that Martha so completely earns through her, yes, indomitable courage—present throughout the season, but never more so than in this story—but again the Doctor is never really asked to deal with what she has to say. I don’t quibble with their final parting, with Martha’s lovely promise that he will see her again, but it’s just that a vital part of this season’s story remains untold (and more on that very subject next week). Based on what we see in this story, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the Doctor, at least in this specific point in his post-Rose existence, doesn’t deserve companions such as these. The fundamental failing of “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords,” the one that is hardest to forgive or ignore, is how much the story loses track of the Doctor, particularly because it makes it nigh impossible for the story to properly explain just who the Master is.

If I can once again turn to your comments, there was some talk last week that the Master’s appearance in “Utopia” was a bit underwhelming, as the impact of his big statement of identity depended too heavily on preexisting knowledge of the character. And while I’d argue that “Utopia” does all it can to sell the moment—the gradual reveal that Professor Yana is a secret Time Lord, the use of voiceover dialogue from Masters both old and new, Derek Jacobi’s psychotic villainy, Graeme Harper’s direction and Murray Gold’s score as the Master bears down on Chantho, the Doctor’s palpable terror, and even the simple fact that the character is called “the Master”—it’s fair to say that these Master stories represent the first time that the revived series, generally so assiduously careful in how it introduces elements from its classic counterpart, privileges old-school fans over new. This is the two-parter in which the show really lets its hardcore Who flag fly, and a central selling point of the story is the mere presence of this old enemy. That was particularly true in 2007, as Russell T. Davies had long claimed that the Master would never return, intentionally dismissing the character as his “least favorite villain” and “a bit of a mustache-twirler” in order to hide his true plans to resurrect him.

The trouble is that the Master can’t easily be reduced to a concept more insightful than “evil, insane Time Lord.” The Daleks and the Cybermen may both be “evil, insane aliens,” but that’s just a description of their narrative function; they are compelling foes because they can further be described as “master strategists genetically engineered to hate all other forms of life” and “dying humans who ripped out all that it is to be human in a desperate bid to survive.” This two-parter tries to hint at similar complexity for the Master, but Davies’ script appears oddly gun-shy about committing to anything concrete about the Master’s history, probably because to do so would mean revealing more about the Doctor’s own past than Davies is prepared to do at this point in the show’s revival. The revelations about the Master staring into the time vortex and the endless drumming into his head are interesting, sure, but they only provide mechanisms to explain his insanity. They don’t really get us any closer to defining just who this Time Lord is.

In fairness, Doctor Who has almost always struggled to do know what to do with the Master. First played by the great Roger Delgado, the Master appeared in every story of Jon Pertwee’s second season as the Doctor, where he was consciously pitched as the Professor Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. Character development was not a point of emphasis in 1971 in the same way that it was in 2007, but that season offered plenty of hints about the Master: He seemed to genuinely desire the Doctor’s friendship and respect, he proved a surprisingly willing ally to the Doctor and UNIT on more than one occasion, his worst fear was the Doctor laughing in his face, and he was even willing to offer the Doctor a half-share in universal domination before he finally decided to commit full-bore to killing the Doctor. Besides, the Master debuted in the midst of the Doctor’s exile to Earth, a fact that gave the Master leverage over the Doctor in a way he never really would again.

Delgado’s death in a car accident threw his character into limbo, and the struggle to continue the character in the wake of the actor’s death has informed the Master’s story ever since. A shockingly high percentage of post-Delgado Master stories focus on the Master fighting to survive; indeed, the best post-Delgado Master tale is actually called “Survival” (unless you think it’s called “The Deadly Assassin,” which is also a solid choice). The exception is the 5th and 6th Doctors’ era, in which Anthony Ainley played a Delgado-inspired take on the Master, but producer John Nathan Turner’s insistence on emphasizing the character’s broad, theatrical evil turned the character into a pantomime villain.

The same behind-the-scenes forces were reportedly in play with John Simm’s portrayal of the Master, as Russell T. Davies reportedly requested Simm take a larger-than-life, over-the-top approach to the role. One of Britain’s biggest television stars, Simm in 2007 was coming off perhaps his greatest critical and popular success with his absolutely fundamental work as Sam Tyler in Life On Mars, and he was a natural choice to play a dark mirror of the new series’ conception of the Doctor. He shares some of David Tennant’s ability to juxtapose goofiness with gravitas, but he also brings a steely intensity that more closely recalls Christopher Eccleston. To the extent that the Master works—and, by extension, the two-parter as a whole works—Simm is responsible. Even if out of his comfort zone, he fully commits to the Master’s sick sense of humor, conveying a restless genius and a seething concempt that underpin his every interaction with humans and Toclafane alike. His performance is the one thing that comes close to salvaging the Doctor’s apotheosis, his spluttering cries of “Oh no you don’t!” anchoring the insanity of the scene in the Master’s crushing realization that, yet again, the Doctor is about to triumph.

Again, on a strictly thematic level, there’s a lot that this two-parter gets right about the Master. It emphasizes both his overriding obsession with survival and his utter hatred of the Doctor, and his death scene, in which the latter impulse wins out, approaches some kind of truth about the character. Above all, this two-parter affirms the Master’s utter inability to define himself as anything other than the Doctor’s greatest enemy, which is why it’s so strange that Simm’s Master and Tennant’s Doctor—at least the non-decrepit, non-Dobby version of his Doctor—share the same screen for less than 10 minutes. The core of “The Sound Of Drums”/“The Last Of The Time Lords” is the relationship between the Doctor and the Master, yet the story refuses to explore that relationship in any in-depth way.

Indeed, the Doctor’s primary impulse here is to save, even to redeem, the Master, but his motivation isn’t rooted in a specific connection with this particular Time Lord so much as it is an expression of the Doctor’s unfathomable post-Time War loneliness. The Doctor would feel this way about any Time Lord. The Master’s horrific crimes and the Doctor’s willingness to forgive him throw that loneliness into high relief, but the Master’s presence is not essential to telling that story about the Doctor, nor is the Doctor engaged enough with the story about the Master, even though it absolutely does require his presence. That, for all of this story’s remarkable ambition, is its fundamental failure. But, my goodness, what a glorious, fascinating, inimitable failure it is.

Stray observations:

  • Back in 2007, Arthur Coleman Winters felt like such an obvious George W. Bush analogue that, regardless of my political leanings, I felt a little uncomfortable when the Toclafane blew him up. Several years later, the connections seem far less obvious, with the only clear satirical link being Winters’ decision to accept mastery of the Toclafane, “if it is God’s will.” Either way, I’m still annoyed that the story unwinds to the point right after he is assassinated. I can understand why, in story terms, it made sense to leave him out, as it would have been hard to play out the story’s denouement with the President of the United States in the room. But still, alien or not, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom just killed the President of the United States with the entire planet watching. Even allowing for the countries’ famed special relationship, how does that not start a war? Or not have any repercussions whatsoever?
  • It’s worth occasionally keeping in mind the logistics of making television. For instance, I do wonder whether the Jones family’s story might have worked a bit better if Reggie Yates’ schedule had permitted him to film more than one scene as Leo. As it is, Adjoa Andoh once again does a lot of the heavy-lifting with the Joneses’ story, and her tearful breakdown as she decides to heed the Doctor’s words and not kill the Master is another nice moment in what is generally the worst part of the story.
  • Fine, let’s talk about the Face of Boe revelation. It’s a deeply goofy way for Captain Jack to exit the story, which might actually be the part I like most about it. Russell T. Davies has since said Jack’s true fate remains ambiguous, though both fellow producer Julie Gardner and John Barrowman have been unequivocal in saying, yes, he does become the Face of Boe. Seven years on, it’s honestly hard to remember why this whole business so bothered me at the time, but I’ll say this: If Davies had indeed intended this reveal to be canonical, it probably would have been a good idea to tell Barrowman during the filming of “Utopia,” as Jack doesn’t react at all when Martha mentions “what the Face of Boe said” in that story. As such, I rather like to think that Jack’s big reveal is just a practical joke that he came up with during his year of captivity based on his memory of that line. But whatever, really.

Next week: I marathon my way through the entire fourth season from “Voyage Of The Damned” to “Journey’s End,” then report back with my findings. I’ll also be offering a complete review of “The Next Doctor,” one of two specials that my predecessor Keith Phipps missed during the original round of Doctor Who coverage. But before all that, there’s another story we must discuss…


Peter Davison

“Time Crash” (originally aired 11/16/2007)

(Available on YouTube.)

“Shut up! There is something very wrong with my TARDIS, and I’ve got to do something about it very, very quickly. And it would help, it really would help, if there wasn't some skinny idiot ranting in my face about every single thing that happens to be in front of him!”

The 5th Doctor occupies so many different positions in Doctor Who history. As the first of the ‘80s Doctors, it’s tempting to lump him in with the classic series’ great decline, and one need only look at the ridiculous quirks of his costume—the question marks on his collar, the stick of celery on his lapel—to see that this is an incarnation from a time when Doctor Who was no longer considered cool. Yet the 5th Doctor generally escapes the harsher assessments that are so often seen in discussions of his immediate successors; this really isn’t fair to Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, but the 5th Doctor tends to be the last of the classic series Doctors who is remembered with unambiguous fondness. In many ways, this is a terminally retro incarnation, one defined by an earnest, straightforward idealism that feels like the best kind of quaint. Besides, the fact that Peter Davison, just 29 when he was cast and rather dashing, didn’t look that much older than his attractive female companions  meant that his was the most consciously asexual Doctor. But that very youth forever altered the public perception of what a Doctor could look like, presaging the latter-day youthful incarnations of Paul McGann, David Tennant, and Matt Smith, while his star status—his work on All Creatures Great And Small had already made him one of British television’s biggest stars when he signed on as the Doctor—anticipated the casting of established names like Christopher Eccleston and Peter Capaldi.

As such, the genius of “Time Crash,” lies in how it pays tribute to all these diverse aspects of the 5th Doctor. A mini-episode aired as part of the 2007 Children In Need telethon, “Time Crash” is essentially a comedy sketch, and each Doctor gets to tweak the foibles of the other—the 10th Doctor having particular fun with that admittedly ridiculous “decorative vegetable” on his counterpart’s lapel—while the missed high five at the end is a good reminder that the 5th Doctor may be many marvelous things, but he sure as hell isn’t hip. At times, Steven Moffat’s script positions the 5th Doctor as a de facto representative for all his classic-era compatriots, with his sober concern for the Belgium-sized problem at hand standing in stark contrast to the 10th Doctor’s manic goofiness and general flippancy; I like the 10th Doctor now far more than I did in 2007, but I still get a kick out of the rather glorious rebuke quoted above. The running gag of the story—the 5th Doctor’s inability to recognize this stranger’s identity—is somewhat at the older (or is it younger?) Doctor’s expense, but it also drives home the idea that a classic series incarnation can’t quite believe a “skinny idiot” such as this could ever be the Doctor. Anyway, the 5th Doctor has rather more important things on his mind.

And that’s the crucial point, really. Davison played the Doctor at a time when the show’s legendarily cheap budget meant the success of a story depended on the leading man’s ability to absolutely commit to the latest outlandish premise, which means it’s only proper that “Time Crash” leaves it to him to sell the story’s cataclysmic stakes. By contrast, the 10th Doctor has seen such horrors and experienced such traumas that he can barely focus on the imminent catastrophe, and only partially because he is so thrilled is he to see his younger, more innocent self standing before him; on some level, this Belgium-sized problem just doesn’t seem quite as terrifying as it might once have. Despite Martha’s archive footage cameo, this story downplays the fact that it takes place in the immediate aftermath of “The Sound Of Drums”/“Last Of The Time Lords,” with the Master’s reappearance used simply as the setup for the “rubbish beard” double entendre. But the story’s placement, coming in the wake of the Doctor once again becoming the last of his kind, does subtly reinforce why the 10th Doctor is so overjoyed; for these few minutes, he gets to relive a time when being the Doctor was so much simpler.

That can sound dismissive of the 5th Doctor, and the 10th Doctor does use his younger self’s refusal of the sonic screwdriver to poke fun at the smaller scale of this earlier era: “Oh no, of course, you liked to go hands free, didn’t you? Like, ‘Hey, I’m the Doctor, I can save the universe using a kettle and some string, and look at me, I’m wearing a vegetable!” But the 10th Doctor’s farewell, in which he admits just how much he loved being this incarnation, is a reminder that the 5th Doctor may have been a straightforward, innocent Doctor, but he was so by choice. Part of the reason that Davison’s swansong, “The Caves Of Androzani,” remains in the highest esteem is that it, unlike some of the stories of that era, recognizes the special kind of heroism it takes not to fight, to stand by one’s ideals even when surrounded by senseless violence and destruction. The 5th Doctor’s seriousness can seem a little silly in the context of “Time Crash,” but that earnest impulse—combined with the genuine love of the adventure of it all that the 10th Doctor mentions in his closing speech—is what helps set his incarnation apart.

In my opening, I omitted one last thing that set Peter Davison and his Doctor apart: Only 12 when Doctor Who debuted, Davison was the first Doctor young enough to have been a fan of the show, and he let his childhood love of William Hartnell’s and Patrick Troughton’s Doctors inform his performance. As such, it’s perfect that he be the Doctor to receive the 10th Doctor’s tribute, as David Tennant was also a big Doctor Who fan growing up, particular of Davison’s Doctor. That closing speech, in which the 10th Doctor reveals how he modeled himself after his predecessor, is as much Tennant paying tribute to Davison as it is one Doctor addressing another. For old-school fans—particularly those like myself, who count the 5th Doctor as their favorite incarnation—“Time Crash” is a treat, simultaneously a gentle parody and an affectionate parody of all that Doctor Who was when it wasn’t the biggest thing in the world. And to those fans who first stepped into the TARDIS after 2005, it’s an invitation to see just how much more there is to the story of the Doctor.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • The 10th Doctor’s apparent unconcern can be explained by the fact that he remembers these events from when he lived through them as his younger self, meaning he gets to fool around until he hears his cue. Nothing like a stable time loop to undo a paradox.
  • This Week In Mythos Redux: The 10th Doctor’s cry of “Snap!” recalls how the 6th Doctor greeted the 2nd Doctor in “The Two Doctors.” The 5th Doctor never confirms the 10th Doctor’s attempt to place where his younger self is; the latter talks of old companions like Nyssa and Tegan, old enemies like Cybermen and Mara and the Master, and old annoyances like Time Lords in funny hats. Those references would theoretically place the 5th Doctor somewhere between “Earthshock” and “Snakedance,” but it’s just as likely the 10th Doctor carefully chose references that the 5th Doctor would recognize at just about any point in his era, though the later Doctor tactfully leaves out Adric, the companion who died. 
  • I go back and forth on how successfully Davison recaptures the part that he hadn’t played on-screen for 23 years (not counting “Dimensions In Time,” because nobody in their right mind counts “Dimensions In Time”). A major aspect of Davison’s original performance was an old man trapped inside a young man’s body; on some level, Davison in “Time Crash” finally looks like how he had played the Doctor all along, but that fact does rather fundamentally alter how he plays the part. The 5th Doctor is often pigeonholed as the “nice” Doctor, but it’s easy to forget just how irascible he could be, and it’s that trait that “Time Crash” really seizes upon. 
  • Still, there’s really no question that Davison turns in a really good performance, ably matching Tennant with the sharp-tongued delivery of Steven Moffat’s lines——and doing some nice physical work to help anchor this generally rather arch scene in some kind of reality; the little moment where a concerned 5th Doctor feels his now sagging face is a particularly nice touch. It’s almost entirely left to Davison to sell the story’s cataclysmic stakes, and the quiet gravitas he brings to his final couple of lines helps cut through some of the treacle of the 10th Doctor’s generally lovely final monologue.
  • You know, far be it for me to quibble with who the 10th Doctor considers his inspiration, especially when everything mentioned here was a conscious choice on Tennant’s part, but I must admit I’ve never been fully convinced by the link. Honestly, when I look at the 10th Doctor—with his love of big, grandiloquent speeches; his sometimes abrasive, even imperious manner; and his deep-seated awareness that he is a Time Lord, far more than a mere human—I’ve always seen him as a much closer spiritual match for the 6th Doctor. But more on that point in a couple weeks.

“To days to come.” “All my love to long ago.”

Filed Under: TV, Doctor Who

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