Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Last of the Time Lords written by Russell T Davies and directed by Colin Teague

This story in a nutshell: Martha saves the Earth in a year…

Mockney Dude: ‘He never stops. He never stays. He never asks to be thanked…’ Considering his Doctor underwent something of a renaissance in his second year there are some of the most irresponsible decisions made with the tenth Doctor in Last of the Time Lords. But I’ll deal with that in the Bad section. The aged Doctor isn’t a problem because its actually quite a refreshing change to see the usually smart-mouthed hero reduced to a weakened state. For once it really feels like he could be defeated. And of course ageing near to death is not without precedent; the first Doctor suffered this condition and it brought on his regeneration and the fourth Doctor piled on the centuries in The Leisure Hive. Its not even that it feels wrong that the Doctor has genuinely lost his battle with the Master this time. It's long past time his rival scored one up on him (how boring is it when the Master winds up shaking a fist at the Doctor when another scheme is foiled time and again?) and a plan actually went right and given the Voyager reset at the end of this episode it’s the one of the few times where we can explore the consequences of Doctor failing to saving to save the day (Turn Left would do this again in the next season with even more devastating results). Last of the Time Lords is practically unique in that respect and sees a Doctor who for once has under estimated how insane his nemesis is and is being punished as a result. It's really quite frightening. The Master can reduce the Doctor to the existence of a dog (literally in one very funny moment) but he refuses to give him the satisfaction of a reaction beyond pity and forgiveness. Watching the Master beat down this elderly Doctor made me wince – there is something so distasteful about making the Doctor this weak and hurting him even further. For the first time in his life the Doctor thinks about settling and caring for somebody instead of this aimless wandering. The desperation in David Tennant’s performance as he holds the Master in his arms and wills him to regenerate so he doesn’t have to be alone in the universe practically redeems the Doctor after all the fairy magic earlier in the show. If the Master really is the Doctor’s brother (as has been hinted but never confirmed) then his death is a bleak way to end the third season for the Doctor and as the conclusion to their long time rivalry (or so we thought at the time) it is almost brilliantly mundane that it should all come down to something as ordinary as a bullet.

 Marvellous Martha: ‘I spent a lot of time with you thinking I was second best but d’you know what? I am good…’ A fantastic final showing for Martha as a companion, this episode reveals everything that I like about Dr Jones and more. We first see her in all-black action gear running up the beach having been on her travels all around the world to try and stir up resistance against the Master. She hooks up with Tom Milligan who is her own hunky Doctor to replace the one that she has lost. I love the idea of myths being built up around Martha and her ability to kill the Master, something that she has nurtured over 365 days in order to trick the evil Time Lord. Martha might have been walking the Earth and spreading stories about the Doctor but she genuinely thought he would be dead now. So the Master’s warning to her by showing her the craggy faced Time Lords is actually a moment of triumph because now she knows he’s alive. All the more reason to fight. When she is working with Tom and Docherty on the Earth Martha is basically fulfilling the Doctor role, capturing the Toclafane and revealing what they are all about. It's a punch in the gut to all her critics she’s actually very good at it. Docherty is right, she doesn’t look like a killer and her plan to ensnare the Master with the ruse of a weapon that could murder him is fiendishly clever because it preys on his fear of being defeated. Again. She is genuinely shivering when the Master catches up with her and it is a very brave act to sacrifice herself to ensure that others live because there is no guarantee that she wont be gunned down the second she leaves the house. Her little giggle in the face of the Master’s apotheosis is possibly her finest moment and when she spells out that he has been defeated simply because he is less of a man than the Doctor I just wanted to kiss her. Her final scene in the TARDIS is one of my favourite companion departures because for once it is not aiming for heartache (like Rose and Donna) or being manipulative (like the many deaths of Rory Williams) or anything as vacuous as falling for somebody she has just met. Martha has spent a year of wonderful adventures hanging around waiting for the Doctor to get over his previous companion and trying to get him to notice her (the look on the Doctor’s face tells you that he knows exactly how badly he has mistreated her). She likes him more than she should and she knows that it will never be reciprocated and so decides (like an adult would – I honestly don’t think Rose would ever have come to that conclusion) to move on before she starts to resent him. Besides her family have been through hell and she needs to support them. Bringing this one sided romance to an end should have been agonisingly dramatic (I was expecting something along the lines of Eastenders) but instead it’s a well written and underplayed scene that sees Martha regain her dignity and leave the TARDIS in a positive fashion ready to face her future. I’m really pleased that this isn’t the last we see of her (she would have some superb subsequent visits to Doctor Who and Torchwood) and that she goes on to have a successful life but for now this is triumphant way to end her travels with the Doctor.

Hunky Hero: His reunion with the Doctor was handled expertly in Utopia and he was excellent support in The Sound of Drums but it's at this point that Jack is superfluous to requirements and has to be chained up for the entire episode. It's not really a problem because John Barrowman is a charismatic presence no matter how badly the character is treated. Jack suffers his nastiest death yet as he is mown down in a hail of bullets for trying to escape. He has had plenty of time to think in the year that never was and feels it is his responsibility to head back to Torchwood and look after his team. It is with a renewed sense of vigour that Jack enters season two of the spin off show (spending the first episode indulging in bar fights and snogs with Spike from Buffy) but not before dropping a bombshell that made me howl with laughter. Jack is the Face of Boe! The creature that lived longer than any other lifeform. The Doctor’s old friend. The one man who could state that You Are Not Alone in the year five billion because he had lived through it in the past (or rather the future given that Utopia is set after the time of the New New Earth trilogy at the end of the universe). How did we not see that coming? It's cute and clever and gets my vote (although the Boe theme from Gridlock threatens to give away the twist before it is revealed if you are a sad fan like me). In many ways this is far cleverer and better disguised a twist than the Melody/River one. And it's packaged in a much simpler way too.

 Nutty as Squirrel Shit: There have been some wonderfully blown out of proportion tweets from John Simm of late basically telling Doctor Who fans to fuck off and leave him alone for a role that he played years ago now and had no responsibility whatsoever in the writing. Good for him. What the hell is the point of hounding the actor especially when he is bringing the material to life with such zeal? I’m a massive fan of his portrayal myself but even if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be looking to vocally spread blame like some fans think they have the right to do. The sequence where he dances around his control room to the stirrings of The Scissor Sisters I Can’t Decide feels like it is there simply to provoke those fuddy duddy fans who feel the show is too contemporary these days but it sees the Master at his absolute height. It’s a deliriously sadistic scene because of the enforced happiness – Lucy is tortured by her continued ties to him, the Doctor is being wheeled about in his wizened state to make him feel even more impotent, Martha’s family are being treated as slaves and the Earth below has suffered a 10% massacre of its population. And this giddily insane dictator is dancing because he has caused so much misery. Forget Ainley’s chucklesome murderer, this is a truly sinister Master because he is so playful when he hurts people. Isn’t it wonderful that despite all his confidence and charisma and the murderous army that supports him the thought of Martha Jones out there evading capture is still enough to chip away at his monstrous ego and make him frightened. There are comparisons with the Doctor as the Master tells of the time he took Lucy to Utopia, a Time Lord and his female assistant. Whereas the Doctor tries to show his companions the wonders of the universe, the Master is happy to break Lucy with a vision of the future and the fate of the human race that so bleak that she no longer believes in anything. The one good thing about the hero worship of the Doctor during the climax is how it must crush the Master so completely. To have the human race in the palm of his hands, frightened and reverent, and to lose all that so spectacularly to his sanctimonious enemy just for being who he is must be like having his balls cut off with a meat cleaver. The Master trying to run away after his plans have been foiled and watched on by the heroes reminded me pleasingly of the climax of The Daemons. There’s a real sense that he hates what he has become when he wills Francine to shoot him and a sense of relief that he has once again denied the Doctor a happy ending as his life slips away (‘How about that? I win…’). Davies has taken hold of what has been for quite some time little more than a pantomime character (with Survival as the rare exception) and given him some real depth and examination. It draws some very dark conclusions about our favourite villain (that he is never happier than when inflicting pain up close which is a world away from the more cartoon villain of the past who got his kicks from planning great crimes from afar and never being able to go through with them) and even dares to suggest that his villainy might not be of his fault but an outside influence. It's not going to be to everybody’s tastes but I think this is very rich material.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Martha Jones, they say, she’s going to save the world. Bit late for that.’
‘The human race. The greatest monsters of them all.’
‘I never could resist a ticking clock.’

The Good:
  • It's interesting to note that since this episode both Tom Ellis and Ellie Haddington have gone on to appear in very successful sitcoms, Miranda and The Café respectively. Leave it to Doctor Who to find the best acting talent the country has to offer first. Ellis is a fine, muscular presence as Tom and it’s a crying shame that Davies didn’t allow him and Martha to marry as proposed as they clearly have great chemistry. I certainly wouldn’t have objected to his (hot as hell) presence in series four. The world-weary Professor Docherty is a marvellous character who manages to have a few surprises up her sleeve and features in the touching climax as Martha gives her flowers for an act of betrayal she never committed. That’s a gorgeous moment.
  • This is one of our few chances to experience the Earth under alien rule. Nothing could quite top the original attempt (The Dalek Invasion of Earth) for sheer impact but this is certainly much better than the action sequence in a car park of the second (Day of the Daleks) or even the spruced up DVD version that has recently been released. I wont count the Cyber-invasions of The Invasion and Doomsday because they are so brief they are practically blink and you’ll miss them. I really like the idea that the Master, having discovered the destruction of Gallifrey, is trying to build a new Time Lord Empire on the Earth. Raping the Doctor’s favourite planet is just about the most painful thing he could do to his long term nemesis and it will give him a base of operations to spread his influence much further. He’s always been ambitious but this is mind bogglingly epic. Giant statues of the Master are littered across the Earth and he has carved his face into Mount Rushmore (what a fantastic egotist!). The islands of Japan have burnt. London is full of wild dogs. The South of England has been converted into shipyards building rockets, breaking down everything metal they can find to create the fleet (that’s not just a fearsome idea, there’s a mighty visual to back it up). The Master is getting ready for war with the rest of the universe with the Earth as his platform.
  • The Toclafane deserve a round of applause because they are a genuinely insidious threat. The look of them, floating balls with scalpel like appendages, is memorable but like all good Doctor Who monsters it is the voice that counts and their disturbingly childlike, playful accents chill the blood. Colin Teague is one of the shows best action directors and provides a marvellously exciting sequence when Martha and her team capture one of the Toclafane. The reveal that they are the last of humanity that we saw heading off to Utopia in the episode of the same name is one of the finest reveals of Davies’ era. The episode builds to that twist by having the Master consistently point out that the Doctor’s ‘loves them’ but nothing could have prepared me for the gloriously sick moment when Docherty opens the sphere and the to discover a decapitated head inside (plus the moment where the eyes open and they jump back is great shock telly). Did this really go out at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night? This ties the three episodes together into one great saga and opens a massive paradoxical can of worms that might leave you cross eyed with confusion. If the idea that the future of the human race sees us harvested by choice and placed in psychotic robot shells (imagine the factory that brings the Toclafane to life, littered with headless bodies all heading for a furnace as the universe goes dark around them) isn’t disturbing enough, the thought of the Master bringing them back from the future to murder their past selves is mind boggling. Hence the paradox machine. Nice early add there Davies to get yourself out of that one. It's gloriously barmy, headache inducingly macabre and astonishingly dark. I love this twist for its power in the moment and its implications. Unlike much of Moffat's twists it works because it has been well thought through and prepared for. It makes the Toclafane one of the most frightening creations in one bold step. It also means that at the end of The Sound of Drums the Master was literally ripping open the timelines and allowing the Toclafane to cross from the future to the past. How cool is that? The Toclafane army in formation above the Earth threatening to ‘fly and blaze and slice’ is a formidable sight. Watching the Maltesers descend on the Earth like the black Plague during the climax is the most exciting thing about it.
  • Davies is so good at adding small moments of character to his tales that touch your heart and Francine and Clive sharing a kiss after suffering a world of pain together really inspires after all the fireworks earlier in the season. It only took the apocalypse to bring them back together. Family, huh?
  • What to make of Lucy Saxon? The episode keeps cutting back to her for reaction shots and she looks impressed, disappointed, terrified and repulsed at the Master’s actions. Who knows what she is thinking because she barely gets to utter a word. It's all build up to that unforgettable ending where she      takes her husbands life in a riff on the previous Master’s death in Utopia. It seems that the women in his life have no choice but to turn on him and put him down like a dog. Given the nasty bruise that she sports and the outrageous flirting he does with other women just to cause her pain is it any wonder that it came to this? It's unlike Davies to be quite this cagey about a character and to give so much to the actress to convey without filling in the blanks in the script but her ambiguity is all part of her fascination. What do you make of her?
  • I really thought that I would find the reset ending appallingly easy but in retrospect it makes a lot of good sense. On one purely aesthetic level it is tremendously realised with the Valiant set being ripped apart, the Master’s influence being wiped from the surface of the planet and the sun blasting around the Earth over and over in reverse. We then take a gorgeous whirlwind tour around the planet to see things are back to how they should be; vibrant, colourful, multi cultural and alive. If the show was to continue and the Doctor was to visit contemporary Earth again then of course the toys have to be put back in the box after they have been played with. Otherwise we would be referencing this story until the end of time (actually it would be until The End of Time because Amy’s crack can swallow it up from that point onwards). What made this much more effective than the typical Star Trek Voyager reset (I know other shows feature this most maddening of plot functions but never with as much frequency as the under performer of the Trek universe) is that although the events of this story ultimately never took place for everybody that matters as far as this series is concerned, they did. The Doctor remembers. Martha remembers. So do the Joneses and Jack and Lucy. The Earth might be safe but the people that saved it are scarred for life. It means that episode can have its cake (everything back to normal) and eat it (emotional consequences for the Doctor and his companion). It's surprisingly well done. If only the Voyager writers could have seen this (actually the one time they remembered to use the reset and have emotional consequences for the characters – Timeless – that kicked ass too).
  • The actual plot ends about ten minutes before the end of the episode which is unprecedented in Doctor Who. There is a great deal to wrap up in the coda including what to do with the Master and Martha’s departure from the series. The discussion amongst the Joneses about whether to execute the      Master continues the shows dark themes (I remember a point in The Sea Devils when the third Doctor said that many were in favour of that option after the events of the previous year taking me aback too) and Francine gets a terrific moment (beautifully played by Anjoa Andoh) where she looks as if she is going to pull the trigger and end his life.
The Bad:
  • I think I can pinpoint where my disappointment set in when I first watched this episode...the very first scene! Moving events on a year was a devastating blow because I wanted to see how the Earth would cope with such a crisis (fortunately Davies would have another stab at this in The Stolen Earth with dynamic results). However in hindsight moving the show on 12 months does give us a chance to explore this new, darker world that the Master has created.
  • The Midget Gem Doctor is so wrong on every level I cannot understand why Davies felt the need to include it. It's one step too far into comic strip territory for an episode that is getting off on being really nasty and placing one into the other is tonally jarring. Why would this happen anyway? Ageing the Doctor to the point of extinction means he shrinks into a little midget with giant eyes? Is this a Time Lord feature that we have never heard of before? It looks daft and it feels daft and it is daft. The Doctor had already been castrated at the end of the last episode (quite effectively too) but reducing him even further has turned him into a joke. And that should never happen. I just couldn’t take him seriously gripping hold of the bars of his cage with his little CGI hands. That’s good money they wasted on those effects that could have afforded more of a glimpse at the an Earth painted in the Master’s image.
  • If that wasn’t bad enough Davies indulges in his annual hero worship of the Doctor too here by having every single member of the human race crying out his name as though he were God and turning him into a proto-Jesus mythic figure that descends from the heavens (or the flight deck if we are being accurate) and saving the day. It's so over stressed and twee that it might just make you bring up your dinner. I don’t like being told how fabulous the Doctor is, I know that already and see that in his actions. At least the human race has this year wiped away so they can forget all about their joint masturbation over the Doctor. Even he seems a little embarrassed by it when he talks about it afterwards.
  • The Doctor and the Master materialising on the Earth is entirely pointless. It's just to give them a Reichenbach Falls moment, isn’t it, and take the Letts/Dicks conception of their relationship to its natural conclusion?
  • A shame Leo had only a walk on part in this episode considering it’s the end of the line for the Joneses. Was Reggie Yates busy elsewhere?

The Shallow Bit: There’s no denying that Tom Ellis playing Tom Milligan is an absolute hottie. Whilst we’re at it Freema Agyeman never looked more gorgeous than in this three part blockbuster.

Notes: If you want to find out what Martha got up to on her year away check out the BBC novel The Story of Martha by Dan Abnett. It’s a cracking read and paints a devastating picture of the apocalyptic Earth that matches the descriptions from this episode. You get to witness the moment that Japan burns.

Foreboding: Just who picked up that ring at the Master’s funeral. That had people guessing for ages. Looks like Davies was always planning on bringing back the Master to tell the rest of his story. A shame the answer is so...meh. 

Result: I remember first watching this finale whilst on holiday and feeling so let down as the story unfolded. I was so gripped by The Sound of Drums (so much so I must have watched it about ten times that week!) and this was not the conclusion that I had envisaged. However the passage of time has been kind to Last of the Time Lords and I actually think far more of it now than I ever did when it was broadcast with a few (massive) caveats. If you removed the Dobby/Jesus Doctor then 90% of this shows problems would disappear (but take out the shows central character and where would we be?). If it’s a poor showing for the Doctor then it’s a fantastic Martha episode and her adventures on post apocalyptic Earth are a real treat. The Master might barely set foot on the planet but his presence is felt in every scene and Davies employs the Robert Holmes tradition of creating a world with words and this apocalyptic Earth is a memorably bleak location. We might have been told in the past that the Master is a villainous character (shrinking people and the like) but here he is a genuinely sadistic man, enjoying the pain of others and stroking his out of control ego to disguise the fact that he hates who he has become. Maybe that’s what people couldn’t get on with this interpretation, he’s not the cuddly villain from the Pertwee years anymore but a genuinely nasty piece of work. Taken as a single episode then it is a little flabby and flawed but if you look at Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords as a three part story it is about as epic as Doctor Who comes, skilfully plotted, featuring some remarkably dark ideas and stretching out to the end of the universe and back. It's controversial in what it suggests for the end of humanity and in how it tries to probe the Master but the story never shies away from taking risks and the resulting piece of work packs quite a punch. If only the Doctor worship could be excised (I still don’t entirely understand how the Doctor becomes a magical flying superbeing or why it was necessary) Last of the Time Lords might have been considered a much worthier finale to series three. It might be hard to look past its faults but there is a great deal to like here amongst a few harmful mistakes. Surprisingly enjoyable (although given its fatalistic tone I’m not sure that’s appropriate) and a triumphant end to Martha’s travels in the TARDIS: 7/10


Paul said...

I wouldn't have said Delgado's Master was 'cuddly'. In his first story he punches a man and throws him to his death from a very high gantry!

Joe Ford said...

And in his last story he is a panto villain trading quips with the Doctor and Jo and indulging in comic madness with the Ogrons. He's even second fiddle to the Daleks. Maybe he didn't start out cuddly...but like the rest of the UNIT family that's where he ended up.

Pink!Dalek said...

Great review!! As always I agree with what you say. The Jesus Doctor scene is appalling and Dobby the domestic doctor... well, words fail me :/

About the Doctor and the Master being brothers... wasn't this the idea back in 1996 if the TV movie had materialized in a full series? At least, the script in McGann audition said so... I find this a bit weird.

John Simm makes an excellent Master, I think it's my fav Master (usually people marks Delgado as their fav but the craziness of Simm is SUPERB)

Poor Martha, she was the one walking the Earth in the year that never was, she was the truly heroine of this and she had to put uo with a moping Doctor over the overrated Rose all her season. Fortunately her departure had the dignity she deserved...

Best regards, your reviews are always spot on

Tango said...

Frankly I disagree about the Face of Boe, I find that something added to the script at the last minute and that issue was never explored again. At least we saw convincing clues, such as the father/daughter talk in "The Impossible Astronaut" or that "I hate you" that Amy said in the Minisode "Good Night". Thank God "Moffat" does not cut his head as he planned to do in "A Good Man Goes to War" to turn him into the Face of Boe.

See again John Simms reminds me why I hate him so much, even Lex Luthor Jr. of "Batman v Superman" is more intimidating and subtle that hyperactive clown of Simms.

David Pirtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Pirtle said...

Well this one hasn't grown on me since I watched to go out over a decade ago. Yes, Martha gets a good showing, and John Simm is, at least in my opinion, delightful as the Master. I know fans didn't universally warm to the take on the character, but I like that he just gets more insane with every incarnation (the next one is absolutely bananas).

However, the rest of it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, starting with the reveal about the Toclafane, because they aren't the result of some sinister plot, but rather the ultimate fate of humanity, regardless of what the Doctor or the Master do to aid/corrupt them in this three-parter. How bleak is that, to portray the allegedly 'indomitable' human race going out with so little dignity? I almost forgive poor Lucy for going mad after seeing it for herself. I'm glad I didn't watch this as a child. It would have given me a complex. Mind you, I got a complex from watching Disney's The Black Hole, so maybe I was just easily disturbed when I was young.

Then of course there's the shrinky-dink Doctor and the Peter Pan-style resolution. "The Doctor says that he thinks he can get well again if children believed in Time Lords! Do you believe? If you believe clap your hands!" Maybe I'm being too hard on it all, but the quality of the first two glorious episodes makes the conclusion seem even worse than it probably is.