This article covers the episodes The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords, which together form a single Doctor Who story. These are often considered to be part of a trilogy of episodes beginning with Utopia, but we have covered that separately as it is sufficiently distinct thematically but functions as a sort of pre-finale build-up episode as well.
The Sound of Drums is all about stripping the Doctor of his control, bit by bit. The culmination of that process is to see him forcefully aged by the Master. This is such a violation and so unlike anything that has happened to the Doctor before that it is quite disturbing to watch, and must have caused a few nightmares between the two Saturdays. The only problem is the severe effect 100 years has on the Doctor, which makes no sense in terms of him being over 900 years old in his tenth incarnation. Several of the Doctors only lived a few years, as indicated by the presence of companions such as Rose, Tegan and Jamie, unless you get into the realms of inventing interim stories in which the Doctor drops off a companion and then spends decades without them before picking up where he left off. Plus, Romana was 125 when she joined the Doctor, and was not exactly heading for Dobby-ness. So, if the Doctor can only live a human lifespan in each of his incarnations, the numbers don’t come close to adding up (and this will also be strongly contradicted by the lifespan of the Eleventh Doctor).
Martha is also taken to the edge by the plight of her family. A double booking meant that her brother disappeared from the story at this point, and in a rather clumsy manner. However, both her parents and Tish are inspirational characters throughout the last two episodes.
The Doctor’s humiliation rises to almost unbearable levels in Last of the Time Lords – living in a tent on the floor, drinking from a dog’s bowl, being wheeled around the room by the Master and finally aged to such an extent that he is almost unrecognisable as the Doctor. The CGI Doctor is an incredible creation, somehow cute and able to evoke great pity. However, he evokes only inspiration in Martha – the moment when she smiles at the realisation that he is still alive, despite having just seen him humiliated further, is a breath of fresh air – optimism amidst the darkness. Of course, every possible humiliation is piled upon the Doctor only to make the moment of his triumph even more awe-inspiring, and he achieves it because of the brilliance of Martha, surely the bravest and most capable companion the Doctor has ever had. What she achieves here in her year of travelling around the world is outright astonishing, and shows a determination and strength of character that marks her out from most companions.
As for the Master, well, the best since Roger Delgado without a doubt. He has that really nasty streak but he still will not kill the Doctor. He is funny but not pantomime. The drumming in his head is a clever bit of back-story, and surprisingly creepy.
It is a testament to the brilliance of the writing that the Master’s death is so emotional. Bearing in mind that he basically tortures the Doctor, and spends a year as dictator of a messed up distortion of the Doctor’s favourite planet, I think it is fair to say that most writers would have made his death a moment of triumph. Instead the focus is on the Doctor’s grief at losing the closest thing he has left to family. In that moment we can feel the loneliness bearing down on the Doctor. Despite all that the Master has done, the Doctor is desperate for him to survive and will even sacrifice his own way of life to care for him. Moments like this really bring home what an incredible character the Doctor is. The words the Master could not bear to hear, the Doctor’s forgiveness, are the ultimate expression of the difference between the two Time Lords.
For an atheist writer like Davies, this episode has a surprisingly religious feel to it. Criticisms of the episode tend to come down to two things: special effects (and since when was that any kind of a useful measure of the success of a Doctor Who episode!) and the Doctor’s resurrection due to people’s faith in him. There are all kinds of different ways to interpret that moment, but I don’t think it is an inappropriate way to resolve the plot. It functions as a rejection of the Master by the whole world, in favour of something better, the power of hope, the ability of the human race to come together and put things right, and ultimately how despair and resignation to a miserable fate get people nowhere – you have to believe in something. It shows the power of faith, and although it might use religious imagery, it is not religious faith. The Doctor has never been any kind of a cult leader; in fact he constantly rejects offers of leadership. But he inspires people by his deeds and that elevates him to be something worth believing in.
And then the people who have built a religion around the Doctor pop out of existence and things snap back to normal.
That’s the bit the critics of Jesus/Doctor tend to overlook. There will be several occasions over the next two years where people try to elevate the Doctor to the status of some kind of a god-like being to have faith in. He is the Oncoming Storm, the Time Lord Victorious, Odin, The Imp of the Pandorica, The Beast of Trenzalore, The Great Destruction of the Universe, the Shadow of the Valeyard. But he constantly breaks free of these myths. Any attempt to turn the Doctor into a religious figure is subverted. Because he just wants to be a madman in a box. RP
The view from across the pond:
Here come the drums, here come the drums…
Again, we’re in two-part territory with The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords and it’s another tough one to talk about in a few brief paragraphs. Picking up where Utopia left off, the Doctor, Jack and Martha get back to modern day earth where Harold Saxon is the Prime Minister. And, as we all know, Harold Saxon is the Master. Played magnificently by John Simm, he displays a love for mayhem like never before, wiping out an entire cabinet of his ministers while being as maniacal as ever. But because of the length of the story, I’m not going to do the play by play, since there are a couple things worth delving into at greater length. So I’ll take a Valiant level approach to the bulk of the episode.
The Master takes over the Earth, plays some great music while dancing with the Doctor and brings the Toclafane to Earth. These creatures are, in fact, human but take their name from Gallifreyan folklore. The likelihood that Martha would encounter the same little boy she met in the far future of Utopia is a bit unlikely, but life is strange and maybe it can happen! In the process, the Master ages the Doctor to look like a member of Yoda’s people, sans the Force. At least initially; he does eventually gain force power when Martha Jones and Dionne Warwick connect to the Psychic Network… (more on that in a few). This story also gives us our first glimpse of Gallifrey since the series came back and (time) Lord does it look good! The music that plays is magnificent and the return of the seal of Rassilon could make any fan giddy! We learn about the early days of a child of Gallifrey and we also get a reminder that the Master’s greatest fear is the Doctor laughing at him. This is a little counter-intuitive of the hero we know but it does speak about their childhood together and people do change over time. I’m not the same guy I was even 20 years ago; a Time Lord most certainly would have changed (in more ways than one)!
One real surprise that came from this story was the revelation of the Face of Boe. Jack says it casually (even though he was in the room when Martha mentioned it one episode before, but I already ranted about that so…), but realizing he was Boe all along does make one cast their minds back to the previous sightings of the Face, and wonder why the Doctor and Boe didn’t have more dialogue, particularly in The End of the World. I suppose at that point in Jack’s life, he probably understood why he had to keep his distance. (Or we realize the writing just hadn’t accommodated for that yet… I prefer the former though!)
The two big things to talk about in this episode is the proclivity Russell T. Davies shows for making the companion the star of the show. Rose became a borderline god and now Martha wanders the planet telling stories about her hero. This is a double-edged sword: the Doctor is powerless without his companions being free to do their thing and save the day for him. It undercuts the star of the show and I think it should be a one trick pony rather than a repeat performance with each companion. But the reason this one has such a double edge is because what Martha does is spread the word like the fans of the show already do. It goes a step beyond that however, connecting to the next big focus of the story: it makes the Doctor a messianic figure like never before. We’ve see the Doctor in the role of messiah many times before and will do so again in upcoming episodes (in fact in just one story we see it visually very clearly), but this is the episode that really drives that comparison home. Martha is effectively creating a religion, where everyone knows the name of the Doctor. He can save us. The resolution comes when the entire world, every nation, every creed, and every color look to the heavens saying his name. (We fans may recognize the rightness of the adoration, but let’s be honest… it’s more than a bit overt!) Then, the Doctor begins to glow, heal, and levitate, covered in a glowing light. He’s able to use superpowers to stop the Master doing any further harm. And for the coup de grace… he hugs and forgives his mortal enemy. The Doctor has transcended heroism and has entered the realm of the messiah in one fell swoop! It speaks volumes for what the writer thinks of the character and resonates with us because it is an incredibly triumphant moment. (Again, the music adds so much to the sequence. Murray Gold is pure gold!)
Does the year that never was give the story a form of dream cop out like The Wizard of Oz? Maybe. At least a little bit. It allows a reset to the rest of humanity so we can go on claiming ignorance of extraterrestrial life. Luckily (if such a thing can be said) it left the Doctor and company at the center of the event so that they could retain their memories while the rest of the world forgot. This might also explain why anyone would recover the Master’s ring, assuming they still believed he was a good man but it still feels a bit like a cheat. Still, the main thing is that Russell T. Davies gave us a heck of a sendoff for the Master and wrote Martha out with dignity. She leaves of her own accord because she doesn’t want to be pining for the Doctor when he can’t seem to notice her. For a messianic figure, that’s a bit disappointing. But we see what RTD thought of the Doctor and he gives us a great take on that adoration. I can get behind that! ML