Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords

By Jon de Burgh Miller on 09 July 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Over the last few years Doctor Who has built a tradition of ending each season with a multi-part epic where the Doctor confronts a major enemy from his past. For the conclusion of the current season, it was the turn of the Doctor’s old nemesis the Master to return from the dead.

While Russell T Davies’ vision of Doctor Who is one that embraces and adopts elements from the past where appropriate, it’s also one that never shys away from ditching elements that add little. In the same way the Doctor went from an eccentric madman in stupid clothes to a northerner in a leather jacket, the Master has ditched the frilly shirts and goatee beard for a slick business suit and neat haircut. This is a new Master for the digital age, and a younger more vibrant incarnation of the character than has been seen before. This is a Master carefully designed to best Tennant’s Doctor at every stage, being just as charismatic, witty and clever.

John Simm and David Tennant both get to stretch their acting muscles with a strong and energetic chemistry between them. While Simm seems to revel in the role of ruler of Earth as much as his character does, there are plenty of other actors in these episodes who get to show what they’ve got. Tennant not only portrays the old Doctor effectively but plays the character’s despair over his relationship with the Master perfectly. Freema Agyeman really comes into her own as a new-improved Martha, and John Barrowman leads a superb supporting cast who all give convincing portrayals of life in wartime.

New background information for both characters is learned during these episodes, neatly accompanied by flashbacks to the Time Lord homeworld. These shots are just the start of the superb effects work to come. The jaw dropping view over London at the end of ‘The Sound of Drums’, the skillful mixing of CG and real models for the Toclafane – whose attacks on Earth are breathtaking – and the exteriors of the Valiant, all spring to mind as some of the best effects work in the series to date.

The sheer scope of the story is impressive. Setting a series conclusion one year after the penultimate episode is the kind of thing TV would rarely have the balls to do in the past – you might expect to read that caption in a season opener, but not a conclusion. It provides a freedom to show things the show has never seen, and while not permanent, moves tensions up a gear that should serve the series well in the future.

Although eventually time is restored, enabling future adventures – and Torchwood – to continue to be set in a world roughly the same as ours, the characters memories stay intact so that the psychological impact of events is still felt. Davies’s scripts always put character above science, and those complaining of a reset switch miss the point somewhat. When Francine points the gun at the Master she explicitly says that the terrible things the Master did ’still happened’, and while the mass of humanity remains oblivious, the effects of that year on our recurring characters will no doubt be in evidence for a while yet – a mark of how much cleverer the series is than most TV SF.

In the mid nineties the Doctor Who New Adventures book series took the current companion out of the picture for a few novels and returned her later as a more mature, fresher character. Davies has adopted the same approach twice now, last year with the return of Mickey Smith, and now with Martha, after an off-screen absence. Her development over the course of the series makes her actions in the finale convincing and with a missing year for the audience to fill in the gaps, the new more confident and assertive Martha completely rings true. With a few episodes of Torchwood ahead of her, expect a very different Martha to return to the TARDIS next year.

While not having quite the same plot tightness as ‘The Parting of the Ways’, or the emotional impact of ‘Doomsday’, ‘Last of the Time Lords’ stands as some of the most exciting, epic and clever TV of recent times, and shows that those who felt the series was running out of steam have seriously under-estimated it.

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By Jon de Burgh Miller

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