Episode 12: The Sound of Drums

“Run, Doctor! I said, RUN!”

Well, that was… different.

Let me say straight away that I actually thought this was a very good script. It was tight, it made sense, and any potential plotholes were carefully explained, even if only in a throwaway line. In short, it seems as if Russell T Davies’ skill at writing Doctor Who is continuing to improve, as he avoids so many of the pitfalls that dogged his scripts for earlier series.

No, the thing that left me puzzling for the better part of a day as to whether I enjoyed it or not was John Simm’s radically new interpretation of the Master. Now, to be honest, the Master was always a fairly flimsy character; while obviously a match for the Doctor, he seemed to have no plausible reason for his actions. No-one wakes up in the morning and says “right, I’m going to be evil”, because no-one really believes that they are. Yet for years this seemed to be the Master’s only character motivation. Add to that the fact that his fabulously convoluted schemes were always doomed to failure because he overlooked something blindingly obvious, and you’re left with a character that’s a cardboard pantomime villain. Generally, he worked as a character because of some charismatic and skilled performances, the best of course being the ever-charming Roger Delgado.

So it makes perfect sense that if Russell was to bring the Master back for the new, more realistic Doctor Who, the character would need some reinvention. And whether the episode works for you is entirely dependent on how well you take to what he’s done. He did at least ease the old-school fans into the transition with Derek Jacobi’s very trad take on the role last week; more like Delgado than any of the later Masters, Jacobi was magnetic and chilling.

Then he regenerated into John Simm. I like John Simm, and think he’s an incredibly talented actor. But I found his manic, Tennant-like take on the role a bit much to take, and hoped he’d settle down a bit this week. As it turned out, he didn’t. If anything he was even more manic. Russell seems determined to hammer home that he is just like the Doctor, if a polar opposite, and apparently this includes giving this incarnation a wacky sense of humour. By the time he’s offering out jelly babies, you just want to shout “Yes, Russell, I get the point!”

When playing it straight, he gave us a glimpse of a far more chilling character than the clowning about would suggest, and it’s possible that the contrast between both sides of his personality could be seen to heighten the horror when he does something genuinely evil. For me, though, I thought the balance was a little too much on the humourous side. This might have something to do with the script and direction, though. The whole “it’s a gas mask” bit was mildly amusing, but maybe killing the entire British Cabinet merited a slightly more serious approach. And Nichola McAuliffe’s drawn out scream echoing every time he opened the door was just a bit too silly.

While I don’t mean to come across too like Graham Chapman’s Colonel from Monty Python (“Stop that. It’s silly. Very silly indeed.”), it did feel a little inconsistent with the tone the series had been taking in its latter half. I actually like humourous romps a la Graham Williams, but he generally had entire seasons in that style, whereas we’ve just veered from the thoughtful Human Nature/Family of Blood through the scary Blink and the tense Utopia. Suddenly going into full-blown farce at this point seems a little weird.

And yet, generally, I did enjoy it. Simm was wonderful in his mobile phone exchange with the Doctor, and if nothing else his wackiness pointed us to a more convincing motivation than the older Masters – he is, plainly, absolutely bonkers. This was explained in a fan-pleasing flashback to his initiation rite on Gallifrey, which gave the Mill a chance to realise the Capitol with some lovely CG. It also gave the production a chance to trot out the old Time Lord costumes, their ridiculous collars happily unchanged from the originals. Fans were presumably also whooping as Simm paraphrased Anthony Ainley with “Peoples of the Earth, please attend carefully”.

Russell also avoided the continuity nightmare of the Master’s personal history by explaining that the Time Lords had him “brought back” to fight as a warrior in the Time War – possibly the worst military strategy since General Custer’s charge at Little Big Horn. Maybe they’d failed to notice his main trait being self-interest. In the end, though, I suspect the only people alienated by the new take on the Master will be old-school fans – the new audience don’t know him of old like us sad old geeks.

The so-called Toclafane were quite nicely realised, though oddly reminiscent of justice-dispensing machines the Megara from The Stones of Blood. Knowing Russell’s predilection for bringing back old monsters, I half expected them to be revealed as such at the episode’s climax. The fact that they weren’t also showed another strength of this script; it’s genuinely different in format from the very similar finales to the last two seasons.

The time jump back to Earth at the beginning of the episode was a bit of a weak way to get out of a cliffhanger, though. Rather like those old Republic Serials where the hero is hurtling to his death in a flaming plane, and at the beginning of the next episode you discover there was a parachute under the seat the whole time. I suppose it did explain, in plot terms, why Captain Jack had been wearing that Time Bracelet for the last hundred years or so.

The leads kept up the standard of last week, with Martha finally getting something a bit meatier to do. I’m not sure if Freema Agyeman is quite up to Gillian Anderson’s standard of raging righteously at government conspiracies, but she gave it a good try. And indeed it seems everything now hinges on her, with Jack being shot by the Master over and over again, and the Doctor looking like he should be in a commercial for Stannah Stairlifts. Funny how the aging make-up looked so much less convincing than in Family of Blood, when presumably it’s the same prosthetics. Perhaps it’s the camera angles.

There was a lot of fun to be had with the cameos by the likes of Anne Widdecombe and McFly urging the populace to vote for Saxon – I never thought I’d see them on the same show, especially not Doctor Who! And indeed the political satire of the thing was also fun. The Master was oddly reminiscent of an insane Tony Blair as he gassed his opportunistic Cabinet, and his piss-taking of the American President was hugely satisfying. As, presumably, was the intended effect. The script also tossed us a line about his forming a new party, thus neatly explaining how he came to be Prime Minister without leading Labour or the Conservatives. I suppose if he had, whichever party was chosen might not have been too happy at their media portrayal as being led by the most evil being in the Universe.

It did build to a fine climax, as the Toclafane rained down in their billions on a defenceless Earth. That shot of the Master triumphant at the end was genuinely chilling, as his mania has clearly led him to believe that he’s some kind of God, biblical quotes and all. I even quite enjoyed the use of some cheesy disco as the rift opened in the sky and they poured out above the airborne landing strip so clearly nicked from Captain Scarlet via Sky Captain. Next week, presumably much will hinge on Captain Jack (why else bring him back?) and I’m still half-expecting the Toclafane to be revealed as something from the show’s past. Maybe they’re devolved Time Lords… Whichever, I’m still a little disappointed with this first half, but have to give Russell credit for trying. Let’s see if next week’s puts it into a more redeeming context.