“You’ve saved the world, Martha Jones!”
In a week when we got a new Prime Minister, when cities across Britain were terrorised by car bombs, it was obvious what the most important thing was – the season finale of Doctor Who. (Why is it always a “season finale” now? What happened to “the last in the present series”?)
Last of the Time Lords was an ambitious script from Russell T Davies, and there was a lot wrong with it, which I’ll go into in some detail. But from the very start, I should say that I actually really enjoyed it. For a start, after the initial shock I really got John Simm’s interpretation of the Master. He was almost like a spoiled child, really relishing his cruelty on a scale we’d never seen before, and having fun with it. I’ll say it again – no-one consciously chooses to be evil. He was doing what he was doing because he was nuttier than a peanut factory. And with the Saxon persona stripped away, what was left was pure Master. He was charismatic, he was evil, and his gleeful good humour only intensified the chill of his evil.
It was still, nonetheless, a typically camp Russell script, building on the tone of last week’s. As soon as the Master swanned into the bridge of the Valiant dancing to the Scissor Sisters, I knew that a lot of old-school fans would probably hate this. By rights, I would have expected to myself, but I actually loved that sequence. Apart from the kinetic choreography and editing, it neatly told the viewer in a couple of minutes how things were in the Master’s new order. The Doctor, beaten and humiliated, Francine Jones and Lucy Saxon cringing in terror and hatred of their overlord, and his relish at his power over them. It has to be said, though, that after last week’s interlude with the Rogue Traders and now the Scissor Sisters, it seems that this new Master has a very gay taste in music!
The decision to set the episode a year after last week’s was a good one (if nicked from Battlestar Galactica‘s second season climax), allowing us to see just what a year under the Master’s reign would do to Earth. The results were varyingly realised; the huge statue of John Simm was a nice touch, but the Master’s war rockets were less convincing, and really the best impression of this nightmarish alternative future was conveyed in the script itself, as Martha described what she had seen of the world in the last year. Of course, all this was slightly undermined by the knowledge that any story set on contemporary Earth can’t diverge from reality too much, so there had to be a great big reset button somewhere to return everything to normal. The Paradox Machine was obvious from the moment its name was mentioned, and knowing Russell, I fully expected there to be a god in it.
Fair’s fair, though, it served a real purpose in allowing the humans of the future to exterminate their ancestors without erasing their own existence. What the Toclafane and the Master actually wanted was less clear, though. It seemed to be some enormous vista of universal conquest without any specific goal. That actually seemed not dissimilar to the rather vague plans Adolf Hitler had in the event of his ultimate global domination; and he, like the Master, was more barking than Battersea dog’s home.
The state of humanity was also a little unclear. We saw slave workers packed into houses a la Dalek Invasion of Earth, but Dr Tom Milligan mentioned a medical service – nice to know Mr Saxon didn’t neglect the NHS! I also had to wonder what Professor Docherty’s official standing was; enough, plainly, to get her computer access, power, and television. And given that television did seem to be a luxury the oppressed masses had no access to, just who did the Master think he was broadcasting to anyway?
With the Doctor a ravaged shell of himself confined to a wheelchair, this was plainly Martha’s story from the outset. As she arrived from the sea in the opening scene, a confident resistance fighter, we could see how much the character had grown in the year since The Sound of Drums. Freema Agyeman rose to the challenge admirably after some variable acting earlier in the season, plainly getting her teeth into some real action for a change. As our nominal hero for the episode, it was clear that her function was to rescue the Doctor from where he was going through the mill. It’s so reminiscent of the old Virgin New Adventures as to be positively fanwanky; indeed I found myself reminded of how Bernice carried the second half of The Dying Days with the Eighth Doctor missing, presumed dead. The Master harping on about Axons and Sea Devils did nothing to dispel the fanwank either.
Of course any story bringin back a historic character like the Master is bound to be fanwanky, and I didn’t mind that a bit. What I wasn’t so sure of was why the fanwank had to include things other than Doctor Who. It’s a testament to Russell’s taste in sci fi that we got in quick succession, Darth Vader’s funeral pyre from Return of the Jedi (recreated almost shot for shot, with similar swelling music) then the “picking up the villain’s power ring” bit from the end of Flash Gordon. These were so similar that they must have been intentional; still, while I was mulling that over, all young Barry could do next to me was snigger at the thought of Anthony Ainley popping up saying “Yes, I escaped from the funeral pyre…”
The true identity of the Toclafane was a genuine surprise; I’d been so wrapped up in fanwank that I’d really expected them to be the Time Lords! Actually, making them humans is a perfect development of the way the Master uses the Doctor’s own strengths against him in this story. The species he constantly goes around bigging up to the skies have turned into brutal, power-crazed cyborgs with the voices of horribly malicious children. The Master’s line “Human beings… greatest monsters of them all” perfectly emphasised this, neatly contrasting with the Doctor’s “indomitable” speech as repeated in Utopia.
I was right about them coming from Utopia, though. It was a skilful bit of misdirection in the script to make that seem a forgotten plotline, only to return to it in such a devastating way. It occurred to me that it was the unlikeliest of coincidences for Martha to bring down the very sphere containing the little boy she bonded with two episodes previously; but wasn’t there some throwaway line about the Tocalafane having a group mind? For a man so obviously fond of expository dialogue, Russell does seem to put such explanations in in a rather “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of way.
David Tennant had less to do than usual in what was sort of a “Doctor-lite” episode. Mostly he was just sitting in that chair looking like he was waiting for his cocoa. Which was fine, but I thought the Gollum/ Dobby the House Elf Doctor was just ridiculous. I know old age makes you shrink, but surely there’s a point at which that stops, even if you are nine hundred? Besides, putting him in a birdcage only emphasised his resemblance to Tweety Pie, and the big cute eyes were a bit much. Nice of the Master to run him up a miniature pinstripe suit, though. Actually I thought the CG itself was pretty good (though not a patch on old Gollum). It’s the very concept I have trouble with. I suppose it depends on your tolerance of seeing the Doctor’s dignity stripped away, but for me it went too far.
And his recovery? Ever been to the panto Peter Pan? Yes, it was the old “clap your hands if you believe in fairies and Tinkerbell will be OK” plan. Written yourself into a corner again, Russell? Still, everyone thinking “Doctor” at the same time (how did they synchronise that without phones or TV?) brought our hero back in a messianic blaze of light not dissimilar to Ky in the Pertwee story The Mutants. But even here, the script wrongfooted me. I fully expected an angry, vengeful Doctor in keeping with the darkness we saw in The Runaway Bride and The Family of Blood. And unexpectedly, the words he’d been trying to get out all episode were “I forgive you”. Compassion being the one thing the Master absolutely cannot handle. He still had to say “I’m so sorry” though, which is obviously now his official catchphrase. Yuk.
Actually, the final confrontation of the Doctor and the Master, both on Earth and aboard the Valiant, was genuinely gripping stuff, both actors giving it their all to show us two former friends who became enemies and don’t know how to fix it. I actually really hoped the Master would survive, as by the end you actually, like the Doctor, wanted to help him. Clearly he was very, very ill in the head, but he was the only one who could alleviate the Doctor’s unbearable loneliness. And it was typical of the Master that, in a final act of spite, he chose to die rather than do that. Simm was unrepentant to the end, but Tennant’s anguish at the death of his old rival was actually rather moving. As was his attempt to cover it up with false jollity as Martha joined him in the TARDIS at the end. His performance as the Doctor has made a quantum leap in quality this season, and I look forward to having him back next year.
But not Martha, apparently. This episode made it clear that the whole season had really been her story, and it’s a shame to see her go. Still, the Doctor has her phone, so I think we’ll be seeing her again. Her departure was also a little moving, though overly drawn out, I felt. Going back into the TARDIS after saying goodbye to explain her crush on the Doctor wasn’t really necessary; we knew that, and I suspect, so did he. It didn’t need to be spelled out.
The pacing of the script, indeed, was a bit of a problem. It had more endings than Return of the King; though like that film it’s the last in a trilogy that may seem better paced when viewed as a whole. I’ll have to try that soon. Still, with Martha gone we need a new companion. After all, someone has to say “what is it, Doctor?” so he can explain to the audience. After a full on lovefest with Rose and unrequited feelings from Martha, I’m rather hoping for a purely platonic relationship with the next one. Perhaps a male companion, like Mickey? Or at the very least an ugly lesbian that the Doctor couldn’t possibly fancy!
Speaking of male companions, the return of Captain Jack never really did pay off. In the event, the only use his much-vaunted immortality had was to get past a couple of Toclafane guarding the TARDIS, and that could have just been written differently. But it was fun to have him around, with his old joie de vivre back after moping around Cardiff all through Torchwood. And while it did make me laugh out loud, having him revealed as the Face of Boe was just a little too neat. That was a plot hole that didn’t need resolving, Russell! For that matter, if he was the Face of Boe, couldn’t he have been a little less cryptic than “you are not alone”? Perhaps a million years have some effect on his memory, and all he could think of was “what could Yana be a good acronym for?”
So an enjoyable if not brilliant conclusion to the series, the problem being that the stuff that went before was so strong it was hard to live up to. But full marks for doing something different to the first two years, which were in danger of becoming formulaic. Loved John Simm (eventually) and I’m glad it looks like the Master could be back. Was that Lucy Saxon’s hand grabbing his ring? Funny, after being apparently beaten up by him and then shooting him, you wouldn’t think she’d want a memento. I even ended up liking Martha’s family, who, thank God, didn’t become another soap opera clan like the Tylers (though what did happen to her brother in Brighton?). But does every season finale now have to end with something bursting into the TARDIS so that the Doctor says “what?”
One final thought; the Paradox Machine set time back to just after the Master killed the President. Leaving aside the troublesome aspect that this was after the Toclafane had already appeared (they killed him), it still means that a worldwide TV audience just saw the British Prime Minister order the death of the President of the United States. Perhaps the Doctor will have to cope with another war when he next visits the contemporary earth of the Whoniverse…