‘‘Not even the Time Lords came this far.’ The first new series three-parter (the proof of the pudding is the placement of the Next Time trailer at the end of the credits, per other multi-part story cliffhangers, rather than at the top) begins with an opening that, like The Seeds of Doom’s, tells an effectively terse and self-contained story that gains greater weight and horror as subsequent events unfold. Like director Graeme Harper’s masterpiece The Caves of Androzani, this is a “spiralling descent” which begins relatively innocuously with the standard Cardiff joke (Martha is horrified to have landed there), and then builds inexorably towards an astonishing, relentless final act which stands even above Earthshock or Army of Ghosts as the greatest returning baddie moment ever. In the process, RTD looks at Moffat’s hidden-in-plain-sight solutions and laughs at them, as he wraps Gridlock and Human Nature into a pay-off that, at the time, was jaw-dropping.
On the way, we get the return of Captain Jack, and the vital information that bridges Torchwood and the parent series (Jack’s Time Agent vortex manipulator; the Bad Wolf’s godlike powers; the Doctor’s allergic reaction to immortality). Martha listening as the two of them reminisce about Rose is painful, and possibly marks the moment when Martha realises she’s going to be friend-zoned forever, even as she encounters a fellow lovesick companion. Barrowman’s performance is much more relaxed than in Torchwood Series One, and while, like Mickey in Doomsday, he fulfils a plot purpose (a link to the Doctor’s past and a way back to 21st Century Earth), his presence works just like it did at the end of the first series, injecting a new dynamic to the climax.
The other big return is the Master’s. It wasn’t exactly a secret – the Mister Saxon anagram gave it away to fans even if they hadn’t read online spoilers – but the nature of the reveal is extremely clever. It was a genius move to hold him back until the end of the third series, by which point the Doctor’s nature as last of the Time Lords was taken for granted, and the promise that he might not be alone was exciting enough for viewers unfamiliar with the classic series.
Jacobi’s performance as Yana is spot on, a sort of mix of the first three classic Doctors: crotchety wizardry and technical brilliance in his lab; childlike exuberance as he grabs the Doctor’s hand in the waiting zone. Within half an hour you’ve come to like the Professor without necessarily twigging he’s actually the universe’s most evil villain (his wistful desire for ‘a little admiration’ rings very true). His brief scenes as the Master are, by necessity, much broader than his performance as Yana. I think it works given its brevity, and with more time and dialogue, as in the Big Finish War Master audios, he creates something much closer to Geoffrey Beever’s purring wickedness.
Given how much plot there is to get through, the Futurekind feel like a necessary sacrifice. They look like something from a post-apocalyptic Eighties film, all big hair, leather and tattoos, hunting and eating any human they can catch, and exist basically to provide an immediate complication and threat for the Doctor, Martha and Jack. They’re effectively nasty and do exactly what they’re required to do. Anything more would have been an unnecessary distraction.
The cliffhanger of the Doctor, Martha and Jack abandoned at the end of the universe, about to be eaten by cannibals while the Master takes the TARDIS to who knows where, is tremendous. The only things I think is a miss are the pre-credits, which clearly ought to have ended with Jack and the TARDIS crashing into the opening titles, and the Doctor’s reference to Martha and Jack ‘blogging’ which sounds like RTD doesn’t know what that is.
Next Time: The Sound of Drums