‘It’s as if he’s mesmerized the entire world.’ The challenge for RTD after Series One was to up the ante every year, making each finale even more elaborate and expansive. After you’ve had millions of Daleks and Cybermen battling each other across the world, how do you top it? RTD’s answer is to have the Doctor arrive back in 21st Century Britain at the precise moment when the Master has already won, and then to play out the idea of the Doctor having to defeat a global threat with no support structure. Which sounds like it should be par for the course – but normally wherever the Doctor arrives he’s able to find allies, and particularly in the new series’ present day episodes where he’s got psychic paper, his UNIT pass and friends, like Harriet Jones, in high places.
But as this reminds us, Harriet Jones is gone and her new Golden Age with her. Thanks to his impetuousness in The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor has opened an unexpected door, and the Master has rushed in. With the entire apparatus of the British state in the Master’s hands – the police, the CCTV network, the military, television – the Doctor can only run and hide. His big plan is to try to get close enough to the Master to break his control over the captive population, but he fails, and a tenth of humanity is murdered on a whim. By the end of the episode the Doctor is on his knees, aged and wizened and apparently defeated. It’s almost shocking to see Tennant’s swaggering version out-swaggered, the complete turning of the tables from the start of Utopia when it was the Master who was diminished, old and TARDIS-less.
For it to work, for the Doctor to essentially be usurped as the lead in his own show, John Simm has to be as charismatic as Tennant. I think he works, although in an odd way, I feel like he would have been an even better Moriarty to Eccleston’s Doctor, where the “fantastic” front has tipped into genuine insanity. The Master’s always had a playful mockery to him which works best against Doctors, like Pertwee and Davison, who are essentially fairly serious, and I wonder whether flipping it and making the Master a bit more serious and driven, almost appalled by the Doctor fiddling while Gallifrey’s burned, might have been a more interesting choice. At the time, given how prominent they are in the episode, I thought the Master Plan was to restore Gallifrey, and the paradox machine was undoing the Time War (I had to wait another couple of years for that). Instead, we get a Master in Downing Street essentially reprising the Slitheen: I like Aliens of London a lot, so this doesn’t greatly bother me, but I do have a niggling sense that we’ve seen a lot of this villainy before.
But I’m falling into the trap of reviewing a different story. I basically enjoy The Sound of Drums, especially how different the “urban” bits of the Doctor, Jack and Martha running through run-down shopping centres, dank underpasses and abandoned warehouses. Jack making cups of tea, the Doctor eating chips and reminiscing about home, and Martha watching her family being bundled away in police vans. Some bits of the script are genius, like the Doctor and Martha investigating Saxon online while, across town, Vivien Rook provides most of the answers as she appeals to Lucy Saxon. The snippets of Gallifrey were exciting at the time, with the planet finally looking like the kind of sci-fi citadel the tie-in merchandise always wanted. This has a percussive tempo that matches the title, even if some of the details are a bit naff (especially the unbelievably dim-witted George W Bush parody, but also the reveal that the TARDIS is a paradox machine, which – to me – pointed too clearly to the reset switch). Above all, with the Doctor defeated, Jack in captivity and Martha wandering the dying Earth, it’s a great hook for the series finale.
Next Time: The Infinite Quest