5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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UTOPIA/THE SOUND OF DRUMS/LAST OF THE TIME LORDS
“You’re trying my patience, sir.”
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Pee-yew! Did something die in here?
When we say this story is bad, we don’t mean bad as in boring, bad as in illogical, or bad as in just plain stupid, although it’s all of those. We mean bad as in franchise-killer. If we thought all future Doctor Who episodes would be like this, these would be the last we’d ever see.
Although Utopia, The Sound Of Drums and Last Of The Time Lords are a continuing stoooory, Utopia’s a more discrete entity than the other two, so let’s start there. It’s also less depressing, as unlike the others it does have some redeeming features.
So, good bits first, then? And the truly awesome, magnificent, toweringly superb bit is, of course, Derek Jacobi. We instantly sussed that he was some sort of Time Lord, but it didn’t matter. He. Is. Fantastic. Fantastic as nice old Professor Yana. Just as fantastic as the Master, and considering how unthrilled we usually are by the Master, that’s saying a hell of a lot. The depths, the nuances, the effortless and, more importantly, unhilarious menace… please, Dad, can’t we keep him?
But we can’t. Can you imagine what an amazing Doctor he would have made? But in our brave new world it’s totally verboten, we hear, to cast as the Doctor someone over 45. How utterly moronic is that?
So what else is good? Surprisingly, Jack, whose character has fortunately developed a bit more heft from the smugarama he was afflicted with the last time he was in the TARDIS. (Being the best thing in the otherwise appalling Torchwood in the meantime probably didn’t hurt, either.) There’s nothing like a bit of iron in the soul to make a character more interesting, and a hundred years of kicking around on Earth with one ear always cocked for a wheezing groan would make anybody bitter. (Hanging around with Owen would also do it.)
Jack’s not particularly impressed by the Doctor leaving him behind, and the Doctor, for his part, views Jack as he would a large, furry spider emerging from a plughole. It’s not strictly Doctorly, particularly the bit where the Doctor admits that he ran away from Jack, which is a desperately unDoctorly utterance, but still, it makes for an interesting dynamic. The scenes between Jack and the Doctor through the door of the radiation room are terrific: it’s a complex relationship, with a lot that’s unsaid, and these scenes get that over superbly.
What else? Martha, obviously, not that she has a lot to do except look sulky about Rose for the trillionth time. But as usual she does a good job of it.
And that’s it. Everything else is pants.
So bad is it, in fact, that we strongly suspect it’s a giant pisstake. The blue alien with the speech pattern that even the other characters say is annoying. The pointy-toothed Mad Max refugees bawling “Hew-mahn!” The giant rocket, the tousle-haired cherub, the countdowns and corridor-running. No, seriously, they’re having a laugh.
And they might as well, because there is virtually no point to any of this story. It’s about Sir Derek discovering his inner Masterliness, and that’s all: everything else is just filler. Does it matter whether the futuristic humans manage to catch that guy running desperately across the landscape? Nope. How about whether or not they get in and chomp the others? Nuh-uh. Is it important that they get the rocket to take off? Not in the least. Kind of makes it hard to care about any of it, doesn’t it? Graeme Harper does his usual great job here, but it can’t disguise the fact that despite all the running around and urgency, none of it matters a pixel.
And about that running around and urgency: what’s it for? Why, after years of waiting, is it vital the humans board the rocket this very instant? Why does the Doctor rush the others through the corridors to get the liftoff cranked up? No reason whatsoever. Despite Murray Gold’s best efforts with the whoa-scary-crisis music and Graeme Harper’s snappy direction, there’s actually no ticking clock here at all.
So nothing much happens, with no particular urgency. What about what does matter, then: The Return Of The Master? Well, first, can we say what a giant yawn the reuse of the watch device is? No matter how many deeply significant flashbacks they throw in, it’s not a brilliant weaving together of thematic threads: it’s just lack of imagination. It doesn’t help that the original watch was supposed to turn Time Lords into whatever and now it’s just into a human: the whatever part made a far-fetched kind of sense, but a Time Lord turning only into a human is too human-centric to be true. And while we’re on about the watch: how come when the Doctor transforms into a human using it, he has a personality that’s at least recognisable as him, whereas the Master’s watch-influenced personality’s utterly different?
And the rest of it? Derek Jacobi does the evil thing brilliantly, but after that, it all starts to slip inexorably toiletwards.
While we do our best to avoid spoilers, we hadn’t been able to escape the rumour that John Simm was going to be the Master. John Simm? That nice, slightly ineffectual bloke from Life On Mars? We really couldn’t see that working and, sad to say, it doesn’t. John Simm’s a very good actor, and we’re sure his manic portrayal of the Master is Russell T Davies’s idea, not his. It’s perfectly obvious that they’re trying to have the Master mirror the Doctor’s manicness: it’s a shame that they picked on the aspect of the Tenth Doctor that gets right up everybody’s nose, but it’s a legitimate idea.
Trouble is, the Master has to do more than that. This kind of giggling, playful villain only comes across well if the black layer of evil underneath shines through: Jack Nicholson’s terrifying Joker is the perfect example. John Simm, on the other hand, is about as menacing as a marshmallow. He’s just too nice. In fact, he’s the Fifth Doctor of villains.
All right then, so what about in the other two eps? Does he get any menacinger?
John Simm acts his socks off: full credit to him. The quieter scenes, like the cellphone conversation with the Doctor, do actually approach convincing: we really feel the connection between them. Elements of the old friendship are there, and you can see they could still be friends, or something like that, now. If the Master wasn’t an insane evil bastard, obviously. There’s enough there beyond the only other Time Lord part to make it almost credible that the Doctor goes all out to save the Master’s life and redeem him, and after all there’s historical precedent: the Third Doctor, who was closer to the Master than any of the other Doctors, never exerted himself to kill or control the Master even when it was within his reach.
Ah yes, the “or something like that” part. We’ve maintained since Third Doctor days that the Master has a huge crush on the Doctor, and Russell T Davies doesn’t exactly go out of his way to prove us wrong here. From the Master’s swoony gasp of “Doctor!” to the bit about him loving it when the Doctor says his name, to the dying in his arms part, this is more text than subtext. It’s not exactly subtle (does he really have to say “Dying in your arms” while he’s doing it? Or “Are you asking me out on a date?”) but then Russell T Davies isn’t exactly a subtle writer. It’s all about the m/m in these eps: the Doctor’s relationships with the Master and with Jack have a ton more intensity than any of the other relationships here. Which is kind of a shame for Martha, since it’s her leaving episode (at least for now), but then we can’t say that’s not par for the course, and it’s also why she’s leaving.
So those bits aren’t too bad: they get across the conflict and complexity of a relationship that stretches over centuries, and the new Master is as good here as he gets. It’s probably the best thing about the two final eps.
OK, then, fine, but is the Master menacing?
Uh, no. Yes, he’s demonstrably all evil and that, but grandstanding and offing people right and left notwithstanding, we don’t believe it. He just doesn’t have the darkness any self-respecting evildoer calls their own. And that makes the character fall flat on his face.
The Sound Of Drums/Last Of The Time Lords are chocka with Masterly evildoing that’s obviously meant to send an icicle through our hearts. Instead, it sends us behind the sofa, and in the bad way. All the giggling, all the face-pulling, all the prancing around misses by a mile: instead of transfixing us with fear, it’s desperately, desperately embarrassing. Even Anthony Ainley at his most panto was never remotely as cringeworthy as this. The happy face and sad face at the Cabinet meeting. The karaoke with the Doctor in his wheelchair. The terrible, terrible smirking. Brrr: it’s one giant wince.
Other than those little bits of Doctor/Master interaction, it’s so bad. So very, very bad. Not just the Master scenes, either. All of it. We don’t think we’ve ever seen such a relentless procession of clichés, stupidity, horrific dialogue and clunky parody in one place. It is a veritable fountain of bollocks.
So much so, in fact, that it’s pointless attempting any kind of scholarly, forensic review: when you dissect candyfloss, all you see is more candyfloss. Instead, since it’s the end of the season and we’re in a celebratory mood (mostly because we never have to see these episodes again), it’s award time!
THE YOU STILL HERE AWARD FOR LEAST POINTFUL CHARACTER
Winner: poor old Jack. The single reason he’s in these episodes is because he has the car keys. After that, he’s so surplus to requirements that they can’t find anything for him to do except hang around in handcuffs giving the fanboys and fangirls palpitations.
THE KILL ME, KILL ME NOT AWARD FOR SCIENTIFIC CONFUSION
Winner: Jack again. It’s not that Jack can’t die; he just can’t stay dead. The radiation in the radiation room evaporates people, which, it strikes us, even Jack would have a hard time coming back from. At the very least, he should repeatedly dissolve and get schlooped together again.
THE FLAIL OF DESPERATION AWARD FOR MOST PATHETIC CAMEO
Winner: Ann Widdecombe. No, McFly. No, Sharon Osbourne. No, Ann Widdecombe…
THE HANDS ACROSS THE SEA AWARD FOR DIPLOMACY
Runner-up: Now we know Tony Blair poodled shamefully for Britain. But the clearly vengeful “I will accept mastery over you if that is God’s will” stuff is about as subtle as Liberace’s pyjamas.
Winner: Offing the President. Absolutely no comment.
THE OPPOSITES ATTRACT AWARD FOR THUNDERING CLICHÉ
Winner: Humans. Indomitable and monsters, all in the course of one story.
THE DAMP FIREWORK AWARD FOR MOST POINTLESS PLOT DEVELOPMENT
Winner: the 3 o’clock plot to overthrow the Master. All those secret signals and stuff, and for what? And why are Martha’s family and Jack immune to the effects of the satellites anyway?
THE CONTEMPTUOUS GIGGLE AWARD FOR AUDIENCE RESPECT
Runner-up: “You are not alone” intercut, ever so obviously, with the letters on the screen.
Winner: The flashbacks. Argh.
THE BIRDS AND BEES AWARD FOR MOST DELUDED DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
Winner: The Master’s “new Time Lord empire”. How’s he going to manage that? Unless there are many interesting things we don’t know about Gallifreyan biology, he and the Doctor aren’t a breeding pair. Of course, he may be thinking of “Time Lord and humans combined – haven’t you always dreamt of that, Doctor?” Don’t know about the Doctor, but we do know quite a few fanfic writers who have.
THE WHIPLASH AWARD FOR DULLEST DEJA VU
Alien invasions on News 24. Again.
THE WHAT WERE THEY THINKING AWARD FOR MOST PUZZLING ELEMENT
Runner-up: Utopia. So what was it, then? They got there, and all we found out is that it wasn’t the answer to the salvation of the human race. And even though the Doctor had set the TARDIS to ping-pong between Cardiff and Planet Vampire, the Master manages to get not to Planet Vampire but to Utopia – and to take his wife there on a day return as well. Intensely interesting new planet we’ll return to and find out more about? Or just a bunch of poorly plotted loose ends?
Winner: Lucy. She’s a really weird one: she seems to have a single function in the story, to kill the Master without any of the main characters having to soil their consciences, and maybe that’s all she’s about. The bruising on her face is clearly meant to be enough motivation for that, for a start. On the other hand, there are so many shots of her, and so many details included, like how the Master was nice to her father (her father?) and how the Master took her to Utopia “to see the stars” (quite a feat there, Master, since there weren’t any). And when Mysterious Scarlet Talons picks up the Master’s ring after the barbecue, that might be her too, since Lucy was wearing red nail polish. So are we going to see her again as a reincarnation of the Master, possibly softening us up for a female Doctor? Or is she only in for the kill?
THE POMO AWARD FOR MOST SNIGGERING POP-CULTURE REFERENCE
Runner-up: ““I ran. I ran so far”. Did you, Master? Don’t tell us: you couldn’t get away?
Winner: “Britain, Britain, Britain”. The Master aping a narrator played by the actor who played the Fourth Doctor? At this point, the episode disappears officially up its own arse.
THE FANVID AWARD FOR MOST TEETH-GRITTINGLY LITERAL USE OF MUSIC
Runner-up: The Scissor Sisters’ I Can’t Decide. Mouthing the lyrics in his ear? Because he can’t decide whether the Doctor should live or die? Stop the episode and let us off. Extra points deducted for the Dr Everett Scott parody.
Winner: Voodoo Child. And why is this worse than the Scissor Sisters? It’s because we can’t shake the horrific suspicion that that whole elaborate drum thing was written just to get Voodoo Child in. Argh.
THE SHUT THAT DOOR AWARD FOR CAMPEST MOMENT
Winner: Granted, the Master has always made high camp his own. But with “Ooh! You public menace!” it’s guy ropes and flysheets-a-go-go.
THE WET WIPES AWARD FOR STICKIEST FANWANK
Winner: The Teletubbies. Like the Clangers, y’see, but… oh, never mind.
THE HOIST BY YOUR OWN BOLLOCKS AWARD FOR MOST BACKFIRED CONCEPT
Winner: The gun. With the little vials of coloured water. Which is supposed to be so hilariously SF the Master looks like an idiot for being sucked in by it, but which actually looks positively sensible in comparison to the stupidity surrounding it.
THE LOTTERY AWARD FOR MOST STATISTICALLY UNLIKELY OCCURRENCE
Winner: The kid in the petanque ball. Chance of that particular sphere having that particular child in it – one in six billion. Yeah, we’re really, really believing this episode.
THE PETER DAVISON AWARD FOR LEAST FAVOURITE DOCTOR INCARNATION
House Elf Doctor. Need we say more?
Lonely Doctor. “I’ve been alone ever since. But not any more. Don’t you see, all we’ve got is each other!” Leaving aside the terrible soap opera dialogue, that’s not the Doctor at all. After all, he left home deliberately and just as deliberately avoided the Time Lords for hundreds of years. Yes, we know he feels all guilty that the Time Lords no longer exist, but this is the Master. It’s not like they’re exactly best buds.
Impotent Doctor. Hey, this thing’s supposed to be about the Doctor. His name’s in the title and everything. So seeing vast chunks of episode pass by where the Doctor is either huddled silently in his wheelchair or pecking at sunflower seeds in his cage is by definition not a good thing. His one plot to overthrow the Master fails miserably and is rightly mocked, and his salvation is once again down to his companion. That’s not what we signed up for. Yes, we know we said about the Ninth Doctor that it was less about him than about the effect he has on people, and that worked as far as it went, but we've done that bit now. Let's get back to the Doctor actually doing stuff, shall we?
Winner: Doctor Jesus. What is that about? From the crucifixion pose to the white light to the forgiveness to him wanting to save the Master, it’s just wrong. Sure, the Doctor’s a great and noble character (at least, he was), but he’s also plenty flawed, and he’s just some guy. Just some Gallifreyan guy, just some Time Lord guy, sure, but not a god. Not remotely. That’s silly, and it’s just plain boring. So stop it.
THE GODZILLA AWARD FOR HIDEOUSLY WRONG SENSE OF SCALE
Winner: Last Of The Time Lords. Which has been hands-down the most successful episode this season? Right: it’s Blink, a teeny, tiny, only-this-big story which shows that the smaller the scale, the bigger the impact. But we can’t have that in the finale! Instead, we have to bloat things up until they burst under the weight of their own mass. Let’s have Daleks! No, let’s have Daleks and Cybermen! No, too small! Let’s kill off one-tenth of the world’s population (and show off the fact that we know what “decimate” means)! Let’s wipe out Japan! Then let’s kill off all the humans with all these other humans! And none of it matters a damn, because we’re burnt out by all the other worldwide tragedies we were supposed to care about and never seemed to amount to much and because none of it seems remotely real. Not to mention because of…
THE FOOL YOU ONCE AWARD FOR BIGGEST COPOUT IN HISTORY
Winner: …the big red reset button which makes all of it utterly futile.
THE AIRFREIGHTED SNOWPEA AWARD FOR CRIMINAL WASTE OF RESOURCES
Runner-up: The Master stealing the TARDIS. Amazing setup: the Doctor at the end of time, surrounded by toothy admirers, and someone nicks his motor. Heart-stopping stuff. Followed by: the TARDIS crew wandering happily along the street in modern-day Cardiff, sorry London. Which they then follow with the scene that should have gone out at the top of the programme, but which is now pointless because all the air’s been let out of it. We’re all for innovation in storytelling, but it does have to actually work. Scrumpling up one of the best cliffhangers ever and tossing it away doesn’t qualify.
Winner: Martha. Wasted here, and wasted right through the season. One of the best companions we’ve ever seen, and she’s forced to spend most of her screen time pouting because of a previous companion. A previous companion everyone in the audience was more than happy to forget in her favour, but was never allowed to. Bad enough, but what makes it even worse is the utter inconsistency of it all. The Doctor’s rapid switcheroo of affections to Madame Pompadour (just after saying a Time Lord could never make things work with a human, too) was one of the major reasons we disliked The Girl In The Fireplace, and here they’re ignoring their own canon. If Miss Pompy was the love of his lives, then why has he spent an entire season mooning over Rose? And if she wasn’t, what was the point of Fireplace at all? Meanwhile, smart brave Martha’s battling away on the sidelines, completely ignored. We don’t blame her for going (although we could have done without the Jo Grant-esque lining up of another doctor before she went). She says: “You know what? I am good”, and she’s right. She is. We can’t wait to see her again.
THE DID THEY ACTUALLY SAY THAT AWARD FOR CONCEPT SO STUPID WE HAVE NO WORDS
The major award, and as you’d expect if you’ve seen the episodes, this is a hotly-contested field.
The laser screwdriver, with bonus regeneration suspension setting.
The resistance members who manage to escape the effects of the Archangel satellites for no visible reason.
The populace who despite being hypnotised by the Archangel satellites manage to listen to, be convinced by, remember and carry through on (including getting up for in the middle of the night in other timezones) Martha’s “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” speeches. The Doctor says: “One thing you can’t do is stop them thinking” – but isn’t that the whole point of the telepathic field?
The telepathic field. Working via cellphones, or not? Because if so that might barely explain the way some people are able to resist the Master's hypnotism, but on the other hand trips horribly on the fact that there are vast tracts of the world which would remain totally unaffected.
The far future humans whose response to imminent extinction is to turn themselves (somehow) into children as that makes them (somehow) look prettier. (For some reason.)
The countdown the Doctor manages to predict to the second a year in advance.
The need to get down on the floor when time goes backwards (presumably, considering the amount of paper inexplicably blowing around, because of the imminent danger of paper cuts).
Grand Winner: Mass telepathy that can dissolve a cage, youth the Doctor and expand his clothes, scoop him up and pop him on a psychic skateboard, then turn back time. Dear God.
It really is bad. Shockingly bad. But hey, wouldn’t it be great if it were real? If we really could wind back time? As long as we stayed out of the “eye of the storm” (gah!), we've have hours of our lives back that we wasted. Even better, we’d be blissfully unaware of the existence of this overblown, ill-conceived farrago.
MORAL: If at first your evil ex-friend doesn't accept redemption, give up before the corpses start piling up.
One bright note: Utopia is filmed in a quarry. Yay!
I’VE BEEN TRYING TO TELL YOU
“I am happy drinking my own internal milk.” “That’s quite enough information, thank you.” We’d buy this conversation if they’d just met, but they’ve been working together for seventeen years!
IT’S STARING ME RIGHT IN THE FACE
The Doctor has the discussion with Yana about how Yana intends to stay behind to start the engine from outside the rocket. Then the Doctor arranges some wildly complicated solution involving the TARDIS and trailing cables: “It’s a wild stab in the dark, but I might just have found you a way out”. Why doesn’t the Doctor just press whatever button Yana was going to press and then waltz off in the TARDIS? Come to that, why doesn’t the Doctor just pack everyone in the TARDIS in the first place? And then after all that, he kicks off the launch process without even checking if Yana is on board!
AT LEAST IT GIVES HIM SOMETHING TO DO
“Was someone kissing me?” Excellent line. What with that and “Some hotel. Last time I book over the internet”, Jack gets all the jokes.
TILL DEATH US DO PART
“The Master and his wife!” Well, we’re not surprised you’re surprised, Doctor, given how the Master feels about you, but hey, while the Doctor’s away…
ROOK TO PAWN THREE
Perhaps the only character in here who isn’t a cliché is the wonderful Vivienne Rook: fantastically believable both as the bossy journalist and as the urgent freedom fighter. We can even forgive the name.
DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS
Sorry, but repeatedly opening the door to hear more screaming, especially when we like the character being killed, isn’t black humour: it’s just crass.
“I thought you were going to say he was your secret brother or something.” “You’ve been watching too much TV.” Hands up who thought he was going to say “You’ve been spending too much time on the net”?
Terminal extinction? Nasty. That would be as opposed to the temporary sort of extinction, then.
KEEP A LID ON IT
Nice snowglobe, Gallifrey dudes.
If televisions don’t work any more, why does the Master think Martha’s going to be watching?
Martha walked across whole continents? In a year?
Why is Mrs Master wearing the same dress as the day before when she appears on the final morning?
Seeing Jack prancing forward with his machine gun is almost as hilarious as watching him run.
MORE OR LESS
So they're turning back time to "just after the President's killed but just before the spheres arrive", are they? Obviously they mean the main bunch of spheres, not the vanguard, since it's the vanguard who kill the President, but that still means some Toclafane are buzzing around on the loose. Doesn't anybody care? Doctor?
What happened to the TARDIS controls being permanently fused?
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