Doctor Who – Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords

Reinstated from Scary Rob’s Doctor Who Blog

Okay, this blog hasn’t exactly proved itself to be the best resource for online Doctor Who reviews. I’m afraid real life caught up with me for a while, meaning I failed miserably at reviewing chunks of any of the recent series. Now that I am free again, I promise you more content. I might even start reviewing the classic series DVDs. But this blog would be truly worthless if I didn’t take the opportunity to review the most ambitious season finale so far. I must commend the production team’s bravery. I though that Utopia was going to be just another throwaway episode with a bit of foreshadow, like Boom Town and Fear Her before it, but instead we lucky viewers were treated to the first cliffhanger of a three-part epic.

Sadly, as with most things Russell T. Davies writes, this epic has shown itself to be something of a mixed bag. The tone across the three episodes was inconsistent, something which I don’t necessarily consider to be bad as it means each episode has its own flavour. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it helped give the right sense of spatial and temporal difference between the episodes. Where this change of tone fell down, however, was the way that it allowed Last of the Time Lords to blow itself up a little bit too big. It has been a feature of the recent series that the ideas developed during Virgin’s days as guardians of the series through the New Adventures novels have had an understandably large impact on the tone. Two New Adventures novels have been adapted for the screen, the head writer is a New Adventures alumnus and three of the other writers have been involved with the New Adventures as well. In these novels, the Doctor developed into an almost mythical character with his name being whispered as legend across time and space by various groups of people who had had contact with him. I’ve always liked this idea, but the way it was used as a resolution to the plot in Last of the Time Lords was just painful to watch. I hate deus ex machina endings at the best of times, but this seriously stretched my credulity as a viewer. Sure, the finale had an epic feel, but at that point it became all pomp and no substance.

Perhaps I’m focussing too heavily on a niggle here. I did enjoy this little triad and the series of big revelations across the final episode were timed perfectly for maximum impact. As ever, I can’t fault Davies’ set pieces and ideas – there were some moments of true genius across this tale – even if they do tend to be strung together with glorious no-plot. To criticise all three episodes for this would be unfair, though. Utopia and The Sound of Drums hung together very well within themselves and featured surprisingly few moments where I found myself thinking ‘but that’s bloody stupid’. The Sound of Drums, especially, was a classic episode, with a good sense of menace behind goings on while the crew of the TARDIS made themselves fugitive in a twisted Britain. The ending of that episode, while Martha’s retreating back wasn’t the most exciting cliff-hanger ever, really did feel like an apocalypse. The sense of despair as the lead cast found themselves in an impossible situation and the special effects shots of the devastated world Martha was escaping to really sold a ragnarok to me.

In terms of tone, Utopia really felt right to me as well. We were given little chance to explore the world it was set in and how it came about, but that tightness was perhaps a blessing in that it added a sense of urgency to proceedings. Here Davies created a believable, if fairly traditional, post-apocalyptic world, and the final revelation of Professor Yana’s identity was brilliantly done. I’ll bet a few old fans noticed the sound-bite from the 70s there and felt a tingle up their spine as they did so.

On that level, I think I would have preferred the production team to have continued with Derek Jacobi as the Master. His performance was truly terrifying, especially compared to John Simm’s madcap little Rumplestiltskin. The Master has always been a classic villain, treading a fine line with cliché. Roger Delgado was every inch the preening gentleman villain, Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beevers the perfect crazed shades, and Anthony Ainley was the scariest thing on earth when he was allowed to stop parodying Delgado for Survival. Even Eric Roberts, with his ‘cartoon terrible’ Master (as he described it), was the perfect American comic-book baddie. I can think of at least two people who are going to murder me for saying this, but John Simm’s Master, even though the part was obviously written for him, was just damp. Even the ‘subtle’ attempt to make him out as dangerously violent by giving his wife an ‘I walked into a door’ black eye just didn’t ring true for me. If anything, he came across as somewhat pathetic, the kind of guy who was bullied in school and used to pull the wings off flies as a child. As that kind of character, it worked in and of itself but it just wasn’t the Master.

In all, I enjoyed the build-up but the final episode really did leave me unsatisfied. I have to commend Davies’ handling of the final scene, I didn’t see any of it coming and Martha’s departure was written brilliantly, but it all failed to make up for the frustration I felt at the rest of the episode. It’s truly a crying shame; the tone of the episode was as epic as I’d hoped and the way it harked back to Utopia was inspiring and full of pathos. Still, no T.V. show is perfect and I did come away entertained, so it would be churlish to ask for more. Wouldn’t it?

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~ by Scary Rob on 23 July, 2007.

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