Will it stop, Doctor? The drumming? Will it stop?
John Simm’s Master is terrifying.
There is, I think, quite a widespread school of thought that essentially argues the opposite; he’s too camp, too erratic, just a little too crazy to pose any meaningful threat. Certainly, the Scissor Sisters scene at the beginning no doubt contributes to this – I’ve always loved it – but honestly, looking beyond that, I struggle to understand why he still retains that reputation.
For me, the key to all of this is Alexandra Moen’s performance as Lucy Saxon; it’s subtle and nuanced in some really clever ways – arguably, despite only a very small part, she’s one of the standout aspects of the episode. Moen plays the character essentially as disassociating the whole time; it’s not just nihilism in the face of seeing the end of the universe, rather a response to trauma. It’s clear in turn what this is; indeed, it’s rather explicit, when one sees the scars and bruising on Lucy’s face, but you can see how it informs Moen’s performance across the whole piece. (One detail I particularly liked was in the way she held herself; flinching when the Master punches the Doctor, for example.) It’s subtle, but it’s there – the Master is abusing her.
And so, beneath all the mania, there’s a real and genuine veneer of brutality to the Master. Yes, that’s clear enough from the violence associated with the character – killing Tom Milligan, the fear in the eyes of the people when he walks among them, references to the horrors of the past year. Yet it’s never more effectively illustrated than by Lucy (although, of course, by extension the Jones family) and her response to him. The rest of it is just theatrics, really; this is a far more intimate, uglier sort of evil, and one that surely can’t be separated from the character at large.
Naturally, it’s also worth commenting on Simm’s performance too – much like last week, he’s fantastic. Better, in fact; he’s given a lot more material to work with and dig into here. The Master unleashed, rather than a separate side of Harold Saxon. It’s even more evident here just how obsessed with the Doctor he is; everything that motivates him derives from his envy, his jealousy, and above all else, a want for the Doctor’s attention. That’s what it all comes down to, really – that’s all it ever does. In a way it’s almost childish; a fit of pique, just trying to get a rise out of him. From working with the Toclafane to his pursuit of Martha, from creating a new Gallifrey to having a wife – it’s all about the Doctor.
That’s why the character works as well as he does – more than anything, there’s a crystal clear motivation for the Master. However, it’s a far more layered and, indeed, human one that we’ve seen in previous years; the Daleks may want to destroy reality, but the Master has a far more mundane motivation than that. It’s an obsession – a love, a lust, a need. More than that, there are moments when you get the impression the Doctor feels the same; it’s why he forgives him for it all, in the end. The Doctor and the Master, as characters together, are defined by that relationship; they work best when, as in the modern series, that aspect is placed at the forefront of their dynamic. Last of the Time Lords does a fantastic job of establishing that, and indeed acts as the basis for all the Master’s subsequent appearances in Doctor Who. It’s absolutely perfectly pitched.
Much as I love this episode, there is admittedly a slight problem to contend with.
The ending doesn’t make even the slightest bit of sense. Nor does the middle, exactly. Really just the last third, basically.
To recap, for those of you who don’t recall: Martha, brought upon the Valiant to be executed in front of the Doctor and her family, starts to laugh. It turns out that she wasn’t travelling the world trying to assemble a weapon to kill the Master – she was actually spreading the story of the Doctor, inspiring people, and giving them hope. More than hope – an instruction. Everyone, all at once, think of the Doctor. When they did, the collective belief and psychic power, contained and amplified by the Archangel network, was enough to briefly give the Doctor telekinetic powers and restore him to youth once more. From there, it’s a relatively simple case of destroying the paradox machine, and thus reversing the effects of the last year, up to the point the paradox began – the Master’s reign of terror is undone.
So. Let’s unpack this a little.
The latter half of this is basically fine; for all the complaints of an undo button, it’s worth noting that the events still happened for our characters. The emotional impact remains intact, going on to provide the basis of Martha’s reason to leave the TARDIS, and giving us a particularly powerful scene with Adjoa Andoh. In that regard, there’s little issue – it’s the other, rather more notorious, aspect that I struggle with.
A lot of the criticism directed at this episode focuses on the fact that, when it comes down to it, what basically happens is the faith, trust and pixie dust (or somesuch – if they want to be really derisive, it’s the power of love) lets the Doctor float around (fairy Doctor, space Jesus Doctor, magic Doctor – all terms we’ve come to know and love) and thus save the day. Often the word deus ex machina is bandied around. Now, these critiques aren’t wrong, per se, but I somewhat suspect they’re missing the point a little bit. Yes, it’s a bit nonsensical – but it’s not the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last time either. Certainly, you can argue that it’s a classic Doctor Who resolution, leaving the villain hoisted by his own petard, his downfall engineered by turning his own advantage against him.
It’s not the plot mechanics of this that bother me – yes, they’re nonsense. But they also don’t bother me. No, the trouble is that I’m not convinced this makes any thematic sense. If we’re to take this story, broadly speaking, as being about Martha stepping up and taking control over her life, what relevance does this have? Even if you’re reading it as being about the Master and the Doctor’s relationship, it begs the question – what’s the significance? (Well, I’m sure you could spin something out of it, but I suspect that might be stretching it too far.)
There’s no easy fix, really. It would have been better, I think, to simply leave the Doctor ‘aged’ rather than ‘ancient’; while the idea is nice, taking David Tennant out of the equation was a mistake. (Though, equally, it’s worth noting that it’s not actually as obtrusive as you’d think – it prompts the narrative to focus moreso on Martha, which is nice.) Equally, I also think that in and of itself, the moment of unity would have been better if everyone was thinking of Martha, rather than the Doctor; the episode would be more obviously about her, her story, and her own ability and worth.
Though that doesn’t really solve the plot mechanics. Maybe everyone thinking of Martha could give her laser eyes? I don’t know.
Of course, speaking of Martha, this is very much her finest hour – the episode that does, at last, stand aside and give her centre stage. It’s a defining moment for Martha in the same respect that The Parting of the Ways is for Rose, or Turn Left is for Donna, or perhaps… actually, I’m struggling to pick more obvious ones for our later companions. Suggestions to the usual address.
In any case, yes – this is Martha’s moment in the limelight. Even before her departure scene, it’s all about her autonomy; proving to herself, and indeed the audience if they have any final reservations, that she is good. There’s something quite harrowing about what she goes through, really – the year of hell, and all of the trauma it entailed. Certainly, I think what Martha did is in fact far more impressive than absorbing the Time Vortex, which is in effect just an impulsive risk; this was sustained difficulty and conscious choice across a year. It speaks not only to Martha’s dedication but the strength of character that she possessed that she’s able to go through that; it would have been particularly interesting, I think, had she stayed on as a companion for another year to explore how that would have affected her.
Further, Martha’s departure – well, it really is very well written. I’m reminded of Russell T Davies describing a scene in one of his soap operas, where he had two characters breaking up without ever saying “break up” or words to that effect – it’s a similar principle in effect here. A lot of the understanding is carried by the performances; the dialogue is direct but understated. It’s one of the stronger companion exits, I think, and I’d like to see more in a similar vein – not under similar circumstances, exactly, but a mutual acknowledgement that things have come to an end. If not a happy ending, per se, certainly the chance at one.
I’m still not entirely happy with Martha’s overall arc; in many cases, it was outright damaging to the character. Strong though this episode is, both for the character and as a conclusion to the arc, I can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late – we should have had a scene like this much longer ago. I don’t want to pre-empt myself particularly – next week I’m going to do an overall series retrospective, in which I will no doubt have much to say about Martha’s storyline – but there’s something quite disappointing about how the character was treated overall. Much as I consider this a standout moment for her, there’s perhaps some questions worth asking about why her moment in the limelight is also, essentially, as the Doctor’s hypeman – it all comes down to an obsession with him.
(Oh, there’s a thought – is that the unifying thread of the episode, a fixation on the Doctor? The Master, Martha, and the people united by the Archangel Network? Certainly, that makes them thematically relevant, and starts to bring the episode together more cohesively… but I’m not sure what the point would be. Perhaps something to ruminate on for next week.)
It’s difficult, then, to grade this episode. In terms of my own enjoyment, I know what I want to give it; when I consider my own critical perspective, there are certain aspects of the episode I can’t quite justify. A high mark would be given in spite of rather than with respect to these aspects. But ultimately, I think I know which would win out.
I watched this episode twice today, in preparation for this review – immediately replaying it after it finished the first time. That’s not what I usually do (though perhaps I should, since this review was much better than previous ones) – I just enjoyed the episode that much. With that in mind, then…