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Doctor Who: The Sound of Drums (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Sound of Drums originally aired in 2007.

Doctor.

Master.

I like it when you use my name.

You chose it. Psychiatrist’s field day.

As you chose yours. The man who makes people better. How sanctimonious is that?

– the Doctor and the Master

The Sound of Drums is really more interesting than it is successful. Building off Utopia as the second part of a three-part finalé, building the longest single story in the revived Doctor Who, The Sound of Drums does an excellent job moving the characters along and getting everything where it needs to be for the requisite cliffhanger. Unfortunately, Davies’ weaknesses when it comes to plotting are at play here. While Utopia took advantage of a leisurely pace and conventional plot in order to do some nice set-up, The Sound of Drums doesn’t have that luxury. Utopia came out of left-field, with the last ten minutes taking the audience by surprise. Now the audience knows the game is afoot, so the rules have changed.

The Sound of Drums kicks off with everything in full swing, and Davies has to ratchet up the tension from there. The result is that Davies does solid character work, but that the plot points and set-ups occasionally feel a bit forced. That’s especially true when it comes to the ideas that will be important to the resolution of The Last of the Time Lords.

The End of the World... oh, wait, we already did that one...

The End of the World… oh, wait, we already did that one…

I actually quite like Russell T. Davies’ conception of the Master. Occasionally that “gleefully insane pantomime villain” schtick grates a bit, but John Simm is a good enough actor to manage the heavy-lifting, and Davies’ idea of the character is strong enough to hold it together. If Robert Holmes and Barry Letts originally imagined the Master as Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, then Davies reimagines him as the Joker to the Doctor’s Batman.

It’s amazing to think that The Sound of Drums aired a full year before The Dark Knight was released. The portrayal of the Master here can’t help but evoke Heath Ledger’s iconic take on the Clown Prince of Crime. There’s the sense of complete disconnect from reality in the performance, but also the sense of a larger philosophical game played with his opponent. Davies does an excellent job rooting the ideological conflict between the Master and the Doctor in more than “well, we needed a nemesis.”

He's got some balls...

He’s got some balls…

Earlier iterations of the Master had a tendency to keep the Doctor alive, despite his knack for foiling their plans. Sometimes this was easy enough to explain as the demonstration of the character’s inferiority complex – a pathological need for recognition and validation he couldn’t get by just killing the Doctor. On the other hand, sometimes it was just because the script had nowhere else to go. Davies manages to get to the nub of their differences, and to explain the weird co-dependence that exists.

Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, the Master really just wants to prove a point to the Doctor. Lucy Saxon was a nice entry point to the world of politics (“good family, Roedean, not especially bright but essentially harmless”), but she was also a perversion of the principle of the Doctor’s companion. The Master tends to ally with aliens in his schemes (he was introduced plotting with the Autons), but his Toclafane allies here are also intended as another ideological jab at the Doctor.

Living in a bubble...

Living in a bubble…

The Sound of Drums picks up directly where the character left off in Utopia. Much like he consciously regenerated into a younger and more hyperactive young man to mirror his adversary, the Master has clearly picked up a trick or two from his rival. There’s none of the typical “I am the Master and you will obey me” nonsense. Apparently the Master has been watching long enough to figure out how to do things right.

That’s one of the wonderful things about Davies’ reinvention of Doctor Who. The villains have generally evolved enough that they can exploit the Doctor’s weaknesses. Bad Wolf revealed a Dalek fleet that managed to outmanoeuvre the Doctor by simply waiting in darkness while he drifted in and out of the timeline. While he travelled through time and space, they waited and slowly built themselves up from nothing.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

However, if the Daleks are smart enough to play to the Doctor’s weaknesses (the fact he doesn’t stick around and is lacking in the follow-through), the Master succeeds by claiming the character’s strengths for his own. In The Terror of the Autons, the Master arrived on Earth dressed in ceremonial robes and immediately began brainwashing and plotting to help an alien force invade the planet. In The Sound of Drums, he’s a democratically-elected Prime Minister who is widely loved.

He has clearly come a long way. It’s telling that the Archangel Network is apparently built on the same technology of the TARDIS. Like the Doctor’s TARDIS, the Master has finally learnt the advantage of blending in. Rather than trying to immediately seize control of the planet, he’s happy to engage with the cultures and customs of Earth. The Doctor was always more tolerant of other cultures, while the Master was prone to dismiss them. Here he seems to have spent a lot of time engaging with Earth culture. He just perverts it to serve his own end.

Here come the drums...

Here come the drums…

Indeed, the Master spent most of the Pertwee era watching the Doctor work with UNIT and save the planet from alien menace after alien menace. The Third Doctor might have been an old curmudgeon, but he was the most establishment iteration of the character. It appears that the Master learned a thing or two about the Doctor’s ability to court human allies, and to earn their respect.

In fact, you could make a fairly credible argument that – as much as John Simm’s performance is a twist reflection of David Tennant’s – the master here is doing an especially dark impression of Jon Pertwee. Like the Third Doctor, the Master finds himself stranded on Earth. Like the Third Doctor, he works to make the most of his time there by working with the establishment in Great Britain towards his own stated goal of getting off that rock. (The Third Doctor wanted his TARDIS to work; the Master builds an invasion fleet.)

Cloaked in mystery...

Cloaked in mystery…

The Pertwee era is one that has come under a lot of criticism in recent years. Indeed, Paul Cornell once quipped that the show not only exiled the Doctor to Earth, but it made him a Tory. In a way, you could say that the Master here is a very dark parody of that criticism. While Jon Pertwee’s Doctor became part of the establishment, John Simm’s Master becomes the establishment. The Third Doctor might have worked with soldiers, but the Master takes control of Big Brother – the surveillance state.

Interestingly, the real time between the Doctor’s exile on Earth (The War Games) and the Master’s arrival there (Terror of the Autons) amounts to eighteen months between June 1969 and January 1971. The Master has explicitly been on Earth for eighteen months before the Doctor confronts him here. The Master also takes on a partner with relatives in the right places – Jo Grant apparently only got a job with the Doctor due to family connections. The coat with red lining that the Master wears at the airfield recalls the Third Doctor’s cloak.

Saxon appeal...

Saxon appeal…

The Master secures his position by repelling alien invasions. In The Runaway Bride, we see Mr. Saxon” harness public support by successfully directing a military response to an alien invasion. Of course, the Doctor probably wouldn’t have used tanks, but the general idea is still inherited from his foe. In Smith & Jones, we learn that he has apparently been encouraging Great Britain to look to the stars. The Doctor encourages that sort of curiosity. The Master exploits it.

It is quite telling that the Doctor tends to associate with the middle- and lower-classes in the new series, while the Master has explicitly targeted the upper class. While Rose came from the Powell Estate, apparently Lucy Saxon was educated at Roedean. While the Doctor tends to get along better with the common people and is suspicious of authority, the Master seems to prefer to mingle with the rich and the powerful. Indeed, that trait remains consistent between here and his portray in The End of Time, where he takes advantage of the avarice of the wealthy Naismith family.

A gas character...

A gas character…

In fact, even the drum beat that the Master hears inside his head resembles underbeat to the Doctor Who theme music. In many ways, the Master is just the Doctor flipped around. Of course, that’s not a new idea – the very names of the characters and their nature as Time Lords suggests that are clearly intended to contrast one another. However, Davies executes the concept much better than a lot of his predecessors, and this is easily the best portrayal of the character in well over a quarter of a century.

He also uses the Master reasonably well. Davies isn’t exactly the most subtle of social commentators, and sometimes that can grate. Indeed, his issues with the United States feel especially ham-fisted here. However, his criticisms of the political system feel quite valid. Sitting down after winning an electoral landslide, one of Saxon’s cabinet observes, “But if we could get down to business, there is the matter of policy, of which we have very little.”

The routine is getting old...

The routine is getting old…

Indeed, the Master’s complete lack of any government policy comes up quite a bit here. When Martha confesses she was going to vote for him, the Doctor asks, “Why do you say that? What was his policy? What did he stand for?” After some hesitation, Martha confesses “I don’t know. He always sounded good.” It’s very clear that the people of Great Britain just elected a Prime Minister running on a third- (or fourth-)party ticket with no policy to speak of, and without anybody thinking twice about it.

Of course, we’re told that a subtle form of brainwashing is in effect, but it’s also stated that it also isn’t too strong. After all, the Master can’t proclaim himself Emperor of the World yet. He can just get elected Prime Minister. And the press is passively complicit as well. It’s one low-level journalist who seems to have stumbled across the inconsistency. “The thing is, it’s obvious. The forgery is screaming out and yet no one can see it.”

The man you can trust...

The man you can trust…

Davies has occasionally been a bit… blunt in his portrayal of political figures, but The Sound of Drums is downright scathing as a critique of British politics. That said, a lot of his criticisms seem reasonably grounded in this age of spin – where the only way to really get close to anybody of importance is to claim to be writing a puff piece for the front page. Like his portrayal of reality television as a literal meat grinder in Bad Wolf, Davies uses the science-fantasy trappings of Doctor Who to offer his own comment on British culture.

However, his portrayal of the Americans does seem a little vindictive. Again, this is something that has been peppered throughout his Doctor Who work, but it reaches its apex here. Davies introduces us to the arrogant and overbearing Coleman Winters, who feels like he can just bully the British Prime Minister around. “So America is completely in charge?” the Master asks. “Since Britain elected an ass, yes,” Winters clarifies.

A lifeline...

A lifeline…

Winters is portrayed repeatedly as a moronic ass. Although he claims that first contact can’t take place on “any sovereign soil”, he’s obsessed with stealing credit for it. “I want the whole thing branded in my seal of office, not the UN,” he advises. “You got that?” When the Toclafane arrive, he pompously assumes that they are calling him “Master”, accepts the title and evokes God all in the same line. It’s a rather blunt caricature of George W. Bush, playing off the resentment that quite a few people feel about “the special relationship.” However, it’s just too easy, it’s too obvious, it’s too crass.

At points in its history, Doctor Who has been the perfect place for a bit of British nationalism. The Doctor, for example, is clearly very fond of the country and its culture. The show’s quirky sense of humour and its perspective mark it as distinctly and unashamedly British. It’s a vital part of the show’s heritage, just as the show is a vital part of Britain’s heritage. Sometimes that can get taken too far. Racism and cultural imperialism are common tools for criticising the classic show.

Undead meat...

Undead meat…

Davies’ portrayal of Winters feels like the same sort of thing, a clumsy and populist swipe at the expense of another nation. It’s not offensive or anything, it’s just lazy and it plays to the worst sort of nationalism. The fact that Davies spends so much of The Last of the Time Lords so painstakingly resetting absolutely everything that has happened, while pointedly leaving Winters dead, seems like a very cheap shot.

Then again, you could probably argue that the Master’s execution of the President is yet another flip side to the Doctor. The Doctor’s sense of British pride is generally more constructive than that, while the Master expresses a more aggressive and belligerent form of nationalism. After all, he’s still technically Prime Minister (albeit much more as well) when he starts building an invasion fleet that hopes to build “the New Time Lord Empire.”

There's a screw(driver) loose...

There’s a screw(driver) loose…

Anyway, while the Master had coopted the Doctor’s method of operation – recruiting a companion, stealing his TARDIS, saving the planet from alien invasion – the Doctor is not doing especially well. As I’ve written about Davies before, his best work is the stuff that seems a little critical of the Doctor. Indeed, Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways were scathing in their criticism of the character. Utopia also takes pains to paint the Doctor in a less than flattering light.

Here, once again, it’s the Doctor’s absent-mindedness that causes a problem. The character’s refusal to “do domestic” means that he misses out on the vital details hidden in the background. The Master has, it turns out, been in place since at least The Runaway Bride. As the Doctor remarks, “We went flying all around the universe while he was here all the time.” The Doctor was so oblivious to anything going on in his favourite country on his favourite planet that the Master was able to spend a year and a half positioning himself perfectly.

Carrying the show...

Carrying the show…

More than that, though, Davies makes it clear that the Doctor is at least complicit in the Master’s rise to power. According to journalist Vivien Jones, the Master only emerged on the scene after The Christmas Invasion, when the Doctor had – rather pettily – demolished her government. “This is his first, honest to God appearance, just after the downfall of Harriet Jones.” Interestingly, the Doctor toppled Jones because she dared to suggest that he couldn’t be around to protect Earth all the time.

The Doctor should learn to be more wary of dramatic irony. That statement about how the human race is “indomitable” in Utopia will come back to bite him as well. I like the fact that show has been willing to demonstrate that the Tenth Doctor’s ego is a significant character flaw. Indeed, this whole situation is also his fault because he was the one who made the choice to effectively strand the Master and the TARDIS on Earth.

There's a crack in the sky...

There’s a crack in the sky…

Sending your arch-enemy back to your adopted planet with the Ferrari of time travel is the kind of thing that is not going to end well. Indeed, even Martha seems frustrated by the Tenth Doctor’s lack of foresight. “The only place he can go planet Earth,” she mutters, practically under her breath. “Great!” There’s a very clear sense here that Martha’s faith in the Tenth Doctor is slowly being eroded. Her first instinct is to go to her family, despite the fact he warns her it’s a trap – Martha is clearly in no mood to follow his directions.

Locking the TARDIS to Earth might have been the logical choice (I can’t think of an alternative), but it had very clear consequences that the Doctor didn’t anticipate. He’s very cocky when he talks about getting himself, Martha and Jack back to London in the twenty-first century. “Talk about lucky,” Jack observes. The Doctor, with no small amount of ego responds, “That wasn’t luck, that was me.” So the Doctor knew exactly where and when they were going.

Time is running out, Time Lord...

Time is running out, Time Lord…

The fact that the trio landed in synch with the pre-credit sequence of Utopia suggests that this was the Doctor’s intended destination, and that they didn’t jump eighteen months later than he had hoped. (Instead, the “Vote Saxon” materials scattered throughout Doctor Who and Torchwood indicate the Master arrived eighteen months before Utopia.) Given that there is even the slightest chance that the Master might have a bit of lee-way, you’d imagine the sane thing to do would be to jump back something like twenty-four months and wait for him. Of course, the size of the Tenth Doctor’s ego prevented him from really considering the possibility that things would deviate from his expectations.

And, indeed, once the Doctor arrives on Earth, his own hesitation is his defeat. He refuses to kill the Master, despite the damage he has caused and the possibility of further suffering to come. “What say I use this perception filter to walk up behind him and break his neck?” Jack asks at one point. The Doctor dismisses the idea in his morally superior fashion, “Now that sounds like Torchwood.” Jack responds, “Still a good plan.” He’s not wrong. The Master states that the perception filter doesn’t work on him, so it might be a bit more difficult than Jack suspects, but the Doctor’s refusal to even consider using force seems to discount the potential damage that the Master can do.

The writing's on the wall...

The writing’s on the wall…

The Doctor hasn’t hesitated to wipe out the Daleks or the Cybermen. However, the Doctor can’t see past the fact that this is the Master – even though he is every bit as dangerous. He might not be the Doctor’s “secret brother”, but it’s clear that the involvement of another Time Lord clouds the Doctor’s judgement. He doesn’t seem too concerned about the safety of Martha’s family, and even when he discovers what the Master has done to the TARDIS (the Doctor’s longest serving companion), he still refuses to consider using force to take the Master down.

To be fair, at least we get a sense of why the Doctor still has compassion for the psychopath:

Children of Gallifrey, taken from their families age of eight to enter the Academy. And some say that’s when it all began. When he was a child. That’s when the Master saw eternity. As a novice, he was taken for initiation. He stood in front of the Untempered Schism. It’s a gap in the fabric of reality through which could be seen the whole of the vortex. You stand there, eight years old, staring at the raw power of time and space, just a child. Some would be inspired, some would run away, and some would go mad.

The introduction of the time vortex into the back story of the Master at least officially confirms that he is certifiably insane, accounting for a lot of his actions in the classic series. It also makes his history just a little bit more tragic. More than that, though, it suggests a reason why the Doctor ran from Tome Lord society.

Drum roll, please...

Drum roll, please…

Of course, we’ll never get an “official” reason why the Doctor ran away, because it’s just too big a question and any answer would inevitably be too small. However, while I don’t mind the theory that the Doctor ran because he saw something in the vortex, I prefer to think that the Doctor took Susan to stop her from having to look into the vortex. That raises the question of what happened to his children, but the idea would at least explain why the Doctor felt it necessary to raise he youngest relative outside the Time Lord system.

So, The Sound of Drums is packed with interesting ideas. Plotting and pacing, however, seem a bit clumsy. Davies tends to overload his finalés, and this is no different. He has already done a lot of set-up, so The Sound of Drums hits the ground running. However, it winds up relying on all this handy technobabble in order to keep things ticking over as the stakes continually raise. The perception filter thing just seems like a handy plot device clumsily inserted with no real justification, except that Davies needed to get the trio on to the Valiant.

A TARD-y Time Lord...

A TARD-y Time Lord…

The Archangel Network is crucial to the resolution of The Last of the Time Lords, but it kind of gets lost in the mix here. Watching over the episode again, there’s no “ah, yes!” moment when the Doctor discusses the satellites, no point on repeat viewing where an innocuous detail proves to be invaluable. Instead, it just seems like Davies gave as much information as he could in the space allotted. The result is that its use in the next episode feels awkwardly set-up, rather than seeming like a natural development in hindsight.

It’s not too bad. The wheels will come off in the resolution, but I still think that Davies’ three-part finale has no shortage of ambition. However, Davies has always been better at characters and theme than plotting, so keeping a plot moving consistently across three stories may have been too much to ask. Already, in the second part, the wheels are starting to come off. Still, The Sound of Drums has its fair share of interesting and intriguing ideas.

And so it came to pass that the human race fell, and the Earth was no more. And I looked down upon my new dominion as Master of all, and I thought it good.

– the Master

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3 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on M2wa2 DigiTech..

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