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Doctor Who: The Last of the Time Lords (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 Last of the Time Lords originally aired in 2007.

I just need you to listen.

No, it’s my turn. Revenge!

– the Doctor and the Master

I like quite a lot of The Last of the Time Lords. I think, for example, that Russell T. Davies does an exceptional job creating a version of the Master that manages to remain true to the character’s pantomime roots, while also seeming a credible threat and dark mirror to the Doctor. I also think that Martha’s character arc has a fairly logic and fluid conclusion. On the other hand, there’s a great deal about the resolution to The Last of the Time Lords that feels a bit rushed, a bit convenient, a bit tidy.

I’m quite fond of Davies’ writing style, but I’ll concede that he tends to favour theme and character over plot and structure. The Last of the Time Lords does an excellent job illustrating this, providing a bunch of fascinating thematic and character-based moments, but positioning them in a plot that doesn’t really work.

You know, for once I actually feel sorry for the Master...

You know, for once I actually feel sorry for the Master…

It’s not fair!

– the Master sums up the problems with the finalé

You know you’re in trouble when the reset button at the end of the story isn’t the laziest element. It was quite clear that, after the powerful climax of The Sound of Drums, that The Last of the Time Lords was going to have to hit the reset button so hard that it might break. Davies’ Doctor Who has always been rooted in the real world, the modern world, the everyday world. The Master enslaving the planet and teaching everyone the proper meaning of the word “decimate” (who says Doctor Who can’t be educational?) was not something that could survive into the Christmas special.

Davies’ Doctor Who hinges on the Doctor popping back frequently to a world which resembles our own. His vision of Doctor Who is one so terrified of anything outside the viewer’s frame of reference that it set the origin of the Cybermen on an alternate Earth rather than an alien planet. To be fair, I think that Davies’ reliance on that familiarity was a major part of the show’s success, so I’m reluctant to criticise it too much.

Boy, are they going to be disappointed when she reaches the end...

Boy, are they going to be disappointed when she reaches the end…

However, it also means that the Master cannot have the world living in slavery for a year, cannot carve his face into Mount Rushmore and cannot erect giant statues of himself. Although, let’s face it, it would be cool for the Eleventh Doctor to stumble across a giant stone statue of John Simm without any real context for it. But, realistically, it’s not going to happen. Davies’ vision of Doctor Who meant that the companion for the fourth season would have to come from a world not too different from our own. And that means that – like the Dalek and Cybermen in Doomsday – the world needs to be “fixed” by the end of The Last of the Time Lords.

I won’t pretend that it’s not lazy storytelling. I won’t pretend that it doesn’t completely expose a limitation to Davies’ storytelling that was implicit in The Parting of the Ways and explicit in Doomsday – that Davies is afraid to allow his stories to have significant consequences. However, that said, it is at least obvious and inevitable enough that it doesn’t come out of left-field. If you expected the show to actually deal with the implications of that epic cliffhanger, your disappointment was – in some small way – your own fault.

"Wait... you mean I'm not the only Christ metaphor in this adventure?"

“Wait… you mean I’m not the only Christ metaphor in this adventure?”

And, to be fair, the revelation in The Sound of Drums that the Master has converted the TARDIS into a “Paradox Machine” at least provides a plausible “out” as far as that goes, even if Davies cheats a bit by not explaining what the “Paradox Machine” actually does until the middle of The Last of the Time Lords. Still, it is at least more heavily foreshadowed than the previous season’s convenient “void stuff.” However, The Last of the Time Lords would be problematic if hitting the reset button were its only sin.

Unfortunately, it’s not. Davies’ season finalés typically involve both a reset button and a deus ex machina. In the first two years, the two were the same thing. Setting The Parting of the Ways in the future avoided the need for a massive reset – with Rose’s resurrection of Captain Jack handily rolled into her “time vortex” deus ex machina. Sucking the Daleks and the Cybermen back into the void handily wiped out any damage they’d done (to the point where Donna was unaware of them in The Runaway Bride) and resolving the catastrophic threat.

Lucy in the sky, but not with diamonds...

Lucy in the sky, but not with diamonds…

The Last of the Time Lords, unfortunately, is constructed in such a way that the reset button and the deus ex machina are two completely separate plot elements. As a result, instead of relying on one contrivance that handily provides two narrative functions, Davies instead has to give us two unrelated contrivances. The “Paradox Machine” is – at least – set up well enough. Sparkly, glowy, Tinkerbell!Jesus!Doctor is – quite frankly – not.

It boggles the mind to imagine how much set-up would be required to make that scene plausible. Steven Moffat’s The Big Bang hinges on a similar twist, but it is constructed in such a way that it works. In contrast, the glowing Doctor scene feels strangely out of place. I know we’ve had a bit of stuff this season about the importance of words and ideas. The Shakespeare Code hinges on the idea that words can shape the world. Human Nature centres upon the idea that the Doctor can be reduced to an idea floating in a man’s head. Utopia suggested that the idea of a better tomorrow could sustain humanity after the stars went out.

A rocky road...

A rocky road…

The problem, however, is that it’s a massive leap between those sorts of concepts and the use of a plot device that was introduced for a markedly different purpose. In a way, you could argue that the Doctor defeated the Master using a Third Doctor technique – he effectively “reversed the polarity” of the Archangel Network, turning it from a tool of oppression to liberation. That would seem oddly appropriate, given how The Sound of Drums saw the Master doing his best Jon Pertwee impression (as John Simm did his best David Tennant impression). However, there’s nothing here that really supports that – not even a throwaway line.

It doesn’t help that The Last of the Time Lords is over-saturated with “Christ” imagery. It’s not even firmly anchored to one character. Captain Jack resurrects from the dead and is chained up in a crucifix (and also presents himself to be executed in a crucifixion pose), but the Doctor is the one restored through the power of prayer. It really just feels like Davies is picking these ideas without an significant thought about their application, and the result is a strange mismatch of ideas and concepts that never gel together.

And this, my friends, is what we call "Full Christ"...

And this, my friends, is what we call “Full Christ”…

Se we’re left with a situation where Davies has ramped up the stakes to such a ludicrous degree that he can only solve the problem through a resolution that is very poorly foreshadowed, set-up and executed. The image of a Doctor powered by humanity’s belief in him is a clever one, and one that fits with Davies’ depiction of the Doctor. However, it doesn’t feel earned. And, more than that, it doesn’t really connect with some of the points that Davies raises about the Doctor’s relationship with humanity.

For all my criticisms about Davies’ plotting, his work is a lot stronger when it comes to themes and characters. For example, a lot of The Last of the Time Lords works well building off what came before. Resurrecting the show for a new audience, Davies’ writing is often strongest when he is criticising the Doctor as a character. Bad Wolf, for example, works so well because it offers a fairly condemning criticism of the way the Doctor operates. The Last of the Time Lords raises an even shrewder question, and one that cuts a lot closer to home. The Doctor’s faith in humanity is one of his defining traits, but what happens when you confront him with the fact that he might be wrong about us?

Still carrying a torch...

Still carrying a torch…

What if the Doctor’s trust and hope and faith in mankind turns out to be wrong? Not just in the context of an authority figure who won’t listen or a greedy venture capitalist. What if all that was left of humanity was corruption, decay and vice? What if our optimism can’t sustain itself? There’s certainly enough historical evidence to support the position that humanity is capable of the most inhuman acts – not in single cases or aberrations, but on a massive scale.

This is why Davies’ Master works so well as a foil for the Doctor. Instead of having silly plans to conquer the universe that always start on the one planet housing the one person who can stop him, Davies’ Master actively defines himself in opposition to the Doctor. The Last of the Time Lords is one of the few times where the Master opts to keep the Doctor alive and we very clearly understand why. It’s not cheap narrative convenience, it’s the very definition of his character.

Don't worry, David, it's not THAT bad...

Don’t worry, David, it’s not THAT bad…

As much as the Master hates the Doctor, resenting him for decades of humiliations and defeats, he also longs for the Doctor’s approval. “It’s ready to rise, Doctor,” he greets him at the start of the episode. “The new Time Lord Empire. It’s good, isn’t it? Isn’t it good? Anything? No? Anything?” Later on, as the drumbeat in his head gets louder, he seeks a form of validation from his old enemy. “Can’t you hear it? Listen, it’s there now. Right now. Tell me you can hear it, Doctor.”

We understand the Master’s psychology. “I have one thing to say to you,” the Doctor tells the Master repeatedly. “You know what it is.” It turns out to be “I forgive you”, and it seems that the Master knows that. And he can’t stand it. “Oh no, you don’t!” The Master longs so much to be acknowledged by his foe, to be recognised as brilliant by his mortal adversary, that he can’t get past that. There’s a sense that the Master wants his time in the sun now, that he has hijacked the series. In that respect, it seems appropriate that the Doctor defeats him by hitting “rewind.”

Keeping up with the Joneses...

Keeping up with the Joneses…

And the Master understands the Doctor. He wants to break his rival, and he knows just how to do that. Again, it’s Davies putting a modern spin on a classic idea. The Pertwee era very rarely presented the Master as a force of nature on his own. Most often, the Master was collaborating an alien invasion force, providing the brains of the operation. The Last of the Time Lords has a familiar set up, this time with the Master teaming up with the Toclafane. There is a clever twist here, however. Learning from the Doctor, the Master has discovered that it’s quite easy to harness humanity for your own ends. The Toclafane are human.

“You see?” he mockingly asks. “I’m doing it for them. You should be grateful. After all, you love them so very, very much.” Later on, he acknowledges that he has brought about a twisted version of the Doctor’s dream. He plans to create a vast empire, “With me as their master. Time Lord and humans combined. Haven’t you always dreamt of that, Doctor?” So, to sum up, “Human race, greatest monsters of them all. Night, then.” The use of monster is instructive, as Doctor Who is known for its monsters. Featuring humanity as the monster of the week is quite clever.

The Master is driving the show now...

The Master is driving the show now…

Indeed, the Master and Lucy are a rather conscious twist on the dynamic between the Doctor and his companion. The Master even sarcastically notes, “I took Lucy to Utopia. A Time Lord and his human companion. I took her to see the stars.” Of course, like everything else the Master does, it’s a twisted reflection of the Doctor’s approach to things. The Doctor took Rose and Martha to the stars and showed them a whole new universe, awakening a greater sense of purpose in them. “A better way of living your life,” to quote Rose.

So what did Lucy see? “Dying. Everything dying. The whole of creation was falling apart, and I thought, there’s no point. No point to anything. Not ever.” While the Doctor embraces the beauty of the universe, the wonderful, vast and impossible nature of things, the Master celebrates complete and utter nihilism. The Master offers a simple passive acceptance that everything dies, and that everything ends in time.

"Oh, I found the reset button. Right here."

“Oh, I found the reset button. Right here.”

It is worth acknowledging that, despite the fact that Lucy is given very little to do, Alexandra Moen is great in the small role. She was also great in The Sound of Drums. Indeed, more thanks to Moen’s performance than Davies’ script, Lucy’s execution of the Master is the best piece of closure in the overcrowded script. Moen does an exceptional job embodying the quirks and the tics of a woman on the wrong side of sanity.

I’ve found it funny how some fans react to the rather obvious implications that the Master beats Lucy. This is a genocidal madman, after all. He’s meant to be a dark mirror to the Doctor, who is capable of being (albeit mostly accidentally) emotionally abusive. Peri and the Sixth Doctor were trapped in relationship that seemed uncomfortably like an abusive marriage, so the Master and Lucy just take that to the next level. This is a man who wiped out Japan. Beating his wife is not beneath him.

I like to think that this was John Simm's reaction on first reading the script...

I like to think that this was John Simm’s reaction on first reading the script…

The problem with The Last of the Time Lords, however, is that it doesn’t really prove the Master wrong. “Tell me the human race is degenerate now, when they can do this,” he boasts as they bathe him in light and turn him into a version of Jesus who is about to pull that trick from the end of Superman. Except it isn’t really that big a deal. The human race were able to think “Doctor” at the same time. And they did it to liberate themselves from the grasp of a mad tyrant responsible for mass murder. It was a fantastic organisation accomplishment for Martha, but it doesn’t win the argument for the Doctor.

After all, it’s not as if the moment was entirely selfless. And it’s not as if it involved that much effort from anybody. And it’s not as if the power of positive thinking somehow prevents us from eventually devolving into the psychotic killing machines that slaughter humanity so freely “because it’s fun.” The Master still wins the argument in the end, when the lights go out and when it really matters, so it’s hard to really get too excited about a “hell yeah!” moment where the Doctor suddenly breaks into “god mode” because the human race decide they don’t like being ruled by a genocidal tyrant.

Time Lord a Time Lord...

Time Lord a Time Lord…

Still, The Last of the Time Lord does do some things right. For one thing, there’s the aforementioned Master and Doctor dynamic. There’s also Martha’s story arc. The third season has featured an exceptionally fallible Doctor. Whether it’s the obvious rebound from Rose in Smith & Jones, placing Martha in a terrible position in Human Nature, proving unable to support himself in Blink or harbouring a death wish in Evolution of the Daleks, Davies has been careful to portray the Tenth Doctor as a flawed iteration of the Time Lord.

With Rose, that was sort of blinkered. One of my problems with the second season is the fact that Rose and the Tenth Doctor seemed far too smug, something Davies seemed to acknowledge in his scripts, even if the show did little to mitigate it. With Martha, however, the Doctor’s flaws have come to the surface a bit more. There’s a sense that the Tenth Doctor is a hypocrite and a bit emotionally shortsighted.

"Oh crap, I'm gonna have to find another one, aren't I?"

“Oh crap, I’m gonna have to find another one, aren’t I?”

As in The Sound of Drums, he refuses to consider murdering the Master. He cries and cradles the body after Lucy shoots her husband, and talked Francine down from doing something similar a moment earlier. In The Sound of Drums, he refused to allow Jack to try to execute the Master, allowing all this murder to take place because he refused to kill another Time Lord. This is a character who has readily and repeatedly wiped out legions of Daleks and Cybermen, but the Master is off limits because he is another Time Lord.

When Martha reveals that the secret gun is nothing but a myth, the Doctor goads the Master, “As if I would ask her to kill.” The irony, of course, is that he would gladly kill and destroy himself if the situation called for it. And he would impose his own morality on Jack, refusing to allow Jack to kill or to fire a weapon in his company. This despite the fact that the Ninth Doctor was happy to allow Jack to order a station to their death in The Parting of the Ways. And, of course, the fact that his “you have to fight!” command in Evolution of the Daleks implicitly included the instruction to kill the approach pig slaves, something Martha recognises.

"I think I can honestly say that I didn't see it ending like this..."

“I think I can honestly say that I didn’t see it ending like this…”

Davies points to these contradictions as hypocrisy, something that becomes quite clear in his dealings with U.N.I.T. during The Poison Sky. Indeed, the righteousness that the Doctor demonstrated in deposing Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion has already come back to bite him, so there’s very much the sense that the Tenth Doctor is an essentially flawed protagonist. And Martha is a great vehicle to explore this, as his conduct towards Martha has been less than ideal.

Here, again, we have the idea of Martha existing in the shadow of Rose. Not just in the mind of the Doctor, but in the Master too. In a delightfully passive-aggressive moment, the Master chastises Martha, “Such a disappointment, this one. Days of old, Doctor, you had companions who could absorb the time vortex. This one’s useless.” And, to Davies’ credit, he has Martha earn the audience’s trust and faith, and to prove herself every bit as competent a companion as Rose ever was. Even Martha concedes, “I spent a lot of time with you thinking I was second best, but you know what? I am good.”

See you next year...

See you next year…

And then Davies has Martha leave the Doctor. Which is a great moment, and one that has been building since the moment she first left with him in Smith & Jones. It’s a sensible and logical character beat, and it proves that Davies had a very clear idea of what he was doing with Martha as a character. I still think that Martha never really got the chance to come into her own, and never really developed much beyond “is competent companion” and “is not Rose.”

That said, I can see very clearly that Davies was trying to create a clear transition. He’s trying to make it clear to the audience that companions come and go, and that this is a show that will, by its nature, featuring a rotating cast. Martha does that, very clearly demonstrating that each new companion will be a new character, and not just a replacement cog in a well-oiled machine. I just wish that there were more to Martha than just the fact that she is different from Rose – that she were defined on her own merits.

Here comes Christmas...

Here comes Christmas…

Still, it’s nice to see the show acknowledge that the Tenth Doctor is a flawed character, and that those traits we find annoying are meant to be annoying, that they aren’t considered “quirks” or “tics”, but legitimately identified by the production staff as character flaws. It’s just a shame that Martha seems a like a means to expose those flaws, rather than a well-defined character herself. Similarly, it seems weird to have brought Jack back for this three-part story, given he gets relatively little to do outside of Utopia. It seems like he gets the even shorter end of the companion stick than Martha.

Interestingly enough, The Last of the Time Lords also demonstrates Davies’ none-too-subtle attempts to override the “thirteen lives” rule established in The Deadly Assassin. Davies would try more explicitly in Death of the Doctor, but the suggestion that the Master is immune to bullets implies that he isn’t just immune to twelve more gunshots. The only way to kill him permanently, we’re told, is a convenient gun scattered around the world – and even that is revealed as a macguffin.Even Docherty explicitly states, “The Master’s immortal.”

Not quite "brilliant!"

Not quite “brilliant!”

It isn’t that we’re told that we’d have to assassinate him twelve more times before he runs out of regenerations and is truly dead. This suggests that the Master would simply regenerate after any and every assassination attempt. Of course, the Doctor has his own reasons for wanting to keep the Master alive, so it’s not as though we can take this at face value. Still, it does play into the theory that the regeneration “limit” might have been imposed by the Time Lords themselves, rather than something naturally occurring.

The Last of the Time Lords is the most bi-polar of Davies’ season finalés. I like the character work and a great deal of the thematic stuff, but the plotting is just lazy. It falls apart under its own weight. Davies would learn a thing or two when it came to the fourth season finalé, but what we’re left with here is an interesting mess of clever ideas that simply haven’t been properly fashioned into a finished story.

3 Responses

  1. Great article I agree with most of it, but I disagree on Martha, I think there’s so much more to her character than anyone likes to make out. In many ways, she’s quite similar to Clara at the moment – less brash than her predecessor, more restrained, and with her backstory told in subtler strokes. I think it’s about time people started to appreciate this fantastic character more.

    But I enjoyed this article a lot, so thank you. 🙂

    • Thanks Kermit!

      As much as I want to like Martha, the scripts didn’t really help. The show spends just about every opportunity it can informing us that she’s not Rose. Indeed, looking at the structure of the Davies era, she seems like a character who exists solely to say “there can be other companions!”, as opposed to Rose or Donna, who feel more fully formed and developed. I think you can see this in how the show struggles with her after she leaves – the clear indication she married Tom, and then the suggestion she married Mickey, despite knowing him for like ten minutes.

      (That said, I do like the suggestion I read somewhere that Martha did marry Tom, but Mickey just officiated at the ceremony. So he did marry her, just to Tom.)

      (Also, all this is acknowledging that – by ANY objective measure – Martha is probably the best companion the Doctor has had in terms of crap she has put up with. If there were a companion aptitude test, Martha would be the 100%-er.)

  2. “The Last of the Time Lords” contains some fascinating ideas, but it simply doesn’t cohere in the way that it could have. Perhaps if this story was elongated to 5 episodes instead of 3 and allowed to let loose all of its intriguing darkness and to make the Doctor and Martha’s victory over the Master feel more earned. As it is, it feels too easy. Davies’ approach to plotting *can* work–the deus ex machina worked in “The Parting of the Ways” because it was a function of Rose’s character development over the course of the season. It also caused Christopher Eccleston to depart the show :(. It worked in Davies’ masterpiece “Children of Earth”, as well, which I consider Davies’ real farewell to the “Doctor Who” universe. It doesn’t work here because there’s nothing really to it besides the logistics. The Doctor doesn’t really “win” over the Master in any significant sense. And there’s the aesthetics of it. Turning David Tennant into Dobby the house elf did not pay off, I must say. It’s a misfire, but a very watchable and interesting one at that.

    Here are my 3rd season rankings:

    1)–Human Nature/The Family of Blood
    5)–Smith and Jones

    6)–The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords
    7)–The Shakespeare Code

    9)–The Lazarus Experiment
    10)–Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks

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