By Ross Ruediger
It's difficult to discuss Doctor Who's penultimate Season Three installment, "The Sound of Drums", without also talking about the events of the episode that follow it. It (ideally) leaves the viewer slack-jawed and mumbling stuff like, "Well, I'm gonna have to see what happens next week." Regardless, I'll attempt to do my best to pretend I've never seen the season finale and discuss these events in a broader picture.
The episode picks up where "Utopia" left off...sort of. The Doctor (David Tennant), Martha (Freema Agyeman) and Jack (John Barrowman) escaped their predicament with the Futurekind thanks to Jack's Vortex Manipulator and the Doctor's ability to get it working again. They've arrived in present day London. The Doctor knows the Master is somewhere, and despite the trio's conclusion that he's regenerated, the Doctor is certain he will recognize him. Whaddaya know? Harold Saxon has been elected Prime Minister, and the posters plastered everywhere announce as much. A giant monitor in the middle of the street shows Saxon doing PM-like things.
The Doctor: "That's him. He's Prime Minister. The Master is Prime Minister of Great Britain."
(The monitor shows Saxon kissing a blonde woman.)
The Doctor: "The Master and his wife?!"
(Saxon/The Master speaks to Great Britain.)
The Master: "This country has been sick. This country needs healing. This country needs medicine. In fact I'd go so far as to say that what this country really needs, right now, is a doctor."
Time for a little Past Master. Over the years the Master has villainously rocked and other times he's been less effective than Snidely Whiplash. The first Master was played by Roger Delgado and he was a cool and collected sort of dude—the evil antithesis of Jon Pertwee's cool and collected Third Doctor. He was also a master hypnotist and cunning strategist. Since the Doctor at that time was exiled to Earth, most of the Delgado Master's stories saw him insinuating himself into Earth society with some devious plan that usually involved alien invasion. When Delgado was tragically killed in a car accident in 1973, the production team didn't even regenerate the character and ceased writing him altogether. The Master was briefly resurrected, albeit in a decaying form nearing the end of his Time Lord life cycle, in 1976's "The Deadly Assassin", after which he was not seen again until 1981's "The Keeper of Traken". In that story he stole the body of a man in an effort to stay alive and was then played by Anthony Ainley until the end of the classic series, typically popping up once every couple years with increasingly outlandish plans. This incarnation of the Master was more of the twirling moustache-type villain, and Ainley was only ever as good as the script he was working with (unlike Delgado, who had a knack for turning bullshit into gold). The last time the Master was seen was in the Paul McGann TV movie where he stole yet another body to continue his existence; the character had become so desperate at this point that he chose the body of Eric Roberts.
I said "Drums" picks up where "Utopia" left off "sort of." I use that qualifier because for the Master, 18 months have passed since he left the Doctor on Malcassairo. That explains how he, as Harold Saxon, was able to worm his way into a position of such power—a position, by the way, that was seemingly left open due the Doctor's actions against Harriet Jones, which is another example of the Doctor's oblivious do-gooding resulting in catastrophe.
This new Master (John Simm) owes a lot to the original Delgado Master from a plotting standpoint, but as far as characterization goes there's a fair amount of the hammy Ainley Master on display. And yet such comparisons do not do Simm's performance or Russell T Davies' script justice: This Master is a bold reinvention of the character. As great as Derek Jacobi was in his brief stint, it was a wise move to regenerate the character into someone more youthful. The Master needs the yin/yang dynamic with the Doctor to work most effectively (similar to the Pertwee/Delgado pairing). Simm and Tennant achieve it in a way that Jacobi could not have, regardless of his formidable skills. What is truly disturbing about this Master is his utter disregard and contempt for humans. He sees them as his playthings and is constantly aware of his superior intellect. He's like a kid with a magnifying glass and an anthill.
The Master's set up the Archangel network through the world's cell phones and has in effect hypnotized the population in believing in him without question via the same four haunting drumbeats that have apparently plagued him his entire life. He's also done his homework where as Martha Jones is concerned, and soon it becomes clear that Professor Lazarus' work for Saxon wasn't just a fluke, nor was Tish Jones' hiring—she now works directly for Saxon. The continued hounding of Francine by Saxon's cronies is also brought into focus. And the Master's big finish is his public declaration that he will initiate first contact between humanity and a race known as the Toclafane—creepy, orblike creatures who seem anything but benevolent. The TARDIS trio is now on the run as the Prime Minister of Great Britain has declared them public enemies. The first conversation the Doctor and the Master have had in several lifetimes (aptly via a cell phone) is definitive, but also shows the lack of knowledge the Master has about his own existence.
The Master: "Do you remember all those fairy tales about the Toclafane when we were kids—back home? Where is it, Doctor?"
The Doctor: "Gone."
The Master: "How can Gallifrey be gone!?"
The Doctor: "It burned."
The Master: "And the Time Lords?"
The Doctor: "Dead. And the Daleks—more or less. What happened to you?"
The Master: "The Time Lords only resurrected me because they knew I'd be the perfect warrior for a Time War. I was there when the Dalek Emperor took control of the Cruciform. I saw it. I ran. I ran so far. Made myself human so they would never find me. Because...I was so scared."
It's an interesting scene, because what seems to be the connection of the two of a kind quickly sours. The Master hates the idea that he and the Doctor are so connected. He resents the Doctor for his need to do good and for his ability to survive and make sense of the chaos that is time and space. This reading seems to be confirmed later on when the Doctor tells Jack and Martha the story of the Master, which is set against the most glorious Gallifreyan imagery any Doctor Who fan could wish for:
The Doctor: "They used to call it the Shining World of the Seven Systems. And on the continent of Wild Endeavour, in the mountains of Solace and Solitude, there stood the Citadel of the Time Lords, the oldest and most mighty race in the universe. Looking down on the galaxies below, sworn never to interfere, only to watch. Children of Gallifrey were taken from their families at the age of eight to enter the Academy. Some say that's where 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. We 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."
I wonder if someone who's only familiar with the new series will bask in the majesty of that sequence the way I did? From that point onwards, the "The Sound of Drums" shifts into Third Act gear with the Doctor devising a plan involving perception filters and a lot of sneaking around. The Doctor, Jack and Martha eventually make their way onto the massive aircraft carrier, the Valiant, which is the Master's base of operations and the location for the televised Toclafane meeting. Events deteriorate from bad to abysmal with the discovery that Master has turned the TARDIS into a "paradox machine". And after that, the President of the United States is vaporized; the Master—thanks to a combination of the genetic codes contained in the Doctor's severed hand and the Lazarus technology—ages the Doctor into a frail old man, and finally he opens a rift in time and space through which six billion Toclafane enter, descend upon the Earth and proceed to "decimate" a tenth of the population. In the final seconds, Martha materializes off the Valiant only to witness the Earth's destruction firsthand and proclaim, "I'm coming back."
The Master: (viewing the mayhem from above, with a decrepit, broken Doctor at his side) "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 Sound of Drums" is a fantastic buildup to the season finale, mostly because it's so character-driven. The four leads all have total faith in the script, as do the numerous secondary actors. The vibe of the last few minutes is epic in a way that the series hasn't really reached before—not even in either of the previous season finales. Everything looks set to deliver the greatest season finale yet. But will it? "The Parting of the Ways" had the benefit of the Doctor's regeneration. "Doomsday" saw the Doctor saying goodbye to Rose Tyler. What might "Last of the Time Lords" offer up that's of equal substance?
By the way, is it not just rockin' to have Jack back in the TARDIS (not to mention the classy inclusion of Barrowman's name in the opening credits)? If I didn't have such an immense affection for Torchwood, I'd consider it a huge shame that he isn't a Who regular—although in all fairness, he probably works so well here because he isn't part of the series every week.
Lastly, I leave you with this bawdy, foul-mouthed bit of internet madness.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.
NEXT WEEK: "Last of the Time Lords". 'Nuff said.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: How about getting away from the Master altogether? Check out Tom Baker's first story, "Robot", which featured this priceless exchange:
The Brigadier: "Naturally enough, the only country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain."
The Doctor: "Naturally. I mean the rest were all foreigners."