There are a lot of things to admire about Doctor Who’s audacious third season finale, “Last of the Time Lords.” There are also quite a few things that many seem to hate. I’d argue that the episode’s greatest strength resides in its central villain, the Master (John Simm). For the first time in three seasons, the story ends not with the Doctor battling a race of robotic soldiers, but rather with him squaring off against one man with a face and a personality…and that one man is one twisted bastard.
It begins with a title card labeled “One Year Later.” Martha Jones (Freeman Agyeman) travels the world—a world ruled by the Master and his Toclafane servants—and she’s been seemingly built up into something of a mythic figure amongst the populace. Her mission may or may not revolve around a gun that requires four parts split up around the world—a gun that can kill a Time Lord. She also finally discovers the true nature of the Toclafane: They are the deformed, altered final version of the humans of Malcassairo—the ones who were headed for Utopia.
Back onboard the Valiant, the Master lords over the planet, has turned Martha’s family into his servants, Jack (John Barrowman) is in chains and the aged, withered Doctor (David Tennant) is reduced to being forced to live in a small tent on the floor and eat out of bowl marked “Dog”. It’s the sort of bent scenario that Daleks or Cybermen would be incapable on executing because they have little imagination. In addition to all this, he’s built a massive cache of weaponry, which he intends to use against the rest of the universe and the paradox machine is revealed to be the instrument holding the Toclafane paradox in place. The guy is nothing if not ambitious.
If it all sounds confusing, watching it may be even more so. But what’s been revealed to me over numerous viewings is that this material is pretty tight if you just give yourself over to it in all its excessive grandeur. Unlike last season’s “Doomsday,” whose big finish consisted of two magic levers, this story has been woven into the fabric of the narrative not just since “Utopia”, but maybe even from even as far back as “The Shakespeare Code,” when the concept of the power of words was first introduced. In “Gridlock,” we first saw Martha’s viewing of the Doctor as a messiah and it was brought back again in “42”—and really, when it comes down to it, it’s pretty much been a background theme of the season. When the Doctor uses the Archangel network to channel the power of thought from the entire human race, it at first seems improbable, but upon closer inspection it’s been part of the narrative all along. (Still not sure about the floaty bit, but whatever.) Even the almost jokey revelation that Jack will someday become the Face of Boe seems to work, and Boe’s continued interest and knowledge of the Doctor is almost a paradox in itself.
The final scene between the Doctor and the Master has got a really strong gay subtext and I’ll argue with anybody who tries to tell me different. If you were to stumble across that scene not knowing what you were viewing, you’d think one lover was dying in another’s arms. I don’t say this to diminish the power of the scene or to give it an extra “ummph!” It’s just there and it stares the viewer right in the face. But it’s a great, strong scene and I’m left wondering if the Doctor will remain the Last of the Time Lords. In the episode’s final moments, after the Doctor has burned the Master’s body a la Luke & Darth, a female hand takes the Master’s ring. One can only wonder where that might go.
Back onboard the TARDIS, the Doctor is alone once again, but a massive crash is heard, and it’s revealed the Titanic has crashed through the ship’s exterior. Bring on “Voyage of the Damned” and Kylie Minogue!
This is not an easy episode to write about because there’s so damn much going on, and it all goes so far back in the season. One of the triumphs here is that the narrative finally makes some dramatic sense of Martha and where her place is in the series. She was never meant to be a replacement for Rose. She was clearly designed as someone for the Doctor to “not see”, as if she had a built in perception filter from the very beginning. The Saxon mystery, as well, was an expert weave and the reintroduction of the Master a success on every level, unless, of course, one just doesn’t care for Simm’s performance, in which case I’m sure the whole thing crumbles like a cookie. But my hat goes off to Russell T Davies because I think he’s achieved something with Season Three that had eluded him in previous seasons. He’s created a sci-fi storyline that works as a series of parts as well as a whole. He’s been badgered by all the fans who’ve cried Deus Ex Machina (myself included) time and again and done something that is wholly his own. It’s dodgy science no doubt, but what’s most important is that it works within the confines of the storyline—which it does.
Unfortunately, if you tuned in to the SciFi broadcast, you got a severely truncated version of this episode. Normally I don’t mention the SciFi edits as they’re usually fairly minor, but the UK cut of “Last of the Time Lords” has a 51 ½ minute running time and a lot of good stuff was lost this time around, including the introductory scene of the Master acting like a total ass by dancing around and singing along to the Scissor Sisters’ “I Can’t Decide”(click here to view the sequence), and Martha’s revisiting of Ellis and Doherty after time has gone backwards. Perhaps the worst cut of all is the removal of Francine Jones pulling a gun on the Master. It’s a great scene that really gave her character some much-needed balance after what we’ve gotten to know of her this season. If you liked this episode, I highly suggest checking it out on DVD next month so you can see it as it was meant to be seen.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.