Saturday, October 06, 2007

“He has saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there”: Doctor Who

‘Last of the Time Lords’ is Russell T. Davies’ epic. At least, it is by Doctor Who standards. After the events of ‘The Sound of Drums’, the narrative jumps forward a year to a world devastated by the Master’s reign of terror. As he prepares to go to war with the rest of the universe, the Doctor and Martha are both working their very hardest to bring him down. It’s a very daring story by Who standards, especially that one year jump, unheard of for a family-oriented show airing Saturdays at 7pm (in the UK). Its impact is less for older viewers already hardened by the likes of Battlestar Galactica; still, it’s a risky step that could easily have blown up in Davies’ face. Some people think it did – in fact, ‘Time Lords’ was hated by fans and even casual viewers upon its initial airing, a feeling that has not really faded. I hope some of those fans are reading now, so I can explain exactly why this finale is so worthy of their undying admiration.

When I say ‘Time Lords’ is epic, I’m not so much referring to what we see on screen. If it wasn’t for those pesky budgetary restrictions, I’m sure this story could have been a full-on tale of worldwide destruction, totalitarian regimes and a resistance rising up out of the ashes. Instead we have to make do with Martha running around grey, faceless wastelands and a resistance that takes up little more than a staircase. If only this story had been done in movie form, it would have been amazing!

Never mind though. Who has shown can provide its fair share of epic battles and action extravaganza (just as long as it’s contained within one city, or a building); but in the end it’s the smaller, more intimate moments that you remember. In that department, ‘Time Lords’ kicks ass. Most of all it’s Martha’s show. Much of the year she spent traipsing around the globe is left to the imagination, but it’s all in Freema Agyeman’s face – tired, lonely, but forever determined. Agyeman proved she could hold up a whole episode by herself in ‘Smith and Jones’, but that was more of a fun ol’ romp. ‘Time Lords’ is an intensely dramatic piece of storytelling, in bursts joyous and depressing. Far from having any trouble with the heavier material, Agyeman thrives on it.

The beauty of her story is that even after a year of seeing nothing but destruction and death, Martha refuses to be broken. Her human side is always there: even when she sees the Doctor aged so far that he becomes a dwarfish creature, her response is to breaks into a wide smile and proclaim “The Doctor’s still alive”. Equally, her triumphant euphoria when they finally bring about the Master’s downfall is beautifully played by Agyeman. This is the moment she’s been working up to for an entire year, and she is just thrilled to be saving the world. Think about it now – how often do you really see that? Just as Simm’s Master takes such extreme pleasure in conquering the Earth, Agyeman’s Martha gets a very human thrill out of saving it.

Speaking of Simm, he is too fantastic for words here. I said last week that ‘Sound of Drums’ would not have worked without him, and that counts doubly true for ‘Time Lords’ – if in a different sense. Last week’s story gained most of its energy from his scenery-chewing antics, but the finale isn’t quite as focused on constantly keeping things moving. This more deliberate pace allows Simm an endless list of great moments to play: dancing around the Valiant to Scissor Sisters (sadly cut from the Sci-Fi version, but it can be seen here), further abusing his disturbed wife Lucy, taunting Martha out of her hiding place, and protesting in anguish as his plan comes tumbling down.

By far the best aspect of the Master (and of the episode as a whole) is his relationship with the Doctor. Early on he takes a perverse pleasure out of aging his nemesis even further, until the Doctor has become an unrecognisable bug-eyed little creature (another first-rate CGI creation). Yet the one endearing quality about the Master is that after every advancement in his war plans, the first thing he always does is go tell the Doctor about it. The Master may hate his fellow time lord, but equally he needs him if he is to take full pleasure out of the destruction he orchestrates. They are, in every sense, the two sides of the coin: irresponsible vs. dutiful, showman vs. humanitarian, etc. Martha sums up the Doctor best: “He has saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there. He never stops, he never stays, he never asks to be thanked.” For all my recent wonderings at the ‘dark side’ the Doctor, he is ultimately a selfless and kind-hearted individual, a point ‘Time Lords’ makes in earnest.

Though the ultimate conclusion is happy, there’s one aspect of ‘Time Lords’ which is as dark as could be: the Toclafane. Without the backstory, all they are is metal balls firing lasers at everyone. But with it, they gain a disturbing, depressing kind of menace. It is revealed that the humans we saw travelling to ‘Utopia’ a couple episodes back found not a safe haven, but only “the dark and the cold”. Lucy (who saw these events, and whose mind was warped by them) describes it as “dying…everything dying, the whole of creation falling apart”. So Davies is basically saying that the ultimate fate of humanity is to suffer and die in a hellish existence. A little off-message maybe, but it's too effective for me to care.

As for the Master’s downfall, it’s a suitably joyous moment. The ever-perfect music swells, Simm breaks down, and the Doctor is rejuvenated to his proper form. As Who moments go, it’s not among the best; but combined with the subsequent time-reversal sequence, it still leaves me with that particular happy feeling that often only Who can provide. Some may object to the use of the ‘Reset button’ technique, but as I already noted: 7pm on a Saturday night. Besides, even if the largers events are cancelled out, their reverberations are felt in both the affect on the Jones’ and in Martha’s decision not to stay with the Doctor.

Their final scene together is a poignant end to Martha’s season three arc. The Doctor acknowledges Martha’s huge achievement, but he doesn’t even need to – at this point Martha knows that she’s proved herself a worthy companion. I wish I could say here that this season has been predominantly about her journey, but due to the constant losses of focus on her character this is not the case. Regardless, Agyeman is wonderful, and Davies brings it all together perfectly with this very simple counterpoint with Rose: where she saved the world with weapons, Martha saves the world with nothing but words. There’s a beautiful symmetry there which overcomes any uneven characterisation up to that point.

'Last of the Time Lords' improves considerably on repeat viewings, so if you scoff at any of the points I've made please watch it again. There are niggles here and there, sure, but I can't bring myself to moan about them when the overall story and themes are so, so strong. The same applies to the whole of Who's third season - it's not perfect, but with so much to love that I can't bring myself to ponder on the negatives. And that's why I love Doctor Who: it completely squashes out the critic in me. Bring on season four!

1 comment:

Dan said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I didn't hate it when it first aired, but it just didn't click for me.

I think Simm was TOO similar to The Doctor's hyperactive manner to make a decent contrast, while the decision to hide Tennant under make-up and CGI for 95% of the episode was a bad decision. I like Agyeman a great deal, but Martha wasn't plausible as a "one-woman legend" in a post-apocalyptic Earth. It was also a tragic waste of time for Barrowman and the Jones family.

The whole episode essentially boiled down to Simm fooling around on set, until the last 10 minutes *almost* made up for the disappointment. I like the resolution... but ultimately, LOTTL was DW biting off more than it could chew.

And the days-later decision to transfer Agyeman to Torchwood and bring back screeching Catherine Tate FULL TIME was the after dinner mint nobody wanted with this meal.