Doctor Who - Series 3, Vol 4 Review
I'm not really one for comebacks. Invariably, they're a disappointment. Doctor Who, like Battlestar Galactica, was a show that had seemed to buck that trend. Yes there were times when an episode or two wasn't up to scratch but such is the case even in great shows. BSG isn't without its filler and nor is Doctor Who. An excellent two-parter or run of three good episodes is usually followed by something silly or just plain dull in which everyone involved catches their creative breath. Oddly and with some consistency, a good many of these episodes are written by the show's producer, Russell T Davies. Instrumental in bringing Doctor Who back to primetime on the BBC, Davies does seem to be doing his damndest to make Doctor Who as unloved as it was in the Colin Baker years. Were it not for the likes of Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornel and Steven Moffat, this comeback for Doctor Who would be much less memorable than it is.
The three episodes in this set are a perfect example of that creative breather. The previous episodes were marvellous. Indeed, Human Nature, The Family Of Blood and Blink deserve to be counted amongst the very best of Doctor Who, the first two for the drama in seeing the Doctor not only as an ordinary man and his falling in love but for the parallels it drew in the young men leaving for the First World War. The third is that rare thing, an episode of Who that actually makes something of his time-travelling with Sally Sparrow finding notes and clues from the Doctor though he was forty years away and actually bumping into him and finding that she was in his future while he was in her past. Absolutely marvellous! All three were actually frightening, not least when the Weeping Angels of Blink surrounded the disappearing TARDIS.
Then came Utopia and the start of a three-part story written by Russell T Davies that would begin with the Doctor arriving in Cardiff end with the invasion of Earth and the Master readying himself and a fleet of missiles for his conquering of the universe. Utopia doesn't hang about in Cardiff for very long - would you? - and, instead, heads off to the end of the universe to the year 100 trillion and to the planet Malcassairo. Further even than the Time Lords have gone but not Captain Jack who arrives courtesy of the Doctor, hanging on to the outside of the TARDIS. There, they find the last humans living within a guarded compound where they are safe from the Futurekind, cannibals who live in the wastelands. Within the compound, the Doctor, Martha and Jack find that the few thousand humans left alive are waiting for Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi) and his assistant Chantho (Chipo Chung) to complete the drive system on a spaceship destined to take them to Utopia. But there is something peculiar about Yana and it has the Doctor thinking about what the Face of Boe said to him. You are not alone. Then the Professor produces a broken watch, one that he's had all his life but which Martha finds very familiar.
Well, skipping over the very poor cliffhanger that ends Utopia - stuck in the future? how exceptionally fortunate that someone with a Vortex Manipulator has come along for the ride! - the Doctor, Martha and Jack arrive back in London in the present day to find that the mysterious Mr Saxon (John Simm) is the Master. Unfortunately, it is the morning after the general election and Saxon/the Master has swept into power (and 10 Downing St) with an unprecedented majority. However, as the Doctor watches the Master arrive in Downing St, he hears him bait the Doctor with his first televised message, "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!" Without his TARDIS and with nowhere else to go, the Doctor makes a call to Saxon. It is then that the learns what the Master has planned. It is then that he tells the Doctor of the Toclafane. The next day, the Doctor learns that the Toclafane are not the Gallifreyan fairytale villain as he'd thought, at least not when a rift in time and space opens up above the Earth and six billion of them arrive, killing one tenth of the human population in mere minutes. "The Toclafane... what are they? Who are they?" asks the Doctor. Putting his hand on the Doctor's hearts, the Master tells him, "Doctor, if I truly told you...your hearts would break."
Unlike the Doctor, the question that you will be asking yourself throughout these three episodes is, "Why?" Not just a, "Why is that happening?" or, "Why is he doing that?" but a great big existential, "Why?" on realising that two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes of your life will have passed that you'll never get back and which would, in the manner of Why Don't You?, have been much better spent doing something less boring instead. And yet for all of that, "Why?" you won't ever come up with an answer, which is all the more frustrating. Thanks to BBC 1, BBC 3 and this DVD, I have now watched The Last Of The Time Lords four times now and I still can't tell you why things happened the way they did.
These three episodes take all that is wrong with Russell T Davies' writing for Doctor and drags all of it in to a story that is, by some margin, the low point of series three. We have yet more of the Doctor reminiscing about Rose, this time to an equally miserable Captain Jack. The two of them compete in a mourning contest that had this household telling the pair of them to get over her and that Martha was smarter and much more fun (and better-looking). Jack wins this particular contest, by the way, by dint of his hanging around her old council estate hoping to catch a glimpse of her. I'd wager that not even those who live on that estate enjoy being there, which makes someone with the ability to jump about in time all the more miserable for choosing to do so. Life is too short, even as someone like Captain Jack who has many thousands of lives, to want to loiter on a south-east London council estate hoping to catch sight of Rose Tyler.
We have Martha's family present in the way that Rose's awful lot were in series one and two with the Master demanding that Martha's family serve and wait on him aboard his Skybase-styled centre of operations. Why, out of many experienced servants that he could have had, did he choose them? Why are there no orphans who wish to travel with the Doctor so to spare us this mourning over his lack of kin? Why, over a Gallifreyan lifetime, has he not gotten used to it by now?
As to the actual storyline, why does Russell T Davies fall back on an invasion of the Earth by millions of aliens? He's done it three times now - daleks in series one, cybermen and daleks in series two...why Toclafane in series three when the budget allocated by the BBC does many things but not global desolation?? As for the Toclafane, the Master is quite right. Knowing who and what they are would break the Doctor's hearts, as it doubtless did for many of those watching, who, as sure as night follows day, were seeing a show they'd loved once and had loved again fall completely apart with poor plotting, worse characters and six million flying spheres that Davies had drawn up out of nothing. Yes, literally nothing. And to top it all, there's yet more nonsense about the power of humans. Or' hoomans' as David Tennent calls us. With five billion voices all crying, "Doctor!", the Master is defeated by a Christ-like Doctor floating through the air and bestowing his forgiveness as though turning water into wine. In my home, all that was offered was a concerned frown and a, "Hmmm..." but in homes where parents are less concerned with the kind of language their children here, I would think that the air turned as spectacularly dark a shade of blue as that with which the TARDIS is painted. It is an exceptionally low moment in three episodes filled to the brim with them. Although, saying that, there is a moment that comes mere seconds later when, with the Doctor having left a funeral pyre, Ming The Merciless appears to reach in and take hold of something, which suggests a coming battle between the universes of Doctor Who and Flash Gordon or that Russell T Davies cupboard of great ideas was entirely bare come the final few pages of script.
So to the Master. Derek Jacobi and John Simm have their moments, of that one can be certain. Jacobi makes a transformation from a bumbling professor to the arrogant Master a convincing one while, in The Sound Of Drums, Simm has a lot of fun with a gas mask, a cabinet meeting and his drumming the table with the sound that he's been hearing since childhood. But the Master (and wife) dancing to the Rogue Trader's Voodoo Child? The paradox machine? The Laser Screwdriver? Dobby making a cameo appearance in between appearances in Harry Potter? The risen Christ? Sorry...the risen Doctor? It's like a spot-the-ball contest in that everything bar something vital is missing only here it's a coherent story.
Eventually, you realise that perhaps it's the comeback itself that's the problem, not so much of the Doctor but the Master. That and Russell T Davies' writing not being able to realise a decent story for his returning villains. Out of the three series produced so far, it's not the familiar villains that have made for the best moments, not the Daleks, not the Cybermen and certainly not the Master. On the contrary, it was the Ood and the Beast in Satan's Pit, the scarecrows of Human Nature, the werewolf in Tooth And Claw, the lost little boy in The Empty Child, the clockwork robots of The Girl In The Fireplace, the ghosts of The Unquiet Dead, the witches of The Shakespeare Code and the Weeping Angels of Blink. Great villains and episodes every one but, on the contrary, how disappointing was the return of the Master. Let's not have him enjoy another comeback.
This is largely a reprint of what was written for the DVD release of Volume 2 of this series. On DVD, this doesn't look or sound very much different to how it did on broadcast television. Granted, the picture is better given how DVD affords the show much more bandwidth than either Freeview or Sky Digital did, leaving us with a sharper picture with less artefacting and more detail throughout. However, no episode is really very much better than it was on television, though this probably has much to do with them being three of the less-impressive-looking episodes. Certainly, these look very dull when compared to The Shakespeare Code, 42 or Blink with the CG missile silos on the south-east coast of England being a particularly low (and obvious) point in the set. However, what with a noticeable softness to the picture at times, it still could be better and may even ought to have been a show that the BBC could have tested the high-definition waters with. As regards the audio track, it's a surprising DD2.0. Not that there's necessarily a problem with that, more that one expects the DVD releases of television shows to arrive with the kind of DD5.1 track that wasn't available to anyone without a Sky+ box. It does sound fine, particularly that wonderful theme music, but less impressive than it could have been and certainly lacking the impact that would have been given it by a digitally-sourced surround soundtrack. Finally, there are English subtitles selectable off the main menu.
I will say, once again that it is a shame how this release comes without any extras when there is a copious amount available, including the audio commentaries that are available from the BBC website, not to mention material from the Doctor Who Confidential and Totally Doctor Who slots for each of the episodes here.