The Sound of Drums


Ah, the sound of drums. That distinctive da-da-da-dum from the Doctor Who theme, which never quite seems loud enough in the current arrangement.1 Fans and normal people alike often agree that the title theme is one of the coolest things about the show, and it’s nice to see part of it become an actual plot point in an episode, representing the newly resurrected Master’s relentless psychosis.

So it’s kind of odd to find that it’s kind of wasted. Even at the start of ‘The Sound of Drums’, immediately following a scene dominated by the drum pattern, the music completely fails to lead into the actual theme. And by the end of ‘Last of the Time Lords’, it turns out that there’s really no more to the drumming than what we learned in the preceding story.2 I say “odd”, but a wasted opportunities aren’t really very uncommon in these uncharacteristically dull scripts from the usually reliable Russell T. Davies.

Everywhere you look in ‘The Sound of Drums’, there’s something that’s alright, but could have been awesome. The Master ingeniously takes over the world, and then just hangs out being irritating until the Doctor finally gets around to foiling him. Captain Jack returns from Torchwood… and gets to give maybe two lines of exposition and fire a gun. A Paradox Machine is created — sounds cool, but in fact turns out to simply allow a humongous reset button, rather than leading to oodles of crazy paradoxes, as one might hope. The Doctor gets turned into a wizened old Gollum creature, but it’s not part of the plot or anything; it’s just a slightly odd substitute for locking him up.3 And it leads to the Doctor’s slightly ridiculous Tinkerbell moment.

Ultimately, perhaps ‘The Sound of Drums’ was doomed to be disappointing. After all, the whole fun of bringing back the Master is tipping the recent series’ premise on its head — you’re not the last of the Time Lords, Doctor. Except, no, if you defeat the Master, then you are again. Going from point A to point B back to point A is so rarely thrilling.4

But sprinkled between the disappointments are the occasional flashes of magic that you expect from this show. The Master’s booby trap for our heroes is nicely played, and his massacre of the Cabinet is brilliant. The phone call between the Master and the Doctor is almost pure genius. The whole idea of the Doctor coming back to an already-conquered Earth is cleverly established. Martha’s farewell is perfect and earned. When she walks in, you know she has to leave — that after a year saving the world, she can’t just jump back in to that blue box.

But disturbingly, and perhaps worse than the wasted opportunities, are the things that just fall flat. The Jones family, having been established reasonably neatly, are mostly wasted — Leo just disappears,5 they all go a little psychotic for the Master in a particularly oddly pitched scene, and then we’re supposed to care that Mrs Jones is going to do something horrible and kill the Master, when she’s been consistently horrid at best all year.6

The biggest disappointment, however, is the actual interplay between the Doctor and the Master. When I heard John Simm had been cast, it seemed perfect — talented and similar in stature to Tennant, he seemed the perfect choice to come up against our unstoppable Doctor. But in the end, we only get one proper scene between them, and it’s at the very end. When things reach their inevitable emotional conclusion, I found it hard to care as much as I was clearly supposed to — the hate/love relationship between the two of them is only mentioned and rarely displayed.7 Part of the problem of course is taking Tennant out of the last episode almost completely, and having Simm spend most of his time talking to a special effect. Sometimes I like to imagine a story which allowed the two Time Lords8 to dynamically battle each other across time and space, both of them being ingenious and amazing. But now of course it just makes me grumpy.

The last two parts could so easily have been awesome, but instead, painfully, they settle for being some of the most mediocre that Who has produced in the last three years. It’s not the death-knell for the series, of course, but it would be nice if next year, the finale could not involve aliens descending from the skies to destroy the earth. It’s getting old.

  1. Or, to put it another way, I need better speakers.
  2. Well, alright, what we learn in ‘The Sound of Drums’ isn’t awful. The Master went crazy from looking at the Doctor Who title sequence (or “untempered schism” if you like) and the bass line got stuck in his head. It’s just a bit underwhelming to have the central bizarreness of ‘Utopia’ explained in exposition.
  3. Putting what has been referred to as “Dobby-Doctor” in the story seems as stupid as, say, making Angel into a puppet in the last episode of the season. As a standalone episode, it could have been cool.
  4. Davies points out the similarity of the ‘Last of the Time Lords’ “One Year Later” caption to that of Battlestar Galactica‘s second series finale in his commentary, though he points out that he’d thought of it before he saw Galactica‘s take on it. Perhaps we should be grateful that the Who reset button happened almost instantaneously, and didn’t take a really boring half-season of television.
  5. Well, apparently the actor was suddenly double-booked, so I feel churlish complaining.
  6. If Jackie were about to kill the Master, then I’d care. Sometimes I think I miss Jackie more than Rose.
  7. Of course, the Doctor did have some lovely scenes with the Professor, pre-Masterfication. I found that if you considered the Pertwee Master stories (which are referenced a boodle of times in the last three stories), the last scene becomes a little more poignant. I’m reasonably sure that the vast majority of viewers aren’t able to do that though.
  8. Speaking of Time Lords, it must be said that the shots of Gallifrey looked reasonably awesome. Though part of me was hoping that they wouldn’t bring back the collars.
We meet at last, Doctor. Oh-ho! I love saying that. — The Master

10 Responses to “The Sound of Drums”

  1. Cool review, but the reset button thing happens every year, whether it’s Rose-God, Inter-Dimensional Vacuum Cleaner or Jack, um, shooting at the TARDIS. (?!) In fact, the whole Finale Formula happens every year. There’s always an army, a war, part-human monsters, bittersweet Doctor/companion parting of some sort, and a great big reset button. Honestly, you’d think they’d have some kind of script editor to wave a red flag when this sort of repetition creeps in, but no. Yikes, does this show need some fresh ideas…

  2. There is a pattern developing for the season finales, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that the last two included reset buttons. Aside from Jack’s death, nothing’s previously gotten rolled back to this extent.

    But yes, if they don’t mix things around a bit more come next year’s finale, I’ll be very grumpy.

  3. I dunno about fair – I mean, the baddies were magically whisked away in an instant every time. Although not quite the same as a reset button, because people’s memories weren’t erased or anything, it’s still a bit of a creaky old cheat.

    Bit sad that, for my money, they still haven’t touched Parting of the Ways in terms of quality. I still love that episode. Maybe it’s the regeneration finale.

  4. The first two were reset-ish, although the second at least had a change on present day Earth and affected Torchwood.

    Perhaps the fourth season finale will reset back to before Catherine Tate becomes a companion.

    The use of the Rogue Traders song wasn’t as half as good as the Britney Spears in season 1. I’d have prefered the sound of drums being tied into the theme music more.

  5. I think “reset button” has a pretty clear implication which is pretty different to the somewhat out-of-nowhere instant solutions which turned up in the previous finales. Hasn’t everyone been pretty happy to call those deus ex machina? Both previous finales have clear consequences that hang around for multiple seasons of multiple TV shows. Instantly destroying baddies shouldn’t necessarily be a cheat, if there’s a good way to do it.

    In my opinion, The Parting of the Ways almost completely gets away with it, and Doomsday teeters on the brink, but is supported by almost everything else in the episode being great fun. Last of the Time Lords lacks the fun, lacks the awesomeness, adds unwanted cheese, and actually has the nerve to rewind time and reset back to near the end of the previous episode. Gah! I agree about the song, too, Andy.

    At least, after reading the comments about Donna mentioned in the DWM preview, I’m ever so slightly less upset about Catherine Tate’s return.

  6. Oooops. I meant this article.

  7. Poor old Catherine Tate – linched long before she got anywhere near the telly. Give her a chance. God knows there are enough people still unfairly picking on the brilliant Martha for, presumably, not being Rose.

  8. If Catherine Tate wanted my sympathy, she shouldn’t have made The Catherine Tate Show. I wasn’t super keen on her on her in ‘The Runaway Bride’, but if she’s good in series four, I’m not going to ignore it. I certainly hope she is; I’d just rather more time with Martha than Donna.

  9. I’m going to spend all next season complaining about how Donna is not as good as Martha, and then if Martha comes back, I’ll whinge that she’s no Rose. And then if Rose comes back, I’ll bad mouth Mickey.

    Any speculation on the villan for this season? Who’s the most famous after the Daleks, Cybermen, and the Master? Or will we get them al at the same time?

  10. It has been suggested that the creator of the Daleks, Davros, might be the next most famous stooge. And they are releasing a classic series Davros box set soon.

    But I don’t know why they’d have made Mr Human Dalek this year if they were planning Davros for the next one.

    Sontarans seem unlikely due to their similarity in looks to the Judoon. There were shape changers called Rutans, but we’ve had shape changers a lot. Draconians? Ice Warriors?