Aired 30 June 2007
The third series of the modern relaunch of Doctor Who concludes with ‘Last of the Time Lords,’ the result being a story that exemplifies the very best and the very worst of Russell T Davies’s writing style. The character work and themes on display here are superb and arguably some of the strongest ever seen in the programme, but unfortunately the resolution feels rather rushed and makes use of the oft-maligned reset button.
It was quite clear at the end of ‘The Sound of Drums’ that the reset button would need to make an appearance in some form since Davies has so firmly rooted his stories in modern-day Earth and it was clear that planetary enslavement and proper decimation would not be allowed to stand as a lasting historical event. This approach of keeping the setting for more fantastic events within the realm of viewers’ familiarity is undeniably one of the reason’s the new take on the franchise has succeeded so well, but it also means that there’s no way that the Master will be allowed to succeed with his bombastic plans. Just like the origins of the Cybermen were changed to an alternate reality to keep normal context alive, there’s just no way that any future companions or stories would have to continue to make reference to the events on display here. This, of course, exposes one of the biggest flaws of the recent series finales in that there is never any threat of any real lasting consequences after all of the buildup.
The Master’s conversion of the TARDIS to a paradox machine is an intriguing concept and certainly helps to provide a somewhat plausible escape hatch for the characters, but there are still many other faults with the plot along the way. The biggest point of discussion- even beyond that of the reset button- is the resurrection of the Doctor’s true form into a seemingly invincible and supernatural being through prayer and the reversal of the Archangel Network. There is simply no work done in building up this event, and it seems quite uneven and out of place even if there is a lot of religious imagery through the episode. The Doctor returning to power through humanity’s belief in him is a very powerful and moving concept, but it just doesn’t feel earned as such, and its portrayal on screen borders on ludicrous. The fact that he needs to be returned to normal brings up the other major issue in that David Tennant is taken almost entirely out of the episode after the Master continues to age him to a voiceless and shrunken CGI being. The series final is not the time to take out such a charismatic lead even if the intent is to build up tension, and it certainly takes away from many potentially great scenes between Simm’s Master and Tennant’s Doctor as a result.
As mentioned when discussing ‘The Sound of Drums,’ some of Davies’s best work comes when ciriticizing the Doctor, in this case a man who wants to believe so badly in humanity despite all of its flaws. In a sense, this is what makes this version of the Master so successful and a good match for the Doctor. Some very well-written insight into the evil character is given here, and it’s fitting that the Master longs for the Doctor’s approval even after everything they’ve been through together. The Master is reveling in his glory through conquest, but he also seeks validation from his friend-turned-foe, especially as the drumbeat within his head gets louder. His defense of saving humanity as it is revealed that the Toclafane are the humans from the end of the universe given salvation is a clear ploy to break the Doctor, using his strength against him once more. The Master understands the Doctor, though, and even though he seems to know that the Doctor will not acknowledge his time in the spotlight, he still seems unwilling to hear the inevitable ‘I forgive you’ that comes out of the Doctor’s mouth.
Lucy Saxon also offers a clever spin on the typical human companion, broken by seeing the end of the universe and everything dying rather than gaining the typical stronger sense of purpose that the Doctor inspires on his travels. Even though it ends up being a small role in the grand scheme of things, seeing the progressive torment the Master puts her through is shocking, and her eventual execution of the Master ends up being one of most earned moments in the episode.
The issue is that, despite the incredible amount of work that Martha does during the Master’s reign to get everyone to think about the Doctor at the same time and to turn the psychic field in the Doctor’s favour, there’s little work done to actually prove that the Master is wrong. Humanity is inherently flawed and capable to extreme acts of wanton destruction as the Toclafane and historical events prove and so, although it’s a powerful moment to see humanity unite to overcome tyranny, it doesn’t fully address the underlying sentiment of the Master’s argument.
The Tenth Doctor has increasingly been written as a flawed character, a far cry from the arrogant and smug version beside Rose previously. Here, his refusal to murder or to allow for the murder of the Master because he is another Time Lord brings about the long period of humanity’s suffering. This is a stark contradiction to the Doctor who would so readily kill Daleks or Cybermen, and while it seems a bit harsh, his gloating to the Master that he would never ask Martha to kill when her collection of components for a secret weapon is at least somewhat fitting. His exposing Harriet Jones again is, in essence, the instigating factor for the Master’s rise to power, and with the Doctor’s flawed actions all coming to a head, it’s fitting that Martha would be used as a vehicle to explore this. Davies gives Martha a lot of screen time, proving once and for all what a strong companion she is while earning the respect and admiration of everyone involved. Shockingly, however, just as the character of Martha starts to come into her own and find he true place aboard the TARDIS as she is instrumental in saving the world, she decides to leave the Doctor. This is a strong choice for a strong character, and certainly something that’s been building since her introduction in ‘Smith and Jones,’ but it’s a shame that this more empowered Martha will not be around longer. It does reaffirm how fluid the cast of the programme will continue to be going forward, though.
‘Last of the Time Lords,’ ultimately, is going to be an incredibly divisive story. Featuring two extreme plot contrivances in the reset button and the superpowered Doctor deus ex machina, the inherent flaws of the story are all too obvious. However, with some extremely strong characterization and themes, it is still a bold story full of clever concepts that just don’t completely come together fully.