Aired 23 June 2007
‘The Sound of Drums’ is an interesting episode, the middle portion of what some call a three-part story. But whereas ‘Utopia’ was allowed to move along at a casual pace before suddenly flooring viewers with its final minutes, ‘The Sound of Drums’ must start off with events in full swing and the audience finally knowing exactly what the major threat of the series is. The result is a story that effectively raises the stakes and the tension, providing some great characterization along the way, but also one that feels a bit rushed with important plot points not able to be explored as much as would seem necessary.
The Master has always been an effective counterpoint to the Doctor, and specifically to the Doctor he was originally pit against. As such, despite the divisiveness that the more manic and crazed demeanour that Russell T Davies writes into the role is sure to create, it remains an effective mirror to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, an incarnation that is more energetic and manic that previous ones. John Simm is the perfect choice to bring the Master back to life as well, an actor who can easily handle the heavier and more dramatic scenes while also maintaining an aloof disconnect from reality. The sort of co-dependence that the two have with each other is nicely touched on as well, in some way trying to explain everything they have been through together and how important they are to each other despite their inherent differences. The Master has never been afraid to ally himself with aliens and other beings to better his chances at winning and surviving, and his using of Lucy Saxon to gain power and his allegiance to the Toclafane are both clever jabs at what the Doctor holds so dear.
One of the great strengths of the modern version of Doctor Who is that the villains are clever enough to use the Doctor’s weaknesses against him. The Master, however, turns this on his head and uses the Doctor’s strengths against him, and this is a character who has clearly come a long way from just arriving and attempting domination. The fact that he has gone through an election and gained the support of the masses as he ascended to Prime Minister speaks volumes, indicating that he’s finally learned to work from within the system instead of imposing his will from outside. This is eerily effective, and certainly a more tolerant approach to control that the Master has ever shown before, and his use of the satellite Archangel Network that uses TARDIS-like technology is a daunting prospect to overcome. In a way, the John Simm Master is almost a reflection of the Pertwee Doctor in that he must work with the organizations on Earth to achieve his goal of leaving Earth. Surely the red-lined coat he wears is a nod to the Third Doctor as well, just as Lucy Saxon’s connections could be paralleled to Jo Grant’s in a way.
Doctor Who has never shied away from offering opinions on different topics, and ‘The Sound of Drums’ and the Master are no different here. Here, of course, the entire system of politics is drawn into question, the lack of policy from a landslide winner the focus. Even Martha admits to wanting to vote for Mr Saxon though she cannot explain why, and it’s clear that nobody has any real reason for wanting to elect him since he stands for nothing. The low-level brainwashing that the Master’s satellite network and four-beat signal play to the Master’s strengths and abilities well and make sense of his rise to power despite the obvious inconsistencies in his backstory. Neither British culture nor American sentiments are safe from Davies’s criticism either, the American President Coleman Winters demanding control of the Toclafane first contact and displaying the worst kind of nationalistic arrogance.
What’s quite clever here is that the Doctor is somewhat to blame for the Master’s rise to power because, with his continual decrees of not becoming involved in domestic life, he missed the clues being laid about the Master’s sudden rise to power. Saxon himself only started becoming relevant following ‘The Christmas Invasion’ when the Doctor had basically torn apart the British government. By trapping the Master and his TARDIS on Earth, the Doctor effectively created the entire situation, and the Doctor’s ego getting the best of him once again rears its head as Martha seems to be losing some degree of faith in him for not realizing the consequences of his actions.
In the end, ‘The Sound of Drums’ is packed with clever ideas and concepts even if some of the story and its pacing feels a little uneven, and it’s fascinating that the Doctor is so unwilling to kill the Master despite everything he has done. With a little bit of backstory given to the Master to make him a somewhat more sympathetic character, Davies does a superb job in capturing the unique relationship between these bonded Time Lords, giving a bit more insight into the character of the Doctor as well. The pieces are all in motion and it will be up to the grandiosely titled ‘Last of the Time Lords’ to adequately wrap up the Master’s reemergence now that the stakes have been so effectively raised.