I’m late on the bandwagon, but having spent much longer than I expected talking about the ups and downs of New Who, I couldn’t possibly leave Season 3 without sticking my oar in on the Season Finale. My coverage of next year might be considerably sketchier, though, for reasons which may soon become apparrent. Fear the spoilers…
DOCTOR WHO: S3 E13, “Last of the Time Lords”
Well, Russel T. Davies always manages to surprise me somehow. Out of all the ridiculous things I was exepecting from the Who finale, I certainly wasn’t expecting the Doctor to spend over half the episode as a tiny computer-animated cartoon locked in a bird cage. But then, I guess things before the season finale had just been going a little too smoothly…
The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (hence to be referred to as SOD/LOTL, a rather unfortunate acronym) is certainly RTD’s most ambitious attempt at a big, budget-busting season climax yet, but it’s also a story that showcases most of his worst flaws. The man can pull off great dialogue, and yet he’s also got a desire to play to the ‘cheap seats’ that often leaves his stories feeling like they’re trying to be fifteen different tones at the same time, doing everything from low humour to high tragedy, and with no room for the audience to catch their breath. SOD/LOTL also fully confirms that, despite any protestations to the contrary, RTD isn’t really interested in science fiction. The fake story about the ‘Time Lord Killer’ gun is a nicely played bait-and-switch, but when the climax of your entire story arc revolves around your main character being revived from a tiny CGI homunculus by the combined faith of humankind funnelled through a psychic mobile phone network, we’re firmly back in the ‘sci-fi as magic’ zone, which is also where RTD seems to be most comfortable. The ‘Lonely God’ aspect of the Doctor keeps getting more and more significant, and while aiming the climax as pure, big-scale emotion is certainly an understandable motive, fitting in with the more female-centric targeting of the new series, it’s a pity that we essentially end up back in the same “In case of Emergency- Activate Deux Ex Machina” arena that we got with Season 1 (as well as a main character once again being transformed a rather undefined wibbly CGI effect), with a heavy dose of the convenient reality-reset button previously used most notably in the season finale of Torchwood. It’s also hard to think of another example of sci-fi storytelling that uses the cause-and-effect principles of science fiction up to a certain point, and then throws them out of the window in favour of faith-based spirituality. The closest comparison I can come up with is if a Buffy season climax had been sorted out by a group of X-Files-style aliens turning up and sorting everything out, and even then it doesn’t quite capture the sense of absolute wrongness that Who often captures- a combination of post-modern attitude and kiddie-show level camp that I’ve really only seen elsewhere in Torchwood.
Of course, the whole ‘Vote Saxon’ story arc had one of its first appearances in Torchwood, and the end results of this arc once again prove that while RTD adores the idea of Buffy-style story arcs, he doesn’t know how to get them to work. Despite the intriguing set-up, huge chunks of Season 3’s arc turned out to be less-than-relevant, but the biggest and most bizarre lapse is the plotline concerning Martha’s mother. The set-up in The Lazarus Experiment was relatively well played, the follow-on in 42 was an intriguing way of keeping the plotline bubbling in an otherwise standalone episode, and it would have been understandable to expect it to be a major aspect in the season finale, especially after they’d gone to the trouble to set up such a strong conflict between the Doctor and Martha’s mother. Instead, it was all over in three minutes, and never referred to again, leading me to wonder why on earth they bothered in the first place. While they haven’t quite recycled any of the family plotlines from the Tyler clan, it’s interesting that while the Jones clan is much larger, they’ve been very badly served (especially Martha’s brother, who got about eight lines in the whole series and didn’t even get mentioned in the series finale), and while it’s hard to imagine them completely dumping the ‘domestics’, its interesting to see that they’re already having such trouble working them convincingly into the stories. (Although, I was both amazed and thankful that the dreadful Essex girlfriend of Martha’s Dad from Smith and Jones never made a re-appearance…)
Above everything else, however, the entire ‘Vote Saxon’ story arc is the tale of how RTD managed to successfully bring back the Master… for five minutes, and then proceed to mess it all up to an embarrassing degree. Considering how well they’ve managed to stick to the basic principles of the classic Who villains so far, you’d have expected them to at least act as if they knew what they were doing- but while the Master was obviously a character who’d be in need of a ‘refit’ in order to make him function well in New Who, turning him into a sleazy, pop-mad, sarcastic thirtysomething isn’t the first option that comes to mind. It’s RTD’s mode of comedy that sinks the New Master, combined with some weak direction and the fact that- sad to say- John Simm doesn’t have the chops to pull off this kind of arch villainy without looking like a bit of a tit. With the Master bearing more resemblance to Stuart Jones from RTD’s Queer as Folk than either Anthony Ainley or Roger Delgado (a fact sadly underlined by the continuity references to aliens like the Axons), it’s hard not to think that QaF star Aiden Gillen might have been able to better pull off RTD’s misconceived take on the Master, but Simm simply wasn’t up to the task. The more serious scenes in the two-parter pulled off some fine moments- it’s nice to see an acknowledgement of the fact that there’s something a little weird and perverse in the way the Master’s always trying to kill the Doctor and yet never quite gets around to doing it, and the Master’s central plan is both emotionally believable and a fantastically dark way of getting back at the Doctor- unleashing Humanity’s nightmare future on its own past. Plus, the finale, with the Master refusing to regenerate out of spite, is very much in character, and these scenes manage to make it feel like there is some kind of vague connection between this man and the versions of the character we’ve seen before. With all the other scenes, however, it’s a completely different story, leading up to some horrendous overacting and some truly embarrassing moments (Top of which is probably the Master deciding that “Voodoo Child” by Rogue Traders would make a great soundtrack for the end of the world), the combined effect of which was to burn down a lot of the good will I’d built up for the show over the previous six episodes. Who had been more consistently watchable than I was used to, and had even- particularly in Human Nature and Blink- escaped from the feel of slightly overplayed children’s television that sometimes afflicts the show. Those episodes in particular weren’t deliberately played ‘for the kids’- they were simply allowed to be what they were, and made New Who seem more genuinely promising than at any point since it actually came back.
That’s where a lot of my disappointment comes from- that and the fact that most of SOD’s lame political satire spends a long time saying little that RTD didn’t already say with Aliens of London (underlined by the fact that I don’t see why the Master had to become Prime Minister or kill the Cabinet in order to pull off most of his plan), while the Master ends up coming across as more of a flatulence-free Slitheen than a genuinely intimidating bad guy to be feared. Much of the storytelling is tremendously vague- especially when it comes to the Master’s Eva Braun-style ‘companion’, about whom RTD never seems to actually decide whether or not she’s being mind controlled (and even if she is, simply uses her as a clumsy plot device to bring closure rather than a genuine character), or the fact that the Paradox Machine which can’t be destroyed for fear of wiping out the Solar System is then blown up with a machine gun at the end of the story with no ill effects. Even Captain Jack is brought back to do little other than get locked up for a year and to look heroically grimy (his line about having a long time to think about how much he likes his Torchwood team made me simply want to reply “What, you mean the people who were happy for you to get shot in the head last time you saw them?!?”), and Who’s blockbuster method of storytelling has gotten to the point where the only way of going bigger with the spectacle is by building a convenient reset button into the plot. The ‘blockbuster’ episodes have, almost consistently, been the least satisfying of the new series, and it’s hard not to speculate how long it’s going to be before the show burns out on Hollywood-style bombast. As I’ve already said, much of Who is starting to have an air of familiarity, and the episodes that don’t are the genuinely interesting ones- the ones prepared to shake up the status quo and actually treat the audience like adults.
It’s frustrating, because there were certain aspects of the climax that worked very well. David Tennant has improved massively this year, and after a shaky start at the beginning of the season has done some genuinely brilliant work, even when encased in some deeply unconvincing ageing make-up (ironically, Tom Baker’s Doctor was aged up far more effectively in The Leisure Hive nearly 27 years ago…), while Freema Agyeman has continued to make an interesting, genuinely empathetic character, actually succeeding in making the somewhat repetetive “oh, but why doesn’t he fancy me?” characteristic work. Giving her current arc a genuine sense of closure was a bit of a surprise, but it was at least done in the right way, feeling like a step forward for the character- although it’s possible that, like Rose, she could end up with nowhere to go and become quickly annoying. However she’s brought back, it was an effective way to end the story- and made even more of a pity that we had to get the frankly rather ridiculous and crappy teaser for the Christmas Special. Last year, it was oddly effective and out-of-left-field. This year, the teaser simply felt stupid and unnecessary, and spoiled one of the few 100% effective scenes in the whole story.
While I suspected we’d be picking up with Martha at the beginning of Season 4… it turns out RTD has a little plan. Instead, Martha will be guest starring in Torchwood for three episodes (A decision I can’t help feeling is very inappropriate- they’re doing Buffy/Angel style crossovers, but both those shows were pretty close in tone and content, with Angel just several degrees darker and more adult. RTD using a family show to bolster the audience for a frankly immature and self-conciously adult spin-off crammed with gore and swearing isn’t on), and will be returning to Who in the ‘second half of the season’ (which, if the Captain Jack plan was any indication, means she probably won’t turn up until the last three episodes).
And who are we getting as a companion for the full 13 weeks?
Catherine Bloody Tate.
What started out as a one-note joke for a Christmas Special is now going to last for an entire season, and after 13 episodes of having a relatively intelligent companion, we’re back into the realm of comedy cockneys and bellowing. We’re back in the realms of Bonnie Langford- who, despite being a not-too-dreadful actress, made a terrible ‘showbiz’ companion back in the Colin Baker/Sylvester McCoy era, and it’s safe to say that the phrase “Jumping the Shark” is going to be used quite heavily in reference to Who for the next year or so. I may have to sit out most of Season 4 as a result of RTD’s little wheeze, considering the woman makes me want to slam my head against a blackboard, and it’s such a shame. Season 3 has still been, for the most part, one of the most consistently watchable seasons of the show yet, with episodes 6-11 actually persuading me that I liked the show again… but it seems RTD is always there to torpedo my hopes. I’d love to see a show that’s regularly as strong and interesting and entertaining as Human Nature or Blink- but with Catherine Tate as the companion, the likelihood of it happening seems pretty remote…