Well, blimey. Who knew Rusty did dark so well*? Not since I was a wee small boy and saw Caves of Androzani have I felt so disturbed after watching a Doctor Who story.
Indeed, it’s not since Caves that we’ve really seen the Doctor get such a thoroughly good kicking, and certainly not deliberately, as the result of a carefully laid and executed plan. That was dark. Really dark. And I liked it, bar the occasional bits of Rustiness.
For the past three years, the Time Lords have been having a bit of a rehabilitation on Doctor Who. In the old series, their introduction in The War Games depicts them (go YouTube!) as something more or less approaching the status of gods. After that, they devolve into an impotent, corrupt bunch of xenophobes, capable of being invaded by anyone with the spaceship equivalent of a Cessna light aircraft.
The Doctor never takes a year to fix things
However, new Who has more or less restored them to their original status of benevolent, wise, all-powerful beings, acting as kindly, responsible custodians of the universe, making right what once was /will be wrong. Which was nice when the Doctor was the only Time Lord in town, particularly in episodes like The Family of Blood when his full god-like powers could be expressed.
With the Master around, though, suddenly it was a battle between two gods, capable of changing the entire universe to their will if they like. And whereas in the old series, the Master was never really the Doctor’s equal, here he was at least as powerful, capable of doing everything the Doctor was capable of doing and violating certain hallowed aspects of the series: the TARDIS, the Doctor, regeneration, the Earth, etc. He even punches the Doctor. Wow.
We start off the episode with a novel twist in this vein. Rusty’s taken a leaf out of Battlestar Galactica‘s playbook again and shifted all the action on a year. Already, we’re in new territory because the Doctor never takes a year to fix things. A couple of days, maybe, but a year? No**.
So already the groundrules of the show are out the window and everything’s disconcerting. We have Martha wandering the Earth by herself for a year. We have the Master keeping the Doctor in a tent and lip syncing to the Scissor Sisters. He’s also into threesomes and a little bit of sexual violence. Which is, erm, new.
Exeunt Torchwood, stage right
Jack, meanwhile, is all chained up and presumably the Torchwood gang are really wishing Jack would have splurged out on some training courses for them while he was still in charge, because they’re not doing much to help. But then, if all you’ve got is a glove and an exciting collection of date rape drugs, what can you do against a god apart from leg it to another solar system through the time rift or something? Yep, I reckon they scarpered to the Eye of Orion as soon as they had the chance.
Then we have a failed escape attempt and another nice “Master using the Doctor’s own ideas against him” moment***. We also had the Doctor being aged again – it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (wouldn’t he end up a 900-year-old version of William Hartnell or something? – but it’s really very scary and again, undermines the whole “Doctor as hero who will always save the day” theme that has been part of the show almost since the beginning.
From there, it’s more or less business as usual. The Toclefane being human was something almost everyone saw coming, I think, and their being the Utopians was also somewhat expected. Cool, all the same, particularly the Master’s line about humans being the worst monsters.
The big major dip in quality was when we got the exact same cocking deus ex sci-fi get-out clause that we had in The Parting of the Ways. Stuck for a way out of an impossible situation? Don’t worry, RTD will make something glow and fix everything. Handy but frustrating after you’ve been hoping for something a little more clever.
It was entirely obvious that Martha wasn’t going to have a magic gun but filling the Doctor up with the power of the Care Bears? Surely not. Plus how do you get everyone to think about the Doctor at the same time? Has the entire population of the Earth been waiting by its tellies for the point when the Master launched his space ships? How did the Doctor know he was going to build them? How did he know there was going to be a countdown? And so on. So many holes, so little NerdFilla™ to plug them with.
Actually, it was probably better on paper than that, but it was so badly directed and scored that it was just cringeworthy instead.
Or was that misdirection, The Sun was right again and it was really the Rani?
That hiccough aside, things picked up again afterwards. We had a wonderful bit of acting from David Tennant as he watches the Master kark it and can do nothing to stop it. And while there was a magic reset button that restored everything back to normal, there’s still a good number of people who have had to go through a year of horror and remember it afterwards, which is a nice touch that shows like Voyager and Buffy, each of which had their own world-changing year-of-horror episodes, often veered away from.
The Master’s alive?
We also have a nice homage to Flash Gordon with the ring scene at the end (?). Are we supposed to think that it was the Master’s wife and that he had a plan worked out with her in advance: if things went pear-shaped, she was to shoot him so he can pretend to die while actually vanishing inside his own ring like Ming? Or was that misdirection, The Sun was right again and it was really the Rani? If all it took to escape the Doctor’s Time Lord removal programme was being human, I’m sure Gallifrey’s leading biologist could happily have done some kind of hybridisation programme that could have taken her off the Time Lord radar.
But that’s a bit too fannish – all those mentions of black hole convertors had me excited – and we can’t keep having lone Time Lords pop up at random. Sontarans next year, anyone?
Jack as Face of Boe? Like it. That, I didn’t see coming. It does mean we’ve now seen how Jack dies and it also means we know he’s going to make it through Torchwood without much difficulty. It might have been nice for him to have mentioned who he was earlier, too. Bit negligent that Jack. It was also good to see a little characterisation for him at the end, after two episodes of running around, not getting much to do, particularly since we’re never going to see its likes in Torchwood, in all likelihood.
Lastly, though, we had the exit (of sorts) for Martha. How much that was planned from the beginning, I’m not sure. You could see the combination of various plot themes – her not being Rose so no snogs with the Doctor, her supposedly being a strong role model so eventually decidedly to cut her losses as a suitable piece of instruction for teenage girls in similar-ish situations and so on – all adding up to her being forced to leave by natural plot inevitability.
John Simm was absolutely brilliant
So I think it’s likely it was planned from the beginning and she’s going to be back one way or another (and you can spoil yourself, maybe, by reading what might be happening next year on that score), since the natural plot way of things would suggest a trial separation might be necessary for the Doctor and Martha to work things out. Maybe she’ll pair up with that doctor bloke and they can both go TARDISing together. Let’s wait and see.
All in all, not absolutely perfect but it was certainly a gadzillion times better than that play-it-by-numbers piece of tedium, Doomsday, that concluded the last series. John Simm was absolutely brilliant, even in the campest moments. Before, the Master has been described as the Doctor’s “arch nemesis”, but until now we’ve never really had the evidence to support it and Simm was the first Master to really earn that description. It was all deeply disturbing, sad, traumatising and clever, with the odd touch of stupid thrown in for good measure. Despite my fears that it would be too fannish, dark and impenetrable for most viewers, the British public appear to have exceeded expectations and loved it.
Now we have to wait until Christmas for the next episode. That’s upsetting. I want more Who now. Oh well. In a minute, the full-season Carusometer.
The Murray Gold Watch
This week, Murray Gold was mostly drowning out the dialogue and removing all sense of drama by deriving music from… Quatermass
* Yes, even those of you who watched his episodes of Cracker
** Except in the New Adventures, say, where the Doctor can spend an entire century with amnesia and the TARDIS in his pocket, or in Big Finish plays where the Doctor can work for the Daleks for decades in an attempt to beat them.
*** Laser screwdriver instead of sonic screwdriver we’ve already had but isomorphic controls is from Pyramids of Mars