With each passing season of Doctor Who, you can almost feel Russell T. Davies coming more and more into his own as writer on “Doctor Who.” And “The Sound of Drums” is further evidence of just how far Davies has come and how much more comfortable he is telling stories within the context not only of the new series but the entire history of “Doctor Who” as a whole.
It’s not to say it was a perfect story. It’s not and it still suffers a great deal from my usual criticism of Davies stories’ – throwing everything and the kitchen sink into a script as it occurs to him and not having an adequate sense of pacing. Outside of “Gridlock” earlier this year, this has been my problem with all of Davies scripts for the new series, up to and including last week’s storyline. But when Davies is bringing together elements of the old series and the new series in such a great hybrid, it can be easy to overlook this… well, almost.
“The Sound of Drums” is an interesting hybrid of old-school Doctor Who storytelling and new-school Doctor Who storytelling.
As an old school Who fan, it’s interesting to note the current storyline is equivalent to the old six-part stories that were so popular in the Jon Pertwee era of the show. It’s also interesting to note that the big criticism lodged at some of those stories — it’s nothing more than a two-part story and a four-part tenuously put together — really applies here. Last week would have been the two-parter story, bringing back the Master and now this week and next week, we get to see the Master’s evil plan come to fruition.
It is good to have the Master back — and not just in name only, but the character Roger Delgado definitively created back during the third Doctor’s era. The new Master is positively old-school in his plot here. In the old Pertwee Master stories, you got the feeling the Master’s plots took more than five to ten minutes to hatch and required a sense of planning in order to pull them off. In his early days the Master was a very patient villain, allowing plots to take months or years to set up in the hopes of humiliating and utterly defeating the Doctor (always in that order). Of course, as we saw in most of the Delgado Master stories, the Master would often overlook one detail, get in over his head and have to call on the Doctor to help save his bacon (the Doctor would usually do it since helping the Master would, invariably, save the world or defeat whatever plot he’d hatched that week).
To see the Master’s current plan be one that has unfolded over the course of the entire three year run of the new series is an absolute delight. To think the Master was on the sidelines, pulling strings and taking advantages of opportunities to create and seize power as the Doctor fought various alien menaces is a nice touch. Add to it that the Master has taken advantage of opportunities created by the Doctor for him (the Master) to seize power and the plan becomes that much more devious and Master-like.
As if that weren’t enough, the Master still displays a penchant for wanting to gloat. Even after the Doctor, Jack and Martha create their devices to hide in plain sight, I fully believe the Master was aware the Doctor was there. But he waited until the right moment to out the Doctor and company so that he could humiliate his old enemy in front of the world. It’s interesting that during “The Christmas Invasion” Harriet Jones was on the TV begging the Doctor to save the world and now the Master uses the same type of broadcast to embarass his old enemy.
As I said before, Simms is really good as the Master. He does lack the casual menace that Roger Delgado pulled off in every scene, but Simms doesn’t ham up the role too much and take the villain too far over the top. I will admit I do miss the goatee and the famous “I am the Master and you will obey me.” line, but we’ve got one more week for that to possibly come up.
The plot-line itself is fairly interesting — the Master has been around for the past 19 months, moving in the shadows, creating a secret identity and a power base. He’s met a companion who he’s married (the fact that she’s blond and bears a bit of a resemblance to Rose is not lost upon the audience) and has broken the cardinal rule of the Time Lords — he’s become involved in a civilization on a more or less permanent basis. He’s done this by the use of a satellite system that is in every phone and electronic piece of equipment on Earth, making the people love him even if they don’t know what he stands for. He’s elected Prime Minister of Britain and has contact with an alien intelligence that he claims is peaceful, but as we find out in the waning moments is anything but.
Now, I have to admit I don’t buy for one second that this new alien race is new. I firmly believe there is some other old enemy behind it and we’ll see them next week. It would be too much of a roll your eyes moment for it to be the Daleks (and why would the Daleks hide anyway?). Based on the technology used and how it harkens back to last year’s Cybermen storyline, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Master in league with the Cybermen. (And there is the whole turning the TARDIS into a time paradox creation device to consider as a way to open the rift between universes…).
In a lot of ways, what the Master is doing here feels a lot like the plot the Doctor undertook in “The Invasion of Time.” I have to wonder if the Master is trying to draw out this alien race to find out who they really are…but for what reason, I’m not quite sure.
But while there are a lot of old-school Who elements in place, this is a story that clearly is a modern Who story. It draws upon the history of the entire series old and new to tell the story. The old Who rarely told long-term story arcs and, for the most part, they weren’t that successful. (Key to Time, anyone?) This storyline is one that has not only been set-up all season, but over the course of the entire series. It’s this reason that I say Davies has matured a lot as a writer — because the way the pieces of the story come together doesn’t feel nearly as forced as series one’s Bad Wolf nor last year’s Torchwood. Instead, it feels more natural here as elements come together to create a storyline that is drawing on the long history of the show. And it’s all working.
And for those of you wondering if we’d ever see Gallifrey, you get your wish. A flashback shows us Gallifrey as it was before the Time War..and gives us a glimpse of the Time Lord acadamy. Now, I will say that the whole look into the vortex and find your place felt a bit too much like something from Harry Potter and the entire Acadamy flashback had a Potter-like vibe to it.
Meanwhile, we find out how the Master escapes from the heart of the TARDIS and why he can regenerate. It’s interesting to hear that the Time Lords decided he was the warrior they needed to defeat the Daleks, but he ended up running and hiding while it was the Doctor who destroyed the Time Lords.
And there’s even a big in-joke to the original proposed resolution to the relationship between the Doctor and the Master thrown in.
And yet, while it was good, it wasn’t quite the giddy heights of excellence we had the last few weeks. A lot of this I chalk up to the episode being the middle leg of a trilogy. It has to keep things going but it can’t start the resolution to the plot just yet. That will come next week. So, it may be that in hindsight, the overall story will come off better than I am initially giving it credit for. Hopefully it won’t be like two years ago when Bad Wolf had a great fifteen final minutes and then Parting of the Ways ground to a complete halt mid-way through the story and offered up a less than satisfying resolution.
But I will say this — I think this story has a lot more potential to it and more plot-lines to resolve than Parting of the Ways did. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens next Saturday when the final episode of series three hits the airwaves.
Until then, I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it all plays out…
Next up: The Doctor is utterly defeated…now what?