Doctor Who #766: The Sound of Drums

"Doctor." "Master." "I like it when you use my name." "You chose it. Psychiatrist's field day." "As you chose yours. The man who makes people better. How sanctimonious is that?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jun.23 2007.

IN THIS ONE... The Master is Prime Minister of Britain and he's making first public contact with flying balls of death.

REVIEW: Our first real experience of John Simm's Master, and I know fandom didn't offer unanimous support for his characterization, but I, for one, do like him. Oh, he's awfully camp at times, and I once compared him to a Batman '66 villain (the reporter's comedy scream is an example of the production supporting this tone), but it looks so damn FUN to be him! It's not like past Masters were all that great. Delgado was full of awesome, but always let down by plots that made him look foolish. Ainley was an irritating cackler with even more rubbish plots. The less said about Eric Roberts the better. And while I find Geoffrey Beevers excellent on audio, there's just so much he and Peter Pratt could do as the zombie Master. Jacobi could have been truly great, but pit against a different Doctor, perhaps. Simm is very much Tennant's match in vitality, sharpness, wit, intensity and eccentricity. Their phone conversation is one of many great moments in The Sound of Drums, chilling and clever, and showing right from the start why the Doctor will never get through to him. And I love how he's still the Master we've always known. He watches kids' shows on television (an echo of The Sea Devils). He allies with a race of alien killers. He hides in plain sight under a pseudonym, although he's never been this brazen before, making himself Prime Minister and winking at the camera/Doctor during press conferences, and killing the president of the United States on live TV. He's a showman, this one, scoring his own moment of victory with a cool track and dancing. He's still using hypnotism, but on a grander scale than ever before, embedding his own maddening drum beat into telecommunications so he can easily win an election (on no platform? sounds like politics as usual; see Theories as well). He's also used his time in the 21st century to get into the MoD, get Tish a couple of quick jobs to use her against Martha and the Doctor, given Lazarus the tech to make himself younger/a monster, and built a helicarrier for UNIT (filched from the comics, but first to screen, Marvel's Avengers!). And he's got a bit of Doctor envy, getting himself a companion, a magic screwdriver, some jelly babies, and (a nice touch) red lining in his coat that harks back to Pertwee's style. If the whole point of the season is to make the Doctor a God figure, then the Master usurps that too by remaking the world in his image and paraphrasing Genesis while doing so.

One of the reasons I love this episode is its music. In addition to the always appreciated UNIT and Torchwood themes, it features three of my favorite Murray Gold cues ever, those I listen to often and on a loop. My favorite Martha moment ever is scored by "All the Strange, Strange Creatures", after her apartment blows up, in no uncertain terms telling the Doctor her family comes first and traps be damned. There's a furious intensity to the scene and Martha takes the lead. "This Is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home" underscores our first ever look at the Citadel from the outside, and it's gorgeous, really special. Sad, longing, but majestic music under beautiful images. Here we learn that as children, Time Lords are taken to see the time vortex with the naked eye, which we now know is where the Time War Time Lords "contacted" the young Master and infected his mind with a certain drum beat. And there's "Martha's Quest", another melancholy track, but with a driving, driven beat that at once captures the Toclafane's carnage and Martha's as-yet-unknown mission.

Boy is this an intense finale set-up. While there are a couple of Saxon-loving cameos, it's not like previous penultimate episodes like Bad Wolf and Army of Ghosts which gave the audience some funny business BEFORE the plot got in gear. They're background details, and the comedy is black and toxic. We're in it from the word go, with the whole of Britain essentially against our heroes, forced to walk among us like ghosts, with makeshift perception filters. (This leads to the one wrong note in the episode, in which the Doctor compares the trick to unrequited love, which is just DAVIES being cruel to Martha at this point, and not a good example at all.) Otherwise, the "filtered" scenes have an eerie feeling and some nice tension when you can't be sure the Master isn't aware of them. So... how will Earth get out of this one? Paradox machine, eh? Despite the out being relatively easy for sci-fi fans to spot, the characters all being in such dire straights made this the most anticipated finale to date.

THEORIES: For those trying to understand politics in the Whoniverse (a rather futile endeavor), and who thought Harriet Jones' downfall was much too quick, I think we can blame Harold Saxon for it. He would have used mass hypnosis to turn public opinion against her (remember, she'd won by a landslide and would have been a hero to the world for destroying the Sycorax). He strengthened his position as Minister of Defense(?) during some interim government by destroying the Racnoss ship, and launched the Archangel Network to further put the world in his grip through the power of suggestion. So it doesn't have to make sense, he's been manipulating the country on a large scale. As for the Presidents of the United States, since we see Barack Obama as President in The End of Time, and Jackass Winters here is only "president-elect", we should assume Obama was his VP in this timeline, and took over from him after he was executed by the Toclafane.

SECOND OPINIONS: My original review, The Sound of... Time War History, is quaint because it doesn't know what's to come and makes all these (wrong) predictions about the Toclafane's true identity. Someone in the comments did guess the real answer though.

REWATCHABILITY: High - An incredible set-up to the finale that still works for its many great moments even if its promise wasn't fulfilled.


Shining Knight said...

Most of us in the UK thought that the Valiant was derived from Cloudbase in Gerry Anderson's Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, rather than the SHIELD Helicarrier. The design as a flying aircraft carrier looks rather closer to the Anderson craft, and British viewers wouldn't have heard of SHIELD back then.

Anonymous said...

King Harold II was the last Saxon king of England, before the Normans took over. (The last one who mattered anyway.) There's got to be some significance to that, but I never figured out what.

Siskoid said...

Knight: I cite cultural differences! That makes sense, thanks.

Anon: The Master often took pseudonyms that were takes on "Master", either in different languages, anagrams, or references to Mastery. In this case, Harold King of Saxons is just another way for him to say he's Master of Britain.

CiB said...

Also "Mister Saxon" is an anagram of "master no six"- short for "Master number six", John Simm is the sixth actor to play the master on TV (if you don't count the "body double" for the execution in the TV movie), but this is actually just a coincidence. That is, RTD et al have admitted they didn't think of this at the time.

On this spidoe- I really don't like the way the Master is portrayed here. One thing all the Masters except Simm's had in common was that they were at least in control of themselves. This Master just came about as an insane agent of chaos. I actually prefer Eric Roberts' Master to John Simm's.

Anonymous said...

"The Master often took pseudonyms that were takes on 'Master', either in different languages, anagrams, or references to Mastery. In this case, Harold King of Saxons is just another way for him to say he's Master of Britain."

I guess that makes sense, except that Harold's claim to fame is losing his kingdom to a stronger opponent. But maybe that's the point? Maybe that's his subtle way of telling everyone in advance that they're going to be replaced by a stronger people? God damn it, that Master can be a real jerk.

Siskoid said...

CiB: You've blown my mind!

Anon: I think his clever name backfired! He WAS beaten by someone stronger!

LiamKav said...

One point that I think was lost regarding the Master was that he was supposed to be the Doctor's opposite. The thing is, every few years the Doctor changed personality. So while the original Master was a great opposite for suave, James Bond-Pertwee, the production staff forgot to update him for later Doctors. You could argue that Ainley's hamming it up worked for the more cartoonish 80s Doctors, but even with the more conventionally heroic Fifth Doctor, Davison elevated the material to make him more than that, which Ainley couldn't or wasn't allowed to do.

So, as you say, Simm is a great Master for the Tenth Doctor. It does make me wonder how you'd do Master's for the others though. A quiet, subtle one for Doctor no 6?

Siskoid said...

That would make a fun article. I'll give it some thought.


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