Doctor Who – “The Sound of Drums”

Spaceballs. Look, someone had to say it.

This is a bit of a mixed bag, much like last week’s episode.

Let’s start with the good: the best bit. The bit that geeks me out. Completely. Which is obviously the Gallifrey flashback. This is Gallifrey as we never quite saw it back in the bad old days when it was a really, really dull place with the kind of politicking that made The Phantom Menace look exciting. This is the Time Lords as proper mythic beings commanding space and time and living in a city that isn’t so much under a glass dome as it is inside a glass bottle. Oh, and they kept the old logo and the impractical collars, for which they deserve kudos. I also very much like the idea of the Time Lord initiation being to stare into the abyss vortex, which is just the kind of stupid, dangerous, vaguely abusive thing mythic societies do. I have to hope that the proportion of those who are inspired vastly outnumbers the proportion of those who run away or go mad1 otherwise Gallifreyan society might become a tiny bit skewed, but you never know.

Leaving aside this cool but admittedly small element of the episode, we’re left with an action-drama that hits lots of dramatic notes while feeling slightly unreal and larger than life. It’s not quite down there with the show’s last visit to Number Ten, but the epic sweep of events combined with cartoonish logic does undermine the feeling of threat. The worst offender, it saddens me to say, is John Simm as the Master. The part is broadly written, to be sure, with a sense of the absurd that previous incarnations of the character never exhibited, but the level of mugging from John Simm uncomfortably recalls some of the teething problems that the series had in its first year. The same dialogue, delivered with a more low key sense of dark irony, could have been much more effective. As it is we’re left with a villain who would disgrace the most vapid of Hollywood blockbusters, and even most Kid’s TV. John Simm is clearly having fun with a role which is fairly one-dimensionally evil, but I can’t help but wish that he’d been reined in.

The exception are the scenes in which the Master and the Doctor get to talk, which represent some good (though superficial) character conflict. I enjoyed the discussion about their respective chosen names, and generally speaking the tone of their conversations is grimmer than the surrounding scenes. Taken in tandem with the Gallifrey material we do get quite an effective glimpse of their shared history.

Martha and Jack work well this week. Martha gets to be resentful of the Doctor and also more commanding and self-assured than she sometimes is. Her “I’ll be back” moment leaves you feeling genuinely optimistic that she’ll be able to help rather than sounding like an empty promise. Jack gets to unburden himself about Torchwood (perhaps inappropriately given that show’s inaccessibility to a lot of Who viewers) and blatantly lie about how he’s reformed it. He also gets the great line: “You too, huh?”

All of which elements are woven into a plot in which the Master gets elected Prime Minister, wipes out his cabinet, and invites alien balls of steel to take over the planet. It’s silly but it does work on the level of a romp. The use of the Tardis to open a space-time rift is interesting (assuming that’s all a Paradox Machine does – I do wonder if Gallifrey is going to feature a little bit in the Master’s plans somewhere along the way.)

The only thing I disliked outright was the music which picked up where last week’s bombast left off and never really paused for breath. In another episode I might not have minded, but combined with the over-the-top story it began to really grate.

So a mixed mag, as I said at the start. I did have a good time while the episode was on, but it’s a long way from great and a waste of a pivotal villain and a strong actor in John Simm. Nonetheless, resilient as I am, I’m still very keen to see how it all turns out next week.

Other thoughts:

Jelly Babies!

I’m sure that actor has played the US President in something else.

The old age make-up is both very convincing and leaves David Tennant totally unrecognisable, unlike the lighter version used in ‘The Family of Blood’.

UNIT has a flying Sky Base2! I’m very happy for them and they do deserve it.

My wife appreciated the correct usage of the verb “to decimate”.

1 Like, for example, Omega and the Rani

2 Like, for example, Sky Captain, Captain Scarlet and S.H.I.E.L.D.

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