3 years, 6 months ago
It’s June 23rd, 2007. “Umbrella” remains at number one for the last portion of Season Three, while Enrique Iglesias, Kelly Rowland and Clarkson, and the White Stripes also chart. In news, heavy rains and flooding continue across the UK, with thirteen people dying in total. A burning car crashes into Glasgow Airport, with, reportedly, one of the people responsible being arrested while on fire. And Tony Blair resigns from Parliament to divide his time between being a special envoy to the Middle East and tending to some lovely hills in the the southeast of England, finally clearing the way for Gordon Brown.
While on television we have Downing Street hijinks of a different sort. The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords is generally seen as the failed Davies-era season finale. This isn’t quite unfair, but the actual grounds on which it fails are, on the whole, narrow. There are in effect two scenes that doom it - both cases where what looked sensible on the page turned ridiculous in practice. The first is when the already strained decision to have David Tennant slathered in latex to look old is replaced with the absolutely appalling Dobby the House Doctor CGI effect, leading to what was previously a quite well done sequence to collapse in a crumpled pile of bathos. The second is the reversal of that scene, in which Flying Magic Jesus Doctor descends upon the Master in a beam of badly misjudged light. Unfortunately, these are two major turning points in the episode, and instead of carrying the dramatic weight they’re meant to do they’re bathetic train wrecks.
But look, neither one fails to communicate the show’s intent - they just do so in a way that is difficult to take seriously because of the intense desire to burst out laughing. The errors stuck out like sore thumbs on broadcast, and this harmed the episodes’ reception, but broadcast was already a while ago. Already the story’s reputation seems to be shifting. So let’s say no more of two misjudged effects shots beyond that Davies is neither the first nor the last person on Doctor Who who has misjudged what the BBC could manage in the way of effects. Everybody believes their bubble wrap, at least.
Let’s start by observing the size of the task. Of all the things Davies tried to revamp within Doctor Who, this is perhaps the hardest. The Cybermen may be the rubbish second rate villains, but for the most part Davies had the good sense to use them that way. They were the villains you went for when the Daleks were the wrong choice but you still needed an “oh no it’s the” villain. But the Master… there’s not even a consensus list of what the best Master stories are. Say what you want about the Cybermen, but at least there’s a general consensus that Tomb of the Cybermen and Earthshock were both really good. (Never mind that I have little patience for either.) But what are the classic Master stories? Sure, there are some scattered Pertwee ones that are quite good, but your vision of the character swings dramatically based on whether you pick Terror of the Autons, The Daemons, or The Sea Devils. The Ainley Master arguably never works, and there’s a strong case to be made that the character is at his best when he’s a pizza. It’s not hard to understand why Moffat hasn’t touched the character in three seasons, and has suggested in interviews that the only real reason to do it is if you have Roger Delgado to play the part.
Because the Master falls into a general category of villain that just doesn’t work: the evil duplicate of the hero. The problem is that the evil duplicate has to be just like the hero only rubbish and prone to failing constantly. So instead of being terrifying because he’s all the skill and brilliance of the Doctor only working for evil, the Master is a punchline whose appearance mostly signifies a story that’s well and truly gone off the rails. “You’re the camp one,” as Moffat put it in The Curse of Fatal Death. And finding ways out of this is tricky.
Almost everything about The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords can be explained in these terms. The audacious scope of the Master’s scheme is notable largely because it finally unleashes the character and has him achieving things as scary as “the Doctor gone irredeemably evil” should be. So much of Last of the Time Lords in particular is achieved in the little gestures where it’s suggested just how awful the year that’s been skipped was. The Master has outright ruined the Earth, slaughtering the entire population of Japan. Phrases like “the radiation pits of Europe” speak volumes. More volumes, really, than the episode can muster - what the Master has done isn’t just too expensive to show on television, it’s too horrific. (This is the same reason the Doctor is aged - because the real story is the Doctor being tortured, but for understandable reasons they’re not going to do David Tenant in Abu Ghraib on BBC One.) Nothing - not even the Dalek/Cybermen war - has ever taken things this far.
Similarly important is the way in which it escalates. In The Sound of Drums the Master’s plan is already miles beyond anything we’ve ever seen before. The Master is Prime Minister. And that’s not even his plan. That’s just a casual thing he’s done on the way to his plan, much like building a satellite system to hypnotize the entire planet. From the get-go the Master has already accomplished a baroque and insane plan for world domination of the sort that the Doctor, in the classic series, usually stops him from. This isn’t even “the Doctor wasn’t here.” He was, repeatedly, throughout the Master’s rise to power, and he missed it. Even when he is there and knows what’s going on, he can’t stop it. Even to survive he has to knock up a perception filter and essentially hide within the narrative.
It’s necessary to pause here and look at the specifics of this. Each of Davies’s first three seasons contains an explicit engagement with contemporary British politics, from killing Tony Blair off in The Aliens of London to the fall of Harriet Jones and Torchwood’s neo-imperialist vision in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. Now we have a charismatic politician from, it seems, outside the existing party structure who has managed to assemble a coalition of ministers from existing parties in order to become Prime Minister. Just a bit of a Tony Blair analogue, then. It’s worth contemplating, especially as these episodes are going out as the Tony Blair era comes to a close.
The degree to which Blair is a villain of the left is an interesting one. He is, after all, a Labour politician. An extremely centrist Labour politician, yes, but a Labour politician nevertheless. And yet there is a substantial portion of the political left that despises him with a passion normally reserved for milk-snatchers. Much of this centers on the Iraq War, and more broadly on the bewildering spectacle of Tony Blair’s apparent desire to become George W. Bush’s lapdog. But even before the Iraq War there was a sense of backlash that manifested in things like Warren Ellis’s savage Transmetropolitan, which transplanted a blatant Tony Blair analogue to a futuristic United States and proceeded to have him become a despotic psychopath.
What was disturbing about Tony Blair was always the sheer level of polish he brought to things. By 1997 Labour was in such a strong position that even Michael Foot could probably have won the election. But Blair did win it, and won it with a jaw-droppingly slick and well-heeled political campaign that took copious notes from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. The result, though, was that Blair always seemed disingenuous - as though his public imaeg was a facade masking, at best, raw opportunism. And so the idea that the Master, established last episode as the serpent in the garden, would become a glittering Tony Blair figure is perfectly sensible, bordering on obvious.
But the decay that the Master represents is so fundamental that the result goes well beyond “what if Tony Blair really were evil” and into the suggestion that the entire social order - the world itself - is going to crumble. This is still the basic horror of the Master. It’s not just that he’s as clever and brilliant as the Doctor. It’s that he has his own narrative logic. Where the Doctor suggests that we can endlessly change and evolve and come up with new things to do, the Master’s narrative is one of rot. We will all eventually fall. Darkness will come. Nothing has any point. The Master seeks, Torchwood like, a new empire spanning the cosmos, but the only purpose of his empire seems to be its eventual collapse in the end of all things. The purpose of his New Gallifrey is to inevitably perish. He desires the lens of history only so he can have the certainty of decay and oblivion.
There is, however, another key aspect to Davies’s revamp of the Master. This new version of the character is charismatic in the same way that the Doctor is. Instead of being a leering, cackling menace, the Master leans into the accusation of camp wholeheartedly. In many ways this makes him more terrifying - it’s the same reason the Slitheen’s fart jokes are unsettling, and, for that matter, why the Toclafane giggling about how much fun it is to kill people is scary. A homicidal maniac is one thing, but one who sashays around singing along with the Scissor Sisters is somehow another.
This aspect of the revamp also works its way around to addressing another issue. Doctor Who, as we’ve noted, has been reworked in a post-Buffy televisual landscape. Tat Wood frames this, with more than a hint of condescension, as the series being written “for teenage girls,” but it’s more complex than that. The series has inherited a huge number of textual practices from feminist genre fandom. And one of those is slash fiction. Slash fiction, if you’ve been living under a rock, is a subgenre of fanfiction, typically written by heterosexual women, focusing on sexual and romantic pairings between male characters who are not explicitly paired on the show. (The name derives from the punctuation mark used to designate these stories, as in “Kirk/Spock.”)
Slash fiction and Doctor Who have not been terribly prevalent, simply because there’s not been a lot of stretches on the show where there’s been multiple male characters to pair up. The small cast and tendency towards the single female companion has always made slash difficult. Few people make any effort to sexualize One (we may as well use the new fandom’s nomenclature for this conversation, as it’s firmly their game). There’s some Two/Jamie, less Three/Brigadier or Four/Harry than you’d expect (though a fair amount of Benton/Yates), and then your one real motherlode of slash in the classic series: Five. There were several reasons for this - the move towards a much younger actor meant that Five was a conventionally sexy Doctor in a way previous ones hadn’t been. You also had a sudden profusion of male characters. Five/Adric may be a bit ageplayish for tastes, but Five/Turlough practically begs for it.
And then there’s Five/Master. The archnemesis slash pairing is already a goldmine. Slash is largely, in at least one mainstream reading, about forcibly adding emotional content to a hypermasculine narrative and about aggressively reappropriating it for female audiences. And so the hero/archnemesis romantic pairing, where the reason they hate each other is that their passionate love affair went bad. Add to that the way in which the archnemesis is typically obsessed with the hero in some fashion, constantly coming back to haunt him despite the obviously self-defeating nature of this and you have a slash goldmine. And the Master played into this perfectly. The fact that he’s obsessed with the Doctor is established way back in The Mind of Evil, and lines like his “a universe without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about” line are just gold for slashers.
So there was never any way that the Doctor, for whom same sex attraction has been a thing since The Doctor Dances, can be paired with a young and dashing archnemesis and not have it be slashed. And Davies leans into it. The decision to make the Master overtly camp (entertainingly, Simm supposedly modeled his performance in part on Davies) was in many ways consciously giving into it. Simm and Tennant are absolutely made for slashing. The ending plays into this with such ferocity that it borders on making it canon. The Doctor defeating the Master and embracing him to say “I forgive you” is… well, look, I may not be the right person to judge this, actually, as a straight guy. But as I’m married to a card-carrying member of the “John Simm’s Master is the sexiest thing ever on television” brigade, I have a good resource. So, let’s get a description of the “I forgive you” moment from her. “It is all of the slashy. All of it.” (Actually, she thinks the slashiest moment is the phone call in The Sound of Drums. Specifically the exchange “Master.” “I like it when you use my name.” It should stop using my wife as an example before this gets too revealing.) Indeed, it’s difficult to come up with a more cliched premise for a seventy-nine chapter slash epic than the Doctor’s proposal to travel with the Master for all eternity and take care of him.
An appalling excess of words have been spilled on the supposed “gay agenda” of the Russell T Davies era - an agenda that basically amounted to “having gay people on the show sometimes.” For the most part far, far too much is made of the impact of Davies’s sexuality on Doctor Who. It impacts his Doctor Who almost exactly as much as his being a Doctor Who fan impacts Queer as Folk. Which is to say, there are certainly aspects of his Doctor Who that are easily linked to the specific gay male culture he depicts in Queer as Folk, but it’s in no way what the show is about.
(It’s worth making a brief set of comments here. Gay male culture is a specific cultural phenomenon tied to specific historical circumstances. Much of it is a culture of oppression - that is, a culture that exists specifically as a practical response to appallingly homophobic social and legal conditions. It was, in short, a survival mechanism cobbled together out of historical accident. For instance, the theater was long a profession in which it was reasonably safe to be a gay man, which explains a lot about how camp theatricality became a mode of protest and defiance for gay male culture, and, in turn, a stereotype. However “gay male culture” is not even remotely coextensive with “gay men,” and, due to the number of significant civil rights victories the gay community has won, grows less so by the year, since gay men have vastly more safe options for where and how to look for sexual partners. Davies, however, is steeped in gay male culture - much more so, in fact, than the bulk of prominent gay Doctor Who fans and writers, for whom Doctor Who fandom often provided an alternative safe space quite distinct from normative gay male culture.)
All of which said, if there is a moment in Davies’s Doctor Who that demonstrates how fertile the collision of gay male culture and Doctor Who is, it is his Master/Doctor interaction. On the one hand the Master, under Davies, is played as a camp stereotype that set the idiots who blathered on about the “gay agenda” to maximum stupidity. But what’s key is that quietly, and without drawing attention to it, Davies turns the traditional slash relationship on its head. In the normal Doctor/Master slash pairing, it is the Master who is obsessed with the Doctor. His villainy is ultimately just a reaction to the Doctor spurning him. And for almost the entire run of Utopia through Last of the Time Lords, Davies is content to let it appear that this is the case: the Master is crazy and obsessed with the Doctor. Whereas the Doctor’s apparent obsession with the Master is entirely down to the whole “last of the Time Lords” thing - the Master means he doesn’t have to be alone.
But at the end of the story this is aggressively reversed. The Doctor begs the Master to stay with him and regenerate, not just because he doesn’t want to be alone, but on the strength of their past relationship. He appeals to their long, epic struggle, and even to the Axons, while the Master mocks him, suggesting that dying in his arms was always the Doctor’s fantasy. And suddenly the entire slash pairing turns on its head. The Master was never in love with the Doctor. How could he be - he’s the most fundamental moral rot and depravity that it is possible to imagine. As a character, he only makes sense if he’s outright incapable of love. It has always been the Doctor who is in love with the Master, while the Master is a murderous and depraved psychopath who never once reciprocated. It’s absolutely brilliant - as brilliant as it being Lucy, who’s suffering only ever plays out quietly in the background, who kills him. (The tiny detail of her nursing a black eye at the start of Last of the Time Lords is chilling and oh so good.) It’s a gloriously bitter pill.
There is, however, one problem with it, which is that it does absolutely awful things to Martha. And this is a pity; so much of Last of the Time Lords is a glorious triumph for Martha. The entire point of the episode is that for most of it everybody but Martha is completely sidelined and she has to single-handedly save the world. And she does, in the most staggeringly impressive feat that a companion has ever mustered. There is no companion who has ever managed as thorough and astonishing an act of solo heroism as Martha Jones. Given that the nature of her heroism requires the narrative collapse of the show becoming Master Who, such that his narrative logic applies and the world is completely ruined, it’s likely that this is an all-time high water mark for the companion. Martha Jones is, on the evidence of Last of the Time Lords, the single most competent Doctor Who companion there ever has or will be.
Which makes the end of the episode, in which she becomes self-actualized because she’s learned to walk away from an emotionally destructive bit of unrequited love so frustrating. Not for the self-actualization - that’s quite nice, actually. No, the issue here is that this coincides with the episode that goes the furthest in linking the Doctor to being a gay man. No, of course the Doctor is not gay. The entire Rose plot kills that right off. But there are easy analogies to draw between the “lonely god” image and the isolation of the closet. And we’ve just had an episode in which the Doctor is set up for a slash pairing in which he’s the one who’s in love. And for that to coincide with Martha learning that she has to not be obsessed with him and live her own life… well, the result is that Martha ends up being the straight woman who falls for her gay best friend, who then fixes her up and sends her off to be independent.
I’m not going to suggest that Davies is misogynistic - at least, not in an ideological way. On the other hand, there is a history of misogyny in gay male culture - one Davies puts on display in Queer as Folk. No, putting it on display doesn’t mean endorsing it, but it does mean that it’s a cultural attitude he’s aware of. And while it’s a different sort of misogyny than the standard issue and tedious rape culture misogyny, it’s still a form of misogyny. And this falls squarely in a common stereotype within it: frustration at how straight women want “gay best friends,” and the “gay men fixing up straight women” meme. No, it’s not some conscious insult to women. But it’s a visible and genuinely offensive blind spot that casts a nasty pall over the episode.
But there’s a larger issue as well. Martha’s heroism is crucial to saving the day, but it is not actually what averts the narrative collapse represented by the Master. The actual aversion comes from the entire population of the world chanting Doctor at the same moment and thus restoring him through the power of belief channeled through the Archangel Network. Which is to say, Martha saves the day by spending a year being an evangelical Doctor Who fan, and then the popular desire to have more Doctor Who dethrones the Master’s narrative authority and reestablishes the Doctor as the most fundamental force in the narrative.
But there’s something problematic here. The threat posed by the Master isn’t one that’s adequately solved by the popularity of Doctor Who. The Master, by this point in the narrative, is a staggeringly large, existential threat concerning the idea that there is a fundamental force of evil in the universe to which all things eventually fall. Beyond that, this existential threat has been tied to contemporary politics, suggesting that the elected leadership of the United Kingdom is infected with this fundamental decay. “Doctor Who is a really neat television show” is not actually a sufficient response to this. Doubly so because of the degree to which the Master’s rise to power stems from the Tenth Doctor’s “original sin” of overthrowing Harriet Jones, and the degree to which he, Martha, and Jack, and, more to the point, the audience’s desire for the return of Doctor Who’s underlying mythology in the first place all bear direct responsibility for the Master’s rise. And, for that matter, because the Master’s insane drumming is, as we’ve noted, just the Doctor Who theme in the first place. At the time, without looking at future episodes at all, the resolution felt wrong and inadequate. The balance of the narrative collapse wasn’t quite right - it was too pat and self-congratulatory.
Hindsight and knowing where the story goes helps with this. Davies’s next two season finales return to the issues here, but separate them and give them individual solutions so that the idea of the inevitability of evil and the idea of Doctor Who’s arrogance can be treated as two phenomenon instead of as one, as they are here. And the Doctor’s failure to adequately address the issue in this story has consequences just as much as his arrogant overthrowing of Harriet Jones did. Indeed, many (though not all) of the ways in which this episode is unsettling and unsatisfying look deliberate or, if not deliberate, at least like things the series recognized and responded to.
But for now, at the end of the third season, there’s a strange sense of unease. Between a particularly wobbly patch early on and the strange nature of the finale, there is something not quite right. It is as though perhaps the Master, between his explicitly telegraphed survival and the fact that his nature is to serve as the kernel of darkness that brings down all things in the end, has won. The aversion of a narrative collapse always has a price that is paid. In this case, it seems, the price is a festering wound and the knowledge that, inevitably, the narrative will collapse again.
But first there’s a rather large boat that’s crashed into the TARDIS.
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