Utopia & The Sound of Drums
Written by Russell T Davies
Reviewed by Tony J Fyler
Utopia broadcast 16th June 2007
The Sound of Drums broadcast 23rd June 2007
Utopia began the first true three-part story (equivalent to a six-parter in Classic Who) of the New Who era. Beginning in
it would re-unite Doctor Who with the world of Torchwood that had been spawned
since the Ninth Doctor abandoned Captain Jack Harkness on the Game Station. It
would take us to the very end of the universe as we know it. It would begin a
journey that would finally give new girl Martha Jones a chance to get over her
pining love for the Doctor, realise there were more important things and earn
her companion-stripes by saving the world. Cardiff
For all that, once the story has kicked off with Captain Jack clinging to the outside of the Tardis all the way through the vortex – as the Doctor says, ‘it’s very him’ – things do go a little bit silly and light on the details that should perhaps underpin the spectacle.
Futurekind, a kind of regressive, savage tribe of flesh-eaters who may or may not be what humans are destined to evolve into if they don’t reach Utopia (given the events of subsequent episodes, we’re going to say not), seem to be there to provide a couple of chase scenes and get our heroes from A-B in a big hurry, and add a kind of apocalyptic hurry to the events of the episode’s end.
The history of Chantho’s people remains largely a mystery, though it seems they were the locals until the humans moved in – rather suggesting the humans annihilated them, given Chantho’s singularity in the story, and throwing quite an odd-tasting light on her adoration of the Professor at the end of the universe. And that idea itself – that they’re at the end of the universe, with nothing but death and blackness to look forward to unless they reach Utopia – seems bizarre, a triumph of chirpy optimism over the realities of physics: the last survivors at the ‘end’ of the universe will most likely be congregating somewhere towards the point of the original Big Bang, if the encroaching blackness is to be taken seriously as a threat. That would mean there’s nowhere to actually go – certainly not in a rickety rocket held together with spit and string and shoelaces.
But to insist on garish reality is to miss the point spectacularly – as Professor Yana candidly admits, the signal for which they’re aiming may be nothing, may be everything, but either way ‘it’s worth a look, don’t you think?’ That’s the point of Utopia – you never quite know whether you’re watching something worthwhile or hopeless, but at the very least, it’s the spirit of hope that keeps everything in motion. And if hope is what survives of the human spirit till the end of time, it’s really not a bad legacy at all.
But there’s more to Utopia than hope, of course. There’s Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana, Hartnelling it up for all he’s worth – and he’s worth really rather a lot. He’s the lynchpin in a story that has several threads – the man who built the rocket to give humanity hope of somewhere to go, a genius to match the Doctor’s own, a savior, and a spectacular positive force, holding off the blackness and the drumming in his head.
The irony being of course, he, like the hope of Utopia, is a fiction, a nothing, a lie. If there’s a fundamental point at the heart of Utopia, it’s that things and people have no inherent value – but that in being there, and choosing an optimistic path, they can deliver value beyond themselves.
may be a fictional construct, but while he exists, while he works to give the
human race hope and to stave off the drumming in his head, the good he does is
by no means artificial: it brings purpose and aspiration to the last human
beings alive. When the drumming overwhelms him and he opens up his watch, the
good Professor Yana is the first of the Master’s new kills, the savior nailed
into nothingness by the emergence of the serpent inside. The idea of Utopia
seems to be inherently ridiculous to the reborn Master, the hope he inspired
nothing but a laughable idiocy. And, as we go on to find out, the hope for
humankind is a lie, turned ultimately into the perverse and genocidal paradox
of the Toclafane. But the story’s actually a parable of approach, and choice.
Choose hope and good things can happen even in the darkest of hours. Choose
hopelessness, choose to manifest the Master, and all that comes is bitterness,
destruction and disappointment.
There is a genuine case of redemption in Utopia too – coming in one of the quietest moments in the story, when Jack is repairing a system that it should be impossible to repair, the Doctor makes peace with Jack ‘the impossible thing,’ the unkillable man he became thanks to the actions of Rose the Bad Wolf. It’s a touching, candid moment that shed new light on both men, while setting up a reconciliation and a future in which the two will be more able to work together again.
But the pacing of the story means that despite scenes of excellence and quiet between
Yana and the Doctor, and between the Doctor and Jack,
we’re actually egging on the moment of destruction. From the time we start
hearing the drums in Yana’s head, with their half-heard, at-first-indistinct
voices shouting over them, we get a sense of what and who Yana
is, and such is the nature of humanity that we want him to fall.
We like Professor Yana, he seems like he could be a great friend of the Doctor’s – but we know that’s not the truth, and we know the revelation of that truth is inevitable. And when it comes, setting the seal on the whole Chameleon Arch invention that brought Human Nature to the screen earlier that season, it is glorious. Dark, and horrible and inevitable, but glorious – The Master…Reeeeeboooooorn shows why you should always entrust the best baddies to the best actors, Jacobi’s eyes turning blank and empty, then contemptuous and filled with rage and fury as the Master sweeps away the infantile fantasy of Yana as a good man – killing his friend, letting in the Futurekind, condemning anyone left on the planet to death and planning his escape in the Doctor’s Tardis. It’s a truly masterful five minutes that only serve to highlight how nuanced the performance of the last forty minutes have been. If you don’t know the ending in advance, it makes you thrill to see the Jacobi Master and hope the casting sticks for years.
And then – wallop. Bang. One last shot, one act of redemption from Chantho, and the Jacobi Master is stolen from us immediately. It’s a moment of bizarre bravura and mixed emotions – just as we begin to relish the idea of a Jacobi Master terrorizing time and space with those eyes and that voice, he’s gone, but what comes next is, better, more exciting, more ‘right’ somehow, because John Simm bows the doors off his first five minutes in the role and reinstates the Master in the Pertwee-Delgado mold of an Anti-Doctor, as he matches Tennant moment for movement and note for note, then leaves our heroes in the kind of impossible lurch from which only an impossible ‘…and this is how we escaped from that!’ beginning to the next episode will suffice to extricate them – which is presumably why that’s exactly what we got at the start of The Sound of Drums.
Utopia has its moments that shouldn’t be examined too closely for fear of Taking Doctor Who Too Seriously. If you let them flow by you like star systems into the void, it’s still, five seasons on, one of the most thrilling, intensely-paced hours of modern Who there is, driven along endlessly to the sound of the drums in Professor Yana’s head. It’s a story of hope in adversity, the falseness of those hopes in the face of undeniable reality, but their value nonetheless. And it’s a story that clearly shows us two contrasting ways to be, and recommends the better path, while all the while driving us on as an audience that loves the way of the Dark Side. It both has its allegorical cake and eats it, and we’re right there gulping down every morsel of its mad, layered, superbly played joy.
The Sound of Drums
The Sound of Drums is a very special episode of Doctor Who. Not only does it give Utopia the point of all its pounding, ominous undercurrent – the Master Reborn and rampant, but it’s pretty much the epitome of all the Pertwee Master stories. This is the story of what happens if the Master was here, and now, and real, and this is the story of how he wins.
Be honest – you want to go and watch it again right now, don’t you?
The curious thing is that while The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords are a tight two episode arc, and The Last of the Time Lords is the one that shows the blasted heath of a world the Master would leave us with, we don’t get the sense of that world so much as we do the world of The Sound of Drums, because The Sound of Drums takes place pretty much in our world, the world we know, and it shows the lengths and depths to which a truly contemptuous person could go to rub our noses in our own fallibilities and failings. The idea that after all the plans and disguises, the crazy schemes and the monster of the week alliances, with just a little satellite tweaking the human race (and more specifically, the British people) would vote for the Master to lead them is a delicious bit of social commentary and democratic satire.
But the Master in The Sound of Drums is also the Master at his most mad to that point, his most whimsical and dangerous. This is the Master who pulls faces in the Cabinet, then sits down and gases every one of his ministers. This is the Master who oozes down the phone at the Doctor about Gallifrey and what it must have felt like to destroy it, then turns rough, demanding the Doctor and his band of miscreants run. The Master who casually tells the Toclafane to obliterate the American President, who laughs and claps and dances, who tells sweet lies and dark truths to a reporter, then locks her in a room to be sliced and diced to death. The Master who orders the decimation of the planet’s men, women and children, without exception, and who thinks it good.
Without overselling the point, this is the Master we waited decades for. Delgado could have played this Master, beyond a shadow of a doubt, though his would always have been more refined by his physicality, but oh yes, given the script he could have played the Master who won. Ainley could too if he’d channelled the joy of performances like Logopolis, The King’s Demons and The Five Doctors. But Simm was hired to play a very particular kind of Master, and he blows it out of the water. It’s a powerhouse performance and it not only dominates the episode, it redefines the Master for a generation of Who fans.
Against the Simm Master in The Sound of Drums, very little can stand – we see him quickly taking power in the UK, announcing a unilateral deal with alien life forms, destroying the President and taking over the world in quick succession, and all while the Doctor, Jack and Martha are public enemies number one, two and three. Their time on the run changes the dynamics between them significantly: Jack and Martha come to an understanding that they’re in the same position when it comes to the Doctor, loving him when he doesn’t know they’re there; the Doctor discovers Jack’s involvement with Torchwood, and we get the official on-screen reason for its existence – it’s a love token to the Doctor’s way of doing things, a way to atone for past wrongs, real and imagined. But most importantly, Martha sees the things that happen around the Doctor when he’s winging it and out of control of the situation – people close to him can die. People they care about can be tortured for his sake, in his name and in his place, because he dares to stand up to the bullies of the universe, and they know the way to get to him is through the people standing close.
It’s the beginning of the end of her hero worship of the Doctor, and the world that comes to pass here is the one that demands Martha become the woman who walks the Earth, telling her story and ultimately saving the people of Earth. Funny, the things that blowing up your flat and torturing your family will do to you.
The Sound of Drums is a superb episode of Doctor Who – better by far than the slightly mushy The Last of the Time Lords, because it’s under no obligation to give us a happy ending. Quite the reverse – it puts the hammer down on the simple concept of the Master victorious, it shows how it could have happened, in all Pertwee stories, and how it could only happen here and now. It gives the John Simm Master by far his finest hour, unrestrained by having to be defeated or hampered by plot-elements that render him animalistic. If the Production Team were going to bring the Master back in 21st century Who, the story had to deliver contemporary shocks, things we’d never seen before, and a Master around whom we never ever felt safe because he’d been defeated so many times before.
The Sound of Drums delivers that in spades, and it makes the Master relevant in the annals of Doctor Who villainy for a whole new audience of fans. It’s a story that never gets old because every time you watch it, there’s something new to think about or something that you’ve known before strikes you in a brand new way and makes you gasp. The Sound of Drums will stand the test of time and it certainly cemented John Simm firmly into place as one of the most memorable incarnations of the Master ever to be seen (or heard) in Doctor Who. Stick it in your DVD player today, and relive The Sound of Drums.