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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “The Sound of Drums”

(intro to my Who blogging, please read before commenting / previous: Episode 11: “Utopia”)

It’s all the Doctor’s fault.

I don’t think we can deny this, though the Doctor might want to. Harold Saxon came to power in the wake of Harriet Jones’s downfall… which the Doctor is responsible for. If the Doctor had left Harriet Jones alone, would “Harold Saxon” have found quite the same kind of spectacular void to fill? We talk about voting for the lesser of two evils — I think it’s stretching it to call Jones “evil,” but I can see why the Doctor might feel that way, what with her blowing up a retreating alien spaceship — but, man! How does the Doctor feel about all this, I wonder?
“The Master is Prime Minister of Great Britain… the Master and his wife?” Lucy is such a wonderful conundrum. She clearly knows her husband is up to a whole bunch of No Good, and is cool with that, but does she know the real deal with him? Does she know he’s an alien? Or does she lie in bed with him at night and wonder about that strange echo in his heartbeat? Should we feel sorry for her, poor-deluded-but-in-love Lucy, or is she as wicked as he is? It’s almost easy to understand what she sees in him — he’s charming, and that fiendish grin is enough to make a gal weak in the knees — but what about him? I don’t think it’s just that her family had the right connections to aid his rise to power (Lucy’s line about how good Harold has been to her father makes me wonder just who her father is) — he seems genuinely fond of her. Is the Master, like the Doctor, lonely?

John Simm and that grin. Yeah, I could fall for evil.

I love that Russell Davies turned what could have been a goof — the Master as Prime Minister! — into something so profoundly of-the-moment that you almost can’t believe how audacious he’s being. The weaseliness of politicians (all those “traitors” in Saxon’s cabinet), the complicity of the media in not holding truth to power (because when journalists try, like Vivien Rook, they end up, ahem, silenced), the williness of the citizenry to simply jump on the bandwagon of a candidate who says things that sound generically nice, the intrusion on civil liberties that comes with blanket CCTV surveillance and the imprisonment of the innocent (but politically inconvenient) without cause or due process… I mean, I know a lot of folks get their right-wing panties in a twist when the word “fascist” gets thrown about to describe actual, real-world leaders, but geez, is it okay for us to call Harold Saxon a fascist?

Not so much science fiction in our science fiction these days, is there?

There’s a lot of similarities in what’s happening politically and culturally in both the U.S. and the U.K. at the moment, but not everything is comparable. Even an insane, twisted, extraterrestrial Time Lord can get royally pissed off by America swinging its imperialist dick around. Gotta love that “So America is completely in charge?” the Master throws at President Winters, who doesn’t even seem to appreciate what Saxon is saying: Who died and made America boss? (Despite — or perhaps because of — the actions of our unelected president, plenty of us Americans don’t get off on the imperialistic dick-swinging stuff, either. Even some of us recognize that the U.S. has gone so totally insane lately that even lunatics like Pat Buchanan — or the Master — are on the right side of at least some things.) Hilariously pointed and bitter, the crawls under the news reports of the first meeting with the Toclafane: the British broadcast frames Saxon’s getting pushed aside by Winters as “Saxon invites President Winters to join him in formalising relations with…” (emphasis mine), while on the American broadcast, as the anchor is saying, “President Winters has been chosen to lead the world into a new age” (emphasis mine; Winters bullied his way in, of course), the crawl underneath her twists the knife with “Prime Minister Saxon forced into an embarrassing climbdown as President Winters is asked to–” etc.

Ah, but here’s some geeky nitpicking: “climbdown” is not a word an American would use; I get the sense of it, but I’ve never heard it before. And Winters calling himself the “president elect” is simply wrong. (If he were the “president elect,” he would not yet be sworn in as president, and hence would not yet be representing the U.S. internationally). Perhaps Davies meant Winters was stating that he was “duly elected”? Whatever. I’m fascinated to note that the Doctor saying “You’ve been watching too much TV” and not saying “You’ve been watching too much telly,” as I think the line would have been 20 years ago, and also Jack’s so perfectly American “We’ve gotta ditch this car” (which suggests that Jack’s been watching a lot of TV and movies, too) means there has been a lessening of the differences in slang between these two cultures. But the “climbdown” line suggests we’re still separated a little bit by our common language.

I think this all means that Davies needs at least one American on his writing staff, and for the good of Doctor Who, I volunteer to be that one American.

Ah, all the tantalyzing hints about life on Gallifrey… The idea that the Time Lords subject their children to an initiation — staring into “the untempered schism” (that’s wonderfully poetic) at “the raw power of time and space,” which drives some of those children mad… well, that’s just sick, isn’t it? The Master cannot be an anomaly on Gallifrey — he’s just one of, the Doctor suggests, many. Maybe he did grander things with his insanity, but still, this is not a well society. But of course, that’s me judging Gallifrey by the standards of my own culture — by the norms of their culture, they’re unlikely to have thought themselves insane. I also think, though, that by the standards of Gallifreyan society, the Doctor is probably considered as insane as the Master. “Never to interfere, only to watch…” How can the Time Lords not think the Doctor not just a criminal but a madman as well?

The scene in which the Doctor and the Master have their conversation over the phone really thrills me, and I’ve only just now, after my fifth or sixth viewing of this episode, figured out why. Unlike if they’d had that exact same conversation in person, there’s something paradoxically more intimate about the phone: it reduces the dialogue down to just the two of them talking right into each other’s head, and highlights the duality of them: they really are two sides of the same coin. I think the Doctor knows this, and that is why he’s so testy when he dismisses Martha’s suggestion about the Master being the Doctor’s brother — they are brothers of a kind.

Vote Saxon!

Random thoughts on “The Sound of Drums”:

• Could there be a more British name than “Harold Saxon”?

• The deadly gas shooting out of those conference phones? Damn, those things always did look like nasty alien technology to me.

• Jelly babies! (Ever had one of those? They’re gross.)

• Jack still has the TARDIS key on his keyring… and what do all those other keys open…?

• I love Martha’s apartment. It’s like Ikea exploded.

• The Master likes Teletubbies? I always knew those little fuckers were evil.

• Something about Jack making the tea is very sexy. Okay, everything that Jack is and does is sexy as hell.

• “I’ve sent his little gang off on a wild goose chase to the Himilayas.” Now there’s some fodder for fan fiction. Is the Torchwood Scooby gang off searching for Yeti?

• More fodder: “I was there when the Dalek Emperor took control of the Cruciform.” Please please please a Time War movie…

• “The Valiant is a UNIT ship.” UNIT has ships? Cool!

• Great quotes from this episode:

“Ooo, you public menace!”–the Master

“I thought you were gonna say he was your secret brother or something.”–Martha. “You’ve been watching too much TV.”–the Doctor

“It’s like when you fancy someone and they don’t even know you exist.”–the Doctor, oblivious. “You too, huh?”–Jack, exchanging lovelorn looks with Martha

“Laser screwdriver. Who’d have sonic?”–the Master

(next: Episode 13: “Last of the Time Lords”)

MPAA: not rated

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