Written by: Russell T Davies
Directed by: Colin Teague
Vote Saxon! Oh, you already have. Never mind, then.
So here we are: season three of Doctor Who hurtles into climax mode, bringing back one of the show’s essential villains for a 21st Century showdown. If we’re honest, John Simm’s casting as the resurrected Master was one of the great open secrets, stoking the less spoiler-averse among us for months now. But while we knew he was lined up for some arch nemesis action, we had no idea exactly what kind of Master the former Sam Tyler would deliver.
The portentously titled ‘The Sound of Drums’ answers that question, and Simm’s performance powers – if not dwarves - the entire episode. This is a very different proposition to the Master of old; out go the velvety theatrics and the Goatee of Death. This is a slick, frequently sick spin on the Time Lord’s Moriarty, every bit as contemporary as the Converse-clad, Kylie-quoting Doctor.
Simm is clearly having a hoot. There’s a pinch of Tony Blair in the shit-eating grin that launches us with a laugh and a shiver into the title sequence, a cartload of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the scene where he gases the cabinet and, bizarrely, what appears to be a brief channeling of Simon Pegg (“I don’t know! It’s crrrrrrazy!”). It doesn’t take something as unsubtle as the Master munching on a jelly baby to tell us that this is very much a dark, cracked reflection of the Doctor himself, and Simm plays this side of the character with a ripely entertaining goblin charm. There’s even a mocking hint of sexual tension as he tells the Doctor “I love it when you use my name…” And somehow that’s even more unnerving than his old habit of reducing extraneous cast members to the size of dolls.
Naturally, Russell T Davies slips in a few fan-gasms along the way. The Master watches Teletubbies, demonstrating a taste for pre-school programming that’s survived countless regenerations (Roger Delgado’s Master tuned in to The Clangers in the Pertwee adventure The Sea Devils). He also paraphrases a famous line from the Tom Baker yarn Logopolis (“Peoples of the Earth, please attend carefully…” – a scaling back of his ambitions from “Peoples of the universe”, at least). And, finally, we get our first glimpse of Gallifrey in New Who, and a comic book-styled flashback to the secret origin of the Master, driven insane by the sight of eternity at a tender age(there’s a nice sense of Harry Potter-style mythology-building in seeing him as a kid).
Just like last year’s Army of Ghosts, this all plays as a bit of a set-up for next week’s episode, manoeuvering people into place for the Big Ending. But there’s good stuff along the way, from the sly Anne Widdecombe cameo that feels like something out of Brass Eye to the pure black comedy of the Master opening and closing the door on Vivienne Rook’s death-screams, knuckles clutched to his mouth in mock horror. Some effects triumphs too: Gallifrey is everything you ever dreamed it would be, and the final shot of the Death Star torture droid-styled Toclafane bombarding the Earth in their billions is spectacular and horrifying in equal measure. Martha’s family still feel sketchy compared to the Tyler clan, but kudos to Freema for giving Martha some balls in this one, telling the Doctor “I’ll do what I like!” You go, girl.
Oh, and there’s something deeply amusing about the Master sending the Torchwood team on a wild goose chase up the Himalayas. No doubt they came so hard they completely forgot where they were…
“You’re on telly! You and your little band – which, by the way, is ticking every demographic box.”