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10 February 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 771: The Sound of Drums

Dear diary,

I’ve seen a lot of debate over the years about the Series Three finale. Specifically, is it a two-parter, or a three-parter? Certainly, the BBC officially class it as a three-parter, and watching here it’s hard to disagree with that statement. Utopia doesn’t end with a tease into the next episode, and the next adventure, it ends on a proper cliffhanger, with the Doctor and his companions trapped at the end of the universe while the Master regenerates and escapes in the TARDIS. We pick up in today’s episode with our trio escaping those events, and following the Master’s trail back to 21st century Earth… in my mind this is clearly the next episode in a trilogy. I think the issue comes in Series Four, when Turn Left isn’t classed as the start of a three-parter with that finale, but I’ll reserve judgement for a couple of weeks until I’ve watched it again. How about you lot? Where do you stand on the great Utopia/Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords debate? Two parts or three? Answers on a postcard (or just in the comments).

I’ve also seen a lot of debate as to the various merits or otherwise of this finale. I think it’s fair to say that it’s not overly loved by fandom, is it? In last year’s big story poll by Doctor Who Magazine, it was ranked as the 55th best story - meaning that only Season Six’s finale, The Wedding of River Song, placed lower (at number 129 - ouch), while all the other season finales of the modern era were ahead of it - some by considerable margins (The Name of the Doctor comes in at 15, with Parting of the Ways pulling the lead at number 13).

My memory of this one is that the story was all right, I suppose, but it was hardly Earth-shattering, and if anything it all felt like a bit of a mess by the end, so I’ve never really thought of it in a particularly positive light, truth be told.

That said, I’ve found a fair bit to like in today’s episode, and it largely starts with the scale of the threat. It really reels very desperate, doesn’t it? The Parting of the Ways faces us with an army of Daleks, and little hope of escape. That’s bad enough. Doomsday posits an Earth invaded by Daleks and Cybermen, ready to wage war over the planet. Also, fairly high stakes, though two weeks on from that one, it all feels a bit artificial. This episode, though, hits home by being so very real. Oh, yes, fine, there’s an alien as Prime Minister and he’s working in league with floating silver balls, but they only make up a very small part of today’s episode - and don’t really come in to play in a major way until the end. 

Instead, the majority of this one is given over to the Doctor, Martha, and Jack on the run. They’re ‘most wanted’ and on the news, so it’s not like the last couple of finales, where the Doctor can swan in and take command. They have to lie low. On top of that, Martha’s flat is blown up, and we have to watch as her family is dragged (literally kicking and screaming) into custody. Because we’re watching events that could very easily happen on any of our streets at any time (and, indeed, in some parts of the world aren’t all that unusual occurrences), it hits home in a way that the other finales simply don’t.

While I’m on the subject of Martha’s family… I said during The Lazarus Experiment that they never really worked for me, but I’ve been surprised on this watch through just how much they have. Oh, they’re certainly still the weakest of the RTD-era families, but they’re also a lot better than I’ve been giving them credit for all these years. One of my bugbears was the fact that they couldn’t get Reggie Yates in for filming more than a day’s work on these finale episodes, so he’s largely sidelined in the plot. For ages, that’s always been something that serves as a minor irritant, and the perfect example of why the family never really felt as strong as the others. Actually, though, it’s handled quite well! If I didn’t know he’d simply been unavailable, I don’t think I’d have batted an eyelid. Perhaps one of those times where knowing too much about the behind the scenes going-ons actively harms the programme itself?

So… cautiously, we’re not looking too bad at this middle stage. I’ll be interested to see if tomorrow’s episode continues this trend of things holding up better second time around… 

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