Doctor Who: The Last Time Lord
a review by J. R. Vincent
Originally Published 27 May 1996
In the long and glorious history of Doctor Who, the programme had rarely if ever contradicted itself. There were momentary aberrations, of course, such as the three destructions of Atlantis, but these are by and large easily explained. The much-loved Virgin New Adventures owe much of their success to the care with which the details of the rich continuity of Doctor Who were preserved. But now in one fell swoop, this long and august tradition has come to nought with The Last Time Lord, or as it should perhaps be called, The Last of Continuity!
In the interest of fairness, we should perhaps start by considering the programme through the eyes of someone who knows little of Doctor Who‘s rich past. The set designs, costumes and visual effects are quite effective and polished, as one would well expect from the Yanks, and admittedly none could fault the performances of Hugh Laurie, Peter O’Toole, or this Harden bird. The story is fair. But for a story which draws its inspiration quite clearly from City of Death, it rings hollow and inadequate, a poor imitation.
Now, let us look at this telefilm as Doctor Who viewers. The following is not only my view, but the view, I think, of most enthusiasts of the programme. And on this level, The Last Time Lord is far worse than we had feared when it was announced that the Americans would get their hands on our beloved cultural institution.
From its very title, it immediately becomes clear that we are in substantial trouble. On the most simple level, the title completely spoils the plot, as it is clear even from the advertisements that the major “twist” of the story is that the Doctor’s race has been defeated and he is the sole survivor. On a simple dramatic level, this renders the story’s single most important plot element utterly transparent rather than a shocking reveal. Compare this with, for example, serial WWW, whose first episode aired under a false title, changing to Invasion of the Dinosaurs only for the subsequent episodes, once the dramatic reveal had been made.
To add insult to injury, the telefilm does not even have the decency to place this revelatory title up-front, instead using the terrible American cliche of the “cold open”. What point is there in placing a scene before the opening title sequence? The entire purpose of a title sequence is to let the viewer know what show they are watching. Instead, the viewer must sit through three minutes of Marcia Gay Harden wasting our time doing a medical investigation first.
But even ignoring all this, the whole conceit is utterly laughable. What enemy could possibly defeat the Time Lords? Who could even think to wage war on them? It was established utterly in The Invasion of Time that Gallifrey is impervious behind its transduction barriers. With weapons like the demat gun or the ability to lock away entire planets in time-loops, as seen in Image of the Fendahl and The War Games, what enemy could possibly even engage them in battle, to say nothing of waging such a complete genocide against them? Indeed, even if such an enemy did exist, it is impossible to imagine that the rest of the universe would survive unscathed. Surely a race that could conquer the Time Lords would have no problem going on to enslave Earth and every other planet in the universe. No, the destruction of the Time Lords here is nothing more than an obvious attempt to make the Doctor more palatable to Americans by giving him a backstory similar to Superman. Next, they’ll propose that he can fly!
Then of course there is the matter of the new TARDIS interior. All part of the rubbishing of the Time Lords, I suppose. The Type 40 TT capsule is meant to be a technological marvel beyond the imaginings of most species. Yet here it looks like some kind of Gothic cathedral. Where are the roundels? Where are the computer monitors and screens? Why does it look to be cobbled together from bits of clockwork? It should be full of bright lights and gleaming control panels, not look like it was thrown together in some Victorian’s study.
In addition, the laws of time as presented in this story are utter rubbish. It has been an inviolable rule since the sixth serial that, “You can’t change history, not one word of it!” How then could anyone with any knowledge of Doctor Who contrive a plot whose climax involves the Doctor, one of the lords of time, themselves charged with protecting the absolute law of history, altering his own past? We know from The Time Meddler that if the past is changed, everyone’s memories of it change instantly as well. We might perhaps grant that his Time Lord powers might protect The Doctor from this, but how do you explain Kelly retaining her own memories? Likewise, if Gallifrey was “deleted from every moment in space and time,” how can the Doctor possibly still exist? How can the Jagaroth know of them? Nonsense!
There are other problems as well, less central to the story but no less damning. The return of the Jagaroth, of course, completely contradicts their extinction in City of Death. And how could the Doctor of all people forget that the Time Destructor is a weapon of Dalek origin? Though it would clearly be within their power to do so, no one could imagine that the Time Lords would ever build such a weapon themselves.
As a story, The Last Time Lord is just not worth considering. The reports of its high ratings in its first airing are surely proof positive that it is targeted to the basest and most American of audiences, who care more about Porta-Loo jokes than a programme with a long and noble history. I am confident that when BARB releases the audience appreciation index for the BBC airing, our more discerning viewers will prove the American telefilm as the travesty that it is.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?
Editor’s note: The Broadcaster’s Audience Research Board later reported an AI score of 89% for Doctor Who: The Last Time Lord.