Doctor Who Series 3’s Master Trilogy: The Great Storytelling Misstep

Recently, I was rewatching the Master trilogy of Series 3 – Utopia, The Sound of Drums, and Last of the Time Lords – in preparation for John Simm’s reappearance in the latter half of Series 10. But this time, something leaped out at me.

Martha’s plot thread is a missed opportunity.

It’s easy to sit here with 10 years’ hindsight and no show-running experience and think that we could make a great show better, but we will journey into a parallel universe and discover how, with one fairly substantial change, you end up with a potentially more satisfying story.

You all remember how Utopia plays out, right? At the end of the universe, 100 trillion years hence, on a dying planet named Malcassairo, they find a refugee camp filled with stinking humans. All looking for Utopia. In the first episode of the Master trilogy, it’s a cause for celebration that humans have managed to survive that long. As the Doctor says, “you might have spent a million years evolving into clouds of gas, and another million as downloads, but you always revert to that same basic shape”.

An underlying thread across the three episodes deals with how you would cope when faced with the end of everything. We see that the Doctor views the continued survival of the human race as a remarkable feat, calling the species “indomitable”. Captain Jack guesses that he might still be living out there somewhere, and that he could go meet himself. He treats this as a novelty and has a joke with the Doctor about it. Professor Yana soldiers on, even when all seems hopeless.Lucy Saxon is shown to be visibly traumatised by experiencing the foundries and darkness at the end of everything. The Master aids the Toclafane in becoming time travellers and going back to kill their ancestors. He notes that they had turned their technology inwards and cannibalised themselves even before he got there.

You’ll notice a significant absence from this list: Martha Jones. Her reaction stretches as far as “it’s not all bad news” and having a swear-off with Chantho. This is where our proposed changes come in. We’d still have the ‘wander the world’ storyline, but we’d change the reason that Martha leaves the TARDIS at the end of Last of the Time Lords. Over the course of three episodes, she has witnessed the complete and utter degradation of humanity. She shows up in the year 100 trillion, and far from the end of the universe being a shining beacon of humanity’s amassed knowledge; it’s a refugee camp filmed in a Welsh quarry. The guards even use normal weapons.

Then in The Sound of Drums, she spends the episode fleeing from a sinister despot who is even aided by her own family. But it’s in Last of the Time Lords that it all starts to come together. In our reading, the minute she opened that Toclafane and worked out what was inside, she should have been broken. People always wonder what will happen to humans as time goes on. Martha knows. Martha’s seen humanity’s end, and it’s big metal footballs.

How does a person get over something like being “the only person to get out of Japan alive”? I’m not suggesting that she turn into an emotionless husk like Lucy Saxon; just that she’s seen something incredibly distressing and surely needs to take time to think about it and deal with her place in the universe. There’s even precedent for this scenario; at the end of Resurrection of the Daleks, Tegan grows weary of all the death and decides to leave the TARDIS crew.

From here, Martha would need to find a reason to carry on and get her to where she needs to be. Her family can still be aboard the Valiant. Maybe even Leo, who in the episode as transmitted was surely divided forever from his family due to memories that he didn’t have. Grim asides about the burning of Japan do not make for good family times. Make Martha the one who turns a gun on the man responsible for every atrocity she was forced to watch. Would it not be more resonant if it’s Martha being driven to extremes by horrendous experiences?

But let’s talk about Lucy Saxon, the person who does eventually fire the gun. She’s obviously designed as a parallel to Martha, a version who has actually seen the foundries at the end of the universe. In this aspect, she feels much more believable than Martha, but it’s harder to relate to her because she’s not the viewpoint character. Martha has also seen the end of everything. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that nothing you do matters; especially since the Toclafane are shown to be what humanity will become.

Then, when all’s said and done, the world is safe. In our version, Martha would have to leave to recover from the astounding ordeal she’s suffered. From the beginning, she’s always been there to look after her family. Armed with many of the same memories she has, at this point it would be time to let the family look after her. Thus when she comes back in Series 4, she could say that she’s started therapy, showing that one of the best ways to deal with something is to engage in self-care. This way, kids get to see a role model who embraces mental health, and they get to see that sometimes traumatic things happen to people but they can be dealt with.

With that, time to return to the ‘real’ world of televised Doctor Who. This is just one alternative, one way it could have been done differently. But Series 3 as it stands is Martha’s story. In our scenario, it would only be more so. Surely that can’t be a bad thing.