Thursday, 21 August 2014

Are We There Yet?

Doctor Who
The End Of Time Parts One and Two
2009 Christmas Special and 2010 New Year Special

It's the end.  For real this time.  Tissues at the ready.

Okay, to some extent we've been here and done this.  Journey's End took great pains to out-finale all the previous finales, inflating the sense of scale until it encompassed literally everything, and sending smoochy kisses to everyone and everything in Russell T Davies's Doctor Who universe.  After two giddy hours of "Well done us!", there was nothing left to celebrate.  Thankfully, The End Of Time goes in another direction altogether: it focusses on how sad we are (or should be) that it's all over.  It's a melancholy, brooding, low-key sort of episode... which also inflates the sense of scale until it encompasses literally everything, because you know how it is with old habits.

Sod Daleks.  Let's have more chats with Bernard Cribbins.
There's some very good stuff in here, generally to do with the Doctor, which is a blessed relief as it's David Tennant's last hoorah.  Fresh from going slightly mad in The Waters Of Mars, he's taken time out to enjoy himself before answering Ood Sigma's call.  This is a tad disappointing, as it's not the brave new Doctor I thought I was seeing at the end of Waters, but – after a more or less pointless visit to the Ood-Sphere – he quickly drops the veil of silliness and starts being interesting.  He knows the end is approaching, and he knows he's partly to blame.  Until then he spends most of his time with Wilf, and the two of them share some of the best scenes, not just in this story, but in Doctor Who up to now.

Together, they examine what it means for the Doctor to die, and how regeneration feels like dying as well.  David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins are amazing here, and for once the writing matches them.  It's a dark, but totally legitimate way to re-examine regeneration, albeit not one I'd want to visit every time; Tennant's bitterness as he describes "some new man sauntering away" is a hammer-blow to Doctor Who as we know it.  On a softer note, there's Wilf realising the sheer age-difference between a human and a Time Lord, and (what I take to be) the Doctor's admiration of just living one life.  "We must look like insects to you."  "I think you look like giants."  That really is some of Russell's best Who writing, poignant and understated, all the more powerful.

In some ways, Wilf is the heart of the story.  There are plenty of "old soldier" references which parallel him with the Doctor (given what the Doctor has to do this week), and he's a walking advert for the upside and downside of being a companion.  He takes the Doctor to a café where he can see Donna, who is still amnesiac and occasionally puzzled, but is sort-of happy with her lot.  He's thrilled to know the Doctor despite the Doctor failing to "fix" Donna, and he's genuinely grateful to travel with him.  Bless Wilf.

In the main though, Wilf is the reason the Tenth Doctor dies, putting Ten's more human-centric philosophy right in the foreground.  This is when The End Of Time really earns its place in the show's history.  The Doctor's realisation that he must die to save Wilf is a total showstopper of writing, directing and acting.  His face when he realises, his rage ("I could do so much more!"), his ultimate acceptance and heroism – it's a total win for David Tennant.  Of course Bernard Cribbins plays his part, pleading heart-rendingly for the Doctor not to do it.  The whole sequence is up there with the best Doctorly exits.  Even Murray's music nails it.  You'll weep buckets.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  The Doctor doesn't just turn up and sacrifice himself for Wilf.  There's got to be a plot to get us there.  And you know how I said there was some very good stuff in here?  Well, there's some other stuff as well.

Who is the mysterious woman?  There's an answer in The Writer's Tale,
but if it's not in the episode, what good is it?
It's a finale, which means a Big Bad blowing stuff up.  But it's our fifth trip down that road, so there's an inevitable feeling of scraping the barrel.  What's left for Russell T Davies to blow up?  Who's left to do it?  Possibly the only trick left up anybody's sleeve is bringing back the Time Lords, but that's difficult to do as they obviously can't stick around afterwards.  Lucky for us, this involves bringing back the Master as well.

If you thought Last Of The Time Lords buggered up his character beyond all recognition, brace yourself: the Master's resurrection could quite possibly be the worst individual piece of Doctor Who Russell has written.  I might as well let the highlights speak for themselves: "I'm afraid the previous governor met with something... of an accident.  Which took quite some time to arrange!"  "As it was written, in the Secret Books Of Saxon, these are the Potions Of Life!"  "We give ourselves, that Saxon might live!"  "Did the widow's kiss bring me back to life?"

All of which is fist-chokingly ghastly, but it's equally horrible watching the plot make itself up on the spot.  Here's Lucy Saxon's "plan" to stop the Master, quoted verbatim: "I knew you'd come back.  And all this time your disciples prepared... but so have we!  The Secret Books Of Saxon spoke of the Potions Of Life... and I was never that bright... but my family had contacts.  People who were clever enough to calculate the opposite.  Till death... do us part!"  Yeesh.  First draft, much?

We have a bollocks magic ceremony to resurrect the Master, a bollocks magic potion to muck it all up, and suddenly the Master is a bleach-blonde, hoodie-wearing, occasionally-visible-from-the-inside special effects monster who can fly, shoot lasers, and eat people.  I do believe there's a chance – a tiny, weeny, whiny one – that there was nowhere left for the Master's character to go.  So, we've opted for the random and the ridiculous.  Once again, he can fly and shoot lasers now.  "WTF" doesn't begin to cover it.

Is it a good performance from John Simm?  In places, sure.  There are a few quiet moments where he and Tennant can bounce off each other, rather than smash relentlessly.  Elsewhere the script demands he go even further over the top than before.  Screeching, shouting, dipping in and out of special effects, obsessing over food, eating as messily and Gollum-ey as possible... it's difficult to watch.  And then the plot decides that his Master Plan (oomf!) is to transplant himself onto every person on Earth.  Okay then.  So, that's six billion over-the-top John Simms.  Merry Christmas.  I hope you're completely obsessed with hearing John Simm laugh, because there is an awful lot of it.  (There are also many, many inserts of him laughing this one time, which gives you a lingering look up his nose.  Several whole minutes of this episode feel like John Simm Nostril Time.)

Just because you can make it look like everyone is John Simm...
The plot leading up to six billion Masters is thin gruel even for a Russell finale.  A billionaire and his daughter (both presumably evil?) have an alien device, The Immortality Gate, which they want the Master to repair for them so (only) the daughter can live forever.  They expect the Master to try and use it for his own ends, and in a totally unprecedented turn of events, he does.  (It turns out the machine is an Empty Child-esque whatsit that repairs whole species to look like one guy.)  This all has something to do with the drums only he can hear, which in turn is something to do with the Time Lords.  Cue Timothy Dalton's narration, aka a load of portentous guff about the end of the world and everybody having bad dreams.  On the plus side: Timothy Dalton!  Clearly, your go-to guy for selling us Bargain Bin Shakespeare.

If only it worked with the plot.  The Time Lords are Time Locked and nothing can get through, at least until they send a diamond through it.  But... er... how did they...?  This reminded me of Army Of Ghosts, when the Cybermen had to send some Cybermen in order to get the other Cybermen from one dimension in another.  Here be bollocks!

Anyway, Time Lords.  They're renowned as a boring bunch, which is no doubt why Russell got rid of them in the first place.  No room for dull meetings and technobabble here – these Time Lords are in the final days of their war with the Daleks, so they're absolutely potty.  This is mostly their leader's fault (Dalton snarls his way through the bad guy role), but there can be no doubt that at this point, they are not the cavalry.  The Doctor doesn't want them to come back.

This is somewhat of a reversal.  In Utopia he seemed keen to see the Time Lords again, it just "depends which one".  Now he's written off the whole bunch because they were angling for a Final Solution that would doom the whole universe.  It does sort of fit with his attitude over the years, but it's got I Just Thought Of This written all over it.  I'm never sure if I like the idea.

It's mostly done so that a) we can bin the Time Lords immediately after bringing them back, cue brand new showrunner, and b) the Doctor can make an impossible choice.  It's disappointing having to do the former, though it does give David Tennant loads to work with.  As to the latter, Impossible Choices are easier said than done.  This one comes down to the Doctor pointing a gun at Dalton's bad guy, Rassilon, who wants to destroy time itself, and at the Master, whose death will also make the problem go away.  Which will it be?  The solution: he shoots a box full of wires which handily breaks the connection.  Hey!  That's magicking up an extra option, meaning there was a never a need for the difficult choice in the first place!  God damnit.

Not pictured: the Nightmare Child.
Or the Whimsypoo King and his Army Of Diddle-Dee-Dums.
This whole sequence should be iconic, like the Doctor's "death" and the Four Knocks.  (You may or may not guess these in advance, but I'll bet it still works.)  However, the writing is scatterbrained.  It ruins a moral dilemma by burping out Harmless Option C at the last moment.  It once-and-for-all bollockses up the Master by saying it's the Time Lords' fault he's crazy (so there is nothing left to say about him) and then making him bro-mantically rescue the Doctor.  And it falls over itself articulating what's even at stake.

At first it's the Time Lords we're worried about, as they've gone evil and have grim designs for the universe.  Okay.  Then the Doctor says "They're not just bringing back the species.  It's Gallifrey!"  So, oh noes, they're going to knock Earth out of orbit as well?  Small potatoes when you consider what they're planning, but okay.  And then we throw in the kitchen sink as well.  "If the Time Lock's broken then everything's coming through, not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been-King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres.  The war turned into hell.  And that's what you opened, right above the Earth!"  Good grief, Doc, make up your mind!  The thing rewrites itself before your very eyes.  (As for Russell's cavalcade of whimsical-sounding menaces, your mileage may vary.  I giggle every time I hear it.)

So, bollocks plot, mostly-bollocks bad guys, frequently bollocks script, and yet somehow in the middle of it, moments of sublime perfection.  I'm never sure where the final twenty (!) minutes slot into all that, as the Doctor delays his regeneration so he can visit all his companions.  This is a clang!-obvious final goodbye to the denizens of the Russellverse, but we already had one of those in Journey's End.  Nothing new here, besides randomly marrying Martha to Mickey, which could be a happy ending if there were ever any suggestion that they wanted to do that.  (They've met once.  Martha was engaged at the time.)  I suppose it's nice to send Donna comfortably into the sunset, and kudos for not backtracking on her amnesia.  It's annoying that we must see Rose again, but there's a pleasing symmetry to ending this version of the show more or less where it started in 2005.  Overall I much prefer the quick, bittersweet goodbye to Christopher Eccleston, but then that was a better episode all round.

His friends all met and suitably frowned at, the Doctor toddles off to the TARDIS to regenerate.  But not before a final kick while he's down.  "I don't want to go."

Pictured: Arriving With A Bang.
I hated this at the time.  It seemed like a self-absorbed dig at the next Doctor, and at the next production team, as if to say "This is the greatest tragedy in all of Doctor Who!  Team David 4EVA!"  Years later, and after much thought, I think it makes sense in the context of who this Doctor is.  He didn't want to regenerate in Journey's End.  His human (but ultimately quite similar) self didn't want to go in Human Nature.  This is recognisably him, and it was bound to happen sooner or later.  David Tennant gives his all, no doubt mixing in some of his own sadness at leaving the role; as ever with regens, it's the most unforgettable scene.  His last performance, overall, is replete with dazzling moments, particularly the understated ones.  That's always been where David Tennant shone.  He may not be my favourite, but he is – and was – always entertaining.

And then we meet Matt Smith, who (despite being written by Steven Moffat) runs through much the same "new body-parts" scene as fresh-faced David Tennant.  But he arrives with a distinctly Doctorly bang, and ensures that when you repeatedly rewatch his 20 seconds – and you will – you'll not be disappointed.

So.  The End Of Time.  Probably not the send-off many would hope for, and not (I hope) to be taken as a representation of the Russell T Davies era as a whole – i.e. mostly dross, with some moments that knock you off your feet.  But if there's a feeling of retreading old ground and running out of places to go, well, to borrow a phrase from the Doctor, maybe this iteration of the show lived too long.  There are only so many times you can blow up the universe, and you will eventually run out of Daleks.  Thankfully, even with the kitchen sink thrown in there's room for a beautiful moment, a game-changing shift in perspective and an amazing performance or two.  In that way, it's a fitting end for a not-too-shabby era.

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