Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Finale Countdown

Doctor Who
The Stolen Earth and Journey's End
Series Four, Episodes Twelve and Thirteen

The end is approaching – of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who, not to mention Series Four.  So, what to do?  A big finale?  Think bigger.  A retrospective of the whole series?  Think even bigger.  A celebration of the entire Doctor Whoniverse under Russell T Davies, including Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures?  That's more like it.  These episodes aren't just a big finish, they're a full blown wrap party.  You will get drunk and wake up with what's-her-name from Catering.

Both episodes radiate with affection, excitement and (not entirely uncalled for) smugness at the show's massive success.  Everyone involved is obviously having the time of their lives, and that energy works to their advantage.  It's never boring; it's often exciting and funny (favourite line: "Get back inside, Sylvia!  They always want the women!"); the special effects have never looked better.  But there's something missing.  Namely, anything more substantial than a two-hour round of applause for the people making it.

So many CGI!
Such pretty!
Shear away all the shouting and special effects and here's what you're left with: Daleks are pinching planets from all over the universe, which obviously means Earth, but also Pyrovilia and the various "missing" planets from Series Four.  These planets form an "engine" which will trigger a "Reality Bomb".  The Daleks want to blow up literally everything in existence besides themselves.  The Doctor's friends are brought together, they stop the Daleks, and they go their separate ways again, some happier than others.  And that's it for plot.  An unbelievable amount of window dressing and hot air makes it seem like more, but it ain't.  Despite an impressive 61-minute runtime for Part Two, this could be one of the most threadbare plots in Doctor Who.

That doesn't mean it's not exciting.  The Stolen Earth does an amazing job of keeping the audience's pulse rate up, with one "OMG!" moment after another.  OMG, Earth is gone!  Cool, it's Torchwood!  Wow, Sarah Jane!  Zoinks, Rose Tyler!  And Davros, and Daleks, proper Daleks, squillions of Daleks!  Squint, though, and you'll notice how the characters spend most of The Stolen Earth just trying to get the Doctor to RSVP for Journey's End.

He's trying to follow Earth, gets stuck, and uncharacteristically gives up.  (You what?  Do something, you lemon!)  He only breaks through because everyone on Earth dials his phone number and shoves it through the Torchwood hub.  Good luck making that look exciting – quick, Billie, hold your phone in the air! – and you'd better hope the audience doesn't think about it for a nanosecond.  (Millions of people calling one number will "boost the signal", will it?  As opposed to millions of people getting an "engaged" tone?  They're amazing, these newfangled "tell-ee-fones".  I wonder how they work!)  It's a whole episode of almost nothing happening.

Anyway, it's all about reunions, inasmuch as anything, so the Doctor and Rose finally get back together.  Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.  Are that many people really cut up about her leaving the show?  I was never a big fan, but I quite liked her in Turn Left when she seemed to have grown up a bit.  In The Stolen Earth she's right back to Whingeing Brat status: "Who's that?  I was here first!"  Oh, it's like she was never away.  Alas, the Doctor is kept out of her reach by the first Dalek in history to shoot straight.  Cue the episode's biggest OMG moment, the most contentious regeneration in the show's history.  And... cut!

The newspapers went mad for this.  A week of absolutely mental speculation later, and the Doctor chucks his regeneration in the bin and carries on, still noticeably David-Tennant-shaped.  You don't have to be very cynical to figure out there's no new Doctor this week, but even so, this was misjudged.  Regenerations are a big part of Doctor Who, and now they're a little less special, because apparently you can wriggle around them.  Not to mention that we all spent a week thinking about Doctor #10 leaving the building (however unlikely it was), and thinking "Actually, that would be pretty exciting," and he's still here.  Awkward much?  Oh well: John Barrowman's reaction is perfect, which is something.

"Okay, which of you bastards was excited to meet Matt Smith?"
So, after the mighty plot development of "all the characters have met", we're onto Journey's End.  Davros throws the TARDIS down a rubbish chute with Donna inside.  She has a little incident with the Doctor's extra hand, and presto, a brand new Doctor is born, half-human, naked and David-Tennant-shaped.  Tennant has fun as Human Doc, and there's some vague ominous gobbledegook about Donna's universal importance, but the two of them might as well play I, Spy until the plot gets back to them.

Meanwhile, the (proper) Doctor spends all his quality Rose-time chatting with Davros, who is in a philosophical mood.  Julian Bleach is good, isn't he?  There's not a lot you can do with a character like Davros – a ranting megalomaniac obsessed with his creations, he's always been a dully obvious Hitler to the Daleks' Nazis.  But Bleach finds a middle-ground between his various telly predecessors, and it's a fine, memorably evil performance.  Kudos as ever to the make-up department.  You don't really need him here, but hey, why not.

It's just a shame he's not better written.  The Doctor is often characterised via the super-subtle art of other characters telling him all about himself, and it's bad enough without getting most of it arse-backwards as well.  Plenty is said here about how manipulative and destructive the Doctor is, and there's some mileage in that – "He never carries a gun" was obviously bull from the start – but actually, there's a difference between killing people and just fighting back.  The Doctor often does the latter, whether he's convincing others to pull the trigger or doing it himself.  And yes, it's unfortunate that billions of Sontarans, Daleks and Cybermen have gone to Villain Heaven because of him, and he feels bad, but when the alternative was They're Going To Kill Everyone, what else can he do?  And who the hell is Davros to throw stones?  At the end, with the Doctor once again causing the death of the bad guys via proxy, Davros calls him "the destroyer of worlds".  Who do you think you're kidding, Mr Hitler?  Claiming the moral high ground after trying to blow up literally everything that exists is some downright brazen taking of the piss.

On the subject of "not that well written", this is a Dalek plan, and that means dumbness.  At risk are 27 planets, the rest of the universe, all other universes and the bits in-between... which is a threat so grotesquely overstuffed that it feels completely meaningless.  The Daleks have always been enthusiastic misanthropes, and it makes sense to try to kill everybody, but what's the point ruling a cosmos with absolutely nothing in it?  What are they going to do, besides bumping into each other in the dark?  It's not as if Dalek Caan is a great conversationalist.

He only speaks the truth!
(Presumably due to a whimsical Liar, Liar contrivance.)
Speaking of which, these Daleks only exist because Dalek Caan Emergency-Temporal-Shifted into the Time War (which is impossible, but he did it anyway, because shut up).  It turns out he is a) mad and b) in this to make the Daleks extinct, so he quite happily lets the Doctor and co. do the deed.  Okay, but if he wanted to make the Daleks extinct, couldn't he have taken a more direct route?  Like not manufacturing billions of them?  (Oh, but it's a "prophecy".  Don't you love those things?  They allow you do literally anything without bothering to invent a reason.)

To combat such a monumental problem, you need a monumental solution.  The Doctor is stuck in a forcefield (oh good, another finale where he patiently waits for rescue), so it's up to his friends.  Martha's got the Osterhaagen Key, a device for blowing up the Earth in times of crisis; Sarah Jane has a Warp Star necklace, which can create an enormous explosion and destroy the Dalek ship; and Human Doc has cobbled together an anti-Davros gun.  Much effort and technobabble goes into all three, especially the Osterhaagen Key (which has its own subplot), but it's all for nothing, as they're chucked away on a whim.

If you're going to invent stuff only to throw it away, it'd be better if it didn't raise bizarre questions.  Like why the Earth has a suicide button, how any situation could possibly be bad enough to use it while the Doctor is still around, and how anyone could ever agree on when we've reached that point.  It's a waste of effort bringing these characters back at all if you're just going to nix their plot-lines before they go anywhere.  Martha is only here to carry out all that Osterhaagen Key bumf.  Cut her, or Mickey, or Jack from these episodes, and see if you can spot the difference.  You can cut Rose as well, for all the difference standing next to the Doctor makes.  These characters aren't celebrated – they're just here.

In the end it's Donna who makes the big difference, finally becoming The Most Important Person In The Universe.  Here we go: using her now-activated Time Lord DNA (thanks, Human Doc), she instantly knows how to use the Dalek controls to make all the bad things go away.  And well done her – but she's only able to do this because a) she's got some of the Doctor's DNA, and b) Davros mysteriously didn't stick a forcefield over her like he did with everyone else.  None of which is really Donna.  After all the hints and build-up, Donna's "importance" amounts to the Doctor's influence, plus a bit of dumb luck.  It's not much of a pay-off.  And the script tries to draw a line between her and the Doctor, in a "No, really, she's still special" sort of way, but since there's a corresponding half-human Doctor as well, it's difficult to see what she's got that he hasn't.  "That little bit of human"?  Well, gee, that explains everything.  Anyone else suspect they made this up at the last minute?

It happens to the best of us.
Still, it goes somewhere memorable.  After plenty of dreary hints about one of the Doctor's "children" dying, which fans of Doomsday will guess is not to be taken literally, Donna's new mind doesn't take.  The Doctor must wipe her memories of him, and all her adventures, to save her life.  It's a genuinely horrifying and sad moment, and probably the only really effective thing here.  Catherine Tate, whose "half Time Lord" never really progresses beyond a David Tennant impression, does heartbroken very well.  It's a legitimately grim way to end her story without actually killing her, and it affected me much more than Rose's still-mourned departure.

Ah yes, Blondie.  I used to really hate Journey's End, and watching it again now, I struggled to remember why.  It's long, overblown and smug, but that goes for a few other episodes as well.  Then I got to Rose's big goodbye.  Ah yes.  That was it.  Is there any part of this that isn't hideous?  From the totally unnecessary fan-service of doing it all again, to having Rose bring up the Doctor's unfinished sentence in Doomsday, and demanding to stay with him forever (because screw character development), to the unbelievable wrongness of gift-wrapping a brand new Doctor who'll sleep with her, not one bit of it works.

Of course, there's a certain dark corner of fandom for whom it will, but those guys write their own fan-fiction, and plenty of it.  The rest of us are stuck with this super-awkward scene, as the Doctor coldly decides Rose's fate and placates her with his hornier replacement.  (Which works.)  As for Human Doc, comparing him to the Doctor when he first met Rose is laughable; this guy isn't wracked with guilt about blowing up the Daleks.  Why should he be?  What else was the Doctor, our Doctor, planning to do with them?  Asking Davros to stop what he was doing didn't seem to work (what a shock!), and as for giving him a complimentary offer to come aboard the TARDIS at the end, you can guess how well that went.  I'm all for the Doctor being glass-half-full, but this is just random, bordering on naive.

Rose's departure is the worst thing here – a self-serving, every-character-ruining-beyond-all-recognition train wreck of an idea.  But at least it puts the rest of it in perspective.  None of it's that bad.  Okay, it's two hours of Russell moving a bunch of action figures around, bringing back his favourites and making them kiss.  (Just look at the ghastly "towing the Earth" scene at the end.  Quick!  Find them something to do!)  Stuffed in between is a maelstrom of padding, half-digested technobabble and sheer bollocks, apart from the fate of Donna, although knowing Doctor Who that won't stick.  But there are times when the celebration is infectious, and you feel invited to the party.

Then again, the constant marching band of references doesn't so much interrupt the story as drive it in the first place.  It's smug – there's no getting away from it.  A moment where the Doctor pauses amid the chaos to connect Gwen Cooper to another character played by the same actress should stick out, but it's merely a part of the general effort to fanwank these episodes into oblivion.  You don't have to be Russell T Davies to be happy there, but it helps.

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