From DWM #418. I hadn’t been terribly fond of David Tennant’s final fling in the TARDIS. I recall having friends over on New Year’s Day for The End of Time part two, and apologising to them at the point the Doctor falls thousands of feet through a sky-light, and then gets up. DWM were very kind in allowing me to write the following…
Sarah Jane Smith has worked out her own explanation for what went on over Christmas and New Year. Wi-fi went haywire and caused everyone to hallucinate the world had turned into a massive game of The [John] Sims.
But me? I’m still not sure. It felt like a dream. Not a bad dream, a mad dream. Vivid, disjointed, some moments powerful. Other bits… I don’t know. It doesn’t all make sense. And I guess at this early juncture I feel the need to make the uncomfortable admission that, for me, a lot of The End of Time didn’t quite work. That may not have been the case for you. Probably not, in fact. I’m well aware that for literally millions (the most-watched show over Christmas, and yes, BBC HD figures count), this two-parter pressed all the right buttons.
Of course, there was always a lot riding on the story, almost as much as its 2005 bookend, Rose. It needed to write-out not just the Tenth Doctor, but pretty much everyone working on Doctor Who. In addition, as the last hurrah (although “hooray!” might be more apt for The Russell T Davies Era), it had to double-up as a celebration of the last five years of TV adventures. And then, after all that, tidy everything away.
In these things it was victorious. But, at times, that victory felt a little hollow.
As the story unfolded, many moments along the way drew huge power from foreshadowing things that then… simply didn’t occur. The depiction of the TARDIS in a church window was epic, but it led to nothing. Meanwhile, I can live with the fact that both the mystery behind the rapid evolution of the Ood and the identity of Claire Bloom’s character remained unresolved (the latter leaves us with acres of conceptual green fields to frolic in), but the DoctorDonna? Nope, can’t forgive that one. The Doctor was absolutely emphatic to Wilf: “If [Donna] ever remembers me her mind will burn and she will die!” Maybe a further line of dialogue was cut: “Or, failing that, she’ll set off a Master-nobbling booby trap and then fall asleep. Either’s good.”
Similarly, while the reveal of the Time Lords’ impending return was blisteringly well handled (that cliff-hanger!), the resolution of their storyline felt insubstantial and just a little bit boring. “This was the day the Time Lords returned”, for goodness sake, the biggest news possible in modern Doctor Who. But in the podcast to accompany the episode, Russell T Davies is bullish, claiming only sci fi fans would quibble Rassilon and co were vanquished by – it almost feels too dull to write – a MacGuffin being shot. Well, label me a “sci fi fan” and shoot me too, cos I’d been hoping for more ingenuity, romance and gravitas when it came to this final solution.
Let’s be honest. No-one would ever claim The End of Time – in which Joshua Naismith’s evil scheme is rear-ended by the Master’s evil scheme, which is steamrollered by the Time Lords’ evil scheme – is all about elegant plot turns. It’s not. It’s about sequencing together a series of high-stakes moments. When the Master rages about over-consumption, our appetite for “cheese and chips and meat and gravy”, he’s paralleling this very story, over burdened with fillings, from the Doctor’s impending death to that bizarre Barack Obama business. But despite my reservations, I have to respect a tale that brings us both randy OAPs and a Star Wars homage. You don’t get that in Stargate. Family Guy, maybe…
Anyway, I’m moaning. Sometimes it’s what we Doctor Who fans do best, because everything that happens in our programme we take to heart. More so when we’re talking about a regeneration story where a new line of Who history is incontrovertibly drawn. Not so sure about (random example!) Fear Her? Don’t worry. In the grand scheme of things you can ignore it. But in a regeneration story nothing said can ever be unsaid. And we worry.
So I’m going to stop flapping and look at some of things I feel worked well in The End of Time. There’s a lot to talk about.
The headline has to be the performances. Many commentators have judged that Bernard Cribbins all but steals the show. There’s a lot of truth in that. While David Tennant and John Simm are busy being epic, he’s being real. One moment he’s moonwalking and shaking his arse to the uproarious appreciation of his Silver Cloak pals, the next he’s the old soldier, cradling his service revolver and contemplating death. Wilf’s one-to-one scenes with the Doctor are absolutely the best thing in the whole story. “I don’t want you to die,” he says in a beautifully direct line of dialogue, those big old Wombling eyes welling up. Here’s an actor who, you feel, can do anything. Thank you, Russell, for showing us that.
But David Tennant’s no slouch. His final tale sees him on fire, playing all aspects of his Doctor, from high comedy (he gobbles up those TARDIS central-locking gags on the Ood Sphere) to high drama (touting that gun). He also brings us a new note to the character: petulance. Of course, this comes from the script, but while I’m uncomfortable with the notion our hero ultimately expects some kind of a reward, Tennant sells the concept well. “I could do so much more!” he rails. He probably could, you know.
It’s also worth noting that in his scenes with Simm’s Master, this Doctor becomes a slightly different man. Again, a lot comes from the script (“I wonder what I’d be without you”), but Tennant also tones down his performance during the characters’ quieter moments together. It’s as though the Doctor no longer needs to put on a show. As perverse as it may seem, the Master’s the one who really gets him.
What of the Master, then? It’s a bravura turn from John Simm, feral and hungry and bonkers. He’s not just gobbling up burgers and turkey, but the whole screen. God bless, Timothy Dalton, then, who amps it up still further as Rassilon, spitting and sneering and delivering the kind of wonderfully creaky, ornate dialogue Davies had banned from the show back in 2005 (“My Lord Doctor, Lord Master, we are gathered for the end!”).
Then we reach that end. Now, back to me, I’m afraid. I have a bit of a problem with plots that are driven by vague prophecies and fuggy portents of oncoming doom. True, millions of US dramas currently base their whole premise on obfuscating what’s happening, but it just seems too easy to have someone lean forward and mysteriously whisper: “He will knock four times” in lieu of story progression.
But, you know what? The final pay-off works superbly well and confounds my prejudices. It’s the Master! No, it’s the Time Lords! No, in fact, in an achingly beautiful moment, it’s Wilf, knocking gently on the glass of the isolation chamber. The camera pans around as the Doctor rises from the floor, the old fella still out of focus in the background, but the story and scenario seeded so successfully, we and our time travelling hero know, just know, This Is It.
And from there we’re into a final canter through the – let’s have it again – Russell T Davies Era, as the Doctor revisits former travelling companions and friends one last time. It’s an odd sequence, as though Davies is saying, “The golden age stops here”. Some moments work better than others. Sarah Jane’s teary smile as the Doctor silently waves; Verity Newman asking the Time Lord if he, like her great-grandmother, was “happy in the end”; and the wonderful, gentle evocation of Geoffrey Noble at Donna’s wedding – all are mesmerising. The bits with Martha and Mickey info-dumping their recent history (“You’re the one who persuaded me to go freelance!”) and the Doctor setting up Captain Jack with Midshipman Frame (akin to the Third Doctor slipping Clifford Jones a packet of three), less so.
Finally, there’s Rose. It’s great, this scene, she and her mum yakking about Mickey and bemoaning Jackie’s lack of bloke action. This is January 1st 2005, but in every other sense it’s like a million years ago. A weird time when there was no Doctor Who on the telly. That notion just makes you gasp. “See ya” says Rosie, skipping off into the snow, getting ready for the beginning.
I said we Doctor Who fans are good at moaning, and that’s true. But I think in this instance, we can all join hands – Ood-style – and agree that, despite my grumbles, 2005 to 2010 has been a golden age for Doctor Who. And it is now over.
“I don’t want to go,” says the Tenth Doctor, however that’s not how it works. “This song is ending, but the story never ends…”
So now we’re in the many-fingered hands of the Eleventh Doctor, and a whole new team. Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis… right now they’re all careering towards planet Earth at break-neck speed, burning up the sky. Here comes the next golden age, everyone. Geronimo!