Two Views: Doctor Who, "The End of Time"
Reviewed by Tony Keen and Tim Phipps
15 January 2010
The replacement of one Doctor by another has been a significant event, at least in the UK, for a long time—when Fifth Doctor Peter Davison was announced as replacing Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, friends watching the news with the sound turned down saw Davison's photo and thought he'd died. But a particular fuss has been made about the transition from the Tenth to the Eleventh Doctor. Indeed, with a film of his performance in Hamlet, BBC One idents, guest spots on comedy quiz shows Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI, sitting in for Jonathan Ross on the radio, etc., one felt that, if David Tennant is not necessarily bigger than Jesus, he was at least more important to the BBC's Christmas schedules.
"The End of Time" also marks the departure of Russell T Davies, and whilst the departure of a Who producer generally is less observed, Davies's leaving is very much an exception, because of the public profile he has built up. In fact, it's hard to think of a producer, creator, or writer of a British television show who has been as much of a public figure without actually being an on-screen performer (the only possible exception I can think of is Blackadder and Vicar of Dibley creator Richard Curtis). So this two-part story deserves, and will get, considerable attention.
But is it any good? Well, in many ways, it is emblematic of Davies's entire five-year stint on the show—bits of it are good, and bits of it aren't.
It comes at the end of a year when there hasn't been a proper series of Doctor Who. Instead, there has been a series of specials (including last year's Christmas episode "The Next Doctor"), which the production team has treated as episodes 14-18 of Series Four (plus a guest appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures, in a story, "The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith," which was in some ways more enjoyable than any of the specials). This has brought some problems. All the specials have been written or co-written by Davies, and some critics have observed, with some truth, that the better stories of the last few years have often been those that came from other authors. More importantly, all the specials have been full-on epics. There hasn't been the variation of tone, the quieter moments, that a full series has the opportunity for.
"The End of Time" is, of course, epic. The story (in case you didn't see it) involves the return of the Doctor's archfoe, the Master, and their people, the Time Lords. The Master has been involved in the Doctor's regeneration before. A plot of his resulted in the Fourth Doctor's change, a vision of him appeared to the Fifth as he was regenerating, and the Master's interference with the TARDIS led indirectly to the change from the Seventh to Eighth. But I suspect the germ of "The End of Time" goes back to a story planned for the Third Doctor but never made. Until the untimely death of Roger Delgado, "The Final Game" was planned to be the final story featuring the Master, and is popularly believed to have been a story in which the Master would have sacrificed himself to save the Doctor, who would then have regenerated. This may all be apocryphal; the late Barrie Letts, producer at the time, said that the reasons for the Master's death would have been left unclear, and the regeneration is an assumption based on the fact that "The Final Game" would have ended Season Eleven, which turned out to be Jon Pertwee's last—but Pertwee did not decide to leave until after Delgado had died.
If the rumoured plan is the inspiration for "The End of Time," however, it would not be surprising. Davies has always shown himself to be particularly fond of the Pertwee era, from the reference to the opening shot of "Spearhead from Space" that begins "Rose," through the nod to "The Silurians" at the end of "The Christmas Invasion," to his use of such Pertwee staples as UNIT and, indeed, the Master. One might even see an echo of the actual final Pertwee story, "Planet of the Spiders," in "The End of Time." In the former, the Doctor is undone by a character flaw, his excessive greed for knowledge. In the latter, another character flaw, his desire to escape his destiny, results in the Doctor wasting time, and being unable to stop the Master.
That's an intriguing idea, and so it's a shame that, in the first episode, at least, the execution is not what it could be. Another feature of the specials is that there has been no single companion. Stories without a companion can be difficult to structure, as Robert Holmes found when writing "The Deadly Assassin" (1976), the companionless story between the departure of Sarah Jane Smith and the arrival of her replacement, Leela, and so it proves here; with no-one for the Doctor to talk to, it can be hard to lay out the plot for the audience. "End of Time" suffers from this: the plotting of the first part is a bit hit-or-miss, with scenes not linking smoothly with each other, and the occasional sense that something important has happened off-screen. Not until Bernard Cribbins as Wilf Mott is installed in the TARDIS (the second time for the actor, after the 1966 film Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.) does the story start to cohere, and that doesn't happen until forty minutes in.
This isn't to say that the first episode is devoid of good bits. David Tennant is excellent throughout. John Simm's Master is a good deal less self-parodic than in "Last of the Time Lords," even when putting into action his plan to turn the whole world into himself (complete with an unwise "Master Race" joke). On the other hand, he is brought back to life through magic, and has acquired superpowers, for no very good reason.
But whatever criticisms might be levelled at it, I do feel that Part One of "The End of Time," over-the-top cliffhanger aside, is a reasonable setup for Part Two. Unfortunately, Part Two doesn't quite deliver.
Let's begin with the return of the Time Lords. It was pretty obvious that, sooner or later, someone would bring back the Time Lords. It is clever of Davies to do so in such a way as to demonstrate in internal story terms that bringing them back on a permanent basis would not be a good idea (it was already obvious that, dramatically speaking, they had become a crutch for the show, and Davies was right to get rid of them). The revelation that the Time Lords were sacrificed by the Doctor not just as unavoidable collateral damage, but because they had themselves become a threat to the universe, makes sense, makes the Doctor's action more palatable (though perhaps sacrifices an element of tragedy that was formerly in the Doctor's back story), and is a logical extension of the increasing corruption of Gallifrey seen in the Classic series. And getting Timothy Dalton is undeniably a coup—the last time there was an actor with this sort of status in the show was probably when William Hartnell, well known as a supporting actor in British films, was cast as the Doctor in 1963 (though Brian Cox as the voice of the Ood Elder is almost as much of a feather in the show's cap).
But the Time Lords' actual return is something of a non-event. They appear, explain their plot, stick a planet in the sky over London (chief employment of the Total Bollocks Overdrive in this episode; scenes of terrible things in the sky over London have become something of a cliché in Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures), and then disappear again.
Those wanting a more satisfactory conclusion to the saga of Catherine Tate's Donna Noble, i.e. one that allows her to remember her wonderful experiences, comparable to that eventually granted to Rose Tyler, are also disappointed. In the end, it is apparent that Donna is only in this episode because the inclusion of her grandfather Wilf means she can't be omitted—but it's Wilf who Davies wants as companion.
Despite this concentration on Wilf, the issue raised in Part One—who is Wilf and how can he find the Doctor so easily?—is never properly explained. Yes, he is the man who will inadvertently bring about the Tenth Doctor's death, but that's not really a satisfactory answer. Why should being the cause of the Doctor's death give him easier access to the Doctor earlier on? Has the Universe been trying to get the Tenth Doctor for ages?
Other questions also remain unanswered. Who is the mysterious Time Lady (played by Claire Bloom)? (In the podcast commentary on the official website, Davies indicates that he wanted to be deliberately obscure about her, and leave it to the viewer to decide for themselves, but this viewer, at least, feels slightly cheated by that.) How and why does she contact Wilf? What of the secret anti-Master organization to which Lucy Saxon belonged, which is then forgotten about for the rest of the story? What is behind the Ood's unnatural development?
Perhaps most disappointingly, the Doctor's own loss of control in "The Waters of Mars," brought on by the burden of responsibility of being the last Time Lord, whilst mentioned, is not really resolved in a satisfactory fashion. Rather than explore the implications of the end of "Waters of Mars," and perhaps come up with a resolution that lifts the burden of being the last Time Lord off the Doctor's shoulders (which is what I expected), the Doctor goes for a long off-screen holiday, and is fine now.
And then the story itself wraps up at around the 50-minute mark, and is followed by a drawn-out coda, rather than Davies's using the remaining 25 minutes of his 75-minute slot to resolve some of the questions he has raised. The Doctor's regeneration is precipitated, and he then visits some of the highlights of Davies's reign, saying goodbye to them (though not to any characters who are associated with Steven Moffat, such as Sally Sparrow or Jenny [not a Moffat creation, but it was his idea that she not die at the end of "The Doctor's Daughter"], suggesting that we may not have seen the last of those). Has Davies earned the right to such self-indulgence? Few of these sequences add much. The Martha and Mickey sequence looks like a bid for another spin-off. The Doctor's emotional saving of Captain Jack by setting him up with Russell Tovey (hard to think of now as other than Being Human's werewolf George) is slightly disturbing, given that Jack is in the state he is through having done something (in Torchwood: Children of Earth) that the Doctor demonstrates through his actions in this episode would be anathema to him. And the "Verity Newman" sequence is an in-joke too far; director Euros Lyn was probably right to cut it from the first edit (as revealed in the podcast).
The coda illustrates one of the problems that has always affected Davies's writing; a tendency to get an idea in his head and then run with it without thinking through the ramifications or being clear-headed about whether it's actually a good idea. Okay (to take another example), so Davies wants to have a dogfight in the episode—but is it really sensible to model it so blatantly on the Millennium Falcon's escape from the Death Star? Especially when there's another Star Wars homage in the episode?
But I don't want to be too negative about "The End of Time." These episodes could have been a lot more over-the-top and self-important than they turned out to be (just look at "Last of the Time Lords" to see how bad this could have got). Tennant remains on top form, delivering as convincing a performance as he ever has in the role, and Cribbins ably supports him. Dalton doesn't chew too much of the scenery. Either I've become inured to Murray Gold's music, or he's become more restrained (though the choral music in the regeneration scene is sufficiently obtrusive as to get mentioned in the subtitles). There are clever twists. The omniscient narration that opens the story is a nod to Tom Baker's opening narration in "The Deadly Assassin," the story that first introduced viewers to the corruption inside Gallifreyan society. But it turns out, in fact, to be a villainous oration. And I didn't see through the misdirection about the end, where it wasn't the Master who knocked four times, as everyone must have expected.
There are also some very fine moments. Davies has tended to emphasise the roller-coaster nature of the show—in a piece written for The Daily Telegraph he talks of how the Doctor's first word in "Rose" is "Run!" and how they haven't stopped running since. But it is the quiet moments that are the best here. The café conversation between the Doctor and Wilf is one of the finest pieces of writing that Davies has produced for the series, or indeed ever, delivered by two actors at the top of their game. The scene in Part Two between the two in the spaceship is almost as good, particularly when the bespectacled Tennant observes Cribbins. And the Tenth Doctor's final words as he confronts his mortality, "I don't want to go," add a genuine sense of loss to the regeneration—it isn't just a change of clothes and face, about which a Time Lord can be casual, but the death of a person and their replacement by someone who just happens to share his memories.
So ends the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who. It's been an era of ups and downs, that has often divided people (take, as an extreme example, "Love and Monsters," loved by some as a playful exploration of Doctor Who fandom, disliked by others, including myself, as semi-competent in execution and disturbing in its attitudes to women). And it remains the case that the closest thing to a traditional Classic Who story Davies has written is his 1991 series Dark Season. But there have been some excellent stories over the past five years. And even if some of them, such as "Human Nature," or "Blink," were written by others, they still went out on Davies's watch, and he deserves credit for that. One might have qualms about Torchwood, but the worst one can say about The Sarah Jane Adventures is that it should have been done twenty-five years ago. And in the final analysis, he did bring Doctor Who back, and established it in such a way that it could continue after he departed. And that's better than not having Doctor Who.
So now it is the turn of Matt Smith and Steven Moffat. The last two minutes of "The End of Time" featured Smith, and were written and produced by Moffat (Davies left the set). This is, of course, not nearly enough time to pass judgement on either. But David Tennant is a charismatic actor (as shown by his only occasionally Doctorish Hamlet, and his spot-on Scottish-Russell-Brand-as-Ghost-of-Christmas-Present in Catherine Tate's Nan's Christmas Carol), if perhaps not always best served on Who by the material he was given. And Russell T Davies was an imaginative showrunner, if sometimes hampered by his apparent inability to step back and take a less hands-on approach. They won't be an easy act to follow.
So the tenures of David Tennant, Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner on Doctor Who came to an end recently with the airing of "The End of Time," a tale with twenty-seven plot threads told in two parts. Reviewing it is something of a thankless task, as the episodes themselves offer nothing but a slipperiness of ideas, themes, set pieces and emotions. I'd say that it epitomises everything that Russell Davies has brought to Who but, despite its truth, I feel like that would be viewed by some as damning with faint praise. I don't want to say it, but I can't find any alternative that suits. "The End of Time" lives and dies on the two single greatest creative forces behind the show since 2006—Davies and Tennant. And dear Lord, parts of it are as awful and nonsensical as anything else that's been on the show in the last few years—but there's a certain self-indulgent glory in its final third that can't be matched.
The first part left me fairly stunned. Not with joy, or with surprise, but a silent blend of horror and amazement. There's simply too much going on. Briefly, the Doctor receives a prophecy and shared premonition from the Ood (whose society has evolved faster than it should have, for reasons which are never explained) that the Master is going to return from the dead. And indeed he is, because the Master compiled the appallingly named, cod-portentous Books of Saxon before he died, assembled a little cult to call his own, and somehow bought a Magic Ring that would bring him back to life.
In a resurrection scene which is one of the most cringe-worthy things I've seen since season two of Torchwood, the Master's ex-wife pretends to be very scared and upset that the Master's coming back, then actually quite happy about it because she's expected it all along and can now blow him up. This is simply bobbins of the highest order. It's toe-curlingly bad. I've rewatched that scene at least three times now, trying each time to desensitise myself to its awfulness in an attempt to understand what on earth possessed an entire production team to go, "Oh yes. Yes, this is a most pleasing plot development," and I'm still completely at a loss. Rarely have I seen such cack-handed infodumping and such bizarre changes in character in the space of an entire episode of any given TV series, never mind within the space of five minutes.
But resurrection bollocks aside, the Master now has superpowers so he can fly. I'll say that again, just in case you thought you'd misread it: he can fly. And he can fire lightning from his hands. And he can rush a burger without chewing properly and suffer no apparent indigestion. In fact, he is now unstoppable if you're either a burger or in any way electrically conductive. Then he gets kidnapped and his magical mystery powers are forgotten for the rest of the story—until they look good again. And here we can start to point out what's fundamentally wrong with "The End of Time." It's the weakest part of any given Davies script is that the desire for compelling imagery, for that all-important set piece, overwhelms the need for narrative coherence. This is no exception.
The Master has superpowers because they look good when he's using them to blast the Time Lords back into the Time War. The whole of Gallifrey returns, not because it actually ups the ante over the Time Lords themselves returning, but because it looks good when a CGI planet materalises next to Earth. Everyone on Earth gets turned into the Master, because it looks slightly odd and they've finally got a budget to realise a really bad "Master race" pun on screen. Claire Bloom appears as some ghost or other to Wilf, and contributes precisely no information of any use to him whatsoever, because it looks quite spooky to have her appear and disappear without warning. The TARDIS is portrayed in a stained glass window, and this is never mentioned after the opening scene. None of the imagery I've mentioned in this paragraph actually has any bearing on the plot—every single bit of it could have been excised and nobody would feel the story were any less well told.
But there are huge chunks of dialogue that don't need to be there either, and their only apparent reason for existence is that they sound vaguely ominous at the time of delivery. The most obvious example is the entirety of Dalton's voiceover during Part One—it's utter nonsense. At what point is he meant to be delivering it? Is he addressing the whole of the Time Lord High Council with some cobblers about how people on Earth are having "bad dreams"? Much as "The Voiceover of Rassilon" must have seemed like a good idea at the time, it's just daft and fails to be portentous. The whole "Books of Saxon" thing is another example. This is unusual for Davies—you can criticise his plotting easily enough, to the point where it's become apparent that plotting isn't what we should be watching for in his episodes. But for him to write quite such clunky, terrible dialogue is a rarity that I can't remember being quite so clearly on display since "Voyage of the Damned," a Christmas special he was openly critical of in The Writer's Tale.
So the impression left by Part One is, overall, pretty poor. The moments most worthy of note are the Doctor and Wilf talking about mortality and the Doctor's fears in their cafe scene, and the revelation of Timothy Dalton as the episode's narrator, clearly dressed in Time Lord robes. The former scene is wonderfully acted by both performers, and they both continue to give their all throughout both parts of the story. The latter revelation wasn't quite so affecting, but did make me drop the cushion I'd been chewing on in horror and exclaim "Fuck me, it's James Bond as a Time Lord!"
Fortunately, I was the only one in the room at the time.
Part Two is a rather different kettle of fish. This is obviously the episode that Davies wanted to write all along, and Part One was just him trying to shuffle things into position as well as faff about for enough time to cram all the fun stuff into the second part. One of the highlights of Part Two is that Davies allows it to be funny again ("Worst. Rescue. Ever!"), as well as affecting (Wilf and the Doctor on the Vinvocci ship), instead of Dark And Mysterious, and it's all the better for it.
Much of this improvement comes from using Bernard Cribbins as the emotional core of the story. He deserves a medal for the work he's done on this show over the last couple of years—his portrayal of Wilf always comes across as sincere and heartfelt. The scenes in which he attempts to persuade the Doctor to use a gun, and the Doctor refuses, are far more affecting than the '"Coward, every time" Doctor from "The Parting of the Ways." Part of this is down to the Doctor being written better here, but it's largely due to Cribbins' well-meaning bemusement and distress at the Doctor's refusal to take arms. Cribbins features in all of this episode's finest parts, in fact he forms the core of them. For instance: asking the Doctor, with gentle respect, and exactly the right amount of fear to show that he's hiding it well, whether they're all going to die by crashing the ship ("I won't stop you, sir, but I would like to know"). Then there's the sheer awesomeness of the Millennium Cribbins firing lasers at missiles in a scene which, were it to have involved any of the Doctor's other recent companions, would have been easily seen as self-indulgent nonsense.
And, of course, there's the knocking.
The "you will die when he knocks four times" thing had been assumed by fandom at large to refer to the Master. In "The End of Time", Davies suggests that it refers to the Time Lords, only to finally reveal that it's all about Cribbins. And suddenly the episode gets good. What, up until that point, has been about 90 minutes of bombast—sensory and plot overload to the point of ridiculousness—suddenly becomes far more poignant. This Doctor isn't killed by his arch-nemesis, nor is he killed by the return of his corrupted and insane civilisation. He has come to expect these things, and as a result he's accepting of them. But when he realises that he must choose between his own death, or leaving Wilf to die, he doesn't accept it at all. He rages against the unfairness of it all, before relenting and realising that it's exactly the sort of thing that he should accept.
Part Two is really its own two-parter, because the first half features an inordinate amount of bobbins happening. Humanity gets made normal again, there's a chase with Donna that ends up being totally unimportant, the Time Lords spout a lot of puff about how they're going to get themselves out of a time bubble that they haven't actually been trapped in yet, and there's also an extraordinarily tortured retcon that retcons the retcon that made the Master insane. Original series fanboys and fangirls can now rest assured that the Delgado and Ainley Masters weren't subject to the sound of drums, and all is well with the world once more. The rest of the viewing populace, I'm sure, were less certain of quite what was happening.
I can't lie to you—that first half is a slightly guilty pleasure. I have no real desire to watch it again, because it's hardly compelling viewing, but the kind of fanwank that leads to Rassilon wielding a crazy electric hand (and a relatively strongly implied appearance by the Doctor's mother) is enjoyable enough at the time it's happening. But, ultimately, all the first half of this episode is doing is playing chicken with the Doctor's inevitable death—it's constantly one-upping itself to go "Ha! You thought this was going to kill him? Think again, because now there's an entire planet appearing in the sky!" It's ridiculous and wouldn't really be worth much at all without the episode's second half.
The second half makes everything personal again—it plays to the strengths of all involved. By dialling down the threat so suddenly, and making Wilf the subject of the "knock four times" prophecy, everything is made that bit more meaningful. The Doctor has a momentary hope that he won't die, which is suddenly dashed as he realises what's actually happening. He saves Wilf, stating honestly that it would be "an honour" to do so. And then, poisoned with radiation, he goes on a journey through the lives of all the major secondary characters and companions from the show's return in 2005.
I can't really begrudge this, despite its self-indulgence—having brought the show back and made it incredibly successful, both Tennant and Davies should be allowed a retrospective of their finer moments. It's also thematically tied to the ending of the last special, "The Waters of Mars," where the Doctor became too impressed with his own importance. When he meets the Ood at the start of "The End of Time," he specifically says that he's been faffing to avoid his death, seeing fabulous things, overthrowing malicious governments, deflowering Queen Elizabeth I, that sort of thing. But when his death actually comes—and does so at the hands of someone "not important at all"—he realises what is important. This time, he can't allow himself to faff—he goes and does something good with his life, or what remains of it. He says goodbye, and he says thank you, and he does both without actually saying either. Like all the best incarnations of the Doctor, he finds another way.
Here we see what the episode is really about. The Time Lords refuse to die, the Master refuses to die, but the Doctor takes his lead from Wilf—a man happy to say that he's old and he's had his time. Wilf's spent his final years looking after his daughter and granddaughter, so it's fitting that the Doctor spends his final minutes taking care of those who have become the closest things to family he's had over the last few years. Wilf fully accepts on the Vinvocci ship that he may die to help the Doctor succeed, and does so quietly, bravely and without fanfare. Compared to Wilf, the Doctor's initial reaction to his fate is petty and immature. He rages and rails against it, insisting that it's "not fair," and that he could "do so much more"—but eventually realises that nobody gets to make the choice about how much lifespan they have to fit things in. His subsequent desire to do as much right with his remaining time as possible is affecting, and what sets him apart from the episode's antagonists. "I don't want to go" are his final words, and nearly made me cry like a baby. He doesn't want to die, but he's realised that fighting it is "how the Master began," just as much as accepting a gun would be. It's also a line that's easily interpreted as echoing how Tennant and Davies themselves feel about the end of their run on the show, which adds a chunky lump of poignancy to proceedings.
It would be entirely crass to claim that Russell Davies, Julie Gardner, David Tennant and the rest of the cast and crew have done anything but make this show a success over the last few years. Their run on the series has produced some of the finest, and some of the most toe-curling, moments that the show has known, but the hits have outweighed the misses. There's nothing else quite like it on telly, and I love it to bits for all its occasional stupidity. Because for every moment of the Master leering about his being "so hungry," there's the Doctor refusing to use a gun. For every moment of Rassilon burbling about how the Time Lords will "become creatures of consciousness," there's Wilf pleading with the Doctor not to sacrifice his own life for Wilf's. For every moment of someone growling melodramatically about "never dying" or being "ever living," there's the Doctor's final acceptance of his fate and his honest statement that it would be his honour to save Wilf.
It's got heart, this show. It's not always in the right place, but it is always there. And while I know that it's time for a change, and that all things must come to an end, and that there's much need for a breath of fresh air on the show, and that Moffat and Smith might turn out the be the best thing since sliced bread, there's a part of me that doesn't want Davies, Tennant, et al to go either.