Doctor Who: come in, number 10, your time is up

So the Doctor is dead, long live the Doctor. A million fanboys and girls will be inflicting their review of David Tennant’s last outing in the title role of Doctor Who onto the Internet – and I see no reason why I shouldn’t throw out my own two cents’ worth into the mix as well, having been a fan since the days of Jon Pertwee.

I’m not making this a gushing fountain of fan praise, nor am I going to go all out to pick faults and be scathing and cynical just for the sake of it. Hopefully this will be reasonably well balanced somewhere between the two, but you’ll have your own views all the same – feel free to comment. And if you’ve had Doctor/Tennant overkill over the Christmas and New Year period, then look away now.

Oh – and this contains spoilers, so enter at your own peril.

The End of Time – Part One

Russell T Davies (henceforth referred to in this blog post as RTD – it’s quicker to type) has always been better at set-ups to the big set-piece two-parters than the actual climax/pay-off. So it was deeply disturbing just how badly the set-up in Part One was done.

Let’s be honest: it was a mess. A storytelling car crash. Even the harshest critics of RTD over the years generally concede he can tell a story like few other TV writers, but in Part One his craft seem to desert him, leaving the episode as a choppy, incoherent, confusing mess. Even worse, the episode managed to commit the seemingly impossible twin failings of being too busy and packed … and yet not having nearly enough plot to fill out an hour’s running time. I wouldn’t have thought that combination was possible, but there it was.

Some examples: in the behind-the-scenes Confidential programme, RTD stated that he had known all along how he would bring back the Master. And from the sound of it, it would have made for an excellent, exciting 40 minute episode. Unfortunately they didn’t have 40 minutes – and RTD couldn’t bear to throw away the story he’d outlined in his head. So he crammed it into a confusing, wasteful 5 minutes instead, rather than “killing his darlings” (as writers are always advised to do) and reimagine a simpler, more fitting plot device that fitted this episode instead of one that would never be made.

Similarly, the characters of Joshua Naismith and his daughter were the weakest, most anonymous we’ve ever seen from RTD. They served no purpose in Part One, and so we held on to the hope that there would be a reason for them revealed in Part Two – but no, they never even got a single line of dialogue. A pointless distraction, much as the alien cactii Vinvocci duo proved to be: they were really only there to provide the Doctor with a spaceship to pilot at the critical moment and to throw in a bit of light comedy relief. Similarly Wilf’s (Bernard Cribbens’) army of pensioners was also purely around to enable the (admittedly ever-delightful) June Whitfield a comedy moment groping Tennant’s bottom.

If you took away all of these poorly developed, confusing distractions from the plot you ended up with a streamlined story that really only needed 20 minutes to tell. For all its cramming in of material, then, the episode actually felt sluggish and overpadded. But that’s not to say that this core 20 minutes didn’t have yet some fine stuff lurking within.

The pure gold single scene has to be the one between Tennant and Cribbens, sitting in a greasy spoon, with Catherine Tate outside seen through the window having a comedy turn with a traffic warden. It’s a wonderful moment, Tate’s mouthy Donna contrasting with some achingly beautiful acting in the foreground. Cribbens has always been used as a mainly comedic actor, and to see him come in and deliver a powerhouse performance of such power, drama and sadness is genuinely astounding. And Tennant of course raises his game too and matches him – and then some. When Wilf’s “She’s just marking time” gets the response “Aren’t we all?” from the Doctor, it’s one of the most affecting moments in the series. If your heart doesn’t break just a little as they continue to watch Donna without, then there’s no hope for you.

The rest of the episode depends heavily on your reaction to John Simm’s psychotic emo-Master. If you hated it, then the episode was going to be a complete failure for you; if you loved it, then Simm alone almost made up for the myriad failings in the rest of the episode.

Fortunately, I’m in the latter category: I thought he was tremendous, even saddled with a few too many “laughing manically” shots in the edit. He was compulsively watchable, operating on multiple levels, the character light years better than the thin, obvious satire of politicians in general and Tony Blair in particular that it had been in Simm’s first outing in the role in 2007. When Simm and Tennant finally got a face-to-face scene in the wastelands, it was electric and worth waiting for – it was what the episode was really all about when the rest of it was stripped away.

I even loved the final moments, as everyone in the world was turned into Master-clones. (For fan boys who dismiss this as a mere retread of The Matrix Reloaded‘s Burly Brawl – puhleese, if you’re that cynical and dismissive, you need help. Seriously.) Yes, sorry, I got a childish delight of seeing Simm in various attires (including drag) pulling out all the stops to make up dozens of different characters for one CGI’d scene. I hope he got extra pay for all the extra performances he pulled off in this one. The only downside to the Master’s return was his sudden new superpowers, which felt unnecessary and just plain wrong; you hoped that there would be a big plot pay-off for the powers in Part Two, but in fact they ended up downplayed and almost forgotten about, another shiny new toy that RTD didn’t have time to develop and play with properly.

The overall rating for this episode was perhaps two-and-a-half or charitably three stars if you really stretched it, but those stars come almost entirely from one café scene and a whole lot of Simm, who towered above the wreckage of the rest of the episode. It certainly was no triumphant send-off for the tenth Doctor and gave rise to considerable nerves that RTD was about to blow his final swan song outing after six years at the helm.

The End of Time – Part Two

And so, the final curtain …

Fortunately, a considerably better episode than Part One: it had a storyline, for one thing. And that story was delivered in a coherent fashion: it (mostly) didn’t pull out any sudden plot devices to explain everything away, and it didn’t blow the Big Moment. Which is not to say that it was perfect, by any means.

There was, for example, a bizarre plot device revolving around an Elizabeth Duke diamond thrown by Timothy Dalton at a hologram that ends up as a meteorite on Earth. Neat trick considering the story has established that the Time Lords couldn’t send anything into the ‘real’ world. Not only was it nonsensical, it also wasn’t needed for plot reasons except to unnecessarily eat up a couple of minutes of running time.

I suspect grown-up fans will also hate the flight of the Vinvocci spacecraft as a ridiculous piece of cartoon escapades for the kids (complete with a speed-whoosh sound effect straight from Loony Tunes that set my teeth on edge); Wilf climbing into a laser canon that was so clearly out of Star Wars that you expected the Doctor to admonish him with a “Don’t get cocky, kid!” But you know what, this is a kid’s show, and they deserve some thrills in this too, and it was perfectly fine fun and spectacle even if the CGI work probably left incoming producer Steven Moffat with about ten quid in the bank account for the entire fifth season.

More effective was the early stand-off scene between the Doctor (tied Hannibal Lector-like to a trolley) and the Master, and the funny escape scene as Tennant is literally rolled around the scenery still strapped down, his “Worst. Rescue. EVAHH!” line the best comedy line of the day.

It was also nice to see Catherine Tate’s cameo neatly resolved, with her impending “brainstorm” tripping a safety switch the Doctor had left her with that not only protected her from the Master but also put her to sleep for the remainder of the episode, so that it didn’t detract from/alter the devastatingly brilliant and heartbreaking climax for Donna from the end of season 4.

The episode’s high water point was the final tense and well-written scene with the Doctor, Master and Time Lords facing off. The Time Lord’s easy dismissal of all the Master’s schemes to that point could be accurately described as the ultimate deus ex machina, but in fact it worked since the Time Lords really had been invested in advance with godlike powers. And then it came to the Reservoir Dogs-esque showdown, where it looked horribly as though the tenth Doctor’s final action was going to be to have to shoot someone (The Master? The Time Lord President?) with Wilf’s incongruous old army revolver – or even shoot himself, it seemed at one terrible moment. But all of those options would have been completely out of character for RTD and sure enough it was instead a good old traditional temporary alliance between Doctor and Master that saved the day, and quite right too.

In this episode we learnt much of the backstory to RTD’s Doctor Who era: how insane the Time Lords had finally gone in the last days of the Time War, and why the Master is as evil as he is. Yet it’s nice that not all was revealed – some mysteries were preserved. RTD kept one last little secret to himself with the identity of The Woman (Claire Bloom): fan speculation has suggested that this might have been the Doctor’s mother, or perhaps a future ‘cured’ Donna, or – my own personal theory – that it was former companion Romana. Whatever, it’s nice to have a detail to discuss and theorise; and it’s not just an untidy loose end RTD forgot to deal with, as the Doctor is even asked “Who was that woman?” near the end and he still pointedly refuses to reply.

The cleverest writing in the episode was that it then dispatched the threat of the Master and the Time Lords mid-episode, long before the moment for Tennant’s departure and regeneration scenes. The bad guys were beaten and seen off and had nothing to do with it in the end, and it came down to a quiet, simple moment where the Doctor knowingly and calmly sacrificed himself for his companion, as indeed the Doctor has done in the past.

Initially the Doctor had been able to believe that he had dodged the bullet and avoided fate – and we briefly wondered whether Tennant’s departure hadn’t been some sort of giant hoax. But then the sound of someone tapping gently four times on a glass door echoed as powerfully and as chillingly as the tolling of the Kloister Bell that had proclaimed the end for Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor thirty years ago. It was a wonderfully effective moment as the realisation hit home to the Doctor, Wilf, and to us: and the Doctor was given a moment to rage against the injustice, wishing he could walk away and yet knowing that he could never leave WIlf – the companion he’s uniquely and deeply touchingly started to think of as a father figure – to die in his place. It was time, and an oddly low key red light in a glass booth did the deed without any CGI histrionics.

Unfortunately, at this point, RTD staged an indulgence of Lord of the Rings: Return of the Kings-esque proportion, with its extended multiple endings over the course of almost 20 minutes. Individually these scenes are quite lovely – the look between Tennant and Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith for example, who alone knows what is about to happen, is worth the air time alone. Tennant’s haunted dead man walking is compelling. There’s a lovely nod to the late Howard Attfield, the actor who played Donna’s father but who died before season 4 and who was replaced in plot terms at the last minute by Bernard Cribbens. And there’s a nice bit of plot development for two old companions that underlines the fact that while RTD and Tennant are moving on, and likely as not we’ll never see these companions again, that life for them continues somewhere out there all the same.

It’s good that the entire storyline wasn’t twisted to allow the companions to return in a more integral way, but the problem with this 15 minute indulgence (called the “Doctor’s Reward”, more accurately one final bouquet to the viewers) is partly that we’ve had this moment already at the climax of season 4, Journey’s End; and mostly that it disconnects the wonderful showdown/sacrifice scene from the actual regeneration. By the time that the Doctor finally falls into the TARDIS you’ve almost forgotten that he’s dying, and why. It interrupts the flow of the drama and emotion, and that’s a big problem.

But for all that, and for all the overblown, painfully manipulative yet hugely effective music score welling up, it’s Tennant’s final line as the Doctor that is an undoubted triumph: a simple, yet multi-layered “I don’t want to go” that surely brings a little tear to the eye. (Although the real choker is actually from the behind-the-scenes footage of Tennant attempting and failing to do a farewell speech to the production team after his last scenes. Definitely not a dry eye in the house there.)

At last the moment comes, and the regeneration is bigger and more spectacular than we’ve ever seen before (and shows how far the series’ FX expertise has developed since last we saw a full Doctor regeneration back in 2005.) The production team in one final “clearing of the decks” moment takes the opportunity to blow up the TARDIS itself, and Moffat is handed a genuinely clean slate for 2010 as Matt Smith takes centre stage.

Smith’s first moments – well, more like 30 seconds – are slightly disappointing: too like Tennant, with a reference to ginger hair a callback to Tennant’s first moments in the role. Smith acts as every bit as manic and energised as Tennant at his most hyper, when really it would have been nice to have had something … Different. But time enough for that in the Spring when the new team and the new Doctor get their feet properly under the TARDIS console and start to set their own course. One thing is for sure though: the RTD/Tennant era had gone as far as it could go, and it really is time for a change. The series needs a new direction, new blood, and that’s what it will get in a few months time. It’s the true strength of the series, that it can reboot and find new energy when it needs it most – the regeneration of the programme and the title role is the show’s strongest trump card, which consistently raises it above all other science fiction rivals.

At least we now know Tennant got a decent if by no means perfect send-off. If you’re in the spirit of the moment and being generous, you might give this a four star rating – largely thanks to Tennant’s excellent performance throughout, and for the wonderful support performances of Cribbens, Simm and Dalton.

And what the hell – for all that Russell T Davies, David Tennant, Julie Gardner, Phil Collinson and the rest of the production team have done in restoring this venerable show to far greater heights than it ever enjoyed in its original heyday, a little final touch of generosity is the least we can offer to say thank you as they head off to pastures new.

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