Goodbye Christopher -- Parting of the Ways Reviewed

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I’ve actually seen The Parting of the Ways five times, now. Dan had some friends copy the BBC Internet feed onto a DVD, and we were able to show Erin on Friday. As Erin is now in Des Moines, paying a visit to her family before starting her job at the University of Waterloo. I’ve held off reviewing this story so that my Canadian readers don’t get spoiled too early.

The episode actually has me in two minds. They’re in conversation like this:

Mind A: Doesn’t the ending of this story, with Rose being imbued with the full power of the TARDIS, basically define the phrase “Deus Ex Machina”?

Mind B: Shut up! This episode had Daleks! Death! The Doctor regenerating!

Erin argues that the ending isn’t quite Deus Ex Machina because, although TARDIS-Rose wipes out the Daleks, restores the humans (at least Jack; possibly the others in the station — maybe even everybody on Earth, rearranging the continents back to their original shape after the Daleks, ahem, bent them?), the Doctor still dies, so it’s not a complete fix. Just a 99.999999999% fix.

I’m on the knife’s edge about this. Dramatically speaking, Russell T. Davies pulls a rabbit out of a hat, despite how much he preps it going as far back as The Unquiet Dead. Speaking as a fan, I’m able to supply an explanation that satisfies me: what if TARDIS-Rose and Bad Wolf was a final weapon of the Time Lords, used in case their last gambit of the Time War didn’t succeed. Did you notice how the Emperor Dalek referred to TARDIS-Rose as “This is the abomination!” Not “an” abomination. He recognized it as something specific.

Dramatically speaking, to have Bad Wolf as a Time Lord weapon balances off the fact that the Daleks survived the Time War and the Time Lords didn’t, despite sacrificing themselves and their planet. With this, the Time Lords don’t die in vain — they reach out from beyond the grave to make sure the Daleks stay dead alongside them.

Engineering Bad Wolf to create itself as a time paradox is exactly the sort of thing the Time Lords would do. Unfortunately, it’s something most new viewers wouldn’t be privy to; thus Deus Ex Machina.

Mind A: So, if the Doctor is forced to regenerate because he absorbs the full power of the time vortex from Rose, and Rose has held that power inside her for much longer, why isn’t she a big pile of goo on the spacestation floor?

Mind B: Shut up! This episode had cool visuals! Great music! Fantastic acting!

Actually, this wouldn’t be the first time that the Doctor is affected by something powerful that doesn’t kill humans. I myself have written that the Doctor’s ability to live outside of time makes him more prone to temporal effects. Rose, being human, might be too small to be killed immediately by the power of the vortex (although not too small to be used as a delivery system), whereas the Doctor, being a Time Lord, feels the effects even after he releases the energy back into the TARDIS.

I did have a minor problem with the regeneration scene itself. It’s the one case where the script exceeded the direction (for the rest of the episode, it was the acting and the directing that exceeded the script). I got the sense that the ninth Doctor was desperate; his babble as he tries to make light of the situation even though he knows he is dying is just wonderful. The way he lets the line hang “The Time Lords have this little trick. It’s sort of a way of cheating death, except…” is simply brilliant.

But do I get a sense that he’s actually dying? No. Consider The Caves of Androzani, where Peter Davison’s Doctor is barely able to get himself through the TARDIS door. Eccleston’s Doctor seemed remarkably able to handle the Vortex’s effects, until it suddenly hit him all at once.

And let me say, once again, shame on the BBC for allowing Russell T. Davies’ masterplan leak to the press. Maybe it was unrealistic to hope that such a secret could remain hidden, but if I had gone into this story not knowing that the Doctor was about to die, I would have no quibbles to write about in this blog post. It would all have been swept away. As it was, I give Russell Davies a heck of a lot of credit for taking the risk of letting Christopher Eccleston go after just one season, giving the concept of regeneration the impact it deserves.

Oh, and the music was brilliant. I may owe the composer an apology. I thought it was a little intrusive in Rose, but as the series progressed, Murray Gold settled in, and the consistent sound of the series has helped bring the stories together. Certain sections, including and especially the Dalek music in The Parting of the Ways was brilliant.

Mind A: So, just what is Bad Wolf anyway? Is it just a word that Rose realized she’d have to scatter across time and space in order to lead herself to this point? Doesn’t that mean there’s much forethought to all the references, and it’s needlessly mysterious? Couldn’t the Doctor and company have been followed by ACME or Kilroy Was Here or something?

Mind B: Shut up! Insane Daleks! The Emperor Dalek on a Crusade! Jack Harkness going all Rambo-with-a-heart!

I’ve got to tip my hat to the performers and to the direction of Joe Ahearn, here. This is what sells the episode outright. There isn’t a sour note anywhere (even one character’s “NOOOOOOO!” was miles better than Darth Vader’s from Revenge of the Sith), and the action is deftly handled. Remember when it was said that the Daleks were impossible to direct? Well, a bigger budget and a deft hand puts the lie to that. These Daleks are smooooooth gliders! They’re just creepy. I especially love the scene where they appear in space outside of Lynda’s window, and you see the Dalek shout “Exterminate!” rather than hear it.

And then there’s the sequence where the Doctor tricks Rose and sends her home and her struggles to come back. The closing elements of this arc, showing Rose has fully outgrown her friends and family, is well played by Billie Piper who has shown herself to be a remarkable actress. Let us hope that she has a career ahead of her when she leaves and she doesn’t end up typecast as a “Who Girl”.

And did I say that there were dramatic flaws? Well, one character arc gets resolved to my satisfaction. When the Doctor is presented with the choice of killing all of humanity or allowing the Daleks to conquer it, he can’t pull the trigger on the gun — despite all that the Time War has done to turn the Doctor into a ruthless killer. In that final moment, the damaged ninth Doctor was whole. So, of course he had to die.

The Parting of the Ways was a monster thrash — one of the most traditional and well-loved types of Doctor Who story, where the strengths of the acting and the directing make up for the deficiencies of the script. My initial reaction cannot be anything but adoration. It’s only when you stop and think about the story that the dramatic flaws present themselves. Most members of the audience will just remember the Daleks, the action and the shock of the ninth Doctor’s death. For them, this story is a success.

And it made Erin burst into tears. Twice (she saw it twice). So several million bonus points on that score.

But I’m an old fan. I look back on my episodes in great detail. I think too much.

So my final ranking for the first season of the revived Doctor Who is as follows:

  1. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
  2. Dalek
  3. The Long Game
  4. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways
  5. Father’s Day
  6. The Unquiet Dead
  7. The End of the World
  8. Aliens of London/World War Three
  9. Rose
  10. Boom Town

Russell T. Davies can take a lot of comfort in the fact that ranking these stories was not easy, and that I consider Boom Town to be a perfectly serviceable episode.

So now I look forward to David Tennant’s tenth Doctor, and The Christmas Invasion.

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