(Image courtesy the BBC)
Russell. Russell. Russell Russell Russell.
You just couldn’t help yourself, could you? I bet it’s the same with a box of chocolates: you can’t limit yourself to just one. Pretty soon, the whole box is empty and you’re frustrated that there’ll be no chocolate tomorrow.
Ah, well. It’s been a trip, though. Thank you. Thank you for the memories. Thank you for the highlights. And, most of all, and I cannot stress this enough, thank you for bringing back Doctor Who and making it cool again.
(At this point my wife Erin says, “Again?!”)
The two-part Doctor Who holiday special, The End of Time, is a rollicking adventure that promises thrills and tears, but ultimately falls short of what one would have hoped for something that was, after all, not only the finale of David Tennant’s tenth Doctor, but Russell T. Davies tenure as producer of the revived Doctor Who.
Well, that’s my non-spoilery portion of this review out of the way. Now I have to talk about this story in depth. If you haven’t seen it, you need to turn away, now.
The five three specials we’ve had since Christmas 2008 have been leading to this moment. Sort of. The Doctor, who has run companionless for who knows how many years, is aging into this incarnation. The lack of control from both his friends, and the fact he is now the last Time Lord in the universe, has brought him to the brink of disaster. And somehow all of this is connected with the fact that events are brewing which will bring about his imminent regeneration. But what? But what?
Defiant to the last, the Doctor has ignored an obvious summons by the Ood, choosing instead to roam the universe some more and have a little fun before he returns to his responsibilities. We see him land on the planet of the Ood, wearing a cowboy hat and a lei, the very model of a bachelor afraid of his upcoming nuptials.
But his defiance has been his undoing. Arriving on the planet of the Ood, he sees an ascendant civilization that’s rising too fast. Something is messing about with history, and the Ood themselves sense it. After giving the Doctor a suitably cryptic set of mental images, including one of a man who the Doctor knows should be dead but is not, they alert the Doctor to the fact that events are in progress as we speak, and that time machine or no time machine, if the Doctor doesn’t head back to present day Earth toot suite, he’s going to be too late to stop the disaster. The Doctor runs, but already steps take place which resurrect the Master from his fiery grave… though fortunately Lucy Saxon is prepared in her own way to disrupt her former husband’s homecoming.
John Simm makes a welcome return as the Master. His new look, which seemed so strange in the trailers, is explained away in the narrative, and suits him given his new role. And John Simm is, again, one of the strongest elements of the episode. Writer Russell T. Davies sets up a good structure: the Master has returned, albeit in a botched form. He now has super-powers and a desperate need to consume. Skulking in the shadows, he stumbles upon a mysterious alien device that’s about to be misused by some mysterious rich man and makes use of it so that all hell breaks loose.
Actually, that’s only a fair structure. Parts of it sound silly (the Master with superpowers?), and a lot of the plot is so obviously roughed in, you can practically see the girders poking out through the drywall. But it holds together. It doesn’t contradict itself. And, most importantly, John Simm sells it. He makes you believe it. John Simms walks the fine line of chewing a hamburger (and a whole turkey) in a way that makes you stare in horror, while stopping just short of chewing the scenery. In the hands of a lesser actor, these moments would have seemed silly, but I’m beginning to think that John Simm could make reading a phone book seem like an act of insanity.
John Simm and David Tennant also pick up where they left off after The Sound of Drums, hinting at depth in their longstanding relationship, and making us feel almost sorry for the evil man. The two actors manage to recapture that sense that the Doctor and the Master are friends and enemies, and John Simm especially gives us the sense that, while the Master’s greatest desire is to snuff out the Doctor, his greatest fear is that, someday, he might succeed.
And speaking of excellent actors, Bernard Cribbins adds his share with his welcome return as Donna’s grandfather, Wilfred Mott. Mott, having taken a page from Donna’s book, has marshalled the resources of his seniors’ brigade to find the Doctor and beg him to restore Donna’s memory. Again, Cribbins practically steals the show, as the meek old man dwarfed by the events around him, but who nonetheless stands up and rises well above his puny limitations.
Unfortunately, while the script that Russell T. Davies provides is largely competent, and director Euros Lyn knows enough to give David, John and Bernard plenty of room to do their thing, The End of Time is marred by several out-of-tune elements which hamper one’s enjoyment of the story. If these elements had been removed or reworked, the experience would have been a lot more enjoyable, and given David Tennant the send off he deserved. Sadly, they contributed to a rather flawed feel to the production.
Consider the sudden ‘appearance’ by President Obama in the narrative. In a series that has not mentioned a living and current world leader in the past five years, this was a jolt. And why was he placed there? Obama was a largely gratuitous element and an unwelcome intrusion of the real world into the alternate history that Russell has been building since he relaunched the series. They could have cut him, or installed a fictional character, and the story wouldn’t have changed. Indeed, fewer people would have been shaken from their suspension of disbelief.
Then there’s the character of Naismith and his daughter. Even though they bring about the event which pitches the story into the cliffhanger, and even though I can’t complain about their acting abilities, they are so obviously plot puppets that you can practically see the hooks from which Russell took them down off his wall. I mean, who are they? Why are they here? How did they find the technology, and just why is Naismith so desperate to give his daughter immortality? (Putting her in a wheelchair and hooking her up to an IV drip might have helped) I know that, in the end, you don’t really need to know the answer to these questions as they’re not what the story is about, but it’s a shame that Russell has to be so obvious as to their purpose in this story. It’s a shame he couldn’t have taken the time to beef up their story and given us some thematic resonance to the Doctor’s struggle with the Master, or even the Time Lords’ refusal to die.
Then there is the transformation of the entire human race into genetic copies of the Master. A horrifying idea, to be sure, but one that is presaged by a special effect that shall hereafter be referred to as THE BOBBLEHEADS OF DOOM!
Here, let me try that again: the BOBBLEHEADS of DOOOOOOOOOOM!
There. That’s better.
To explain, when the people transformed, thanks to the mysterious machine the Naismiths’ have found and seek to use to try to cure young Miss Naismith of her mortality, people’s heads start shaking at supersonic speeds, until the change is complete, and suddenly you have John Simm standing in a dress. That last part is actually quite effective. The bobblehead effect was not.
The bobblehead effect is especially frustrating, because not only is it impossible to resist the temptation to put your finger to your lips and go bubalebubalebub while this effect goes on, I can’t help but notice that they’ve done this sort of thing before, and better. The concept of a alien medical machine curing an individual and copying that ‘cure’ to the rest of the species is simply another take on the Chula medical ship in Stephen Moffat’s classic story, The Empty Child, and everybody remembers the nightmare-inducing on-screen change that afflicted Dr. Constantine, surely?
That the first transformation in The End of Time works as well as it does is largely due again to the acting that John Simm does to sell it after the fact. But can you imagine what could have happened if we had married the horror of The Empty Child’s transformation with the insanity of John Simm afterwards? Instead of Donna’s mother and the much abused American News Network anchor shaking their heads wildly, we could have had people around the world acting as Wilfred Mott was doing, coughing, going “that face!” (cough) “What’s happening to me?” (cough! cough!) “Gaaaaaaaaaaak!” (pop!) Followed by John Simm shouting “HOW ARE YA!!!”
That would have been creepy, and insane.
More than one person has noted, on Twitter and elsewhere, that in the last five minutes, the first part of The End of Time got really, really silly thanks to the bobblehead scene, only to be pulled back into cool by the arrival of the Time Lords. But that’s Russell T. Davies for you. He knows what is cool, and by golly he shoots for the moon. It’s just that sometimes he goes too far. The bulk of the first part features the intrusive narration of Timothy Dalton as the president of the Time Lords. He is speaking words that are overwritten drivel, but it largely works because (a) that’s how Time Lords often talk and (b), it’s Timothy Dalton. And thanks to Dalton, to Davies and to Lyn, you don’t notice the fact that the Time Lords don’t actually do anything. And yet the threat posed by five Time Lords just standing there feels more overt than an entire computer-generated army of Daleks. And somehow Davies is able to create a compelling climax involving five Time Lords, the Master, and David Tennant’s Doctor standing with a gun, uncertain of who to shoot.
But The End of Time isn’t just David Tennant’s good-bye, it’s Russell T. Davies’ as well, and Russell is the first producer of Doctor Who to have had the opportunity to set the terms of his departure. Seriously. John Nathan-Turner had the show cancelled from under him. Graham Williams and Phillip Hinchcliffe both left sooner than they themselves had expected. Barry Letts and Derrick Sherwin were both occupied with setting up a new Doctor and a new formula for the next guy to follow. All that Stephen Moffat did with respect to Russell T. Davies here was to tell him where to park the TARDIS.
So, for a producer who is as much of a fan of the program as Russell T. Davies is, perhaps we could forgive him this self-indulgence. Fair enough, I’ve forgiven him. But I still have to note that he undercut the dramatic heart of his story with the last ten minutes of his production.
I predicted that Wilfred Mott would be the one who knocked four times, but it was still a brilliant moment. That the Doctor could survive a grand final confrontation with the Master, that he could face down the re-opening of the Time War and the fearsome might of Rassilon himself, only to be forced to sacrifice himself to save an old man who’d gotten himself stuck in a closet, is Doctor Who through and through. And David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins act their socks off in this scene as the Doctor rails at, but finally accepts the choice that he knows he has to make, even though he knows it will cost him his own life.
That’s the moment. That’s the key component of the Doctor’s character laid bare. That’s what makes him special. It’s brilliant, and it shows that, fundamentally, Russell T. Davies gets it. He gets the character of the Doctor. And if Wilfred Mott had held the Doctor while the Doctor died and regenerated, I guarantee you that there wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the United Kingdom. But Russell had to have his own goodbye, his own act of self indulgence. In his mind, each of the companions that have graced our screens these past five years needed to get their due.
Fair enough, those scenes were sweet, but unfortunately Russell undercuts himself again. The tone set by Martha and Mickey’s cameos could have worked if applied throughout: the companions seeing the tenth Doctor in the distance, staring forlornly, knowing that this was goodbye. The cameo by Sarah and Luke matched this, setting up the beginnings of a theme… until Jack had to show up in a bar laden with as many references of the past five years that can be jammed into a suitcase. It’s fun. It’s jaunty. It’s completely out of tune with the two scenes that have come before. Boo!
Donna’s scene is nice, although the plot makes an almost unwelcome intrusion here into a series of goodbyes that should be done with quickly (how are we going to miss you, Russell, if you don’t leave), and things only really save themselves when we come back to Rose.
But this is Russell T. Davies in a nutshell. This is a man who can’t help himself, who doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘less is more’. This is a man who understands much about writing shows which appeal to their audience. He knows how to make viewers feel, and he’s fun and brilliant in his own way, and without him, Doctor Who would never have returned from the dead. But because he doesn’t know when to stop himself, the finale, like some of his previous productions, simply failed to live up to its potential. It tried too hard. It lingered too long. It missed its opportunity to be truly special.
That’s okay, though. It’s only a television show. And The End of Time reminds us that we’ve had some wonderful, wonderful moments these past five years. And, better yet, it’s not over. Oh, no. Now somebody else gets a turn, and we shall see what we shall see.