Journey’s End doesn’t have much in the way of scientific coherence. It resolves its cliffhanger from The Stolen Earth in one of the biggest cheats in the history of the program. There are guns on the wall that don’t get fired. And yet, I don’t care. I came away from this episode with a very warm and fuzzy feel.
And this was more than just Russell T. Davies piling on the whiz-bang continuity-hungry feel. Instead, there is a structure here. Russell was thankfully given an additional twenty minutes to finish his story and he makes the most of it. The crowded feel of The Stolen Earth dissipates as each character is given time to tell their story (even with the introduction of three more companion characters). The story becomes more complex, with added bits of pathos to balance things out. On the whole, Journey’s End just feels right.
And I’ll give Russell T. Davies immense credit for not hitting the reset button on this one. The resolution is highly improbable, but no less fun, and no less worthwhile because it does come at a cost, and the cost sticks.
After having some time to think it over, I’ve decided I was too hard on The Stolen Earth. Instead of being the weakest story of the season, I’ll call it the second weakest and score it a passable five out of ten. Journey’s End gets seven, giving the two-parter an average of six, which I could raise on bonus points. It’s not Shakespeare and nor is it The Shakespeare Code, but like The Sontaran Stratagem, it was an enjoyable way to spend two hours.
A full spoilerific review takes place after the break.
So, when we last left our heroes… well, let me check the list:
- Sarah Jane Smith had just stopped her car from almost running down two Daleks (query: why did you stop, Sarah Jane?) and was about to get executed.
- Ianto and Gwen at Torchwood headquarters were facing a Dalek’s onslaught with a suicidal last stand using normal machine guns, and were about to get executed.
- The Earth’s population was being rounded up by lots and lots of Daleks, and probably about to get executed.
- Davros was laughing triumphantly
- And, as if that wasn’t enough, Donna, Captain Jack and Rose were staring in horror as the tenth Doctor looked set to regenerate.
Way to up the ante, there, Russell.
What follows is an important point, and this is a spoiler review, so forgive me if I tell you that the fifth cliffhanger turns on one of the biggest cheats utilized in the history of the program. I mean, talk about talking to the hand! I don’t care if this is a trick that they explicitly can only use once, the tension that existed before David Tennant’s Doctor heals himself and then refuses to change his appearance (channelling his regeneration energy into his spare severed hand) is rendered something of a parody of itself in the relief. I mean, it’s good that the man will be with us for another year, at least, but it sort of makes our week-long worry fest seem a little pointless.
Then, of course, Sarah Jane is rescued by the sudden appearance of Mickey Smith and Jackie Tyler. And Ianto and Gwen are saved by a timelock coincidentally put into place (and somehow activated) by the late Toshiko. Couple this with the whole scientific implausibility of an anti-reality engine from twenty-seven precisely aligned planets, and Russell isn’t exactly plotting here, so much as pulling things out of a hat.
And does that hat get some use. The “three-fold man” prophesy reveals itself as the severed hand takes the Doctor’s regeneration energy and grows into a human version of the Doctor, with some extra energy left over going into Donna as well.
But, you know what? I kept on waiting for this episode to tank, for all of the McGuffins to overwhelm the story and bring things down in a spectacular crash, but, strangely enough, it never happened. Journey’s End is Doctor Who as a good popcorn flick. Somehow it manages to avoid the problems of The Stolen Earth and entertains for a whole hour. Just check your brain at the door, it tells you. C’mon, live a little. Put up your feet. Enjoy the spectacle. Let your emotions alone guide you through the highs and lows. If you think about it too much, it won’t be fun.
Some of the strongest critics of The Stolen Earth (myself included) called the episode an example of Doctor Who as Star Wars. Journey’s End follows in the same mould, but it is more than Star Wars. Although it follows the Star Wars approach, this isn’t The Phantom Menace we’re seeing here, where special effects try to substitute for a lack of actors, as well as a lack of story. Russell T. Davies writes with confidence, Graeme Harper directs with verve and, most importantly, all of the actors act their hearts out, willing you to believe in this tale and come along for the ride.
And we do.
For example, consider the scene where the Doctor’s severed hand grows into the human copy of the Doctor. The Doctor unleashes a lot of technobabble explaining how this was done. Amid all of the meaningless phrases, we learn that Donna touching the hand helped the process along — indeed, that elements of her genetic makeup influenced the growth of the human Doctor — fortunately giving him a portion of Donna’s personality, rather than, say, her boobs.
On paper, this sounds like a disaster, but it isn’t. Largely thanks to the stellar acting of David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the Doctor acts like Donna and Donna reacts. With the deft touch of director Graeme Harper, the scene just rockets along. We laugh, partly in disbelief that Russell would attempt such a thing, but mostly alongside David and Catherine having a whole lot of fun with each other. This giggle of part-disbelief and part-fun is echoed when Donna takes on the Doctor’s characteristics. And that’s how most of the rest of the episode goes.
It’s worth noting that this is the forty-fifth anniversary of the program, and Russell has decided to host a party and practically everybody is invited. All of the characters of The Stolen Earth are paraded in front of our screen, and we revel in the memories they unleash, of the last four years, and of the classic series beforehand. Russell takes full advantage of the additional twenty minutes of running time, such that nobody feels obviously left out (true, Jackie seems to have little to do, but she does have that nice exchange with the Doctor where she makes him believe she’s named her new child after him). Any lingering doubts we have about the story vanish with all the happy reunions. Davros goes into one of his classic rants for old times sake (and Julian Bleach does a better job than any previous Dalek — possibly even Michael Wisher), and just when we thought we were done, K-9 puts in an appearance. And when K-9 puts in an appearance, that’s when you toss aside your reviewer’s pen and say, “well, wasn’t that fun?”
But there is more to Journey’s End than just fun. The selection of focus for the past four season’s blockbusters has been very deliberate. From Russell T. Davies’ deft understanding of what makes the show tick, the first season could only end with Daleks, and after the Daleks, the second season had to end with Cybermen (with Daleks thrown in for good measure). Then the third season had to have the Master.
Sorry, Sontarans: you may be memorable monsters, but as defining elements of the program, you are not in the top three. No. The fourth season’s diversion to the Doctor’s companions may seem odd to the outside observer, or even to a fan, but they are a critical but often overlooked element of the series’ success. And the story of the companion has been something Russell T. Davies has given far more play to in the revival than it has ever been given in the classic program.
There is a reason why Russell took the time to bring back not only Camille Codoury’s Jackie Tyler as well as Adjoa Andoh as Francine Jones, even though the latter had very little to do. It’s because they share a place with Jacqueline King’s portrayal as Sylvia Noble, Donna’s mother. Other than Captain Jack, every companion character in the revival has had a family. Even Sarah Jane Smith has been given one. And this has been done deliberately, not only to flesh these characters out and to explore what happens in the Doctor’s wake, but to explore how the companions’ change over the course of their time on board the TARDIS. Who better to show that than the family the companions leave behind.
Journey’s End coalesces around a very subtle point. Davros’ read of the Doctor is accurate: the Time Lord may abhor violence, but the people around him don’t. They only see the Doctor as a hero, and they try to emulate his heroism by any means necessary (even though the third Doctor famously told Jo that the ends don’t justify the means). It’s not such a stretch to call the companions gathered around the Doctor his army, and the Doctor has been very complacent about the things left behind in his wake. And while it is wonderful seeing Martha and Sarah Jane and Captain Jack standing tall in defence of Earth, I especially like the fact that the companions’ ultimate weapons all come to naught. It is as the seventh Doctor said: “Weapons. Always useless in the end.” (And, note, the human-Doctor brilliantly suffers the same fate: have weapon, weapon proves useless)
Which raises interesting questions about the Doctor’s character, which the Doctor himself alludes to in his final departure with Rose. Yes, he is horrified now to see his companions go war crazy, but he himself did the same thing in the heat of battle. As a result of this, the ninth Doctor was scarred when he met Rose, and Rose did shake him out of that, such that he can now identify the mentality when it materializes in other people.
The question remains, how will this revelation change the Doctor (we know he has to, and Russell has made a point of showing us that the Doctor has changed, and that there is a plan he’s working to)? What does the Doctor do with this realization? How does he approach his companions, both old and new, now? Will he be extra tentative about allowing people into his sphere, now that he’s seen people like Astrid, River Song and the Face of Boe sacrifice themselves on his behalf?
Perhaps this is something that will be taken up in the specials. I hope so. I have every confidence that Russell T. Davies will at least allude to it, possibly in the lead-up to the tenth Doctor’s regeneration. Because, though Russell Davies is a sloppy plotter, the two things he does well is pacing, and character development. He knows the Doctor inside and out and he knows how to change him. I hope he has time to.
And the ending with Donna is note perfect (although it’s not a fate that I could see, when told to River Song, would make her cringe to meet the woman). It’s sold by Catherine Tate’s acting, and also by Bernard Cribbins. It is a kind of death, and a part of me thinks that a part of Donna would rather die than give up the extraordinary moments she’s experienced, but tellingly, she never tells the Doctor that, and he has no choice but to rob her memory blind. It is the right note of tragedy to end this story on, balancing off the wild and crazy stunts of the previous sixty minutes. Like Donna, it’s all too sudden, and we can’t believe that it’s over.
We finish not with a bride mysteriously appearing in the console room, nor the bow of the Titanic bursting through the wall, but the Doctor alone and feeling lonely. As Sarah Jane said, he has one of the largest families one could hope for on dozens of planets, probably (a character element that touches back to Turn Left), and yet he remains a solitary wanderer. You can’t help feeling sorry for the guy, especially because you won’t be seeing him again until this Christmas.
- Hmm… Daleks speaking German. Where have I heard that before?
So, I think that this season was very strong, overall — almost as strong as the first season, which caught the lightning in a bottle. There were no obvious stinkers, other than The Doctor’s Daughter, and there was a run of five episodes in the latter half of the season that made me proud to be a Doctor Who fan. And the Sontarans were excellent. With that in mind, here is my ranking of the episodes this season
- Midnight (10/10)
- Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (9.5/10)
- The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky (8.5/10)
- Turn Left (8/10)
- Planet of the Ood (8/10)
- Partners in Crime (7.5/10)
- The Unicorn and the Wasp (7/10)
- The Fires of Pompeii (6.5/10)
- The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (6/10)
- The Doctor’s Daughter (4/10)