“I don’t want to go…”
And so, at last, the RTD era is over. My thoughts on his tenure as show runner will follow soon, but what of The End of Time – fitting end of an era?
One of Russell’s problems as the man in charge has been this compulsion to consistently outdo himself in every series. The overstuffed silliness of Journey’s End, which tried to include every character and situation from Russell’s run, was however going to be hard to top. After the serious, intelligent writing of Waters of Mars, though, I had high hopes that the Tenth Doctor’s swansong might be a little more sophisticated than Russell’s usual season finale tales of sound and fury. Sadly, this wasn’t to be, but while unbalanced dramatically and suffering from a somewhat incomprehensible plot, The End of Time was a fairly enjoyable romp.
On the positive side, I was utterly relieved that we didn’t have to have the Daleks again. Don’t get me wrong, I like them every bit as much as any fan, but their near-constant presence since the series returned has become something of an irritant. A Dalek story used to be a special occasion; now it’s just something that crops up at least two episodes a season, predictable as clockwork.
So the villain was to be the Master. If you were reading this blog back in the season three days, you’ll know that I love John Simm’s Master for his sheer, barking insanity – the only thing that makes the character’s motivations and overly complex scheming make sense. Simm didn’t disappoint here, taking the character to new levels of nuttiness. When he was Harold Saxon, he had to at least maintain a veneer of sanity to get to the position of Prime Minister. Shorn of high office and hanging around with the homeless, he could let it all hang out. Even the other tramps thought he was scarily mental, especially when they found that he’d eaten the cooks in that burger van inexplicably parked in the middle of a wasteland.
And as in the past, the Master must have laid the groundwork for his incredibly elaborate resurrection plan while still working on his previous global domination scheme. It’s always occurred to me that having so many complicated back up plans going on at once means that he always expects to be thwarted. Either that or he just likes to keep busy.
As Timothy Dalton’s portentous voiceover informed us of ‘the final days of Earth’, it was hard to see how the scruffily mad Master was going to achieve this, but Russell was actually quite clever at putting the pieces in place. The odd coincidences surrounding Wilf, the presence of yet another sinister businessman in Joshua Naismith (who can’t stand still without posing with his arms crossed), and finally the mysterious Immortality Gate all seemed to be good ingredients for a nice, apocalyptic finale. Only that peculiar failsafe power system that required one person to remain locked in a room smacked of ‘that’ll be useful as a contrived plot device later on’. You know, like that bit in Event Horizon where Sam Neill points out the explosives that can separate the ship in two, then just forgets about it till it’s needed for the plot.
Part one took a bit of time to nicely establish characters and set up situations. Wilf’s quest to find the Doctor was entertaining – I chuckled at ‘the silver cloak’ – and it was lovely to see June Whitfield acting up a storm. I actually hoped we’d see bit more of her, but her part amounted to little more than a showy cameo, which made it seem rather like unnecessary padding. It was nice to see Catherine Tate back as Donna, and even nicer that Russell didn’t succumb to the temptation of undoing her previous tragic fate. But, oh, Bernard Cribbins! Given a more substantial role as the Doctor’s companion this time, he managed to make every scene he was in little short of magical. That first scene with Wilf and the Doctor chatting in the cafe was one of the highlights not just of this story but of the new series as a whole, up there with Sylvester McCoy’s similar cafe scene in Remembrance of the Daleks.
Which brings us neatly to Mr Tennant himself. Whatever you may think of the story as a whole, this undoubtedly one of the finest performances from an actor who’s really grown into the part. His first series found him so smug and manic I wanted to thump him half the time, but this story showed just how much his performance as the Doctor has matured. That cafe scene, with him just holding back tears as he talked about his oncoming death with another old man was just one of many moments that, calculatedly or not, brought a lump to my throat. And his interplay with the Master was far better than their previous encounter, where they hardly had any scenes together. The scene in part two where they were talking very softly to each other about their childhoods, faces mere millimetres apart, had one of us in my house crying out, ‘oh, just kiss, for God’s sake!’.
OK, the Master’s plan was, ultimately, very very silly. But still in keeping with John Simm’s interpretation of him being nuttier than squirrel shit. Everyone on the planet being played by John Simm must have been hell to shoot, but was well done; however, it was never clear whether every version of him was aware of what every other version of him was seeing. Presumably not, as he kept having to give orders to other versions of himself. And it was fun to see ‘Barack Obama’ changing into the Master – confirming every Republican’s worst fears – though perhaps the show ought to steer clear of political comments like ‘he’s found a solution to the recession’! And just why did he continue standing at that podium throughout the crisis?
But the end of part one had the not entirely unexpected reveal that the Master wasn’t the main bad guy after all – it was (gasp!) the Time Lords! At this point I began to think that perhaps Russell should perhaps have kept the threat a bit more low key. As Timothy Dalton impressively proclaimed through a mouthful of spit that he was going to ‘bring about the end of time itself’, I wondered how exactly such a danger could be visualised. I wasn’t to wonder for long, as apparently it’s best demonstrated by showing Gallifrey pop into existence next to Earth. Impressive though that looked, I couldn’t help noticing that Gallifrey was at least four times the size of Earth, which made me wonder why visiting humans such as Leela were never crushed by its presumably heavy gravity.
The trouble with piling threat upon threat like this was that once the Time Lords actually appeared, they actually had very little time to do, in effect, not much. Oh sure, they changed the human race back to themselves, and kept muttering doomy pronouncements like HP Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, but what did they actually do? Timothy Dalton’s President (who seemed to be referred to as Rassilon at one point) played with a silly gauntlet that looked suspiciously like that one out of Torchwood for a couple of minutes, then the Master charged in and saved the day! It was a nice bit of circular logic for the Time Lords to have, effectively, created the Master by driving him nuts just to save themselves, but that smacked rather too much of fanwank – answering a question that never really needed to be asked. And ultimately, left the Doctor without much of a role in saving the day.
So what did the Doctor save? Well, that was, for me, the most interesting aspect of an all over the place story. With so many apocalyptic events looming, the Tenth Doctor finally died to save just one man. While this was nicely unexpected, it could have been telegraphed slightly less by Wilf’s selfless but silly decision to climb into the convenient Booth of Doom.
Still, as the Doctor writhed in the grasp of alien radiation, his face hidden, I very much expected that when he finally turned to camera, it would be Matt Smith we’d be looking at. But it wasn’t, and that’s where the narrative seemed to really go to pieces. I can appreciate that his extended tour of all of his friends’ fates (yet again) had the poignant feel of a terminally ill man putting all his affairs in order. But we just saw all that lot gathered together at the end of the last season, and it really undercut the pace of the narrative for the Doctor to spend the better part of fifteen minutes popping by to say hello. So Martha and Mickey got married? Whuh? And while mostly going around conveniently saving his old friends’ lives, apparently the most he could contribute to Captain Jack was to give him the opportunity of a shag, something he probably wouldn’t have had much trouble with anyway. Still, it was nice to see Russell Tovey popping up again as Midshipman Alonso Frame from Voyage of the Damned, especially in light of all those comments RTD made about wanting Tovey as the next Doctor.
All of this made us wonder whether the Doctor might actually get away without regenerating at all, as it was beginning to seem like it would never happen. But happen it finally did, albeit with less drama than if it had occurred when the Doctor appeared to be seriously injured. It’s unusual for a regeneration to happen with no one to witness it – Troughton to Pertwee, I suppose, and McCoy to McGann. Oh, and McGann to Eccleston. All right, not that unusual then. But a first in the new series. And yes, Tennant’s final line was heartbreaking, and for that moment I didn’t want him to go either. But change finally happened, in the most unnecessarily pyrotechnic regeneration ever. While I like the ‘shooting out energy’ effect of recent regenerations, surely the near total destruction of the TARDIS interior was a bit excessive? Lucky that never happened on other occasions; Ben and Polly might have been burnt to death, or the Pharos Project telescope might have fallen over.
And so, here was the new boy! I like Matt Smith, having seen him act his socks off in a number of other productions, but when I heard of his casting as the Doctor, my main misgiving was ‘he’s actually not too different from David Tennant, is he?’ And so it proved, at least initially. It’s impossible to judge a new Doctor after a couple of minutes – after all, Colin Baker looked like he might be good – but Matt’s post regenerative confusion seemed rather too similar to Tennant’s back in 2006. He even commented that he was ‘still not ginger’! But I liked the energy of his performance, and his self-mockingly aghast ‘I’m a girl?’ And I trust Steve Moffat, so I think he’ll be good.
Ultimately, The End of Time was more of a reasonably serviceable story than the celebration of an era Russell T Davies clearly wanted it to be. The trouble with his approach of making every season finale top the last meant that it really had nowhere to go, and on occasion it seemed to be trying very much too hard. And the story structure was all over the place, making it hard to maintain the level of emotional involvement that might have been nicer to wind up the Tenth Doctor’s tenure. That said, Tennant was undeniably great, as were John Simm and Bernard Cribbins, and from the online trailer, the new era looks rather good. Roll on Series 5/1/32, or whatever you want to call it. And whatever we thought of this particular story, a definite salute to Russell T Davies for bringing back the show we loved, and doing it so well that it’s now one of the most popular shows on British television. Well done, sir.