Saturday, 26 December 2009

TV review: Dr Who - The End of Time: Part One

It's never really a good idea to review the first episode of a 'Dr Who' story - or, for that matter, part of anything, whether it's a book or a film or, although I've been known to do it myself, to judge a multi-episode series on the basis of the first two episodes. But with 'Dr Who' it's really notoriously difficult to make a judgment call on half of a story. Part ones do what they say on the tin; they set up the story, establish the scenario, introduce the characters and move everybody into the positions they need to be to power the narrative towards, hopefully, a satisfying conclusion in the second episode. Two-part stories really should be judged as a whole, taking both instalments together to give a balanced view of the story as a whole. But what the Hell, this is 'The End Of Time', possibly one of the most important 'Dr Who' tales ever told, a story which, if only because it writes out the most popular actor to play the character in the show's 46 year history; the story is going to be scrutinised and analysed for months and maybe even years to come. There's quite a lot riding on this and it's asking to much of anyone to bite their lip and/or keep it buttoned until part two rolls around.

'The End of Time', Christmas Day at 6pm on BBC1, is a very odd one ideeed, first part or not. Since the revived series has established the 'Christmas Day' episode tradition, Russell T Davies, who pens the festive episodes, has always made a great play about how these big holiday episodes need to be something very different from the TV series itself. They need to be bright, bold, loud, unsubtle, high (and usually quite simple) concept, full of Christmas cheer and light and exciting enough to entertain an audience usually guaranteed to be much larger than that of the usual run of episodes, an audience likely to include several million people who don't usually watched the show but will give it a spin as they veg out in front of the TV on the laziest, slobbiest night of the year.

How typical, then, of Davies to tear up his own personal rule book this year. Faced with the need to craft a story which will, most likely, conclude with the death of the Doctor, Christmas 2009 was never really going to be a light and frothy affair. But how perverse to create a story which requires a not-inconsiderable knowledge of the recent history of the series in a story which flashes back to the end of season three, 'Last of the Time Lords', reintroduces a supporting character from that story for a brief (and really pointless and easily-avoidable) cameo, harkens back to 'classic' Dr Who by resurrecting the Doctor's oldest foe The Master, brings back Wilf Mott and his grandaughter, former companion Donna Noble and, at its climax, brings back (spoiler ahead for those who've not yet seen the episode!), the entire Time Lord race, big collars and all, the one story element from the old series Davies was quite keen to jettison before writing one word of his new series because they typified the continuity baggage which dragged down the old series and chased away its casual viewers back in the 1980s. Maybe it's something in the show's genes; it's hard to resist its history and clearly the show's burgeoning popularity and the audience's apparent happy acceptance of old Who lore into the new series has persuaded Davies that the time is ripe to bring back the ancient Gallifreyans, even at the risk of opening up all those old cans of continuity worms which did so much damage in the past. Maybe it's the work of a writer who knows, deep down, he can get away with almost anything with an actor as popular as David Tennant in the lead role. Whatever the reason, it's clear that Davies felt confident enough to throw caution to the wind and bombard his Christmas night crowd with something dark, deep and, ultimately, quite barking mad. It seems to have worked, too; overnight figures of over 10.3 million may be down on the last two years but the numbers for everything else are down this year too. It seems that TV wasn't on the menu for quite as many people this year and it seems that Dr Who remained one of the few shows the audience really made an effort to sit down and watch. I wonder how much of an effort they found it to make head or tail of this rattling, random story of an insane flying Time Lord, conker-headed aliens, a morose Time Lord spiralling towards his doom, an old man in a red bobble hat and a machine which turns everyone in the world into John Simm!

'The End of Time' is Davies with the gloves off. In his last storyline for the series he plays to all his strengths (sometimes seen as weaknesses by his detractors who just can't come to terms with the hugeness of some of his ideas). A moody intro - narrated by Timothy Dalton (who becomes a more forbidding presence as the episode rolls on) - sees the Earth in trouble again as everyone is having bad dreams. Wilf Mott (the brilliant Bernard Cribbins), is Christmas shopping and receives an ominous warning from a mysterious old woman and it's clear that the Doctor is on his way back to Earth. The Doctor, meanwhile, has taken a circuitous route back to the Ood-Sphere where he's informed that not only has his old nemesis the Master survived their last encounter but something even bigger is moving in the darkness. Yikes! Back on Earth, the Master (John Simm) is revived in a hugely-improbable bit of gobbledegook and the rest of the episode concerns itself not so much with moving the story forward but getting the Doctor and the Master to confront one another before allowing the Master to use a remarkable piece of technology to create a new human race in his own image - the Master Race. This done, the Time Lords march en masse out of the darkness - they've survived the Time War after all! - and the pieces are all in place for the tenth Doctor's endgame.

'Voage of the Damned' this ain't. And in all honesty, two viewings in, I'm still not sure what it was. It's big and bold and brash and in places it's quite ridiculous - for once I can understand some of the hand-wringing angsty whining of the fan hardcore (only some of it, mind). The Master gorging on turkeys, firing bolts of fire from his hands and bounding around the place like The Incredible Hulk looks wonderful but it doesn't yet make a whole lot of sense. The new alien race - the Vinvocci - are clearly introduced for a bit of comic light relief and, as a result, aren't even especially comic or much of a relief. Much better comedy value from 'the Silver Cloak', Wilf's coach-load of feisty pensioners enlisted to seek out any sign of the returning Doctor. June Whitfield is on twinkling form as cheeky Minnie Hooper who can't resist a photo opportunity and a saucy grope of the Doc's bot. The problem is that these moments of humour don't sit well in a storyline as dark and portentous as this one; we know, broadly speaking, where 'The End of Time' is going. No big happy ending here, no laughs and smiles and the Doctor wandering off for Christmas dinner. Next week the Doctor dies; we all know it, there's no escaping it, it seeps from every frame of this episode. Just this once those trademark flashes of humour seem a bit inappropriate and forced.

This is an episode which just rages off the screen. John Simm is absolutely electric (literally) as a Master who's been resurrected as insatiable and insane - I've rarely seen a performance of such mesmerising and utterly impacable insanity on screen and it's really quite unsettling. Tennant and Cribbins are the perfect combination, the most unusual TARDIS travelling team in the show's long history. But admist all the bang and flash and all the cackling, the very best scene of the episode is a simple one where the Doctor and Wilf, reunited, sit in a cafe and just chat. They chat about life and the Doctor's death, which he can see staring him in the face. Here's the Doctor stripped bare, terrified and dejected, a man facing his own destiny and yet determined to do all he can to avoid it. Fascinating too the way this scene makes the audience think about the process of regeneration; whereas before we've just seen it as the sloughing off of a damaged or exhausted old body and the assuming of a new one, now it's clear that the process is a very real 'death' and the anguish of facing his own alien mortality is written right across Tennant's features in one of his best ever performances in the series. For just a moment or two the Doctor is alone and afraid, facing the mystery of death in a way we've never thought the Doctor has had to before.

Then there's Donna, mind-wiped and blissfully unaware of her past with the Doctor. Wonderful to see Catherine Tate back in the series (and catch up with her Nan Christmas Special too, if you can, it's a hoot!) even if she's yet to spend any time with the Doctor and she remains the bolshy, aggressive woman we met in 'The Runaway Bride' in 2006 rather than the more thoughtful and mature women she became after travelling with the Doctor. Poignant too, when Wilf hints that, despite her apparent happiness with her new fiance she sometimes looks sad although she doesn't know why. This is really what Davies does so achingly well, brilliant moments of real humanity, moments that touch your heart just before he lurches off into some wild flight of eyebrow-raising fantasy.

So there we have it - part one of a two part story judged on its own merits. It's hard to compare it with previous Who Christmas episodes because it's nothing like any of them, paying lip service to Christmas as it does. Obviously the story which writes out the tenth Doctor was always going to be epic - and it looks as if part two is going to be sutiably enormous - but part of me's wondering if it might not have been wiser to have scheduled something a little more traditional - last month's 'Waters of Mars' could have fitted the bill with just a little tinkering - and then shown Tennant the door early in 2010 in two episodes unencumbered with the need to crowbar in a bit of glitter and a few Christmas trees just because of a quirk of scheduling. 'The End of Time' isn't the best of modern Dr Who but it's quite unlike anything we've had since the series came back. Its very much defined by the glittering, dynamic performances of its three leads and its pervading sense of foreboding and it may well be that part two will force many of us to reappraise part one. As it stands it's an episode almost wilfully designed to infuriate old-series die-hards and simultaneously entertain and frustrate those who have embraced the new series. It's big, spectacular, lunatic stuff and it does nothing to damage Dr Who's reputation, all these years down the line, as the most extraordinary series on television. I'm both looking forward to and dreading episode two...but bring it on.

Coming next week....the beginning of the end for the tenth Doctor...

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