Sunday, 3 January 2010

TV Review: Dr Who - The End of Time:Part 2

This song is ending...but the story never ends...”

In the end it really didn’t matter that ‘The End Of Time’, David Tennant’s swansong in ‘Doctor Who’ was a lot of sound and fury and big acting, low on subtlety but big on high drama. It didn’t matter that it suffered terrible longeurs halfway through when nothing much was happening and the Doctor and Wilf found themselves sitting around on a crippled spaceship waiting for the plot to catch up with them. It didn’t matter that the spiky alien Vinvocci were a bit irritating and it really didn’t matter that the Time Lord threat to destroy all life in the Universe was ended by the Doctor shooting a machine. Because, in the end, the whole point of the episode – and the Christmas day one before it – was the twenty minute coda when the bad guys had been vanquished and the Doctor finally faced his ‘he will knock four times’ destiny. I daresay hand-wringing ‘Doctor Who’ purists who’ve never been comfortable with the touchy-feely series of the 21st century will have been wailing at the illogicality of the story itself and wincing at the ‘Lord of the Rings’style extended farewells. Me, well. I’ll forgive Russell T Davies almost anything for bringing my favourite show back with such style and brio and, as he surrenders his stewardship of the show and Tennant gives up the keys to the TARDIS. I’ll give him the benefit of my doubt one more time. So while this tale of an unstable Master, vengeful Time Lords, mad scientists and talking cacti may well be the stuff which characterises Davies’ everything-and-the-kitchen-sink season finales (always the most divisive of his episodes), none of it really matters because I just loved that last twenty minutes, that long, languid, achingly-poignant and self-indulgent farewell to the tenth Doctor as, waiting for the regeneration he knows is coming, he says his goodbyes to the people he’s called his friends these last few years. It’s a sequence which plays to Davies’s real strengths; his characters and their dialogue. Let’s face it, Davies himself admits he’s not a science-fiction writer; he’s an ideas man and a people person and to him the ideas are much more important than the science behind them, real or fanciful and the people in the eye of his fictional storm are much more interesting as people, not just the more traditional faceless sci-fi cyphers often created just to power a plotline.

So where were we at the end of ‘The End Time’ part one on Christmas Day? Oh, yes...everyone on Earth has become a facsimile of the Master, the Time Lords are resurrected and everything’s pretty much gone to Hell in a handcart. Part two sees Davies throw a bit of a curveball as we’re suddenly on the planet Gallifrey, shuddering and spasming in the last throes of the Time War (with a nice CGI shot of the Citadel of the Time Lords, downed Dalek spaceships littering the landscape around its base) and the Time Lord President (Timothy Dalton) is raging against the last day of his people as he and his High Council realise that there may be a way to avert the extinction of their race. Back on Earth the Doctor is the Master’s prisoner again, this time bound and gagged rather than aged and shrunken as he was in ‘Last of the Time Lords’. Here the story starts to mark time; despite some nicely-written and performed scenes between the three stars of the show – Tennant is equalled by John Simm’s manic Master and Bernard Cribbins as Wilf – there’s a sense that the script is keeping an eye on the clock just to fill out the required episode running time. The Doctor is rescued by the Vinvocci in a final moment of comedy for the tenth Doctor (“Worst. Rescue. Ever.”) and a convenient teleport device sees the Doctor, Wilf and the spiky aliens transported to their spaceship orbiting 100,000 miles above the Earth. The Doctor shuts down the ship’s power to avoid it being detected by Earth’s security forces – all now controlled by Master-humans - but in time, after long, meandering moments of reflection, the Doctor reactivates the ship and plunges it into the earth’s atmosphere. Time for a bit of much-needed spectacle with an amusing aerial dogfight with Wilf and the Vinvocci blasting dozens of missiles out of the sky as the Master tries to destroy the Vinvocci ship. Look, there goes my disbelief, suspended about as nigh as it can get – whoops, and there it goes that bit high as the Doctor...throws himself out of the spaceship, hurtles through the air and crashes through the roof of Naismith’s mansion to crash to the floor where he’s just winded and not burst open like a ripe grapefruit. This is the point where most ‘classic series’ fans will have thrown their hands in the air in despair, the point where even I had to accept that Davies is just making this all up as he goes along because really he just wants to write the last twenty minutes. Eventually by some bafflegab or other the Time Lords reappear, everyone over-acts at one another, the Doctor faces a Great Moral Dilemma – whether to shoot the Master with Wilf’s gun or shoot the President of the Time lords with Wilf’s gun. In the end, extraordinarily, he just shoots a machine behind the Master which sends the Times Lords and the Master spinning back into the Time-Locked Time War. What just happened??

Now we get to the meat of the episode, the real reason we’re all here. The Doctor is amazed to find himself still alive...and then he hears the four knocks, the sound he’s been led to believe will herald the end of his life and the beginning of another. But it’s not the sound in the Master’s head, the sound of drums, the heartbeat of a Time Lord – it is and always has been the sound of Wilf, trapped in some piece of tech in Naismith’s mansion, tapping four times on the glass to attract the Doctor’s attention to let him out. But, as episode one subtly established, the device needs a second operative on the other side of the glass for the door to open – and whichever chamber is occupied will be flooded with radiation. The Doctor does the right thing and he frees Wilf – but at the cost of his own life. His body is bombarded with radiation and, although it doesn’t trigger an immediate regeneration (conveniently) it sets off a chain of events which he knows will lead to the inevitable moment of change.

The Doctor takes Wilf home – promising he’ll see him one more time – before heading off to claim his own “reward”. This, it turns out, is the chance to bid a final farewell to old friends – Martha and Mickey, now married, are freelance alien fighters battling a rogue Sontaran, Captain Jack is drowning his sorrows in a cantina-style space bar (and the Doctor pops up in a curiously-misjudged scene where he plays spcae-pimp and sets Jack up with a minor character from Christmas 2007 Christmas special 'Voyage of the Damned'), Donna finally gets married afetr her first attempt at marriage was interrupted by her first encounter with the Doctor and there’s even a touching coda to ‘Human Nature’ where the Doctor meets up with the descendant of Joan Redfern, the woman he fell in love with when circumstance forced him to briefly relinquished his Time Lord identity and become a human in the early part of the twentieth century. Finally, perhaps most poignantly, we’re back where it all started. It’s New Year’s Day 2005 and Rose Tyler and her mum Jackie are trudging through the snow on the Powell Estate. There, in the shadows, in the exact spot where he crash-landed his TARDIS in ‘The Christmas Invasion’, is a man in distress and Rose has never seen him before. The Doctor promises her she’ll have “a great year” (shame it couldn’t have been “a fantastic year” which would have been a nice nod to Eccleston’s Doctor) as Rose wanders indoors – pausing to look back once, briefly – and then the Doctor staggers back to the TARDIS, the Song of the Ood easing him towards his death.

Inside the TARDIS the change begins. A devastated Doctor just has time to look up, mutter “I don’t want to go” before the audience loses it completely, he turns into a human firework, the TARDIS bursts into flames...and he becomes a new man. The episode gets a sudden blast of new energy as the new Doctor – Matt Smith – briefly examines his new body before realising, with glorious elation, that the TARDIS is out of control and about to crash. The burning ship is plunging towards the Earth and an elated Doctor screams “Geronimo!” – I spy a new catchphrase-in-waiting.

So there you have it. End of an era and all that. And it was, absolutely. Fun and rattling as ‘The End Of Time’ was it’s hard not to wish that Davies hadn’t felt the weight of expectation quite so acutely and managed to craft something a little subtler, a little less brash, a little...better. I can’t help feeling that the requirement to know too much about the show’s history – even its more recent history – worked against it to an extent. I also feel that Tennant might have benefitted from a more intimate final story, something which didn’t swamp him quite so much and leave him sometimes looking like little more than a stunt man with a few lines of dialogue. In many ways though it was a story which sums out how frustrating Davies could occasionally be in his writing for the series; it’s hard to believe that this came from the same imagination as modern-day series masterpieces like ‘Love & Monsters’, ‘Gridlock’, ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’. Here he abandoned subtlety – and horror, for that matter, there was nothing remotely scary here – for a series of random set pieces hung on the shakiest and most perfunctory of storylines. The whole story stumbled along from one unlikely convenience to another with Davies creating another new contrivance – what’s a white star diamond when it’s home? – just to get his characters from one place to another and to resolve one bit of peril or another. Frustratingly, at the core of all the flim-flam was a decent enough idea utterly in keeping with the sorts of concepts Davies has played with since 2005; the Time Lords breaking free from the Time War and risking all Creation just to ensure the survival of their own species. The idea of the Time Lords being as evil – more evil – than the Daleks and all the other Time War combatants is a fascinating one but it seemed to get a bit lost in all the shouting and the dramatic ambiguity. The Doctor’s despair at being ‘last of the Time Lords’ has been the emotional engine of the series to date and the fact that they came back and he lost them again seemed to come and go fairly unremarked.

It was inevitable that Davies would end his time on the show in as big and audacious a way as he could. Here he abandoned the subtlety and light and shade which really characterise the best Dr Who episodes – his own best Dr Who episodes - and allowed his love of ‘end of season’ spectacle to cloud the judgement that should have created a better and more coherent story to send out his leading man. Ultimately there’s no denying that ‘The End of Time’ sent Tennant out with one Hell of a bang but in the end it wasn’t the bang which mattered, it was that beautifully-judged, beautifully-played final twenty minutes which gave the episodes the grace and class they’d previously abandoned in favour of loud music and flashy CGI. It now seems right somehow that Tennant has gone because Dr Who, like no other show on television, thrives of and requires change if it’s to avoid stagnating. ‘The End of Time’ is absolutely the right moment for Davies to step aside and for Tennant to bow out while he’s at the height of his powers and his popularity. Davies, ironically, leaves Dr Who as he found it – wound up in its own increasingly-confusing mythology and potentially increasingly-exclusive to those who haven’t watched every episode religiously (although, oddly, the audience hasn’t abandoned the show as they did in the 1980s when the previous production team allowed the show to eat itself). Davies leaves the show in the rudest possible health but now it’s time for a fresh start all over again with new stories, new friends and a fewwell-chosen old enemies – a clean slate for Steven Moffat and his team.

As for the new Doctor, to his credit Matt Smith literally explodes onto the screen in a brief sequence which casts aside the emotional devastation of the last few minutes and gives the episode a sudden sunburst of energy which can only leave the audience convinced that not only must the show goes on but also that it’s going to be pretty damned good. And if you’re still not convinced, just check out the brief official BBC trailer for the forthcoming fifth series posted below. Looks to me like a show with a very bright future indeed...

The new Dr Who...series five trailer...


Sunshine Superman said...

I loved the final episode. Already seen it four tmes.

Sometimes I think people can over-analyse a drama too much - just look at the Gallifrey Base forum - and forget that its prime time TV basically for entertainment. And by God, this was 75 minutes of power-packed glorious enjoyment that had me spellbound from start to finish.

The era of the Tenth Doctor has come to an end, and all over the UK all of the legions of newbies are now finding their love of WHO can be bitter-sweet, when their hero has gone and another has taken his place. The show breaks your heart, it's done that to me several times over the decades, that's the down side of the show - the wonder is, it's also its greatest success!!

David Tennant, see you in 2013 for the 50th anniversary special...!

Paul Mount said...

Oh I think you're right and the thing is Dr Who is so successful it can't escape being analysed and over-analysed. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed 'End of Time' more than comes across in my review but I found some of the plotting a bit lazy and slapdash in the rush towards the final sequences and whilst I admire (admired!! sob) Russell's enthusiasm and gusto I just wish he'd reigned it in just a bit and/or crafetd a less manic storyline. But I suppose you can't really blame him for really going for it in his final hour...and it doesn't seem to have done the episodes any harm if the ratings and AI are any judge (and they are!) here's to a bright future!