That was… an episode of Doctor Who. I don’t know. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I know that wasn’t quite it. And there are enough cringe-worthy moments here to prevent the episode from becoming a classic (or even just a great episode) there are more than a few diamonds in the rough hidden amidst the mess of an episode. It is very much a Russell T. Davies episode, with all that involves – the ridiculously over-the-top moments paired with a fantastic grasp of character. Is it a fitting end to perhaps the most iconic version of the Timelord (I’m an Eccleston man myself, but only Tom Baker could be said to challenge Tennant as the most recognised face of the Doctor)? I don’t know – I should probably wait for the second part, to be honest. On the otherhand, it certainly doesn’t feel like a crowning moment for the first five years (or even Tennant’s last four) of the revival.
Note: This review will be discussing the episode in depth (including spoilers). If you are looking for a quick recommendation, it’s a decided ‘meh’. It isn’t a highpoint in the new series, but some good ideas and some nice character moments (as well as three fantastic lead performances) make something out of the mess that is the rest of the episode. I’m not sure what exactly, I’ll let you know next week.
Russell T. Davies needs a script editor. He really needs a script editor. The problem the episode has isn’t in providing the characters or the solid moments which have made the show a must-watch pop culture phenomenon, but in recognising them and elevating them above the clutter that seems to end up on screen. The episode is in desperate need a good cleaning, a trimming.
Perhaps the best example of this is the “resurrection of Saxon” scene. We know the Master is coming back. We’ve known that he’d be back at some point from the moment someone picked up a ring at the end of The Last of the Timelords. In a way, we’ve known longer, because… well, like they’d ever kill him off. But, since the Doctor burnt his body, we need a resurrection scene of some sort. And the Doctor needed to burn his body, as a symbolic act of restoring his status as “the last of the timelords”. So we get an introductory sequence with Lucy Saxon involving a botched regeneration and a “cult of Saxon” which gets a convoluted history despite only being on screen for about three minutes. And then we get a double-cross a minute-and-a-half into the scene. And none of this goes anywhere beyond establishing that the Master has a botched regeneration.
Being honest, that was completely unnecessary and featured a huge amount of cringe-worthy clichés (“I may not have been that smart…” and so on) which would have made Colin Baker blush. There must have been easier way to get across his regeneration. And speaking of the regeneration – why does the Master need superpowers? I mean from a narrative point of view, not from a Timelord-biology point-of-view. There is very little payoff from the idea (literally a scene of David Tennant walking towards him in slow motion leading to a moment of bonding between the two before the Master is abducted), and it just comes across as more clutter – especially since the grand plan actually has nothing to do with his botched regeneration or his superpowers.
Maybe it’s meant to offer another parallel between the two Timelords – now both has undergone botched regenerations. Perhaps the Master’s superpowers are designed to serve as a counterpoint to the Doctor’s newly recognised ability (at the end of The Waters of Mars) to bend time to his whim. They are both become gods. The problem is – if the Master’s new abilities are meant to echo the Doctor’s recent actions – this somewhat undermines the climax of The Waters of Mars. The Doctor realised he was becoming the Master – bending time was his right – but that becomes null and void if the Master’s abilities are escalated. It doesn’t seem so bad if it’s no longer as bad as the actions of his arch foe. The climax of The Waters of Mars made them alike, this makes them different.
That said, it is always a pleasure to have John Simm back. I love him in the role and he’s the reason that the above are glaring flaws rather than fatal ones. Simm realises that there is no top for him to go over, and so he plays the role to the hilt. The climax of the episode – his ‘master’ plan, if you will – is fantastic and perfect fit for this particular incarnation of the character. Utopia/The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Timelords were all about the corruption of humanity, bending it to his will and remaking it in his own perverse image. The payoff here is literal. It’s the kind of wacky big idea that the show does with aplomp and – had the cliffhanger been attached to a stronger episode – the climax of the Master’s plan would be an iconic moment for the series (like “Rose, I’m coming to get you” from Bad Wolf or “a footprint doesn’t look like a boot” from Army of Ghosts).
The problem is that not every aspect of the reveal is set up well enough. The Naismith thread is introduced almost out of nowhere, and the Forever Gate is only really explained while the Master is in the middle of executing his grand plan. Had more meat been put on these particular bones, the climax of the episode might have been much more effective – the Master’s plan might have seemed a bit more ingenius (if stolen from The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances).
I am a lot more forgiving of the Timelord revelation, as we’ve kinda been expecting this for a while. Part of me wonders whether the revelation at the finale made any sense to those people tuning in after Christmas dinner looking for something like The Christmas Invasion or The Next Doctor. Timothy Dalton is great – it’s fantastic to see him (and his method-acting spit) in any format - but his ominous narration and Star Wars-style parliament scene help give the episode an epic feeling that it hasn’t quite earned.
Speaking of epic, I actually liked the smaller aspects of the episode – be it the ironic suggestion that the Doctor’s last days would be in a dingy quarry of all places (in fact, the scenes in the wasteland feel more epic than most of what followed) or the Doctor confessing his fear of dying (and even the fear of this incarnation’s death) in a small cafe to Wilf. David Tennant and Bernard Cribbens are solid as leads – it’s nice to see Wilf get some leading time, he’s a fascinating character (there is a wonderful character moment when the woman inside his head points out that, despite being a soldier, he never killed anyone, he responds that she makes it sound like that’s something shameful). I imagine we’ll see more of Donna in the second part (since she seems to be one of two humans left), but it provides a nice thematic link between The End of Time and Bad Wolf – both feature a firm reminder of the consequences of the Doctor’s actions, be it the woman he mindwiped or the human race he abandoned.
The truth is that there is a lot of mess here – a lot of ideas which aren’t developed fully or are just thrown out there – but the good just about outweighs the bad. I imagine that “the master race” idea will split viewers fairly evenly, but I think it’s the sort of wonderfully wacky idea that the series has always done particularly well, and an idea well executed by Russell T. Davies as he prepares to finish up. Perhaps it’s fitting that the episode highlights both his strengths and his weaknesses, maybe offering something of a fair overview of his time at the reigns of the show. Still, I had hoped that the finale would go out firing on all cylinders.
In fairness, a two-parter really needs to be viewed in both parts. Maybe the weaknesses observed in this episode will be countered in the conclusion. Or maybe not. Time will tell.