That was much better. I mean, there’s still a whole host of half-baked ideas clogging up the narrative (the Naismiths, the Master’s superpowers), but it works a lot more fluidly mainly because it manages to both embrace the sheer ridiculousness of what it’s doing (featuring a Star Wars homage in a flight across the Channel and a cantina scene which seems to exist solely to demonstrate all the aliens created during the run) with some fantastic performances. It would be hard to tell if Tennant has ever been better than he is here, but he nails his final episode as everyone’s favourite Timelord. That Russell T. Davies keeps his hand mostly away from that giant reset button installed in his office helps no end.
Note: This review will be discussing the episode in depth (including spoilers). If you are looking for a quick recommendation, it’s a yes – as if you weren’t interested anyway. It might not represent the best regeneration story ever written for the show (give me The Caves of Androzani) but it is an emotional farewell to the Davies/Tennant era.
I’m still in mourning. Yes, the episode’s finale was more than a little indulgent (we will come to that), but it does feel like a goodbye. Maybe not necessarily a goodbye to a particular incarnation of the Doctor, but to a particular incarnation of the show. The trashing of the TARDIS in the regeneration scene is perhaps symbollic, as is the revisiting of the characters of the Davies era. Based on the rumours of all the changes awaiting us during the upcoming Moffat era (of which we should find out more in the next few months), it’s perhaps a reasonable fairwell.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, skipping to the end. We should probably consider the first hour of the show, right? The story, the actual conclusion to the threads set in motion at The End of Time, Part I. Here Davies demonstrates tremendous growth as a storyteller: the return of Gallifrey is a red herring. It’s a decoy. Given we (and the Doctor) had figured out that the return of the Master was a red herring, Davies manages to move the board so that we aren’t really watching what we think we’re watching. Many on the internet had expected that Davies would restore Gallifrey as a final parting gift to his successor – it’s only fair to put the toys back in the box for the next kid playing with them. In a way, the restoring of Gallifrey would be a giant ‘reset’ button, like the one Davies tapped at the end of The Parting of the Ways or Doomsday or, most heinously, The Last of the Timelords. It would fit thematically with his past finales.
But that would be predictable and stale. Instead, Davies ultimately validates his own tenure on the show and I agree with what the Doctor would probably say, “Quite right, too.” No reset button here. Or is there?
I am a huge fan of the earlier regeneration, the first of the new era, from Christopher Eccleson’s tragic Nine into David Tennant’s hyperactive Ten. The wonderful thing about the climax of The Parting of the Ways was that it put Nine exactly at the point of his birth – presiding over the possible extermination of the Daleks and the closest thing he has to home at the push of a button. By pushing a plunger, he could repeat the end of the Time War, wiping out the threat of the Daleks once and for all, but killing Earth as well – this must have seemed so similar to the destruction of both the Daleks and the Timelords that created the new series’ status quo. And he couldn’t do it. Nine couldn’t repeat that horrendous decision, accepting the inevitable genocide and his own death that would follow – he was a “coward”. He had grown, he had changed. He wasn’t “the oncoming storm” anymore.
In a wonderful symmetry, Ten finds himself standing in pretty much the exact same position at the climax of The End of Time, Part II. Of course, the resurrected Dalek empire is replaced with the revived Timelords escaping the darkness, but the core idea is the same: pull the trigger and wipe out your own species, but save the universe itself. And this time he can do it. In a smooth set of circumstances, Davies has reversed his own reversal. In a way, this is a reset button, a reflexive commentary on itself. History repeats, invalidating what came between. Just because the Doctor was spared making that horrible choice in The Parting of the Ways doesn’t mean that he isn’t capable of making it. That one time he got to declare that “Everybody lives” doesn’t invalidate the other sacrifice and loss. He will always be the Doctor and everything that involves. It’s one big circle – a suggestion borne out by the fact that the last time Ten meets Rose is the first time he meets her or the fact that we close on Jack in a bar - like where we first met him – or how Donna finally gets her wedding, having first appeared in a wedding dress.
We’ll move on to the regeneration itself in a moment, but it’s worth quickly considering the rest of the episode. “Worst. Rescue. Ever.” and “Not the stairs!” are fantastic lines and brilliant examples of the show’s capacity not to take itself too seriously. It’s always fun to see John Simm as the Master. I found the idea of a whole planet full of egocentric dictators a fascinating one well worth exploring – even though we only really got scenes of John Simm talking to himself. The revelation that the Master is in effect hearing his own heartbeat (“the heartbeat of a Timelord”) is a nice allusion to Edgar Allen Poe, and – if Davies really had thought this far ahead when he introduced the drumbeat in The Sound of Drums, he deserves credit. I imagine that this will likely be the last time we see John Simm in the role, as I can see Moffat wanting to recast the role to match his younger doctor. Still, you never know – the Anthony Ainley version of the character was a foe to four versions of the character.
It’s a shame that Donna’s subplot doesn’t really come to anything, but it’s really the only disappointing aspect of the episode. As in the last episode, Bernard Cribbens is great as Wilfred Mott – it’s a shame he didn’t get more time as a companion. His scenes with Tennant really work, with the scene on the alien ship forming a nice counterpoint to the scene at the café. I’m actually a little heartwarmed that he got to see Earth from orbit at least once. It’s also reassuring to see Wilf serve the role of a companion as articulated by the Doctor himself – Wilf is right to call the Doctor out on his refusal to kill the Master and correct to point out that it means six billion lives; it represents precisely the sort of moral guidance that was missing during The Waters of Mars and an effective illustration of why the character needs someone with him.
I’m not sure why we needed Timothy Dalton as Rassilon, but we got that as almost a bonus feature. It was nice to see the Timelords back and I’m still not sure who the woman was – was she a fully grown Susan (the Doctor’s grandaughter from the sixties) or even his mother? It would add some resonance to the familial theme running through the two parter (from the Master’s discussion about how his family “had estates” on Gallifrey through to the fact that both the Doctor and Wilf would be honoured if they shared a father/son bond – I was worried Wilf would turn out to be a Timelord). Still, it was epic to see the crashed Dalek saucers on Gallifrey as it crumbled and it was nice to see Ten acknowledge that he has been talking about the Timelords as he wanted to remember them. Part of me wonders if we will end up talking about Ten as we want to remember him, or as the deeply flawed (and quite selfish) incarnation of the character that he actually was (and which features heavily during his regeneration).
I am quite happy with the regeneration. I’ve always preferred it when excessive stakes weren’t involved (for example, The Caves of Androzani saw the Doctor regenerating simply trying to save his companion’s life – nothing more). Of course, Davies’ earlier regeneration saw Nine dying to save Rose, but it was so entangled with the saving of the universe that it was hard to describe as a small-scale regeneration. Here the Doctor dies to save Wilf, “a little person”. What more fitting end could there be for Davies’ Timelord – seeming all the more poetic after the acting out at the end of The Waters of Mars and his loss of perspective? There is no such thing as a little person, and Davies has espoused that philosophy throughout his run as writer. No existence is unimportant enough not to deserve a chance to live. There’s no sense of class or scale to the actions of the Doctor. He can save a little boy from a speeding car or the entire universe from the end of time itself.
Tennant is on fire during these scenes. It’s actually painful to watch him as he agonizes over whether he should save Wilf – as he attempts to justify the decision to let Wilf die. In the end, both the audience and the character know that he can’t – that he won’t. For the same reason that we knew that he would fire a sidearm if really necessary. It’s a sweet and fitting end for the character, and one with more dignity than a million botched exterminations or Dalek genocides.
The ending sequence is a little self-indulgent, and affords the character an option he’s never really had before. He gets the chance to revisit the lives he’s touched in his tenure. Of course, what he’s really doing is revisiting the lives touched during Russell T. Davies’ time as showrunner. We get little insights of how each has grown and developed and where they’ve ended up or come from. And it’s a mixed bunch. We only see a glimpse of Rose past, in the snow on New Years, but Jack and Donna are firmly back where they began. Donna dozing through a huge event and getting married and Jack heart-broken at a bar (understandably after the events of Children of Earth) and hitting on officers. Much like the Doctor, they seem to be on circular courses. But maybe it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
On the other hand, Mickey, Martha and Sarah Jane have moved on. Sarah Jane now has a family, a family that was denied to her by the life of a companion. It seems fitting that the Doctor should save Luke as one of his final acts, as he was in a way responsible for the fact that Sarah Jane was not a mother earlier. Mickey and Martha are, on the other hand, living a life they would not have but for the Doctor. Rose described it as “a better way of living your life”. So much for their lives as a mechanic and a doctor. Though part of me wonders what happened to Doctor Tom Milligan, Martha’s companion during The Last of the Timelords and implied to be her fiancé during the fourth season.
The specials have been a bit uneven over all – The Next Doctor was entertaining if a little light, Planet of the Dead was disappointing, The Waters of Mars was fantastic, The End of Time, Part I was a mess – but maybe they’ll hold up better together on a rewatch. Or maybe they won’t. The certainly haven’t gelled together quite as well as any of the full seasons and I can’t help but imagine that The End of Time might have worked better as the climax of a year-long series (hinted at throughout) rather than the last in a selection of episodes blotted around the year seemingly at random.
Still, all in all, an emotional farewell to the Timelord. Matt Smith has some huge converse shoes to fill.
Speaking of which, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the trailer for Moffat’s first season featuring Matt Smith as the Doctor. Daleks! Weeping Angels! Vampires! What look like Silurians! River Song! “Geranimo”! Sunglasses! Accidental punches! The Doctor beating a Dalek with a crutch! It’s a bit too messy to actually figure anything out from, but it looks energetic and vibrant and a little bit self-aware – a bit like the best of the first or the fourth seasons, the two best years of the revived run (if you ask me). Count me in. “Trust me, I’m the Doctor.”
Is it Spring yet?