Saturday, 16 April 2011
Doctor Who: The End of Time
“Some new man goes sauntering away. And I’m dead.”
Oh my God. I took five pages of notes. This is going to take aaages to write. Best get started.
Crikey, it’s the end. You can tell this story’s important because it’s the only two-parter of the RTD era not to have individual episode titles. It’s also notable that a large proportion of the dialogue is in rather more heightened and literary language than usual, with large chunks of it having a metrical rhythm. This is partly due to the presence of a narrator (and, with the Elder Ood, a narrator within the narration!), but only partly. The language, and the fast-paced, highly structured narrative which takes place in more different regions of time and space than usual, gives this whole story a very rich, epic feel.
We’re bombarded from the start with a lot of evocative figures and themes- Wilf, the Master, bad dreams, the Master, a cathedral at Christmas Eve with the TARDIS as part of a stained-glass window. And the first of many appearances of a mysterious woman whose identity is never quite revealed. The presence of so many meaningful signs and portents in the pre-credits teaser leads us to expect something big. And this intensifies once the Doctor lands on the Ood-Sphere. Although there’s been a gap between stories, his behaviour follows on directly from The Waters of Mars. He’s been procrastinating, unable to accept what he knows to be his fate. He’s married and shagged Queen Elizabeth I purely to avoid being here. He knows he’s been naughty for dragging his heels, and he’s sheepish. You can tell from the gabbling. And Ood Sigma gives him a right telling off: “You should not have delayed!”
Called to the headmaster’s office, the Doctor is punished by being forced to share in a very, very bad dream: the Master is not completely dead and, in another appearance from the ultimate RTD meme, “Something vast is stirring in the dark.”
It’s glossed over a little, but the extrajudicial jailing of Lucy Saxon suggests something extremely sinister about the UK of the Whoniverse, even by comparison with the real contemporary UK, with its 42 day detention and threatened identity cards. Along with the sinister nature of UNIT, this is something which will probably come to date the RTD era. Under the Moff and the Coalition, this sort of thing seems to have gone out of fashion.
I know I’m always going on about RTD’s brilliant economy of storytelling, but the way he manages to give us so much exposition so quickly yet clearly is brilliant. The whole story behind the Master’s resurrection is explained very quickly, and the story doesn’t slow down one bit.
The Doctor runs, but events are already underway. He’s too late. Interesting (particularly as I’m currently halfway through Timelink) that his timeline and the timeline of the narrated events proceed at the same rate, and the Doctor can’t arrive at a point before the prison has exploded.
John Simm is fantastic from his very first scene, as bonkers as ever but so, so dangerous. Lucy sabotages his rebirth, but then we switch to some other chess pieces: Joshua Naismith and his daughter are themselves admirable examples of RTD’s storytelling economy. Their role in the story (the Tobias Vaughn role, as it were) is simple and functional, but they’re allowed enough personality to feel as though they’re more than that. We also have Wilf and the “Silver Cloak”, including the fantastic June Whitfield. Oh, and President Obama is about to broadcast to the world his plan for magically ending the recession. Er, how would one do that, then? Possibly the most far-fetched element in the entire story, this.
Meanwhile, the Master is homeless, in a hoodie, dying, stuck looking like the ex-prime minister, very, very hungry, mad as a biscuit, and very, very scary. And he bangs a drum. Four times. Just as inside his head. Interestingly, though, he’s not the one in control of events at this point. Neither is the Doctor, who is distracted at this point by Wilf and his mates.
The Doctor’s chat with Wilf, fantastically acted by both Tennant and Bernard Cribbins, is a big moment. There’s something about Wilf; he attracts coincidences. The Doctor confides his feelings to Wilf, and admits for the first time that regeneration “still feels like dying”. We see Donna, too, and her heartbreakingly humble life: “She’s making do.” And he even admits the things he’s been driven to do of late, with no Donna to stop him. “I thought it would be better alone. But I did some things that went wrong. I need…”
The ensuing chat between the Doctor and the much-diminished Master is most interesting, too. “I had estates,” says the Master, shortly before he’s kidnapped. “Do you remember my father’s land back home? Pastures of red grass stretching far across the slopes of Mount Perdition.” RTD is so good at this sort of poetic, throwaway texture. The drums are getting louder… and the Doctor can hear them. The drums are real. We know this will be significant.
Wilf sees the mysterious woman again, on the television, where only he can see her. “Only you stand at the heart of coincidence”, he’s told. He’s also told to take a gun, a highly charged item as discussed in relation to this programme! Inevitably, the Doctor is soon along to collect him, officially the oldest ever companion at 80. I love his reaction to the TARDIS.
It seems Naismith acquired the “Immortality Gate” from Torchwood after its recent fall. It seems to be some kind of medical device. He wants to use it to make his daughter immortal, never a good idea in Doctor Who. But along his underlings are a couple of Vinvocci spies, who are particularly fun characters. I love Addams and her constant exasperation.
The cliffhanger is great, as everything is reversed. From a position of powerlessness, suddenly the Master is everyone on the planet. And our narrator is revealed. It’s Timothy Dalton! He’s the Lord President of the High Council! The Time Lords are back!
“There’s an old Earth saying, Captain. A phrase of great power and wisdom, and consolation to the soul in times of need.”
“What’s that, then?”
We begin with a flashback to Gallifrey, and a nice CGI shot of the Citadel, the orange skies, and the mountains. Fanwank heaven! These are recognisably Time Lords, although updated, with CGI and everything. The shot of the High Council from the end of last episode reminds me very much of the Imperial Senate from the Star Wars prequels, which I must apologise for mentioning. They are, I’m sure we all agree, abominations, and I shall not mention them again.
Gallifrey is a lot more bad-ass than it used to be. Timothy Dalton’s Lord President is prone to zapping people for disagreeing with him, and there’s a rather cool prophetess, possibly inspired by the Pythia from the New Adventures, although of course she looks very much like one of the Sisterhood of Karn.
After a bit of a worry over Donna, we get another flashback of the Master as a child, technically a flashback to another flashback from The Sound of Drums. It’s recursive occlusion from Castrovalva all over again.
The Master realises; with six billion of him, he can finally triangulate the source of the drums. And we return to Gallifrey, where we get some highly satisfying answers. Oh, and in our last chance for some slapstick we get the “worst rescue ever”. I like these Vinvocci. The Doctor and Wilf are aboard their ship, and Wilf gets to gaze out of its window upon the Earth, something he’s always wanted. That’s the thing about RTD; he can do exciting, fast-paced, big stories such as this one, and yet still have time for genuinely affecting character moments. The conversation between the Doctor and Wilf is deep and insightful, with the brilliance lying in what remains unsaid. The Doctor opens himself more with Wilf than we’ve ever seen him do before. He sees the absurdity of his rejection of Wilf’s proffered gun, accepting that he’s taken lives and, which weighs heavily on his conscience at the moment, manipulated others into taking their own. And yet the symbolism of not carrying a gun has become important to him. Much as I would argue that this has only been the case since the 1980s, this knowingly hypocritical semi-pacifism has become an interesting and ambiguous side of his character.
But… the Master reveals that the source of the drums is a White Point Star. The Doctor knows this means the Time Lords are back. All the above goes out of the window and the Doctor just takes the gun. Things are clearly very, very serious. But before the seriousness starts we get a rather cool scene in which Wilf gets to fire lasers from a spaceship.
There’s another cool RTD moment; only two Time Lords vote against their plan, and they “will now stand as witness to their shame, like the Weeping Angels of old.” Like so much of the dialogue in this story, this is wonderfully poetic. Unfortunately, there’s another moment which is considerably less cool; the Doctor jumps several hundred feet, lands hard, and is only slightly hurt. WHAT? I just had my head in my hands at this point. We know the Doctor is vulnerable to gravity; that was the whole point of his regeneration in Logopolis! This is just silly. How can such a good writer as RTD, in such an otherwise excellent script, possibly commit such a howler? Perhaps he needs someone to stop him. This is a crying shame. It wouldn’t be so bad if everything else (except perhaps the end, which we’ll come to) wasn’t so perfect.
But the pieces are in place; the Doctor, the Master, and a Lord President who only now, oddly, is revealed to be Rassilon himself. And with a wave of his staff he casually undoes the Master’s takeover of the people of the Earth. The Doctor makes clear the scale of the horrors to come; Gallifrey is fading back intro existence, a fiery orange world which dwarfs the Earth. And we face horrors such as “the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Tragedies, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been-King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres”. Again, so wonderfully poetic. And deadly; the Time Lords intend to destroy time, and exist on a higher plane as beings of pure thought. This is how they planned to end the Time War, and why the Doctor had to destroy them.
The Doctor is unsure, pointing the gun first at the Master, then at Rassilon. The Master’s “You never would, you coward!” seems to be a deliberate echo of the last regeneration- a very nice touch. Then the Doctor sees the mysterious woman, reacts, reflects, and simply shoots the machine which links this room to Gallifrey. And the Master, angry at what Rassilon has done to his life, seems to sacrifice himself to gain his revenge. It’s a dramatic ending. And suddenly the Doctor is alive, and fine, and can’t believe it.
And then there are four knocks. And silence. And another four knocks. Wilf is still inside the booth, waiting to be flooded with radiation. His only hope of survival means the Doctor’s death. It’s the perfect storm, and very cruel. The Doctor immediately realises the bitter irony, and reacts with rage. I’m reminded of what Lady Shelley said in her review of The Waters of Mars about the Doctor going through the seven stages of grief; is this where he finds acceptance? It’s certainly a brave speech. The Doctor is allowed to be very self-centred here, and even unlikeable. We even get a “Well, it’s not fair.”
The Doctor is dying, and we get an extended series of visits to his mates. Yes, this is self-indulgent, and yes, it was an idea that should have been nipped in the bud but, as so often with RTD, the execution is so brilliant that it sort of works. So we get to see Mickey and Martha, now married (what?!!) looking at the Doctor at a distance, as though he were the Watcher. There’s a brief moment with Sarah Jane. And even Captain Jack, with Alonso, in a Mos Eisley-style cantina filled with monsters of the RTD era. We even, oddly, get Jessica Hynes as “Verity Newman”. And Donna’s fate actually kind of works; the winning lottery ticket, bought with a pound “borrowed” from the late Geoffrey Noble. Appropriately, given Tennant's recent role as Hamlet, Ood Sigma sings him to his sleep: “This song is ending, but the story never ends.” One last poetic flourish from RTD. And it’s over. I think the Doctor’s last line is misjudged, and it’s a shame that the regeneration is the same as last time, but what a send-off. Although why the TARDIS should be set on fire I have no idea.
This is, for the most part, sublime. It’s only the falling scene and the self-indulgence of the final scenes, something almost redeemed in the execution, that disappoints. But this still manages a 5/5, if not a particularly high one. “Event” stories often disappoint, but if we take out the negatives, everything else is truly magnificent here.