Sunday, January 10, 2010

For Gallifrey! For victory! For Bernard Cribbins!

Through means I am not at liberty to divulge (but you know who you are, and thank you), we have now seen The End of Time, David Tennant's two-part last-ever story as the Doctor. (Although this isn't our last-ever David Tennant story, as we've yet to see The Waters of Mars, thoughts on which will materialise as and when.)

This is it, the Big One, the finale of all finales. Whatever we all thought of it, and however you choose to interpret this remark, I don't think anyone would deny that it was a prime example of Russell T Davies' vision of Doctor Who, and a fitting testament to his five years as showrunner.

Let's just take a moment to silently give thanks for everything we've liked about the last five years of Who.

All done? On with the reviewing, then. Readers are warned that, necessarily, the following will include plot spoilers. Also, that this is quite a long post. Get yourself a cup of coffee and pull up a chair.

I liked it, and I liked it well. I certainly wouldn't rank this up among the 10s, but I certainly wouldn't sweep it under the 5-out-of-10 rug either. Emotionally and aesthetically I think it's one of RTD's finest works, but intellectually I see flaws in it and I feel I have to dock points for them. So let's say 8. The good news is that this is a consistent rating for both episodes, without a marked and sudden decline in the second half, so I'm placing it above the third and fourth series finales. I think I might rank it alongside the second series finale, although it's a close call. Since this blog was started after July 2006, I feel an urge to borrow the first two series DVDs from the library, rewatch them and inflict my retrospective thoughts on you poor souls, which would at least allow me to call a winner between The End of Time and Doomsday. The first series finale is an odd case, and I'd definitely need to rewatch that before stating an opinion.

So, clearly it's a story about itself. It's the Tenth Doctor's great big drawn-out two-and-a-quarter-hour curtain call, and it's chock full of characters who are themselves drawing out their final moments for as long as possible: the Master ("Never dying! Never dying!"); the Lord President of the Time Lords ("I will! Not!! DIE!!"); the Doctor himself, who knows it's coming but just doesn't want to go; to an extent, Joshua Naismith wanting to prolong his daughter's life indefinitely. In fact, the only character who demonstrably doesn't want to cheat death, who believes that he's had his innings and is prepared to come to terms with his own demise in that terrifically brittle scene near the end, is Wilf. (And in this context, of course it's Wilf who heralds the Doctor's death - as neat a bit of plotting as we've ever had from RTD.) Wilf becomes a hero even to the Doctor, and I don't think it's overstating it to say that Bernard Cribbins owns this two-parter. If this story packs a hefty emotional punch (and I believe it does), at least a couple of knuckles in that punch are the Cribb's.

As far as I can see, the biggest bone of contention around this story is the fifteen-or-so-minute coda. Apparently this is the Tenth Doctor's "reward", and I see a lot of people suggesting we should excuse its indulgence purely on this basis - that it's RTD's and Tennant's "reward" for their work on the series. Balls to that, say I - aren't the awards and the fan adulation reward enough? - but we don't need to resort to that to justify it. It works perfectly well within the story - it belongs there. This is the Doctor still drawing it out, still staving off the end, demanding just one more goodbye, even after he's been given the object lessons of the Master's and President's downfall and Wilf's gosh-darned nobility - he knows he's "lived too long" but he still "doesn't want to go". We might, if we wished - although we're really pushing our luck now - infer that when the Doctor cracks on that last line, it's because he too realises this, and sees himself going down the Master's path. Well, it's a thought. That little tantrum/outburst when he has a go at Wilf is a clear Master moment, which finally persuades him that he's lived too long. See, it all ties in.

Admittedly, it did briefly look as though someone had changed the channel when we suddenly found ourselves watching the slightly odd new adventures of Martha and Mickey - what the hell's going on there? - and a couple of these scenes struck a peculiar note, but the scene at Donna's wedding was a lovely wrap-up to this latter part of the RTD era, and then having the Doctor nip back to the beginning - to see Rose before the previous him meets her - rounded the whole thing off quite beautifully. And may I say, if you're going to bring Rose back for one more hurrah after irrevocably stranding her in another dimension, this is how to do it! I think a lot of people who objected to the coda are suffering from cameo fatigue, having watched Journey's End just a few stories ago, but I honestly didn't feel that the cameos here intruded unnecessarily on the story. It all felt quite natural, whereas in Journey's End it really did come across as just a case of piling everything in for the sake of it and hoping for the best. I'd much rather pretend that wretched Journey's End hadn't happened than wish away the end of The End of Time.

(Am I actively looking for new opportunities to slag off Journey's End, the reader might ask? Yes, I am. Sorry.)

Plot now. At the broadest level, it's surprisingly neat: a little supplementary self-resolving loop hanging off the back of the Time War. At a lower level, iffy bits present themselves, but I'm going to postpone the nitpicking for a couple more paragraphs. Indulge me here. In the middle of that, you've got the Master's spur-of-the-moment scheme to turn everybody on Earth into himself. Why? Why the hell not? It's clearly a spontaneous decision on his part, it lets him get back to what he was up to two-and-a-half years ago, and it provides some of the best material in the last year and a bit of Who. The scene of the Masters in the White House at the end of Part One and the first few minutes of Part Two are absolutely priceless.

And then the President of the Time Lords turns up and spoils the Master's shennanigans with a mere wave of his hand. Might seem a little - do excuse me - off-hand (nitpicking, see further below). We move on to the uber-plot, where the President's plan comes back to bite him and the loop resolves itself. And - joy! - it's not a deus ex machina and it's not a plot rewind! (I mean, yes, you could say that the President is the deus ex machina to the Master's plot, but the Master's resolution to the President's plot, and the overall story, seems proper and satisfying to me.)

Other thoughts. I think we might have guessed that whenever the Doctor previously lamented the loss of the Time Lords, he was really painting a picture of them as he'd wished they were. Never mind the Time War turning them bad, they were always like that even in the old series. The cactus aliens - well, can't have RTD's last hurrah without some comedy aliens, and they did at least have a) some fun lines, and b) that nice escape scene, not to mention a "ho-ho!" moment when they spring their escape. Nice to get one more roll-call of amusing names of the monsters of the Time War, even if we didn't actually see any of them. The Pretentious Name. The Golden Retriever. The Ginger Controversy. This is a game you can play at home, too - feel free to join in. The Adjective Noun. The Miami Dolphins. The Princess Bride. I'm drifting.

Time to pick nits:
  • The cult who resurrect the Master are fairly well introduced and set up. They're then blown up after five minutes. Then this Naismith guy turns up, and he's barely set up at all. Wouldn't it have been neater to have had one well-set-up group that resurrects the Master and/because they want him to do what Naismith wants him to do? I mean, I can see why RTD did it this way - it allowed him to have a large sequence in between, of the Master running riot in a landfill and the Doctor confronting him, albeit without moving the story forward particularly. I'm just not sure that was the neatest way.
  • Re Naismith. We know he's written a book (but not what it's about), we know he wants to make his daughter immortal (though that's the entire depth of his motivation as we're given it), we know he's managed to get his hands on a bit of technology that he believes (without any obvious reason) will help him do this and which he's therefore dubbed "The Immortality Gate". And we know that he knows about the Master, somehow, and that he expects that if his para-ninjas can bring the Master in, he'll be able to make the Gate work. And then Naismith vanishes from the story until it's mentioned right at the end that he was arrested for "unspecified crimes". (Which I choose to interpret as an unpaid parking fine. You may have ideas of your own. But it's hard to see anything, potentially barring the "acquisition" of the Gate from Torchwood - although they're not sanctioned or particularly favoured by the government and their entire infrastructure was recently blown up - that might get Naismith arrested.) He's clearly just a prop character, which makes me wonder all the more why he was given such a prominent place in Part One.
  • The head-shaking at the end of Part One - not a technical problem, just wasn't impressed by it visually. And it felt like it went on for about five minutes. If they'd just had a bit of cackling from the Master, a couple of quick shakes and a light spot of morphing, I'd have been happier. Still, the scenes with all the Masters larking about made it all better.
  • The idea of a medical device that operates on the entire species rather than on the individual is actually pretty damn stupid, unless you're an amoeba. Or possibly a Sontaran; but even then...
  • Donna mustn't ever be reminded about the Doctor, because if she is, she'll die!! Unless, of course, she doesn't. Apparently her ability to simply knock out everybody near her and fall asleep is some sort of defence mechanism that the Doctor has suddenly decided to take credit for, notwithstanding what he's said on the subject on every previous occasion. A very poor hand-waving resolution to that particular slice of cliffhanger. It hurts more that the cliffhanger didn't actually need that extra slice.
  • The Doctor takes a bone-breaking fall from a shuttle through a glass dome and onto a hard marble floor - and stands up! (There's no forehead under his quiff - there's just another fist!) Hmm-some.
  • The President's magical plot-resolving glove is a potential iffy point, but I'm inclined to let it go because he's the President of the Time Lords, and therefore pretty close to God in the show's mythology. If anyone can literally hand-wave away an element of the plot with complete legitimacy, I suppose it's him. This would also apply to the Clash of the Titans moment where the President (as Zeus) lobs a diamond at a picture of Earth and it actually appears there. (What can get out of a time lock? Nothing! Nothing at all - unless it's really small! But then this whole idea of the time lock was only raised in the now-infamous Series Four finale, when it was also shown that a time lock was something that could be cobbled together by deceased members of Torchwood, so I'd sooner just pretend no one ever said the words than take it seriously.)
  • A thought from The Lovely Jo, re the President's plan to escape the end of reality itself by "ascending": has anyone on Gallifrey actually tested this, or are they just relying on the fact that, if it doesn't work out, the President won't be able to complain about it anyway?
  • Three things that were made to look supremely important in Part One that weren't addressed in Part Two: the mystery of who accelerated the Ood's development (their telepathic abilities have been getting stronger too, but is that a result of their accelerated development or the other way round? or are both symptoms of something else?); this bit about Wilf being "the centre of coincidence"; and the whole business with the mysterious Time Lady.
    This last point is a curious one. Claire Bloom was interviewed a while ago and had to take advice on what she could and couldn't reveal about her part in this story; yet it now appears that even the story itself can't reveal anything about her. Fandom and the production team seem to have a number of suggestions as to her identity - is she the Doctor's mother? the Doctor's granddaughter? the White Guardian? - but really, who she is is the wrong question. It doesn't matter a bean who she is, because the important (and unanswered) question is, how and why does she keep appearing to Wilf?
    And in any case, the story shouldn't rely on viewers knowing the minutiae of Old Who continuity to fill in gaps like this. Not if it's made to look like it matters that much to the story.

So admittedly, The End of Time has its plot holes and a number of rabbiti ex hatta. And yet I don't begrudge it them in the same way that I begrudge the Series Four finale its many gross lapses, because there they detracted from the otherwise watchable spectacle posing as a story, whereas here I felt they either didn't matter or at least didn't disrupt the overall proceedings. Yes, for example, the woman in white remains a big gaping contrivance in the story, but her only obvious purpose is to encourage Wilf to bring along his old service revolver and give it to the Doctor, a decision he seems likely to have taken anyway. Lose her from the story outright, and you've lost nothing. If questions are raised about the Ood and then go unanswered, at least they don't affect the outcome of the story - lose the Ood and just have the Doctor turn up on Earth in Part One, and you're no worse off. Donna's end-of-episode headache, or the aura of mystery built up around Wilf - no need to look for improvements, because they didn't need to be in there at all. Which does beg the question of why RTD felt the need to include them and ask the Beeb for a special 75-minute Part Two, but hey, the Beeb let him have it. Anyone bothered by it could simply fast-forward those bits or ignore them as they go along with no ill effect whatsoever. Compare this with the resolution of Journey's End, where Donna dispatches the entire Dalek fleet (trans: the writer dispatches the entire script) simply by pressing a couple of keys ("Delete" and "Escape", I might suggest) on a keyboard that has no conceivable right to be where it is or do what it does.

(Just can't help myself, folks. It's bitterness that I can't buy Turn Left on DVD without also paying for a certain two-parter that I don't like.)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I give The End of Time a nice high 8 out of 10.

And now we have Matt Smith, breath of fresh air that he is. His first few seconds as the Doctor, and the trailer for the next series, seem carefully designed not to spook fans who've grown used to Who done the RTD/Tennant way, but hopefully we'll see something new in the spring. Well, something newer than bloody Daleks again, anyway.


Strabec said...

I notice you say nothing about Tim Dalton being Rasilion... Personally I think RTD just added that he was 'Rasilion' in the same way a tourist shop would sell a straw donkey or a cathedral of Milan. Just to make a visitor feel as though they'd the 'complete' experience. Thank god we didn't get a postcard.

Martha and Mickey – married?! It's as though he just can't leave things alone isn't it? I think you're right. I know I am cameo sick, if Journeys end hadn't happened this would have been a lot more palatable, instead of me thinking 'Oh no, not again!'

The bone breaking fall from the shuttle – yeah I bet Tom Baker is annoyed...

Regarding the woman: I think it irritating that the question of who she was was deliberately avoided by the Doctor. Wilf asks him directly and he says nothing.

By the way, The Ginger Controversy, this might amuse you:

If you can't access the link, let me know and I'll send you the text!!


(Thankfully not fandabidozi!)

John Toon said...

Re "Rassilon", I have two theories. Either he really is Rassilon, and the Time Lords have resurrected him to be their war leader in the same way that they resurrected the Master (and let's face it, the characterisation pretty much fits what we know about Rassilon); or the Doctor just threw it at him in a derogatory way (Jo's suggestion: "Back to the Rhineland, Hitler!") Either one of those, or he's really Derek Rassilon - no relation.

I think you're right that RTD put it in there just for tourist value, but once again, it doesn't materially change the story - if an enterprising fan were to go through EoT with an editing software package and snip out "Back into hell, Rassilon!" along with everything else, nothing really would be lost.

Perhaps what I'm trying to say in the most charitable way possible is that this story badly needed an editor :) But at base, I think it's a sound story that just happens to have a lot of ornamentation hanging off it.

Re Ginger Controversy, I have seen. And the "I was disgusted to see the new Doctor spitting on the console" controversy. Some people will send complaining letters to the BBC for anything.

Christopher Pittard said...

Derek Rassilon... you make me laugh, Toon. But I'm afraid we're in disagreement over the work of RTD, and not for the first time. Interestingly, and I think for the first time in nu-Who's history, the second part was actually better than the spectacularly incoherent first part (but only because RTD dropped all of the loose ends). But even so... here come the problems. Most egregiously, the last fifteen minutes. Nice thematic justification there, Tooners, but let's face it; this was an appalling piece of self indulgence which (as you point out) aptly sums up the RTD years inasmuch as there clearly wasn't a script editor capable of telling the guy when he was wrong (in this respect, I'd argue that Rassilon's *Time Bandits* moment of vaporising boardroom dissent is as close to self-parody as RTD gets). Surely we're supposed to want Dave to stick around; instead, I was shouting "Get on with it" and it was a blessed relief when he changed into Alexander Armstron- sorry, Matt Smith. More summarily dismissed Doctors (especially Colin Baker) will be throwing crisps at the screen in rage (although I suspect Colin Baker is always throwing crisps at the screen in rage).

OK, I'm prepared to give RTD points for the reveal of the knocks - that was genuinely superb. Unfortunately, I'm going to take those points right back again for possibly the worst rabbit/hat moment. Who does the Doctor kill - the Master or Rassilon? He has to kill someone to close the link, so who's it gonna be? Master? Rassilon? Master? Rassilon? He's got no choice here, remember - he's got to commit murder to save the world. Master? Rassilon? Master? Oh wait, I'll shoot the computer instead, that'll do exactly the same thing. Not so much between a rock and a hard place, as between a rock, a hard place, and an armchair. Likewise, the cactus ship is irretrievably out of action, except when you decide that it isn't (points, though, for the gun discussion). I guess they didn't want it enough in previous scenes.

Oh, and the fact that the 'death' was really "The Wrath of Khan." Didn't like that much either.

Ultimately... 5/10. Some brilliance, a lot of incoherence, some absolute screen-punching foulness. 'Doomsday' the clear winner, surely.

John Toon said...

Heheh... "I! Will! Not!! EDIT!!"

I still say that in its own context, it works. Watched in isolation, I suspect I might be less forgiving of it, so on that front I imagine Doomsday probably would win in a fight. The only way to be sure is to borrow Series 2 from t'library.

And as you say, it helps the story that RTD simply dropped the loose ends rather than fumbling them.

The point is, in the comfort of my own head, I can make it make sense, which hasn't been true of some of RTD's finales. Where I really take issue on this one isn't with the story, but with a certain type of fan who protests that it shouldn't have to make sense. "The tyranny of plot" is the phrase I've seen used online. This just baffles and infuriates me - people like that don't want an adventure/drama serial, they want a 45-minute pop video.

Is this an idea you've come across in your academic circles, Mr P - "the tyranny of plot"?

If RTD ever came right out and said that plot shouldn't matter or that his stories shouldn't have to make sense, then I'd have a problem with him.

Christopher Pittard said...

I haven't heard of the 'tyranny of plot', although Henry James did argue for something similar once. But I have heard of the 'tyranny of lucidity' (thanks, Catherine Belsey), which is just as appropriate.

The 'tyranny of plot'? The more I think of it, the more it riles me. It's Doctor Who, fer cryin' out loud, not Doctor Derrida.

I did amuse myself with some alternative endings, though.

a) The Doctor gives his "I'm alive!" speech, and immediately pops his iPod earphones in. He saunters out to the muffled sound of "Mr Vain" while Bernard Cribbins hammers on the door. If you insist on his death, then the next scene shows him being mown down by a guy in a Ford Focus who's talking on his mobile about how shit the new Richard Curtis film, "Four Times", is.

b) Cribbins reacts to the events around him in homage to Brando in *Apocalypse Now* (or Conrad in Heart of Darkness, if you really prefer); his final line of dialogue is a gasped "The Wombles! The Wombles!"

c) Episode as transmitted until the last minutes, when Tennant regenerates into Mick Jagger, who says "Well all right!" and beams directly into the camera. Credits roll - a nation wonders what the hell just happened and where Matt Smith is. Had RTD done that, all would be forgiven. All.