…and the RTD era comes to an end. Fear the spoilers…
I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: The End of Time is the Russell T. Davies era in microcosm. If there were things you didn’t like about the RTD era, The End of Time is emphatically not going to change your mind. But, unlike episode 1, episode 2 did at least manage to balance RTD’s inevitable wave of bluster, excess and never-mind-the-logic-feel-the-emotion storytelling with much more of the stuff that he does best. This was a big improvement on Episode 1 (mainly thanks to actually having a story – even if it was on the seriously loose side), and also toned down a few of John Simm’s more excruciating extremes. We got ludicrous humour, comedy aliens, things blowing up, two direct STAR WARS references, several bursts of complete WTF insanity – it was a mess, but at least this time it was a genuinely entertaining mess.
The story is still, to be honest, rather schizophrenic – it’s a huge, OTT, overblown bunfight of a story that when it isn’t trying to entertain you to death is actually all about death, and the difficulty of facing up to it. This means we still get a few unexpected tonal u-turns, and that despite some flashes of truly excellent writing, The End of Time still isn’t Davies’ finest hour (that honour still goes to S4’s The Stolen Earth – even with the conference centre Shadow Proclamation, it’s still an episode made of pure unadulterated win). It also shows that no matter how many touching emotional scenes the man can pull off, it was definitely time for him to go – this is the fourth season finale in a row that’s revolved around something horrible appearing in the skies of Earth that then gets banished back to the fiery chasm from whence it came, and I’m certainly hoping that Moffat is going to experiment with some new structures for the barnstorming season finales.
Indeed, it’s disappointing that the Gallifrey part of the story was dealt with so conventionally – great build-up, but once Dalton and co materialised, it was powerfully played yet lacking any real surprises. It essentially resolved as I was expecting, with the bad guys threatening to tear down creation being thrown back into what’s now become the Who equivalent of Hell. Would have been nice to see the Time Lords back in some capacity as a regular bad guy (although I suspect we haven’t seen the last of them), but then, this is an ‘End of an Era’ tale, and this was just as much about drawing a line under the Time War. (And I have to say, the sequence with Wilf trying to get the Doctor to take the gun, and the Doctor refusing – followed by the Doctor realising the Time Lords are returning, and taking the gun without a moment’s thought – was one of the finest in the whole episode).
But of course, part of the nature of the climax was simply giving us a big, rousing moment where the Doctor defeats the villains, and then pulling the rug out from under us with the ‘He will knock four times’ scene – after all the (frequently overdone) build-up, having it be something as wonderfully mundane as Wilf tapping on a pane of glass was a great touch. And once again, I’m in awe of the way that certain aspects of New Who have totally transcended my expectations – back in 2007, the news that Bernard Cribbins was turning up in a cameo role in Voyage of the Damned had me rolling my eyes at another bit of bizarre, off-the-wall casting. Once again, I was wrong, and especially since S4 Cribbins has been consistently brilliant – he’s the best thing in The End of Time, and I’m also extremely glad that despite the occasional hints of ambiguity in episode 1, they didn’t go for some dramatic reveal about Wilf – instead of being transformed or boosted up into the ‘most special of special’ that some Who characters have ended up as, he remains a brilliant and brilliantly ordinary old man.
Given fewer opportunities to do reach-for-the-sky ‘Look at me, Ma!’ madness, Simm was much better this episode, while Tennant once again knocks it out of the park. He has his moments of zany craziness that can grate, and yet he also knows the moments when to underplay things – he’s the current generation’s Doctor, and deservedly so.
There are several storytelling moments that are simply weird, or daft – the plummet from the spacecraft is just a bit too much suspension of disbelief (it’s hard to tell whether it was the writing or the direction- just a shot showing that the ship was just above the house would have helped a little, and at least the Doctor didn’t immediately get up as if nothing happenned), I was surprised that RTD didn’t do anything with the idea that the Master and his billions of duplicates might not get on (after all, the Master has never really struck me as a team player), and I certainly wasn’t expecting Donna to remain unconscious in an alleyway for almost the entire episode. The character did feel underused (Stop the presses – it’s the first (and hopefully last) time in history that I’ve suggested a Who episode didn’t have enough Catherine Tate), but at least RTD didn’t hit a rest switch with the memory wipe, and it also fits with the theme of the episode, and the ending – the Doctor being able to briefly peer in at the people whose lives he’s touched and transformed, but still having to go on alone towards his death.
(One of the most interesting and unexpected aspects of episode 2 is that despite the general clean sweep, and the feeling that all the loose ends of the RTD era were being tied up, Claire Bloom’s mysterious character of ‘the Woman’ remains a mystery. Alright, we know she was one of the only two Time Lords who objected to the ‘Final Sanction’ (in a piece of dialogue where there was a Weeping Angels reference, which I’ll have to hear again to fully get), but we don’t know how she was communicating with Wilf, and we don’t know who she is. Yes, she’s obviously someone very important (while internet blathering suggests everything from the Doctor’s mother to a regenerated version of Donna (?!?), my quiet theory is that she might be the Doctor’s actual, non-cloned daughter (If Susan was his granddaughter, there had to be one somewhere)), but I was expecting an ambiguous reply to “Who was that woman?”, I wasn’t expecting nothing at all. I’m glad it wasn’t a monstrously cheesy reveal, but it seemed rather an odd decision, and I’m wondering if that’s one story arc that is going to get picked up further down the line by Moffatt and co.)
And then, there’s the ending. It’s been kind of bizarre and fun reading the various reactions that the ending (or at least, the final 20 minutes) have gotten. Naturally, quite a few people are saying that it was self-indulgent – to which I would say, have we all been watching the same show for the past five years? Of course it was self-indulgent, and I wouldn’t have expected it to be anything else – but in comparison to some of the indulgences elsewhere in The End of Time and RTD’s other Who stories, it simply felt right – it was self-indulgence I could live with. The ‘He Knocks four times’ scene was brilliantly done, especially with the way it undercut all expectation by not immediately killing Tennant, and yes, the slow (but, for the most part, pain-free) death by radiation is a total dramatic conceit, basically enabling RTD to do the farewell tour sequence, but it’s not a conceit I have a problem with. RTD has always been about the big emotions, and this is also a relatively unique story in Who’s history – it’s not only a regeneration, it’s an end of an era tale that’s clearing the decks for Moffat’s take on the show.
Only 1969’s The War Games has seen the show going through quite such a transformation, and in this case, having such an extended sequence felt fitting, and (for the most part), a lot less self-congratulatory than the farewell scenes in S4’s Journey’s End. Aside from the Human Nature 2-part adaptation, it’s the most deliberately reminiscent of the Nineties spin-off ‘New Adventures’ novels that New Who has ever been, especially in the utterly unprecedented appearance from Jessica Hynes (where the best moment was simply giving her the name Verity Newman, a lovely reference that means the most to the people to whom it doesn’t have to be explained). And for me, the sequence only really tetered into full overblown overdrive on the final stagger towards the TARDIS and the Ood’s song, and the actual regeneration (I mean, he didn’t blow up the TARDIS last time…). Other than that, (and the Martha/Mickey pairing – I’m sorry, but no…) it’s about the finest section of what’s been a frequently frustrating, messy and indulgent but still enjoyable Who adventure, and which has summed up what was right and what was wrong with the RTD era better than anything I can think of.
And the arrival of Matt Smith? Well, it’s hard to judge anyone by just under a minute of screen time, especially when it’s their first day on the job, and they’ve been handed a scene of hyperactive fast-talking comedy on a set that’s blowing itself to pieces. And, lest we forget, David Tennat’s first full scene (not officially part of an episode – shown as part of Children in Need back in 2005) was no stranger to eccentric overacting and moments of “Hmm- he’s not going to be playing it like this all the time, is he?” So – a little bit OTT post regeneration, didn’t exactly bowl me over, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt (although it’s slightly frustrating that we’ve gotten rid of bloody ‘Allons-y’ only for it to be immediately replaced by ‘Geronimo’, which I suspect may be annoying me quite soon).
Much more promising was the trailer for the next season – the tiny snippets shown here suggest that like Tennant, there may be points where Smith is going ‘big’ and a bit grating, but it also looks like when he’s quiet, he’s going to own the role. When he says “Trust me, I’m the Doctor”, I believe him. And the whole thing looks intriguing and exciting – there’s a slightly filmier look to the new footage, and it did have a vibe of newness and freshness about it, rather than simply feeling like a typical pre-season trailer with new faces in it. I’m sure Moffatt is going to be just as capable of riding the quality rollercoaster as RTD (although in different ways) – I’m not expecting the new era to be revolutionary, or classic, or amazing. But it does look like it’s going to be different, and that’s exactly what Who needs right now.
It has been something of a ride. I’ve had my ups and downs with New Who so far, but the moments that work still manage to balance out the moments that don’t. It’s going to be interesting to see where it goes next…