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July 06, 2008

Metacrisis on Infinite Dearths

Comeback Before Journey’s End started, I had a moment of panic singularly unique to Glasgow in summer.

About an hour before the episode started, the massed ranks of the Orange Order descended on the road outside my flat, giving it yahoo with their particular brand of marching. 

For a moment, a brief moment, I panicked.  The horrible thought struck that this year’s season finale would be less Journey’s End, more the The Sound of Drums and Flutes.

Thankfully, after about 10 minutes, they passed, marching up Paisley Road with their entourage in tow.

60 minutes later, I was wishing they’d taken up camp outside my window and given it the full Murray Gold.

Doctor Who: Journey’s End

It seems curiously appropriate, on the 60th anniversary of the NHS, we get an episode with more Doctors than at any point in the modern history of the show.  Although only one of them is fully qualified, the other two still being junior Doctors, busy arsing about and running around showing off the obscure jargon they’ve learned while they play with their remote control Dalek set.

It was a surprise they didn't start wheeling Davros down the corridors and offering Dalek Caan a rag mag.

And if that sounds a dumb, ridiculous and over the top idea, then it’s no more than this episode deserves.

This was Doctor Who at it’s best and worst, in sadly unequal measure. 

Now, last week I was hugely disappointed, but the berating I received over my review,  and the insanely high audience and AI figures for the episode, would suggest I’m very much in the minority.  So if you disagreed with my complaints last week, you might want to look away now. 

It was Abraham Lincoln who said you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  But The Stolen Earth’s incredible rating and the hype surrounding Journey’s End suggests old President Beardy Chops hadn’t factored on Russell T Davies into that particular concept.

at least they can make a good fist of their relationship this time round - in all senses of the term

Clearly Russell wants to clear the decks before he clears his desk, and make sure everything is neat and tidy in the toy box before Steven Moffat takes charge.  Which explains the Lord of the Rings-style multipart ending.  So Mickey and Martha are factored into Torchwood, as was previously rumoured, to join Gappy Riftmouth and former Big Brother housemate Glynn.  Sarah’s safe and well and away to look after Luke and Mr Smith for another series on CBBC, just in time for more school-based alien invasions.

Meanwhile Rose and Jackie are back where they belong, locked away in parallel Norway - although at least this time the Doctor left her something to remember him by -  the Time Lord  equivalent of a sex doll.  Still, at least they can make a good fist of their relationship this time round - in all senses of the term.

Donna And then there was Donna.  Oh, Russell T Davies, why?  Why did you do this to us?  What was this, an exercise in point scoring?  A reminder to us plebs that ultimately you’re in charge?  Because that’s what it felt like.  It felt like Russell saying a big up yours to the naysayers.  Perhaps this was his punishment for all the criticism of Catherine at the start.  ‘Oh, they think she can’t act then?  They think Donna’s a horrible character? I’ll show them.  I’ll write her into being one of the best companions the show’s ever had, and give Catherine every opportunity to showcase her skills as an actress, to the point where you really, really care about her.  That you forget the criticism you had of Donna and of Catherine from The Runaway Bride.

‘Then BANG!  Fuck you for falling for my manipulative writing.  Fuck you for your emotional investment.  Now you’ve learned your lesson.  Never doubt me again.’

Because this was the most ignominious exit Donna could have.  It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t heart-wrenching, it was brutally, cynically manipulative.  Even just killing her, melting her brain under the sheer weight of Time Lord knowledge, would have been a more noble exit for Noble. 

Russell’s self-proclaimed desire to never kill off a companion, even allowing for his ever-more-pompous attempts to work the DWM audience, has effectively forced him to do something worse.  After managing to imbue Donna Noble with a sense of dignity lacking in The Runaway Bride, he denies her a dignified end.  We're supposed to feel sorry for Donna's loss, and sorry for the Doctor's.  But ultimately, his mindwipe solution just left me feeling hollow.

a celebratory hug in the TARDIS so cursory it’s practically off-screen

His solution highlights what was biggest problem with Journey’s End - the writing, and how much the episode exposed the showrunner’s biggest faults as a writer.  Doctor Who has become an exercise in spectacle, every climax bigger and more bloated than before.  But each time, it needs more coincidence, more deus ex machina, more gratuitous technobabble and more suspension of belief than ever before.  And eventually it means writing himself into a corner.

Witness the cliffhanger resolution for instance.  Mickey and Jackie teleporting in I can just about cope with - Rose had already set the precedent last time.  Diverting the regeneration energy was daft, but at least it had a purpose, to set up the semi-Doctor.  But the ‘time lock’ at Torchwood?  What?  It wasn’t even a case of not having an adequate resolution to their dilemma as it was him not having any ideas for the Torchwood team full stop.

The episode as a whole was just... it just failed.  It failed on so many levels.  Too many ideas set up in the The Stolen Earth were just dumped or ignored.  The Shadow Proclamation, for instance.  Last week they were just a bunch of Albinos running what looked like a deep space branch of Nobu.  But we were supposed to believe they were preparing for war, that they were coming and needed the Doctor to lead them into battle.  The Osterhagen key - this ultimate threat, revealed as a planet-busting set of bombs... neutralised by a transmat.  That heartbeat Donna’s been hearing?  Those timelines converging on her?  All just more wibbly-wobbly timey wimey nonsense, but without even using the catchphrase.

Companions And more crucially, Rose and Martha.  A meeting that’s been building for two seasons, and one we needed done properly, especially after Rose’s bitching at the social networking webcast last week, and the shadow Blondie cast over Martha’s stint as chief ankle-twister. 

Instead we got a ‘she’s good’ as Martha appears on the big Dalek telly, and a celebratory hug in the TARDIS so cursory it’s practically off-screen.

As for towing the Earth, a phrase that even written down just looks ridiculous... I refuse to dignify it with any comment.

when it comes to Doctor Who he’s just a carny - Vince McMahon with a BAFTA on his mantelpiece

The one thing that did carry over - in fact, got shoehorned and highlighted so much that it’d have been more of a failure NOT to rely on it - was the hand.  I’m all for the principle of Chekhov’s gun, but as a friend remarked, this was more like Stanislavsky’s Great Big Fuck-Off Crowbar.

Russell T Davies has done this too often to get a pass now.  He may be an award-winning writer and producer, but when it comes to Doctor Who he’s just a carny.  A showman. Vince McMahon with a BAFTA on his mantelpiece.

Davies says he’s not going to write for the show again, once Moffat takes charge, and blasphemous though it may be I’m not going to miss him.  He writes fantastic, beautiful character moments then flattens them against leaden plotting and storylines that leave you drooling in stupefaction.  The man responsible for the sublime Midnight was also responsible for this ridiculous nonsense.

And there were beautiful moments in Journey’s End, don’t get me wrong.  As an episode it failed, utterly, but as a collection of scenes it had moments that made me practically cheering.  Most of them, in some way, involved Julian Bleach, who’s performance as Davros was stunning, truly stunning.  In the same way that Christopher Gable managed to make Sharaz Jek a charismatic monster while hidden in a gimp mask, Bleach’s performance shines out from under layers of latex.  His interplay with the Doctor is exactly what we should have got from Tennant and Simm last year.

The German Daleks were a nice touch.   Not only do the dustbins know who Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister, is, but they also apparently did a Berlitz course before invading the planet.

Tate’s business with the semi-Doctor as he realised who he was, and then more importantly who she was at heart, was wonderful, and the perfect underlining of their screwball relationship.  It paid off wonderfully as the Doctor berated Sylvia at the end, a moment of domestic in Doctor Who that actually, for once, meant something and really worked.

Tencribs And Bernard Cribbins, of course.  Wonderful throughout his appearances in the series, his sad farewell speech to the Doctor, as he alone realises how lonely and forsaken the Time Lord is, was again pitch-perfect.  As was that final shot, the rain-sodden Doctor all alone at home.  Any kind of ‘what?!’ moment to set up this year’s Christmas special would have undermined what was an intensely strong moment.

In purely production terms, actually, there wasn’t a lot to fault.  Visually it looked great, again everyone did their job in terms of performance with skill, to the extent that even Barrowman seemed good, and the direction carried Graeme Harper’s now traditional blend of breathless energy and poignant stillness.  Watch Journey’s End with the sound off, and this would have been a visually blow-away piece of television.

looks like old Abraham was wrong after all

No, everything that was wrong with Journey’s End came from the script - structurally, conceptually and creatively, this was a bellyflop from the high dive board.

With the hype, the weather, Wimbledon and the summer holidays not quite having started yet (except for viewers in Scotland) I’m expecting this to absolutely shatter the viewing figure records for nu-Who.  As I write this it’s just a couple of hours until they’re available, so without the benefit of some timey wimey foreknowledge I can only guess.  But with the mainstream media, and even BBC.co.uk’s own News homepage, running stories last night that Tennant hadn’t gone, it’s clear something huge has happened to Doctor Who.  It looks like old Abraham was wrong after all. 

The world shifted last night.  And I think it left me behind.

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