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July 08, 2008

Thanks for the Memory Wipe

Doctor Who: Journey's End

Tardisburn This was brilliant. And the more I think about it, the more brilliant it seems. Elegant. Explosive. Terrifying. Devastating. Thrilling. Thought-provoking. It is everything Doctor Who can and should be, and it wraps up the natural arcs of the most important characters that had been introduced in the four years of the Russel T. Davies era. Or am I imagining it? Am I imagining the symmetry, the closure of loose threads, the deft weaving of various running threads that suddenly culminate all at once in a single explosive and tragic episode? I certainly don't think that I am, but it seems like I must have watched a completely different episode from everyone else because very few people seem to have anything good to say about it.

It's not perfect. Never said it was. It's flawed, sometimes heavily so. But it doesn't have to be perfect to be brilliant. Last week all I was hoping for was that the intolerable storm of fanwank would settle down a little bit so that we could focus on the drama. And it did. There was still fanwank, but a far more appropriate amount, nowhere near the amount of The Stolen Earth. Journey's End was all about character: The Doctor, Davros, Rose, Martha, and Donna in particular. The other characters weren't as integral but their presence was appreciated for the reason that this was a story about the family that the Doctor has accumulated since the Time War, and it wouldn't be the whole family without Sarah Jane, Jack, and even Mickey the idiot.

The examination of the Doctor as a warrior, a soldier, and a deliverer of genocide has long been a concern of the program but this year it has come to the forefront, as the Doctor has found himself causing the destruction of Pompeii, assisting UNIT in the battle against the Sontarans, responsible for a daughter who knows nothing but how to be a soldier and, finally, tasked by the Shadow Proclamation with leading the battle against the new Dalek Empire. Despite his flippant refusal to do so, however, he finds that he has unintentionally done just that. Every single one of his companions (save Donna, we'll get to her in a bit) has become a soldier, willing to commit genocide: the death of every Dalek, every human. This is a chilling and fitting culmination of what was started in Rob Shearman's Dalek, when the Dalek says to the Ninth Doctor, "we are the same," and continued in the Parting of the Ways when the Dalek Emperor calls him "the Great Exterminator." It's something that the Doctor has grappled with ever since, and here he must confront the fact that he's not a Dalek, he's the only thing worse than a Dalek: He's Davros, creator of Daleks. "Is that what you did to her, turned her into a soldier?" Donna asks of Martha in The Sontaran Stratagem. And yes, that's exactly what he did, as we saw then and we see even more clearly now.

I don't really understand why a fully-fledged copy of the Doctor has been interpreted by the fandom as a sex doll, but then again, I've never owned one, so I suppose I don't know what I'm talking about.

And Martha has finally rebounded from the slump she's been in since her Torchwood guest appearances. For the first time since Last of the Time Lords, we see a Martha that we can watch with interest, even if we can't exactly root for her. Her mission is not only a shocking attempt at genocide, but it's also the same mission from the end of series three, twisted, perverted, and combined with the fake mission she had in the same episode (am I the only one who's noticing this, or am I just pulling it out of my arse?). The ludicrous "gun in four parts" which she mocked the Master for believing, combined with the globe-travelling, teaming-with-people-around-the-world mission that she actually undertook. "As if I would ask her to kill," the Doctor says in that episode, almost anticipating Donna's question mentioned above. But he didn't ask her to kill. He just trained her for it and she is now doing it on her own. It's quite ironic that Earth has been dragged accross the cosmos and is sharing a Cascade with the Crucible, which is less Arthur Miller and more George Lucas, and it's in danger of destruction not at the say-so of Peter Cushing (which would be just plain strange, given that this is a Dalek story) but rather at the will of Martha Jones. Digression aside, the point is this: what Martha has become, the Doctor can't help but be ashamed of, but it makes for good television and is a natural continuation of Martha's character. Meanwhile, Martha finally meets Rose and, after Rose's attitude toward her last week, the two finally accept one another: case closed. All right, a little bit more face time between them might have been nice, but its absence does not ruin the episode by any means.

Roseanddoctors Speaking of Rose, the conclusion to her four-season-long arc was by far the most gratifying, largely because the Doctor actually said certain things about his relationship with Rose that I've been saying for years. I've never been one to believe that the Doctor requited Rose's feelings for him. I have, however believed that their relationship was special because she made him a better man. She made the bitter and jaded Christopher Eccleston into the more optimistic (though still scarred) David Tennant. She helped him get over the horror of destroying two civilizations, one of which was his own. The Doctor basically says as much in this episode, and gives Rose and the Hand Doctor exactly what they deserve: each other. I don't really understand why a fully-fledged copy of the Doctor has been interpreted by the fandom as a sex doll, but then again, I've never owned one, so I suppose I don't know what I'm talking about. As far as I'm concerned, this is the perfect conclusion to Rose's story. Last time we visited Bad Wolf Bay, we were told that Rose could never return, but that had zero credibility (I mean, come on, Mickey had already done it!) and there was no real closure: the shadow of Rose continued to hang over to program. That shadow is now lifted, and both she and the Doctor can get on with their lives; the story no longer calls out for resolution but the possibility is left that sometime two, five, ten, or twenty years down the road Billie and David can both return to the program, together, if the need should arise.

Davros' role in this story served in part as the culmination of two major arcs: the "arc" of bringing back classic series icons one at a time, and the arc of the return of the Daleks that has been developed over the course of the series. This was simply the most effective use of Daleks since 2005's Dalek. The rivalry between the Doctor and the Daleks is iconic, but that was covered so marvelously in the afforementioned episode that there was nowhere left to build as far as that was concerned. The only thing that could develop the Daleks would be to do Daleks as characters in their own right: first the Dalek Emperor, then the Cult of Skaro, and here we culminate with three different Dalek characters: Davros (not literally a Dalek, obviously, but part of the Dalek mythology), Dalek Caan, and the Dalek Supreme.  The Dalek Supreme did exactly what it says on the tin: he was a superlative version of what made a Dalek: more arrogant, more likely to shout, more dangerous-seeming. Dalek Caan was not only creepy and funny at the same time but also a gratifying payoff to the Doctor's feeble attempts to convince the Daleks that what they're doing is wrong. And Davros was everything that he should be. The level of charisma and intelligence was such that he seemed the fitting counterpart to the Doctor that he's always tried to be but never, in my opinion, quite succeed at before. The only problem I can identify is that it's done so effectively that it steals a bit too much thunder from John Simm's excellent portrayal of the Master. But I suppose it's all right because, although they are both counterparts to the Doctor, they are done in such different ways that it's not really a problem. And Julian Bleach's performance in the role is phenomenal. A joy to watch, and truly insane. That doesn't mean that the garden-variety Daleks don't have a shining moment in this episode as well: I am referring, of course, to the German Daleks. I don't think it's bigoted of me to find the German-speaking Daleks even more terrifying because of the Nazi connection. The Daleks have always been Nazi-like, and it is from this that they derive much of their terror. Amplifying that only makes them more frightening.

That Donna's departure disturbed, upset, and, ultimately, bovvered so many fans is to the credit of both Russell and Catherine.

Donna Now, about Donna. It's heartbreaking, it's sad, and she doesn't deserve it. It really, truly hurts. But that's not something that should be held against the episode, because that's how stories are told. And this one has been told excellently. That Donna's departure disturbed, upset, and, ultimately, bovvered so many fans is to the credit of both Russell and Catherine. But the departure was strangely appropriate. The threads leading to this finale have been woven through the fabric of this series. The Doctor and Donna as a single entity was hinted at ages ago. I'm thinking in particular about the notion of Donna (and companions in general) as a part of the Doctor that has been externalized, that Donna acts as the Doctor's conscience. I mentioned this specifically in my review of Planet of the Ood, noting the similarity between this concept and the tripartite consciousness of the Ood. Not to mention the foreshadowing of Donna's fate through the false lives she lived in Forest of the Dead and Turn Left. Donna's fate is the logical culmination of what we saw this series, and as tragic as it is, I can think of no ending for her character that is anywhere near so devastatingly fitting. In the end, Donna and the Hand Doctor share the same horrible fate: Just as Donna is reset to the meaningless chatter of her former life, the Hand Doctor is reset to the genocide of the Time War. Sure, the Hand Doctor has been given Rose to make him a better man, just as she did once before, but hasn't Donna also been put in the capable hands of her grandfather? Surely now that Wilf has seen firsthand what Donna can become he will stop at nothing to encourage her much the same way the Doctor has, won't he? Surely the Doctor struck a nerve when he rebuked Donna's mother, and things will be different from now on, won't they? Surely her family can save her from the falseness of her existence just as she was saved by Miss Evangelista and then by Rose, right? I'm not just imagining these implications, am I? I just wish they had been more explicit, like they were with the Hand Doctor and Rose! It is my fondest hope that sometime in the future, the Doctor will encounter Donna in some capacity and see that she is living a life of meaning and happiness, and smile to himself because of it. Will it ever happen? I don't know how likely it is, but the hope that Donna can be a better woman even without the Doctor is all we as fans now have. Regardless, Donna's ending is more powerful than any death would have been, and despite its similarity to both Parting of the Ways and Doomsday, it was one of the best things about this episode.  However, talking only about the elegant closure of the arc doesn't cover half of it, because this final performance by Catherine Tate is truly astounding. Not only does she clinch her status as an iconic companion, she also delivers what can only be described as the single most convincing case ever made for casting a female Doctor. The emotional range she displays in this episode is truly astounding, as we see her at her highest and lowest moment and easily believe every second of it. Donna is one of the best things that could ever have happened to this program and seeing her go is tough.

Yeah, the episode wasn't perfect. I freely admit that. The regeneration felt like a cop out, although it wasn't, because it ultimately had major consequences. You say it's a bit preposterous? Yeah, maybe, but no more so than Romana's regeneration in Destiny of the Daleks. And on the bright side, the Hand has handed down its last deus ex machina after spending far too much time kicking around the Whoniverse and acting as a convenient plot device. Last week, I knew, as we all did, that the regeneration was fake, but what I said was that I would be fine with it as long as it was a fake with consequences worth watching. And this was worth watching. Another major flaw was the lack of anything important for Mickey and Jackie. But these are characters which I originally hated but came to love after two series, and their main function here is just to have them along for the ride. And that's fine, though it's rather awkward that Mickey and Rose don't even interact. I understand that resurrecting the Doctor/Rose/Mickey love triangle would have distracted from the other arcs that needed treating, but the lack of closure here still bothers me a bit. If Mickey is truly joining Torchwood, then will the shadow of Rose hang on that show as well? God, I hope not. That's the last thing Torchwood needs. Another serious flaw was the use of sudden last-minute time bubbles, teleports, and transmats to move the plot in a way that was simply lazy. However, this didn't detract much from my enjoyment of the episode either because anything other than a quick and dirty resolution would have wasted time and thrown off the pace. I'm fine with Tosh's time bubble as long as it prevents a Ianto-and-Gwen-fight-Daleks subplot, from which the episode would have suffered more severely.

Doctorleaving Ultimately, though, in spite of all of the faults, and even if I'm really just crazy, seeing tied-up threads where none exist, it still has to be said that this episode was a blast nonetheless. Big, explosive, scary, full of thrills, and full of heart. Watching it was a pleasure and re-watching it was even more of a pleasure, for all the reasons I've listed in my review but also for all the reasons Stuart listed in his review. There was something for everyone in Journey's End, and it's a pity more people didn't find it. So, I'm sorry I can't join the angry mob, and I fear I'm about to be lynched by the newly energized and expanded throng of RTD haters, but that was my honest opinion and I'm sticking by my guns here. This is easily the best finale Russell has given us so far and it was a fitting end to a phenomenal series, not to mention a largely successful four year stint in the hardest and best job in television. This was a marvelous celebration of Doctor Who past and present, and I applaud it.

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