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July 07, 2008

Traveller's Rest

Doctor Who: Journey's End

Christmas.  I love Christmas.  The annual build up, buying presents, putting up the decorations, the real tree, Christmas Day, opening presents, even the anti-climactic Boxing Day because you know you the cycle will begin again in January with the sales.  Some people don’t like Christmas.  They don’t like the hassle of the shopping, think decorations are pointless, buy a cheap plastic tree because they can’t be bothered watering ‘a proper one’, the inevitable disappointment of the actual day which can only be solved through the juice with the even more depressing prospect of the following bank holiday knowing that your misanthropy is set to continue.  I think the world can roughly be split between people who like Christmas and those who don’t and with the exception of those who’ve a decent reason (family bereavement at around that time, religious conviction), I don’t think I’ve ever gotten along with people who don’t like Christmas.

HeadWhich is the only way I can really understand the reaction to Journey’s End, which has polarised fandom more than any episode this series.  I'd hoped to come here and join in the celebrations of a job well done by everyone at Upper Boat.  Here is a photo of me banging my head against the table (not really) on Saturday night as I read the comments in the reaction thread here and elsewhere online.   Once again, everyone seemed to have missed the point, become oh so very serious and forgotten one very specific thing, even though it's reiterated over and over to the point of cliche, and somewhat more articulately by John last week. 

Doctor Who isn’t just made for us fans.  It never was.  Well apart from that moment in the early eighties when John, Nathan and Turner tried it and got everything catastrophically wrong.   

It’s for kids and we’ve grown up and forgotten (well, I say ‘we’ I mean you).  Remember how exciting it was to see The Five Doctors, all of those different versions of the same man together on screen at the same time, the ones we’d all read about but not seen in Target novelisations.  It didn’t matter what the story was, we didn’t notice flaws, and though the script teased us nine year olds by keeping them apart for most of the story, when they finally met it was magic.  I think you’ve already worked out what I’m going to say – Journey’s End is as it should have been, nu-Who’s The Five Doctors, this time with all of the Doctor’s companions fighting together, many for the first time.

I love Christmas.

Like The Five Doctors, these meetings were imperfect – something Russell T Davies seemed to acknowledge when he had Sarah Jane introduce herself to those of the Doctor’s friends she’d not been acquainted with yet in much the same way she did beside to Rassilon’s tomb.  After a couple of season’s build-up we didn’t get to see the meeting between Rose and Martha, just some comments over a viewscreen and the glimpse of a hug in the Tardis console room.  Jack and Mickey were unbelievably happy to see one another considering they’d last met briefly in Boomtown and Rose didn’t find out that it’s her fault that Jack can’t die.  But kids really don’t care about all of that – they fill in the blanks – it gives their imagination something to play with.

Since I am in the process of reviewing the fan reaction more than the episode, I should note that I also simply don’t understand how anyone can say that ‘Rose/Jacqui/Mickey was wasted’ as though every character in a drama has to be a function of the plot (tell that to Shakespeare and Robert Altman).  Isn’t it just nice to have them along for the ride?   Davies need not have brought back all of those characters; he could have told yet another rather linear story featuring a timelord and companion that might have been just as exciting.  Instead, he decided to repay viewers for their four years of viewing in a way that few series care to, and give the kids a big Christmas present in the middle of the year as we saw them collectively guiding the TARDIS towards victory (which is actually more than anyone did in The Five Doctors).

Kids love spectacle.

Kids love spectacle.  When that fabulous shot of the Tardis pulling the Earth through space aided by Mr Smith and the Rift, both of which have a functionally similar place in their respective spin-off series, the last thing in a child’s mind are tectonic stresses, the gravitational positioning of the rest of the solar system and the structural integrity of buildings.  And it just doesn’t matter.  This is fantasy and like the secret conversations, there’s clearly going to be some unseen exposition to explain it.  How boring would the scene be that explained it though (as seen too many times in Star Trek), a point acknowledged when Donna confused the Daleks using her typing skills and some of the Doctor’s knowledge, the stream of poetically meaningless technobabble economically and amusingly demonstrating that some interesting reprogramming had occurred in her brain.

There’s also people like my mother who hasn’t watched an episode before, yet after seeing the final twenty-five minutes, explained she’d been in buckets of tears and said ‘Isn’t Bernard Cribbins great?’  And he was.  It might well have been the best performance he’s given and deserves an award which he inevitably won’t get because Catherine Tate will.  Even Mum understood the tragedy of Donna’s loss of self, her degeneration.  That people have been so upset by this cruel and unusual approach to a companion leaving is a tribute to Tate, the various writers and directors who made sure that we care about this temp so much. 

The loss of a companion is rarely satisfying.

The loss of a companion is rarely satisfying.  With the obvious yellow tabard wearing exception, they tend to just walk away or marry someone who isn’t the Doctor, so how surprising and special to see Donna leave and have it mean something, an expression of how important our life’s experiences are and how our acquaintances have the capacity to change or help us to become someone else.  Sure there’s a selfishness to the Doctor’s action since it means that he won’t see another of his friends becoming a soldier in the way that Davros to deliciously explained.  As shown Donna isn’t given much of a choice as to whether she’d rather die with her memories or exist as the person she was without them.  But he’s also fulfilling his ongoing promise to always bring them home, assuming they have a family waiting for them.

I’ve spent the past week fielding questions about whether David Tennant is leaving and it’s those people who tuned in on Saturday night to find out if a beloved actor had been lost to theatre.  They didn’t care about photos of the Christmas special, that historically we’ve all known months in advance who’d be playing the role if there was to be a change and that nothing is kept secret any more.  They're very pleased that Tennant’s still here, at least for a year or two.  It was a bizarre cliffhanger anyway, because the character of the Doctor’s life wasn’t threatened and already in a process of renewal.  It was a cliffhanger based on the continuance of an actor in the role, one of surprise, exciting for reasons related to the production and unrelated to the actual narrative.

it was made for us fans.

And yes, it was made for us fans.  Those of us who remember Sarah-Jane meeting Davros on Skaro and who like Donna has become a more inquisitive character through her association with the Doctor.  The funny moment when the similarity between Gwen and Gwyneth was randomly noted and a whole pile of other stuff listed at the Wikipedia.  We revel in Julian Bleach’s recreation of the Dalek creator and the gut-wrenching monologuing in which it seems as though he’s spent his life working towards creating the very experiment suggested to him by the Doctor in Genesis of the Daleks about snuffing out the whole universe and when he finally incontrovertibly gets one over on the increasingly mislabelled ‘last of the timelords’.

But finally, egotistically, it was made for me, for the instants when I cheered and cried and laughed throughout that hour or so.  I loved every moment of it, even the bit in Bad Wolf Bay and like Christmas I'm not sure I could get along with anyone who didn't, the kinds of people who describe it as 'appallingly bad' or some such apparently because it didn't fulfill their impossibly high expectations.  Christmas is never as brilliant as you expect it to be, but I still love it for all that.  Similarly,  Journey's End isn't above criticism, it's just the vitriol and I've seen makes me wonder if I watched a different programme.  Predictably the reviews by professional journalists and the people who don't take the show quite so seriously have been overwhelmingly positive.

At the close of my review of Rose in 2005 I said:  “I keeping asking myself why I'm so excited about a new television series when there is still lots of other really good Doctor Who going around. It's about hope. It's about the fact that if enough of the right people care about something, and enough of those people are in the right position to doing something about it, wonderful things can happen. If that doesn't make you choke up, you must be an Auton” and that is still true four seasons later.

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