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January 02, 2010

Galloping Gallifreys

 For all the weeks, then days of expectation …Logo1

The End of Time: Part Two

… was really just another Doctor Who story.  Thousands leading up to it, thousands hopefully to come.  In January alone, Big Finish have three stories in release, BBC Audio has an audio book read by David Tennant as well as a version of The Ice Warriors Target novel, the raft of dvd releases, and comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine, Adventures and Battles In Time (is that still going?).  By my calculation, that’s seven new stories or instalments of stories and there’ll be much the same next month, and March and the month after that.

Except The End of Time was different.  In our heart of hearts we know that all of those other releases are narrative polyfiller and reclaimed bricks, filling in gaps created in the past, whereas the television series adds whole new layers with Russell T Davies carrying the trowel and David Tennant pushing the wheelbarrow (I’ll let you decide where Julie and Phil and everyone else fit into this analogy).  It was important for them to top it off properly ready for Steven Moffat to bring in his own set of masonry and in that regard they did him and us proud.

To an extent the difficulty with the story, and this has haunted the rest of the specials, Journey’s End was the emotional summation of the past four years of the series.  At the close, after everyone had steered the TARDIS to safety and the Doctor had watched them drift off into the distance it felt like the last time.  It felt right.  If the Doctor had regenerated after leaving Donna with her family perhaps having hidden some hitherto unseen sacrifice from his friends it would have been just as perfect a fade out to the Tenth Doctor’s song as we found here.

Except Davies had some loose ends.  The shape of his sixty episodes dictated that from the moment the Ninth Doctor first spoke of the Time War with each passing burst of information in the meantime, the timelords and Gallifrey had to return in the closing episode of his tenure.  Leaving it to Moffat to sort out would have been like Anthony Reed handing off the end of the Key To Time season to Douglas Adams.  What? Oh right, bad analogy.  But the point is, having offered his spiritual conclusion, as in all of his individual stories, he needed to wind the plot up too.

And wind it up he did, like Trevor Bayliss on amphetamines.  The rigmarole, the Doctor escaping sorry, WORST. ESCAPE. EVER.) just so he can return again with a plan is a classic Doctor Who dramatic device and the Lucas-alike confrontation and chase with the missiles genuinely exciting.  The cactus aliens served their purpose as expected and Tennant got to have a final bit of humour before his long, final, drawn-out frown.  The Mill did their best to fulfil Davies’s epic demands in show the Master race with lots of CGI and virtual sets, some of which came off, some of which looked like cut-scenes from Wing Commander.

The shot of a broken Gallifrey, the landscape filled with crashed Dalek saucers certainly did have the requisite armo and filled in the gaps created by the shadows of the interiors.  I was joking last week when I suggested that Timothy Dalton was playing Rassilon, yet there he was, freed from the Divergent Universe, regenerated and Lord High President (presumably having taken the post in the absence of Romana, trapped outside of normal space as she was when last we chronologically heard of her) the population of the planet having not turned into zombies (ask Big Finish).  Sometimes the wall can get a bit crooked can’t it?

One final global threat to deal with.  I can’t help feel another writer would have had one of the humans, when faced with another planet in the sky, saying “Oh no not again” or some such, slamming the doors as they go back into his or her house.  That would have undercut another chance to see the Chiswick neighbourhood watch hugging each other with relief and since we’re in summation mode it would have been wrong for us not to have seen that one final time, concluding with a member of the family looking to the sky with gratitude, Sylvia this time.  And quite fitting that it all happened with shot from the Sonic Screwdriver blowing up a box of fantasy tricks.  Was forever thus.

I’ll admit to being slightly frustrated with the moment that the Doctor was reduced to being a whirling dervish, mutely spinning revolver cocked as he spun between a shouting Master and Rassilon.  It’s not been unknown for him to lose verbosity when faced with impossible odds but I kept recalling his opening moments with the Sycorax, and his closing chatter during the likes of The Age of Steel, The Family of Blood, hell even The Poison Sky.  That’s the Tenth Doctor I’d been expecting, defiant in his closing moments, shouting and gurning right through into the undiscovered country.

Then I realised that he needed that attitude for the Master to talk himself into sacrifice because he’s the man who would, a beat signposted earlier when the Doctor chillingly acknowledged Davros’s allegation about how he’d manipulate situations so that someone else would die a heroic death.  That’s the richness of Davies’s writing; behaviour which in isolation seems out of character or even a retcon when taken in conjunction with previous episodes is nothing of the sort.  When Wilf reminds the Doctor of his veneration of his people, the timelord shouts that it’s how he chose to remember them, it seems inconsistent, until you remember Gridlock.  He’s always lied to himself and others about these things.

Which is why, in the final analysis, the writer wasn’t going to make the Doctor’s death knell some fall out from a shooting frenzy with the Master and the timelords.  As cultural commentators and writers more talented than me have already noted, if Davies has done nothing he’s proved that sci-fi can and does work with a mass audience if you give it small consonants and make it about people. Despite the broadstrokes, the moments which impressed in The End of Time were between the old men, the Doctor and Wilf, the Doctor and the Master, as the realities of what they’ve seen and done came to the fore, all three actors nakedly bringing a reality to these larger than life characters. 

Davies said during Confidential that he always knew the Tenth Doctor wouldn’t lose his life at the hands of the big epic story, but a smaller choice.  A beautifully shot and directed scene (vintage Euros Lynn), with the Doctor almost metafictionally recognising the same thing, railing against the world.  It’s the same choice the Doctor always has to make in the end – will he sacrifice himself to save one person?  He could just go.  He’s a timelord.  He’s a god.  But as with Rose at the close of The Parting of the Ways, he can’t.  He has a conscience.  He’s made promises.  Unlike Margaret Slitheen who sometimes let them walk away, for the Doctor, everybody lives (if he can make it happen).  Even this one man.

That’s the point when The End of Time finishes.  Or at least when the Doctor heads off in the TARDIS with his regeneration expectation.  After that we’re into an epilogue, the deliberate epilogue.  Like I said, functionally it’s not doing much more than the close of Journey’s End, it’s an indulgence.  But why the hell not?  If The Lord of the Rings films can have a dozen endings after nine-twelve hours of screen time (depending on which version you’re watching), the Russell T Davies years probably deserve an extra twenty minutes, the Doctor holding back his regeneration, if only to explain why Mickey and Martha didn’t join Torchwood after all.

Oh there they are in their own gun-toting spin-off, married, the Mr & Mrs Smith-Jones of the Whoniverse chasing aliens in an industrial power plant straight out of the Pertwee years.  I can’t be alone in thinking at some stage this would have looked like a more palatable spin-off than Torchwood though I can’t help feeling sorry for Thomas Milligan who she’s clearly turfed over in favour of the more exciting life.  Was it like Brief Encounter but with Mickey’s uzi and bug hunts rather than shopping and trips to the movie and a Weevil instead of Dolly Messiter?  Noel Coward wouldn’t have stood for it.

A wink towards The Sarah-Jane Adventures.  Something else entirely towards Torchwood.  In his diary The Writer’s Tale, Davies notes his disappointment at not being able to afford to create the version of the Shadow Proclamation he had in his head with all of the returning aliens.  Well he has now, by giving the Whoniverse its own alien-rich dvd freeze frame friendly Mos Eisley (expect a list of cameos on the wikipedia by the end of the night).  It was unlikely that the Doctor’s convenient absence during Children of Earth and Jack’s reaction thereof were hardly going to be explained in the mother series and on reflection it’s ok that there wasn’t animosity, cushioned presumably by the introduction to Alonso. 

More surprises.  A cute nod to Human Nature, proving once and for all that the Tenth Doctor does do families and the final meeting with Rose bookending the Doctor’s story in a way we’ve not seen before and in a weird way would have been like Tegan turning up for Caves of Androzani.  But as with all of this, it suits the Russell T Davies era.  He apparently hummed and harred over how to bring Rose and her Mum back what with them being in the alternate universe but actually this was the perfect ending, which he suggested himself way back in the public transport and chips flashback that opened Doomsday

The final scene, the final line.  He’s alone again.  Well, alone with the TARDIS.  I finally cried when he touched the controls of the console for a final time.  Having established that regeneration is like death, "I don't want to go” is a final act of defiance, like his petulant rant in the face of Wilf earlier, and a continuation of his gusto during his first false regeneration.  No spare hand for the energy to be sucked into this time.  Prophesises are finally getting the better of him.  It also seems to answer what the kids are probably pleading at home “We don’t want you to go…”

My response on Twitter recently to the bizarre criticism of Tennant's ubiquitousness over Christmas was that if nothing else he's been a grand ambassador for the series (with the follow-on that since the franchise is big enough now to have his own embassy, we should be able to keep him on in that capacity).  But the show would have fallen apart if he hadn't also been a bloody good actor, naturally likeable in that way which makes people want to watch the programme each week.  Like all of his predecessors he redefined the part and in a way that none of them could because he was a fan.  A proper fan.  And probably still is.

Logo2 Then, like generations of children before them, they’re greeted by a new face in those familiar clothes and Steven Moffat’s first lines for his new version of an old creation.  Typical of Moffat to gamely recall elements of the Davies years and his two Doctor’s comments on their appearance (the nose, still not ginger).  Matt Smith apparently channelling the Tenth Doctor in his opening scenes, though its nice to hear that he’ll be using the old fashioned RP.  Geronimo, indeed.  Hooray!  Some of the internet goons are already beginning the negative talk.  Give him a chance.

But even after all of this, Davies likes to leave his mysteries, something fior the kids to ponder or for Moffat to pick up on.  It’s not just the appearance of a new new new Doctor which reminds us that the series, the story continues.  Who was that mystery timelady?  Was she the Doctor’s mother?  Romana?  The Rani?  Susan?  Iris Wyldetyme?  Another one of his daughters?  How could she seemingly circumvent the timelock and appear to Wilf dressed in River Song white?  Mores to the point, who was the other 'weeping' timelord?  Brax?  Vancel?  Maxil?  Someone else whose name sounds like a spot cream?  Perhaps, like Jack’s missing two years, we’ll never know the implications.

During the recent Radio 2 interview, Who on Who?, David asked Davies what his taste in movies was.  Russell regretfully explained that he wasn’t a film buff and that his tastes were rather coarse that he wouldn’t go to see what he “still describes as art house films” or with subtitles.  He goes for spectacle.  An unkind critic would throw those words back at him and suggest that’s why his version of Doctor Who was often simplistic in its plotting and reliant on set pieces.  Except that the public attitude to films is much the same as his, they like spectacle too and if by giving them that, RTD has made Doctor Who a popular success again, what is there to complain about?

Its been fantastic.

Next Time: “Ok, what have you got for me this time?”

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