5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE END OF TIME
In our review of The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, we said those episodes were Russell T Davies's swansong as far as giant finales were concerned. We were wrong. You thought he was done with all the go-me end-of-an-era stuff then? You were wrong, too. We don't really need it, because we did all that last year, but we're getting it all the same.
And what's it like? Is it better than Russell T Davies's usual finales, which started splendidly with The Christmas Invasion but have ranged from disappointing to terrible ever since?
You know how some people store their valuables in the freezer to fool thieves? Well, imagine taking that block of murky, contaminated ice out of the freezer and running it under the hot tap. When the ice melts away, there's a little pile of sparkling, unbearably perfect jewels sitting in the sink. That's what The End Of Time is like. Some astonishingly beautiful scenes which are the best Doctor Who can be. And the rest.
Well, actually that's not really fair. There's also some quite good other stuff in there too, here and there. But let's face it, there's also a pretty big heap of dross.
It starts with - oh, God - narration. The bad kind. We’d love to have Timothy Dalton caressing our tympanic membranes all day (they’re in our ears. Get your minds out of the gutter), but narration is tricky at the best of times, and when you fill it with all manner of pompous omens, portents, and gnomic utterances, it’s a killer.
Never mind, because here's Wilf! Ah, Wilf. Bless. Not that we expected Bernard Cribbins to be anything less than stellar, but he's a total rockstar in these episodes. In fact, he's the highlight. While Timothy pompouses on, Wilf wanders into a church and stands in front of a memorial board with the words "Who died for their…" catching the light. Could be a hint, do you think? Maybe? Maybe? Then Mysterious Lady In White turns up and they have a chat. No idea who she is, but we're sure it'll all be straightened out in the end. Ha! Kidding! Apparently in the commentary Russell T Davies says she's the Doctor's mother, but without confirmation in the programmes themselves, that's not canon. There are a number of possibilities, but since they never say, as far as we're concerned it's pointless to speculate. We don't mind a bit of mystery, but leaving this one so obscure is mystery for mystery's sake and is just annoying.
Back to the story. The TARDIS lands in a snowy landscape (snow, if you haven't been paying attention, always equals very bad things in the Russell T Davies universe) and we discover that the Doctor's taken the long way round to his appointment with the Ood. Which turns out not to have been a great idea fate of the universe-wise. The scene with the Ood is actually really good: portentous and all, but in a good way, and it gets the necessary exposition out of the way very nicely while investing it all with a real sense of dread.
Then hey, it's the Master's wife again! Didn't we say we suspected her story wasn't over? (We were wrong about it being her picking up the Master's ring, but we can't win 'em all.) And then whoa! It's that big ol' reset button again! The Doctor turned time back so nobody would remember Harold Saxon, but just as with getting rid of all the Daleks and blah blah blah he might as well have spent the time playing hopscotch for all it stuck.
What follows is simply unforgivable. From the spectacularly awful dialogue ("As it was written in the secret books of Saxon, these are the potions of life!" "You bore his imprint!" "We give ourselves that Saxon might live!") to the Harry Potter-alike cauldron action, seasoned with some wild scenery-chewing by John Simm and topped off by Murray crashing and thundering along in the background, it's a true behind the sofa moment. In the wrong, wrong way. And since it's followed by the pointless and swiftly discarded Naismiths and the thousand and third SFy gate thing ever filmed, it's a massive relief to get back to Wilf. But there's barely time for an impeccable cameo by June Whitfield before we're back to the horror that is the Master. And if we thought it was bad before…
Seems nobody's hugged this hoodie recently, because he's very nasty indeed. Perhaps he's irked by having L'Oreal Extra Light Blonde #11 chucked over him by his wife? Anyway, he's mad as hell and he's not going to take it any more. Now you'd think, wouldn't you, that since we said John Simm was too nice as the Master in The Sound Of Drums/Last Of The Time Lords we'd like this version better? He's not nice here, after all. Not even a little bit. But that would be way too easy. We do like the idea of a less giggly, much darker Master, and God knows John Simm has the talent for it. But what Russell T Davies comes up with instead is even worse than Cuddly Master. He's like a hideous cross between Shockeye and Gollum. John Simm, God love him, throws everything he's got into it, but he can't save a character who was misbegotten from the outset. And the trimmings! We can't decide which we hate more, Skeletor or the Jump Of Doom.
The Master, after gaining the Doctor's attention by knocking four times (four times!), then runs away. Because um. And the Doctor, who has hotfooted it here through time and space specifically to see the Master, allows himself to be distracted by Wilf and his merry pensionable band, also because um. But never mind: not only is it beautifully acted by June Whitfield and David Tennant, it's all worth it, because the scene that follows is Jewel Number One.
Doctors not wanting to die isn't new: think of the Second Doctor's fury at having regeneration forced on him by the Time Lords. Nevertheless, we're more used to seeing, at the very least, dignified acceptance. So the Tenth Doctor's meditation on death here, and his fear and reluctance that runs through this story right to the Tenth Doctor's last line, is a new take on regeneration. And we like it. It's not entirely heroic: although he does the right thing at the end, he's also endangered the universe by running away from the Ood's call for a hundred years. So what? We've had enough of the Doctor being a plaster saint. Why shouldn't he not want to go? We've never seen anyone with as much zest for life as the Doctor, so it makes perfect sense that he doesn't want to give it up. The writing ("some new man goes sauntering away") and the acting in this scene are both stunning: it's quiet, it's understated, and it has an enormous emotional heft that strikes you to the heart.
And Donna. We were certain she was going to come back, and we were right. But with Russell T Davies's love of the nice tidy happy ending, we thought the Doctor would find a way of rescuing Donna's mind - and we are happy to be completely wrong. It was a ballsy writing decision to do something so horrible to Donna in the first place, and it was an even ballsier one not to put it all right at the end. Donna's happy with her new life at the end, she has love and she has money, and if she sometimes looks sad, as Wilf says, because there's something she can't remember, well, sometimes that's just how life is. As one sage said, at a time when the Doctor was still only in his second incarnation, you can't always get what you want.
Back to the Master. And if you mentally excise the Shockeye bits and Mr Sparky Hands, this is actually quite a nice two-hander. John Simm gives the material a gravitas it hasn't actually earned (especially with silly lines like "calling up at the sky"), and the relationship between the two last Time Lords (or are they? Moohahahahaha!), with the unwanted intimacy of siblings who don't get along, is beautifully captured. And guess what? He wasn't bonkers after all! Not about everything, anyway: there really are drums in his head. Which is enough to make him do that annoying thing with his arms stretched out that every TV nutjob with a Messiah complex likes so much as he's whisked away.
Then it's a slapsticky scene, accompanied by Murray's best comedy music, in which Donna just misses seeing the Doctor. Now this is misdirection at its most evil: given the upbeat tone of this scene, the audience has every right to expect that Donna's memory will be restored later. Pulling the rug out from under those expectations we're sure enraged a lot of the audience, and while we're not of the camp that wanted Donna's memory back, we can see why those who did might have felt let down. That's not a criticism: like we said, we think it's tricksome but perfectly legitimate
Then it's the moment every fan in their right mind has longed for: Wilf in the TARDIS. And needless to say, it's everything we hoped for ("I thought it'd be cleaner!"). And swiftly on to the arrival of the Vinvocci, a couple of aliens so transparently only there to move the plot that they might as well have the script written on their (green) foreheads. Miraculously, however, rattling performances by Lawry Lewin and, especially, Sinead Keenan rescue these characters from the swamp of plot expediency (and after all, being a cactus worked in Meglos. Or …not). We were just grateful they didn't turn out to be Slitheen.
Then watch out, because here comes plotty plot plot of the stupid variety, with dollops of exposition and some pretty ham-handed foreshadowing about the two booths and the radiation. We mean honestly. Was it really so difficult to think of a way to get where Russell T Davies wanted to go that didn't involve two extraneous aliens and an exceptionally ridiculous machine that requires oceans of explanation and has no plug?
But hold on, because it turns out that the Immortality Gate (guffaw) is a masterpiece compared to the All Master All The Time plot. We know Russell T Davies likes to keep upping the stakes, and we also know that the more he does it, the less impact it has - not just because of diminishing returns setting in, but because the bigger it gets, the less believable it is. Did anyone in the audience really think The End Of Time was going to end with a population of six billion John Simms? No? Not much suspense then, is there?
But that's not all, oh no. Look! It's Spittin' Tim and the Time Lords! Since we keep ourselves scrupulously spoiler-free, this was complete news to us, and we jumped up and down and cheered. Not that the Time Lords have been particularly interesting in the past, but with Tim in charge we were agog to see how interestingly Russell T Davies would reboot them. So it was with joy in our hearts, only marginally impaired by the blatant Star Wars ripoff in the "For the end of time itself!" scene, that we turned to the next episode.
Well, they've certainly upgraded the tech on Gallifrey since the last time we saw it, haven't they? No boring old corridors for these guys. It's all walkways over vertiginous drops these days, not to mention their very own prophet, complete with tragic hair and mystic lines drawn on her face with eyebrow pencil. Wait. Did we say prophet? Um, aren't these Time Lords? Who, y'know, lord it over time and all? See all of the time continuum, future means nothing, that sort of thing? So what in God's name do they need a prophet for?
Then someone sensible gets up and points out that the Time War's all a bit icky, really, and shouldn't we just pack it up and go home? Tim's not too keen on this suggestion, however, and gloves her to pieces with one of those things like what we saw on Torchwood. And we thought Borusa was evil. Then he delivers himself of some truly primo bellowing, teeth-clenching and eye-narrowing, which manages to lift this rather pedestrian material practically into realms Shakespearian. Bravo.
Back to Earth, and the Master starts issuing orders to his army of duplicates. Wait. Did we say orders? How massively stupid is that? Does the Master look like the kind of guy who's willing to take orders from anybody, even (or maybe especially) himself? Let alone to call anybody sir? Thought not. The "Master race" (wince) idea was a pretty random one in the first place, but if you're going to commit to it, commit to it - don't just wrench it out of shape the second it's got underway because the actual implications of it are too hard to deal with.
Then Wilf's phone starts ringing. And the biggest of big ups to John Simm, who is so utterly brilliant here that we almost forgot to be annoyed at the Master plot. Just listen in awe to his delivery of "He loves playing with Earth girls" - perfectly pitched (and also a bullseye). And then, after Donna's braingasm, there's another perfect two-hander between the Doctor and the Master, cycling between the poles of attraction and repulsion in a lovely little microcosm of their relationship.
Then a rather nicely played escape scene, the adorable sight of Wilf looking at the Earth from space (his face! Dear God, that man can act), and then we're all in a panic because although we're 100,000 miles up the Master has control of all the Earth's missiles. Our laughter at this point drowned out the soundtrack. Missiles have a range that's a tiny fraction of that distance. Even if you stretch a point and say it's an anti-satellite missile, the highest satellite is about 22,000-ish miles up and there's no reason an anti-satellite missile would have been designed to cover more than four times that distance. Snigger.
Skipping quickly over the bit where a Time Lord trapped in a time lock can throw a diamond onto Earth (if it were that easy, why aren't they calling out for pizza?) and the Time Lords can… follow it… because the sound is tangible (tangible?)… no, we can't make any sense out of it either. The White Lady turns up again to, on the face of it, get Wilf to arm the Doctor, but as it turns out if we're reading this right, actually to pre-encourage Wilf to off himself with his own gun rather than let the Doctor die in his place. Which isn't very nice when you think about it but is, however, a lovely bit of misdirection. Then it's another utter jewel of a scene between Wilf and the Doctor which breaks our hearts again and again. When Wilf begged the Doctor not to die we sobbed like tiny children.
And from the sublime to the ridiculous. After a load of twaddle about the diamond being a pathway, the Doctor and his crew, after the Doctor's declaration that they have to fend off the entire planet, zap first three missiles, then, as the Vinvoccette announces, another two lots of sixteen. Thirty-five missiles? That's the entire might of Earth's arsenal? In between the absurdity and the Master's horrible capering, about the only thing salvageable is David Tennant's expression as he steers the ship closer to the house. Counterbalanced, alas, by his falling miles, through glass and onto a marble floor, with no injuries other than a couple of decorative red smudges on his face and some barked knuckles. Ugh. Now wouldn't the Fourth Doctor have found that a handy ability in Logopolis.
Then the Time Lords, displaying that remarkable ability they have to project either a black or a white backdrop behind them, de-Master the world and Gallifrey appears in the sky. On fire. No wonder Susan said the skies were orange. We advise you not to think about the gravitational effects a planet turning up would actually have, because that way lies insanity. Then there's some waving a gun about, which would be terribly suspenseful except that we know the Doctor's not going to shoot anybody, and we discover that Tim's actually Rassilon, which must have made fans of the new series scratch their heads. Luckily, Rassilon's glove takes ages to recharge, so the Doctor survives the Battle of the Zapping, and goodbye Time Lords once again. Was it worth bringing them back? We can see why Russell T Davies did it, since the Time War has defined not just this Doctor but the one before as well, and it's a neat cap on all of that. Unfortunately, though, Davies crams so much into these two episodes that the Time Lords barely seem to have arrived before they're off again. After all these years without them, it's a bit of a fizzle.
And just when you think it's all over… the four knocks. This should have been cheesy, but it isn't. It's utterly chilling. And the Doctor's last two-hander with Wilf as he realises his fate and then accepts it as Wilf begs him not to is pure gold. It's real, it's deeply emotional without being mawkish, and it's a fitting ending for this Doctor. It's perfect.
And what makes it only almost perfect is that the new Doctor doesn't get up from the floor of the booth as he should. Instead, this stunning ending to the Tenth Doctor's story is cheapened, and the sledgehammer impact of his sacrifice is greatly diminished, by a grossly self-indulgent Lord Of The Rings-style farewell tour.
Not that it doesn't convey hugely important information. Mickey and Martha are married! How did that happen? No, scratch that. What we actually meant to say was: who cares? And on and on (and on) it goes, the Sarah Jane meaningful looks, the ghastly Mos Eisley tribute with Jack, the neat little wrap-up of his adventure as a human, handing Donna a meal ticket and, of course, Rose - all of it utterly unnecessary and all of it having about as much emotional impact as the death of an ant on the next playing field over. Horrible, horrible, horrible. Then, after tottering along in the snow and having a chat with the Ood, the Doctor hilariously totters right back again to where he started. When you sit there wishing he'd get on with it you know something has gone seriously wrong with a regeneration story. And after Russell T Davies can't drag it out a minute longer, the Doctor doesn't want to go, but he does.
And the new Doctor? This isn't his story. Let's leave that till next time.
The first time we saw The End Of Time, we loathed it with a passion. Hungry Master, the ridiculous plot, the wasting of the Time Lords, the ending (the ending!) - we were disappointed and furious in equal measure. The only redeeming value seemed to be in the Doctor/Wilf scenes. But when we saw it again, we realised that it was better than that. There's still lots of really bad stuff in it, but some good stuff - and some really excellent stuff - in it too. We're not sure that there have been better scenes in all of Who than the ones the Doctor plays with Wilf. The acting throughout almost without exception is absolutely stellar. And shear off the Russell T Davies Greatest Hits ending, and the Doctor's death is a contender for best ever.
And the Russell T Davies era as a whole? Not much point in a lengthy recap, as we've said all of it before. The Wilf scenes in The End Of Time show that Davies has the tools right there in his hands. It's a shame that on so many occasions he's thrown them down and instead plumped for emotionless, empty bombast.
And the Doctor. Often we have to remind ourselves to point out that David Tennant has done a great job in an episode, because we've come to take it for granted. We think by this point that few would argue that he's one of the best Doctors (and for many people the best). Whatever Russell T Davies has thrown at him, David Tennant has not only coped with but improved on. Having said that, we're sad that the character of the Tenth Doctor never achieved its full potential. David Tennant was especially good at the dark side of the Doctor, and whenever we saw that, it added enormously to the depth and complexity of the character. It's a shame that (through no fault of Tennant's) places where this could have been used to great effect were all too often filled instead with irritating chirpiness. He was absolutely great, but we would love to have seen just how much greater he could have been. Goodbye, Doctor. We'll miss you.
MORAL: It ain't over till the fat Ood sings.
Although he only mentions marrying Queen Bess, it must have been in this Ood-avoiding period that the Doctor married River Song, as she said he could remote-control his TARDIS when they were together.
BAD TO THE BONE
As Hungry Master got into his stride, one of us said "At least he's not gnawing on a bone." Oh…
"Night has fallen over the Earth"? What, everywhere? At once?
OR IF YOUR HEALTH INSURANCE RUNS OUT
The template snaps if the Master dies? Huh? That makes no sense from any angle.
HOW QUICKLY WE FORGET
"Nothing can get in or out except for something that was already there." And Dalek Caan.
MISSED A SHOT
As the male Vinvocci gets into the laser turret or pod or whatever it is, there's a flash of his un-colour-corrected face.
STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE
Portentous doomy stuff about someone dying. Big threat suddenly revealed only to be trounced by even bigger threat. Narrator. Companion woe. Big gate thing run by vaguely ominous organisation with someone on the inside trying to infiltrate it. Not to mention tired old tropes from SF in general like ascending to pure consciousness. The toys in Russell T Davies's playroom are getting a bit dusty: no wonder he wants to pack them up and move on.