5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE STOLEN EARTH/JOURNEY'S END
We can't say we exactly bounce up and down in anticipation of Russell T Davies's finales. Statistically speaking, the chances are high that what you're going to get is a bunch of meaninglessly bombastic peril, plus Daleks, Daleks and more Daleks. Still, we thought, it can't be worse than last year's. Can it?
We're not sure it's worse. (We're not sure that's possible.) But it's bad in a different way.
There's only one way to look at these two episodes and grasp just what the hell's going on. First, you have to keep in mind that specials notwithstanding this is Davies's swansong, at least where giant finales are concerned. And second, you have to remember what he said once upon a time: that when he was a young Who fan himself, he didn't want to be the Doctor, he wanted to be the companion.
So these episodes have to achieve two things. One, they have to drag back and/or reference every character and situation Davies credits himself with and surround them in a self-congratulatory rosy glow. Did we say Rosy? Good, because two, since Rose is his fantasy stand-in, they have to let her have sex with the Doctor. No. Matter. What.
And that's why these episodes are what they are. Two clear aims: achieved, too. It's a highly successful comprehensive self-tribute, yanking in not only Davies's Who stuff but also his spinoffs for full acknowledgement. And what's more, in a lifetime dream fulfilled (and in the most expensive fanfic in the world), Davies's stand-in gets her man. Sorted.
There's just one problem. Nobody else who has to watch these things gives a flying leek about saluting Davies's Who work. Yes, some might be as anxious as Davies to see Rose get her leg over, since plenty have happily climbed aboard his fantasy express (imagine what those ticket collectors look like. Toot-toot!). However, achieving that in any way that makes sense in the Doctor Who universe is flat-out impossible. Davies meets his goals, but only at the expense of the audience.
Bringing back characters is a dicey proposition. It's popular with audiences, but we think it's very difficult to do without weakening the character who's returning. When it's done well, as it is in School Reunion, it adds a new dimension to a well-loved character. When it's done badly, characters are paraded past the camera for no better reason than to give the audience (and/or the writer) a burst of warm fuzzies.
And that's what's wrong with a lot of these two episodes, The Stolen Earth in particular. Ooh, look, it's Harriet Jones! Oh, and Mickey! Wow, Sarah Jane! Hey, Martha! Etc etc. We'd be happy to see any of these characters return providing they had something useful to do. Instead, they're shoehorned into the script just for the sake of it, with action rationed out between them that could (and should) have been condensed to many fewer people if not snipped altogether. In fact, are any of them actually necessary to the plot? Not Gwen and Ianto. Not Martha either despite her getting a large slice of (entirely pointless) action. Not Jackie or, alas, Sarah. Jack and Mickey blow a Dalek away each; otherwise they're just for decoration. And gah, is it appalling. The scene in the TARDIS in particular where they're all high-fiving one another in a smug glow of self-congratulation is violently nauseating.
And the characters who do do something useful don't do it in any realistic way. We're supposed to believe that Harriet Jones is now some kind of superhacker? Yeah, right. We're all for girl power, but come on.
And it's not just the characters, either. It's all there: a bit from every episode, according to Davies, from the hand to Mr Copper. We're probably supposed to be marvelling about how very very clever Davies is to bring them all here, trailing clouds of significance, and smoosh them into the story, but it just makes us groan. So much obsessive concept-wedging just seems fanfic-stylee to us, especially when much of it, like the heavily advertised Shadow Proclamation, is totally extraneous to the story. Apart from making the episodes sodden with fanwank, name-checking every single episode is no substitute for real narrative power. It's like that cream you squirt out of a can: looks good at the time, but after a little while collapses into nothing.
We know a lot of people love seeing beloved people and stuff return just for the hell of it. We're not them. Yes, bring them back if you want, but make sure you have a bloody good reason. Show them, and us, some respect. These are episodes, not Davies's showreel.
So that's the Russell T Davies Retrospective, then. What about the other bit? The Rose bit? In a word: excruciating.
We've hated the Rose/Doctor "romance" from the off: it's just too Mary Sue for words. Apart from Davies's over-personal investment in her, there's actually nothing special about Rose at all: certainly nothing that would set her apart so decidedly from all the other companions. As they harped on about in Girl In The Fireplace, it takes a truly exceptional human woman to catch the Doctor's attention, and Rose isn't that: she's the very definition of ordinary. Yes, she Learned And Grew as a result of her time with the Doctor, but who doesn't? So we've never bought the Doctor's supposed feelings for her, or his endless mourny weepiness when he lost her, for a second.
Since Rose is Davies in a dress, though, it was inevitable that she wasn't going to be spending the rest of her life trailing miserably up and down Poor-Quality Wolf Bay listening for a wheezing groan and tripping over seaweed. She had to come back, and she had to get the Doctor.
Even Davies knows there's a line, though, and not even for Rose can that line be crossed. What to do? Simple: grow Rose a Doctor of her very own. Problem solved: the Doctor doesn't break character, yet Rose still gets a happy ending (not that sort. At least not on camera. Get your mind out of the gutter).
Looks good on paper. But on the screen it backfires spectacularly. It's wrong on absolutely every level.
First, there's the sheer ick factor. Handing Rose her own blow-up Doctor is stunningly crass and utterly, utterly skin-crawling. It's hard to put into words how wrong it is, but we were creeped out for days.
And the impression of the Doctorlet as an inanimate object that can be handed over like a parcel isn't helped by him standing there like a (ahem) dummy while the Doctor tells Rose he's going to give him to her to civilise. Like he's a puppy who bites. Isn't he an actual individual? Doesn't he have anything to say about this? He's mostly Time Lord, after all, and the Doctor's abandoning him to live in one - one - place without even asking. We're betting he's either going to go quietly insane or build himself a TARDIS out of driftwood.
We're sure that if you're determined to snog the Doctor, It looks like a great solution. But it isn't. It's wrong for Rose, it's wrong for the Doctor, and it's wrong for the Doctorlet. It tramples over the Doctorlet's rights to decide his own life; it makes Rose look so dumb she can't tell one man from another, and it leaves the Doctor, summarily deciding both their fates, looking contemptuous of both of them. Davies should have left her in the parallel universe: at least that way she would have retained a little dignity.
Retrospective achieved. Doctor-grabbing achieved. Nice. But even Davies can see that that's not quite enough to make up two whole episodes, so he packs some other stuff around it. Unfortunately, none of it's much cop. Let's have a look, shall we?
Davros. Wait! We don't mean the actual Davros! We've never had much time for Davros (or "bloody Davros", as we tend to fondly refer to him) before, but Julian Bleach is so breathtakingly, gobsmackingly good that we're feeling all forgiving. We can't say we're thrilled by his destroy the universe plan, but it's certainly consistent with his character. That's why we're never found him very interesting: mad dictators are all pretty yawnsome, because they don't have a reason for what they do other than being nuts. However, if you have to have a mad dictator, Julian Bleach is clearly your go-to guy.
What we really, really don't like, though, is Davros being used to hurl moral accusations at the Doctor. Oh, please. Haven't we been here before? All that destroyer of worlds stuff is no different to the Dalek in Dalek saying the Doctor's no better than him. We won't go over that argument again, but the simple answer is: oh yes he is. And the same applies here. It's clearly supposed to be a hard-hitting point that the Doctor fashions people into weapons - it certainly makes the Doctor all quiet and broody - but in fact, it's a load of crap. Call us crazy, but we think there's an eensy-teensy, teeny-weeny difference between making others do your bidding in order to kill everybody, and in encouraging others to do your bidding to save everybody. Yes, lots of people die heroically in so doing, and that's sad, but how many people would have died if they hadn’t? (It is, however, hilarious that the Doctor has managed to snow even Davros into thinking that he never uses a gun.)
Along the same lines, we've got no patience with the Doctor's saintlier-than-thou disgust at the Doctorlet's offing all the Daleks. It's all very well throwing up your hands in horror, but did he have a better solution? We didn't see that shouting at Davros to stop it was having any noticeable effect, and nor was ordering him to bring the TARDIS back. You'd think the Doctor would have figured out by this stage that arguing with the Daleks, expostulating with the Daleks, reasoning with the Daleks and appealing to the Daleks' better nature all just annoys them.
Donna. Let us say straight off that while we're not thrilled about Davies lifting all that breakdown stuff from Flowers For Algernon, we have absolutely no problem with the mindwipe. It's a totally legitimate dramatic decision, and it's such a nasty fate for her that we think it's pretty gutsy. (We do wonder, though, why if a single word about the Doctor will make her remember everything the sight of him doesn't.)
What we do have a problem with, though, is how thematically muddy it is. What Davies seems to be saying is that without the Doctor, Donna is nobody. In Turn Left, he said the same thing: Rose tells Donna "It took the Doctor to show you that, just by being with him." Yes, Donna's a fallible human: the Doctor's ten-cent psychiatry spells that out to us, telling us she's really insecure and that's why she shouts a lot. (As one of us begged: "Please, spend a couple of hours hitting me in the face with a frying pan. It'd be less painful.")
But it's not actually true that she's nothing without the Doctor: in Turn Left, non-Doctor-meeting Donna gives her life to save the universe. Unless we're supposed to think that was due to the Doctor exerting his influence via his lisping proxy, which is a real stretch, we think she did a pretty good job of being special all by herself. Also, isn’t the Doctor always going on about how great humans are? Are we really supposed to take from this that that's only the case after he's worked his mojo on them? After the peaons of praise in new Who to the ordinary human on the street, it's a whiplash-inducing about turn.
And call us contrary, but we're not exactly fond of the other implication, either: that Donna as a human/Time Lord hybrid is vastly intellectually superior to a pure-bred Time Lord because of her human qualities. Humans. They're just that wonderful. When they're shaken up with a Time Lord, that is.
Our irritation with this probably isn't helped by Donna's horrific smugness - we know Time Lords aren't precisely bashful about their own abilities, but wow, with her it's totally obnoxious. It's Romana II on speed. Full marks to Catherine Tate, though, who's brilliant all the way through. We're sorry to see her go.
Not as sorry as we would be, though, if we thought it would actually stick.
And that's one of the worst things, both here and through the entire new series: the ever-present reset button. That's part of what makes The Stolen Earth such a weak episode. Do we really believe Davies is going to kill off the Tenth Doctor? Of course not. That's a secret nobody's been able to keep since the William Hartnell days (mostly because the BBC invariably goes out of its way to trumpet about it for maximum publicity value). So why bother with a fake regeneration? We all knew it wasn't going to happen, so we were totally unmoved when they threatened us with it. It's a complete cheat when the Doctor skips to his feet two seconds afterwards, and it's going to make the inevitable real regeneration a lot less powerful. (Does he mean it this time? Or is he just having a little lie down?) A regeneration's one of the most powerful weapons in the series's arsenal, and using it to fire a blank is one of the cheapest tricks there is.
So a regeneration isn't really a regeneration. What else isn't really? They've fired their share of big guns in the new series. The problem is, though, that having done so, most of the time they dig the bullet out of the wall and patch up the hole with Polyfilla. Wham! Rose is marooned forever in a parallel universe. Or is she? Apparently, "of course not" is the appropriate response. What about Sarah Jane knowing at the end of School Reunion that that was her only chance to see the Doctor again? What about Davros being dead? What about the Time War being time-locked, yet Dalek Caan got in there, just because? And remember when the Doctor had dealt to all the Daleks? Why bother with the high-impact stuff at all when you're just going to turn round and neutralise it? '"But that's impossible…!" "And yet he succeeded."' The story of modern Doctor Who.
And that's why we'd put serious money on not seeing the last of Donna. Yes, one mention of the Doctor will make her brain trickle out of her ears. Until it won't. So why get all upset about it now?
And the actual story? Cut the useless guest appearances out of these episodes, and you're left with a plot as thin and holey as a lace doily. End-of-series Daleks are more predictable than rain on a Bank Holiday (three out of four is really taking the piss). What's more, they're just the same as ever, flying round with a choir tagging behind. Yes, Davros is a variation on the theme, and so is the tediously insane Dalek Caan, but they cancel each other out: one wanting to destroy everybody but the Daleks, and the other wanting the reverse. Since you could argue that Caan fashions the Doctor into a weapon (which is a lot more accurate than Davros's similar point about the Doctor), doesn't that make the Doctor a supporting character in his own story?
Then there are the stupidities. Davies seems to have a thing about phones and dumbness: remember Mickey shoving the phone into a computer? Here that's trumped by everyone calling the Doctor's number at once, like some gigantic radio phone-in competition. Wanna take a crack at explaining why that would amplify the signal to the Doctor? Especially with the phone satellites back where Earth used to be? Us neither. (And how is this different from last series's everyone thinking the same thing at the Doctor at once?) We also love the way that Murray Gold bursts into mysteriously Bollywoodesque action-sequence music when really all Jack and co are doing is plugging something in. Ooh! Ha! Not to mention the way everyone holds their phones up together in a desperate attempt to make dialling look exciting.
And there's all that stuff with the planets. Like the way none of them seem to be affecting Earth's gravity. Like the way the Moon's still there when the Earth returns. Like the way the stars going out wouldn't be seen on Earth for a considerable number of light years. Like the way 27 planets, even united in a spiffy engine, could actually only have a tiny effect on the universe.
And of course that pales into insignificance next to towing the Earth. Let's just look at those words again, shall we? Towing. The. Earth.
Pfui, there's far, far too much dumbness to count. Worse than that, though, is the utter meaninglessness of the scale. Every year it has to get bigger and bigger. More Daleks. More exterminations. More everything. And since every year none of it actually seems to add up to much, it's a load of sound and fury signifying nothing. So much is in there that there isn't time to deal with any of it, leading to the asinine situation of the Doctor thinking the TARDIS is gone forever (together with Donna) and it barely registering with him. It's big all right, like a hot air balloon: loads of surface flash, but empty and full of wind. Yes, we know it's a finale. So what? The new series never seems to learn from its own examples that bombast is inversely related to impact. The witless "Maximum extermination!" sums this up perfectly.
What works? Well, like we said, Davros and Donna. Bernard Cribbins is predictably excellent: we particularly love the scene where he's waving a cricket bat and shouting "What do you want this time, you green swine?". Sarah Jane really sells us the horror of seeing both the Daleks and Davros again. Penelope Wilton does her usual amazing job as Harriet Jones. We like the way the Daleks wade in and start exterminating for once without faffing about chatting with the Doctor: it restores some of their somewhat battered menace (which unfortunately takes a blow again when our heroes are twirling the hapless Daleks around on the spot). Oh yeah, and the Doctor doesn't use the sonic screwdriver. Not even once.
Think of it as the Russell T Davies Clip Show and these episodes look all right. Otherwise, they're overblown, overpopulated and way, way oversold.
MORAL: Never say never.
I KNEW THAT
The cloister bell's ringing, but when they get to Earth, there's nothing wrong. Is the TARDIS precognitive, like the rhino lady and all those people who could see something on Donna's back?
Well, we say Davros is wrong when he accuses the Doctor of making people into weapons, but on the other hand, Rose does have an unfortunate habit of shoving people under vehicles…
YOUR NEAREST EXIT MAY BE BEHIND YOU
We love the way Martha pulls down on the tabs of the transporter thingy like she's inflating a lifejacket. Does she have a little straw to puff into in case it all goes wrong?
Aren't the German-speaking Daleks adorable? Can't you imagine them huddled round the Berlitz tape? And what's even cuter is that when they're chatting about extermination in German, they're only talking to each other! Total immersion, that's the key to language learning: ask any passing pepperpot.
So what's happened to Martha, anyway? One minute she's a perfectly sweet girl, all concerned with the suffering of humankind and all, and the next she's a grim order-following military clone. Huh? Don't tell us her miffage at the Doctor ignoring her could have transformed her that much. Doesn't bode well for Torchwood, but what does?
I CAN'T GO ON
The Osterhagen key? What a bunch of quivering pessimists. Not to mention selfish - the suffering of the human race is all very well, but what about the other 1.4 million species on Earth? Going to take them down with us, are we? How kind of us. Not that we need to worry about the Osterhagen thing now. After all, it's hidden where nobody could ever find it. Behind a, um, curtain.
DON'T TOY WITH ME
"They are the playthings of Davros now!" Bwa-hahahahaha! Priceless.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING, DAVE?
"She is mine to do as I please"? Really, Davros. Far too much information.
ROSE, I HAVE SOME PROBABLY NOT GOOD NEWS
The Doctorlet has a human body and a Time Lord mind, right? Just like Donna. So how come he's OK and her synapses are melting down?
Russell T Davies has done some wholesale plot-nabbing in this series, and these episodes are no exception. As well as Flowers For Algernon, he's nicked Douglas Adams's dolphins concept for the bees. So long and thanks for all the honey?
DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL
Does Caan really have to go on and on about how one will die? It's a repeat of Rose talking about her death in Doomsday (and that was a cheat too). And when he insists "One will still die!" it gets really ridiculous. What does it say about plot grippiness when one of the characters has to beg us to stay tuned?
BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE
"That's my family! My whole world!" "I ended up in the one place I wanted to be". "You came home. At the end of the world, you came back to me." Yep, the treacle quotient is fully compliant with EU standards. For a show that's supposed to be about exploration, they bang this drum far too often.
"We have waited long for this ultimate destiny. Now the Daleks are the masters of Earth." What the hell do the Daleks care about Earth? Is it the last one in a set they're collecting or something?
THE LAVVY TILES ARE BLOCKING THE CIRCUITS
Why doesn't the TARDIS translate the Judoon?
EITHER THAT OR HE'S TALKING ABOUT ROSE TRYING TO SNOG HIM
"Someone tried to move the earth before. Long time ago." Does he mean in The Dalek Invasion Of Earth? But that was in 2164!
By now UNIT has tons of info about the Daleks, right? So why don't they have Dalek-piercing rounds?
We love the way Gwen and Ianto say "It's all up to Jack now" - Jack hasn't got a clue they're stuck in a time bubble, and with the Doctor around seems to care less.
LESS THAN NOTHING
"Even the void was dead." Dead? Isn't it full of…voidiness?
"The dimension cannon can measure timelines." Say what? And hey, how come we don't get to see Rose shooting out of it teeth first?
The Daleks can get in the TARDIS? Bollocks.
What's all that panting and squealing about as you reach out for the hand, Donna?
EASY COME, EASY GO
The Doctor has a telepathic connection to the TARDIS, right? So why does he think the TARDIS has gone? (He definitely does: check out his reaction when it reappears.)
THE MYSTIQUE OF THE M25
London is so glamorous? What's she going on about? Yep, there's nothing so wreathed in glamour as rush hour on the Northern Line. Still, if you come from Osterhagen…
HOW MANY PLUNGERS TO THE RELL?
So the Daleks are kind enough to swot up on Earth languages, but insist in counting in rells. Surprise! A rell is exactly the same as a second. Why didn't they just call it a schmeerp?
"I don't want my name on this, given what we're about to do." Yeah, wouldn't want your name going down in history for future generations to…..oh, wait.
YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME
In the little montage of all the Doctor's hapless dupes, it's a bit ironic that they show the hostess from Midnight, since she died doing exactly what the Doctor said not to do.
A VENEER OF EVIL
When Davros cackles maniacally you can see his real teeth behind his black Davrosy ones.
KEEP IT SEEMLY
Whereas we have no objection to Jack's great line "I can't tell you what I’m thinking right now" after finding out there are three Doctors, the reaction shot from the Doctor when Donna says "And I got the best bit of the Doctor" is criminal.
THAT EXPLAINS A LOT
So if Donna got the Doctor's brain, and the Doctorlet also got the brain, isn't that one brain short of requirements?
LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
The Doctor's all upset about the genocide - yet not upset enough not to yell "Mickayyyy!!!"
Yes, we know the ending's all about lonely emo Doctor and all, but as far as we're concerned, standing him outside in the rain just makes him look like a right eejit.