Sunday, July 06, 2008

Doctor Who: 'Journey's End' (4x13)

This season has easily been my favorite Who season so far, it’s been the most consistently great, never more so than in the last run of episodes. This episode, much like its predecessor “The Stolen Earth,” is a huge, messy over the top action spectacle. I have a bunch of issues with the way the episode was executed, but I think in general, the good outweighs the bad.

I think the episode was designed to take you on a journey through intense darkness, the whole reality bomb thing, up to the heights of the Earth being towed back by the Doctor’s “Children of Time,” then back down to the tempered happiness of Rose and the alternate Doctor, and ultimately down to deep sadness as we watch the Donna we know die. But, it’s frustrating to end the season on such a down note. At the end of ‘Doomsday,’ it was tragic to watch the Doctor and Rose ripped apart, but at least she had the memory of what she’d been through. Donna doesn’t even get that, she loses the person she’d become, the person who believed in herself in a way she never had before, and she’ll never even know who she was.

It’s an awful fate, and a lot of my mixed feelings on the finale come from the fact that I feel really frustrated, and I know I’m supposed to feel that frustration, but it’s still tough to face. I think it would have been a better fate for her to die, to burn out saving the universe. Now, she may be a hero elsewhere in the universe, but on Earth, she’ll never know what she’s capable of. The notion that if she remembers what she had done, it will burn up her mind is particularly tragic because there’s no hope, and Wilf and her mother have to live with her knowing what she was and unable to tell her.

It’s a testament to how good this season was that Rose feels so much like an afterthought. I remember before this season started, I was so excited when I heard that Rose was coming back. That was the story I wanted to see concluded, even after her year long absence, she hung over the show. But, Donna took control of the show this year, she proved herself an even better partner for the Doctor than Rose was, and by this point, even the somewhat happy ending for Rose is overwhelmed by the tragedy of what happened to Donna.

But, let me track back a bit. After an intense week of speculation about what the hell the Doctor would regenerate into, the whole tension was dissolved with a wave of his hand. It was a basically untenable cliffhanger, there was no way they were going to ditch Tennant at this point in the series, so it was probably best to just get it out of the way and move on. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed when everything was resolved so quickly.

From there, we move all the pieces into place for the big showdown. It was good to see Mickey and Jackie back, I was pondering where they were last week. Even though neither of them really gets much to do in the episode, it was nice to see them there. You could certainly make the argument that a lot of the cameos in the episode were pointless. There’s no intrinsic narrative reason that the Torchwood crew, Luke and Mr. Smith, Mickey and Jackie, or even Martha show up in the episode. But, I think there are two important reasons for them all to be here.

One is to raise the stakes of the conflict. I love that this is something so huge the Doctor calls in everyone. It never made sense to me why the characters on Buffy wouldn’t call Angel and his crew when things were going really bad. From a logistics point of view, it would become distracting for the viewer. The crossover itself would become the event rather than the story that each individual show had been building to. That’s why I don’t really mind the fact that most of the characters don’t end up doing too much. Sarah Jane gets her big moment, and even without having seen the episode with her and Davros, you can tell how affected she was by meeting him previously. Similarly, it’s good to just see Mickey again and get a bit of closure on his arc through this episode.

Davros was one of the better villains the show has had. In the first seasons, it’s the sheer numbers that make the Daleks or Cybermen such a threat. Last year, it was The Master’s insane personality, this year, we get a mix of both. Davros reminded me a lot of Star Wars’ The Emperor. The whole episode in general reminded me a lot of Star Wars. I write a lot about Morrison and Moore as influences on the way I view fiction, but before all that, it was Star Wars that first really got me into film and sci-fi. Those films still lurk in my subconsciousness, and a work like this hits something deep inside. Watching Davros rant about detonating the reality bomb hit me on every level. It’s appropriate to watch this on July 4th weekend, since it’s the best summer blockbuster you’re going to see this year.

But, unlike the vast majority of blockbusters, the show never stops being about the characters. All the spectacle is there to illuminate character points. We watch the Doctor standing helpless, watching what he has done to the people he’s met. Davros is willing to detonate the reality bomb to destroy all of existence, and the Doctor’s companions appear to be willing to do the same to destroy the Daleks. At that moment, how different are they, each the creator of an army bent on total destruction. I like that the Doctor reaches out to Davros at the end of the episode and tries to save him. If he could save Davros, it would be the ultimate vindication of his nonviolent approach to problem solving. But, Davros is unwilling to give the Doctor that satisfaction, and chooses apparent death instead.

Elsewhere, we see Donna create the new hybrid DoctorDonna. The whole second Doctor felt a little contrived. I think it would have been fine to have Donna touch the hand and then get the time lord powers on her own. We already know she’s connected to the original Doctor, and don’t need a second one around. Of course, he’s in there primarily to provide a happy resolution for the Rose storyline. It would have been too heavy to have the Doctor leave Rose, and then mindwipe Donna.

For whatever reason, the entire finale seems designed to move the Doctor back to where he was at the start of the series, struggling with guilt about destroying the Daleks. When I first watched the show, I didn’t know that this Time War was a new thing. I thought that it had always been part of the mythology, so even though I could tell the Eccleston Doctor was troubled by stuff, I didn’t think of it as directly related to his choice to kill all the Daleks. So, Rose gets the chance to rehibilitate the Doctor again, only this time the Doctor remembers everything they’ve been through. It’s kind of a dizzying mess of identity, the Tennant Doctor with the problems of the Eccleston Doctor, but actually human duplicate of each of them.

Anyway, with the reality bomb about to detonate, Donna rushes back and saves the day. This was a moment that I wanted to be a bit bigger, to hit the heights of Rose channeling the timestream back in ‘Parting of the Ways.’ I suppose Donna would be more self deprecating than that, it’s certainly cool to watch her operating that machine and taking them all out, but if this is the climax of such an epic story, at least throw in a burst of mysterious light or an explosion or something to cap it all off. Of course, her joy at saving the universe only looks sadder in retrospect, knowing what’s coming for her.

My favorite part of the episode, one of my favorite moments in the whole series, was the triumphant return of the Earth sequence. Now, we see the “Children of Time” working together to pilot the Tardis as it should be piloted. It’s ironic that though it’s built for six, we’ve rarely seen more than two people aboard. Why can’t all these people stay with the Doctor? Why can’t things always be like this? It seems like everyone has moved on from the Doctor. They may look back with fondness on traveling with him, but it’s a stage, not a destination. Even Rose doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to stay with him this time. Locking the other Doctor in the parallel world is the ostensible reason, but in reality, it seems that at least he has moved on, enough that he decides not to stay with her when he has the chance.

The episode leaves us in a really uncertain place about the efficacy of what the Doctor’s been doing. On the one hand, he has saved the universe, everyone soars back through spacetime hauling the Earth and it’s a glorious moment. I love the score there, I love the intercut scenes of people on Earth celebrating, it’s a really epic moment, and a fitting capper for the two parter.

The farewell in a park sequence feels like a graduation. Everyone moves on to do something else. It looks like Mickey and Martha will be joining up with Torchwood, Sarah Jane will continue doing her own thing over on her spinoff show. Rose and Jackie go back home, and the Doctor is left with only Donna, the companion who’s pledged to travel with him forever. This episode went by so quickly, I was expect there to be another act of some kind, a foe to fight after they return the Earth to its proper place.

But, it turned out to be a more personal tragedy. The moment Donna started repeating herself, I knew things were going to be bad, and from there it was a short fall to the mindwipe. The first time I watched it, I felt like I needed another scene with Donna, where she says good bye to the Doctor. It was too quick the first time. Flipping through the episode again, I came to that scene, and watching it, it’s partially how fast everything happens that makes it so tragic. She doesn’t get a chance to even say that good bye, it’s just a frenzied “No! No,” then her mind is gone. The Doctor must have known this would happen from the moment she got those powers. She saved the universe, but it wound up destroying her.

I don’t know if RTD came up with the mindwipe thing as a way to avoid the pain of killing her. If that was the intent, I think he failed miserably since those last scenes are absolutely excruciating. It’s one of the most sadistic character fates I’ve seen in a series. Really, the only comprable thing for me is Adrianna’s fate in The Sopranos, we know something bad is going to happen, he knows something bad is going to happen to her, but for a moment, she doesn’t believe it. She thinks everything’s going to be okay, better than okay, and then the gunshot comes down, the illusion breaks and reality comes rushing in.

In just a few scenes this season, Bernard Cribbins’ Wilf has become the emotional anchor of the series, the everyman who loves aliens and spaceships. It’s so sad to watch him have to come to terms with the person that Donna has become getting wiped away. They will sing songs of her on alien worlds, but on ours, she will be nothing.

And, that leads to the really difficult scene in which the Doctor sees the old Donna back, totally oblivious to the person she was, the person she could be. Instead, she’ll just go about her life and never realize her potential. I think this ties back to what I consider one of the touchstone scenes for the series, the scene at the restaurant from “Parting of the Ways.” Here, Rose talks to her mother and Mickey and says she won’t go back to her old life, she can’t go back. She’d rather die up in space by the Doctor’s side than go back and live an ordinary life. I think one of the things the Doctor doesn’t understand is that even though his companions may go through bad stuff, they’re all happier to have seen it, and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’d almost have preferred to see The Doctor just shove Donna out the doors of the Tardis into space than to bring her back home to become the person she used to be.

Of course, maybe things won’t be all bad for Donna. We saw in ‘Forest of the Dead’ that she can be happy in a normal life, and perhaps some of what she’s been through will seep through. Or, at least her mother and Wilf will treat her better, knowing what she can be. Still, the way the scenes are played, and the fact that if she remembers anything, she’ll burn up indicates that the Donna we knew is lost in time.

Her fate here makes clear why we spent so much time on parallel universe Donna of “Turn Left.” It’s clear that even though the person she was is gone, the impact she made on the Earth doesn’t disappear. Comparing the world they’re in now to the world of “Turn Left” makes that clear. She saved the Doctor, and the world many times over. But, that’s not much comfort for the viewer, or for Wilf and the Doctor.

The season, and RTD’s run on the series, ends on a really down note. Wilf says he’ll keep looking up at the stars, he’ll keep her memory alive, but is that any real consolation? It’s not for the Doctor, who ends up alone, forced to reflect on the fact that though he has built an army, he himself is still alone. It’s a downer of an ending, and one that leaves things fairly open for the future.

How much of Davies’ continuity will Moffat run with? Who will be the new companion? There’s a lot of questions, and I think I’ll ponder them in another post that will simultaneously look back and look forward at this run of Doctor Who.

This episode left me with mixed feelings. It really bothered me on a deep level, and I think that’s a testament to the writing, but I can’t help but feel like Donna could have gotten some kind of better ending, and the Doctor needn’t have ended things feeling so bad. Still, it hit me really hard, like no other show does. For me, this is the most emotional show on TV, and this season has been my favorite by far. I can quibble with a lot of things in the episode, but the overall emotional impact overrides any of that. It’s not the series’ best finale, but it’s still a pretty amazing piece of television.


crossoverman said...

In a way, this episode ruins the character of the Doctor, too. The Time War thing has always been interesting - but Davros now nails how the Doctor is ruining his companions, but turning them into weapons/soldiers. That's a great character point, but how will he overcome this now?

I don't know a lot about the Classic Who, but I know that this wasn't a problem in that series - though he lost companions for all sorts of reasons and in some ways ruined them for a normal life, it wasn't so acute as what he clearly has done in New Who.

I hope and expect the 2009 specials will focus on the Doctor with a series of different one off companions - and Moffat will get to create a new companion/dynamic for 2010. I think the Time War needs to be put behind the Doctor now - or he'll continue to ruin his companion's lives. And that's not a show I want to watch.

Gavin Burrows said...

I don't know if my reaction wasn't entirely upside-down to yours. I found the main storyline a little too repetitive of the closers to the previous series. (You can pretty much guess going in it's Donna's turn to go all Godlike.)

But it was Donna's fate that hit me. Doctor Who has always been the Spider-Man of TV science-fiction, it indulges our desire for wish-fulfilment only to twist it before our eyes. Victories are rarely casualty-free.

(More of that I don't know if my reaction wasn't entirely upside-down to yours. I found the main storyline a little too repetitive of the closers to the previous series. (You can pretty much guess going in it's Donna's turn to go all Godlike.)

But it was Donna's fate that hit me. Doctor Who has always been the Spider-Man of TV science-fiction, it indulges our desire for wish-fulfilment only to twist it before our eyes. Victories are rarely casualty-free.

(More of that , if you're interested.)

Sarah Jane gets her big moment, and even without having seen the episode with her and Davros, you can tell how affected she was by meeting him previously.

Genesis of the Daleks is generally regarded as one of the classic storylines of original Who., if you're interested.)

Sarah Jane gets her big moment, and even without having seen the episode with her and Davros, you can tell how affected she was by meeting him previously.

Genesis of the Daleks is generally regarded as one of the classic storylines of original Who.

PS Apologies, buggered the coding up on my first post!

Patrick said...

The point about the Doctor turning his companions into soldiers has some validity, but I think it's not meant to be our takeaway from the episode. That's just what Davros is telling him at his low point, a few minutes later, he's succeeded at saving the Earth, without a hugely destructive method, and brings the Earth back home with the whole crew he's assembled working together.

As we saw in Rose's story, and again in Donna's story, the Doctor may expose his companions to danger, but it's worth it because they see wonderful things too. I think everyone who goes off on their own path at the end of the episode wouldn't trade their experience with the Doctor for anything.

Of course, that only makes it even harder to see what happens to Donna. Ultimately, the sad beat for the Doctor at the end is that all his companions have moved on and have their own lives. He's kind of like a parent in that respect, his children grow up and leave him, and the one person who promised never to leave doesn't even remember who he is.

So, yes, some bad stuff happened to everyone who met up with him, but the bad was far outweighed by the good.

Patrick said...

Gavin, Donna's fate definitely hit me, the problem was it just felt so utterly bleak, I left the finale feeling totally drained. I checked out your blog on the episode, and I'd definitely agree that there were a bunch of potentially interesting, unexplored elements, notably Davros's relationship to the other Daleks. I think the episode could have benefitted from a third part, to explore Davros more, and to give more for Rose to do. But, every Who finale seems to be overstuffed, and I think that's part of what makes them so great.

Gavin Burrows said...

I think part of my frustration about the season closer was that several interesting new elements got little screen time, while so much was devoted to stuff we'd already seen in previous season closers. (How many characters have got to be God by now? Do they have some sort of deity rota pinned up in the Tardis?)

Apologies for the double vision and crappy posting on my part, even on the second attempt. Pretty ironic after I was not only accusing Davies of repeating himself, but claiming he'd been saying stuff he'd said before as well...