Friday, January 01, 2010

Doctor Who: 'The End of Time'

“The End of Time” is exemplary of all the virtues and flaws that made Russell Davies’ Doctor Who a unique work in sci-fi history. It’s got some muddled storytelling and weird deus ex machina elements that make it hard to even explain what’s going on, but it’s also intensely emotional and character focused, particularly during the final half hour of the episode, a lengthy, totally earned farewell to the tenth incarnation of The Doctor, and on a meta level, the universe that Davies created over the course of the past five years. I could pick apart the issues with the storytelling, but ultimately those pale in comparison to the intense emotion and power of the story. It’s easy to write a story that obeys the rules of screenwriting, but it’s incredibly difficult to create characters and stories that tap into our emotions on a primal level, and for me at least, no series hit me as hard as this series did.

Let me track back and discuss in brief the high points of part one. That episode felt a little padded, with an awful lot of running around and Master craziness surrounding not quite an hour’s worth of story. Still, it had an impressively propulsive story momentum, the stakes were high, and I particularly liked the way they segued from the goofiness of the Doctor in a straw hat to his discussion with the Ood where he has to own up to the fact that he’s going to die, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

The high point of that episode was the discussion between Wilf and the Doctor, as the Doctor sees Donna as she was, and thinks back on the person she became with him. There’s such sadness there, and it’s appropriate to match Wilf with the Doctor, both old men who know that their time is coming to an end, but are trying to live it up on the way out. The moment in part two when Wilf finds out how old the Doctor is is particularly effective, when he realizes that even though the Doctor is older than him, he still has the spirit and fire of youth. In Wilf, the Doctor sees the humanity that he’s fighting to save, and that’s what motivates him to go into the nuclear chamber, it’s not worth living if he can’t save someone like Wilf.

But, Part 1 was mainly set up, the meat of the story was in tonight’s episode, and it had a lot that worked and some that didn’t. Let me first discuss my biggest disappointment, and that’s the treatment of Donna. Nothing is really changed from what we saw at the end of “The Stolen Earth,” and that’s the problem. If you’re going to bring the character back, you should really do something with her, and depriving her of a final reunion with the Doctor after he gets to say good by to everyone is kind of cruel. But, what makes it worse is the fact that it’s treated as not that big a deal, the Doctor gets her a lottery ticket, but money can’t replace what she’s lost.

The brilliance of the end of “The Stolen Earth” was that it placed Donna in the prison of never knowing what she could be, this episode basically gives her a nicer prison cell. She may be happy, but she’s not going to live up to her destiny, and that’s really sad, putting a kind of damper on the whole triumphant spirit of the episode, and because that tragedy wasn’t really acknowledged in part 2, it feels off. The wedding was a celebration, she is happier, but there’s still that something missing, and I wish that we had seen more of that. I was hoping to see Donna reclaim her role as a timelady or something more, but it apparently wasn’t to be. I thought it was implied that the timelady who appeared to Wilf was meant to be an older version of Donna, but apparently it was meant to the Doctor’s Mother. Having that be an older Donna would have been more satisfying, giving her some nice closure without having to be too specific about why she can remember her power again.

That’s the only thing that’s missing from the finale for me, a final moment of catharsis for Donna. I was glad to spend so much time with Wilf, but a bit more Donna would have been fantastic. Still, I guess her story was told, and Davies didn’t want to do anything to mess with the ending we already got. Maybe she’s already played her part in the global drama, she’s saved the world, and that could be enough. Still, maybe there’s an exception for her seeing a new Doctor and having some new adventures down the line. I still love the character, particularly the way she became at the end of season four, and I’d have loved to see that Donna back.

But, other than that, I felt totally emotionally satisfied, and drained by the end of the episode. First though, let me discuss a bit of the return of the Time Lords and the beginning of the episode. I liked a lot of this stuff, I think the Time Lords were suitably menacing, and the Master worked much better here, as a child trying to finally get the approval of his parents than as an insane very hungry man, as he was in part one. I also enjoyed the spaceship missile fight, which had a nice Star Wars feel and was well executed. But, in general, the whole spaceship segment didn’t add that much to the narrative. It was a good excuse for some Wilf and Doctor interaction, but was basically filling time before setting up the final battle.

The way I read it, the conflict at the end was basically the Doctor in the position of choosing between allowing Gallifrey to return and destroy all of existence, or allying with the Master to kill the Timelords and become the ruler of the Earth. However, ultimately he chose the third path and erased them both, choosing his new human allies over the timelords I’d left behind. I like the idea that he romanticized the timelords after their destruction, in the way we always remember the good thing after someone dies. But, it’s clear that the Time War was in many ways the Time Lords doing, it was their attempt to end all of existence and transcend to another reality, but the Doctor has always had great affection for this reality, and after seeing the courage of Wilf, his willingness to follow the Doctor to the end of the world, to put his own life on the line to save a stranger, the Doctor realizes that killing anybody would be a betrayal of the spirit that has made him into a powerful symbol for humans.

He chooses a third path and again wipes his own people away, and chooses to let the Master go. The Master here is portrayed as a deranged child, warped by his own upbringing. The Doctor wants him to be better, as he says in the opening scene, because the Master is the closest thing he has to a peer, to a brother. Together, they could have great adventures, but the Master is too warped by the trauma he’s undergone to deal with that, He made the whole world over in his own image as an attempt to assert himself and become superior to the Time Lords, but it’s not enough to satisfy them. The Time Lords are old order and The Doctor is a new, better way of things, the Master is caught somewhere in the middle, and that’s what drives him insane.

That said, whenever you said up a situation where somebody has to make a choice about who to kill and he doesn’t kill, it’s going to be a little disappointing. Shooting the machine makes sense in retrospect, but kind of came out of nowhere in the moment, not to mention the confusing presence of a character who was apparently meant to be the Doctor’s Mother. As I said before, I was thinking the character could be a future Donna, and the lack of clarification within the story was okay, but I think it could have been more powerful if we had known this was meant to be the Doctor’s mother, and he was sacrificing her to save the Earth.

So, that felt a bit anti-climactic. I think it could have been better executed, but Davies often gets into trouble when the sci-fi elements lose the core of emotion. Normally, the companion grounds things in an emotional reality, but these specials have been about the Doctor, and as such they lack the element of identification. The core theme of Davies’ Doctor Who, one that’s reinforced in the final scene that Tennant visits, is the idea that every person has the potential to be a hero and if they could only look up and see the wonder all around them, they could become something so much more. That’s what we see with Jackie and Rose’s discussion, where Jackie is resigned to never having anything special, that’s what kills you, that’s what prevents you from being better, and the Doctor is a living embodiment of all the wonder and amazing things in the universe.

I think that’s why the show resonates for me so strongly, it’s that inherent positivity to the premise. The Doctor is a force that can pull you out of depression and mundanity and take you to other worlds and turn anyone he encounters into a hero. Rose walks home alone, thinking this all she’ll be, but we know that in her future there’s adventures and change and romance, all lurking just ahead of her. To the Doctor, the worst fate is resign yourself to a boring life, and part of the satisfaction of his trip around the world is to see the way that he’s touched all the people he’s encountered. They’re all living better lives than they were when he met them, and that shows that, contrary to what Davros says, he doesn’t make people die, he helps them live.

Mickey and Martha are now married and hunting demons freelance. When Jack’s depressed, presumably still dealing with the events of Torchwood: Children of Earth, the Doctor drops in to pick him up and rejuvenate his old spirit. We see Sarah Jane is no longer sad about the Doctor leaving, she’s been inspired by him to teach a new generation how to live. They are his legacy, and that’s why it’s so frustrating to me to see Donna living a normal life, it’s that she’s gotten the worst fate of all and the Doctor can do nothing.

Still, that frustration aside, the final tour of the world was intensely powerful. When I saw the end of Buffy, it felt so incomplete because, even though the story was told, it was never really about the story, it was about the characters. I so desperately wanted just another half hour with these people to wrap up their story and find out what happened to them. Davies has been accused of fan service or pandering, but I think it’s more that he does the stuff we all want to see, but on some level don’t think we deserve. I love seeing all these characters one more time, he’s made us care about them, and it’s nice to say good bye. If the episode had ended with the Timelord fight, it would have been unsatisfying, but the final half hour is so powerful and sad, it really affected me.

It all wraps up with the wonderful quote from the Ood that “the song is over, but the story goes on.” Each Doctor Who actor, each writer puts their own stamp on the character, evolves the myth and adds new layers, but they have to move on. Their song was beautiful, and as we watch the Tardis crumble, it becomes clear that this is at last the end of the line. The Tenth Doctor burns away in the fire of creation and is replaced by a new man.

I don’t have that much to say about him yet, but he seemed pretty Tennantish, and very high energy. I’m definitely excited to see what Moffat does as showrunner, the concept of the show is so fantastic, and Davies laid out a great template to follow. I’m sure it’ll be great.

But, I think a lot of people underrate what Davies did. So many sci-fi works are soulless, and so few stories of any kind have the love and emotion that infused Davies’ work on Doctor Who. It wasn’t the most consistent show, but nothing else on TV or in film is so consistent in hitting my emotions. I see a great kinship between what I love in fiction and what Davies does, using genre elements as a backdrop to establish stakes, but really writing about characters and emotions.

My favorite episode of the series is still “Parting of the Ways,” which fused an epic Dalek story, with Rose’s desperate battle to leave her home and get back to the Doctor. She was threatened with never being able to realize her full potential, and she fought so hard to get back to him, to save him, it was devastating, and so triumphant when she did return. Davies reminds me a lot of Grant Morrison, both use these cosmic elements as a way to explore very real feelings and issues, and to commune with something spiritual.

This show has a religious feel, of touching something deep and mythical within us, and that’s why I’ll forgive almost all the flaws in the writing. I’d rather see something messy and ambitious and raw than a perfectly refined script. A nice three act structure and flawless script does nothing for me if it doesn’t make me feel, and Davies always makes me feel. And, he had the perfect partner in Tennant, a fiery embodiment of life and energy who grounded even the craziest stories in a very relatable emotion. To take a thirty years old role, played nine previous actors and come away thoroughly owning it is hard to do, but the Doctor is Tennant and everyone else will work in his shadow.

So, this was a far from perfect episode, but the final half hour was as good as anything in the series, a perfect farewell to the world and characters Davies had created. I didn’t want the Doctor to go either, but he went out in style, and left me on a hopeful note, eager to see what new adventures await him. And, if Tennant or Davies want to come back for an episode, I’d be glad to have them.


crossoverman said...

I really have to avoid thinking about the waste of Donna here or else I'll be right back to where I was after Stolen Earth/Journey's End - very upset. I think I would have preferred to have just seen her getting married at the end rather than being part of the cliffhanger from Part One, which essentially led nowhere - except for the cheap tension of whether she was about to die from her memories. (God, I hate the subtext of that so much.)

And most of the two-parter was just messy and felt like the construction of a plot generator. Even bringing back the Master seemed like a waste. Bringing back to the Timelords seemed to be a waste, but I'll forgive RTD for that because at least we got an insight into the Time War finally and why the Doctor "killed" them.

Everything from Wilf tapping on that glass to the end was magnificent, though. And pandering though it was, to throw in a reference to Human Nature/Family of Blood and the "Journal of Impossible Things" meant it wasn't just a checklist of companions but a real epilogue to Ten's tenure.

Going back to 2005 to see Rose was great (I'm so glad he didn't cross dimensions to find her) and dying alone in the TARDIS is pretty rare for Doctor regeneration - but fitting for Ten, I think.

Yes, Eleven seemed Tennant-ish but I think that's just the mid-regeneration talking and he'll calm down a bit once he's crashed. Back on Earth, presumably.

suncore598 said...

A great ending to one of my favorite Doctors. I'm saddened by his departure but unlike others, I'm very interested in the Eleventh Doctor with his manic behavior and his love for danger. I can't wait to see Season 5.

I was so moved by the Doctor visiting those whose lives he's touched. I was surprised by the number of familiar faces and I liked that the Doctor visited Rose in the past and didn't bring us back to the alternate reality again.

I myself wished there was a scene between the Doctor and Donna but at least we left her on a happy note with her being married and having the lottery from her father. Yeah, we all wished that what happened to her could be resolved and maybe it will one day like Rose's return even after we thought she was permantely stuck in the alternate reality in Doomsday. But I rather her condition to stay the way it did because getting rid of that would undermine her tragedy. At least the Doctor was able to get some love from Wilf and Donna's mother.

And the Master. I felt his craziness was toned a bit after the Season 3 finale but I loved how he went out with a bang this time. I think he did what he did not to save the Doctor but to exact revenge against those who he looked upon as parents like you said, Patrick, for the pain and misery they put him through.

I found the portrayal of the Time Lords interesting and it made sense to me concerning the horrific nature of the Time War. Like we've seen with the Ninth Doctor, war does change people.

Patrick said...

I'm wondering if we'll ever see more of the Time War, or see the return of a more benevolent incarnation of the Time Lords. I was thinking RTD might be setting up a new status quo for Moffat to work with, but apparently not.

But, definitely agreed in general, a fantastic conclusion made up for any of the messy stuff along the way.

crossoverman said...

This depiction of the Timelords is a big shift from the mostly bureaucratic old guard they used to be depicted as. I don't know a lot about the old series, but RTD positioned them as a lot more meglomaniacal here. So it would be hard to bring back the more benevolent versions.

That said, it'll happen some day - but I do like that he's made it really hard for the Time War to just be unlocked and for Gallifrey and the Timelords to be easily restored to the universe.

Anonymous said...

Really like what you had to say about the episode and in particular RTD's contribution to the show.
And Tennant's achievement is even more staggering when you consider that Hartnell first played the character 46 years ago!

One place I slightly differ with you is in my assessment of the effectiveness of the standoff between the Timelords and the Master. I liked it more and more on rewatch as a piece of emotional choreography.
My feeling is that much of the Doctor's hesitation in destroying the machine is his reluctance to send the two 'shamed' Timelords who voted against the 'end of time' back into the hell of the Time-War.
In a way they were all that was left of the Gallifrey for which both the Master and the Doctor expressed nostalgia throughout the series, and again in their exchange in the wasteland in part1.
They represented the last of the timelords of old, and the material loss felt by the Doctor (particularly 9) at having to sacrifice them.
The woman in white (who Julie Gardner might interpret as the Doctor's mother-but is ultimately left ambiguous, though clarified by the Doctor's glimpse at Donna late in the episode showing that the woman's significance to the Doctor is perhaps somehow familial, like Donna to Wilf) lowering her hands in a gesture of mute defiance at Rassilon's will, gives permission to the Doctor to complete his 'plan' and sever the link- repeating his act of destruction in the time war, but also giving him a moment of recognition, of 'contact' as both the Master and Rassilon opine earlier, partially releasing him from his own shame in a look of forgiveness and acceptance; a moment of intimacy between 'gods' we can barely grasp though we understand its import and emotional colouring.

I also like how Euros shot the Timelord vanguard walking through the white field out of focus, with the Master calling out, "Closer -Closer!".

As for Donna, she can still find her worth inside her own 'reality' freed by the Doctor, albeit in an indirect fashion, from the financial/material worries dogging her and her new husband. She's making do, for now, but who knows what the future holds? It's the Doctor as 'Obama' figure with his own timey-wimey 'financial solution'!
Also liked how Donna is shot in a tableau of celebration in the church grounds, amongst friends and family-while the Doctor is framed alone in a reverse - shot amongst the tombs and gravestones of the churchyard, amongst the dead.

Lots of images I liked in part 1 too, especially the Master beating out the drum tattoo on the barrel, calling and goading the Doctor; and the Master's insane scream at which the Doctor looks on, appalled and disturbed.


Anonymous said...

also have you seen this?

season 5 trailer:

Patrick said...

That shot of the Timelords coming out of the white void was one of the visual high points of the episode.

And, I can definitely see your points, I think there's a lot of interesting issues at play in the confrontation, and it certainly works for me, but I think it could have been executed a bit better. Of course, my lack of knowledge about the Gallifrey of old makes it tough to contextualize these time lords. I get what they mean to the Doctor, so it has some meaning for me, but not as much as if I'd experienced that meaning directly.

And, I did see that trailer, the season looks pretty exciting. It's hard to tell what the season will be like from a trailer, but it looks stylish and fun, and a worthy followup to Tennant.

David Golding said...

I liked the treatment of Donna in the story, and consideration of Patrick's thoughtful issues with it has helped me tease out why.

First, I'm not sure that restoring her to Doctor-Donna, only to be written out anyway, like Wesley Crusher or Kes, would be a positive move. It certainly wouldn't improve any anti-feminist subtext. Instead, keeping her on mitigates against that final disempowering image. The fallen subalterns are supposed to move off-stage so the hegemony can cry crocodile tears, not hang around requiring us to remember they are people.

Then Donna's presence really cements her tragedy, giving the definite closure that is missing from a mere end-of-episode fate in this series. It shows yet again that the inherent positivity of Doctor Who, isn't that of Star Trek, isn't boundless. The cost of victory is often high and not everything done can be undone.

Note that Donna is not the only companion deprived of a final reunion with the Doctor; so is Rose. This is because they are both metaphorically dead. Yes, Rose died at the Battle of Canary Wharf, as promised by Satan, taken by her dead dad back to the underworld figured in 'Rise of the Cybermen'. Donna, like the Doctor when he regenerates, has died and become someone else. If she remembers her past life, as the Doctor indulges himself in the end, she will burn as he does. I think these resonances are deliberate, part of Davies's secular mythology.

Further, as part of his mythology, as the common person, she stands naked now. We know she is capable of great things. She's smart and compassionate. So why doesn't she do more? She doesn't need to go into space and topple empires. She could have a look at who's making her clothes (like real life red-headed chav-become-activist Stacey Dooley). The Doctor isn't the only inspiring figure on Earth. And if we are so unhappy with her fate, then what does that say about the lives of those of us like her? If her story is unfinished, then perhaps it is a Brechtian demand for the audience to bring about closure.

As for the mysterious woman and her companion, their identity was obvious once I stopped the sound of fannish drums in my head. There's been a lot of talk of soldiers in this series, who are commemorated with the Unknown Soldier... well these are the Unknown Dissenters. They stand in for companions everywhere: Adelaide, Donna, Martha, Romana, Susan, all of them. The ones who looked up, who chose the third way, who kept with their conscience, who said no.

Patrick said...

I like the idea that Donna has essentially 'regenerated,' that makes a lot of sense and makes it a bit easier on an emotional level, particularly in the context of this episode, which is all about the Doctor coming to terms with his own impending mortality.

Donna can't be like she was, just as the Doctor can never be the same. He's the same person on some level, with the possibility to be just as great, but he can't be great in the same way, and one level, that's tragic, but it's also exciting. And, here, Donna at least seems to be happier and more together than she was when he met her, she gets married to someone who does seem to love her and is set up with a happy life ahead of her.

I guess the thing that bothered me so much is that a scenario is set up where Donna is going to be really important to things at the end of Part I, and that's never really followed up on. I want Donna to be what she was, just as I don't want the Doctor to leave, but we're denied that.