...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, July 07, 2008

Day 2743: DOCTOR WHO: I Can, I Caan’t


What a BRILLIANT episode of Doctor Who!

Dr David regenerating into Dr Ewan;

Donna using the magic Christmas energy to make a new Dr David;

Davros's reality bomb CREATING the rift in the Medusa Cascade;

The "Most Faithful Companion" being the TARDIS, sacrificing herself to seal the Daleks into the rift!

Davros escaping in his black saucer;

Rose going to the other universe with Dr Ewan, leaving Dr David alone AGAIN!

And that surprise ending where he fell through time to a Victorian Christmas...

Still, that is what happened in PARALLEL EARTH - how was YOUR Doctor Who?

Ooh, Mr the Supreme Dalek; it's all gone a bit... floppy
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As dear friend Nick points out: beginnings are much easier than endings. The weight of expectation was certainly too much for the series finale to bear; the thought that they might have pulled off the biggest surprise coup in television history, to regenerate David Tennant without news leaking… even so, can anyone watching really, really have wanted the resolution to be “phew, that was close”?

Nor did they even have to. With a second David Tennant growing out of that old lopped off hand, where’s the downside in having the “first” him turn into someone else?

This means that, from the perspective of someone who was completely awestruck by the cliffhanger at the end of “The Stolen Earth”, “Journey’s End” is saddled with an opening that is the biggest let down since, oooh, “The Age of Steel” began with the Doctor just arbitrarily deciding that all those menacing Cybermen should be dead. That’s the sort of deflation that is difficult to get over.

So let’s remember that there were a lot of things here that were good.

Davros’ plan actually makes sense. The Daleks think that they are the only creatures in all creation deserving of existence, so it makes sense to wipe out everything else. Admittedly disintegrating all the stars and planets that you may at some future point want to occupy with your Dalek progeny seems a little wasteful.

Davros recognising Sarah (and vice versa) was a superb moment, so well played by both of them, and such a weight of Doctor Who history conveyed so simply.

And it was a great idea that Davros had – once again – found himself as no better than a slave of the Daleks that he himself had created. It led to the – sadly unfulfilled – expectation that he was actually manipulating the Doctor into rescuing him. That honour, as it turned out, went to Dalek Caan, so not a completely wasted idea.

(Mind you, on the subject of Dalek Caan: crashing through the barriers of time sends you mad and gives you the power of prophecy I think we can buy; crashing into the Time War gives you magic powers to manipulate destiny… er, we’ll let you know. Or is this another “he gazed into the heart of the time vortex” thing? Isn’t that supposed to make your head blow up? Maybe that’s why he’s all exploded.)

German Daleks: brilliant. No, never mind German Daleks, the little old German lady with her quote from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”.

The charming, perfect throwaway reference to using the Dalek’s Magnetron – one for the fans, that, being a reference to the “Trial of a Time Lord” when the Time Lords used a Magnetron to move the Earth.

Having the companions pull various deus-ex-machina solutions out of their backsides only to have the Daleks go: “nahh, we’ll just gotcha you” was an amusing reversal of expectations.

Captain Jack, incidentally, appears to have an immortal coat since it survives incineration along with him. Mind you, if you were Captain Jack you’d probably need one to avoid ending up naked a lot of the time. Mind you, if you were Captain Jack you’d want to end up naked a lot of the time. Ladies, your viewing figures just went up.

Bernard Cribbins, Great Uncle Bulgaria himself, was completely brilliant. Learning from last week’s commentary that not only the line “do you want to swap” but the whole scene with the Dalek and the paint gun was his idea left us just in awe of him. And here, his farewell salutation to the Doctor, his promise to keep watch on Donna’s behalf, was one of the most moving things we’ve seen.

Having the TARDIS tow the Earth back though space was just the most magnificently loopy thing; and seeing the TARDIS properly crewed, all the companions united around that console, was a completely vindicated tribute to four years of Russell Davies’ vision and stewardship of this show.

And it may have been a huge cop-out but wasn’t it just such a David Tennant moment: “I’m not changing. Why would I want to?” I think that’s that question answered then.

…Even so, what we get is “Parting of the Ways” redux. Dalek Empire built from carefully nurtured single cells, check. Invasion of Earth, check. Doctor builds super-weapon but fails to use it, check. Companion gets upgraded by Time Lord technology/biology and saves the day for him, check. Companion then has to have it sucked out by the Doctor so her head doesn’t explode, check. Dalek mothership explodes with a fiery vengeance, all Daleks killed off yet again, Emperor/Davros fails to get on-screen death (like that means it doesn’t count), check.

What we don’t get, it would appear, is the great big mind-wipe for the population of Earth. Ironically, it would seem that the one thing Russell has left us with is an Earth that irrefutably knows that there are aliens and has experienced being dragged across space. At the very least, someone is going to have to rebuild New York.

In fact – and it’s almost an exact inverse of “Last of the Time Lords” – while the whole of the rest of the World remembers, it’s the companion at the centre of the story who forgets.

Donna’s fate is deeply cruel. It’s worse even that the end of “The War Games”; at least the Time Lords left Jamie and Zoë with one adventure with the Doctor. To take away all of her potential, her spirit, her evolution like that… it feels wrong. And if you’re borrowing plot twists from “Bugs” – mention Cyberax to Ros and her head blows up, too – then you know something’s gone wrong somewhere.

She begs him not to. She says “No, please, no.” And she, by definition, knows what’s she’s saying.

So we know the Doctor’s attitude to suicide, euthanasia, turning off the life-support… She begs him to let her die rather than go into a vegetative state. And he takes the decision and enforces it on her – on another Time Lord, in effect.

I liked Donna. Yes, Catherine Tate could pull some goddawful faces at times – particularly that “ohmygod” one. But she could also be vulnerable and kind. I even liked her David Tennant impression (and very much his Catherine Tate impression – finally using that “duckling imprinting” idea that was to explain his Rose-inspired Mockerney accent). Admittedly, reducing the climatic defeat of the Daleks to high-speed technobabble and dancing remote controlled Daleks was probably a little silly, but the beautiful warmth of the TARDIS scene with Doctor, Doctor and Doctor-Donna watching over their family as they fly the Earth home surely overcame that.

It would almost have been better if she’d died for real. But even better if Donnahad regenerated. Yes, Catherine Tate is leaving, she was only here for a season, but why not have her character become someone new? In fact, why not go all the way and really blow the fanboys’ minds (never mind stuffing up Mr Moffat’s future continuity) by having the Doctor actually leave with Rose, and bequeath his TARDIS to the new Doctor/Donna?

Because Rose is treated almost as badly as Donna. Stuck with a literally second-hand Doctor. Here you go, love, have a clone of me, ta-ra! Never mind “you only tell me you love me when you’re drunk”; this is “you only tell me you love me when you’re a half-human hybrid biological meta-crisis in an alternative universe”! I mean, what does a girl have to do?

Seriously, being with Rose is all that the Doctor wants in the universes. At the end of “Doomsday” he can’t get to her without smashing the Universe. That is his only reason for letting her go. But this time he’s right there on the beach with her and instead he gives her the genocide-twin to look after? This doesn’t make any sense at all. Worse, it doesn’t make emotional sense.

Rose wants to stay with the “real” Doctor but will apparently settle for one who’ll snog her. The Doctor wants to stay with Rose but, er, apparently doesn’t. You can say it’s for the greater good but… where’s the greater good here? In fact, why strand the poor girl in the parallel universe again? (Presumably it’s because Jackie wants to return to Parallel-Pete and his pots of money. Not that the money matters… how rich?)

What we needed was a reason for Rose to prefer the Doctor that she gets to stay with. Preferably before she’s obviously committed to the one who’s leaving. Again, this is where regenerating him properly could have been a big plus. Either she stays with clone David because “you’re not my Doctor”. Or she stays with “real” number eleven because “you’re not the real Doctor” (cue Tennant trademark “vulnerable” acting.)

For goodness’ sake, even with two Tennants, you could still have her stay with the “right” one rather than the spare – just don’t have him commit genocide, or even just don’t let the “real” Doctor see that his clone has genocided the Daleks. Then you’ve got a really morally-compromised Doctor to play with for the next year.

Instead, we end up with our too too perfect hero essentially dumping his girlfriend and dropping a genocidal maniac in her lap. At least said maniac appears to be a decent squeeze.

And we’ve only got here because, Russell, you chose to put him there.

Likewise, it’s no good giving Davros all the good lines. Or even the stupidly mediocre lines and just having the Doctor look a bit shamefaced. Eric Saward went there, and frankly mined that barren furrow dry. “I name you Destroyer of Worlds” – oh for goodness’ sake, Davros, what were you just trying to do? It wasn’t some light housework was it? And this whole business of “you take people and teach them to die for you”. The Doctor teaches people to live not to die. There is a world of difference between being willing to live and fight and even sacrifice and die and just sitting in your dungeon-cum-Death Star pressing the big doomsday button. And besides, Dave “my children are the best killers ever” Ross is in no position to talk. The Master might have been able to get away with a line like that, but not Davros. His entire life is about turning people into monsters; what the Doctor may inspire his companions to become isn’t even in the same league!

We had thought that “Journey’s End” and “most faithful companion” meant that, as Millennium says above, it was going to be the TARDIS that died. A complete shock and a total rebooting of the series. What I wanted to see, especially with it apparently set up with that line about him having been at the Medusa Cascade before, was a young Doctor arriving in his TARDIS – with the classic white console room! – to seal the rift that Davros’ reality bomb creates. The Master said that he sealed it single-handed but of course he would have had the help of one or, lord help us, two of his future selves. Hence “three-fold man” (and none of this Doctor-Donna business). With the tenth/eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS sealing the rift, all the first has to do is take everyone home to Earth.

(And have I mentioned my idea that – sphinx-like – the Doctor uses his own name as the key to lock the rift closed: if he tells anyone, then they might be able to release the Daleks and their reality bomb and hence destroy the Universe.

The Doctor, Tennant or regenerated form, thinks that he’s going to have to spend the rest of his life on Earth, though at least he’ll be with Rose. And then, again as above, he’s jarringly removed through time.

Alternatively, Donna – as the last source of magic Christmas Huon particles in the Universe – can allow him to grow a new TARDIS. Possibly at the risk of legal action from Lawrence Miles.

After such a brilliant build-up, disappointment was perhaps inevitable. But it’s hard not to think that if I can knock up a half-way acceptable conclusion to that cliffhanger in half-an-hour, then Russell might not have been better off passing the finish over to some other professional along with a stack of notes. He could even have told Confidential the truth when he claimed to have no idea how it would finish.

This isn’t really the end of the Russell Davies era, although it surely feels like it. We have the Christmas Special with Cybermen. That may or may not be called “Return of the Cybermen”; boo for not treating us to the title as has been traditional. We have the 2009 specials. On the plus side, that probably means no story arc to trouble the scorers; on the down side it probably means each one will be designed as “event television” rather than part of an ongoing series – Doctor Who works as a series, not as a movie, because it’s always about the Doctor moving on to somewhere new. The sense of “where are we this week” is important to what makes it work.

Nevertheless, there is hope for a positive change of direction. Russell’s formula – past, present future, two-parter on Earth, couple of fillers, deeper two-parter, big finish – has been great, but it’s beginning to look like a formula now, and that’s only a step away from formulaic. It’s time to mix things up a little.

Next time… our traditional review of the year.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice


Will said...

Cyberax! Of course! I knew I'd seen it before, but the best we could come up with was the Rose/Vortex thing from The Parting of the Ways.

Onlinefocus Team said...

A fair review!

I really really like Donna. My favourite companion of the lot ( and I can just about remember Zoe as a new companion). Have a look back at say, Donna in Pompeii and see how much enjoyed and appreciated all that she was experiencing.

I thought the "Time Boy" moment when the new improved DonnaDoctor save the cosmos was just delicious.

But it's not too late to save her... If there's one place that could use her talents, it's the Shadow Proclamation. (Incidentally, why didn't they appear in "Journey's End"? ) They clearly heve some understanding of her condition (they even predicted it somehow ) and if their water can help people maybe they could stabilise her.... and employ her.

Wilf could visit her once in a while. And even her Mum might be impressed.

And having Donna appearing as guest star, talking to her bunch of Judoon sidekicks in Judoon would be simply marvellous. Wouldn't it?

Nick Campbell said...

It was a very strange hour. I'm torn between loving and hating it. I'm glad, at least, that this show doesn't do things by halves. I love how completely off-its-tits-insane its stories always look, compared to the TV Movie and all that was to have followed in its wake. As Marcie Hatter once said, 'There is always a strangeness in things', and at least we can say that Donna and Rose's departures were intentionally uncomfortable. Like the regeneration at the end of The Stolen Earth, Donna's fate feels *wrong*, but I don't want to give myself false hopes about what that might mean. I think I'd find it hard to watch again. Probably the weirdest thing about this season has been that the stunt casting - Cribbins and Tate - has given us some of the strongest, most visceral performances of the season whereas certain others, with their forthcoming outings to the RSC, sometimes let the side down a bit. Love how Bernard does the paintgun scene and the "I'll look out for you" scene and looks completely natural in both. That's what's bonkers about this show - that its characters have to occupy both extremes, not to mention confrontation with the sublime Other, and still appear real. I don't think Tom Baker could quite do it. I think it's brilliant that they keep trying. I still think we're lucky to have it on our tellyboxes.

Thank you for all your reviews this year.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I'm planning to write my own review soon, but I thought I'd just make this comment:

Re the Doctor's treatment of Donna and Rose - I don't agree they are necessarily unbelievable, but they were both incredibly cold actions. What the Doctor did to Donna was, with the best intentions, tantamount to rape. What he did to Rose was incredibly cold. They are both actions suggesting colder, more calculating Doctor. Maybe his body didn't regenerate, but his personality got a bit of a reboot. Davros challenged the Doctor to show his companions the fire at the heart of his soul. Well, he has.

Both of the actions are justifiable dramatically so long as they have consequences. If both lingering plot strands are left to dangle, it will be a wasted opportunity.

Oh, and didn't Dalek Caan explicitly say that he DIDN'T manipulate Donna's timeline and that he would have happened anyway? I can't help but feel we are only halfway through her story.