...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Day 3281 (again): DOCTOR WHO: The End of Ten (Part One)

Christmas Day:

Hah HAAA! Now that I, the MASTER, have possessed everyone and everything on Earth, including this Very Fluffy Diary of My Name Is The Master, I can hahahahah tell how BRILLIANT haha BRILLIANT I was in the Doctor Who Christmas Special and… OOOF!

[is punched in head by elephant]

Silly man! Machine was set for HUMANS! Elephants are IMMUNE!

And if you are worried, Daddy Alex’s head is stuffed full of all the knowledge of the Time Lords and Daddy Richard assures me that he is only half-human on his Great Auntie Fred’s side. So we’re all fine!

We may not be going out much this week though!

So, time for a Doctor Who review from Daddy.

(And while that small intrusion may have let the CAT-MONSTER out of the BAG, there may be more spoilers to follow.)

So far, The End of Time is a collection of gripping, moving, thrilling plot coupons in search of a story, a point that Jennie makes with rather more anguish. Maybe it’s just me being a boy but I thought they were good gripping, moving, thrilling plot coupons, strung together by director Euros Lyn with verve and panache, having David T run everywhere with his big coat a-flapping getting quickly from one set-piece to the next to form a coherent if not actually logical sequence.

Structurally, it fell into two half-hour episodes, almost as if the return of the ”part one” tag has infused the whole affair with old school Doctor Who-ness, with a spoken interjection from Timothy Dalton at the start, the half-hour and the conclusion. In fact, the narration at the half-way mark is really hanging a lantern on the fact that the first half hour has been spent moving characters into place. The Master is resurrected… and it goes wrong; the Doctor is given yet another prophecy, this time from the Ood; Wilf is troubled by bad dreams that only he can remember… and stalked by the mysterious “woman in white”, with her cryptic warnings.

Each new thrill or shock or laugh or heart-breaking-conversation-in-a-café keeps you watching, drawing you further in.

It’s full of fan-pleasing references, often at the same time subverting them.

The opening parable in the church got us expecting “The Stones of Blood”’s Little Sisters of St Gudula… when in fact it’s Mrs Trefusis who turns up; when the Doctor tells the cactus people “I’ve met someone like you before” we jumped to the conclusion it was a reference to Meglos when in fact we should have been looking for the season eighteen nod being to “The Leisure Hive”; while the Master’s plan is Skagra’s plan from the unfinished “Shada” – the Universe will be me! – crossed with “The Empty Child” – a hospital machine makes everyone the same.

The only thing that’s missing is a reason for these events to be important.

Look at “The Waters of Mars” – to pick only the most recent example. I could as easily reference “Planet of the Spiders” with its summary of the whole Third Doctor’s era and character wrapped up in Buddhist parable; or “Logopolis” with the fourth Doctor and the Master facing off against the ultimate reality of the universe, and the Doctor defeating entropy by becoming younger; or the very personal heroism of the fifth Doctor in “The Caves of Androzani” giving his life to save just one single human, who he has – Big Finish retconning aside – only recently met.

What “The Waters of Mars” has is a big emotional question threaded through the zombie chases and exploding space shuttles: what happens if the Doctor breaks the laws of time?

The End of Time doesn’t seem to be following that up, either in terms of plot or in emotional terms.

There’s no sense that events are unwinding because of the Doctor’s actions on Mars – although you could take the implication of going from Ood Sigma in the snow at the end of “The Waters of Mars” to Ood Sigma in the snow at the start of “The End of Time” to be that for the Ood just seconds pass but the Doctor has time for loads of adventures so the Doctor has broken the Laws of Time even more!

And having the Doctor emerge from the TARDIS in garland, hat and sunglasses and basically say “nahh, I didn’t think the end of “Waters of Mars” was actually that important to me” undermined the drama from the word “go”. The Doctor is cruel at the end of “The Waters of Mars” and then cowardly when he runs away. There should be consequences for that, and we thought that in Russell’s universe there would be. But there aren’t, and that’s a shame. Very much like the beginning of all Russell’s part twos – most egregiously at the start of The Sound of Drums – he wraps up any dangling threads instantly. Too much instant gratification!

What you could have done – and there’s almost a sense of this in their confrontation in the wasteland, buried in amongst the Sith lightnings and helicopter kidnap – is have the Doctor seeking out the Master to try and find out how to cope with breaking the Time Lords’ laws. But that’s not the sense of how events develop: the Doctor’s reaction to the Ood’s warning is to go running off (big coat a-flapping) and it certainly looks like he’s desperate to stop the Master’s resurrection, rather than eager to book a consultation.

(Maybe if the Doctor had been more wistful, or regretful in his insistence that “that man is dead”; an aside that “he could have helped me” perhaps…)

It means that we’re at risk – and we must remember that there’s another week to come – of this becoming something hollow: a huge spectacular that ultimately means nothing. We’re talking “Journey’s End” again. And that would be a real shame because Russell has demonstrated over and over that he can make much more of this series than that. Stories like “Boom Town”, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (though to be fair, Russell didn’t have much to do with that), “Human Nature” and “Last of the Time Lords” – yes, even “Last of the Time Lords” – have had something to say, something about the Doctor’s lifestyle, the choices he makes, his loneliness and need for a companion, a friend or a compatriot, even. And that’s the real legacy of David Tennant’s tenth Doctor that deserves to be celebrated and underlined in his swan song, his big finish (ahem).

Instead, we got a lot of the other Russell tropes: the not-so-good ones. Playing up the effect of events on character, without really considering the plot logic; turning up Murray Gold’s Greatest Hits to eleven (but without anything new and memorable in the score) to play on our emotions; a complete blindness to what that-thing-he-did-to-Donna actually means – the Doctor even gets a speech where he says “everything I am dies and some other feller strolls off in my body”; so what exactly was it you did to Donna, then, Doctor? – and a paranoia that people will forget that this is “Doctor Who” if you don’t throw in some gratuitous “hilarious” aliens.

Charming performances as they are, the green, spiky Vinvocci do deflate the escalating fear and horror of the Master in full Hannibal Lecter mode. And they’re just there as Mr and Mrs Basil Exposition, to avoid the Doctor simply telling us what the “Immortality Gate” does. And to answer a hanging plot thread that really isn’t hanging – the “so, tell us more about Bannakaffalatta, Mr Russell” thread. Toss in the mention of Torchwood and their alien treasure-trove, and we begin to see a pattern of linking things that don’t need to be linked, to make the whole 2005-2009 era “one big story”, when we should be concentrating on making this story connect.

So, we get the “comedy conkers” as the “ooh look, aliens” moment for this story. Without them, everyone looks human and somehow that’s not Doctor Who-ish enough for this team. (As if “Midnight” suffers with its entirely human cast!)

The same could be said of the skull-faced Master. I had begun to think, probably from too many trailers, that the Master and his electric skull might be rather overdone but, fortunately, the effect was actually about right. And, of course, it is reminiscent of the Master’s appearance in “The Deadly Assassin”, revealing the true Master under his disguise of skin.

But the Master really is more in the performance than the appearance, so it was marvellous to have the extraordinary John Simm back as the Mister Master: bleach-blond, down and out and eating tramps – as he himself puts it – and ever-cackling with maniacal, self-delighted mirth. And hurray: first time the villain gets their name in the opening title sequence.

Allegedly, Russell asked David who he wanted to kill him and David asked for John’s Master to come back. I say “allegedly” because the Master’s return was one of the most glaring of the dangling plot threads of the Russell Davies era. (And bear in mind that the show opened with a throwaway remark to tie off the question of Doctor Ten being Queen Elizabeth the First’s “mortal enemy”.)

Naughty, naughty Doctor Who Confidential. Russell tells us how he’d set up the Master’s ring for “the next person who wants to bring him back”, how he knew that “the hand” was a prison warden, how he knew the details of the Lord Voldemort ritual that would bring the Master back – I must confess, I liked the “Widow’s Kiss”: obviously a reference to the Doctor and Martha’s “genetic transfer” in “Smith and Jones”, but possibly also a nod to tenth Doctor comic strip “The Widow’s Curse” – but he never believed he would be the one to write that story… and then they cut to a clip of Lucy Saxon crying “can’t you see: he lied to you!”

The Master’s naked hunger for meat, flesh even, was a nice (or nasty) turn, again true to the underlying carnivorous greed of the man. And on Christmas Day, too, when everyone will be stuffed with too-big Christmas dinners, to have him tearing up whole turkeys (oh, and people) is a visceral demonstration of just what a sick puppy he’s become.

Not sure about the flying though. Certainly, it’s part of the ‘not just humans’ template, and points for it being a surprise, at least… Alex bets that someone’s given Master John a “Heroes” box set, though I think that with it’s abrupt take off and slamming landing it – and taken with the episode conclusion, of course – it’s much more lifted from “The Matrix”.

That apotheosis, the Master replacing everyone on Earth with copies of himself – and, Alex observes, the head-shaking body-snatching effect is straight out of the TV movie – is perfectly delicious, exactly the sort of narcissistic insanity that he would come up with on the spur of the moment. The concluding moments where everyone is John Simm, all wildly applauding their own cleverness and laughing like a barrel of monkeys is brilliant television. Not to mention all that dressing up in women’s clothes making him the ultimate Panto Dame. Of course, you know it’s going to be a total disaster for him; they can’t all be the supreme ruler of the universe, can they. To be honest, the Master was capable of starting a blood feud with himself even when there was only one of him – six billion of the loon should be, er, competitive doesn’t begin to describe it.

On the other hand, it does mean that all the other plot threads that seem to be being set up – villainous Naismith and his creepy daughter Abigail, for example – all suddenly go nowhere.

The very pace of the thing means that many of the guest cast are reduced to no more than cameos. That’s a bit of a waste of David Harewood, then, and though it’s lovely to see the Master’s wife again, what a pity she got blown to bits after only one scene. There is time for a lovely moment for Jacqueline King as Donna’s mum Sylvia: previously an unsympathetic character, here she is revealed as loving her daughter enough to let herself look silly in order to protect her from the Time Lord memories that might hurt her.

And a quick mention for the sublime Bernard Cribbins, and his cohorts in the “Silver Cloak”. Notice this week’s “gay agenda” anyone? Racy June Whitfield as Minnie is clearly taken with the handsome young Doctor… and so is Barry Howard as bus driver Oliver. Relying on the old people to sort everything out is rather Quatermas IV; subversion here means we’re meant to think they’re old people “from the war”… but they’re actually too young (as the Woman in White point out). Only the Doctor and the Master are veterans here.

The final shock reveal – yeah, like no one was expecting that, Russell – is the return of the Time Lords. Yes, Mr Dalton, “the Narrator”, turns out to be Time Lord Tim, after all.

Even this is subverted though. We expected the Time Lords to return, what we didn’t expect was for all this to be their Big Bad plan. But remember the first time we encountered the Doctor’s people: a story that at first seems to be all about Earth, and then the Big Bad behind it all seems to be a renegade Time Lord (and insert here an hour’s debate on whether the War Chief and the Master are the same person, if you like) and then the really badass people turn up, and they’re the Time Lords. And they kill the Doctor.

Alex once wrote that “the Time Lords are gits and always have been”, and that big pull back to reveal the Panopticon, reminiscent of the similar pull back reveal of the serried ranks of Daleks at the end of “Bad Wolf”, must surely be deliberate. Incidentally, the robes are, of course, magnificent. But they’re all scarlet, no Arcalian green or Patrexes heliotrope: did only the Prydonians survive, then?

Here, at least, there is follow up to “The Waters of Mars”: when Doctor declares himself the Time Lord Triumphant and we see that’s a bad thing… and now the Time Lords Triumphant turn up. Oooh dear.

Question, though: how exactly does anything that Master has done lead to the return of the Time Lords? Were they hiding inside his head? That would be a wry twist on Lance Parkin’s “The Gallifrey Chronicles” which finished with reveal that the Doctor’s amnesia was caused by him backing up the Matrix and hence the minds of every Time Lord who has ever lived, inside his own brain. I suppose it would make a change for someone other than Lawrence Miles to be left spluttering.

While we’re asking questions: who were those two figures standing at Tim’s shoulders, with their eyes covered with their hands. Were they weeping for the universe? Or were they prophets, like the Sybiline Sisterhood of “The Fires of Vulcan” (already referenced in the smoke that the Elder Ood was inhaling for his dream visions, I notice).

And who was that woman in white who was haunting Wilf?

Is she a “good” Time Lord, here to protect Earth from the rest of her kind? She’s credited as “the woman”, just as Timothy Dalton is “the Narrator” (and Tennant is “the Doctor” and Simm “the Master” for that matter).

Is she (if we’re referencing the TV movie) the half-human Doctor’s mother? And does that mean (paging Dr Freud) she’s the Master now?

Is she dressed in white because she’s the White Guardian?

(Just going back to my old thesis of Russell’s “plan” matching his seasons to icons of the series’ earlier Doctors: first season/first Doctor: the Daleks; second season/second Doctor: Cybermen; third season/third Doctor: the Master; fourth season/fourth Doctor: Sontarans and Davros; fifth season/fifth Doctor… er. The Guardians might be a logical “icon” to fill that tricky fifth gap.)

But, as Alex points out, her “you mustn’t tell the Doctor about me or he’ll die” remarks open the possibility that she is in fact a sinister force: keeping “our little secret” being long-standing code for “bad”, or just remember Adric’s block transfer ghost falsely warning Nyssa to keep secrets in “Castrovalva”. So is she good or evil?

Oh, and why wasn’t everyone in the end titles credited to John Simm?

Next Time: If ever there was a time to use “To… Be… Concluded” instead of “Continued”… Guess what: he dies! The End of Time, part two.

PS: Never mind Doctor Who; the Gruffalo was LOVELY!



Onlinefocus Team said...

A fair review, thanks for this....

I've got to say , I thought the "Doctor Who and the Goblet of Fire" resurection of the Master belonged in a fantasy film, not his programme.

And John Simm's improved abilities in the high jump were unexplained and silly.

Other than that, pretty good so far, though like many fans I'm in trepidation as to whether RTD has managed to come up with a decent conclusion.

I'm also worried that the arrival of the Time Lords presages a pretty massive reset switch.

And I don't know how River Song's meetings with the Doctor will fit into this chronology.

Anonymous said...

hi.. just dropping by here... have a nice day!

Unknown said...

I have to say I thought of Romana when I saw the women in white.
It would make sense as a 'good' timelord and one liable to be sympathetic to the Doctor.