Review – Doctor Who: The End of Time, The End of Tennant

The End of Time, The End of Tennant

January 2nd, 2010

Watching Doctor Who: The End of Time, for me personally, is a bit of a strange exercise for two reason (one exclusive to me, the other general).

First, I don’t watch the show on a regular basis, so while watching a few of the recent specials (Specifically the quite enjoyable “The Next Doctor” and the thrilling “The Waters of Mars”) has given me some sense of what’s going on – the Doctor (David Tennant) without a companion on a self-destructive journey to confront his impending death (I think?) – I’m still left out of the loop in terms of both the show’s larger mythology and the intricacies of Tennant’s run on the series.

However, even considering my ignorance to the broader mythology at play, the two-part event (which airs in its entirety tonight at 8pm on SPACE in Canada, with the second part (Part One aired in Boxing Day) airing on BBC America) is unique in its clear purpose: the death of the Doctor, and the departure of David Tennant from the series to make way for newcomer Matt Smith. And while you could argue that Law & Order or CSI, with their revolving door casting policy, offer something similar (in terms of transitioning from one actor to another), Doctor Who is unique in the fact that Smith will effectively be playing a new character…except that he won’t.

The single greatest accomplishment of The End of Time, which is at times a mixed bag in terms of its effectiveness, is that despite my lack of knowledge of the show’s history, and despite the lack of suspense surrounding an inevitable conclusion that has been known for over a year, I was emotionally affected by Russell T. Davies saying goodbye to the Doctor, and the Doctor saying goodbye to the people he cares about. Built on a foundation of David Tennant’s fantastic performance, the movie overcomes a bit of a muddled first part (which is tied up in a lot of exposition) in order to deliver a conclusion which demonstrates the combination of whimsy and pathos that has made the show, with its low budget special effects and its quirky sense of humour, so enduring.

And it feels like just the right kind of note on which to head into the reign of the new Doctor, which based on what I’ve seen in these specials is something that I might be willing to spend some time with in the years to come.

[Spoilers for both parts of the Miniseries after the break, where we’ll discuss the special in more detail]

It’s interesting that Canada’s SPACE network is choosing to air the two parts back-to-back (likely because Boxing Day is considered more of a holiday in Canada, and thus perhaps a more dangerous evening on which to air anything new), because I don’t really know how that will work. On the one hand, the two parts go together well, in that Part One focuses primarily on setup which is then paid of in Part Two. However, part of Davies’ intent with the two-part structure is creating that cliffhanger, forcing the audience to spend six days wondering what impact this new Master Race is going to have, and what it means for Timothy Dalton and the Time Lords to be returning. Davies loves his cliffhangers (which is why he fit in so well with the 24-esque cliffhanger structure of Torchwood: Children of Earth), so for that to be taken away is going to change the DNA of the special.

Or, perhaps its not: while the plot cliffhanger might have been what defined Part One (which was perhaps its greatest problem, feeling too tied up in plot setup rather than character), the special as a whole will always be David Tennant’s Doctor, a character reaching their end in a less than graceful (if plenty entertaining) fashion. The best moments in the special are only tangentially related to the plot, and are simply small moments of the Doctor contemplating his fate – the coffee shop scene with Wilf in Part One is just a wonderfully subtle bit of acting, and by the time his fate is actually decided and he takes a whirlwind trip through some of the more important moments of his past (considering that everyone in question knew who he was, I at least presume that these are people of import – I only recognized Harkness and Billie Piper) you start to see how much the show depends on Tennant to sell the fact that this isn’t a traditional procedural. While most weeks may be standalone episodes in terms of their plots, the Doctor is someone who has memories, connections, and in his final moment Tennant sells a man who knows his time is up (having taken a bullet for the human race, effectively) but who can’t help wanting more time, who sounds almost pathetic (in the most honourable way) hoping that something could change – he is not ready to die.

And despite the fact that I’m not a regular viewer, I didn’t want him to die either: Tennant tore the house down here, and the special was no question at its finest when it allowed Tennant to have those scenes of self-reflection (whether trying to reason with the Master, who after being a bit over the top in the first part became quite grounded in the second with some great moments from John Simm, or discussing his stance on guns with Wilf) that downplayed chaos in favour of something starkly human (which, considering he’s not human, makes sense). Limited to only 2+ hours, the special doesn’t have enough time to sell the threat the Time Lords represent (although Timothy Dalton sells it well), but it does have enough time to demonstrate how far the Doctor has come, and how in his final moments he confronts his past in a way which is both clever (buying a – we presume winning – lottery ticket for Donna) and meaningful (visiting Rose before they first met). And that I bought all of it without clearly understanding the history is a testament to Tennant above all else – the writing might have been fan service, which is to be expected and perhaps even encouraged, but Tennant gave the Doctor’s plight a universality that was really impressive for a non-viewer.

As far as the special overall, I thought that it worked best (outside of Tennant) in Part Two when it turned into a rollercoaster ride of sorts. While the setup was important to sell Part Two, the special was more engaging when it had spaceships and extended Star Wars homages (the laser cannons on the salvage ship), which makes me sound really shallow but so be it. But without Tennant, I don’t know if much of the special would have worked, as the special’s climax hinged on his performance selling flying the salvage ship, and selling standing with the Time Lords and the Master at gunpoint. When the action ties in so well to the character, or is fun enough to not have to worry about that, the slightly less than perfect special effects don’t matter, and the show is really quite effective.

So now we have to wonder what precisely will define the Matt Smith era – the relative youngster (he’s 27) offers a blank slate for the series, and what we see of him at the end of the special indicates that he is capable of capturing the mannerisms that sell the Doctor’s eccentricity. The question becomes, at least for me, whether he’ll be powerful enough at the end to convince someone who’s only seen bits and pieces of the series and who knows very little of the mythology that this was a journey worth taking all over again (at least in bits and pieces, when I find the time, which could be a while).

He certainly has a lot to live up to (which is ridiculous for me to say, and probably represents an internalization of consensus, but consider me a quick study).

Cultural Observations

  • So, as far as I could tell, Donna went through some sort of horrible accident that led to the Doctor wiping her memory clean (albeit with some added safety features should she ever remember), and I read that Rose is in some sort of parallel universe? I still don’t really get it, but I guess I can deal with that.
  • What’s so convenient about Doctor Who is that they get a chance to be able to reboot like this, and more importantly that even after “introducing” the 11th Doctor here they still have a companion to introduce that will offer the first episode of the next series to feel like an entry point.
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5 Comments

Filed under Doctor Who

5 responses to “Review – Doctor Who: The End of Time, The End of Tennant

  1. Thomas

    I think part of the reason this episode’s scale works so well despite it almost feeling ridiculously unbelievably over the top is simply because Doctor Who is just such a phenomenon. Now, you’ve not seen much of the show before, you admit yourself, but you can’t help but feel this vast sense of history when watching this show, I think. The Doctor has been here since the dawn of television, basically. A lot of people just have ‘their’ Doctor, who they grew up with and be fond of forever. The show manages to play off that sense of grand history for itself quite well, and even the slightest nod to episodes past, even though not necessarily meaning anything to you personally, makes you feel like you’re part of the ‘cult’ of Who.

    I hope that makes some sort of sense, because in my head, at least, it does. It feels like an important point to get across: Doctor Who is one of those few shows that can be ‘big event TV’ whenever it wants to be.

  2. First up, a minor correction. It’s John Simm as the Master. 🙂

    As for the special as a whole, the emotional scenes were great – the ending was a little overlong – and the sci-fi/action stuff was silly.

    Frankly I’m glad RTD won’t be writing Doctor Who anymore – he’s a character writer, not an action/sci-fi writer and no-one at the BBC seemed to be willing to let him know about this. I’m glad that the reins have been handed over to Stephen Mofatt, I just wish Tennant had gotten the chance to work under Mofatt – as he’s consistently written the best episodes of Doctor Who so far.

    Either way, it was a lot better than I feared it was going to be in the end.

  3. Spotless Mind

    You should definitely check out the prior seasons Memles, or at least watch all of the Stephen Moffat written ones, as well as the Impossible Planet and Human Nature 2-parters. These specials (other than the fantastic Waters of Mars) really weren’t a good representation of what makes Doctor Who great, aside from a few well written character moments and Tennant’s amazing performance.

    I think you would be far less lenient of all the lazy and generally awful writing, courtesy of Russel T Davies, if you had experienced his nonsensical garbage for the last 4 years. 😛

    I’m thankful RTD’s run is finally over. Moffat knows how to ground his stories without going overboard. His sensibilities and style suit this show far more than Russel and his overbearing silliness.

  4. jonathanjk

    A reason for the extremely long regeneration from our POV could be because it was a slow death from radiation poisoning?

    From the Doctor’s POV of view, all that time travelling could have been done inside an hour. So we can pick both.

    From Wilfred’s POV, it was at the most 4 months since he last saw the Doctor and thought nothing about him dying since he commented on the fact that he ‘pulled’ through.

    For me, I think it would have been better if the Doctor regenerated as Wilfred was hugging him, and that ‘tour’ the 10th doctor went through, could have been done by Matt Smith instead, turning a goodbye into a hello. It was only last season when the Doctor said goodbye to all his companions anyway.

    None of this ‘touring’ with the 11th Doctor would suggest they were going into the new series, just the acknowledgement of his passing into a new body while keeping it open. I just have a problem with Davis having to tie everything up. Either way, I hate closures, especially ones I watched that night.

    Since the new TARDIS is to debut in the next series, I’m sure some plot device could have been arranged so that the TARDIS could plummet back into the Earth so it could be repaired.

  5. Tausif Khan

    Myles,

    Are you considering doing something like Alan Sepinwall is doing for The Wire, revisiting old seasons of Dr. Who in the summer?

    Otherwise I highly recommend: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who

    It is the most comprehensive wikipedia portal I have ever seen. Helps with the questions about mythos.

    The other people Tennant visited were important. He visited Martha Jones (former companion) and Mickey (former boyfriend of Rose during the Eckelston years and then reprised the role later as a well as a doppleganger) battling a Sontaran. He saves Sarah Jane’s (Sarah Jane garnered her own spin off from the previous incarnation before Davies) son from being hit by a car. The person Tennant sets up Captain Jack with is Alonzo from the episode “Voyage of the Damned.” It is basically a retrospective on Tennant’s run. However, I wasn’t particularly touched by this because a similar much more powerful reunion of sort took place in the episode “Journeys End.”

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