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Doctor Who: The End of Time and the end of Tennant

Reposting my thoughts on the finale of David Tennant’s and Russell T. Davies’ tenure on Doctor Who, originally posted on the ExIsle BBS (SPOILERS AHEAD):

Part 1:

Um. Well. If RTD wanted to convince us to be grateful that his tenure on the show is ending, he’s succeeded. Because this has just confirmed what “The Waters of Mars” suggested: that he’s totally gone off the rails. This had some good character moments — the Doctor and the Master, the Doctor and Wilfrid — but for the most part it’s just a total mess.

The Ood: Hurry, Doctor! You must race in your time machine to try to stop something that happened thousands of years ago before it’s too late, because it’s happening right now!

Then we get a cult that’s resurrecting the Master, and Lucy’s totally shocked and horrified, except oh wait, it turns out she has her own countercult that’s been arranging counterplans, and boom!

Which turns the Master into… into the thing that made me say “What the hell?!” to the TV. A jabbering cannibal who turns into a walking x-ray and jumps like the Hulk?? Huh? How is that the Master? The Master is a suave, brilliant, ruthless manipulator. He conquers and destroys with his wits and technology, the dark reflection of the Doctor. This… man-eating electric Skeletor flea-man was just the worst idea in the history of the modern show, and yes, I’m talking about the same show that gave us the Absorbaloff and cute walking fat. It was stupid-looking, it was random and gratuitous, and it was a discredit to the character.

And what’s with all the heavy-handed Obama references? Why drag reality into something that’s always been so blissfully unconnected to it? Especially with such a simplistic bit of wish fulfillment as “one speech by the President will solve all the world’s economic problems.” That’s a shallow and inappropriate representation of a man who’s always stressed that only a great deal of hard work and cooperation will bring us out of the current crisis. And given how cavalierly RTD had a previous president of the US assassinated by the Master a couple of seasons ago, I’d just as soon he avoided dealing with the real POTUS. (Not to mention the questions raised about the chronology of events, since that fictional president would’ve had to be elected in 2008, given that the modern show’s “present day” has always been a year ahead of airing. Was Obama his running mate in this reality?) Also, though RTD seemed to intend it as a tribute to Obama judging from his interview comments, juxtaposing the Obama references to scenes of a powerful middle-aged black man with his own book about the future (Naismith) doing something that was probably evil seemed more like a veiled dig. So if he did mean it positively, it backfired. (Okay, Naismith turned out to mean well, more or less, but he didn’t convey that impression overall.)

Oh, and an invisible Claire Bloom turning up to tell Wilfrid that he’s at the center of coincidence because he keeps running into the Doctor? Didn’t we already go through this with Donna last season? Couldn’t it be that Wilf just keeps running into him because Donna was destined to?

And… turning everyone on Earth into the Master? What a silly plot. And like just about everything else about RTD’s Master, it’s out of character. Sure, he’s a pathological narcissist, but he wants to rule over others, to have people he can dominate and feel superior to. The one thing he could absolutely never sanction is a world full of his equals. A planet full of Masters wouldn’t be applauding each other and giving each other the thumbs-up; they’d be fighting for dominance and killing each other off within moments. (Not to mention, if it’s a genetic change, why do they all have their hair dyed the same as him?)

As for the final revelation, the return of the Time Lords, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’d be good to have the Time Lords back in the Whoniverse. And it would definitely make the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat era a fresh start, free from the defining baggage of the RTD era’s Doctor. But is that a good thing, to push such a huge reset button and pretty much reduce all the character’s angst and guilt over the past five years to a misunderstanding? Isn’t that a little too easy? Although we’ll have to see how it plays out next week, I guess.

All in all, a real disappointment. Though I guess in a way I’m glad that “The Waters of Mars” had already lowered my expectations.

Part 2:

Well, this was much better than Part 1. Less of the Master’s stupid skull-face and jumping around and eating people, no gratuitous and insultingly oversimplistic attempts to be topical by namedropping President Obama, and a lot more drama and emotion and poignancy and high stakes. Getting to see the Time Lords again — and learning why the Doctor destroyed them as well as the Daleks — was a great payoff to RTD’s five years. And I’m glad they didn’t hit the reset button; the Time Lords are still gone from the universe, and the Doctor still has to live with the knowledge of that and his part in it.

The Doctor’s interactions with the Master were terrific. The Master was so much better handled here than in Part 1, with more emphasis on his friend/enemy relationship with the Doctor. I loved the climax, the Master echoing the Doctor’s “Get out of the way.” Essentially, they spared each other. True, the Master was mainly motivated by revenge against the Time Lord President, but he could’ve let the Doctor get caught in the crossfire. Instead, he said “Get out of the way.” And that was a wonderful moment.

Overall, the use of the gun as a plot device was excellent. The Doctor’s adamant refusal to wield a gun under any circumstances, even to save Earth from the Master — and then as soon as he learns the Time Lords are coming back, he grabs it without hesitation. Which tells us in a very dramatic way just how high the stakes are. That’s really good writing.

And I love the climax. I love it that the Doctor survived saving the universe… but then gave his life to save one ordinary man. His friend. That’s terrific stuff. I’m reminded of what the io9 columnist said in rating the past regenerations, that her (?) favorite was “The Caves of Androzani,” largely because the stakes for the Doctor were so personal, more about saving a friend than saving the universe.

I did find it odd that the Doctor had so much time to wrap up loose ends before regenerating. But then I remembered — in “Planet of the Spiders,” the Third Doctor “died” from the same cause, radiation overdose, and he was lost in the time vortex for some time before the TARDIS found its way back to UNIT HQ. So I guess it’s consistent, aside from his insta-healing from his wounds happening at the start of the process. And I guess RTD had to say all his goodbyes as well, give closure to all his characters. I wish there’d been more of Sarah Jane, though. And I find it hard to believe Luke, the smartest human on Earth, would be so careless crossing the street.

The episode did have its flaws. For one thing, I still don’t buy that all those Masters would be willing to take orders from anyone, even another Master. But the main fault was how Donna’s returning memory was handled. If the Doctor had put this “defense mechanism” in her head to keep her from burning to death, why was he so adamant that she couldn’t be reminded even a little bit ever? The “defense mechanism” is a retcon and a copout.

It puzzled me that the Doctor addressed the Time Lord President as “Rassilon.” Rassilon was the founder of Time Lord society, and he died ages ago. Maybe this guy’s just named after him. Although the Time Lords resurrected the Master to fight in the Time War; maybe they resurrected Rassilon to lead them. And then he went totally bugnuts.

And I guessed that Claire Bloom, the woman in Wilf’s visions, would turn out to be one of the two abstaining Time Ladies with their faces covered. But we never got to find out who she was beyond that. But I have a suspicion or two. The moment when she showed her face to the Doctor was accompanied by the music cue that’s always been jokingly referred to as “Flavia’s Theme,” described by RTD as Chancellor Flavia (from one or two of the original series’ later Gallifrey episodes) singing out from the time vortex. So maybe that was Flavia? My other suspicion is that maybe it was the Doctor’s mother. Then again, it could’ve been Romana. Maybe it’s for the best that we get to keep speculating and form our own opinions.

One thing that struck me was just how insular this story was for something so epic. All the Time Lord stuff was so static, taking place with the Time Lords either sitting around a table and talking or just standing there in white light and talking to the Doctor and the Master. It would’ve been nice to have it be more expansive, or at least to have the Time Lords move around the room somewhat. Basically they just stood there so they’d remain conveniently clustered targets for the Master’s climactic attack. Which is contrived and made the preceding scenes too rigid and motionless.

So… the regeneration. I’m not keen on it happening when the Doctor’s alone. Maybe if he’d had someone with him at the critical moment, he would’ve been more at peace with it. I’m not sure I like him going out on such a regretful note. I’m not sure it’s right that this Doctor ended up so lonely at the end of his tenure despite the fact that he was more overtly and expressively loved by more people than any previous Doctor. But then, maybe that’s why he was so reluctant to end this incarnation. Still, he should’ve had someone with him. At the very least, so the new Doctor would have someone to play off of rather than talking to himself.

Having the regeneration trash the whole console room and send the TARDIS into a tailspin is a bit hard to justify; it’s never done that before. Naturally it’s being done to set up the changes in the TARDIS in the new season, the reworking of both the interior sets and the police-box exterior prop. But the show has never previously needed an excuse for a change in the TARDIS’s appearance, and this particular excuse is rather inexplicable.

As for the Eleventh Doctor, it’s too early to judge him, but he seems okay so far. Although I’m a bit uneasy with what I saw in the preview clip that’s been released.  SPOILERS:

He seems much more physically combative than past Doctors — punching a guy out, attempting to bludgeon a Dalek, even firing a gun. I’m not comfortable with that. Also, it seems they’re making “Geronimo!” his catchphrase, and I don’t particularly care for that, either the specific phrase or the notion that each Doctor needs his own distinctive catchphrase. I just thought of “Fantastic” and “Allons-y” as individual quirks of the past two Doctors, but now it seems they’re consciously trying to give Eleven a catchphrase from the word go, and that feels contrived.

Pity he’s still not ginger, though. Maybe next time.

_______

So… what am I hoping to see from Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who?

  • More travels in space and time, fewer stories on present-day Earth.
  • Fewer massive alien invasions of present-day Earth.
  • No more newscaster montages.
  • A bit less melodrama. I approve of the deeper character writing of RTD’s series, but it doesn’t have to be so over-the-top.
  • More vintage aliens, especially Ice Warriors.
  • More new menaces worth bringing back on a recurring basis without being goofy. No more Slitheen, please, please.
  • More old-series companions, especially Zoe, Jo, or Benton.
  • Maybe a larger entourage of companions, so we can have developing character arcs without needing to hang around present-day London all the time.
  • More companions who aren’t from present-day Earth.
  • A “Four Doctors” special with McGann, Eccleston, and Tennant joining Smith.
  • Fewer characters named Smith and/or Jones. Sarah Jane being the exception.
  • Season finales that don’t involve destroying the universe.
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  1. January 17, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Having the regeneration trash the whole console room and send the TARDIS into a tailspin is a bit hard to justify; it’s never done that before.

    I rationalized the explosive regeneration by positing that the radiation the Doctor had absorbed had to be released (as in “Smith & Jones”) for the regeneration proper to begin.

    Pity he’s still not ginger, though. Maybe next time.

    Just means he’s not been Merlin yet. (See Battlefield; the Merlin Doctor, in the Doctor’s own future, is a ginger.)

    No more newscaster montages.

    No! We need Trinity Wells! 🙂

    Season finales that don’t involve destroying the universe.

    Agreed.

    • January 17, 2010 at 8:56 am

      So why didn’t the radiation release trash the TARDIS in “Planet of the Spiders?” Okay, maybe it did, since after that we didn’t see the console room for at least a season; but the TARDIS seemed pretty intact on the outside when the Third Doctor finally returned to UNIT HQ.

      And yeah, I knew about the “Battlefield” reference, though I’m not sure whether that was in the episode or just the novelization. I always figure that’s why the Doctor’s so concerned about whether he’s ginger — because he’s wondering “Is this the one where I get to be Merlin?”

  2. January 17, 2010 at 9:33 am

    The Battlefield reference was just in the novelization, not the episode. I realize that in “The Christmas Invasion,” the “I’m not ginger” line was an in-joke at Billie Piper’s expense, but I could see Moffat making a reference to a twenty-year-old novelization just because he can. 🙂

    You raise a good point about “Planet of the Spiders,” and I don’t have an answer for that. For that matter, if the Doctor still carried around that radiation, then running around and visiting Luke, Jack, and Rose was pretty stupid because he’d have dosed everyone around him. But clearly something was different this time, because the last couple of regenerations — the Doctor in “Parting of the Ways,” the Master in “Utopia,” the Doctor in “The Stolen Earth” — all happened in the TARDIS and it didn’t cause the windows to blow out or the console room to catch on fire. The radiation is the obvious explanation. *shrug*

    • January 17, 2010 at 11:19 am

      Well, the obvious explanation is that RTD and Moffat wanted an excuse to trash the TARDIS so it could be remodeled for the new season. 😉 Beyond that, it’s just a matter of finding a justification, and Doctor Who is a show that’s never really needed solid justifications for things anyway.

      My personal justification is that the TARDIS was weakened by the temporal turbulence of Gallifrey’s emergence, and the regeneration energy was just the final straw that overwhelmed a vessel on the verge of breakdown anyway.

      • Eli Berg-Maas
        April 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm

        I’ve been assuming that the violence of the regeneration is the result of the doctors advancing age, this being his tenth regeneration. The 9-10 move wasn’t particularly violent, but it had it’s own complications suggesting that the process was not as clean as seen with earlier doctors. This would also give explanation to the limit on number of regenerations and possible add wiggle room for when the doctor passes it (I don’t actually know the source or description of the regeneration cap so this may utterly contradict it). It also dovetails nicely with the Pandorica being designed to keep it’s prisoners alive eternally, as a late stage regeneration might well release enough energy to facilitate sabotage and escape. On the other hand he has lots of time before he regenerates, so who knows. But then of course you haven’t seen that bit yet, since it’s still 2010.

        Also my understanding of the Obama references was that it was intended as scathing parody of RTD’s perceived focus by the British people on the idea that Obama’s election was going to set everything right for American and it’s relations with the rest of the world. I didn’t get this while watching either, and I’ve been under the impression it was lost on most of the audience outside Britain, and possibly not that well received there.

  3. April 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    “(I don’t actually know the source or description of the regeneration cap so this may utterly contradict it)”

    It was established in “The Deadly Assassin” by Robert Holmes in 1976. That established that the Master had “come to the end of his regeneration cycle.” The pivotal line was, “After the twelfth regeneration, there is no plan that will postpone death.” No more detail was given than that.

    Hmm… going through that list of things I hoped to see in Moffat’s WHO, it looks like I’ve gotten at most 7 out of 12 so far. There’s still plenty of melodrama; there have been no old-school companions except over on the spinoff; no companions not from present-day Earth yet; no “Four Doctors” special yet; and the universe is still being destroyed once a season like clockwork.

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