At some point the Season Four finale of Doctor Who, “Journey’s End,” will stand on its own, but many involved in the zeitgeist of the series currently recall the week building up to its transmission on BBC1. The close of “The Stolen Earth” saw several cliffhangers, but none more powerful and mysterious than David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor regenerating. What the hell was going on? As Steven Cooper wrote to me in an e-mail: “... you have to admire RTD’s skill in engineering the biggest Doctor Who cliffhanger ever seen, that generated an absolute avalanche of publicity in the UK. No matter how many times rationality insisted that David Tennant had already been seen filming the Christmas special and that there was just no way a new Doctor could be kept secret, for that whole week little paranoid doubts kept creeping in.” There’s no better way to put it. Was a new Doctor mere moments away?
Yes, for anyone who was right there on top of it for that week, it was a maddening seven days. I was reasonably sure that Tennant wasn’t exiting the TARDIS for good, mainly because logic dictated that a Dalek blast to the side would have been a ridiculously undignified and anticlimactic exit for him—but if he wasn’t, what the hell was going on? The Doctor’s regenerating, for fuck’s sake! This has to go somewhere. The Internet exploded with theories vast and wide. My personal fanboy wish involved the temporary return of Doctor #8, Paul McGann ... but silly me—I failed to heed my own theory on Who cliffhangers, which I wrote right here at the House earlier this season. So yeah, I gotta give Davies credit for creating drama that made me forget my own philosophy. If you were caught up in that seven day tour of madness, the first minute of “Journey’s End” might have had you screaming out loud—maybe out of anger, maybe out of joy—but probably out of both. Nobody really wanted to see David Tennant leave, but we did want something more than a quick fix resolution. I knew the Doctor’s severed hand would play into this “regeneration” (given that it bubbled away over and over in “The Stolen Earth”), but it never occurred to me that it would be such a ludicrously simple fix. This intro/resolution could be nitpicked to death. For instance, wouldn’t the Doctor be wise in the future to lob off a hand within the first 24 hours of each regeneration? Clearly severed Time Lord body parts come in handy. Davies has rewritten the Time Lord rules, and in all fairness he’s entitled to do so. Part of the show’s survival has always been tied to its morphing mythology. This is just another layer.
Once the regeneration is taken care of, so are the cliffhangers involving Sarah Jane and Torchwood, and each just as quickly as you’d expect. Torchwood (i.e. Gwen and Ianto) are essentially removed from the storyline until the end; Sarah Jane is saved by (surprise!) Mickey (Noel Clarke) and Jackie (Camille Coduri), who just swing in from the other universe. The developments of the first five or so minutes of “Journey’s End” choreograph what the entire episode is largely about: 1) Character and 2) Dramatic resolution that’s an extension of #1. The episode, despite its 60-plus minute running time, is not terribly concerned with plot, and having viewed the episode several times, I think it’s exactly as it should be, given the setup in “The Stolen Earth.” As soon as Torchwood, Sarah Jane, Rose and Martha became players in this season finale, the only road to travel down was character-driven. And why not?
After overseeing four seasons of Who, two seasons of Torchwood and one season of The Sarah Jane Adventures—after building a dramatic empire of the likes that’s never before been seen on the various BBCs, isn’t Russell T Davies entitled to be more than a little self-indulgent for his finale of the series that started it all? (OK, it’s not quite his swan song—more on that later—but it’s his last full season of Doctor Who.) He hasn’t created an ongoing sturdy arc as much as he’s built this wonderful universe of characters and ideas. And so he chose to throw a party with all those characters, and throw down even more “out there” ideas. The last two episodes of Season Four are Davies’ version of “The Five Doctors.” They’re his celebration of all the work he’s put into regenerating the Doctor Who universe, which he’s been immensely successful at doing. He didn’t start from scratch. He didn’t ignore the previous 26 seasons. He built on the mythology that came before—a ballsy fucking move—and had a field day doing it. I’ve had my fair share of criticisms of Davies’ tenure, but they are minor in the grand scheme. The guy envisioned and executed what nobody before him was able to do, and if Doctor Who runs for another fifteen or twenty years, it’s because of the groundwork he laid. If you’re an old school fan who still hasn’t grooved with the new series, then seriously, why are you still watching? If you feel it isn’t like “old Doctor Who,” then I got news for you: It’s unlikely to ever be (and who knows what weirdness Steven Moffat’s going to unleash?). It reflects a vision of the present and future, not 1977. When Trek revamped in ’86, the Captain didn’t fuck aliens and when Ron Moore revamped Galactica, Starbuck was Katee Sackhoff. I love where Doctor Who is now and its future has never been brighter.
But back to “Journey’s End.” The episode is full of all sorts of silly MacGuffins that substitute for the missing plot—the Osterhagen Key, the Warp Star, that gun the “other” Tenth Doctor cobbles together, and my fan-fucking favorite of them all, The Reality Bomb, to which I literally yelled at my TV, “Not The Reality Bomb!!!” Hey, if you’ve got a bomb that can destroy all of reality, it’d be stupid to call it anything else, especially if you’re as self-centered and pompous as Davros. All these trinkets are disposed of with swift efficiency to serve the dramatic potential of the characters. They don’t really mean anything other than “the ultimate threat(s).” It’s the people behind those threats that matter, and that’s what the episode’s about.
Take Davros and his silly Reality Bomb for instance. It’s possible that for some viewers his bomb is goofy as all hell. (Well it is for me too, but bear with…) Allow me to quote from Genesis ... ummm, “Genesis of the Daleks,” that is:
The Doctor: “Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory—something contagious and infectious that killed on contact—a virus that would destroy all other forms of life, would you allow its use?”
Davros: “It is an interesting conjecture.”
The Doctor: “Would you do it?”
Davros: “The only living thing ... a microscopic organism ... reigning supreme. A fascinating idea!”
The Doctor: “But would you do it?”
Davros: “Yes ... yes ... to hold in my hand a capsule that contained such power. To know that life and death on such a scale was my choice. To know that the tiny pressure of my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end ... everything. Yes! I would do it! That power would set me above the gods! And through the Daleks I shall have that power!”
That’s how fucking mad Davros is, and the Reality Bomb is merely Davies taking that virus from 1975 to its ultimate dramatic conclusion ... and I love him for it. It’s all about being true to Davros’ character. There’s no need to revamp or reimagine a guy who’s already the ideal madman; Davros hasn’t changed a bit in 33 years. He’s the ultimate villain. The Master, the Cybermen, and the Daleks themselves pale in comparison to his utter disregard for existence. Look at the guy—can you blame him?
With all the trumpeting of the return of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper)—admittedly, much of it from me—it was refreshing that her relationship with the Doctor was actually never allowed to dominate the finale. This was, after all, Donna’s season. We were given just enough Rose to make it right, but it never really became heavy-handed ... until perhaps her last scene, which I understand didn’t work for some viewers. For me, however, the return to Bad Wolf Bay was an ideal sendoff, as was the concept of the second, part human Tenth Doctor, who stays with her in the other universe so they can fall in love, grow old and die together. What ended on a bittersweet note can easily be envisioned to turn into something ideal for both characters. It also makes for a perfect setup for David Tennant, who can now theoretically return to the series at some point even after the Tenth Doctor regenerates, and even any aging that might occur has been accounted for. I’d love to see the show return to both characters someday and show them as an “old married couple.” Since this Doctor doesn’t have a TARDIS, his life’s going to be fairly unexciting compared to the memories he’s got floating around inside his head, but now he can finally have the one adventure he before could only dream of. If there’s one misstep made here, it was the playing of this splinter Doctor as somehow being inferior to the real deal, but I suspect in a very short amount of time Rose will come to see that the magic of the Doctor works in mysterious ways.
The presence of Captain Jack (John Barrowman), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) are great fun, even if at times they aren’t given a whole lot to do. Of course, with a cast this big, this was always going to be a problem. Jack gets to get killed and resurrect once again, which is frankly underwhelming because we’re so used to it at this point. Gwen and Ianto are effectively removed from nearly the entire episode, which was probably a good thing as the story was crowded already. There’s that lovely little moment when the Doctor and Rose see Gwen (Eve Myles) for the first time, do a double take and make the familial connection to Gwyneth from “The Unquiet Dead.” Martha’s trip to Germany is a strange diversion, and aside from the German-speaking Daleks (which are a novelty at best), I’m not entirely sure it works on the whole, especially the stuff with the woman who sticks out like an unattractive throbbing member in a sea of pretty titties. (Speaking of, it’s a shame that we still haven’t seen the return of Martha’s beau, Thomas Milligan, from last season.) It seems all but obvious that Martha and Mickey are being set up to join Torchwood, which makes perfect sense since the team recently lost their doctor and computer expert. From a geek standpoint, the scene where Davros recognizes Sarah Jane’s voice (another nice nod to “Genesis”) is fan-friggin’-tastic. I think I may even have wet myself in that moment. And just when you think the show can’t pull any more surprises, K-9 shows up once again—though whether or not that even counts as a surprise is debatable. At the end, Sarah’s line about the Doctor having the biggest family on Earth is especially touching and it’s made even moreso because she doesn’t see how it’s in the midst of unraveling for him in those very moments.
Donna’s experiences with the Doctor have been unique, and it’s probable she changed through him more than any other companion before her. If not emotionally, then certainly literally in “Journey’s End.” I’ve no idea what exactly a “Human-Time Lord meta-crisis” is, but it sounds vaguely convincing, and enough so that we buy into it here without it ever getting too obtuse. Like Rose absorbing the time vortex in “The Parting of the Ways,” Donna absorbs a part of the Doctor’s mental self and it becomes too much for her to handle. With death imminent, the Doctor has no choice but to pull out his Spock wares and cure what ails her, but in the process she must revert back to a Donna who never encountered the Doctor. It’s a crushing development, marred only by Dalek Caan’s ongoing goofy prediction about a companion dying. A similar card was played in Season Two, and it just shouldn’t have been played twice. That said, Catherine Tate is just fabulous in this episode, running the gamut of emotions and styles, and in the final moments she’s back to being exactly the same vacuous Donna first seen in “The Runaway Bride.” I’m sure that nothing quite this cruel has ever been done to a companion on Doctor Who, and the development gives the episode a much-needed dose of gravitas.
In a story with many heroes and villains, Dalek Caan stands at the top of the heap as a little bit of both. The portrayal of the character is so weirdly over the top you can’t help but enjoy every moment he’s onscreen. But the conundrum of what was done with his character is more than a little bizarre. He flew back into the Time War, saved Davros’ life, and Davros in turn created a whole new race of Daleks that Caan foresaw the eventual end of—and didn’t bother to warn anyone about it. I suppose the only way to rationalize any of it is to simply rely on his being utterly whacked in the cranium. Another story highlight is the piloting of the TARDIS by the Doctor and his many companions by using all six sides of the console to literally drag Earth back to its proper place in space. It’s not at all believable, but then again, this is a show about a dimensionally transcendental time and space machine and its 900-year-old alien owner who can grow new bodies out of severed hands. Sure, I’ll go ahead and buy that the TARDIS could drag an entire planet across the galaxy. The thing with this episode is that you simply don’t want to look at the mechanics of it too closely or it will surely fall apart. But as I said, it’s all about character, not plot; if I’m wrong in that assertion, then the episode is a disaster. It’s not as good as “The Parting of the Ways” or “Last of the Time Lords,” but it’s considerably better than “Doomsday.” From a strict entertainment standpoint, however, it might be the best of all four. There’s certainly never a dull moment.
On the whole, Season Four was probably not quite as inventive as I’d hoped for. In fact, aside from most everything about the character of Donna Noble, the season often times played a little too safely for my liking, but perhaps after the darkness of Season Three, the show needed some sunshine, and aside from the double whammy of “Midnight” and “Turn Left,” it was mostly sunny fare. More than anything else, what Season Four proved is that Russell T Davies has done about all he can do with Doctor Who and that it’s time for a new creative lead for the series. That’s how it always worked in the past, and typically producers stayed on average about four seasons (give or take a season), until John Nathan-Turner, who was the textbook example of what happens when a showrunner stays too long on this program. Of course Davies isn’t quite yet done with Doctor Who. He’ll be overseeing five 60-minute specials over the next year and half before Season Five begins in 2010. As I understand it, two of the specials will be broadcast at Christmas 2008 and 2009, one will debut at Easter of 2009, and the dates of the other two are unknown. Davies will be writing three of them solo, and co-writing the other two with Gareth Roberts and Phil Ford. It will be interesting to see what exactly Davis unveils over the course of those five hours, and while “Journey’s End” was the big finish for his final season, I’m relatively sure that that fifth special (presumably the one at Christmas 2009) is going to be huge.
Of course the biggest question Sci-Fi viewers may have is, “When are we going to get to see them?” It’s a good question, too. I implore you Sci-Fi—don’t wait until they’re all broadcast and then run them as some kind of mini season, or even worse, wait until Season Five is ready to go and run them as a prelude to that season. Instead, run them right after they’re broadcast in the U.K. Treat them as the specials they are—as events. Promote them as movies—they’ll fit into 90-minute slots. You can’t afford to have Doctor Who off the air for nearly two years, as you’ll lose a lot of the audience you’ve built up, and from what I’ve read, you were very happy with the ratings for “Journey’s End.” Don’t lose the momentum. Keep up with the show and don’t encourage fans to seek out the episodes through alternate means. It would be so nice to see a Doctor Who Christmas special play on Sci-Fi when it’s still cold outside, there’s snow on the ground, and the tree is still up in the living room.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Three new R1 DVDs hit the streets today: “The Five Doctors” (Special Edition), “The Time Meddler,” and the superb “Black Orchid.” Choose your poison!