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Doctor Who Specials Recap “The End of Time, Part One”

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Doctor Who Specials Recap: “The End of Time, Part One”

BBC

With “The End of Time,” the Doctor Who careers of two giants of the show—star David Tennant and head writer and executive producer Russell T Davies—reach their conclusion. With only Part One so far broadcast, we are not even halfway through the story—the second episode is significantly longer—so this can only be a preliminary assessment. But already it looks to be the most ambitious story Doctor Who has ever told.

As ever with a Davies season finale (I know there hasn’t been an actual season this year, but the principle’s the same), this isn’t the place to look if you want a small-scale, tight-knit, self-contained story. Davies can do that when he wants to (see “Midnight”), but here he’s looking to pick up threads going all the way back to the beginning of the revived series in 2005 and create an epic. Along the way, there’s a certain amount of expediency evident in the plotting. There’s some bad comedy. There are irrelevant celebrity cameos. But there’s also heartfelt character work, some great performances, and a cliffhanger which turns everything seen so far on its head and left me avid to see what happens next.

We start unusually, with an unseen Narrator, whose wonderful deep, sonorous voice is provided by Timothy Dalton: “It is said that in the final days of planet Earth, everyone had bad dreams.” Everyone on Earth is having dreams of the laughing face of the Master (John Simm), premonitions of the events to come. But only one person remembers these dreams—our old friend Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins).

Wilf, out doing his Christmas shopping, finds himself drawn to a church where he notices a stained glass window with a small but recognizable blue box in one corner. A strange woman in white (Claire Bloom) tells him a tale of a demon from the sky, striking a convent on this site in the 1300s, which was overcome by a “Sainted Physician” in a blue box. The woman suddenly vanishes when Wilf’s back is turned. As yet, nothing further has come of this, but bear it in mind for next week…

The Doctor arrives on the planet of the Ood in a carefree mood. He’s been in no hurry to obey the summons he received at the end of “The Waters of Mars,” instead taking time off to do some vacationing—including a brief marriage to Queen Elizabeth I which apparently didn’t turn out well (humorously tying up a loose end left dangling at the end of “The Shakespeare Code”). But it turns out he would have done better not to delay. The Ood are also having bad dreams, of something returning “through the darkness” to their world. They show him visions of the Master (“That man is dead!”), Wilf, an unknown man—Joshua Naismith—who we’ll meet later, and finally an imprisoned Lucy Saxon (Alexandra Moen). This leads into clips from “The Sound of Drums” and “Last of the Time Lords,” reminding us how the Master became Prime Minister, unleashed an invasion upon the world, was shot by his wife Lucy, and died, with his body being burned on a funeral pyre.

An explicit recap of these events from two years ago is very necessary, since this part of the story is a direct sequel to them. Lucy Saxon is taken from her prison cell to a secret ceremony being conducted by a hitherto unknown Cult of Saxon, evidently set up by the Master back then as a contingency plan. One of the cult is revealed to be the woman who picked up the Master’s ring from out of his ashes at the end of “Last of the Time Lords.” With that, and various other ingredients (including a “biometrical signature” from Lucy), the Master is resurrected in a very Harry Potter-ish sequence. I wasn’t particularly happy with this use of what is basically a magic spell in Doctor Who; those of us who prefer the show to have at least a veneer of science fiction have to fall back on Clarke’s Third Law here, and assume that this is super-advanced Time Lord know-how which just looks like wizardry to us. (On the other hand, it’s an improvement on the 1980s treatment of the Master, when the series stopped bothering to even attempt explanations for his repeated escapes from certain death.)

Back in Series Three, Alexandra Moen made quite an impression as Lucy Saxon despite having only a handful of lines, and she makes the most of her brief appearance here too. It turns out Lucy has been plotting in secret herself, and she manages to disrupt the resurrection at the cost of her own life. A huge explosion destroys the prison, but the Master escapes just ahead of the Doctor’s arrival.

In an industrial wasteland, the Master reappears as a feral figure with bleached white hair, in scruffy jeans and a hooded top. We find out the botched resurrection has left his body “ripped open,” his life force thrown around with abandon. This unleashed energy gives him the ability to fire lightning from his hands and make Superman-like leaps into the air. But at a cost—he keeps momentarily fading away to just a skeleton, and he is now a creature of unending, voracious hunger able to vampirically drain the life force of others. He scoffs a burger (and later, rips apart a turkey and wolfs it down) in a manner guaranteed to put anyone off their Christmas dinner.

John Simm’s performance in this episode is amazing. In the hands of a less skilled actor, such an over-the-top character would have degenerated into mere scenery chewing, but the sheer visceral intensity Simm brings to every moment he’s on screen means you can’t take your eyes off him. The way a speech will start out normally but turn into long strings of obsessed, gabbled syllables (“Can’t hide anywhere. He can see me. He can smell me. Can’t let him smell me. Doctor Doctor Doctor Doctor Doctor stop the smell, the stink, the filthy filthy stink”) shows a man barely holding together, liable to fly apart at any moment. For once the Master has no plan, no scheme—he has been stripped down to his core essence, an implacable will to survive at any cost.

The Doctor senses him as he arrives at the wasteland, and the Master responds by beating out the four-drumbeat tattoo that we discovered in “The Sound of Drums” has obsessed him for his entire life and driven him insane. However, the Master gets away when the Doctor’s chase is interrupted as he is found by Wilf and a gang of his pensioner friends, including a cameo from June Whitfield (Absolutely Fabulous) as Minnie “the Menace.” This bit of broad comedy rather outstays its welcome, as Minnie looks the Doctor over approvingly, poses for a photo with him, etc. Still, it’s easy to guess Tennant will get lots of invitations to re-enact this scene at the next convention he attends, as Minnie gets to live out the dreams of any number of fans by fondling his bum.

Wilf takes the Doctor to a cafe, where all the episode’s sound and fury drops away. No matter how you feel about Davies’ propensity to construct overblown epic plots, his talent is obvious in scenes of quiet conversation. Just two characters sitting at a table, talking. But it’s not at all cosy—the Doctor starts by staring fixedly at Wilf, demanding “Who are you?” How is it he can track down the Doctor in a matter of hours when others can’t? There’s some manipulation of events going on here, that keeps pushing them together. But the Doctor has other things on his mind—for the first time, he admits bluntly that he’s going to die. And the Tenth Doctor doesn’t want to die. Even the prospect of regeneration is cold comfort: “Even if I change it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away. And I’m dead.”

Suddenly, they see Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) outside. Wilf brought the Doctor here to see her, in the hope that he could reverse what he did to her at the end of “Journey’s End,” where the memories of her time with the Doctor had to be locked away in order to save her life. But it can’t be done—the Doctor reiterates that if the sight of him reawakens those memories, Donna’s mind will burn up. For those (like me) who came to love Donna during Series Four, her brief appearance in this episode is a bittersweet gift, but this isn’t her story (at least, not yet), and she drives off with her new fiance—yes, she’s got engaged again.

The Doctor: “She’s got him.”
Wilf: “She’s making do.”
The Doctor: “Aren’t we all.”

The Doctor tells Wilf he’s still traveling alone, and in a near breakdown, confesses his recent errors on Mars (“But I did some things, it went wrong… I need…”). Tennant yet again shows he can take the Doctor to emotional places he’s never been before. And Bernard Cribbins is absolutely wonderful throughout the episode—there’s not a false note anywhere, from comedy to, as here, the most heartbreaking empathy.

The Doctor leaves to track down the Master. And now, at the exact halfway point of the episode, the voice of the Narrator, backed by Murray Gold’s soaring music, breaks in to remind us that this is all taking place on a much wider canvas. The prologue is over, as unseen forces manipulate events towards a grand convergence.

The Narrator: “And so it came to pass that the players took their final places, making ready the events that were to come. ... As Earth rolled onwards into night, the people of that world did sleep, and shiver, somehow knowing that dawn would bring only one thing… the final day!”

Cut to the chase. Or rather, cut to after the chase—since we already know the Doctor and the Master can sense each other anywhere on Earth, we go directly to their confrontation in the wasteland. The Doctor steadily advances toward the Master, ignoring bolts of energy being fired to each side, until finally the Master fires directly at him to immobilize him and leave him gasping in the dirt. Ninety seconds have passed without a word of dialogue, just the play of emotions on the two actors’ faces.

The Doctor can’t get the Master interested in the prophecies and the evidence that something is manipulating them; the Master is still obsessed with the unending drum-beats in his head. But then he mentally links with the Doctor, and the Doctor is shocked by what he hears: “I heard it! But there’s no noise, there never has been, it’s just your insanity… What is it? What’s inside your head?”

The Master is overjoyed to be finally vindicated (“It’s real! It’s real!”) but before he can do anything else, he is abducted by thugs in the pay of Joshua Naismith, and the Doctor is left unconscious.

Christmas at the Nobles’ house. Watching television, Wilf again sees the strange woman in white. She salutes him as an old soldier—who never killed a man in his military service—and warns him that a war is coming, in which he will have to take up arms again. She gives an ominous warning, which will no doubt come into play next week.

The Woman: “Tell the Doctor nothing of this. His life could still be saved, so long as you tell him nothing.”

From under his bed, Wilf takes out his old service revolver. A stone thrown at his window alerts him to the Doctor lurking outside the house. He goes outside to shoo him away, and is followed by Sylvia (Jacqueline King). Despite the danger to Donna, the Doctor has come to find Wilf because he’s the only lead he can think of—he needs more information. The most successful comic interlude of the episode follows as they try to keep the Doctor and Donna apart. Eventually the Doctor takes Wilf with him in the TARDIS, despite Sylvia’s protests (“You can’t come with me!” “Well, you’re not leaving me with her.” “Fair enough”), and they head off to the Naismith estate.

Joshua Naismith (David Harewood) and his daughter Abigail (Tracy Ifeachor) are the least satisfactory part of the episode by far. Nothing about them is interesting; they are a couple of cardboard characters who only exist to join up various bits of the plot. He’s your standard-issue ultra-rich businessman and author, whose book is bought by Donna for Wilf, who shows it to the Doctor, who recognizes him from the visions of the Ood. She’s a spoiled kid whose dilettante investigations into “the legends of Harold Saxon” led her father to the Master. In their house they have the Immortality Gate, a piece of alien technology acquired from the Torchwood Institute (after its fall in “Doomsday”) which can perform cellular regeneration. They intend to put the Master’s abilities to use to get the device working properly.

It’s obvious from the start that Naismith is completely out of his depth with the Master; he might put him on a leash and in a straitjacket, but the Master always has his measure. (“I like you.” “Thank you.” “You’d taste great.”) From the moment the Master sees the Gate, his fierce intelligence starts working again as he begins to turn the situation to his advantage. Naismith’s cluelessness is shown even more when, unexpectedly, two of his technicians turn out to be disguised aliens, known as Vinvocci, who are trying to get the Gate activated for their own purposes. These rather silly-looking green, spiky aliens are mostly used for comedy here, although they’ll probably be more useful next week, given what happens at the end of the episode.

The Doctor and Wilf arrive, sneaking around and into the house just like in any number of old Doctor Who stories (“Pyramids of Mars” comes particularly to mind). After easily exposing the Vinvocci, the Doctor learns that the Gate doesn’t regenerate individuals, but entire populations—it’s like a super-powerful version of the nanogenes in “The Empty Child.” He realizes immediately what the Master’s plan is.

In the completely mad climax, the Master easily brushes aside Naismith’s restraints and activates the Gate. Its signal affects everyone on Earth except Wilf (thanks to a handy shielding booth) and Donna (whose Time Lord memories begin to activate in response). The Master changes every other human on Earth to look like himself. There are some eye-popping shots with dozens of copies of the Master in different costumes, which must have been hellish to do. John Simm milks the ending for all he’s worth (“Breaking news—I’m everyone! And everyone on Earth… is me!”) with a final awesomely dreadful pun about “the Master race” which everyone should have been able to see coming.

But now, the real cliffhanger (which the producers kept back from all preview screenings, to preserve the surprise). We finally see the Narrator in full, and he’s not speaking for our benefit: “And so it came to pass, on Christmas Day, that the human race did cease to exist. But even then, the Master had no concept of his greater role in events. For this was far more than humanity’s end. This day was the day upon which the whole of creation would change forever. This was the day the Time Lords returned. For Gallifrey! For victory! For the end of time itself!”

Suddenly the Narrator’s voice is full of menace. The camera zooms out to show a huge amphitheater full of Time Lords in their ceremonial regalia. With the crowd taking up the Narrator’s final shouts, it’s a shot reminiscent of the end of “Bad Wolf” four years ago. The two sides of the Time War—the Daleks and the Time Lords—revealed to us in the same way.

TO! BE! CONTINUED!

Obviously, this episode doesn’t stand on its own, so a final assessment will have to wait until after Part Two. It really is basically a hugely extended prologue—the Narrator explicitly says so halfway through, but even at the end the sense is that only now are all the pieces in position so the real story can begin. Rather alienating for the casual viewer (especially at Christmas), but if ever there was a suitable time to take such a risk it’s now, with the lure of Tennant’s grand finale to bring the viewers back next week.

As with the huge, world-destroying climaxes of previous years, there’s no real tension generated by the “Master race” event, since we all know it will end up being undone with no lasting effects in the next episode. Its power comes from the fact that the Master could hardly have come up with anything more simply offensive to the Doctor than to see the human race’s individuality arrogantly replaced with six billion copies of his nemesis. In that sense, it’s already served its purpose, regardless of what happens next week. The biggest question it left behind is, what’s going to happen to Donna now that her buried memories are awakening?

The Time Lords, though, are another matter entirely. The idea of the Doctor as the last survivor of the Time War, having seen his entire race wiped out, has been a central component of the new series. It has led to some of the series’ most powerful and emotional moments—right up to the Doctor’s bout of megalomania on Mars last episode. Are the Time Lords back for good—or evil? Will the Doctor end up having to destroy his people again? Where does the woman in white fit in? What will Wilf’s ultimate role end up being? And will we be seeing the Ood again? They did say that something was returning to their world. So many questions, so many possibilities…

Some of the plot construction is disappointingly crude. The episode takes a long time to really get going, as numerous unrelated elements have to be set up one after the other—the Ood, Lucy Saxon, the Master’s resurrection, Naismith, Wilf and his friends… The comedy (apart from the scenes involving Donna’s family) tends to fall flat. And I’ve refrained from mentioning the Obama thread until now out of charity—one of those ideas that probably seemed hilarious at three in the morning, but really should have been reconsidered. But when it gets it right, this episode really gets it right—the Doctor/Wilf and Doctor/Master scenes are brilliant, and the performances of Tennant, Simm and Cribbins are pitch-perfect throughout.

I’d like to end by noting that with Part Two of “The End of Time,” the new series of Doctor Who will clock up sixty episodes. Davies has written or co-written thirty-one of those, and was involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in all of the others as well. He has successfully taken Doctor Who from a dead-and-gone show remembered mostly as a joke, to a central pillar of popular culture in Britain (and, to a lesser extent, all over the world). I can think of many things he might have done which would have been more to my taste. But I can’t imagine a single thing he could have done to make the show more successful with its most important audience—the general public. For this old Doctor Who fan, it’s been a glorious five years. David Tennant once described Davies as “the least cynical man in a cynical age.” I love Steven Moffat’s work, and I’m really looking forward to next year’s series with Matt Smith—but the sheer joy, exuberance, and unselfconscious absurdity Russell brought to Doctor Who will, I think, be greatly missed.

Next Week: The arrival of a new year, a new decade, and a new Doctor. It’s Part Two of “The End of Time”—see you on the other side.

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “The Deadly Assassin,” starring Tom Baker. This is the only classic series story where the Doctor traveled alone, without a companion. But its main importance is its depiction of the Time Lords. They had made brief appearances before, but this was the first Gallifrey story, where their society was shown in all its baroque intricacy. Radical in its day, this story became the foundation for all succeeding Time Lord lore, right up to “The End of Time.”

Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.