(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
The Specials Year wasn’t in itself the worst of ideas – considering it could easily have been a year off entirely, in which we might not have had any Doctor Who, the broadcast of essentially a McCoy season’s worth isn’t really as little as you think – but it’s fair to say that by The End of Time, Russell T Davies’ (and David Tennant’s) two-part, two-and-a-quarter hour farewell to the series, the writer had somewhat burned himself out. There’s a lack of coherency and a lack of inspiration in this story that mars very few of his previous episodes, and a feeling that spectacle has completely eclipsed sense at last. The End of Time is mesmerising television, and about 75% of it for the right reasons, but it is also an assault on the intelligence and the senses and ultimately a disappointment.
There’s a real balancing act going on between the ideas and their execution, too. For example, after five years of telling how the Doctor is the Last of the Time Lords, it makes sense that their resurrection should come in his hour of regeneration. However, their appearance at the cliffhanger is entirely apropos of nothing, and when they do break free of the Time Lock and reappear in our universe, all they do is stand in a white void in the corner of the room, making threats and achieving little. Timothy Dalton makes for a remarkable Lord President Rassilon, though, all venom and vengeance and just one of a number of daring and outstanding performances on show.
Then there’s the Master. It’s criminal that Russell T Davies compromised his own vision of Doctor Who by deleting the Daleks from his finale of finales (having appeared in three of the four previous series’ climaxes, they would have made for the most appropriate enemy in Tennant and Davies’ final story), simply because they were about to appear again early in the next series. Instead, Davies asked Tennant himself who he might like his final story to feature, and Tennant’s reply was the Master. You can’t complain about John Simm’s portrayal; it might be a different Master to the one we were used to in the old school days, but the character is after all a Time Lord who changes his characteristics with his body, and the Simm version – particularly in this story – is lithe and insane, damaged and unpredictable. The scenes with Tennant, Simm and Dalton facing off against one another are simply bursting with talent and testosterone, and make for utterly compelling television. But the Master’s plan – as spooky an episode ending (in the best Charlie Kaufman tradition) as it makes for – ends up going nowhere, and the way in which it is over, at the wave of a glove, diminishes both the character and the story itself. How different had the Daleks appeared, and we could have had the Dalek-Master-Doctor face-off that (Frontier in Space) promised four decades earlier, but failed to deliver.
Surrogate companion Wilfred Mott fares much better, for although his part in proceedings is considerably more low-key, it’s another endearing appearance for Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s granddad, and his story is properly resolved and satisfying – even if it seems strange that the old fellow has forgotten so quickly how important and unsettling “four knocks” might be for the Doctor. Donna's appearance is welcome but both brief and contradictory; how many times does the Doctor get around a seemingly inescapable continuity glitch with a throwaway remark along the lines of, “Ah, but did I fail to mention...?” And the Vinvocci are a bizarre and cheapo creation (much like the Tritovores of Planet of the Dead, really), but they do ensure that over the course of 130-odd minutes, Doctor Who doesn’t get too depressing for its own good.
There’s a running theme of referencing previous regeneration stories if you care to look for it (a noble sacrifice to save a single companion, such as was the fifth Doctor’s fate, or a fall from a great height as seen in Logopolis, to name just a couple of obvious examples), but what really sets The End of Time apart is its coda. This is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor putting his death off for a few hours, in order to make final visits to a few people who’ve been important during the course of his current incarnation’s life. It begins with action and humour (and an unexpected marital revelation!) and gradually becomes more and more bittersweet (culminating in a wedding scene that rounds out Donna’s story arc beautifully, in any number of ways) and is easily the most affecting sequence of the entire two episodes.
Then there’s the very last scene with Rose. It’s tastefully done, and low-key, and perfectly in keeping with what we’ve seen over the last five series. Given how Journey’s End turned into a gloriously over the top companion-fest the likes of which the show had never previously attempted – with the exception of The Five Doctors, maybe – the last few minutes of The End of Time could easily have been mawkish or lacking in taste. They aren’t. From the moment Bernard Cribbins taps on the glass to the look of surprise, worry and delight that crosses the newly-regenerated eleventh Doctor’s face, there isn’t a wrong beat or badly phrased sentiment. It’s magical and involving stuff, that almost manages to have you forgiving the inconsistencies and excesses of the two hours that had gone before. But not quite.
Farewell then, to David Tennant’s tenth Doctor. His final line (and its delivery) is a startling and upsetting moment, but we don’t get time to dwell upon it before the eleventh Doctor rapidly appears, and Matt Smith sells himself in the part instantly. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion and excitement that only Doctor Who can create – and the same is true of the story as a whole. The End of Time perhaps wasn’t the greatest way for the Russell T Davies era to end, but there’s no doubting its success in summing up the best and worst of the previous five years.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)