Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
We’ve reached a point of legacy entertainment saturation where our familiarity with how safe the return of beloved characters will be played triggers more hesitance than excitement. Fresh off the back of a stumbling Obi-Wan Kenobi, and resolute that a certain magical world has ceased to conjure any joy, you could empathize with the caution with which I regard the regeneration of my only other childhood obsession: Russell T. Davies era Doctor Who.
I was borderline hysterical about Doctor Who for the first five years of its revived tenure. At the end of Season 1, I was convinced I’d never be on board with Christopher Eccleston’s replacement—but soon into the debut season of the skinny, spiky-haired, Scottish prettyboy David Tennant, a new love was born within me. And yet, like a struggling but stubborn driving student, all things must eventually pass. Across a two-part special on Christmas 2009 and New Year’s Day 2010, not only did Tennant explode into a new, even skinnier version, the show’s steward and pioneer Russell T. Davies also moved on. Sure, Doctor Who would still be a sweet, cheeky, bit-too-clever sci-fi adventure, but something unmistakable about the characters, the mood and the stories told would go away.
Like the inside of the Doctor’s time machine, rooms always felt bigger with Davies’ characters in them. They’d burst with affable charisma and bounce off each other with overpowering chemistry. The most startling moments weren’t climactic confrontations or impassioned, overwritten speeches, but the tender moments where lost people reached out for help. The Doctor wasn’t there to cure every ill that plagued time and space, he was there to show you empathy and kindness, more likely to show you the limits of his powers than the awesome nature of them. In an appropriate act of out-of-time subversion, Tennant’s penultimate adventure sees him deal a fiery sermon at how powerful his loneliness has made him—not unlike those repeated at twice the length and half the meaning in the following Steven Moffat era—before he is dealt a thundering hubristic blow that makes him reconsider his place in time and space. We’re not meant to be impressed by him. We’re meant to see his flaws.
But not everything characteristic of Davies’ era was golden. Some problems he couldn’t help (credit has to be given to production designers for scraping every penny possible from a tiny BBC budget piggy bank), but others were uniquely his. Besides overplaying broad comedy, tonal whiplash was common, derivations of popular sci-fi stories were guaranteed, and frequently a big, explosive story usually resolved with every character standing in one room talking to each other (a screenwriting trap I have yet to learn how to avoid). But the seams in both the scripts and production aligned Davies’ tenure closely with the classic Doctor Who run, where they shot for the moon and worked around their limitations to create an exciting universe out of reusable sets and many, many corridors.
So it’s fitting that the two-part special “The End of Time” encapsulates the best and worst of the Davies era and the Tennant incarnation. It’s sad. It’s funny. It’s 135 minutes. Themes of fate and sacrifice clash against wacky hijinks. It’s chock-full of intended and unintentional silliness, and after stumbling its way to the finish line, it ends on a series of back-to-back high notes. I just wish it was pulled off more smoothly.
The Doctor is told by his good friends the Ood (through a lovely Brian Cox cameo) that his archenemy and fellow Time Lord, the Master, is returning. There’s no better choice for a Doctor’s final adventure; Daleks can be so impersonal, if you want to hit a Time Lord where it hurts, bring back the man who knows him best. Urgently, the Doctor heads for Earth, where he’s reunited with the elderly Wilfred, the grandfather of his latest companion Donna, whose memory the Doctor wiped after she became genetically spliced with his DNA. After being reborn in a tornado of light, the Master is poisoned by his human ex-wife, leaving his haggard, unstable form to scurry around junkyards with bleached blonde hair, an insatiable hunger, and a frequently glowing skeleton. Feel free to add your own question marks to any of the above.
Already, this is way too complicated. Davies liked being conclusive about defeating his Big Bads, which means every time they need to be resurrected, there’s an increasingly tenuous reason for their return. There’s something respectable about Moffat’s approach; any time he needs a fleet of Cybermen or Daleks, they appear with little regard to canonical explanation. But despite the convoluted road that took us here, the Master is definitively back, this time with a few new powers. And listen, I want to make my stance on cartoon skeletons abundantly clear: they’re great, and there’s historical precedent for the Master showing up all damaged and deformed. My issues lie more with him, sigh, jumping hundreds of feet in the air and shooting lasers out his hands.
His uncontrollable madness and mutated powers aren’t a problem for very long though, because he levels out to his usual calculating self by the time a machine gives him the ability to transplant himself onto every living human being. It’s a move that feels appropriate for the madcap Time Lord whilst still being far too silly for the Doctor’s confrontation with mortality. But don’t worry, this plot doesn’t even last an hour, because soon the Time Lords appear, ready to destroy Earth to continue their glorious reign. Once they get the hint and leave, the Doctor faces his death in a half-dignified, half-petulant, and completely moving way, and he manages one last visit to all his friends to remind us what defined this regeneration—he was made to love.
To watch “The End of Time” is to experience narrative conflict upending and changing direction every 10 minutes, rushing through evil schemes and character developments with such unclarified focus that rarely do the big spectacle setpieces land with any sizable impact. It’s fitting that its shining moments are in the tiny interactions: the Doctor discussing dying with Wilfred in a crappy cafe, or tiny drum beats on glass sounding out his final sacrifice. But when two Cacti-looking aliens wheel the Doctor around in a slapstick rescue sequence, or a tensionless pursuit of the Master hard pivots to a group of cheeky old people fawning over the Doctor, the stress on character that defined so much of Davies’ writing doesn’t hit as hard as it once did. The colossal stakes struggle to be felt on a personal level, so when the Doctor breaks out into a sprint and Murray Gold’s intense string score breaks in two separate times, it feels like the show is having to remind us important things are happening.
And while the Doctor’s vulnerable moments with Wilfred and the Master work tremendously, this only stresses how ineffective the big evil scheme feels. A crazy Master (while he’s actually crazy) is a strong parallel to the Doctor barely keeping it together, and seeing the pair of them face the return of the Time Lords feels like we’re watching two children face the grown-ups who hurt them. The Doctor’s relationship with the Time Lords was one of the only things he kept at arm’s length from his companions, and Davies is wise not to give the audience a detailed history, but rather infer how the Doctor feels about them from Tennant’s emotional performance. In the end, the Doctor is forced between killing a demented survivor or his lost kin, with a terrible machine bringing them together: this is how climaxes in Doctor Who should be staged!
You just wish it could all sing much better. As a result, “The End of Time” is overlong, underwritten, and gets bogged down in plotting that feels more impersonal than high stakes. All the major elements should work, and thankfully the last 20 minutes when the Doctor faces his death and proceeds to visit all the people who meant something to him are a masterclass of soulful, heartrending beauty from Tennant, et al. But you’re left wishing for a way to make this story smaller, less flashy and knotted, where the tiny moments get the chance to feel like the biggest thing in the world.
Davies is back as showrunner for the 60th anniversary (all British shows either have six episodes or have been on television since the 1950s), and with filming underway, Tennant and a few other characters have been spotted on set. The last thing I want from Davies’ second run is more of the same. Not just because we’ve seen how hollow legacy series can be if dealt with in a corporate way, but because since leaving Doctor Who Davies has only gone from strength to strength. The characters he builds, the structure and pacing of his scripts: his recent work on A Very English Scandal, Years & Years, and It’s A Sin are brilliant showcases for writing craft that’s not present all the way through “The End of Time.” Let’s just hope Tennant gets a stronger goodbye this time around.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
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