The Tenth Doctor’s final story was always going to be huge. David Tennant had held the role for four years, and had engrafted himself permanently into the national consciousness as the cultural icon that he was. His Doctor was the most beloved and celebrated since Tom Baker, and Tennant’s leaving the role was inevitably going to be a momentous occasion. The End of Time, in my opinion, delivered wonderfully on expectations and rose to the occasion exceptionally. Apart from being an epic tale that culminated the Time War arc and returned John Simm’s bewitching Master, portraying the Doctor’s most monumental challenge yet, it also delivered probably the most memorable and affecting regeneration ever. Everything and everyone came together to produce a story that completes both the Tenth Doctor’s era, as well as Russell T Davies’ era as showrunner, perfectly.
The plot concerned a prophecy, that “something is returning”, and the end of time is imminent. The Master is somehow implicated. The Doctor finds the resurrected Master, but knows there’s something more. It’s only until the second episode that it becomes clear that it’s Gallifrey that’s returning, and that the Time Lords are going to bring the last day of the Time War with them, to end it all and take time itself with them. I like the way the story was set up like this, as the culmination of some celestial prophecy. It brings a sense of epicness and scale to the story that sets up something as significant as the end of time really well, more so than if, as usually happens, the Doctor just happens to stumble on this plot to destroy all of reality, time and everything and is conveniently there to save the day. I thought the Time Lords’ plot could have been more prominent in the first half of the story, though. The first episode was, understandably, focussed on the Master and his schemes, but the episode could at least have cut to Gallifrey every 20 minutes or so to give us hints and teases of what the story was building up to, as viewers would be forgiven for being confused about what was going on, with the Doctor talking about a mysterious prophecy while the Master was just carrying on as his usual madcap self, taking over the Earth for no particular reason.
To say something about the wonderful Bernard Cribbins before I move on, I thought Cribbins as Wilf was just dazzling in this story. Wilf is adorable and endearing and really pulls the heartstrings. He’s a slightly quaint, bumbling duffer of an old man, but that’s exactly why we love him, and Cribbins portrays him brilliantly. Cribbins’ acting was phenomenal, and it’s easy to see why he became a recurring character in Series 4 and was now even taken on as a “proper” companion. The Doctor and Wilf have a lovely relationship. There were two quiet little scenes showing the Doctor and Wilf talking privately that were just touching to watch, in the cafe and in the Vinvocci spaceship. It’s a testament to how close the Doctor has become to Wilf and how special their connection is that the Doctor admitted to Wilf that he’d be proud if Wilf were his father. Wilf weeps over the thought of the Doctor dying. It’s touching, profoundly moving stuff, and, I think, in those moments, Wilf sealed his place as the best one-off companion of all.
The Master was back more delightfully unhinged than ever before. John Simm delivers a riveting, manic performance in the Master’s first scenes back, and the Master himself seems to have truly gone off the edge since we saw him last. He’s definitely distinctly more insane than he was in Last of the Time Lords. We shouldn’t be surprised, given how many times he’s died and been resurrected, not to mention how many different bodies he’s inhabited (that’s actual bodies, not regenerations. I count four since Roger Delgado). Simm was equal to the task, and gave a suitably unnerving performance. I wasn’t particularly impressed with how the Master was brought back, though. He was resurrected, inexplicably, by what looked like black magic using his old ring according to the “Secret Books of Saxon”… by some sort of weird cult whose motive in resurrecting the Master was not explained. “We give ourselves that Saxon might live.” Seriously? Is this the best RTD could come up with? That said, the Master was an impressive, frightening presence when he appeared, cackling madly in that fountain of ethereal light. Apart from that, it was all just very corny, perhaps the one major cringe moment of this story. I thought the Master’s scheme to transform the whole human race into himself was delightfully evil, almost certainly the Master’s most nefarious scheme yet. What made it even better was that the Master didn’t plan any of this: he was abducted by John Naismith and just hungrily seized the opportunity he was given to create mayhem on a terrible scale. It was pretty typical that, after turning the human race into him, he didn’t know what to do with himselves, so he reverted to type: he was going to turn the Earth into a warship to wreak havoc across the universe. He simply can’t help himself.
The Master and the Doctor’s relationship was explored through some compelling dialogue. The Master’s reminiscing back to when he and the Doctor were children together on Gallifrey: “We used to run across those fields all day, calling up at the sky. Look at us now.” The Doctor’s entreaty for the Master to come with him, to see the universe with him, “You could be beautiful. With a mind like that, we could travel the stars. It would be my honour.” Nor did the Doctor, even once, get angry at the Master. The Doctor looks upon the Master with sorrow, and sympathy and regret. Repeatedly the Doctor pleads with the Master to let him help him. They’re arch-nemeses, sure, but they’re also friends, friends who’ve become estranged and taken wildly different paths, but still friends. They share a bond: they can’t live with each other or without each other. “I wonder what I’d be, without you,” said the Doctor. “Yeah,” agreed the Master. The Doctor-Master relationship is complex and compelling. I think it makes the Master, at least potentially, the most interesting of the Doctor’s enemies. The Doctor has just as much, if not more, history with the Daleks and the Cybermen, but his relationship with them is one of mutual hate on both sides. With the Master, it is far, far more complicated and nuanced, as the Master’s most recent appearance in Dark Water/Death in Heaven showed.
In the culmination of constant harks back to the Time War, and progressive revelation of the nature of the Doctor’s role therein, we finally saw the Time Lords return to Doctor Who for the first time in the revival. Led by a tyrannical Lord President who is later revealed to be Rassilon, the Time Lords, on the last day of the Time War, plot to escape the time lock through the Master, bringing the Time War with them, and complete the Final Sanction, destroying time and reality itself, for only the Time Lords to survive as “creatures of consciousness alone”. We knew before now that the Doctor had ended it all on the last day of the Time War, but only in this story did we find out what drove the Doctor to commit that terrible deed: the alternative was too unthinkable; the Doctor had no choice. The End of Time, in contrast with the romantic, idyllic, mythological depictions of the Time Lords we’ve heard from the Doctor before now, portrayed the Time Lords corrupted and debased and depraved by endless, horrific war. We’re shown a once peaceable race standing aloof from the rest of the universe turned into tyrants and monsters by the Time War, warped and perverted by their uncompromising, unthinking devotion to the glory and victory of their own depraved civilisation. Rassilon was an imperious, malignant presence who typified everything the Time Lords had become. Given the Doctor’s vivid, haunting description of the Time War’s last days, it’s no wonder the Time Lords went mad:
“You weren’t there in the final days of the War. You never saw what was born. But if the Timelock’s broken, then everything’s coming through. Not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-have-been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-weres. The War turned into hell. And that’s what you’ve opened, right above the Earth. Hell is descending.”
The resolution. I was a bit unimpressed with this. As I was watching, I wasn’t sure what exactly it was the Doctor shot to break the link and send Gallifrey back to the Time War. I later looked it up and found out the Doctor had shot the white point star. I suppose that makes sense, but, after equivocating between shooting the Master or Rassilon, I thought it seemed like a bit of a cop-out on RTD’s part. The Doctor’s vacillation between the Master and Rassilon was a profoundly powerful scene. You could almost see the gears whirring behind the Doctor’s piercing, furious gaze. One of them had to die—but which one? That’s why I was somewhat disappointed when the Doctor realised he could just shoot the white point star and end it, as I’m sure he’d prefer, bloodlessly. All that emotional buildup came to nothing. It was almost an anticlimax. Sometimes tough choices, terrible choices, have to be made, without the option of a convenient, agreeable third way out. After emphatically making this precise point in describing why he ended the Time War, I find it a bit incongruous that Russell T Davies would pull off a cop-out like this, just to give the Doctor a way to send the Time Lords back without dirtying his hands with violence or anything so disagreeable. That said, making the Doctor kill the Master or Rassilon in his final story would probably have cast too much of a shadow over his regeneration and even the next Doctor’s first series. The next Doctor would hardly be going “Geronimo!” after he’d just committed cold-blooded murder. Also, if the Doctor had killed one of them, we wouldn’t have got that amazing, blood-pounding moment when the Master finally gets his revenge against Rassilon. That moment never fails to affect me; the passion and anger and tears of the Master as he takes out his lifetimes of resentment against Rassilon is truly a sight to behold.
Finally, we come to the Doctor’s farewell. It’s initially a buoyant moment, when the Doctor finds himself, unbelievably, alive. He’s relieved and astonished beyond words. He’s done it. He’s defied death. And then RTD swoops in and, in typical style, sadistically snatches it all away. Knock knock knock knock. You see the life drain from his face at that moment. He’d forgotten about Wilf. He lets out his anger and resentment in what remains, in my opinion, one of the most moving monologues of this show’s history. It always gets me. I remember watching this when it was broadcast on New Year’s Day, 2010, with my mum and my brother, and feeling profoundly caught up in the emotion of the Doctor’s tirade. It was some of the most powerful and compelling acting any of the actors who have played the Doctor have ever given. Tennant was giving his absolute all into that moment, and it showed. It felt. The feels, man. It seems at first as though the Doctor has survived absorbing five hundred thousand rads, but then our suspicions are confirmed. “It’s started.” Thence follows yet more of the most poignant, affecting viewing I’ve ever seen on this show. The Doctor’s farewell tour is uplifting, but at the same time deeply sad. He says goodbye to all his friends and companions for the last time, before he becomes a new man and leaves them all behind forever. His parting gift to Donna is a particularly touching gesture. Perhaps most touching of all is his visit to Rose, shortly before it all begins for her, and for him. That’s RTD’s symbolic farewell to the show he’s nurtured and raised and devoted himself to for four years. He’s gone back to where it all started, allowed himself a sad, reminiscent smile, and turned over the final page.
The Doctor’s not done, though. The Doctor lives on, longer and older and greater than any of the writers and showrunners who’ve built the show over its fifty years. After he’s said his final goodbye to Rose, he drags himself back to the TARDIS, now clearly struggling through great pain. That beautiful Vale Decem track plays in the background as the enigmatic Ood declares that the universe will sing him to his sleep. The old soldier struggles on, enters his TARDIS, hangs up his coat for the last time, and bravely faces the end. “I don’t want to go.” Oh, the feels. Like a dagger piercing through my Whovian heart. We barely have the chance to tearfully plead “Don’t go!” before he erupts in a blaze of regenerative glory and turns into Matt Smith. The King is dead. Long live the King.