Thoughts on: The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End

What a show. I’d forgotten how incredible the Series 4 finale was, and I’m happy to admit I was thoroughly blown away upon this rewatch. Russell T Davies upped the ante to full blast and delivered the most magnitudinous story yet, the stakes higher than they’ve ever been before or possibly since, and a great, walloping belter of a script to go with it. It was simply epic. This was RTD’s magnum opus, even, I daresay, outshining the magnificent Series 1 finale, or at the very least matching it. It simply had everything: Daleks, Davros, the end of the universe, every possible character from the preceding four years you could ever have wanted brought back, Rose, and two (three?) Doctors. Admittedly, there was a great deal of nonsense in there—something on this scale is bound to have a bit of nonsense—but somehow even the nonsense came together with everything to produce one of RTD’s most memorable stories of all.

The Earth has moved. That was the ingenious and jaw-dropping plot point established at the outset of The Stolen Earth. It wasn’t only the characters who were left in awe as the sky congested with heavenly bodies. It soon becomes clear, of course, that this was the Daleks’ doing. A chill ran down my spine when I heard that Dalek battle cry: “Exterminate!”. The dread and tears in the eyes of Martha, Jack and Sarah-Jane as the Dalek mantra played out over the recording expressed more than words could. We, the viewers, having seen the Doctor defeat the Daleks so many times now have become desensitised to the threat of the Daleks, but the terror the Daleks truly are capable of inducing was so powerfully conveyed in this scene that the threat became real. Say what you want about the Daleks’ being reused too much, but scenes like this show that the producers know how to keep them scary. This was particularly brought home to me when we were shown scenes of the Daleks destroying the city and murdering civilians—perhaps for the first time in the revival we were shown the true, terrible destructive power of the Daleks. And then Davros showed up, as creepy and gruesome as ever, and that’s when it became obvious that sh*t was getting real.

There was a very bleak, gloomy little sequence where it looked like all had been lost, that everyone had given up without a fight. Sarah-Jane, and Captain Jack and Torchwood were all resigned to the end. “I’m sorry. We’re dead,” said Jack, utterly broken. Sarah-Jane was hugging and weeping for her boy. The United Nations had surrendered Earth to the Daleks. The Doctor stood in grim silence as Donna begged him vainly to do something. It was intense, somber viewing. But then the familiar, irritating voice of Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister (okay, okay, you know…), cut in and an optimistic ray of hope glinted through the black clouds. She began mobilising the Doctor’s old allies and friends, and I felt more affection for her then than ever before. As the Doctor’s allies began moving to get in contact with him, it was obvious what a profound influence the Doctor has had on each of these people. I was somewhat reminded of Dumbledore’s Army from Harry Potter, those loyal to the Doctor holding out and mobilising a resistance in his name, following his example… Needless to say, Harriet Jones went out with nobility when she sacrificed herself to ensure the Subwave signal reached the Doctor. The Doctor would have been proud.

It was painful watching Rose’s frustration that she was unable to speak to the Doctor when the Doctor finally made contact with his Army. Nevertheless, that made their eventual reunion in person all the more moving. Rose and the Doctor’s reunion was truly stirring. I came as close as I ever have to tearing up watching Doctor Who. This being Who, though, there had to be a catch, and that cockblocking Dalek set up one killer of a cliffhanger. A triple-pronger, involving Sarah-Jane and Donna’s parents separately about to be exterminated by Daleks, and the Doctor regenerating, surely that was the best cliffhanger this show has ever done? I remember being in agony after watching that when this episode was first broadcast. I’m sure everyone was. The siphoning of the Doctor’s regeneration energy into his spare hand, his “bio-matching receptacle” was clever, but it was a bit of a waste of a regeneration on the part of RTD, all for a good cliffhanger. But, God, it was a good cliffhanger.

We meet the Daleks and the TARDIS and Donna are deposited into the molten core of the Crucible. Enter the Meta-Crisis Doctor, growing out of the Doctor’s glowing, regeneration energy-saturated hand. I think we were all as shocked as Donna was. Many disparage the Meta-Crisis Doctor as an absurd product of creative excess on RTD’s part, a character dreamed up just to give Rose a happy ending (implicitly spoiling her “perfect” ending in the Series 2 finale), and I can see where such criticisms are coming from, but… yeah, I don’t know how to justify my liking of the creation of the Meta-Doctor and my overlooking all the continuity issues it created other than to say that I just found the Meta-Doctor an awesome plot device in this story. I was grinning from ear to ear when the Meta-Doctor appeared, starkers, and slightly raving, and saved Donna and the TARDIS at the last second. I also thought it was awesome when all seemed lost, the Reality Bomb about to be detonated, and the TARDIS, radiating with celestial light, appeared in the Daleks’ midst. “Brilliant”, as Jack said, about sums it up. RTD, in typical fashion, though, gave us hope and then cruelly snatched it away. Usually this would be the point where the day is saved, but this is RTD we’re talking about, who revels in the cruelly unexpected. This is the man who, in Voyage of the Damned, made the Doctor promise to all the characters that he would save them, and then proceeded to kill off all of them except the most disagreeable one. It was never going to be that predictable.

I want to take a moment to talk about the way this story commented upon the Doctor’s character. Davros observed piercingly that, though the Doctor renounces violence and refuses to carry a weapon, the way he fights is perhaps even more sinister: he conscripts his companions and fashions them into weapons to do the bloody business he won’t do. He keeps his hands clean while his companions, his foot-soldiers, bloody theirs in his name and on his behalf. He changes his companions, makes them into murderers. This is a constant trope running through Doctor Who; it’s one of the integral functions of the companion: the Doctor can’t be seen to be engaging in violence, so the companion carries out what violence needs to be committed. Only now has this pattern ever actually been commented on onscreen and shown to be a reflection of the Doctor’s character, of the sinister effect of the Doctor’s influence and of the genuinely disturbing manipulativeness of the Doctor. That the Doctor manipulates and influences his companions into potentially committing genocide (and actually committing genocide—remember Rose as the Bad Wolf?) perhaps makes him even more sinister than if he were to do it himself. Davros about summed it up: “The Doctor. The man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.” The Doctor’s soul was laid bare, and I, at least, found it captivating and compelling viewing—disturbing, yes, but still captivating.

I loved the Doctor-Donna resolution. I found it really exhilarating and just awesome. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t grin broadly the first time they watched Donna wiggling those controls and prattling off incomprehensible techno-babble to stop the detonation and make sock-puppets of the Daleks. Some hate it. I adore it. I know it’s ridiculous nonsense and a total deus ex machina cop-out if there ever was one—the idea that Donna’s humanity made her even more brilliant than the Doctor when she absorbed the Doctor’s mind was particularly ridiculous—but I just found it a wonderfully ecstatic resolution. I’m more than willing to overlook the admittedly absurd “walking plot resolution created purely by chance” that was Doctor-Donna, as one reviewer described it, because of how much I enjoyed watching that. I found it satisfying and fulfilling, and that scene, more than any other, made me love Donna. Meta-Doctor’s annihilation of the Daleks was also a very confronting moment, and Davros’s hysterical denunciation of the Doctor as “Destroyer of Worlds” was chillingly powerful, an uncharacteristically dark note amidst the jubilant resolution.

The sight of the Doctor(s) and all his companions and friends bringing the Earth back home was ecstatic and heartwarming, a tribute not only to all the characters and actors who contributed to the RTD era, but an exultant tribute to companionship and working together. It was a lovely, beautiful scene, the Doctor surrounded by all the people whose lives he’s touched and who love him. What a striking contrast it was only a short time later, after the Doctor had seen all his companions off, and he stood in the TARDIS, alone again. Saying farewell to Donna must have been particularly agonising for him. It was agonising enough to watch. It was heartbreaking watching Donna plead with the Doctor not to send her back, not to turn her back into how she was. She knew, more than anyone, that she was better for having been with the Doctor, which made it all the more tragic that she had to lose it all, everything she’d been and done, and go back to how she was. Oh, Donna, you didn’t deserve this. RTD really knows how to tug the heartstrings.

To summarise my disjointed review, I thought this finale was spectacular. Absolutely spectacular. I only write this much for a review when I think the story truly merits it—the last time I wrote this much was for Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, which was also an amazing finale. It ended on a poignant note, setting up the “farewell tour” that would be the specials year, culminating in the Tenth Doctor’s magnificent swan song, The End of Time. For now, though, I thought RTD ended his last series as Doctor Who’s showrunner on a lustrous high, this finale the gleaming culmination of a fantastic series in general. Bravo.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: The Christmas Invasion

It doesn’t need to be said that The Christmas Invasion was not about the Sycorax. This episode was about the Doctor. As imperfect as this episode was in the plotting department, I’m willing to forgive it that as it did a fairly good job of introducing the new Doctor in David Tennant. The episode pulled a clever trick of saving, substantially, the appearance of the Tenth Doctor until the end of the episode. The episode perhaps engaged with the audience’s scepticism about this new actor who was replacing the stellar Christopher Eccleston through Rose’s insecurities about the Doctor’s change. And the episode bode addressing these insecurities until near the end, making it all the sweeter when, his presence having been noticeably lacking and missed for the majority of the episode, the Doctor swaggers out of the TARDIS and effortlessly takes control of the increasingly desperate situation. “Did you miss me?” the Doctor asked nonchalantly. We certainly did. The use of that device was something of a masterstroke on the part of Russell T Davies, and, indeed, I remember, when I first saw this episode, thinking it was awesome when the Doctor stepped out in his pyjamas and began lecturing the entire Sycorax parliament.

That said, the whole “what kind of man am I?” thing was a bit of rubbish writing: of course, in a new Doctor introduction episode, it must be shown what kind of man the Doctor’s new incarnation is, but, this, I think, should be a instance of show not tell. This was done very well subsequently with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi in their respective introductory episodes. What The Christmas Invasion did by having the Doctor repeatedly ponder what kind of man he is was very much tell not show. The result is that we were left more confused than we ought to have been about what this new Doctor was like. We would come to understand the Tenth Doctor more as we saw more of him over the following series, but The Christmas Invasion did not, fundamentally, accomplish what it set out to do, except at a very basic level. We gathered that the Tenth Doctor was a genial, easygoing, charismatic and reckless bloke, but little more.

None of this was necessarily David Tennant’s fault—he was a victim of poor writing. I thought Tennant generally gave a strong first performance. The “Did you miss me?” sequence—a critical segment of the episode—was carried out admirably by Tennant, and the Doctor’s characterisation, at least at the surface level, was skilfully deployed by Tennant. That said, I think he overacted in parts: for example, the girning and panting on the floor outside Rose’s apartment was a bit OTT, as was the “I DON’T KNOW!” in response to the Sycorax. The line about mistakenly quoting the Lion King was also cringe-inducing, as was “It’s a fighting hand!”, although these missteps were due to poor writing, not Tennant, who I’m sure did the best with what he had to work with.

To say a bit about the plot, it was fairly unimaginative and derivative, and played out quite predictably. Nevertheless, as I said, as the Doctor, not the plot, was the main focus of this episode, I’m willing to overlook its shortcomings in this department this time. That spinning Christmas tree was also ridiculous. The Sycorax were okay, but they were obviously conceived in order to fit the “generic belligerent advanced alien species” trope, and, for this episode, that’s okay. Harriet Jones was badass in this episode (no better way to describe it). I wouldn’t exactly say she was well played by Penelope Wilton, except in a self-consciously comical sort of way, but she’s certainly come on since her salad days as MP for Flydale North. It’s questionable whether Jones’ decision to take out the Sycorax ship was right—unless I’m misinterpreting, it was left open to question. I personally think that, although hardly morally scrupulous, she made the right decision. The Doctor was being a naive idealist (and a hypocrite, given he committed double genocide to save the universe from the Time War). In any case, I’ll agree that “Don’t you think she looks tired?” was awesome.

Rating: 6/10.

Quickie Review: Aliens of London/World War Three

To me this was the new series’ first major misfire. It’s not a bad story or a bad premise as such, but there’s enough dross and rot in there to make it an eminently forgettable serial. Aliens of London/World War Three typifies what I like to call “Marvel Who”—i.e. over-the-top, mindless nonsense that appeals squarely (and patronisingly) to children. It had comical, ludicrously designed aliens who were uncomplicatedly eeevil trying to destroy the world. And they were flatulent. Don’t get me started on the farting. I can concede that calcium creatures’ releasing air when they compress themselves to hide in their human disguises makes sense, but I’d like to know what was going on in the mind of the writer or producer when he decided that farting aliens was a good idea. I know I overuse this term, but it’s never been more apt: it’s cringe-worthy. I’m afraid this isn’t one of the stories I would watch again voluntarily; it’s a ninety-minute masquerade of overblown camp nonsense and really represents the epitome of the excesses of the “New Who” style. I wouldn’t have blamed old Classic Who fans if they’d given up on New Who at this point.

Perhaps one of the only things holding this story up is the characters. I’ll admit that the writing for the lead characters—the Doctor, Rose, Mickey and Jackie—was strong, and the actors carried the script more than capably. The character drama was really the only thing this story had going for it, and it was sobering to see the effect Rose’s sojourns with the Doctor had had upon the lives of the people she’d unwittingly left behind. It was also interesting to see the effect upon Rose of only a few days’ spent with the Doctor travelling, something that was particularly pronounced in bringing her back to London. Rose has already received quality character development since the beginning of this series, and her series-long character arc is one of the things holding Series 1 together as a memorable and cohesive whole in spite of unfortunate stories like this.

Rating: 4/10.