There’s a lot that this episode has to do. It has to resolve the storyline. It has to close off the biggest dangling plot thread from the revival of the series. It has to usher out the tenth Doctor. And it has to bring an end to the Russell T. Davies era of the show. It does all of that quite well, but I find it interesting that it does most of that threw a series of big moments. Big action, big drama, big humor. All leading up to a crucial point, the “no going back” moment. And from then we get little moments. All these moments bring everything to a close in a wonderful way.
The first shot, of Gallifrey in ruins, Dalek saucers littering the landscape, is momentous. But we don’t really get a sense of the real scale and cost of the Time War until we see the Time Lord council and see just how power-mad and desperate to survive they have become, particularly the President. What’s particularly well-done here is the cross-cutting that occurs between events on Gallifrey and events on Earth, as it becomes clear that the “drums” that the Master hears were placed there by the Time Lords to give them a chance to escape from the Time War. And that they were placed there so that when the Master reaches this very moment, he will free the Time Lords. It’s a fantastic bit of “timey-wimey” plotting, as events separated by who knows how many years, centuries, eons, are taking place now, at the same time.
The quieter moment with Wilf and the Doctor is worth mentioning for a bit. It’s a deliberate mirror of their cafe scene last episode, two old men contemplating mortality. But we also get this moment when Wilf, the soldier who never killed a man, urges the Doctor to take his gun and kill the Master with it. It’s been noted before, and it is something that show-runner Davies has been particularly insistent about, that the Doctor is unique in the pantheon of sci-fi heroes in that he is the one who doesn’t use a gun. It’s an important detail, because it’s largely what makes the Doctor the character he is. He’s the man who will beat you by out-thinking you. Even if, as it’s acknowledged here, he does that by getting you to kill yourself. So we know that Wilf’s plea is doomed. Taking the gun is the one thing that the Doctor will not, cannot do.
And so it’s even more devastating when he does and why he does. The only thing that could make the Doctor take the gun is the threat of the Master bringing back the Time Lords. He won’t kill the Master to save himself, but he will if it means stopping the Time Lords all over again. This is the threat that is so big that the Doctor is willing to start down the same path that the Master did.
We get some more nice scenes, with one of the series rare big CGI action sequences, worth it entirely for the sight of Bernard Cribbins putting Luke Skywalker to shame. The actual re-entry of the Time Lords into the world is majestic is well, and the sheer power they demonstrate, undoing all the Master’s scemes with a literal flick of a wrist is truly epic and satisfying fanwank. We get some more very good acting from John Simm here, as the Master keeps trying to stay ahead of the Time Lords and what they’re thinking so that he is on the “right” side, then trying desperately to talk the Doctor into saving him. It’s a mix of the perpetually optimistic and the downright craven that makes Simm’s portrayal so good here.
And of course the Doctor makes the right decision. He kills no one and sets time and events back to where they should be. Because that’s what he does, that’s who he is, that’s his role in the drama. And by doing so he gives the Master, if not quite a chance for redemption, but a chance for revenge. And at the end of it, the Doctor is still alive. He and the audience are both allowed a chance to savor in the possibility that maybe this isn’t the end after all.
But it is. Of course it is. Poor old Wilf had to go and get himself locked into a sealed chamber that’s about to flood with radiation. And the only way to get him out is for the Doctor to go in and disengage the safety lock. Again, I’ve seen fans complain that the Doctor doesn’t face his death with dignity here. And again, I have to say, that regeneration is an end to a facet of the Doctor’s personality. Everything that is Ten will be gone when Eleven arrives. And Ten loves his life. Ten loves his friends. Ten is the most emotionally connected we’ve seen the Doctor in, well, ever, frankly. It is perfectly in keeping with his temperment to rage against the stupidity and irony of it all. Because, he’s going to go into that room and get Wilf out. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the Doctor.
And it is a perfect, Docterly death. It’s probably the most perfect death a Doctor has ever had. He’s not saving Planet Zog. He’s not banging his head on the TARDIS console. He’s not walking into traffic or getting pushed off a tower. He’s saving one perfectly ordinary, silly old man. Just one man. Just one little person, someone utterly unimportant. Because he’s the Doctor, and that’s what he does, and he’s proud to do it.
We get a nice series of vignettes with all of the Doctor’s companions. I think they’re worth examining one at a time.
Martha Smith-Jones and Mickey Smith
This scene was unsurprisingly contentious with lots of Doctor Who fans. That’s not surprising, given the incredibly disgusting and thinly-disguised racist vitriol that was tossed at the character and Freema Agyeman. A lot of people seemed psychotically unable to handle the idea of a black woman as the Doctor’s companion. Some of this, maybe, was just over-identification with Rose, the typical sci-fi fan love affair with any pretty blond who happens to make her way onto a program, and the knee-jerk rejection of anyone who seems like a replacement. But a lot of it is just the fact that, deep down, most sci-fi fans and nerds are on the right side of the political spectrum and at a very core level, they just don’t like black people. What was even more bizarre was, after five years of watching people complain about Russell T. Davies being politically correct and continually presenting mixed race couples on the program, certain segments of fandom suddenly piped up to complain that it was racist to pair off two black characters.
It’s all just fans being silly, ultimately. Martha was a good character that was sadly saddled with a trite plot about the Doctor mooning over Rose. Story-wise, their pairing makes sense. Martha’s previous fiance, Tom Milligan, was a complete cypher, and Martha only really knew him from a dead time-line. Martha and Mickey, however, have both traveled in the TARDIS, and have both had post-travel alien fighting experience, with UNIT and alt-reality Torchwood respectively. It’s as logical a pairing as the fanon insistence that Barbara and Ian got married after returning to their own time.
Sarah Jane and Luke Smith
With this scene it becomes clear that the Doctor is not just visiting the companions he has had in this incarnation, he’s saving them. He saves Mickey and Martha from the Sontaran. He saves Sarah Jane from losing Luke. There’s a particularly poignancy to this good-bye, as Sarah has a better idea than most new series companions about what regeneration means and the consequences of what is about to happen. Elisebeth Sladen does a particular good job here, as a mixture of sadness at what she suspects the Doctor’s visit means, and gratitude for what he has done, plays across her features.
Captain Jack Harkness and Midshipman Alonso Frame
Another oddly contentious scene. And, again, fan uproar here is largely due to one form of fan entitlement or another. On the one hand, you have the people who cower at the thought of gay characters on a sci-fi show, complaining about a “gay pick up bar” scene being inserted into what is largely a children’s program. Which is nonsense. When last we saw Jack, he was hitching a ride. Alonso is a sailor. There is large variety of different aliens milling about. It’s clearly a space-port bar. It’s, if anything, an homage to the cantina scene in the original Star Wars, and if that was a gay bar that paints Han and Chewie’s relationship in a whole new light. But the Gay Agenda people can be pretty safely ignored, much like the people who thought that Martha was too “different” to be a companion. Even more deluded than them are the crazed Janto fans who think that the thought of Jack having any kind of relationship with anyone else is a deliberate and calculated snub against them. These are the people who keep getting pseudo-misogynist sci-fi shows on Fox green-lit, so again they can be safely ignored.
What’s important here is that, again, the Doctor is saving a companion. Jack is defined by two things, his love of life and his shameless and involuntarily flirtation with every attractive life form that enters the room. A mopey, feeling sorry for himself Jack is fundamentally wrong. Yes, he has seen and done terrible things. Yes, he likely still must face some penance for that. But here, now, the Doctor is telling him as plainly as he can: get over yourself. Or, rather, be true to yourself. And, for Jack, being true to himself is shamelessly flirting with the prettiest boy in the spaceport. It’s a fun scene, it’s a cute scene, and it’s true to the characters of both Jack and the Doctor.
A nice little scene here, and the first moment we really see the Doctor being a bit selfish. As I’ve said, this incarnation of the Doctor has been the most emotionally connected of them all, and his relationship with Joan Redfern was the strongest romantic love he’s experienced. So, to check in without checking in, to assure himself that, in the end, she was happy, is a nice little epilogue to that.
The Doctor’s best friend and the Doctor’s greatest tragedy gets a particularly bittersweet good-bye, because she can never know that he’s saying good-bye, or why. Structurally we need the scene to tie up those last loose ends from this story. But we also get as much closure on the Donna story as we can get, given the nature of her departure. And the Doctor’s gift is heart-felt, since setting her up with some security for her future is about all he can be permitted to give her, and it’s the greatest fear of those others who love her.
The other moment of selfishness on the Doctor’s part. I’ll be honest; I never felt this “love” between the Doctor and Rose was as mutual as RTD and fans wanted us to think it was. Between the ninth Doctor and Rose? Absolutely. But the tenth and Rose never come across as more than friends. Very clingy friends. Co-dependent friends, to be sure. But not a great love for all time and space. A lot of this probably has to do with the heavy-handed foreshadowing that goes on in the second season, regarding how the Doctor and Rose’s cavalier attitude towards danger and the safety of others will lead to their downfall, and the sudden selfishness of Rose, particularly her possessiveness towards the Doctor. And, again, this is not born out of some distaste for romance in the Doctor’s life. I’ll be the first to tell you that the third Doctor was clearly in love with Jo Grant. But Rose, in the second series? No, that’s not love. That’s neediness. And the dramatic impact of her departure was completely undercut by the mooning over her in the third series, which only made the Doctor look needlessly like an asshole. He can be rude, he can be inconsiderate, but he should never look like an asshole. And then her return in the fourth series just wore out her welcome, especially when, even when given her very own Doctor to hug and squeeze and call him George, she still decides to cry because the color of his suit is wrong.
But we’ll put that aside. This is as close as we’re going to get to that brave, resourceful and longing for adventure and something more girl that we met in 2005. It’s fitting that this is the last person the Doctor says good-bye to. It’s important that she is the last person that he says good-bye to. And, by bringing us full circle, back to Rose and 2005, we cap off the RTD era with a nod to the beginning and all the toys back in the box for the next person who wants to play with them.
The regeneration itself is as it should be. Touching and sad, and Tennant seems to be speaking for all of us with his last words, “I don’t want to go.” Yes, of course, fans complained. Of course they complained. Doctor Who fans are at their happiest when their complaining. Hell, go back and read how many times I’ve complained about other Who fans over the course of these two reviews.
But fuck them. The words are perfect. This Doctor lived his life to the fullest and it’s a tragedy he has to go.
And then we get to the big, giddy moment. The music changes from a plaintive vocal choir to an upbeat fast drumming. And we have our new Doctor. And I’m instantly won over. You know what did it? That little “o” of surprise he has on his face after regenerating. It was just a perfect bit of characterization. Between that and his manic accounting of his limbs, Matt Smith was just instantly likable in the role.
And, of course, he’s still not ginger.
This is going to be a good year.