Thursday, 20 December 2012

Review: Doctor Who 4.17-18: The End of Time

Yeah, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Doctor Who - Season 30, Episodes 17-18 (Third Christmas and New Year Special) - The End of Time
Written between 2nd and 17th November 
If you like The End of Time, read at thy peril.

Next year, I'm gonna go back to Tennant. This run of episodes has convinced me to do that. Maybe he's not as bad as I've thought he was over the past several years. The End of Time, though, does have a lot to answer for. It's an important story for me, for the simple reason that this is where pretty much all of my Ten-hate began. Seriously. I liked Ten, and then I watched this story, and for the past three years now, that's the way I've felt about him. What could be so bad about a story that it could literally change my mind about one of my favourite characters from light admiration to complete and utter hatred? Well, The End of Time'll do that to you. Journey's End, the "series finale" of Series Four, had been a messy, messy thing. But The End of Time took that to new levels.
     At a base level, what annoys me about The End of Time is the level with which RTD attempts to make it grandiose and epic and then fails on such a tremendous scale. This began a few episodes back with the “he will knock four times” prophecy from Planet of the Dead, one that still plagues this episode and which makes very little sense considering the vast number of times someone does four successive knocks in the interim episodes. There are so many set-pieces and grand pronouncements that RTD has to ignore things like reason and coherent storytelling in order to get his characters into these crazy situations. And of course that’s how the story will be remembered – by the big moments, by the stunts. But that a good episode doesn’t make, and thus most of the first half of the special is complete and utter tripe.
     This episode’s actual plot, when you take The Master and the Time Lords out of the equation (which I will cover, don’t worry) has very little new to offer. The bigged-up villains from the opening prophecy, the Naismiths, do little other than have a big house and some convenient guards, and their only characterisation seems to be a kind of weird incestuous tone between them. The other new guys are the Vinvocci, who are another spin on RTD’s “spiky aliens are funny” gag from back in Voyage of the Damned, except this time they’re embodied by the still-very-much-in-Being-Human Sinead Keenan. Both pairs get ridiculously little characterisation, and exist for the sole purpose of hanging the story's already thin plot around. If you cut out the Master's stupid plan, then they really have no reason to exist in the story at all.
Cheap Resurrection, hair-dye included with the price.
     No Daleks here, no Cybermen, but we do have to put up with RTD's version of The Master. I'll get into greater detail when I cover The Last of the Timelords next year, but I always felt uneasy with his approach - the Master has always had a problem with being taken seriously as a villain and this cross from the Moriarty-like figure to something of a more Joker-like archetype doesn't do the stories any favours. Here he manages to use a piece of alien tech to transplant himself on every human being on the planet, providing one of NuWho's most ridiculous cliffhangers and proving ultimately pointless when it's easily reverted in the second half. The Master most definitely improves in the second half, when he's acting like a person and not like a weird, randomly-resurrected monster, and despite the blatant pandering I do enjoy some of the more slashy scenes between him and the Doctor.
     And yes, "Randomly resurrected" is one way of saying it. There are lots of things in The End of Time that I can forgive, but this is definitely not one of them. In his desperate attempt to bring back The Master after he'd been lazily killed off at the end of The Last of the Time Lords, RTD seems to have forgotten the concept of plot and common sense and instead randomly throws a whole barrel of bullshit at the screen and hopes some of it will stick. So Mr. Saxon randomly gets a parliamental cult who use magic (they don't even bother throwing technobabble at it, it's magic and potions from ancient books) to ressurect The Master, while his wife throws a potion at him that turns him into a super-hungry skeletor with magic electro-powers. It's completely and totally insane and is also completely unnecessary, or would be if RTD hadn't been so insistent during his reign of having ridiculously poignant finalés. It's a big whalloping great ten minutes of most puerile drivel and is, without a doubt, the worst scene in the history of Doctor Who. Worse than New Earth. Yeah, that bad.
     Davies did try to do something interesting with this story, in bringing back the Time Lords for one last go and revealing some of the backstory to Davies' big Time War storyline that he's started the series off with five years prior. However, despite the wonderful aesthetic that he manages to bring up around the Time Lords in this story, they're essentially just turned into hammy villains that have none of the political satire attached to them that the Classic Series so revelled in. Timothy Dalton's Rassilon, while enjoyable hammy in itself, comes off as an over-powered villain who is then too easily defeated - it's the worst of both worlds. Especially at certain points in the first half, in which RTD saw fit to make him add narration. What narration effectively does is show that you, as a writer, don't have the ability to put your message across on screen and have to resort to someone actively telling you the plot.
Dalton!Rassilon is not happy. Or sane.
     Now, one thing that RTD introduced when he brought back the Master a few years prior was the idea that The Master had been driven insane across his life by the sound of a Time-Lord heartbeat constantly drumming in his mind. This of course provides something of a problem; we have something like 25 adventures with the Master before this, and not once does he ever mention the drumming in his head being the cause of his dickery. Hell, there were times in the past where The Master was a perfectly sane guy who just seemed to like fucking up the Doctor's day (looking at you, Delgado!Master). It introduces something that retcons Who history going back to 1971, and for that it just doesn't make any particular sense. This episode decides that it was these crazy End-of-Days Timelords that put the message in his head, using it as a gap between the Time-Lock and Earth. Well, I'm sorry Rusty, but that's one shitty Time-Lock you got there that can actually pass matter and energy through it. I'll be going more into The End of Time's bad science next Wednesday.
      This story's last legacy, before I get onto the story's good bits, comes in the form of RTD's total and utter inability to leave his role without incredible pomp and circumstance. I've already mentioned the stupid prophecising and the mad Woman who randomly appears for no reason across the special, but there's a much longer bit that not only failed in its original intention but made a lot of things even worse. Even after stropping to his death and accepting his magic radiation-box, Ten flips one up to Caves of Androzani and gets to walk about for a week before he dies. He visits all of the companions of the New Series thus far, and they're all a bit off for various reasons. We find that Martha and Mickey are now engaged and go around hunting Sontarans, which seems to have been for the sole reason that both characters were People of Colour and Rusty couldn't think of a less racist way to tie up his loose ends. The Doctor gives Captain Jack the name of Alonso from Voyage of the Damned so he can have a bunk up, showing that either The Doctor has little to no idea of what shit went down during Children of Earth or just doesn't care, and he then saves the life of Sarah Jane Smith's son Luke. Finally, Ten decides paradox schmaradox and goes to say hello to Rose before she's even met him, which makes one wonder why she didn't initially recognise Ten when he first regenerated only a few months after this encounter.
     I planned to finish this with a rant about Ten's characterisation, so before I do that I'll talk about this story's good bits. Rusty does have a knack for writing certain characters very well in certain situations, and veteran Bernard Cribbins gives Wilf, this episode's effective companion, some of the most powerful and thought-provoking ideas that RTD ever came up with. Wilf is one of the sole reasons why I'd ever watch Season 30; while Rusty may have had some questionable ideas on how to write for PoCs, he got writing for elderly spot on and it's one of the best representations that the series has ever done. The two best scenes, then, in the entire special come when Wilf and The Doc have a nice sit-down chat - firstly in the Café scene where Wilf confronts The Doc on his death wish, and later on the Vinvocci spacecraft where he begs The Doc to take up arms.
Faux choices for a dying Time-Lord.
     Ten. The Tenth Doctor was best in his middle-season, I find, and as much as I find Season 29 a bit meh I will say that The Doctor was a lot more bearable. The End of Time presents Ten as perhaps the most cowardly of all of his incarnations, struck with righteous indignation that someone as awesome as he should ever have to pass on the torch. After nine regenerations before him, all gone to with a certain degree of grace, Ten stinks up the show and has a hissy fit, claiming that regneration is just tarted-up death. Finally, he makes his last words the ridiculous, "I don't want to go," straight out of RTD's own mouth. One of Doctor Who's core themes is about change - unintentionally, perhaps, and the result of William Hartnell's declining health, but nevertheless one that has persisted throughout its time. The End of Time has ultimately created a legacy of Tennant fans who simply cannot accept change any more - who cannot accept change in a series in which change is one of the main attractions. And that's a really, really bad thing.
     The End of Time is not good, let's just clarify. In no sense of the word, be it classically good or So-Bad-It's-Good, no, it's neither of those things. It has some interesting things in it, here or there, but it's also a rather damning dissertation on a producer's misunderstanding of what Doctor Who really is. I'm all for a producer celebrating his time on the program, but it's necessary to the show's ability to change that this be done well. The End of Time doesn't do it well - in its core, it has poor, poor writing instead of actual characterisations and plot, and in its legacy it insults all Doctor Who before or since. The End of Time is something that Doctor Who will be scarred by for many, many years to come, and I can only hope that when Moffat bows out, he does so with a great deal more subtlety.

Thanks.

See you next year, Tennant Era. We still have unfinished business.

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