Ten years ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was naught but a twinkle in Nick Fury’s good eye in a post-credits sting. It took four years to get to Avengers Assemble, which is roughly how long it took Doctor Who‘s head writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies to get from Rose to The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End.
Just like Marvel, RTD built up characters through various stories throughout that time, including the spin-off shows he created, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, before bringing most of them together to face a threat that any one of them would struggle to defeat on their own. At the very end of the most popular series of the revival, this finale is nothing short of a full-colour comic-style crossover.
Directed by Who veteran Graeme Harper, the finale brought together past and present regulars (deep breath) David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Billie Piper, Freema Agyeman, John Barrowman, Noel Clarke, and Camille Coduri, for an epic battle against the Daleks’ scheme to destroy reality itself. Even if you don’t agree that it’s “the most ambitious crossover event in history”, this still does the doomed helicarrier thing first.
We’ve remarked in the past that you can see Davies’ past ambition to be a comic-book artist in his conception of Doctor Who, just as his successor Steven Moffat’s TV experience of constructing sitcoms informs his era. While the former’s comic book fandom was never more blatantly apparent than here, this finale is about as far from being a big, dumb blockbuster as you can get.
Other RTD episodes may be more acclaimed, but there’s an argument to be made that this story is the peak of his craft as a Doctor Who writer and as an ambassador for the show, tying together storylines not just from the fourth series, but from all the way back in 1974.
Previously, on Doctor Who…
“The stars are going out.”
Looking back through the previous three series, Davies seeded certain keywords, such as Mr. Saxon, Torchwood and, most notably, Bad Wolf, throughout the episodes leading up to the finale. The fourth series significantly ramped this up, with repeated mentions of lost planets, disappearing bees, and something on Donna’s back in various episodes. And of course, there were all those Rose Tyler cameos, with Billie Piper returning to the role for the first time since the Series 2 finale, Doomsday.
Thematic arcs also soared over the series, giving the Doctor and Donna their own problems to worry about in the build-up to the fateful finale. After turning him down at the end of her first appearance in The Runaway Bride, Donna is searching for the Doctor again because she’s tired of her humdrum life. Even when she’s visiting other planets, she develops a bit of an impostor syndrome. Meanwhile, apparently starting with Astrid in Voyage Of The Damned, the Doctor starts noticing that humans tend to sacrifice themselves for him quite a bit.
The eleventh episode, Turn Left, makes for an intriguing, but ultimately unconnected prologue to the finale, by turning the Doctor-lite episode into a warped Elseworld/Wishverse where Donna doesn’t meet the Doctor. As a result, the Doctor is killed during the events of The Runaway Bride, and the world slips into a dystopian alternative history as subsequent episodes Smith & Jones, Voyage Of The Damned, Partners In Crime and The Poison Sky all end catastrophically. We submit that Donna numbly asking “What is that, a sequel?” while watching news footage of the Titanic obliterating London is the writer’s darkest joke.
Aside from the big Bad Wolf cliffhanger, this episode doesn’t link directly into what follows, but it does foreshadow certain parts. For starters, just the fact that you can describe Turn Left as an Elseworld underlines the comic book influence. Secondly, it’s a story that’s ostensibly about Donna that ultimately winds up being about the Doctor. It’s a great episode and Tate gives one of her best performances, but ultimately, its dramatic importance is to show how Donna is when she doesn’t get to travel in the TARDIS.
But the build-up to The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End goes even further back than the start of the fourth series. It’s not only the culmination of these 13 episodes, but the culmination of RTD’s entire run. The 2009 specials may have been more climactic, but this was what the writer was building towards for the longest time.
The Stolen Earth
“Yes, we know who you are.”
Where the classic series would occasionally have multi-Doctor jamborees (a trick that Moffat wound up doing three times) as big events, this two-parter is the ultimate fulfilment of what RTD started in 2005, when Billie Piper was billed along with Christopher Eccleston in the opening titles. In this era, the companion gets equal billing.
That makes a multi-companion story the logical end result, treating Piper et al the way the classic series did Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. It’s a feat that wouldn’t have been possible in the modern, continuity-shy era, without Davies and other writers having built up characters and spinning them off into their own shows. With the exception of Dempsey & Makepeace‘s Michael Brandon (who gets exterminated fairly early on), the big recognisable guest stars for this episode are all former regulars on the show.
From its stonking pre-titles sequence onwards, The Stolen Earth barely stops for anything. Even the titles, which should have comprehensively settled the “Which Opening Titles Are The Best” debate ages ago (it’s this one, from these two episodes, end of), have no chill whatsoever. The names just keep on coming, right up to Elisabeth Sladen getting above-the-title billing for the first time in 35 years of being in Doctor Who.
To go back to the Avengers comparison, we meet the full cast in that cold open even faster than Joss Whedon introduced each of the Marvel heroes from their solo movies. With only 45 minutes to get to the end of part one, we meet each companion again as they’re reacting to the biggest thing that has ever happened, with the Earth being transported out of time and space to a pocket galaxy with other stolen planets visible in the sky.
Davies deftly writes in mini-introductions throughout the episode, allowing certain characters’ first meetings to do the heavy lifting for unacquainted viewers, but so much of this episode is glorious fan service, including the reveal of who the culprits are.
There’s no way you can’t see it coming, but in the execution, Mr. Smith broadcasting the message from the Daleks is marvellously executed. Never mind that it must mean one Dalek has the job of standing by a tannoy and yelling “EXTERMINATE” over and over again – having moved around from one companion to the next over the previous ten minutes, the episode does the same again for each of their terrified reactions.
Following their exploits in Canary Wharf and New York, this sequence really feels like the first time the shock-and-awe “we’ve had it now” factor of the Daleks lands since the first series of the revival. That’s backed up marvellously by composer Murray Gold’s apocalyptic new Dalek theme, The Dark And Endless Dalek Night. Gold is on especially good form in these episodes, rolling out epic action themes like Hanging On The Tablaphone and A Pressing Need To Save The World that support the story’s ambition perfectly.
Happily, we stay on Earth for the most part and don’t see as much of the Doctor and Donna’s side-quest in this episode. It would definitely have been really nice to see Davies’ planned cutaway to the Shadow Proclamation, with residents of all 27 stolen planets, including Adipose, Krillitane, and Slitheen, queuing to complain to the space police. The budget prohibited this from coming to pass, so the mighty outer space authority is downgraded to one big scene of exposition in the interior of a leisure centre in Cardiff, while the companions try to get in touch with the Doctor from Earth.
If Turn Left hadn’t just happened, it would feel like a Doctor-lite episode itself, but it’s a multi-companion story through and through. Even Penelope Wilton’s Harriet Jones gets to come back and quite rightly point out that things would be a lot better if the Doctor hadn’t deposed her, before ironically becoming the latest character to sacrifice herself to give him time to do his thing.
The passage with Harriet and the Subwave Network feels like the only time the episode even looks close to slowing, but even that immediately dovetails into reintroducing Davros. Returning out of nowhere was pretty much this character’s speciality in the Dalek stories of the 1980s, but it’s executed with suitable dread here.
Played by Julian Bleach, the Daleks’ creator is given a properly icky update, sounding even more cracked than usual as he shows off his exposed ribs, where he’s cannibalised himself to make purer versions of his metal bastard kids. Even if that’s this episode’s equivalent of stopping for breath, it’s not two minutes before the Doctor arrives on Earth and gets exterminated.
Unlike the tannoy Dalek, the Dalek Fred meme was a fitting tribute to the one guy in five decades of Doctor Who that had a shot at killing the Doctor and took it instead of shouting about it, but it’s still a surprise. On preview discs at the time, the full ending was cut off after this point, so with no spoilers in advance, a nation lost their minds as Rose, Donna, and Captain Jack bundled Doctor Who Magazine’s Most Popular Doctor Ever into the TARDIS to die…
TO… BE… CONTINUED!
The week in between The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End was the greatest trick that RTD ever pulled. The man was a consummate showman throughout his tenure on Who, albeit more like the bloke Hugh Jackman thinks he’s playing in The Greatest Showman than the actual historic arsehole PT Barnum. And we mean that as the highest of compliments, because just in terms of audience interest, it’s the most successful cliffhanger in the entire history of the show.
Series 4 had a strong lead from Voyage Of The Damned, which kicked off this production run and garnered 13.31 million viewers on Christmas Day 2007, still the most watched episode of the new series to date. Tate becoming a regular off the back of her popular self-titled sketch show was an added draw for the subsequent series, which regularly topped the ratings success of previous runs, right up to The Stolen Earth being the second most watched programme on UK television that week.
So, it’s no mean feat that Journey’s End gained more than a million viewers from the following week and topped the chart. In the week that David Tennant was still regenerating, the next Doctor speculation machine went into overdrive and there was a similar surge in public interest. There were no preview discs of the episodes for press and the only trailers featured Davros monologuing about the end of everything and no shots of either Tennant or any hypothetical new Doctor.
Journey’s End was the first sci-fi programme to reach the top spot in the UK weekly audience charts since the 1970s. With a full week of Davies doing the talk show rounds as writer, producer, and hype-man extraordinaire, it’s little wonder that even people who weren’t really into the series got a little curious, to say nothing of the legions of fans who were left hanging.
Hang on a minute though. Were the Tenth Doctor’s last words really going to be “I’m regenerating”…?
“One will still die!”
The answer to that question is obvious, but that’s not to say that it’s a cop-out. With hitherto unimaginable cheek, the episode starts off saying the Tenth Doctor is dead, long live the Tenth Doctor.
That’s not to say it’s a narrative cop-out. There’s the fan service resolution of the Doctor’s handy spare hand (again, there’s a micro-recap of where it came from for all those new viewers who are baffled that he still looks like the same bloke) but the themes of this finale only become more complex during the ensuing metacrisis.
Indeed, as of 2013’s The Time Of The Doctor, in which Moffat addressed the whole 13 lives situation once and for all, we have to count that regeneration as a proper one. But there’s more than one Tenth Doctor Mark 2 created here, with the hand growing into a David Tennant-shaped human and Donna getting part of the Doctor’s mind and effectively becoming part-Time Lord.
So, no, it’s not a “in one bound, he was free” resolution, but for the relentless pace of this two-parter, that’s also exactly what it is. The episode is 20 minutes longer, but it’s designed that way to leave time for the titular ending, rather than to let up in any noticeable way. While the opening does leave you struggling to credit a slathering Dalek Caan’s manic assertions that one of the Doctor’s companions is going to die, it’s an episode that lives up to its hype.
Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri make their triumphant returns in the scenes following the regeneration, and set about joining in with the rest of the regulars with the big theme that emerges throughout the conclusion. As the various companions make their moves to try and destroy the Daleks, Davros accuses the Doctor of creating countless warriors of his own.
That’s a strong new take on the opposition between the Doctor and Davros, post-Time War, and it’s not the only big pay-off from bringing the creator of the Daleks back. The moment where Davros recognises Sarah Jane from Genesis Of The Daleks is such a small, gorgeous beat that adds so much more to the epic scale of this story. In Davies’ hands, it really feels like a confrontation that has been centuries in the making.
Aaaand spin. The climax of the story outlasts the threat from the Daleks because it has to, in order to have the emotional impact that Davies’ script achieves. While The Stolen Earth is about the companions, Journey’s End is about the Doctor – all three of him. It’s a story that surrounds him with all his best friends, only to leave him more alone than ever before.
Look at the final act of the story, which moves from the marvellous sight of the TARDIS being flown the way we’re told it was meant to be, with all his friends working together (to Gold’s brilliant Song Of Freedom), to the Doctor on his own, soaked with rain and reflecting on what he’s lost. That’s fearsome writing and frankly, we’ll take the comedy scene of the Daleks doing a bit of Dead Or Alive on their spaceships for some levity.
In an episode that ultimately shows us why there’s only one Doctor, it follows that we see what sets him apart from everyone trying to be him, from the companions to the two new off-shoots of his personality. The duplicate human Doctor destroys the Daleks, in a practical, even necessary solution that nevertheless earns scorn from “a man who never would”. Ultimately, the two Doctors’ respective reactions to one of them essentially being gifted to Rose on Bad Wolf Bay is some truly timey-wimey self-flagellation.
In hindsight, the Doctor-Donna’s demise is problematically staged. Crying, begging him not to save her if it means taking away the best memories of her life, she loses all agency and gets her mind wiped. It’s clearly intended to be the death that Dalek Caan predicted, and even if you want to argue that she doesn’t die, it carries the same weight. The Doctor effectively kills Donna in order to save her life. The sober tone of him returning her unconscious body to Wilf and Sylvia brings the emotional impact of that home.
Even though RTD ultimately vindicates the choice to save Donna in Tennant’s final two-parter The End Of Time, by giving her a happily-ever-after ending outside of her life in the TARDIS, we probably didn’t appreciate the darkness of this ending at the time. Taken in the context that Davies’ script hands to us, Donna’s death marks the biggest downer ending to any series of Doctor Who.
The traditional “What, what, what?” scene teasing the Christmas special was shot but not included, after Davies was persuaded by his Writer’s Tale co-author Benjamin Cook that the episode didn’t need a button where a Cyberman popped into the TARDIS. Instead, the sorrow of that ending is allowed to play out and it’s unquestionably a better episode for it.
It’s what makes this story the quintessential RTD finale. At the end of a gloriously pulpy adventure, there’s the emotional sucker punch. The episode has an extended length for that, not further pyrotechnics. It makes the crossover dramatically important, rather than just a big event.
“Still, it’ll pass. Everything does.”
The downer ending sets the tone for the five specials that closed out Davies’ and Tennant’s run on the show. Tennant officially announced his departure in October 2008, meaning that the show got to have some more fun with the casting speculation by casting David Morrissey as “The Next Doctor” in that year’s Christmas special.
While subsequent series finales and the 50th anniversary special The Day Of The Doctor have taken on a humungous scale, it’s hard to beat The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End for sheer ambition. It’s the show reaching higher than it ever has before and while it doesn’t enclose everything in its grasp, it’s a hell of a thing to watch.
While the 2009 specials form an arc of their own, this feels truly climactic in terms of all the things that Russell T. Davies set out to do with the series. It’s about characters, wrapped up in a dizzying mix of brash, bold comic book science-fiction and popular television drama. Any true fan who’s read Davies’ recent Target novelisation of Rose must be dying for him to do it again with these two episodes, if he ever gets the time.
Together, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End may not be the best Doctor Who story ever, but together, true to the showmanlike sensibilities of the mad television genius who created them, they are the greatest show.