If the aim of a really well done Doctor Who cliffhanger is to leaving you screaming “noooooooooo” at the screen and frantically checking the calendar for the next episode, then it’s fair to say that Russell T Davies has just managed to tick that box.
With the Doctor shot by a Dalek, left in the midst of a regeneration and no preview for the episode that followed, that’s as close to leaving you on a knife edge that the show has managed since it came back. And for once, none of the spoilers, trailers or news stories ever seemed to see it coming. To pull a shock ending like that in the modern world is an exceptional achievement. Certainly my television is still recovering from being screamed at, while the neighbours have no doubt put the ASBO in the post.
But then The Stolen Earth was some achievement. It was a bombastic, blockbuster episode, which looks to have snared the majority of the programme’s budget this series, and looked all the better for it. Boasting terrific effects, a bucketload of blowing shit up and an energy that you couldn’t resist, it was bursting with a breathless ambition that papered over its occasional cracks. Granted, it had some problems, but this is the stuff we’re really going to be missing this time next year when we don’t have Doctor Who on Saturday nights. Repeats of My Family simply don’t have the same impact.
So let’s take a look at it all. To call the episode jam-packed would be an understatement, and it needed the extra five-minute running time just to get everyone’s names on the title crawl. We’ll come to them in a minute, though.
We learned that the bees had a purpose. We found out that the disappearing planets we’ve been told about throughout the series were relevant (with 27 of them, by the midst of the episode, taken out of time and space and brought together). We found out that the Medusa Cascade had its place too. Heck, it felt like there was barely a clue wasted throughout the series, as everything seemed to have a place. There was mention too of Donna’s back, but given that Catherine Tate barely got a look in this week, that’s pretty much all she got. Expect much more from her next week, though.
Inevitably, the amount that was packed in did come at the cost of sufficient exposition, and much of the plot detail still feels muddled (with what dialogue there was to explain things often drowned out somewhat by the sheer noise of the episode). There’s part two that should explain much of it, but given how much is left to wrap up, I wouldn’t wager too much on it given the threads left to tie up. Next week’s installment is an hour long, though.
It should be noted too that for those who like their Doctor Who stories quiet and sedate, this wasn’t their week to switch on.
Characterwise, the ensemble of assistants – ultimately brought together by the welcome (if temporary, unless there’s another rug to be pulled here) return of Penelope Wilton as Harriet Jones (she was Prime Minister, you know, and even the Daleks knew who she was, which was a neat touch) – was good fun. And to be fair, it really separated the great actors from the good. When Elisabeth Sladen and Bernard Cribbins are looking in fright at the Daleks, you buy it, no questions asked. Contrast that with Billie Piper (who seemed to recover the ability to talk properly this week) looking for a webcam, or Martha holding what looks like the vital key for the next episode, and there’s a gap there. Not a problematic one, but noticeable.
That said, it seemed for the purposes of this week that these assistants were all banded together to get across the hopelessness of a situation. And have you ever seen so many Doctor Who characters give up at once? Are we really supposed to believe that Jack, Sarah-Jane, the Doctor and UNIT would throw the towel in? That’s perhaps the bit of the episode this reviewer didn’t buy.
On the other side of the fight, meanwhile, things are really interesting. Firstly, wasn’t it great to see Davros back? Julian Bleach nailed it for us, and the look of the Daleks’ creator was very reverential to the show of old. He didn’t get much screen time, but when he was finally brought out of the shadows, it didn’t take the reactions of the Doctor (who felt strangely helpless again this week, and after Midnight that’s the second time this series) to know that this was a major moment in the revived Doctor Who. Welcome back evil one, you’ve definitely been missed.
What’s even more interesting though is Dalek Caan, who after Evolution Of The Daleks we’d have been happy to never see again. Yet here, he’s adding an interesting dynamic to the Dalek fight: his proclamation of a loyal companion’s death already had me checking the Sky to make sure the next episode is on to tape. Throw in the fact that the Daleks felt more ruthless than we’ve seen them in years, and it’s a collection of foes that genuinely feel like a real and sinister threat. It’s all the better for it, too.
And then there was that ending, which was quite, quite brilliant. But what happens now, then? The unsubtle shot of the Doctor’s hand in a jar is an obvious pointer (and did feel like a bit of a flashing beacon of a clue), but does this mean he’ll stop the regeneration somehow? Or will we be getting a new Doctor, or perhaps rewind in some way to John Simm or even Christopher Eccleston? How cool would that be? Not very likely, though.
Also, where does The Shadow Proclamation fit in? And are the Judoon – mercenaries by nature – going to turn out to be more than a welcome cameo? Which assistant is being lined up for the chop? The pointers have been towards Donna all series, but if there’s a rug to be pulled, you can bet that Russell T will be quite happy to yank it. Just leave Bernard Cribbins alone. Here’s another theory, too: could we be in the midst of an alternative timeline, hinted at by the mention of Donna’s back?
Questions, questions then, and throwing up such posers and discussions is just what the first half of a Doctor Who two parter is supposed to do. What’s more, to say that The Stolen Earth eclipsed the equivalent episode last year would be no understatement whatsoever, and to also note that it’s generated an enthusiasm and excitement for next week already would be showing yet more restraint. The fear, of course, is the feeling that last year’s finale ultimately cheated, and you hope dearly that lessons will have been learned.
We suspect that’s the case, but either way, off the back of The Stolen Earth, it’ll take a force of nature to keep us away from a TV set next Saturday night.
Because, warts and all, that was one hell of an episode…