Doctor Who series 4 episode 13: Journey’s End review

After a week of heavy speculation, and one of the best cliffhangers in Doctor Who memory, was Journey's End worth all the hype? Here's our review...

Journey's End

Oh dear.

If The Stolen Earth pumped us up with excitement, then Journey’s End eventually, after some promise, took a pin and slowly deflated us. Because as the episode wound itself into its back third, once all the scores seemed to have been settled, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the classic series finale we’d been teased with. And while it was better than last year’s The Last Of The Time Lords (even if it didn’t necessarily feel like it immediately after the end credits), this was still a major missed opportunity, and a real disappointment.

After all, it’s only a week ago that The Stolen Earth had spent 50 minutes building up to a threat far more striking and vicious than we’ve seen in Doctor Who over the past few years. It also left us with a cliffhanger that genuinely left you wondering what on earth was going to happen next.

Yet it didn’t even take a minute to piss that away. As many suspected, the hand next to the Tardis proved to be vital, as a quick special effect later, and the Doctor had taken whatever energy he needed from the regeneration, and diverted the leftovers onto his hand. Think back to The Christmas Invasion all those years ago: did we ever think that the Doctor’s severed hand would become the get out of jail card it’s become, lining up next to the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper in the armoury of get-outs and plot devices? And yet its role in this muddled episode had only just begun.

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Once over that initial anti-climax, and the reintroduction of Mickey and Jackie to blast away some Daleks to save Sarah-Jane (along with some time bubble to keep the Torchwood folks safe), it seemed the ante was being upped again. There was an increasing feeling that the Doctor was powerless, and that it would really take something quite brilliant to beat the Dalek threat. Heck, this time the pepperpots could even – amusingly – fly over Germany, speaking the lingo too (a genius moment, to be fair). And when the Doctor revealed that the Daleks could blast away the Tardis door without a second thought, it was defences down in every sense. Had the Doctor ever been so vulnerable in the face of his deadliest enemies?

It was building up a treat. Julian Bleach’s Davros was banging on well, even when he got to the now-traditional ranting and raving. What’s more, the part of the script where Davros drew parallels between the two, ‘exposing’ the Doctor’s soul and asking “How many have died in your name” – as his assistants lined up with the kind of mass destruction weapons that the Time Lord abhors – was really well done. Let’s not forget too the moment where Davros recognised Sarah-Jane from Genesis Of The Daleks. That was a classic Who goosebump moment surely, for the long-time fan of the show.

Still, it all came crashing off the rails.

Let’s deal with the Daleks masterplan first. If the ending of Last Of The Time Lords was from Superman (with everything being rewound, and the reset switch being flicked), this was straight out of Superman II, as the Dalek’s weapon was inevitably concentrated on themselves. Had Russell T Davies stayed on for another series, then I’d dig out my copy of Superman III right now and save myself the bother of writing the end of series review in two years’ time. Combined with the bizarre sight of the Tardis pulling, well, an entire planet, it wasn’t anywhere near what last week had been tempting us with. That’s being a little kind.

Then there was the threefold Doctor. The duplicated Tennant, with the half-human twist, was a bit of a muddle, and in the end only really seemed in place to give Rose her long-cherished happy ending. But the turning of Tate into half-Time Lord was quite bizarre. Catherine Tate has spent most of the series showing the early naysayers that she’s a good actress, and that she knew what she was doing. Then, at perhaps her most crucial point of the run, she turned into the Catherine Tate we feared we were going to get. All of a sudden, a force that just an episode ago caused Captain Jack, the Doctor and Sarah-Jane to give up without a fight were rolling over like dominoes, beaten by some fast typing and Tate one-liners. At a push, it’d be a struggle to get away with that in an early series episode, but this was the series finale.

What was also disappointing was how Davros was allowed to peter out. The mechanic of having him as effectively a prisoner of his own creations isn’t new, and it does – as a narrative device – help to level off the old problem of him making the Daleks around him seem weak. But once he’d done the necessary taunting of the Doctor, and had his weapon turned against him (actually, that happened last time we saw him too, in Remembrance of the Daleks – you’d think he’d put in a failsafe for these things, given that he’s such a genius), he all but disappeared. A shame, as the maniacal man is safe in Julian Bleach’s hands, and once he’d gone, the episode fell into its worst excesses.

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Chief among them was the ‘second’ Doctor being left with Rose, with the pair of them snogging away on a Norwegian beach. The speech that the Doctor gave her, about how before he met her he was full of anger and rage pretty much pretends that the preceding 40 years of assistants and characterisations of the Doctor never happened. It also, presumably, guarantees Tennant a cameo option long after he hands over the key to the Tardis. After all, all that stuff about everything being sealed off for good last happened two years ago, yet wasn’t enough to keep Billie Piper’s name off the credits this time round.

But then there was also the unwillingness to follow through on Dalek Caan’s prophecy that the most loyal of assistants would die (which looked even more certain when, two thirds of the way through, we had a big happy-clappy session in the Tardis). Granted, when K9 popped up you did wonder if he would prove to be the way out, but instead it was a mini-reset switch that was opted for, as the crosshairs on Donna Noble’s head were quickly Tipp-exed out in favour of reaching for the Undo option. I’ve defended several times the reluctance of Russell T Davies and his team to genuinely kill off interesting characters, but this was a case where you couldn’t help but feel it should have happened. Instead, Donna was left back as Catherine Tate, so she could start work on another series of her sketch show as if the last thirteen episodes had never happened. It might not have dampened the sense of loss that the Doctor was showing at the end, but it did feel like one of a number of small-to-middling cheats that Journey’s End employed.

You’ve probably got the impression by now that, for this reviewer at least, Journey’s End was quite a disappointment. To be fair, it did have its qualities, and if the ‘resetting’ of Donna means we’ll never meet Bernard Cribbins in Who again, then that’s a sad day, because again, he easily showed many of those around him how it should be done. Likewise, there’s a sporting chance that we’ll never again meet Elisabeth Sladen in the main Doctor Who programme either, and that too is a pity, for much the same reason.

Furthermore, the effects continued – pulling Earth aside – to impress, and there was an awful lot crammed into the episode, even considering its extended running time. Threads were tied up, and there was a real feeling that a lot of backstory was being pulled together, at a break-neck pace. If you didn’t care so much about the programme and its narrative, and were just looking for a fast, glossy hour in front of the telly on a Saturday night, then it probably did the job very well.

But for everyone else? It simply didn’t feel like it had the courage or intention to follow through on the set up from The Stolen Earth, and that’s a real shame. For while time is likely to view Journey’s End as a decent enough end to a series, the potential was here for it to be so, so much more. Instead, it feels like the ball has been smashed wide just on the verge of scoring a spectacular goal. For years into the future we’ll continue to rewatch and enjoy the build up, but still wonder what’d have happened had the finish been better.

You could argue that it’s a fair reflection of the yin and yang of the Russell T Davies era, where brilliance has to go toe-to-toe with frustration. Writing as someone who had, more often than not, enjoyed what RTD has done with his revival of Who, I’d probably go along with the argument. After all, just a few hours ago the speculation was still raging about whether they’d have the courage to replace Tennant in what would have been the biggest surprise the show has ever pulled. Now? We’ve got two of him instead.

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All considered, a Saturday night is far better with Doctor Who on it than not, and series four has had plenty of highlights. But maybe a two year break now to recharge the batteries before another full series isn’t a bad idea. It won’t stop us tuning in at Christmas for the Cybermen though….

Check out our review of last week’s The Stolen Earth

In fact check out all of series 4…

SERIES 4 reviews

episode 12 The Stolen EarthSimon Brew

episode 11Turn LeftSimon Brew

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episode 10MidnightSimon Brew

episode 9Forest Of The DeadMartin AndersonSimon Brew

episode 8Silence In The LibrarySimon BrewMartin Anderson

episode 7 The Unicorn and the WaspSimon BrewMartin Anderson

episode 6The Doctor’s DaughterMartin AndersonSimon Brew

episode 5 The Poison SkyMartin AndersonSimon Brew

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episode 4 The Sontaran StratagemSimon Brew

episode 3Planet Of The OodJohn Moore

episode 2The Fires Of PompeiiMartin AndersonSimon Brew

episode 1Partners In CrimeMartin AndersonSimon Brew

Also see the new and ever growing Doctor Who page at DoG, where we are marshalling all the Who content at the site, including interviews, DVD and episode reviews, lists, opinions and articles on our favourite time traveller.

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