WARNING: IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN THE EPISODE, THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!
Well, if you hadn’t guessed it was the end of an era beforehand, Russell T Davies and his team left you in no doubt by the time the credits rolled this time. There had been promises that there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house by the time The End Of Time ended, and after an epic, sometimes-breathtaking hour and a quarter, they’d pretty much delivered on that promise. For while I liked The End Of Time Part One, it was still littered with problems and annoyances. Part Two? Brilliant. Not perfect, but brilliant nonetheless.
What I loved about the episode is, I suspect, what one or two traditionalists will dislike. That the threat that had built up on Christmas Day dissolved so easily, and so early on in the episode. I’ve criticised Russell T Davies in the past for scampering to his finales after superb build up work, but here he very much made the right choice in getting matters wrapped up fairly swiftly. For instead of getting a rushed regeneration at the end of an adventure, he made the space to wrap up the tenth Doctor’s journeys properly.
We’ve never had this: 20 minutes or so for a Doctor to deal with his impending demise, with no threat to see off to get in the way. Here though, we got Tennant visiting his former assistants, saving them one more time. Or, in the case of Captain Jack, giving him a name of a potential date, in the form of Midshipman Frame (in a scene that looked like it was straight out of Star Wars’ Cantina Bar, not the only nod to George Lucas’ masterpiece that we picked up). And we also got a point where he visited Rose before he met her.
He called all this his reward, but really, it was ours. This was the first outright emotional regeneration, and it deepened the process immensely. Usually, the emotions are dealt with afterwards, as the new Doctor gets used to his new body. Here, an outgoing Doctor got to face the ramifications of what was about to happen, and it was explored exceptionally well.
And how brilliantly the bell tolled. I loved the fact that the knocking four times we were waiting for all along was something as simple as Bernard Cribbins trapped in a chamber, tapping the door wanting to come out. Granted, it was a bit of an odd contrivance that saw Wilf running into said chamber in the first place.
But it was all so wonderfully small and poignant. And what a moment: just at the moment the Doctor thought he’d survived, that’s when Wilf knocked, and that’s when Tennant’s Doctor knew he was going to die. It was goosebump good. And It also allowed two superb actors to step into the limelight.
Firstly, there was Bernard Cribbins. He was the star of Part One of The End Of Time, and he was outstanding again here. I’d argue he’s the best assistant that Tennant got to travel with, as when Cribbins’ eyes crease and the tears start to roll, it takes some resolve not to well up yourself (admission: I failed). He was still and steady where other actors may have been content to ham it up, and his performance here was simply wonderful. When Wilf realised his part in the Doctor’s demise, it was haunting simply because it was so brilliantly underplayed.
But this was David Tennant’s show, and a near-80 minute exercise in just how much he’s going to be missed. Tennant was always at his best in these more sombre episodes – inevitably The End Of Time Part Two was darker Who – and he was magnetically brilliant here. None of the running around like a loon of old. This was a character being taken apart bit-by-bit over the course of the episode, and Tennant’s eyes alone told the story. It was an amazing performance. The Doctor was torn apart long before the regeneration started, and the broken Time Lord that we first got to see properly in The Waters Of Mars (although he was hinted at many times beforehand) was fully exposed here. Credit too for the introduction of the Ood to sing the Doctor out. “The universe will sing you to your sleep”, they said. That’s just great writing.
You’ve probably noticed that all we’ve talked about thus far has been the last 20 minutes of the episode. As brilliant as the back end of Part Two was, that’s still a little unfair on the hour that preceded it, that was far from shabby itself. It had benefited enormously from quietening the Master down a little to allow him to talk to the Doctor as some kind of equal again (and John Simm came across in a far more sinister way, I thought), and as a result, the fight got really interesting again. Instead of the batshit crazy version we got for most of Part One of The End Of Time, The Master was a little bit more measured, and it helped enormously. “What would I be without you?”, the Doctor asked him at one point, and it really felt like a proper and welcome battle of minds was taking place again.
Then there was Timothy Dalton’s Darth Vader-a-like Lord President of the Time Lords also thrown into the mix (was it the Hand Of Omega he was zapping everyone with, I wonder?). It wasn’t an episode for villains, to be fair, but Dalton was doing perfectly well – even getting over how quickly he reversed a plan that had taken The Master an episode to put together – until he was rushed to his demise.
And this does hint at the flaws in the episode. It seems churlish to criticise a piece of television I enjoyed so much, but in the spirit of completeness, there were a couple of niggles. Take the Visionary for starters, who seemed to be stepping in for Dalek Caan in Journey’s End, only this time in the guise of a hybrid of every old psychic hag that television has thrust in our direction. I was glad she was shuffled out of the way quite quickly.
Furthermore, there was the arguable throwing away of Dalton’s character. Not just him, either, the Time Lords too. The Time War has been the great unexplored part of the narrative that Russell T Davies has introduced into Doctor Who, and this is the closest we’ve got to it being addressed head-on. Yet it was, ultimately, a side attraction as far as the episode was concerned, and for those of us who had wondering about the Time Lords and how they got to this point, there’s an element of opportunity lost there. Perhaps Steven Moffat will find a way to go back for a look now that his tenure on the show has begun.
He’s certainly got an interesting thread to explore if the nod the Doctor gave to Donna near the end of the episode meant what I think it meant. Was she the Time Lord advising Wilf all along? That would explain why she appeared to him, although it wouldn’t cover why she was able to break the time lock in the first place to get a message to him.
One note to Mr Moffat, though: if you are going to come up with some nonsense akin to the White Point Star that the Lord President sent to Earth, can you at least ensure it doesn’t look like something that’s just dropped out of the Argos catalogue? It was the only production design fault in an episode that boasted strong direction, better than expected action sequences (Cribbins with lasers!) and arguably the best visual effects since Doctor Who returned to our screens.
While the villains did ultimately take the back seat, at least before they did we got the interesting shoot out sequence with the Doctor standing in the middle of the Lord President and The Master. It was a great scene, right down to when The Master told the Doctor to get out of the way. I never believed for a second that the Doctor would fire the gun, but the torture on his face as he battled his conundrum over which way to point it was once more a testament to Tennant’s acting.
Still, the most significant change marked by this episode wasn’t the casting of the Doctor. It’s the change of boss. Usually since he took over on Doctor Who, Russell T Davies has given us excellent penultimate episodes to his series, and slightly disappointing finales. Here, he’s managed the opposite. The End Of Time Part Two was a jam-packed testament to everything Davies has done with Doctor Who, warts and all. It was big blockbuster entertainment with a hell of an emotional wallop, and some inspired plotting that dug deeply into the stories of the past four years. The Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who is absolutely an exciting one, but the bar has been left high here, and Russell T Davies is damn sure going to be missed.
I should say that I did feel a bit for Matt Smith who had to pop up in the last few minutes and open up the story of a new Doctor, a minute after we’ve seen such a terrific closing of another Doctor’s chapter (I suspect even now the Internet is sharpening its knives). But I’m not going to judge Smith based on a minute of frantic footage – he’s got 13 episodes coming up in the Spring when the whole process starts again.
Instead, I’m content to sit back and applaud what I thought was a terrific episode of Doctor Who, and the end of a major era in the show’s history. It’s a major achievement to build up expectation levels for an episode over the course of pretty much an entire year, and then exceed them with the end result. That’s precisely what’s happened here though, and both David Tennant and Russell T Davies have left some very big shoes to fill.
Over to you then, Mr Moffat and Mr Smith. We’ll be seeing you in the Spring. In the interim, I suspect The End Of Time Part Two is going to be watched a few more times yet…
Read our review of Part One here…