Sunday, July 06, 2008

Doctor Who (4.13) Journey's End [SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING] [LONG] [VERY LONG]

So, what did you think was going to happen?

I figured that, as a parting gesture, RTD was going to bring back Gallifrey and the Time-Lords. I figured out that the group of planets (what is the collective term for a group of planets? Is it just ‘galaxy’?) formed a machine of some kind together but I assumed it would be used to break open the time-locked Time War and extract all the Daleks from within it, bringing back the Dalek Empire but not the one race that had any hope of stopping them, only the Doctor would flick some switches and instead of extracting the Daleks Davros would help bring back the Time Lords instead. I didn’t bet on RTD just giving us an hour of callbacks to the last four years.

Generally speaking RTD seems to enjoy setting things up more than resolving things and giving us explanations. Let’s not forget that, originally, Bad Wolf was never going to be explained, wasn’t intended to be any more than a little in-joke to himself that RTD put in each episode. So, when I said yesterday that this was a bad episode, I wasn’t kidding. This is probably one of the worst scripts that RTD has ever turned in, and yet, and yet, it is also one of his best ever, it’s all a matter of perspective.

If I had to make a list of my 5 least and most favourite points then I suspect that they would closely tally. I could, but I won’t. It was that kind of episode.

Definite non-redeemable bad points? The ‘regeneration’. Though it did spin-off in to some positive points it was a cheat, pure and simple, in the ‘finest’ tradition of Doctor Who, needing something dramatic to cliff-hanger an episode that can then be quickly dealt with at the start of the next one. I didn’t have a stopwatch but I reckon all the crisis points from last week were dealt with within about two minutes this week.
Jackie Tyler. While it’s always a delight to see Camille Coduri on our screens, this was fan service pure and simple. Rose isn’t Newt and Jackie most definitely isn’t Ripley. Admittedly she didn’t do anything after blowing up the Dalek but even if the parallel world’s population now consisted only of the Tylers and Mickey then Pete should be warping through space and time before Jackie, hell, the baby could come over and is only two!
The Daleks. Back in Patrick Troughton’s days they had to make do with three real Daleks in front of a painting of a room full of Daleks (The Power of the Daleks IIRC) By the time of Christopher Ecclestone we have an actual fleet of CGI pepperpots but the action is mostly, and wisely, concentrated on the Daleks that are invading the space station that the Doctor is on and religious fish tank Dalek as the scale of the fleet is too vast to encompass on screen. Because of the brilliant work of John Barrowman and Elisabeth Sladen we also get a really powerful sense of how terrifying these monsters are, even though we know the Doctor will arrive soon to sort it all out. Last week and at the start of this week, we see a few Daleks on Earth, murdering people and being beastly. Once everyone gets kidnapped up to Dalek HQ this gets mostly forgotten (honourable exception: German Daleks! Fantastic!) and we just have the Dalek fleet hanging aimlessly around because Davros has invented a super weapon to make them superfluous. By the time Martha is kicking Daleks into corridors the vast scale is forgotten.

But there were some great moments. As though in response to complaints that there are too many deus ex machinas in the new show RTD threw a whole slew of them at us on screen and then broke them one by one, the Osterhagan Project will destroy the Earth and so break the Dalek machine, except Martha is beamed away before she can activate it! Captain Jack makes a bomb out of a supernova stored in a necklace, except he’s beamed away before he can break it! The HumanDoctor makes a gun out of nothing in no time at all, except both he and Donna are zapped before it can be used! In the end the deus is one we never saw coming.

A word on the Daleks. For once, Doctor Who Confidential got it right, Nick Briggs deserves a fucking medal for his work. RTD made the Daleks a credible enemy once more and after the mistakes Helen Raynor made last year restored them to their right place as the Doctor’s worst enemy last week. More often than not, you can read the relationship between the Doctor and the Master as a masochistic one which can only be stopped when the Master decides to stop it, he often seems less interested in the pursuit of power than of causing the Doctor the most distress possible. The Doctor is rarely in physical danger when the Master is around, but with the Daleks it’s different. Quite why they didn’t shoot him on the spot I don’t know, presumably that’s Dalek Caan’s influence. And here we have them at their genocidal worst, not only do they want to destroy all other life in the universe but they’ve expanded their hatred to all patterns of energy too (although let’s be fair, stars are beings too, remember 42?). Julian Bleach does a brilliant Davros and, as with Blink last year, we actually have something so terrifying on screens that if the Radio Times doesn’t get letters complaining that Doctor Who is too scary for tinys then I really despair for the ‘Midnight passengers’ of this country. RTD has beefed-up and made changes to all of the returning villains from the mythology to make them more of a threat, with Davros he didn’t need to. I have a sense of cross-purposes here, the Daleks clearly turn up spoiling for a fight, Davros hates the universe so much that he wants to fight that, Bleach’s performance when Davros thinks he’s won is amazing. I don’t think the Doctor was right though, I don’t think Davros was in Dalek prison. I think it was like when middle-class people move their recently bereaved remaining parent into their house to live with them until they die. The Daleks are there to destroy the universe and Davros is their grandpa. Of course, being older than them he’s naturally more right-wing but I would suspect they would be more than happy if his scheme failed so they had to exterminate the galaxy the old-fashioned way, just as long as his failure doesn’t coincide with them exploding to bits. Oh dear.

I wonder what Billie Piper felt about the whole experience. The impulse to bring her back was one that RTD should have resisted. Her story ended perfectly on the shores of Bad Wolf Bay the first time round, we didn’t really need an encore, although her agent is presumably happy as the work hasn’t exactly been flooding in over the last few years. So we have alternate world-Torchwood building another machine to send people through reality, despite the whole Cybermen and global warming thing that happened last time they tried that gimmick, just so Rose can be reunited with her second boyfriend (no longer Mickey decides not to go back to that universe, if the prospect of the end of all creation isn’t enough of a hint that the girl really isn’t interested then he really would be Mickey the Idiot). This was my second guess by the way, that alternate-Earth becomes the New Gallifrey.

But when we end up there again there’s less of an emotional reaction, or at least not the same one as the first time round. Especially as Rose gets to take home HumanDoctor this time and she’s still not satisfied. Careful girl, a lot of killers can be set off by rejection by sexual partners. RTD manages to transform Rose into rather a selfish and heartless little girl, quite an achievement. It’s rather messy.

I also guess that while it’s not good to be half-human/half-Gallifreyan like Donna, it is fine to be half-Gallifreyan/half-human like HumanDoctor? Maybe there’s a missing scene where Rose watches the TARDIS dematerialise and then turns around the find the real reason the RealDoctor got HumanDoctor out of the ship was that he was about to turn into the Human Roman Candle.

I did assume it was going to be Martha that got killed as she’s generally been punished for not being Rose. Season Three has been my favourite series of all four but I seem to be in a minority of one on this. If Hitler and the end of this episode are right, and she and Mickey are going to join Torchwood then that might be enough to make me watch season three even though by rights she should be more efficient at everything than any of those losers. (And I can just imagine Ianto’s expression when Jack waltzes back into the Hub with Mickey: “I know you’ve just spent the last millennia underground endlessly dying and being reborn but I didn’t think you’d dump me for some rough trade.”)

And Donna. I didn’t know until a friend told me that Catherine Tate has done a hell of a lot of serious acting apart from the comedy she’s most famous for. And certainly, when she acts rather than gurns she was amazing all series as well as last night. The tragedy of Donna is that she has grown up not realising her talents, presumably having all her dreams squashed by her bitch of a mother. To be returned to that at the end and to be effectively condemned to a life of mediocrity because the knowledge of her potential would kill her is especially bleak.

And I doubt she’ll get to come back in two years time to have that sorted out.

And before we move on, Bernard Cribbins. Bernard Cribbins. Other than the unfortunate Voyage of the Damned he has been one of the biggest pleasures of this season. After his work over the last three episodes I want to adopt him as my granddad.

Which brings me on to missed emotional cues. Either RTD is losing his touch or we’re becoming inoculated to his tricks. A number of people online pointed out after last weeks episode that if we really were saying goodbye to David Tennant as the Doctor then RTD would have sledgehammered the point home, rather than killing him off in the most offhanded way since ‘Colin Baker’ bumped his head and turned into Sylvester McCoy. But while there was a point to that there was too much spectacle! and technobabble to really let a lot of passion hit home. The worst misfire was when RTD decided we needed to be reminded of the consequences of the Doctor’s existence on other people. This was perhaps a difficult sell two weeks after showing us that the Doctor’s existence was infinitely better than the Doctor’s non-existence, it was made more unlikely because it was spelled out none-too-subtly by someone who was supposed to be one of the beings in the universe most responsible for death and destruction. I assume that RTD wisely decided to cut this short of trying to claim that the Doctor was to his companions as Davros was to the Daleks but, although it’s a point worth periodically revisiting it’s been dealt with better before, such as The Doctor Dances, The Parting of the Ways, The Girl in the Fireplace or Love & Monsters. As it is, all we can manage here is that David Tennant looks vaguely constipated and that’s it. We should perhaps not be surprised that a race that want to destroy all that’s different don’t really have psychological insight into another species. Similarly, at the end, when everyone has been returned to their constituent realities and/or spin-offs Wilf comments on the Doctor being alone but it just doesn’t compare to the other times they’ve made this point, such as, oh I don’t know, Doomsday?

But Bernard Cribbins and David Tennant really sell the tragedy of Donna both in the doorstep scene and the discussion afterwards. Bernard gives an acting master-class in just a minute or so of screen time. You can see it in his eyes, for the rest of Wilf’s life he’s got look at Donna, knowing that every time she feels she’s worthless, cut down by the cruelty of her mother or her work colleagues, he can’t tell her how special she is, he can’t remind her of how she saved existence because it would kill her. That is the terror of the Doctor that makes the Vashta Nerada turn and flee, that makes the Racnoss quail. That’s worse than Davros having spent his time reading ‘Psychological Manipulation for Dummies’. I don’t know whether it’s the strain of being the lightning rod for every good or bad word for the series in the last five years and having to deal with some sometimes pathologically unhappy fanpersons but is this and Midnight RTD’s way of saying “screw you guys, I’m going home”?

And Dalek Caan, erm, what? So, I’ll accept that even though [ authority figure ] The Doctor says it’s not possible that Dalek Caan somehow entered the Time War what we are supposed to assume happened is that he absorbed time vortex energy and became the Bad Wolf, this gave him the power to extract Davros’s fleet from there scant milliseconds before they were destroyed by the Nightmare Child or the Toddler of Terror or whatever it was. He dumped them back in the regular universe and it was at this point that he realised Dalek Sek had been right all along and that the Daleks needed to be destroyed? So why didn’t he dump them back in the Time War or a black hole or something rather than allow them to come very close to wiping out everything and manipulating Donna Noble along a path that would lead her to do the job? Why didn’t he use his ill-defined powers to change Davros’ device so it destroyed only Daleks? So many people got killed last week I assumed that RTD had hired ‘Star Trek: Voyager’s reset button especially for the occasion, but as Harriet Jones would appear to be still very much dead at the end of series four I’m sure her corpse would be interested in Caan’s thought process on this one. It’s rather like Joe Quesada’s opinion that magic doesn’t need to make sense, I can’t see why, if Caan knows the Daleks are evil and must be stopped he suddenly lacks the power to do it himself. I also challenge anyone to explain to me how Donna fills the role of ‘the most faithful companion’ that Caan burbled about ‘dying’ last week.

But hey, big cheer on the TARDIS pilots thing becoming part of official recorded continuity. I got rid of my ‘Doctor Who: Magazine TARDIS Special’ over ten years ago so I have no means of checking whether that was in the minds of the designers of the first TARDIS set in the Sixties or whether the idea came along at some point later. I suspect that the whole ‘toeing the Earth back home’ thing will annoy a lot of people but while the concept itself is terrible, it’s redeemed by the chance to see almost the entire family of the last four years of the Doctor all together. It’s not up there with “Come here, I think you need a Doctor” but RTD can still pick his moments.

It just goes to show how cowed the human race is these days, in the past big events toppled Governments and caused social upheaval, the Earth has now been through at least two major invasions that it can remember and has had two heads of state assassinated yet somehow Paul O’Grady is still allowed to broadcast his show on telly. Is there nothing that can shake this planet’s people from their apathy?

So yes, not as good as last week, as I said at the start I expect RTD had more fun writing last week’s episode than tying it all up this week. I also suspect that this will be one of the most divisive episodes of RTD’s tenure, but who knows (no pun intended), I’m wrong about most things.

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