So I rewatched Part of The End of Time just for this review and…I didn’t dislike it as much as I did the first time I watched it. No, really!
Well, even the first time I saw it I thought it was an improvement over Part 1, but I didn’t expect to be more forgiving on my last viewing. Maybe part of it is that I’m watching it post-Day of the Doctor (which, incidentally, I’ll be spoiling in this review, so heads up!), or maybe I’ve gotten some perspective in hindsight on what RTD was trying to accomplish with his run as showrunner.
All that said, to quote Frank Costanza, “I’ve got some problems with you people!”
It might also be that when I first watched this I felt like RTD has personally punched me in the face.
My problem with the premise of the “new” series was exactly that Gallifrey and the Time Lords were written out. I understand that this was an attempt to simplify the show for new viewers, but I never got why “The Doctor is part of a non-interventionist alien race that has mastered time travel and are like tech gods” is any less “confusing” than “The Doctor is a veteran of this horrific war that took place off-screen and is burdened with guilt because he had to single-handedly wipe out both the aggressors and his own people.” The old series got around all that by just having the Time Lords or Gallifrey mentioned occasionally, while with the “new” series’ approach there’s whole backstory at play that’s more complex and intrusive than just the Doctor having stolen a TARDIS for mysterious reasons many years ago.
So honestly I expected that this special would shake up the status quo in a way beyond even introducing a new Doctor. I thought the idea of the Doctor being the sole survivor of his race – an idea I never really enjoyed but thought it did have some potential (even if it fed into my complaint that RTD wanted to write the Doctor like Superman and really this change to his backstory made him more like Lobo) – had been exhausted and RTD was giving the next showrunner a clean slate. Granted, I don’t really keep up with the backstage developments of the show like most fans, so as far as I know Moffat wanted to be the one to bring back the Time Lords or wanted more time to play with the concept of the Doctor as a guilt-ridden veteran, but regardless at the time End of Time Part 2 felt like a cheat played on the audience.
But still…Timothy Dalton as Rassilon, one of the founders of Time Lord society!
Granted the script makes Rassilon act like the most cliched of Saturday morning villains, as he kills an adviser for questioning his plans and screams that he will not die. But God I love how Timothy Dalton fires on all cylinders here. There’s still too much going on in this special for him to really make a mark, much like the tragically short five minutes we get of Derek Jacobi as the Master in Utopia, but like there I’m glad for what we get here. Anyway, Rassilon and his advisers are listening to a prophet, portrayed as a ranting old woman who seems like she’s wandered in from another genre, who is predicting the destruction of Gallifrey at the Doctor’s hands. Seizing on the part of the prophecy that predicts that the Doctor and the Master will outlive the Time Lords and confront each other again on Earth, Rassilon arranges to have a four-note drumbeat broadcast into the Master’s mind across all time and space (the drumbeat only referred to since Utopia, natch) and sends a type of diamond that only exists on Gallifrey to present day Earth to serve as a kind of anchor for bringing back Gallifrey. Thus we have one of the hugest retcons of all time, carried out on one of modern fiction’s most iconic villains.
Insert lengthy, pretentious essay about the problems with basically depriving a decades-old character of their “free will” here.
Back on Earth and the “present,” the Master has got the Doctor strapped down. Now this does lead into what I genuinely think is not only one of the best moments from this special, and not only one of the best moments in the “new” series, but one of the best moments in the history of the entire franchise. The Doctor tells the Master:
“You’re a genius. You’re stone cold brilliant, you really are. But you could be so much more. You could be beautiful, with a mind like that. We could travel the stars. It would be my honor, ’cause you don’t need to own the universe, just see it. Have the privilege of seeing the whole of time and space. That’s ownership enough.”
One of the things I really liked about RTD’s run, and which I haven’t given him credit for before, is his interpretation of the Doctor/the Master relationship. Instead of a classic superhero comic-style rivalry, the Doctor-Master relationship is presented as a friendship gone sour but has not faded, because one of the friends has become seriously mentally ill and self-destructive. I’m almost sure that this just reflects RTD’s desire to depict the Doctor as a pacifist saint, but honestly? It’s a really interesting take on the archenemy relationship that frankly, as an aspiring writer myself, I’m jealous of.
Of course, my good will doesn’t last long, as we revisit one of my biggest sore spots: Donna. How is Donna going to get out of being pursued by a planet full of Masters when she’s beginning to remember her adventures with the Doctor, which has the potential to kill her? Well, she just releases some Time Lord energy, which knocks out her out and her pursuers and apparently ends the risk that her brain would melt. The Doctor himself explains what happens for the Master’s and our benefit: “Well, you see, Russell wrote himself into a corner like he always does…” Oops, I mean, he says, “Do you think I’d leave my best friend without a defense mechanism?” So that’s that, I guess. (The only good thing about this bit is that it causes the Master to blurt out, “He loves playing with Earth girls!”)
Anyway, the two aliens from last time save the Doctor, which leads to a really awkward “Simpsons” reference (“Worst rescue ever!”) and they escape on the aliens’ ship, but the Doctor is for once left without a clue as to what to do. Meanwhile Bernard Cribbins is again visited by the woman in white, who as always does nothing but say a bunch of cryptic things. However, she does say, “I was lost, so very long ago,” which means she is totally Susan, no matter what RTD says. Back on Earth, the Master decides to take advantage of the fact that his consciousness is echoed more than 4 billion times over and finally find out if the drumbeat in his head is real or not. Needless to say, it is, and he uses the technological resources at hand to create a link to its source.
There’s a lengthy scene where Bernard Cribbins and the Doctor talk about his death, and Cribbins convinces the Doctor to take his gun and tells him that, if killing the Master will free the human race, he should make the choice that is best for humanity no matter what. I don’t have much to say about this scene, except that both Cribbins and David Tennant sell the hell out of it. Still, like the “Time Lord Victorious” stuff from The Waters of Mars, the Doctor’s fears about his mortality and breaking his ethics just aren’t earned. Anyway, the Doctor is freed from his malaise when he figures out what the Master is doing and is terrified by the mere prospect of the Time Lords breaking out of the time-locked Time War. The Doctor steers the ship to England right in the face of a barrage of missiles that the world’s Master-controlled armies fired, requiring the two aliens and Bernard Cribbins to get behind the ship’s guns and do what is one of the most subtle references to another major sci-fi franchise possible.
Surviving the barrage, the Doctor makes a personal crash landing into the mansion, but he’s too late for about the sixth time in this special. The link is opened, Gallifrey is becoming visible in Earth’s sky (enough that Gallifrey’s gravity should tear the Earth apart, but hey let’s just say Gallifrey hasn’t completely materalized yet or a wizard did it or something), and the Time Lords led by Rassilon are breaking through. Two of Rassilon’s Time Lords are forced to walk around with their faces buried in their hands since they were the only two who voted against Rassilon’s plans, and one of them is the lady in white. The other one is…well, the show doesn’t even give any hints, but let’s say it’s Romana. The Master tries to pull on the Time Lords what he did to humanity, but – in a nice nod back to the omnipotence of the Time Lords in their first appearance in the “old” series – Rassilon with a wave of his hand is able to reverse what the Master did to humanity. The Doctor tells the Master that along with the Time Lords he brought back the various eldritch abominations spawned in the Time War with admittedly fantastic names like the Horde of Travesties and the Nightmare Child and the Could-Have-Been King. Rassilon announces it doesn’t matter since they’ll simply allow the rift in time created by Gallifrey’s reappearance to destroy the time vortex, devastating all reality and allowing the Time Lords to transcend the material universe as pure consciousness. This was the plan, the Doctor tells the Master, that prompted the Doctor to end the Time War through any means possible in the first place.
Armed with the gun, the Doctor oscillates between shooting at Rassilon and shooting at the Master. Of course, it’s not clear what good shooting a bunch of regenerating Time Lords will do, but hey, it’s Drama before Logic.
However, the Doctor regains his ethical bearings when he looks into the face of
his mother Susan and instead just shoots the machine powering the link. Rassilon wants to take the Doctor with them to their fate, but the Master intervenes and uses his super-powers to knock Rassilon and the Time Lords (and himself) back into the Time War. So, yeah, that’s the end of the promised “return of the Time Lords.” The Doctor doesn’t dwell on the ramifications of condemning his own species for a second time (well, so he thinks!), but is instead relieved that he didn’t have to regenerate after all, until he hears Bernard Cribbins knocking from inside the radiation gate…
To be honest, I’ve read at least three different plot summaries and I really don’t have any clearer an idea of what exactly happens in this scene and why. Just accept that the Doctor exposes himself to tons of radiation in order to save Bernard Cribbins’ life. Luckily, the regeneration process is slowed, just because, giving the Doctor time to ride around in the TARDIS and say goodbye, or at least check in on, most of his old companions.
Now I think when I first saw this, this was the part I hated the most. I’ve softened up on it, although it does still strike me as pretty self-indulgent on RTD’s part, especially after we already got closure to his run with Journey’s End. And it’s still a little…iffy that the only two black companions, Martha and Mickey, end up married. As is the fact that we still don’t get one more scene between Donna and the Doctor. I can understand why fans found it way too mawkish, but like I said last time I can see why from the Doctor’s perspective it’s like dying. Plus, given that from the start one of RTD’s main themes has been mortality and the challenge of accepting inevitable change, it is a nice bookend to his run.
…By the Crown of Rassilon, I’m…I’m being positive.
Really, this is still far, far from being among my top Doctor Who stories. It’s an improvement over the first part in more than a few respects, but the plot still carries so much it collapses in on itself, the characterization of the Doctor is often put front and center and yet it’s sloppily and hastily built up, and the story just doesn’t make sense sometimes (even by Who standards).
And yet, it does capture some of what made RTD’s run work. Like I said to begin with, I prefer Moffat’s approach and interpretation of the Doctor. Still, to be honest, even though I started this series on “new Who” to criticize RTD, writing these posts has actually given me more of an appreciation of RTD’s run. It might be an oversimplification, but whereas Moffat is more focused on plot RTD is usually more interested in character. RTD may not always handle characterization with a daft hand, but one of the criticisms of Moffat’s tenure that I agree with is that RTD’s care for that kind of storytelling is largely absent. Case in point: Amy Pond is put through the ringer by finding out that she was not only deprived of a chance to raise her child but finds out that a middle-aged woman she encountered a few times is her daughter, but aside from one or two really brief scenes we never actually deal with the emotional ramifications of all that for Amy. With RTD, we might not see exactly why the Doctor is suddenly worried about dying or about his potential for megalomania, but it is dealt with on an intimate scale that adds something valuable to the franchise.
So can there ever be peace between the RTD-boosters and the Moff-fans? Maybe, maybe not, but talks don’t have to break down as badly as they did between the Daleks and the Cybermen.