Frustrating. That word sums up my reaction to “Journey’s End”, the final episode of Doctor Who’s fourth series. I really want to like this episode, but it has several major flaws that I simply cannot overlook.
Once again, as often seems to be the case with RTD ‘epics’, what we have here is a great story setup with “The Stolen Earth”, followed by a poor resolution in “Journey’s End”. To sum up the plot, the Daleks have taken the Earth along with 24 other planets in order to create a “reality bomb”, as Davros calls it. The weapon will destroy matter down to the subatomic level, wiping out our universe along with all parallel dimensions. Everything except the Daleks. This is both consistent with Davros’ character and with the Daleks’ massive xenophobia and paranoia. I recall the conversation between the Doctor and Davros in “Genesis of the Daleks” about the theoretical virus that would wipe out life everywhere, which Davros had declared he would use, due to the power it gave him. Daleks have long viewed the rest of life in the universe as inferior, and would surely have no qualms about killing everything.
However, this massive threat to the universe is terribly undersold. How do the Daleks test it? By disintegrating some humans. Never seen that before, have we? Davros and his insane ranting almost make the threat believable, but it would have been far more effective if we’d seen a galaxy wiped out, or something equally vast. As it is, the idea that reality itself is under threat from the Dalek Empire doesn’t feel all that real or threatening. It’s just such a big idea to wrap one’s mind around that without a better visual demonstration it just doesn’t feel real.
The second major flaw of the episode is that once again, the Doctor destroys uncounted millions of Daleks via some magical technobabble and a switch. Somehow the fact that every Dalek shares Davros’ genetic code makes this possible. Not only that, but the machinery needed to perform this genocidal act resides in the Vault, which is in essence the prison where the Daleks keep both Davros and Dalek Caan, the “abomination”. How very convenient. How very unbelievable.
Together, both of these flaws really do sap a lot of the drama out of the story. How big a threat can the Dalek Empire be when the Doctor destroys them so blasted easily? It literally is ridiculous how Davies continually writes these ‘magical’ solutions into his stories. Rose’s use of the time vortex was reasonable in “Parting of the Ways”, but the use of “void stuff” (which again, would be what, since a void is the absence of “stuff”?) to destroy millions of Daleks and Cybermen in Doomsday was risible. The “happy thoughts of the world” to restore the Doctor after what the Master did to him in “Last of the Time Lords” made absolutely no sense either. And now the mighty Dalek Empire, the threat to the entire universe, is destroyed quickly and easily by Doctor and Donna. Unbelievable.
Other nitpicks with the episode. What’s up with the regeneration? Since when can the Doctor just stop his regeneration at will? Why have an ultra-cool looking red Supreme Dalek when he does next to nothing for the entire episode? Why terrorize and kill humans the world over when the Daleks only want a handful for their weapons test? How exactly do Mickey and Jackie (ack) know exactly where and when to turn up to save Sarah Jane from the Daleks? Shouldn’t Rose know Captain Jack couldn’t be killed? Doesn’t she say as much to Donna during “Turn Left”? Or have those events been undone and forgotten? But then Donna remembered enough about them to tell the Doctor what happened. Why wouldn’t Rose?
Dropped plot thread #1: the Shadow Proclamation. What happened to their promise to declare war in the previous episode? Where exactly are they during this story?
Dropped plot thread #2: Bad Wolf. Who put Bad Wolf everywhere at the end of “Turn Left”? Did Rose do that during “Parting of the Ways”? Did she see this happening back then? We have an incredibly dramatic ending to “Turn Left” which is never explained.
Now, with a story as flawed as “Journey’s End”, is there anything worth watching? Absolutely.
Despite all the story problems, the spectacle and the stakes in this story are huge. I’m not sure just what stealing all the planets is supposed to contribute to the Daleks’ weapon, but the sight of all the planets clustered together in the Earth’s sky is impressive. The story feels epic, with massive Dalek fleets, talk of a Dalek empire, universe-spanning threats, and global action. The participation of so many traveling companions is very enjoyable, even if they don’t get as much to do since all of them have to be fitted into the script.
As much as I got tired of Rose during series two, it’s genuinely nice to see her back again. Captain Jack retains his charm and good humor without the non-stop innuendo of series one, and is also a welcome addition to the story. Martha gets a plotline largely independent of the Doctor since she’s working for UNIT, and thankfully the Osterhagen key is not the all-purpose plot solving macguffin that I worried about. Sarah Jane doesn’t actually do as much as she’s capable of in this episode, though she gets herself, Mickey and Jackie (ack) on board the Dalek crucible, and gets them out of the testing chamber. Crucially and most enjoyably for this long-time fan, she comes face to face with Davros, and both briefly discuss the events of “Genesis of the Daleks”. The story simply would not have been complete otherwise, so that simple conversation scores major points with me. K9 even gets a cameo at the end of the story.
Crucially, as the incumbent companion, Donna gets the most important role in the story. The sequence where she’s trapped in the disintegrating TARDIS is genuinely tense. I’m still not sure exactly how she triggers the reaction that changes her and grows a second Doctor from the severed hand, but both of them are crucial to working out what the Daleks are doing and saving the TARDIS. I get an immense feeling of satisfaction watching her rattle off Doctor-style technobabble and disable the Daleks, even though as I mentioned earlier it makes no sense that machinery to do that would be in the prison portion of the ship. Her final fate resembles that of Jamie and Zoe, only worse since she doesn’t remember the Doctor at all. I really hated to see her go. Donna has been my favorite companion of the revised series, and to see her story end so cruelly is a genuinely sad moment.
Moving on from the Doctor’s friends to the returning adversary, I enjoyed the presence of Davros in the story. Julian Bleach is the actor who plays him this time around, and he does a nice job with the performance again, nicely reminding me of Wisher and Molloy’s take on the character. He shoots electricity from his hand as he did in “Revelation of the Daleks”, which is another nice continuity nod to the original series. Oddly Davros doesn’t really have a lot to do in terms of moving the plot along. He’s apparently the mind behind the “reality bomb”, and he gets to verbally spar with the Doctor in a generally effective exchange. But he does very little except talk and explain the plot, so his return is not as satisfying as it might have been. Still, that too is not entirely unwelcome since during the late 80s he tended to dominate the Daleks when they appeared together, and that fact that he does not overshadow them here is welcome. He’s obviously going to escape from the conflagration at the end of the story, so we can look forward to a return in the future.
Other nice touches include the TARDIS towing the Earth back to its proper place in the universe, which is a nice visual image no matter how implausible it is. Hey, if the TARDIS can slow a neutron star in “Creature from the Pit”, it can tow a planet. Or should I reference the Graham Williams era as justification for anything?
It’s also an enjoyable first to see so many companions not only traveling in the TARDIS at once, but also helping to pilot it. In an unusual display of generosity, the Doctor is seemingly delighted to have all of them around the console, flying his beloved ship, and helping return their planet to its rightful place. Sarah’s comment about the Doctor’s “family” is very true. He doesn’t seem to realize what he has, and it takes an older, more mature and wise Sarah Jane Smith to point it out to him.
One last complaint before I end the review. I’ve written in the past about my extreme dislike of Doctor/companion romances. While the second Doctor was an interesting addition to the plot, and while points are scored for not solving the problem of his existence by killing him off, I can’t believe that he ends up in the alternate universe with Rose, and that he just happens to have human physiology, or that he knows somehow that he will age like a human! So the audience gets to have it’s cake and eat it too. Rose gets the Doctor, but the Doctor remains the lonely wanderer through the universe as well. It’s a cop-out.
Time to wrap this review up. To summarize, this story is schizophrenic. Full of old enemies and companions, it flies by at a frenetic pace and has some huge ideas and nice continuity nods. But it’s let down tremendously by the Doctor’s all too easy destruction of the Daleks and the massive threat that never quite seems real enough. This is an episode that succeeds as a coda for the last four years of RTD-style Doctor Who and requires an emotional reaction rather than any real thought to make the plot work. The moment you turn on your brain, the whole thing falls apart.
As for Russell Davies, he deserves a lot of credit for bringing back Doctor Who and helping to make it popular again. I’ve found that most of his plots don’t pay off like they should, and so quite honestly I’m glad to see him go. I’m looking forward to seeing just what Steven Moffat can do for the show in the future.