The opening scenes drag the viewer back to the final day of the Time War, a bit of back-story that I’m very tired of. It’s become a millstone around the neck of Doctor Who, necessitating an ever more convoluted explanation every time the Daleks come back, to pick the most prominent example. And it’s used in “The End of Time” to cast the Time Lords as the worst of villains, who are willing to put an end to the universe and to time itself and ascend to some sort of godhood in order to survive and win the war. This apparently is why the Doctor destroyed them and the Daleks. Now the unspoken idea that the Doctor destroyed the Time Lords has been around at least since “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”, so it’s not new. But in several Christopher Eccleston episodes it was clearly stated that not only did the Time Lords lose the war, but the Daleks destroyed the Doctor’s home and people. He plainly says as much in “Dalek”. In view of later revelations, including this episode, it’s clear that the Doctor was lying. But it sadly makes the Doctor guilty of genocide, and in order to justify that genocide, the Time Lords must be portrayed as monsters.
So what’s wrong with that? The Time Lords have done ruthless things before, including sealing off the planet of the Aliens from “The War Games”, and the near-destruction of Earth from “The Trial of a Time Lord”. It’s not a great leap to go from some of those actions to the sheer ruthlessness of Rassilon’s plan, particularly when it’s made clear that not all Time Lords agree with his plan. The problem for me is that it fundamentally changes who the Doctor is, much for the worse. Rather than a rebel who fled his planet and now explores the universe because he prefers danger and excitement to the boredom of his home, he’s become the last survivor, a guilt-filled man who killed his own race. A man who is defined not by what he believes or what he’s fighting against, but a man defined by what he’s lost. I prefer the Doctor who was a joyful anarchist and rebel to the mournful, moody, dark figure we have now. Not that he doesn’t put on a good face from time to time, but the Doctor has become a tragic survivor, and I don’t care for that approach.
The Time Lord President, played by Timothy Dalton, is a ranting, driven figure. When he speaks, spittle flies from his mouth. When a member of the high council presents him with a point of view he dislikes, he kills her with his magic Time Lord glove, which also has the power to revert all of the Masters all over Earth back to their original selves. This unexplained device is deus ex machina #1 for the story. Admittedly, Timothy Dalton does a great job playing the character, and it’s really great to see an actor of his stature on the show. He is also, according to the Doctor, Rassilon himself, last seen in “The Five Doctors”, so that’s certainly novel. It was he who drove the Master insane, by interfering with his life at an early age as part of his plan to get the Time Lords out of the time-locked Time War.
Yes, you read that right. The Master doesn’t commit evil acts because he has a lust for power and just enough knowledge to be dangerous. He’s a victim, driven mad by his own people. What a stupid, post-modern idea to explain away the actions of an evil man who chose to be the way he was. He’s a victim. What a typically liberal bit of crap writing. In one fell stroke, the Time Lords are turned into monsters, and the Master’s evil is written off. It’s pathetic.
Related to both these plot points is deus ex machina #2 (actually introduced in the first episode, so perhaps it deserves to be #1), the eternity gate, which changes everyone on Earth into the Master, but only temporarily. If the Master disappears or dies, they’ll go back to being human again. Just like that. Or, if the President does something with his magic glove, they’ll also change back. Needless to say, the reset button is pounded hard here, as we all knew it would be. The red plastic has cracked and the springs have burst out of the button by the time RTD is finished with the episode. All the humans return to normal, and the Time Lords are sucked back into the Time War when the Doctor shoots the machine that drew them into the regular universe. Note that his action doesn’t just close the door and prevent anyone else from coming through the portal, but actively undoes all the catastrophic actions that have occurred. Two hits of the reset button, and the status quo is restored. It’s tired, it’s lazy, and it’s just ridiculous. And it’s the fifth time this trick has been pulled by Davies. Every season ends the same way. The only time it barely works is the ending of the first season, when Rose uses the power of the time vortex to destroy the Dalek fleet. A magical plot device ended the worldwide Dalek/Cyberman threat at the end of season 2, undoes the Master’s stolen year and de-ages the Doctor at the end of season 3, and destroys the mighty Dalek Empire at the end of season 4. And now the conversion of the entire population of Earth to copies of the Master and the return of the Time Lords are undone by one exploding machine and a glove. It’s apparently all RTD knows how to write. Having written himself into a corner by setting up a massive problem that can’t possibly be solved, he wishes said problem away with a little hand waving (literally this time) and a magic solution. It’s so frustrating that I want to throw something at the TV, but then it’s hardly the TV’s fault.
And blast it… I’m sick to death of Barack Obama, whose face and voice saturate the sycophantic press in this country. And now he’s in Doctor Who? Good grief.
So what’s worth watching in “The End of Time” part two? Despite the many flaws, there’s actually a decent amount of good material, and some of the wasted time in part one is redeemed. The two apparently random aliens from part one are integral to the plot of part two, though it’s awfully convenient that they’re present and have a spacecraft in orbit to escape to. What actually works better and is constantly amusing is the way that everyone is now the Master, and the Master is clearly enjoying himself immensely. John Simm is considerably better here than he was at the end of season three, and I like his version of the Master this time around. Despite the contrived nature of the ‘immortality gate’ or whatever it’s called, the way the Master uses it to turn everyone on Earth into himself is hilarious. Absolutely hilarious, and entirely in character as something that the Master would do. He’s got the ego, the insanity, and the knowledge to pull off a trick like that. And the ‘head shake’ when everyone changes looks very much like a visual nod to the McGann movie sequence where the Master is trying to steal the Doctor’s regenerations. Nice touch.
And every scene with Bernard Cribbins is pure gold, or at least close to it. The man makes the episode worth watching with his earnest, down to earth portrayal of Wilf, the old soldier who tries his best to fight the good fight and save the Doctor. Watching the old guy in the gun turret, shooting down incoming missiles, is just awesome. This isn’t some young punk trying to act tough, it’s a dedicated old man who has earned a rest, who nevertheless keeps on fighting the good fight when he must. What a great character, splendidly brought to life by a great actor. I hope we haven’t seen the last of him.
Sadly, it’s back to the nonsensical portions of the episode. The dénouement when the Doctor dives out of a spacecraft through a skylight and hits a marble floor without breaking a bone is meant to be dramatic, but is instead idiotic because it’s just so implausible. Tennant’s performance just about saves it, but then we get the ‘I can’t decide who to shoot’ moment as the Doctor goes back and forth between the Master and Rassilon. Why one of them doesn’t shoot him while his back is turned, I’ll never know. It’s a dramatic confrontation as Gallifrey itself is pulled through the rift into the same orbit with Earth. There’s lots of shouting, lots of mysterious glances, and of course the reset button is pounded screaming and kicking into submission as the massive threat to reality is undone by a single shot from an outdated revolver.
So the Time Lords are defeated, the Master goes with them, Earth is saved, and the Doctor has lived through the whole thing. And Tennant deserves great credit for his delivery of the line “I’m alive. I’m still alive.” He really sells the Doctor’s relief and great emotion at having survived. Of course if you’ve seen the episode, you know what happens next. The prophesied “four knocks” are Wilf knocking to be let out of the cabinet of death, which for some reason will be flooded with deadly radiation very shortly. Radiation that would kill Wilf, but which the Doctor can survive long enough to regenerate. It’s so contrived. After throwing a tantrum, the Doctor of course does the noble and heroic thing, and saves Wilf’s life.
The Doctor goes to collect his reward, and despite the fact that the entire sequence is self-indulgent and too long, it still just about works as a longer version of the flashback sequences we saw in “Logopolis” and “The Caves of Androzani”. Whatever his flaws as a writer, RTD has given us some companions that I have genuinely enjoyed, and so it is good to see them again one last time. The inevitable regeneration is similar to the ninth Doctor’s change, in that the tenth Doctor knows it’s coming. He’s not incapacitated or unconscious and he faces the change while standing on his feet. Like the second Doctor he protests his imminent ‘demise’, and tries to hold off on the change for as long as he can, screaming in protest as the eleventh Doctor emerges, while damaging the TARDIS badly with the explosion of regeneration energy. I’ve never liked the new series method of regeneration, and I wonder just where all of this energy has come from and why we never saw it for the first seven regenerations.
I like what little I’ve seen of Matt Smith. I was similarly enthused about Tennant back in “Parting of the Ways” and ended up disappointed in him, so I’m going to withhold serious judgment on Smith. Nevertheless, he makes a good first impression, and with the best writer of the new series, Steven Moffat, coming on board to run the show I’m hopeful that the writing will improve drastically and make the most of Smith’s talent. Time will tell.
Retreads, retcons and regeneration. Sums up “The End of Time” very succinctly. So long, Russell T. Davies. I won’t miss you. I can’t say the same for David Tennant, who has done what he can with the material he was given. He deserved better writing.