Doctor Who XXX(4).17-18: The End of Time
Back in 2010, I wrote a reaction to David Tennant’s last Doctor Who story, The End of Time, for the diligent John Connors’s superb fanzine This Way Up (now continued by John as a blog). As the pdf of the zine itself seems no longer to be available, and interest in The End of Time has been rekindled following the broadcast last month of Matt Smith’s departure in The Time of the Doctor, it seemed opportune to post it again here. It’s more of an exploration of themes and what the episodes were trying to do, and so combines apologia with untrained attempt at lit-crit. It perhaps concentrates too much on the ingredients, not on the recipe, nor on whether the dish was cooked properly.
The End of Time
A review (of sorts) by Matthew Kilburn
The Time Lords were back – right here, right now. Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who thrives less on plotting than on immediacy – characters holding themselves together through a sequence of experiences which they share with the audience and through those experiences bringing their personal stories to a resolution. So this isn’t a straightforward, argued review as such, but a series of impressions. With each new play, film or television episode viewer and makes strike bargains, and each viewer has a different interpretation of a television episode depending on what they bring to it. What follows are thoughts which have occurred to me while watching The End of Time and reading fan reactions in the weeks since it was broadcast.
The Doctor as saint
If he chose, Russell (it’s difficult, after so many Doctor Who Confidential appearances, DWM Production Notes, and Writers Tales, just to call him Davies) could have made The End of Time a much more Christmassy Doctor Who story than it eventually proved. It is about the visit of angels from the realms of glory to Earth, after all. Whether or not they proclaim a Messiah’s birth is left to the viewer, which would be in keeping with Russell’s atheistic belief that human beings, with their need for stories about heroes, elevate those among them to divine status. Some seek to elevate themselves, and such is the intention of the Time Lords; though this means leaving the material universe altogether, an act of self-destruction in itself. From what we learn , when the narration later identified as that of Lord President Rassilon describes Christmas as a ‘pagan rite’ it is not emphasising the non-Christian roots of Christmas, but observing that human beings do not worship Time Lords as to him it is presumably self-evident that they should.
The discovery of Wilfred in a church suggests something about the Doctor’s relationship to the Time Lords and to authority in general. The white-clad Woman directs Wilf’s attention to the blue box in the stained glass window, and the mediaeval legend of the ‘Sainted Physician’, who appeared from nowhere, smote a demon and then disappeared. This is more the story of a supernatural entity than a saint, perhaps, but it’s tempting nonetheless to view the Doctor as a saint and a Welsh saint at that. The Welsh saints’ lives of the early middle ages depicted their heroes as critics of authority, often belittling territorial lords, including King Arthur himself. The Woman is later revealed as one of only two Time Lords to have voted against Rassilon’s determination to win the Time War by ending time itself, and is condemned to a kind of martyrdom. The Welsh saints, however, often cheated death and turned the situation to their advantage, and this is what the Woman is able to do by communicating a way for the Doctor to break both the impasse in which he finds himself and the link between Gallifrey and Earth.
The role of critic of authority is one that it is easy to see the Doctor adopting during the Time War. When using the time lock – presumably, but not necessarily, the ‘Moment’ of the council chamber scene in part two – the Doctor has made the ultimate gesture of criticism. Where saints acted on the authority of God, the Doctor presumably acted on his own authority, or his belief that he was the last authentic representative of the Time Lords. The Doctor of The Waters of Mars returned, then, to his state of mind at the end of the Time War; perhaps the tenth Doctor, relieved of much of the overt survivor guilt borne by the ninth Doctor, was destined to explore the implications of the Time War’s end. The details of the latter are still obscure – the use of the time lock does not necessarily preclude Gallifrey having ‘burned’ as the result of the Doctor’s actions, and it’s certainly on fire when we see it – but one can imagine the end having begun with the Doctor saying five crucial words, as he did to Harriet Jones.
The Master as Ariel or Caliban
The depiction of the Master as a jetpackless Rocketeer, bounding around derelict industrial sites on blasts of energy from his hands, angered some commentators who thought that this was too cartoonish an image for Doctor Who. It’s a pity that The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter does not include a cartoon by Russell illustrating this idea. Contrary to what many viewers thought, there is enough in the first episode to explain it – the Master lacks substance and is in a state of decay at some elemental level. He has become a supernatural force, a flesh-stripping embodiment of decay. There is some tedium to Russell reviving the idea of the Master as a corpse from a long-term fan’s perspective, as it appeared that this old trope had been happily jettisoned after the Master regenerated unaided in Utopia, but for many viewers it will either be new, or chime with something they thought they knew vaguely about the character’s history. In any case it allows John Simm to find something new in the character of the Master, a wild man on the fringes of sanity, seeking companionship only to destroy it. Reminiscences about running across the fields of his father’s estate with the Doctor build on the ‘you might say we were at school together’ of the Pertwee Doctor-Delgado Master, but make the relationship more vivid by associating it with activity and childhood optimism. The confines of school are perhaps more closely related to the childhood trauma of the sound of drums being placed in the Master’s head.
Mark Lawson’s review of The End of Time for The Guardian thought that Russell was deliberately shadowing the plot of Hamlet. The story borrows a few motifs from Hamlet, and specifically from the 2008 RSC production starring David Tennant; the thrones upon which Joshua and Abigail Naismith sit echo those of Claudius and Gertrude seen in act one of the play, emphasising the incestuously suggestive nature of the relationship; and the song by which the universe sings the tenth Doctor to his sleep might just as well have been introduced with ‘Good night, sweet Doctor,/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’ Less attention has been drawn to the borrowings from The Tempest. The Master could be seen as an amalgamation of both the insubstantial ‘airy spirit’ Ariel, and Caliban, a brutish being of magical-demonic origins. Caliban folds back to The Christmas Invasion, as the name of his sorceress mother is Sycorax. Both Ariel and Caliban are servants of a father and daughter, Prospero and Miranda, loosely paralleled by Joshua and Abigail Naismith in The End of Time. Where Caliban sought to rape Miranda and father on her ‘a race of Calibans’, hybridizing himself with the only human woman on the island he shares with the magician and his daughter, the Master uses the Immortality Gate (as much of a womb as a gateway) to recast humanity in his own image.
Potentially relating also to Caliban is the sense that the Master is someone who needs to be taught. His moral compass is stunted, like his character defined by a childhood trauma. The Master’s transformation of the human race into copies of himself is like the wish of a lonely child who has no friends and doesn’t understand why; sobbing in a corner, he wishes everyone else was like him so he could have someone to play with. The Doctor is a best friend who has moved on. While it’s undoubtedly true that the relationship between the Doctor and the Master courts the slash aesthetic, it’s also the case that their relationship is one already resonating around school playgrounds everywhere.
The Waste Land and the wastelands
The dialogue of The End of Time deliberately courts comparison with The Waste Land through the President-Narrator’s description of the Master as dwelling in ‘an empire of dust and ashes’ and the Master’s self-proclamation as ‘King of the Wastelands’. Russell’s writing methods mean that any further parallels must chiefly be in the mind of the beholder, but The Waste Land’s post-Great War sensibility and its construction from quotations and paraphrases from other sources are parodied by Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who, which exists in the shadow of a fictional war, here made manifest, and which borrows freely and sometimes riotously from other texts, spreading itself across genres. When telling friends I was tempted to make this comparison I was reminded that Eliot himself dismissed the poem as ‘rhythmical grumbling’; but it would be possible to characterise the Doctor Who of the last few years comparably as an ultimately pessimistic depiction of the human condition.
Pessimistic in general terms Doctor Who might be, but its fatalism is redeemed by individual heroism; the universe is better for the Doctor, and the Doctor is better for humanity. Russell’s scepticism about humanity as a herd has been demonstrated in Midnight, but he celebrates the individual perspective on moral crises. Heroism lies in making that voice understood and active, at whatever cost, in order to preserve life. The real king of the Wastelands is Rassilon, resurrected only to lead the culture he created into immolation, and with no regard for any other species except as subjects. Gallifrey is a fireball, a hellish sphere burned up by conflict. The individual conscience is crushed and humiliated or reduced to atoms. Rassilon restores humanity, but only to provide worshippers for his triumph. The Doctor, by contrast, relies on human beings for their different perspectives, to disagree with him and remind him of other priorities and emotions. Far from being the ‘little people’ of The Waters of Mars, this is why, to the Doctor, human beings are ‘giants’.
The Doctor’s exclamation in Inferno episode 7, “So. Free will is not an illusion after all!” is occasionally greeted by slightly embarrassed laughter when subjected to group viewings. The Doctor is making a vast intuitive leap; perhaps the course of every parallel universe is predestined? Nonetheless, most Doctor Who has been on the side of the individual’s freedom of action. The early historicals dramatized in broad strokes the beliefs and decisions of people at the edge of events, emphasizing that historical movements were not the product of faceless destiny but of people making moral choices. Later in the series’ history, the Doctor became the catalyst for change, stimulating the imaginations of the enslaved or oppressed and teaching them to question the apparently inevitable. The Sun Makers, The Pirate Planet, Frontios spring to mind. Broodings on causality such as Logopolis were the exception rather than the rule.
Russell T Davies’s stewardship of the programme has by contrast relied on more consistent assumptions about Doctor Who’s cosmology (though it would be going too far to call it a system) than anything seen before in the series. Nowhere is this further demonstrated than in The End of Time, and as the rules of Russell’s universe operate, the Doctor finds his freedom of action intensely constrained. To some extent this is the result of choices which the Doctor has made. It’s made as good as explicit that had the Doctor not procrastinated and avoided the summons of the Ood, he would have arrived on Earth to prevent the resurrection of the Master. Yet this might not have been enough to save him: he would still have Joshua Naismith to contend with, who would still have needed alien assistance with the Immortality Gate, perhaps entrapping the Doctor instead of the Master. A course can easily be plotted where Wilf would still have ended up in one of the radiation booths, tapping out those fatal four knocks on the glass.
As ever with Russell T Davies, the Doctor’s path to his doom has been less the course of a plot arc than the unfolding of a character trait; but his fictional universe is governed by, or at least principally reacts to, the emotions and concerns of his inner core of central characters. Thus the parallel universe of Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel was formed around the contrasting fates of Rose, Mickey and their families. The chain of causality rippling from the journey into the alternate universe might suggest that the presence of Rose and Mickey on the ship when it travelled from one universe to another actively influenced the character of the universe in which the TARDIS crashed.
Most important for the wider shape and destiny of the series is of course the Doctor. Russell’s development of the tenth Doctor during the specials turned to advantage several of the character traits which I’ve thought over the years have been irresponsible and undermined the heroic status which the series has otherwise ascribed to its lead character. Back at Christmas 2005 I found myself defending the Doctor’s decision to let the Sycorax ship go, but was less happy about (though intrigued by) the Doctor’s revenge on Harriet Jones for crossing him. Several fans have criticized Russell for his identifying the Doctor as a ‘lonely god without a home’. This term first appears as early as New Earth, though as it appears in the mouth of a cat-nun, explicitly depicted in the episode as misguided, one should be cautious about deducing from this that Russell wanted the audience to see the Doctor as a divine figure. The notorious ‘floating Doctor’ scene from Last of the Time Lords, borrowing from folk imagery influenced by the book of Revelation and the New Testament Apocrypha, and the Doctor’s ascension, borne by robot angels from the hell of the engine room in Voyage of the Damned, court a similar reading. In the light of the climax of The Waters of Mars, perhaps it’s more true that the tenth Doctor has throughout assumed the role of Messiah which it was not, after all, his to accept; Christ-figures in Russell T Davies’s universe are only so in the eye of the beholder; if they embrace that role the universe itself passes judgement. Conservative fan critics who thought that Russell was wrong to flirt with the presentation of the Doctor as a god-figure might now wonder whether the showrunner agreed with them after all, despite his denials.
The End of Time suggests that Russell has a holistic view of the universe, embracing a sort of cosmic Gaia theory. The Doctor has believed that he was the last regulating force in the universe, but he proves in the specials that he does not see its workings as clearly as he thinks. The accelerated evolution of the Ood is intended to show the universe evolving too, finding a species who can replace the Time Lords as guardians of causality. The Time Lords, having been presented as an ideal society, are reconceived as a cosmological immune system which was never more than workmanlike and ultimately collapsed under its own contradictions, having been initiated by the insane Rassilon and capable of producing criminal sociopaths like the Master. The Doctor shows himself a product of the same society by displaying some of the blindness of his fellow Time Lords. His fate is depicted as an inability to see detail, focused as he is on the bigger picture; while we know (or think we know?) from The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter that Russell has made most of his story up as he has gone along, concentrating only on key scenes or strong images, it’s the Doctor’s failure to account for the Master’s ring at the end of Last of the Time Lords which begins the gathering of the net of fate. In the very next story, he meets Wilf for the first time. Wilf turns out to stand for the Doctor’s death almost like the Deaths who wait for everyone in Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. A Time Lord is mocked by time, whether he considers himself bound by ‘fixed points’ or whether he has the power to overcome them.
Death and life
The End of Time was a fitting showstopper, an end to an era of Doctor Who acutely conscious that it needed to succeed against the behemoths of Saturday night light entertainment. It was also triumphantly situated at the centre of British popular culture, with a leading actor still reasonably fresh from playing Hamlet, triangulated with another prominent stage and screen actor of the same generation, and an older man fondly remembered by the parents and grandparents of today’s child audience. These three set the boundaries for a cast which includes a former James Bond and two of Britain’s leading comediennes as well as several other faces familiar to past and present British television audiences. Doctor Who is woven from every thread in British entertainment, to the extent that it says there is nothing else. The last twenty minutes, where the Doctor holds his regeneration at bay in order to say goodbye to his former companions, are arguably self-indulgent, but they work dramatically because the farewells are the sort of thing the Doctor would do – he exhibits a remarkable degree of control over the regeneration process, though he has had a lot of practice by now – and also because, having argued for the centrality of Doctor Who in British national life by the careful placing of a variety of iconic national figures in the cast, it seems right that the tenth Doctor’s reign should be celebrated as a golden thread in the ongoing tapestry.
From Rose onwards, Russell T Davies has strongly suggested that the Doctor is stalked by death, and is its agent. In The Parting of the Ways the ninth Doctor described regeneration as a way of cheating death, but here the tenth Doctor becomes obsessed by the idea of his own extinction. For a substantial part of the story the human race has been extinguished too, indirectly as a result of the Doctor’s neglect; the marketing tag occasionally applied to the 2005 series, ‘adventures in the human race’, acquires a fatalistic twist. The morbid tone is maintained as far as it can be. Russell deploys the Vinvocci both as comic relief and also as characters with real jobs and everyday agendas, in which he is more interested than the remote Time Lords. Addams’s obsession with leaving the chaos on Earth behind and getting home runs the risk of frustrating the audience – and there were times when I was annoyed by the presence of the Vinvocci in the story – but it is meant to do so, removing the Doctor from the action while allowing him space to reflect. The Vinvocci allow the Doctor a moment of isolation, remote from Earth and TARDIS, where he discovers motivation to face his final conflict. The sequences on the Vinvocci spacecraft ultimately pay off – and it’s again appropriate for Doctor Who and Russell’s obsession with everyday life that the ship is battered and workshop-like – but they do try the audience’s patience first.
Donna’s involvement in the story was never going to be comfortable. There had been too much foreshadowing of her fate in the 2008 series for her memory to be restored, but given that the possibility of her destruction was raised – Russell likes the image of people or parts of the body being on fire – it was inevitable that she should be tested. Unfortunately while it made sense that the Doctor would provide Donna, his ‘best friend’, with a defence mechanism, the incident undermined the earlier insistences that Donna would die if her memory returned, and came across as a contrived way of resolving a cliffhanger. Her eventual marriage and endowment by the Doctor (and Geoffrey Noble) with a winning lottery ticket aptly emphasises again Russell’s belief in life with family and friends and material prosperity as the foundations of happiness in the real world; as the ninth Doctor noted in Father’s Day, he can never, has never had a life like that. Timothy Dalton remarked on Doctor Who Confidential on how Doctor Who crosses genres: heroic epic mixes with Coronation Street. The Doctor shows people who think they are ordinary how they can be extraordinary, and if this ends up being fatal then the sacrifice is worth it.
The Doctor’s regeneration works because it turns out to be about life carrying on. The Doctor places himself in the cubicle and lets himself take the radiation dose because he can survive, albeit in a regenerated form, and so offers Wilf the chance, though not the guarantee, of a few more years of life. His ‘reward’ is to see his friends living their lives in ways shaped by him, and which are in some ways better because of him. It’s appropriate, too, that he holds on to the end: the final image of the tenth Doctor is a face fixed both in defiance of his fate and resolution to confront it. The change, rightly, is sudden and painful. The music stops; the regeneration flares disappear and only the flames of the burning TARDIS remain. The Doctor’s eleventh form turns to get on with life.
Screencaps from Sonic Biro.