Tony Fyler drives the Silver Cloak minibus...
David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor arrived in the world properly in the first modern Christmas Special. He slept for most of the episode, woke up, chatted the face off a bunch of skull-hatted aliens, saved the world with a satsuma and brought down a government. As ya do.
Four years later, it was Christmas time again, but the ebullient Tiggerish Tenth Doctor seemed very much a thing of the past. There is, above all, a funereal note all the way through The End of Time against which all the festive tinsel, the roaring Master, the grandeur of the Time Lords’ return and the spaceship dogfight do their best to rise above, but never quite succeed. From Wilf’s bad dreams to the Ood’s warning of the end of time, through to the conversation in the café about Donna making do and the Doctor being surprisingly, darkly candid about the feeling of regeneration and death, the tone is sombre, like a tombstone covered in fairy lights. Joshua Naismith’s plan to make his daughter immortal by using the Immortality Gate feels like a lunatic aside when it’s first brought in, but looms surprisingly large throughout the story – the idea of escaping death raising its head like hope in an abattoir. The Master too is an avatar of death defeated here, as he’s brought back to life by some seriously sub-Dennis Wheatley hokum and chanting – though thanks to poor, clueless Lucy Saxon, the life he has is cursed, his genome split and his energy leaking everywhere. He is a Whovian vampire myth here, needing to feed constantly to stop himself going completely insane, showing the real cost of cheating death too many times. When the Doctor and the Master confront each other here, the Master ‘knocks four times’ and the prophecy of the Doctor’s death seems fulfilled. But then there’s a shock – the drumming that this Master, alone of all the Masters, seems to have been plagued by, is discovered not to be just the sound of his own madness, but a thing – a real thing, a real rhythm there in his head. He’s ecstatic to discover he’s not just mad, and is swiftly captured by Naismith’s people, in the hope he can make their Gate work for them. When he does of course, it’s all the Doctor and Wilf can do to watch, aghast, as Christmas ends not with brightness or joy, but with everyone in the world being turned into the Master.
When the second part of this two-part special began on New Year’s Day, it was our job as viewers to put all the death out of our mind. Sure, the world belonged to the Master, but there was still hope for some positivity, some New Year glory and joy and new-leaf-turning.
Err…notsomuch. The second half slows the pace right down – the Master has won, and sets about finding out where the drumming in his head comes from. The Time Lords are revealed as having planted it in his brain as a convoluted way of escaping the time lock in which they’re held, and the Doctor and Wilf do a lot of sitting around, moping. There’s more discussion of death and the dead, and the Doctor is again in a candid, self-excoriating mood, telling Wilf that he got clever, got people to sacrifice themselves on his behalf. It’s a little uncomfortable to watch, knowing our likeable, bouncy hero knows this about himself and still carries on. If we linger on the thought too long, it could make us like him less. Then, as if a switch has been flicked, the pace ramps right back up – there’s a dogfight with guided missiles, a desperate freefall through a roof, and the Time Lords begin their comeback. Gallifrey is returning, right there in the sky above the Earth.
It’s at this point that The End of Time starts really staking its claim as something special. Wilf has been a valiant companion all the way through, but when the Vinvocci are determined to leave the Doctor to his fate, it’s Wilf who declares ‘I will not leave that man. Not Today!’ – perhaps the most cogent and heartfelt statement of why a companion is a companion in recent years. The face-off between the Doctor, the Master and Rassilon is superbly tense, as we wonder which way the Doctor’s destiny will take him, coward or killer. The ‘Get out of the way’ double-hander is a great updated nod to the past, to Logopolis and Terror of the Autons, the two old friends uniting against a bigger threat. And the Master’s final act is in many ways the apotheosis of the John Simm incarnation, as we see the Master, finally, as the abused child, who has had to yell and scream and hit out against the universe as a way of coping with what was done to him as a child by knowing adults. It’s a punch in the stomach to see him that way – traditionally, he’s the absolute antithesis of the Doctor, with a soul pitched in shades of black and grey, so suddenly to sympathise with the Master makes us queasy, but we do it anyway as he finally gets the chance to hit back against his abusers.
And there, slowly growing with the Doctor’s belief that he has survived the day, is our sense of Christmas triumph. Maybe it’s all been hype. Maybe the Tenth Doctor is too good to kill after all.
Tap tap tap tap.
It’s positively sickening, that sound, that tiny sound, and the realisation as it drains through the Doctor’s face. He hasn’t survived after all. Wilf has done what Wilf does – the compassionate thing, freeing a technician from the Vinvocci control booth. The Master has set the booth to overload, to flood with radiation, and there has to be someone in one half of the booth at all times. To free Wilf, the Tenth Doctor will have to die.
Their dialogue in this scene is raw with unfettered emotion. The Doctor, unusually, rails against the choice he knows he has to make if he still wants to wear the name he’s chosen for himself, rails that he could do so much more by just letting Wilf die. He went into the booth after all, it should be him who pays the price for his compassion, not the Doctor. What is even more telling is that Wilf agrees. In a heartbreaking moment, Wilf begs, and pleads and screams at the Doctor to leave him be, to save himself.
But the Doctor has recovered his sense of self. If the Master is a lesson in the price of death defeated, the Doctor knows he must be a lesson in the price of death accepted. ‘Wilfred,’ he says, ‘it’s my honour.’ Because that’s what the Doctor does, any time he can, for anyone with only the one life to lose. And there, too is the Tenth Doctor’s apotheosis, as he sets Wilfred free and takes the radiation-burst himself.
The final act of the story, sadly, undercuts this moment with a return to self-pity, as the Doctor visits all his companions, and rather scowls at them. Then, step by step, like a Christ in his Passion, the Doctor stumbles, pulls, drags himself to the Tardis, sets it in motion, and undercuts the honour of his self-sacrifice with the fear in his final words – ‘I don’t want to go.’
In the final nod to the idea of death, the Tenth Doctor explodes in regeneration, and as predicted, some new man goes sauntering off – except pow! This new man wouldn’t know how to saunter if you gave him a galaxy. Matt Smith’s dialogue was written by a new incoming production team, and immediately dispenses with the funereal notions that have dogged The End of Time from the beginning, as might be expected for a story that writes out not only an enormously popular Doctor, but the production team itself. Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, in his first scene, promises much – madness, quirk to the max, and a certain joy in adventure and even danger, bringing The End of Time spinning to a conclusion that makes you want to fast forward straight to The Eleventh Hour.
The End of Time has much to recommend it in the stakes of classic Doctor Who stories: a desperate Master making us sympathise with him; a Doctor disturbingly honest about the process of regeneration; one of the great modern companions, begging to be sacrificed, and the Tenth Doctor at both his finest, and perhaps his most self-indulgent. As a Christmas Special though, it’s not in the first rank, the sense of death and darkness adding just a little too much gloom to turkey and Brussel sprouts. There is no End of Time for the Doctor of course – the new man goes walking away. But as the end of an era, it serves well, and becomes a thing of beauty lasting longer than most other Christmas gifts.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk