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Rage Against the Dying of the Light: Death and Rebirth in "Doctor Who: The End of Time (Part Two)"

The Doctor is bigger than just one man.

To date now, eleven actors have taken on the mantle of The Doctor, the alien time-traveler who travels about the heavens in a blue police call box that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

The Doctor's frequent regeneration speaks not only of the resilience of the spirit but also to the temporary nature of all things. It's a reminder that, with each step we make, death stalks all of us, human and Time Lord, mortal and immortal alike. It's what we choose to make of that death--and of that life--that define us for who we really are.

With last night's final 2009-10 Doctor Who special, Doctor Who: The End of Time (Part Two), written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Euros Lyn, we said goodbye to the actor whom many of us believe has best embodied the madcap heroic attributes of the Doctor: David Tennant.

While I was moved when Christopher Eccleston stepped aside at the end of the first season, it is Tennant's departure that stabs me like a knife in the heart. Throughout his run, Tennant's turn as the Doctor has left an indelible mark on the Doctor Who franchise and its numerous fans, both young and old. We all knew that the Doctor would die, that he would regenerate (specifically into incoming series star Matt Smith), and that we would have to say goodbye. But that doesn't make the leave-taking any less difficult or any less fraught with emotion.

So what did I think of Doctor Who: The End of Time (Part Two)? Let's discuss.

I thought that Doctor Who: The End of Time (Part Two) showed significant improvement on the first part of the two-part David Tennant finale, which itself felt like it shoehorned in too many story threads, characters, and disjointed subplots. Was it necessary for Tennant's swan song on the series to include the return of The Master (John Simm), the possible return of the Time Lords, the Naismiths, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Wilf (Bernard Cribbins), Lucy Saxon (Alexandra Moen), the Mystery Woman (Claire Bloom), the Ood, the Vinvocci, and a slew of others? In that sense, the storyline was bound to suffer from the weight of too many elements, all jockeying for supremacy.

The first half seemed to set up several mysteries that went unanswered in the second half (and therefore may not have been important in the first case). Just why was the Master blond? Who was behind the cabal that resurrected him? Why did he suddenly have new powers? Why didn't Lucy Saxon's sacrifice work? And what happened to Lucy if she wasn't fused with The Master? Putting those minor thoughts aside, the larger mystery--the identity of The Woman--looms even larger. I'm still not entirely sure, even after watching both halves of the Doctor Who: The End of Time, why she was necessary for the story. Or even who she was, a fact that seems to be under debate.

What Doctor Who: The End of Time (Part Two) did successfully was hit some well-crafted emotional beats, particularly between the Doctor and Wilf. Both old men, both on the road to death, the unlikely duo has been linked by death from the start. Each is, in the words of Dylan Thomas, raging against the dying of the light in their own way. 80-year-old Wilf is in search of one last adventure before he lays down his pistol for the last time, while the Doctor is attempting to throw off the shackles of fate, to avoid his death, to negate the prophecy.

But death can't be escaped from. Not even for a man to whom time and space are mere playthings. The Doctor's folly is that he wants too desperately to live. It's a strain of the same disease which infects the bloodthirsty Time Lords, trapped within the Time Lock, looking for a loophole with which to save themselves. While the Time Lords--led by the nefarious Lord President, Rassilon (Timothy Dalton)--find that escape via the Master's insanity, the never-ending sound of drums in his mind, the Doctor realizes that any attempt to battle death is foolish. Death comes knocking whether you want it to or not.

I thought it a cruel, ironic twist that the four knocks of the Doctor's death came not from The Master, not from Rassilon, or the countless threats that the Doctor has faced down over 900-plus years of existence but from Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins) himself. Doom isn't drawn pistols or energy-wielding gloves but four knocks from a kindly old man. I knew once Wilf had managed to lock himself inside the nuclear shielding that the Doctor was done for. But while others would have plead to the Doctor for salvation, Wilf is prepared to sacrifice himself to save the Doctor. For others, it might have been an easy choice. What weight does the life of an elderly man, a nobody by all accounts, have against that of a Time Lord?

But The Doctor isn't most people. His death has been foretold and his life has come down to this very moment. Can he live with himself if he lets Wilf die? Can he live with one more death on his conscience when he could avoid it? And so The Doctor steps inside the shielding and absorbs the now critical nuclear energies into himself. He frees Wilf and condemns himself.

To me, the most powerful elements of Doctor Who: The End of Time involve the Doctor and Wilf, whose friendship and scenes together give the finale some emotional weight. I'm less certain about the handling of the return of the Time Lords or The Master's modus operandi. (He was really going to then turn the Time Lords into more genetic copies of himself? Why?) It's a big reveal and an even bigger plot that's given short shrift by the demands of the story here. Part One of "The End of Time" dealt almost solely with the return of The Master, his resurrection, and his eternal battle with the Doctor but that's all swept aside in place of Gallifrey in Earth's orbit, a somewhat incomprehensible plot involving white-point stars, drumbeats, and paradox, and the possible resetting of the Time War.

The Doctor had to end the Time War and doom his own people once before (off-screen anyway, before the start of the revival series) but here this monumental decision to again obliterate his race takes place over the course of a few seconds as the Doctor has to decide whether to shoot The Master or Rassilon. He does neither as The Master attacks Rassilon with his new-found powers and they are all seemingly sucked back into the Time Lock.

Also propelled back into the darkness: the Mystery Woman who had appeared to Wilf throughout the two-parter. Why the Lord-President would take the two opposing Time Lords through the rift to Earth was odd to me but her presence seemed to be the mechanism by which the Doctor realized there was only one course of action. As for her identity, it's left deliberately vague. The obvious answer would be that she was the Doctor's mother (which itself feels far too pat and on the nose) but I couldn't help but wonder if it was the Doctor's granddaughter Susan (from the original series). The Doctor doesn't answer Wilf when asked who she was but instead looks to Sylvia (Jacqueline King) and Donna Noble. (It is, after all, Wilf's granddaughter's wedding day.)

But the real question is: why was the presence of the Mystery Woman--whether she was the Doctor's mother or granddaughter or, hell, Romana--necessary at all? How was she able to manipulate time and space to appear to Wilf from within the Time Lock? And why did she order Wilf not to tell the Doctor of their conversations and urge him to retrieve his pistol... which remained unfired by the end of the story, at least against an individual. (Which, ironically, goes against the narrative contrivance of having a loaded gun in the first act and setting it off in the third act. Was it, perhaps, a comment on the Doctor's dislike for guns? And the knowledge that he would choose peace over violence even at the end?)

The Mystery Woman's identity, however, remains a mystery. What is more tangible and therefore more powerful is the Doctor's final moments in the series. Choosing to bestow boons upon his former traveling companions, he tracks down Martha (Freeman Agyeman) and Mickey (Noel Clarke)--now married--and rescues them from a trigger-happy Sontaran; saves Luke (Tommy Knight), the adopted son of Sarah-Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), from an oncoming car; gives "best friend" Donna one hell of a wedding present (a winning lottery ticket purchased by borrowing a quid from her dead father); gets a book signed by Verity Newman (Jessica Hynes), the granddaughter of lost love Joan Redfern; introduces heartbroken Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) to Alonso Frame (Russell Tovey); and encounters Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) one last time, meeting her on New Year's Day 2005 and telling her that she is going to have a great year.

(Aside: I'm not quite sure why the Doctor didn't visit Joan Redfern herself rather than her author granddaughter Verity, given that he traveled back in time to see Rose but that's a quibble in a grand sequence of reminiscence.)

But it's the Doctor's final words--"I don't want to go!"--that show him truly grappling with his own mortality, an attempt to bargain with the universe at large. (It might as well have been Tennant himself saying those words as they made me burst into tears.) But as the glow of regeneration comes over him, the Doctor does rage, violently as the TARDIS seemingly begins to crumble around him, collapsing in a sea of sparks and a throb of energy... before the Doctor transforms into his Eleventh incarnation (Matt Smith).

While we're only given a glimpse of Smith as the Doctor, I'm already a fan, thanks to his use of Tennant's trademark head-tapping, the shock on his face when he considers that he came back as a woman, and his gleeful cry of "Geronimo!" as the TARDIS begins its rapid descent toward Earth.

All in all, Doctor Who: The End of Time found the Doctor--and the series--looking backward and forward in the same breath, much like the Doctor himself. The ending of Doctor Who: The End of Time, while arriving after a needlessly confusing and convoluted narrative, was a fitting send-off for Tennant, a man who made a mark on the eternal and never-ending character of the Doctor. He'll be much missed as we move into a new decade, new adventures, and a new Doctor. Allons-y once more...

Season Five of Doctor Who is set to launch in spring 2010.

Comments

Uwila said…
A great piece as always.
I watched it twice and the regeneration killed me each time. Hopefully Matt Smith's use of Tennant's trademark anything will fade quickly, as it will just make it more obvious that it in fact, isn't Ten. I am dubious, but I trust Moffat.
And, as a side note, I think that The Master says that he had to color his hair as a disguise. (when they are sitting around the fire)
All in all, I can't wait though.
Bella Spruce said…
Thanks for the excellent and articuate review! I agree that the Doctor/Wilf storyline was the strongest storyline of the finale and appreciated the irony of Wilf being the death of the magnificent Doctor. It was very emotional and Wilf made a wonderful (if short-lived) companion.

I definitely had some issues with the plot and wish that the return of the Time Lords had been done in a more clever way. I think the elements were all there but it seemed rather hastily strung together...like they were trying to fit too much in. So that was somewhat unsatisfying but, emotionally, it resonated - especially Tennant's final words as the Doctor. Heartbreaking!
David J. Loehr said…
Actually, the gun did get fired. The Doctor shot the machine that was behind the Master, which started the process of breaking the link. His "Get out of the way" is repaid by the Master's "Get out of the way" before he attacks Rassilon.

Other than that, I'm right with you. I enjoyed the whole, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it in the end, but good grief, does the plotting have to be so random and incoherent?

More than Chekhov's rule about guns, if you ask a question in the first act, answer it in the second. Or pretend to. Or give a reason why it won't be answered. I still don't understand exactly what the four drumbeats were, and I don't think Rassilon does either. Are they "the heartbeats of a Time Lord" or are they a signal? Are they something from the "untempered schism" or a specific beat planted there?

Who's poor Claire Bloom? I rather prefer the thought that she's Susan, because that's a little more artful. She seemed to think she was playing his mother back when the news was spoiled last summer.

But the biggest problem to me is how monumental the idea was and how simply--and poorly--Davies dealt with it. If we can have three parts to deal with the initial return of the Master, surely the return of the Time Lords et al warrants more than a fraction of an episode.

And if Claire Bloom can project herself out of the Time Lock, why not Rassilon? Why not use Timothy Dalton for more than a few glowering shouty bits? Why not make him more directly the source of the drumbeats, the voice in the head? Why was he "narrating" the first half at all? Was he nothing more than a monologuing villain? And why was he Rassilon? Is he the original Rassilon? Has this become a title for whomever becomes Lord President?

I did feel that Davies cut himself off from a source of good stories when he "killed off" the Time Lords and Gallifrey right off the bat. But at least that hinted at something epic. This kind of fizzled out.

All that being said, I still enjoyed the hell out of this. It's one of those shows where, with the right actor, I can overlook a lot--poor writing, cheesy effects--and just enjoy the ride.

The relationship between the Doctor and Wilf--and the rest of his family--was just delightful. (And didn't the Doctor say in part one that he couldn't figure out why Wilf was so important? Apparently, neither could Davies, since he didn't bother explaining it.)

And the ending, while full of fan service, worked even if you weren't a fan. My wife, who's seen maybe two episodes of the current run, enjoyed it. (She didn't even see part one of this; I said it would've confused her a lot more if she had.)

So I'll join in the chorus crying out Allons-y! Tennant will be missed, but I'm looking forward to new songs...
Boffle said…
I loved the show and of course the amazing scenes with Tennant and Wilf. I loved the spirit and the energy and the sadness and rage and kindness and selfishness the Doctor had in him. I think it was all about putting the Doctor in situations where he could reveal his true self and Tennant blazed as he did so. I think it was the cheeky side of RTD to add lots of questions and characters left in play so that the next writer could choose some or none of those threads to follow up on down the road.

By the way, the Doctor did fire the gun; he shot the machine that was providing the link and with that shot sent the Time Lords and the Master back to the Time Lock. We think. But there was some room for them to be brought back should later writers wish to do so.

I didn't hate the next Doctor, he seemed fine, but when nine became ten, he owned that character right away and it was love at first sight. And it still is.
As to why he did not visit Joan Redfern, as far as I remember, she ASKED him specifically that she did not want to see him ever again. Can anyone confirm this one?
Pest said…
A few thoughts:

The Doctor did not likely visit Joan Redfern because he could not do so. He had commented in the past that he could not cross his own personal timeline. This would not explain why he did not visit her after his original departure unless she specifically told him to go away and never visit her again as noted by Magick Threepwood.

The Mystery Woman could be a few people. The Doctor's mum is wa-ay too obvious even though it might explain the meaningful looks between the two. His granddaughter would be a clean answer, but one that leaves me a bit befuddled. I would propose that it could even be the DoctorDonna who somehow survived the metacrisis and embraced her newly-returned powers. Obviously, this would take some time to find a suitable TARDIS or other form of transportation not to mention the entire "Shh! Don't tell anyone!" thing with Wilf.

A sidenote that shows I am just as bonkers as the Master not to mention downright funny: I was preparing a batch of my infamous PBChilli and found myself tapping out the drumbeats when cleaning off the spoon. Oh, yes! A tad off the rocker am I, but it shows how addicting this show can be! ;-)
The CineManiac said…
Jace,
Another wonderful write-up. I think the main problem with the finale was that it was written by Davies. I'm thankful he brought back the series, but his episodes seem to be some of the worst overall.

However, the finale did work in the ways it needed to, specifically the scenes with Wilf and "his reward"

I cried like a baby several times during the episode, almost all when he and Wilf were talking.

Like you I wish they had explained who the woman was and explained a few more things, but maybe in the future.

I actually rewatched the 2parter with Joan Redfern today as I was feeling depressed at losing the 10th Doctor and although I don't recall Joan telling him not to come back, she does make it clear that seeing him is not far to her as he looks like the man she loved but he's not him. Also the last thing she says to him "If you hadn't randomly chosen this place would any of these people have died" seems to hit him just right, driving home that death tends to follow him, maybe so much so that he can't bare to see her again.

But I was glad to see the Joan had a happy life and I'd really like to read that book of her granddaughter's.

I do have hope for Matt Smith's 11th Doctor after both the ending and the preview for Season 6, but mostly because Moffat is brilliant.
Anonymous said…
I agree that the second half held together much better than the first, and the last act was amazing. I think the Doctor visited Joan Redfern's granddaughter instead of her for two reasons: 1) As other posters have said, she didn't want to see him again, and realized the man she loved was John Smith, and not the Doctor, and 2) His last acts were attempts to make things right for the people he loved. The only way to have given her a happy ending would have been to turn back into a human, which he couldn't have done (even if he had wanted to, he would have died without the ability to regenerate). His question was interesting--"Was she happy?" He knew that the best thing he could have done was to let her get over him.
M. D. Jackson said…
Verity Newman:

Verity Lambert
Sidney Newman

First producers of the original Doctor Who back in 1963.

Useless trivia, but there it is.
Jon88 said…
Wasn't Martha engaged (to someone else) the last time we saw her?
Beckacheck said…
On the subject of storylines that the overstuffed multi-part finale began but did not resolve:
Did they ever explain why Wilf was so important and the Doctor kept encountering him? It reminded me a bit of that Fringe episode, "She was made important by killing one of us."

I don't think I'll be watching the new season with the new Doctor. I feel like a lot of this show's many weaknesses were smoothed over by David Tennant's immense talent and infectious energy. Don't get me wrong, I might end up liking him if I were to watch the new episodes. But I watch SO MUCH television already, if I can bring myself to give up a show, I probably should.
Ridolph said…
What a disappointment the finale was! I can't believe how many people are letting it off so easily. The only good thing was the acting and character interaction. The writing was a pile of crap. Self-indulgent twaddle. Did I enjoy it? Only because I am willing to suspend my critical faculty for Doctor Who and Tennant. But that doesn't change the fact that it was a mess of the worse aspects of Davies' writing.

Lets start with the Crying Game of the last 20 minutes. How self-indulgent can you get? If he had that much time on his hands waiting to die, he could have checked himself into the Tardis sickbay. It was totally at odds with previous regenerations, even the ones in the new series. And Mickey and Martha??? Sure, 2005 will be a good year for Rose, but she'll be turning high-class tricks by 2007! (spoiler :-))

The knocks coming from Wilf was clever, probably the cleverest bit of the episode. And that's because here they used something called 'foreshadowing' to good effect, with an ironic twist. Foreshadowing, the sign of quality literature. (any reference hounds get that?). But lets look at the rest of the episode, which had no foreshadowing and was just a series of stuff thrown at the screen.

As a Gallifrey-lover, I have to factor out my disappointment that they didn't rescue the Time-Lords (though I still expect to see that eventually, and the method is somewhat clear (the Valeyard)). But the whole Rassilon thing should have been foreshadowed previously. There was never the slightest hint that the Time-Lords themselves had become an issue, and plenty of time to at least have a puzzling reaction or glance from Tennant previously. Fine, resurrect Rassilon, and he's a jerk. There's plenty of fan-fic around that. But does that corrupt the whole society? It doesn't hang together. It's just a throwaway. And since when does Gallifrey use Visionaries? They have scientific scanners that can predict the future. They're TIME-LORDS!

Unexplained super-powers for the Master. Ritual resurrection. Do these things really belong in Doctor Who? I can live with the tailgunner scene, but that was gratuitous (and out of place on a salvage ship) (ok, maybe because its just earth technology).

So did the Master also take over the babies, the midgets, people in a vegetative state? Did anyone think that through? If that were the only plothole I could live with it, but that whole thing was one big plothole. So much that we can't even have an intelligent discussion about it, because it just came out of Davies' ass. So the unexplained woman was the Doctor's Mother because it was mentioned in an interview somewhere? And that's supposed to excuse the last of resolution there? HOW CAN A CHICK INSIDE A TIME-LOCK APPEAR TO WILF? Sorry, TIME-CHICK. And if there is something deeper going on with Wilf, doesn't that require some followup? I suppose I should ask how a diamond can be sent out of the time-lock as well.

Anyway, I think that Davies is leaving non too soon. At least he's not pulling a JNT. Moffett is a much better writer, but I expect he's just ignore the clusterfrack of the finale. It's a story just begging for excision from the continuitity. I'll miss Tennant of course.

Nobody is keeping The Master in a Time-Lock, of course. And where's the damn Rani when you need her? And Cho-Je? And Romanadvoratrelundar (fan-fic aside)?

Ok, done now. Disappointed.
Elizabeth said…
When it comes to the Master taking over every body on earth, it's true there really were a lot of issues with the theory.
I'm embarrassed to admit that my mind immediately went to:
Somewhere on earth, a woman is giving birth to a baby - is the Master giving birth to himself? How would that work? Ick.
Somewhere on earth, people are mid-coitus.
Somewhere on earth, someone is driving a car - when the Master becomes him, what if his legs are too short to reach the pedals?
Do all the cribs in an orphanage break as a dozen babies turn into Masters?
And for the love of god, what about the clothes? How do all their shoes fit him?

Even for Doctor Who, the idea was pretty silly.
Anonymous said…
I'll keep it simple.
Why was Wilf so important?
Because he, a lowly human, would one day bring death to the 906 year old Doctor.

Who was the mystery woman?
The Doctor's mother, as the director illustrated with the shot of Donna and her mother when Wilf asked...
(film making 101)
Unknown said…
* What did Lucy's potion do? I think it's as simple as Lucy's potion not working. It destroyed the prison, but the Master survived. His "regeneration" made him blond--that's all.

I don't think Timothy Dalton's character is the actual Rassilon. Rassilon was the first Time Lord and established many of their powers and traditions and is now really-really dead (well, ok, immortal and in eternal sleep). (He was covered most thoroughly in Tom Baker's stint as the Doctor and in The Five Doctors.) I suppose it could be a new habit of referring to the Lord President as Rassilon, but that seems odd. Or maybe the Time Lords resurrected him. Yikes!

I wouldn't say the gun remained unfired. After all, as Jace and others point out, it was fired--at a machine. And that, I think, is how the Mystery Woman intended it to be used. (My money is on her being the Doctor's mother because of all the childhood references in the episode.)

I'm sure he didn't return to see Joan Redfern because he knew it would've been too painful for her and, perhaps, for him as well.
liminalD said…
Jace said... “urge him to retrieve his pistol... which remained unfired by the end of the story, at least against an individual. (Which, ironically, goes against the narrative contrivance of having a loaded gun in the first act and setting it off in the third act. Was it, perhaps, a comment on the Doctor's dislike for guns? And the knowledge that he would choose peace over violence even at the end?)”

skst said... “I wouldn't say the gun remained unfired. After all, as Jace and others point out, it was fired--at a machine. And that, I think, is how the Mystery Woman intended it to be used...”

I would say that, metaphorically speaking, the Doctor shot ALL of the Time Lords with that pistol, by shooting the machine holding the link open he was condemning them to the death he’d already dealt them, by shooting the gun he is in fact affirming his earlier decision, and finally coming to some sort of closure, knowing once and for all that he made the right decision. The Mystery Woman is left vague intentionally, she stands in for all of those he loved, and her agreement is what gives him that final sense of the rightness of his earlier actions.


I'd also like to say that the whole story makes a lot more sense if you've read the poem 'Do not go gentle into that good night' by Dylan Thomas... It can be argued (quite strongly, I think) that everything in 'The End of Time' was foreshadowed in Season 3, but most especially in 'Smith and Jones' and 'The Shakespeare Code'.
Paige said…
My favorite part of "The End of Time" was the end of the second part, When Tennant absorbed the radiation and went visiting his friends. It was a brilliant tool used to evoke emotion in the watcher. To use literary terms, it would be called an allusion. It makes us think back to all of the adventures that "we participated in" by watching the show. This rewarded all of the DW fans by giving them something that only they would fully understand (those who had watched most of the episodes). It allowed us to see The Doctor remembering everything during the course of his life. And since we were along for the ride, we are remembering also.
It touches an emotional chord by reminding us of all of his companions, the people he loved. It reinforced his compassionate and "human side" because he chose to use the last moments of his life to make his friends happier.
The ending was good because it caused an emotion in the watcher rather than just showing the emotion of The Doctor. It reinforces the idea that his life as the tenth doctor is over, touching our human resistance to endings.
Also, it provided a nice summary and closing for the tenth doctor.

I disagree with some others in that I didn't immediately fall in love with the new Doctor. Of what I saw, he seemed to only be sort of copy-catting David Tennant. Although I suppose it would be hard not to, since he was so brilliant in developing The Doctor's character. But I will give him a chance even though I think they should bring Tennant back.

I don't blame The Doctor for sending Gallifrey back. Sometimes you have to sacrifice some lives to saves others. It showed that The Doctor had good character because he was willing to sacrifice of all of his own people (everything that he was familiar with, including all of his relatives and friends who probably lived there) for the greater good. It makes me ask the question: Would I be willing to do that to Earth? To forever say goodbye to everyone I know and the example of my way of life?

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