Review: "Doctor Who: The End of Time, Part One" on BBC America
Saturday night, the night after Christmas, was the U.S. premiere of Part 1 of "The End of Time," the first half of the last adventure of David Tennant's Tenth Doctor, as in "Doctor Who." (Shown here on BBC America, the episode premiered on Christmas Day in England, where, as my colleague Mary McNamara wrote from London, "They take their Christmas TV very seriously, fortunately, because everything else is closed on Xmas Day.") The Tennant Years, which began Christmas Day 2005, are coming to a close, along with the Russell T Davies Years, which began that March, when writer Davies brought the series back to television after a 16-year hiatus, one lonely TV movie notwithstanding.
This is, in its small but real way, epochal, and as a fan of the show, I have awaited this moment with trepidation and excitement and a concern both for the characters and for the real people who make them go, on the page and before and behind the camera -- not wanting it to end, wanting the end to be good. That the Tennant Doctor would die and regenerate into Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, with Steven Moffat replacing Davies as the show runner, has been known for quite some time, and the Doctor himself has been aware of his impending demise since it was prophesied in the "Planet of the Dead" special earlier this year. This has introduced a novel note into his character, one of fear for his own life, of self-preservation and self-indulgence.
"Even if I change, it feels like dying," he tells his new traveling companion, Wilf (Bernard Cribbins), grandfather of last traveling companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), who currently remembers nothing of the Doctor. (Her brain will burn up if she does, but there are always ways around these things; when you write the rules, you can also write the exceptions.) "Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away. And I'm dead." That this is only sort of true, to judge even by the transformation by which Davies turned Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston into Tenth Doctor Tennant, is less important than the fact that it resonates with our own feelings about this parting: Here on Earth, the soul is, practically speaking, indivisible from the body, and Matt Smith's Doctor will no more be David Tennant's than Tennant's was Tom Baker's or Baker's was Jon Pertwee's, however many memories they share. This transference began as a way to keep the show alive, but it has been Davies' method throughout the series to take its established conventions and reckon their psychic cost.
The Doctor began Saturday's penultimate hour swaggering, arriving on the snowy planet of the psychically sensitive Oud in a straw hat and a lei, having taken some detours on his way to answering a summons issued at the end of "The Waters of Mars." (He is not ready to go into whatever good night regenerating Time Lords go.) But the arrogance left him as the Oud revealed "a shadow is falling on creation, something vast is stirring in the dark" -- something even bigger than the "reality bomb" Davros and the Daleks meant to unleash on all of creation at the end of the last season.
Melodramatic and busy and loud, with a few breaks for comedy, it was a kitchen-sink episode, cluttered with events and characters (including a power-mad billionaire and his daughter and a pair of alien technicians) to the point that it was sometimes hard to get a fix on the Doctor, so far more acted upon than acting. Much of it was just getting the pins lined up, of course, for next week's final confrontation. Davies likes to get the gang together at Christmas -- last year, he had all the Doctor's traveling companions back to co-pilot the Tardis -- and there is no way he wouldn't call back the troops for Tennant's farewell. It has been known for some time that the finale would involve John Simm's supposedly dead Master, whose return was foretold by the trailers that have been in circulation since summer, as was that of Tate's Donna. (Of the likely old faces, only Freema Agyeman's Martha Jones is missing from the published cast list.)
Though Donna Noble was in and out of the episode, always just around the corner from the Doctor, it was Wilf who became his final traveling companion. Like Donna, and pretty much everyone else the Doctor gets close to, his presence is not accidental; the universe has thrust him upon the Doctor like a magician forcing a card. Destiny is a powerful narrative device -- it says that life has purpose and strikes the place in us that wants that to be so -- and Davies has used it again and again. Just so, it's the web of special relationships that surround the Doctor that makes tolerable, and navigable, the awful vastness of space and time. He's a Time Lord who needs people, and he needs those people back around him for his death to have the proper effect and meaning.
By the episode's end, things seemed ready to begin. The Master returned to life in a set piece out of J.K. Rowling, gibbering, ravenous and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound but eventually coming back down to Earth and using some particularly handy alien technology to turn all humanity (save Wilf and Donna) into reflections of himself. And there was, revealed in the final seconds, the return of the Time Lords, funny hats and all, whom Davies had killed off as practically his first official act as the new shepherd of "Doctor Who" -- which made their appearance in his swan song all but inevitable, though completely unexpected.
Now, on to Part 2, which airs here Jan. 2. I remain anxious.
But first a note to BBC America: Your "bugs" -- a seven-line ad for Part 2 ran down the right side of the screen throughout, as ads for other upcoming shows popped up to the left -- are particularly distracting, no different really from having a small child blocking the screen and insisting you look at this thing he has found. You can't give yourself over to another world while billboards from this one keep interrupting the view. (I am not the only professional watcher to have felt this.) Americans will have to wait for the DVD to properly see "The End of Time."
-- Robert Lloyd
Photo: David Tennant as the Doctor. Credit: BBC America