BBCHD - 25th December 2009 - 6.00pm
I suspect Part One of The End Of Time is going to be one of those 'marmite' episodes. You either love it or you really hate it. With the latter camp I can almost sympathise because the episode is far from perfect and certainly has its faults. But there are moments when it soars and breathtakingly scales the heights. Part of the problem with Russell T Davies' script is that it's entirely comprised of build up to the story proper, and I don't think that kicks into gear until Part Two, and all we are left with is much scene setting as the narrative bounces around for about half an hour before settling into something resembling a plot. And not a terribly good one at that.
There's also a strange tone to the whole episode, suffused as it is with a religio-political theme, telling the tale of the rise of an Aryan Time Lord and his fascist monoculture, a suggestion of some kind of Holy war in heaven between the Doctor and the Master and then the emergence of a reactionary, equally right wing, High Council of Gallifrey. The well used, post 2005 theme of faith in the Doctor is seeded into the story right at the beginning when Wilf enters the church and is told the story of the 'sainted physician' coming to Earth and 'smoting the demon'. Heavy handed religious symbolism isn't one of RTD's strengths and he's quite unfocused here struggling to articulate the bigger ideas about the Far Right's rise to power and our worries about the political direction the world has taken about war and peace, about the respect for liberty and diversity, and on the equitable development of nations.
The story's framing narration by Time Lord President Dalton is an attempt to once again place the events in the story on a global, nay this time, (Who)niversal scale. It sees the resurrection of the Master, rampant with narcissistic greed and acquisition, billionaire Naismith's 'Fighting The Future' post Torchwood manifesto realised as a home grown capitalism ('the king is in his counting house') with a multinational reach to acquire alien technology and a Time Lord army striking out in a "victory for Gallifrey" frontal assault on its intended targets who are a weak and divided Doctor and Wilf and a united and insurgent world of Masters.
The problem is that for a great deal of screen time a lot of this is lost amongst long scenes of exposition set on the Ood Sphere (which simply serves to recap the story of The Last Of The Time Lords), lots of scenes of David Tennant and John Simm running, and an extremely silly Harry Potter meets Prisoner Cell Block H convergence with the scenes set in the women's prison. It's here that any resemblance to coherent plotting goes right out of the window with the resurrection of the Master by the Governor (looking very much like Prisoner Cell Block H's Erica Davidson but minus the Lady Penelope posh accent) and the officers of Broadfell, including a Joan 'The Freak' Ferguson lookalike in Miss Trefusis. I was half expecting Alexandra Moen's Mrs Saxon to at least tell them all to 'rack off!' at the thought of bringing her husband back to life.
Extremely dubious occult reincarnation aside (the Secret Books Of Saxon, some rather horrible blue looking liquid and a trace of Boots No 7 lipstick), it's Mrs Saxon's convenient and long winded retort to all of this camp nonsense 'And I was never that bright but my family had contacts. People who were clever enough to calculate the opposite' that glaringly show up RTD's crass pulp pretensions as she is handed the anti-reincarnation potion, hurls it at Harry and blows Broadfell to pieces. Incredibly silly stuff but a very guilty pleasure.
How this translates into giving the Master X Men like powers or a predilection for hamburgers isn't properly explained. John Simm flying around and hurling lightning bolts at the Doctor is simply window decoration until we get to their face off proper. It's redeemed by the sweet Bernard Cribbins and his Silver Cloak agents tracking down the Doctor and sparing us any more long takes of Tennant and Simm running around derelict dockyards. Minnie pinching the Doctor's bum is a wonderfully irreverent moment.
At the heart of the episode is that scene in the cafe. An intimate duologue between the Doctor and Wilf that demonstrates RTD's real gift for economy and dialogue, exposing the heart of the story, and that sits like an ocean of calm in this sea of bombast. Cribbins is an extremely skillful actor and dominates the scene but Tennant matches him in that rather sorrowful moment of verisimilitude with the 'some new man goes sauntering away' line. It's further compounded by his confession that he' did some things and they went wrong' as a reference perhaps to the events in The Waters Of Mars and it's very moving when Wilf reaches out to a clearly distraught Doctor who knows his time is up.
Simm as The Master also mirrors a similar scene from The Last Of The Time Lords in which the Doctor wistfully remembered the glories of the citadel on Gallifrey, but here describes their youthful freedom in the fields of Gallifrey, and then echoes Wilf's tearful cry of 'look at us now'. Finally the Doctor does hear those drums pounding in his enemy's head and perhaps recognises it as a signal for the impending arrival of the Time Lords out of the darkness. Two peers meet in a derelict wasteland after two old men meet in a cafe. Two good scenes back to back.
Ultimately we end up back at Naismith's mansion, the Master trussed up like an intergalactic Hannibal Lecter, and he and his daughter's attempt to get the so called Immortality Gate operational. Back at the Noble household, Wilf arms himself and takes a ride in the TARDIS. A last companion for the Tenth, Wilf works delightfully well ('I thought it'd be cleaner' he says of the TARDIS interior) and there are some lovely light comedic moments as he runs off from Sylvia and leaves her talking to empty air. With all the pieces pushing into place, we're then introduced to the alien Vinvocci salvage team, sadly another weak and irrelevant component of the plot, and lots and lots of dull exposition from Joshua Naismith.
Once the Master has repaired the Gate and freed himself, the final ten minutes is utterly bonkers. And hilarious. The 'Being John Simm' sequence does outstay its welcome but the sight of multiple Masters jumping up and down, many of them in frocks and high heels, clapping and laughing as the entire population of Earth (including a poor Obama lookey-likey and Trinity Wells) is turned into the 'Master race', is bizarre, unsettling and very funny. What the Master is intending to do with an entire population of his selves and how Donna will survive her mind exploding recall as she sees this transformation is not yet clear but just as you think the titles are about to crash in, Spitting Timothy Dalton announces from his Phantom Menace senate building, packed with robed Gallifreyans, that the Time Lords are on their way. You'll have either laughed yourself silly by now or thrown a shoe at the telly and growled 'Barrowman!' with a clenched fist in the air. Personally, I spent most of the time doing the former.
Mad. Completely mad.
RTD's take on globalisation in The End Of Time proposes that ultimate power becomes concentrated around two symbolic figures of faith (the Master and the Doctor), that institutions (Gallifrey and the Time Lords, Naismith) become a corrupt force for decentralising the universe ('something vast stirring in the dark' that appears to want to actually 'end' time) and the people caught in the middle (Wilf and Donna) are left to try and affirm their cultural identities on an Earth run and populated by millions of blonde haired Nick Griffins. Wilf, for example, is radicalised by Claire Bloom's alternative Queen's speech, in a moment where as Alvin Toffler once noted 'if you don't have a strategy, then you end up being part of someone else's strategy' and as the episode hurtles toward its cliffhanger the imminent frying of Donna's mind suggests a woman once again emerging from passive acceptance of her lot to the restoration of the hard won independence of Series 4.
It'll be interesting to see a plot develop out of this string of events. Will the Doctor have to destroy the Time Lords all over again and sacrifice himself to do so? Will the Time Lords remove the Tenth from the time stream in a great big reset button? Will John Simm stop laughing?