Warning! Spoilers ahead for the 2008 Season!
The problem with writing a review for Army Of Doomsday (as I call it) at the time of transmission is that it's not the finished article.
Back in 2006, most commentators would have summed up the big season finale as follows: Doctor and Rose find that ghosts have taken over Earth; Ghosts turn out to be Cybermen; Cybermen use Earth as a battleground for their war against the Daleks; Doctor stops the war but at a price because Rose gets trapped in a parallel universe forever; Lots of weeping and wailing at the end.
Which is a fair summary. Now fast forward a couple of years, and you'll realise that the review's not quite complete. See that bit about Rose getting trapped forever in a parallel universe? Well, actually, amend that to Rose gets temporarily trapped because she comes back a couple of seasons later, even though the Doctor said that an attempt to get back would cause the universe to rip in two or turn into a giant blancmange or something along those lines.
Which makes Army Of Doomsday one of the most pointless Doctor Who stories ever.
Don't get me wrong, there's plenty to enjoy in the story. It's an action-packed grab-bag of the most successful elements of the last couple of RTD-helmed seasons. But the problem with Army Of Doomsday is that it's chiefly about the exit of Rose. Never mind Doctor Who fans salivating over the first battle between Daleks and Cybermen... no, emotions come first – and Army Of Doomsday is one of the most emotional of the lot. There's so much weeping and blubbing in this story that the characters are at risk of drowning in their own tears, never mind getting zapped by a Dalek.
The issue I've got with all this OTT emotion is that it ultimately turns out to be misplaced because of a big cheat that's designed to bring in more viewers a couple of seasons later. While this ploy works, the downside is that in retrospect, Army Of Doomsday itself becomes a huge irrelevance.
But let's backtrack for a moment, and visit the weird ghost world in what's rather a magnificent first part. One thing that Russell T Davies does very well is to place a completely unusual concept in a mundane setting. Locales don't come much more mundane than the Powell Estate – where Jackie's getting visits from Grandpa Prentice or Prentis... however, you spell it. Unfortunately, Prentis Hancock doesn't make his fifth cameo here as the long lost grandpa of Jackie.
What's nice about these sequences is that us viewers can see that there's something amiss here. Grandpa Prentice resembles a walking silhouette, which can only mean bad news is coming. Even the Doctor muses that “A footprint doesn't look like a boot”. The mystery is well handled throughout the first part as to who or what the ghosts are, with the frequent cuts to the enigmatic Torchwood cabal, which is somehow involved with all this ghostly malarkey.
Another plus point is that the events of Army Of Doomsday are seen on a global scale. I know that some criticise RTD for always seeing unfolding events on the telly, but at least it shows that the threat isn't always confined to a small Midsomer-style village. Ghosts are witnessed in locations as diverse as India, Japan and Paris, and of course, they're represented in Blighty with a spoof EastEnders reference with Peggy Mitchell shrieking “Geeeeahhhmaaahhpub!” at a ghostly Den Watts.
Mind you, this is smashing the fourth wall to pieces with a bulldozer, when you consider that two other EastEnders alumni are now working for Torchwood. Seems that once your time's up on EastEnders, a place at the Torchwood Institute waits for you. Must be all the sex and violence, I guess.
The visiting Easties in this case are Tracey Ann Oberman (formerly Chrissie Watts, Murderer) as Yvonne Hartman and Raji James (formerly Ash Ferreira) as Dr Singh. Actually, both actors are very good in this. James gives a nicely deadpan performance as the unflappable Singh, a man who's too preoccupied with his latest Sudoku puzzle rather than the great big gold ball that he's supposed to be investigating. Oberman's Yvonne on the other hand, is your archetypal modern day British boss – all touchy-feely buzzword clichés and fake PR smiles.
On which point, what's with all that clapping in the first part? Measure the ghost energy at 5000 gigawatts? Pat yourselves on the back by clapping like a load of manic seals. Presumably, Yvonne's also been in charge of that bread factory where the workers start throwing a party whenever a brand new loaf emerges from the oven.
Not only that, but Yvonne's a fiercely dedicated patriot. So much so, she makes the Daily Mail look like a lefty guidebook for tree-hugging hippies. Back and forth she goes, crowing about the British Empire and how Torchwood must defend the good of the country – all with a cheesy grin and a patronising tone of voice. Even when she's about to get her brain turned into mulch, she's still insisting that she did her duty for the country. Poor old Yvonne – she never stood a chance. Maybe the Cybermen started waving Union Jack flags as compensation while she got her head turned into puree.
The problem is though, typically for the new style of adventures, the guest characters don't really amount to much more than cannon fodder. By the first 10 or so minutes of Doomsday, both Singh and Yvonne have been brutally dispatched, which is a shame, since it would have been nice to have both characters play a bigger part in the action. But hey, this story is all about Rose leaving, so there's not enough time for such useless elements as solid character building.
At least they get memorably icky endings though, and in fact, if you look hard enough, there's quite a lot of scary stuff for the kids. Yvonne graphically describes her own demise, as some poor victim gets his head turned into jelly first (although why does Cyber Yvonne start crying when she stomps around with a big gun?); Adeola's brain goo is seen on the end of her earpiece; while best of all, Singh has his head barbecued by Dalek plungers in a bid to find out as much as they can about current Earth history. The shot of Singh's charred skeleton falling to the floor is memorably gross, especially the way in which the skull starts to powder away.
From scary deaths to scary monsters! Not only do the ghosts turn out to be Cybermen, they're now doing battle against the Daleks! This is the stuff of die-hard Whovian dreams. The Cybermen are out to 'Delete!' as many luckless humans as possible, while the Daleks are too busy faffing over a giant pepper pot thing called the Genesis Ark. Which I guess means that the evil tinpot meanies have been locked into a prison device with only the complete works of Genesis for company. Judging by their latest destination, they've bypassed the 'Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' and 'Abacab' eras, and are now on the 'We Can't Dance' LP – a meisterwork that contains timeless classics such as 'No Singh Of Mine', 'Hold On My Hartman' and of course, 'Doctor Jesus He Knows Me'.
The problem though is that the big battle between the two races is undercooked. Handbags At Dawn bitchiness is all well and good, with catty remarks flying between the two races like metallic wasps. “This is not war! This is pest control!” crows a Dalek. One-nil. “You would destroy the Cybermen with FOUR Daleks?” howls a Cyberman. One-all. “We would destroy the Cybermen with one Dalek!” retaliates the angry Dalek. Two-one. Which all ends in “You are superior in only one respect – you are better at dying!” with a Dalek victory parade. Blimey, maybe the Cybermen should have gone for all-out Zinedine Zidane-style head-butting in protest.
Apart from this, not enough is made of the big Dalek v Cyberman war. We hear about their progress and get to see the odd shoot-out between the two – not to mention a well-realised shot of millions of Daleks patrolling the skies of London. But given that the title of the last episode is called Doomsday, there's no such feeling of jeopardy. One or two hammy extras run away, while one – yes, one – poor woman gets zapped by a Dalek. Instead, most of the action is concentrated on the domestic side of Rose's departure.
Which is fine if it's done well. Other stories have pre-empted a companion's exit before, whether Fury From The Deep waved goodbye to Victoria or whether The Green Death foretold Jo's leaving from the first episode. What made these stories work is the right mix of drama and emotion. Either one didn't sacrifice the other. Army Of Doomsday doesn't get that balance right, because the domestic wrap-up of Rose's story overpowers the drama. And when you consider that Rose's exit was just a temporary goodbye, somehow that makes this story even more of a wasted opportunity.
Which is seen in the sloppy way in which the Doctor solves the problem. He basically gets rid of the two evils with a great big threatening lever that must not be pulled under any circumstances. It's all too easy, and what's worse is that the Doctor announces the solution in such a glib manner – yet again. He's too busy goofing around with his 3-D specs, musing on “Via the Void” puns while impersonating Kenneth Williams, and then bellowing “Pulling 'em all in!” like an imbecile.
The Doctor's goofing and clowning around makes all the outside carnage seem like a throwaway bit of trivia – as if the Daleks are doing nothing worse than chucking empty crisp packets onto the streets. His confrontation with the Daleks is similarly too cocky by half, and again reduces the big stakes at play. It also feels as if the fate of Rose is somehow more important than what's going on outside. Just like in The Idiot's Lantern, there's this feeling that Rose comes first and the rest of the human race have to make do with second best.
That's not to say that the following scenes aren't great, because they are. Or to say that Tennant and Piper have been poor throughout the story, because they haven't. Again, this is a story in which they manage to rise above flippant smuggery and awful outbursts of “Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!” David Tennant gets some particularly good scenes, especially his angry confrontations with Yvonne. There's that classic bit of Doctor behaviour when he uses reverse psychology to stop Yvonne from going into the next round of Ghost Shift.
Billie, too, makes the very most of her last regular story, and gives her all – especially in the last few scenes. It's also heart-warming to see Rose get the nuclear family that she's been hankering for. The scene in which Jackie meets Parallel Pete is one of the most moving in the story, and it's played to perfection by both Camille Coduri and Shaun Dingwall. And hey, Rose also gets Mickey (again, fantastic performance from Noel Clarke), even if he's still a poor substitute for her beloved Doctor. Quite where Jakey Boy gets to is anyone's guess, though.
The final climactic struggle of Rose trying and failing to hold onto the lever is also a brilliant bit of Doctor Who, thanks to some stellar direction from Graeme Harper and some fantastically raw acting from both David Tennant and Billie Piper. Tennant sells the horror of his helpless predicament through his tortured, wide-eyed expression and his long, drawn-out scream as Rose is forced to let go. Billie's raw tears and shrieking on the other side of the wall are just as powerful.
The separation of the two means that in the end they do count the cost of their smug attitude that they've displayed throughout the season. As I mentioned in the Tooth And Claw review, if they'd have showed a bit more humility and a little less goofing, Queen Victoria wouldn't have founded the Torchwood Institute, leading to Rose's exile to parallel Earth. It is a fitting 'end' (although why Pete and Rose aren't sucked into the Void is a mystery) and the touching shot of the Doctor and Rose on separate sides of the wall rams home the loss. For my money, the story would have made more impact if they'd let it go there. The shot of a dejected Doctor walking away from the wall would have been the perfect final bow, but alas, it wasn't to be.
Because the last six minutes are devoted to that odd, overwrought coda in which a projection of the Doctor finally gets to say goodbye to Rose, who's practically choking on her own tears throughout. Of course, Rose isn't dead – despite the ominous prologue to the story in which she says: “Vis is ver story of ow oi doid”.
Putting this under the microscope for a second or 99, this is probably the aspect of NuWho that drives me nuts the most. Davies and especially Moffat are both guilty of this. They big up the supposed death of a regular character and then proceed to cheat with a convenient Get Out Of Jail Free Card. Rose's 'death' actually means that she's reported missing from her regular Earth. At no point is she zapped by a Dalek or deleted by a Cyberman. No, it's all one big stinker of a cop-out, a pattern that would be repeated time and again in the next few years. If you're going to kill off a regular, then let them stay dead, for chrissakes.
Calm down John – it's only a TV programme.
Still, if there's one death to be had at the end of Army Of Doomsday, then it's the death of subtlety. The last two-hander between Rose and the Doctor is so overdone, it's burnt to a crisp. Teary proclamations of love, weeping, wailing... and that's just from Murray's Pompous Choir, who are yet again hell-bent on intruding on the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong – both Tennant and Piper deliver these final lines beautifully, and I can see why some viewers would be moved to tears. But the lack of subtlety means that ultimately, the conclusion doesn't work for me. Compare it with the understated power of Jo's departure in The Green Death, and you'll know what I mean.
Plus, the teary atmosphere's shot to hell with the sudden appearance of Catherine Tate shrieking in a bridal gown. Jarring, non?
Looking back in retrospect, the whole last few moments of Army Of Doomsday are a bluff anyway. Rose would be back no less than a season and a bit later, sounding like she was speaking with snooker balls in her mouth. All this, despite the Doctor saying that Rose could never return. “Well, he's been wrong before,” says Mickey at an earlier point in the story, which pretty much sums up how some NuWho stories are just designed for instant shock tactics rather than enduring, credible drama.
Which is a huge shame, since most of Army Of Doomsday is actually exciting, well-directed drama. Graeme Harper is absolutely at the top of his game with some outstanding camera shots, good battle scenes and the usual well-chosen cast (Kimus from The Pirate Planet as a cardboard policeman, notwithstanding). The production values and filming are lovely, and even most of Murray Gold's score is actually very very good – especially, the spooky Torchwood theme and the eerie, juddery hum when Yvonne homes in on the Doctor's TARDIS on the Powell Estate.
When it's not swamped by the soap, Davies' script is a fun-packed, well-written rollercoaster ride of great lines (“They can shoot me dead, but the moral high ground is mine”) and tense set-pieces. But it's a shame that all of these are good intentions are hampered by the very obvious departure of Rose – which in the end, turned out to be a pause rather than a final farewell.
Now that's enough to make you break out the crying towel.
* More Dalek and Cybermen stories reviewed in my expanded Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker & Peter Davison ebook guides, at prices so low, it's enough to make you blub as much as Rose.
JON PERTWEE ERA - £3.86
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 1 - £3.07
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 2 - £2.51
PETER DAVISON ERA - £2.98