21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The End Of Time

David Tennant is Santa Claus. And Noddy Holder. And Cliff Richard.

Well he might as well have been back in the Crimbo week of December 2009 when it seemed that you couldn't get away from the man. Particularly in the week leading up to the much-anticipated Christmas/New Year special, there he was – on various breakfast and mid-morning TV programmes; on Children's BBC; heck, he was even on the novelty BBC idents, bellowing orders at time-travelling reindeer.

Still, Tennant fans had to make the most of the chap, since he was about to become the latest casualty in the mammoth two-part adventure The End Of Time. It's time to play the Regeneration Game again as Doctor Ten finds that Chops & Gravy Carmen's prophecy is about to come devastatingly true.

The End Of Time has a lot of promise to live up to. Not only is it the last David Tennant adventure, it's also the point at which head honcho Russell T Davies signs off. After nearly five incredible years of helming time-travelling hi-jinks, Davies was now ready to pass the baton to Steven Moffat.

So a lot is demanded of The End Of Time – it's got to tie up all the loose ends from Davies' time on the show, get rid of the Tenth Doctor, and also tell a good, interesting story in the process. It's not a story that's had a uniformly positive press, though. While some fans love it, others have decried it for its lack of focus, silly ideas and ludicrous parting shots. Maybe it's because it had so much to live up to that The End Of Time could never reach those lofty heights, and so some of the fans left the story feeling a little short-changed.

Personally I like it a lot. It's an odd, sprawling beast that contains some misfiring clangers, I'll grant you that, but in terms of achieving its overall vision, it delivers. Appropriately for a regeneration story, it's suitably apocalyptic – not only is the Master back from the dead, it looks like the Time Lords are back too, as is Gallifrey, which now inexplicably looks like a giant Malteser suspended in the air. Along the way, there's lots of doom and gloom, and suitably dark moments.

The End Of Time, in fact, is the apex of Davies' increasingly mordant Christmas specials. Compared to this story, the likes of The Runaway Bride (in which the Doctor mourned the loss of Rose) and Voyage Of The Damned (in which the Doctor failed to live up to his self-regarding heroism) seem positively flippant. This time around, the stench of death and loss permeates The End Of Time like a month-old kipper. From the death of the burger woman through to the acknowledgement of Donna's father's passing, The End Of Time is a story that constantly looks at how fragile life is. Not exactly a story that breaks out the party hats and balloons then.

For a regeneration story, it's one that's constantly keeping that theme in the foreground. All throughout the story, the Doctor's a man on the run from his own destiny, whether he's telling the Ood about his various wacky experiences (and how cool is naming a galaxy Alison?) or whether he's trying to prolong the inevitable right at the end by visiting companions. What I like is the way in which the story's constantly teasing the audience as to how the Doctor buys it this time around. The Doctor's placed in so many life-threatening situations that he becomes a human Wile E Coyote. Will he die from a Master bolt? Or shots from a helicopter? Or falling several feet through the air and through a glass window? Ah, well you'll just have to wait and see...

The End Of Time actually looks to other Doctor finales for inspiration. The War Games boasted the surprise reveal of the Time Lords. The Caves Of Androzani was swathed in doom as the Doctor gave his fifth life to save just one innocent. But it's the finales of the Third and Fourth that strike the most chords. In Logopolis, the Fourth Doctor knew that the end was just a stone's throw away, and so took his eye off the ball as the Master planned to destroy the universe instead of his nemesis. It's a similar sort of deal in The End Of Time, as the Doctor comes face to face with his deadliest adversary – or the Mazda, as the President likes to pronounce Gallifrey's devil-spawn. The Doctor's convinced that the Master will somehow be involved in his demise, so he's too busy to do something about good old Wilf going somewhere that he really shouldn't.

And as in Planet Of The Spiders, the Doctor ultimately dies by an unhealthy blast of radiation – more crucially, both stories look at the flaws of the Doctor. Like his third incarnation, the Tenth Doctor's an arrogant so and so. We'd just seen the lowest possible depths of his arrogance in The Waters Of Mars, as he proclaimed himself Time Lord Victorious, which apart from anything else sounds like a load of pompous baloney. He's still at it in the opening moments, refusing to heed the calls of the Ood, just because he's worried about Chops & Gravy Carmen's prophecy coming true.

Is The End Of Time crisis all the Doctor's fault? As I mentioned way back when in The Christmas Invasion review, if Ten hadn't helped to remove Harriet Jones from power (or at least set the ball rolling by whispering in Alex Klein's ear), then the Master wouldn't have taken power, and wouldn't have been brought back from the dead. The Doctor's arrogance and holier-than-thou attitude has caused his downfall right from the offset.

But that's still to come. So let's rewind back to the start where the Doctor's landing on the Ood planet, as he's invited to the Ood's late night camp-fire singalongs. The Doctor's not best pleased at the thought of having to join in a chorus of Kumbaya naturally, but even worse, the Ood are showing him a vision of a laughing Master who's now somehow getting inside the heads of Earth mortals – even Wilf, who's inexplicably just seen the TARDIS on a stain glass window in a church. Quite what this means is never explained – I can only guess that the bloke who built the church was a Doctor Who fan. Or maybe it's just a throwaway plot point that's never really explained or even thought through properly. Ditto the fact that Ood technology has advanced several years ahead of its time. “We've got a problem,” muses the Doctor grimly. Yes, a problem with a potential plot strand that's not adequately explained later. Presumably it's something to do with the shifting of time, but like the stain glass TARDIS and the identity of the mysterious woman who looks as if she's trying to ask Wilf out on a date, it's all a bit vague. Doctor's Mother, anyone?

But at least we finally find out who picked up the ring in one of the many endings of Last Of The Time Lords. Conspiracy theories ricocheted around the fan forum boards like wildfire as to who the hand belonged to. Was it Lucy Saxon? Was it The Rani? Was it Tegan Jovanka, now converted to the dark side? In fact it was...!

Some old bag called Mrs Trefusis in a sly tip of the hat to The Stones Of Blood. Talk about a letdown. Mrs Trefusis actually worked for the most lax prison in the galaxy, a place in which the staff were more bothered about bringing a super-villain back to life rather than guarding dangerous criminals. Ensnared in this terrible plan was poor imprisoned Lucy Saxon, who had presumably experienced similar living conditions at boarding school. The Master's resurrection is nothing new, given that he came back from the ashes after being burnt to a crisp in Planet Of Fire. The means of his revival this time around are just as ludicrous as a pithy “I am indestructible” boast. We're expected to believe that somehow genetic material from Lucy's lips can help to bring back her former beau.

But hey, it works! The Master's back in a whirlwind of energy and still hamming it up like a prize loon – unfortunately, his revival's botched by Lucy, who's inexplicably snaffled in some sort of bomb (like I said, a pretty lax prison) to try and blow her ex up once and for all. It's a plan that's doomed to fail. While Lucy, the Governor and Trefusis are blown to kingdom come, the Master goes all Billy Idol on a rubbish tip. A poor sequence overall, and while it's nice to have Alexandra Moen back for a quick cameo, the revival of the Master comes across as laughable thanks to a combination of dodgy science and over-ripe clichés: “And this was written also! For his name is the Master!”

The treatment of the Master in The End Of Time is interesting though. He'd been written and acted as a silly cartoon character in his last adventure, and that madness continues here, although this time around, it's more in context. This is a much more dangerous Master – in the production blurb, he's referred to as an Emo-Master, in that his life force isn't fully established. Which explains the way he regularly turns into a freaky, bug-eyed skeleton while laughing manically. Good shots, these – the effects are good, and they nicely hark back to the emaciated Master of The Deadly Assassin. What's great about this is that the Master's motivations seem that much more real and also much more dangerous. Although he's constantly flickering in and out of life, he still has a couple of nifty weapons at his disposal – most notably the ability to shoot off into space like a rocket and land in front of quaking human beings.

And quake they should, because the Master can somehow reduce his victims to screaming skeletons. Take the hapless burger-serving woman, who's dishing out copious quantities of junk food to shivering down and outs on a rubbish tip. Poor Sarah the burger woman finds that one queuing customer is a hungry Master, who's now adopted the hoodie chav look in a vain attempt to get down wiv da kidz. Instead of partaking in some cringe-inducing N-Dubz style rapping, we see in the next shot that he's chowing down on a burger like no tomorrow – a bit like the baldy judge on Masterchef who's sampling the culinary delights of his contestants.

What's grim about this scene is the revelation that poor old Sarah and her fellow burger-proffering chum have been reduced to screaming skeletons. The implication is that somehow the Master's rapidly fried the poor scamps alive and shoved their crispy flesh into a jumbo sized bap. It's a last bit of pure horror from the pen of Davies – and in fact, given that this went out only a few months before the next season, it makes you wonder about the theories that the BBC kept a closer eye on violence levels. Grisly stuff all round, although there's a nice irony in the fact that the actress playing the burger woman, Lacey Bond, used to be in '80s girl band, Toto Coelo who scored a Top 10 hit in 1982 with a song called 'I Eat Cannibals'...

This is a scarier Master than before, and overall John Simm does a far better job here than in his last story. He's very convincing as this rabid degenerate, forever babbling and muttering to himself like a madman (“More!! With cheese and chips and meat and gravy and cream and beer and pork and beef and fat and great big chunks of hot, wet red!”). Because the Time Lord's now on a desperate quest to stay alive and prolong his life, this makes him all the more deadly, and despite the manic laughter and quick-to-the-dozen babbling, John Simm seems to be taking the part far more seriously than last time. His confrontations with the Doctor are particularly well done – there's that sense that a long time ago, the two used to be friends, and underneath that burning desire to kill the Doctor, the Master's asking for his help with that ever-present sound of drumming in his head (“It hurts, Doctor! The noise! The noise in my head!”). He's desperate to know the answers and seeks answers from his enemy.

In fact, this is a story that looks at that age-old conflict between borderline respect and loathing between the Doctor and the Master. There's an interesting confrontation scene between the two in the second part when the Doctor attempts to appeal to his foe's better nature. “You're a genius,” he says gently. “Stone cold brilliant you are. I swear, you really are! But you could be so much more...” The Doctor's notably more muted here, and eerily calm, as opposed to his usual loud-mouth pleading. It's as if he's letting down the walls because of the age-old link between the two men, so he doesn't have to maintain that over-manic façade.

Another point to make about this is that in the end, it's the Master who saves the day from the return of the Time Lords, who are now hell-bent on war and destruction. The Master apparently sacrifices himself by draining his energy, as he delivers energy bolt after energy bolt into the belly of the President. This is all because we find out the origins of the drumbeat inside the Master's head. Basically, the Time Lords aren't quite as dead as the Doctor thought, having sealed themselves in a time-locked bubble during the dreaded Time War. Nothing could get in or out: “Except something that was already there!” says the Doctor, referring to that signal which just happens to be drumming regularly inside the bonce of the Master.

It's a well-worked out explanation to the whole drumming mystery, even if it has taken ages to get there. It is a bit odd that the Time Lords – yes, the mighty Time Lords who have been bigged up as the greatest thing since sliced bread by the Doctor – are now deadly, omnipotent warlords of doom, but in the context of this story, the idea just about works, and the jaw-dropping cliffhanger at the end of Part One is very effective. Timothy Dalton is an inspired bit of casting as the vengeful President (THE Rassilon?), and he's evidently relishing the bad guy role with gusto, even to the point where he's near drowning the place in spit during one of his pompous pep talks.

The revelation of the Time Lords makes for a better cliffhanger than the many faces of the Master, who's managed to nab the identity of virtually all of the global population. Some fans have lamented this rather hokey sub-plot, although I quite like it. The effects of the many Master faces work well, and there's something quite eerie about the way in which people's heads judder and shake about prior to the change.

Perhaps the main problem with this strand is the screaming plot device of the Immortality Gate, a futuristic arch gizmo 'acquired' by Joshua Naismith, a man who can only bark in a strange, hyperactive voiceover fashion. Incidentally, Naismith needn't be there at all, given how irrelevant he is to the story. While he's responsible for the Master's capture in order to get his prize find of a contraption working again (as a gift to his daughter), he never seems to do much apart from serve the Master a tasty plate of turkey and to cower away from a great big Malteser in the sky. Hardly the most memorable player in the story – even June Whitfield's Minnie The Menace gets more deep 'n' meaningful characterisation.

But look carefully at this plot strand – far from being a silly gimmick, it's subtly summing up a main theme of the story: the terror of losing your identity. This is what seems to freak the Doctor out the most. Although he can regenerate, he'll never get to stride around bellowing “Allons-y!” any more. He's evidently at home in his Tenth incarnation, and he's terrified that he'll lose this persona in the very near future. Take the chinwag with Wilf in the café when he says: “Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away” in a frank acknowledgement of his own mortality. That terror is neatly paralleled in the Master's takeover of 99.9% of the world. People's identities are lost en masse, and even if that fear isn't quite as realistic as it should be (thanks to too much cartoony laughing from the Master), the concept is actually quite effective.

Donna, however, remains curiously unaffected, but a greater mystery is why her head doesn't explode like the sun, given the Doctor's solemn warning at the end of Journey's End. Given that she remembers her time aboard the TARDIS, it's amazing that she survives, and the whole thing is a bit of a cop-out. It's great to have Catherine Tate back, although she's strangely under-used, only popping up here and there, and mainly to provide a happy sense of closure by the story's end. Some of the other characters don't work so well either – the Naismiths are a pointless irrelevance, and the same goes for the silly cactus people who seem to spend their time regarding the whole deadly situation as an annoying inconvenience.

Inevitably, the main meat of the drama comes from the Doctor and his impending change. We've never seen the Doctor so haunted by the prospect of death, and he confesses all to his buddy Wilf. It's quiet moments like these that prove to be the most effective. Davies serves up some truly splendid two-handers between the Doctor and Wilf. Superb stuff, thanks both to the writing, and to excellent performances – as ever – from Bernard Cribbins and David Tennant. There's a certain degree of poignancy in the fact that the Doctor feels free to tell Wilf all his troubles – despite the later Wilf revelation.

The two-handers are charged with raw emotion, to the point where both men break down in tears – given that Tennant was about to say goodbye to a job he'd been doing for four years, those tears seem real, and they give the café scene that edge. “Travelling alone,” sobs the Doctor. “I thought it was better. But I did some things it went wrong...” At least The Doctor's recognised his mistakes, although given his later “It's not fair!” rant, it's worth questioning by how much.

Wilf, on the other hand, seems to break out the crying towel just as much as the Doctor, but it doesn't matter. This is Bernard Cribbins we're talking about here – the man could make reading a newspaper report about the opening of a plastic cup factory sound super-emotional and he'd probably reduce the viewers to tears too. Wilf is just as much at the heart of The End Of Time as the Doctor. For the last time, Bernard Cribbins gives 150% in a performance that brims with commitment, joy and poignancy. When he's not sobbing for Britain, there's plenty of amusing moments to be had, such as his leadership of The Sliver Cloak, a motley band of codgers who are searching for the Doctor, or his dismissal of the TARDIS (“I thought it would be cleaner”). His emotional moments pack a serious punch, and are beautifully delivered, such as when he hands over the gun to the Doctor while pleading “Please don't die. You're the most wonderful man on Earth, I don't want you to die!” or his last silent teary kiss goodbye to the man he's just effectively killed.

Because in the end, who else could deliver the four knocks but Wilf? Trapped in a deadly phone booth of doom which is about to go critical with radiation, the only man that can save him is the Doctor, who has to take the full force of the blast. What a great sequence – expertly filmed by Euros Lyn: The Doctor sobs in delight at the fact that he's survived the schemes of both the Master and the Time Lords, but as Murray's score goes from happy to slowly descending dread, the silence is filled by those deadly four knocks. Gradually, the camera pans to show a trapped Wilf in the background, as the Doctor slowly realises his number's up. Great stuff, and the following scenes are just as bold as the conclusion of The Waters Of Mars. The Doctor loses his rag, throwing papers to the floor and throwing an equally impressive hissy fit worthy of Gordon Ramsay over a plate of raw food. “I could do so much more!” he bellows at the top of his voice. “So much more! But this is what I get. My reward. And it's not fair!”

It's a brave move showing the Doctor lose his rag, but then give the bloke his due. He's been doing his level best to ward off Chops & Gravy Carmen's deadly warning and just when he thought he was free, it's backfired in his face big time. All because he took his eye off the ball and failed to stop Wilf taking refuge in the booth. As I said, as well as ranting at Wilf and at his unfair fate, you could argue that he's angry with himself, as all his arrogance has basically led to his own death. Another thought I had was that maybe the cruel way in which unbelieving relief gives way to a horrific discovery of the inevitable is maybe the universe's payback for his actions at the end of The Waters Of Mars. Karma's like that sometimes. If only the Doctor had invited Harriet Jones for dinner with the Tylers instead of creating a vacancy for the Master, none of this would have happened.

But it does, and to be honest, it does go on for too long. Oddly, despite suffering severe pain in the Phone Booth Of Doom, the Doctor doesn't regenerate there and then. He manages to find time to go and get “his reward” by checking out his old friends for one last time. Running into six sets of old friends sounds like overkill, but in the Death Of The Doctor episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, it turns out that he checked on all his old companions! Blimey, that's some staying power that the Doctor's got!

As it is, we get a rather prolonged coda, some of which works, some of which doesn't. Martha and Mickey are now together, after Tom Milligan's out of the equation. Even sillier is the scene in which the Doctor sets up Captain Jack with the Being Human girly scream bloke from Voyage Of The Damned. Luckily, the other sequences work better. Sarah-Jane's silent teary smile goodbye is now even more poignant. Verity Newman's book signing offers a neat bit of closure for the Doctor's past behaviour. The lottery ticket revelation at Donna's wedding is a real tear-jerker, as is Wilf's last goodbye. And it's back full circle as the Doctor lands in 2005 to wish Rose a Happy New Year.

Remember those days? In which the prospect of a successful Doctor Who revival seemed as likely as a man with five heads. The end of The End Of Time may be self-indulgence on the part of Russell T Davies, but given that he managed to take an apparent laughing stock and turn it into a massive TV hit – well, maybe he's earned that right. The last goodbye to Rose is a neat nod back to those crazy days when fans looked forward to the brand new revival of Doctor Who – the trip of a lifetime.

That trip of a lifetime is pretty much what you get in the Davies swansong. It's not a fault-free trip, by any means. Just as the petrol sometimes runs out, so the plot sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. Just as there's sometimes too much noise from passengers, Murray's Pompous Choir destroy the atmosphere as per usual. And just as the kid in the front seat may make silly farting noises, there are plenty of stupid irritants such as the resurrection of the Master, the fascinating displays of illogic logic and some rather pointless characters. But then just like the sights to savour on the way, there's Euros Lyn's stunning visuals. Just like the friendly banter, there's some sterling acting, notably from Tennant, Cribbins and Simm. Even minor characters such as Claire Bloom's enigmatic woman in white or the '80s vintage comedy convention work well, with thanks to Barry Howard (Hi-De-Hi) and the evergreen June Whitfield. The journey delivers some well-worked out plot, some genuine surprises, thrills and spills, and some notable moments of poignancy.

As the Doctor stumbles back to the TARDIS, it's goodbye. Being sung to death by Murray's Pompous Choir is not a fate I'd wish on anyone, but the Doctor's last words have polarised the fans to a huge extent. I must confess, I hardly expected the Doctor to stand in the middle of the console room and be on the verge of tears while sadly declaring “I don't want to go!” Still, if some fans disliked this, then Rassilon knows what would have happened if the production team used the next take in which the Doctor actually broke down in tears. The roar on the internet forums would have been deafening.

In a weird way, The Tenth Doctor's final end is rather apt. In the past, whenever the Doctor's regenerated in front of a companion, he's always put on a brave face, whether he reassured Sarah Jane, laughed along with Rose, or noted that the moment had been prepared for. But when he's been all alone, he's made more of a terrified song and dance. As his headless second incarnation whizzed away into the ether, the last we heard was his haunting screams of “No! No! NOOO!” As his seventh incarnation suffered cardiac arrest at the hands of Grace, the last we heard was his jarring bark of agony. And so, the Tenth Doctor, the ultimate people person, dies a sad and lonely death, and as he starts to regenerate, all that repressed fear and regret comes bubbling up to the surface. I can see why some people don't like it, but I think it's quite fitting. Plus, the subsequent Moffat retcon of an extra Doctor adds extra fear of knowing that his next incarnation may be his last.

It's hello to Matt Smith, who whoops and gurns his way through the fires of the TARDIS console room – all that repressed regenerative energy caused a bit of a backblast, I guess – it's a promising start to what turns out to be a fantastic portrayal of the main man. But in the meantime, it's goodbye from David Tennant, who after a shaky start, turned out to be a hugely successful and popular Doctor with some bravura performances. And it's goodbye from Russell T Davies who brought back the best TV show in the world from the dead and turned it into a huge phenomenon that appealed to critics, fans and families alike.

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