The critics can advise you on what's good and what's bad in all aspects of life – whether it's TV, music, films or food – but at the end of the day, it's the public view that counts.
A TV critic can pick apart a really bad programme until the cows come home, but if the public likes it, who cares? How else could you explain the horror of Mrs Brown's Boys – a programme that seems to be derided by every critic under the sun, and yet brings in copious amounts of viewers. See? If the public likes something, then a critic's job sometimes feels a bit pointless.
Still, as I weep into my computer keyboard, it's time to dry those eyes and look at an example of how the public have the final say with Doctor Who. At the time of transmission, The Stolen Earth/Journey's End – or Stolen End as I'll christen it – was gaining a lot of interest from the viewers, to the point where the final instalment attracted more than 10 million viewers.
Now when you take into account that that was on a hot July day (well, lukewarm July day – hot and Britain don't quite relate), that's a huge achievement, and a testament to the stewardship of Russell T Davies. Although some of his scripts do contain annoying problems, Davies brought the much-loved programme back from the dead and to rapturous applause from both fans and critics. Maybe that's why Stolen End has a right to function more as a Greatest Hits culmination of the last four years rather than as a coherent story. The other factor in all this was that this was the last regular Davies-helmed season before the quasi-hiatus of 2009. After this, there would be a scattering of specials, but no new season until 2010, by which time Davies had vacated the series. So Stolen End feels like the celebratory wrap party in which past companions and friends come together to join the Doctor in defeating the Biggest Bads of the lot.
Which means that apart from Donna, there's Rose, Martha, Captain Jack and his Torchwood buddies, Mickey, Jackie, Francine, Wilf, Sylvia, Sarah Jane, K9, Luke, Mr Smith, Harriet Jones and even the Judoon and a visit to the Shadow Proclamation – which actually turns out to be a couple of red-eyed waifs in a futuristic holistic spa. That's an awful lot to pack in – even in a two-parter, on top of which, we also have the return of the Daleks and Davros, who's now inexplicably got his body back after trundling around as a disembodied head in a roll-on deodorant on wheels.
By Davies finale standards, this is as crazy as the Big Cheese ever got. It's difficult to judge whether Stolen End's a brave but celebratory folly or the work of a madman. I'm still trying to work that one out, although it's worth pointing out that after the last crop of superb stories, Stolen End does feel like a bit of a comedown.
In a nutshell, Planet Earth is under threat. YET AGAIN. This is nothing new – you can probably picture Earth peoples making bets as to what sort of mundane alien will invade the planet this week. What odds the Yeti? Or Sil? Five-to-one the Daleks? Well, correct, since the evil pepperpots have decided to move the planet Earth and use it along with 26 other planets to aid them in wiping out the universe with something called a Reality Bomb. All of the strands of this season arc slowly draw together – the missing planets adhered to in the season openers, not to mention the disappearing bees and the return of Rose, who's now strutting around with a big gun and her renewed quest to get a bit of Doctor lovin'.
In the meantime, the Daleks are spreading fear and terror all over the planet, leaving the Doctor in a temporary 'Proverbial's Just Hit The Fan' sulk. But with the aid of his old friends, he manages to defeat the age-old meanies (while dodging a severe bullet in the process), reducing the pepperpots to their usual status as laughable fools, before leaving on his lonesome yet again as his companion is forced to return home.
It's a routine plot, but then for a big celebration, you don't want some over-convoluted mess to fry the viewers' brains into crispy chicken. However, being a natural at pooping the party, I've jotted down a whole host of problems with Stolen End.
Let's begin with the lack of subtlety. It's interesting – the last couple of RTD stories proved unreservedly that the man can do subtle, but sadly it's back to tried and tested sledgehammer tactics. So we all know that the Daleks are BAD, yes? We know this because every time the Daleks suddenly come on, Murray's Pompous Choir start bellowing at the tops of their voices like attention-seeking kids. Even by MPC standards, their tune-free squawking is out of control in this story, and the same goes for Gold himself, who's presumably had one too many sherbet lemons this time around. It's music that's ill-judged and at times, incomprehensibly wrong. The choral noise reduces the Daleks' credibility instead of bigging it up, because it's so over the top. Then there's that nonsensical bit in the middle of the first episode where everyone's trying to communicate with the Doctor through their phones – at which point, Gold's bafflingly gone all Bollywood with what sounds like a horde of chimps gatecrashing a belly dancing competition. Murray's Stolen End musical cues don't so much guide the viewers through the story: more smack them with a cream pie in the face.
The other way in which we know that the Daleks are BAD is because there's a national epidemic of pant pooping. Countless close-ups are provided of characters' bottom lips trembling as they realise the terrible disaster that awaits them. COWER behind the sofa as the immortal Captain Jack pulls his two friends in close while stammering “There's nothing I can do! I'm sorry, but we're dead!” TREMBLE in terror as the previously headstrong Sarah Jane turns into a wimpy sobbing milksop, visibly bawling while whispering in a baffled Luke's ear “Oh God, you're... you're so young!” Points for stating the obvious there, given that Luke still looks as if he's just about old enough to leave playgroup. All of these OTT histrionics are laughable. Sarah Jane's encountered the Daleks twice before and never has she resorted to crybaby blubbing. Same goes for Captain Jack, a man who's seen as many dastardly threats in his time as he's had hot dinners. It makes the Daleks a bit naff, especially considering how we all know that they'll inevitably be broken down by the end.
This time around, out of the Cult of Skaro, only Dalek Caan remains, but even then he's decided to become a shambling version of Mystic Meg, forever prattling on about deadly prophecies (which all turn out to be a swizz of course). What is it with Davies and these non-stop prophecies of doom? Maybe he's been possessed by the ghost of Frazer from Dad's Army. Doomy warnings are all well and good, but not to the point of overkill, and especially when they turn out to cheat the audience – more on this later.
Anyway, the Daleks – well initially, despite Caan's inane babblings, it looks like they may hold all the cards. There's a great Dalek sequence in which they randomly open fire on a family who have just retreated back into their house, which sums up them up perfectly as evil, immoral killers who have no regard for other life forms. It also helps that Davros is back, in the latest blast from the past. Admittedly, he serves no function other than to act as the Daleks' pet (as the Doctor gleefully points out). But then ever since Genesis Of The Daleks, his stock's plummeted anyway, given that he was shot at and then reluctantly welcomed back into the fold – at the convenient point of his creations needing a bit of help.
Quite how he's back to his original form I don't know – I guess Daleks must have some sort of rejuvenation machine that would make a killing on Dragon's Den. There is that gruesomely icky sequence in which Davros demonstrates how he has made a new race of Daleks from his own shrivelled flesh. The return of Davros is actually handled very well – director Graeme Harper wisely keeps him in the shadows for most of the first part, with only that tell-tale blue eye all but threatening to give the game away. His eventual trundle onto the Doctor's TARDIS screen is a great moment, and the make-up for the 21st century Davros is just as effective as the original model. Same goes for Julian Bleach's excellent performance, which echoes the original subtle cadences of Michael Wisher's star turn in Genesis. There's less of the ranting and gurgling and more the indication that this is one opponent that shouldn't be crossed in a month of Sundays. David Tennant's gobsmacked face as he sees his old foe also helps to sell the intensity of that scene – maybe this is one time that the Daleks may succeed with their latest harebrained scheme.
Which of course comes to nothing though. It's the Golden Rule of the Daleks. Big them up and knock them down again to the point where even a mouse on the verge of death's door could defeat them single-handed. For starters, the Reality Bomb idea's a bit rubbish anyway. “Behold! The apotheosis of my genius!” crows Davros as he gives an awesome demonstration of his wretched device that – well, reduces Gita from EastEnders and a dozen bored extras to glowing dust. “This is my ultimate victory Doctor!” screams Davros. “The destruction of reality itself!”
So let's get this straight – Davros and the Daleks want to reduce the whole of creation to nothing. Er, why exactly? Be a bit boring for them, given that they like to spend their days bullying quaking lifeforms into submission. It's not as if they can indulge in any hobbies to while away the hours – even a hearty game of I Spy will take less than five seconds. They'll probably get bored with their own company in the end. The minute they start singing sea shanties is the point at which they'll break and exterminate each other in a desperate bid to liven things up.
Even with a staggeringly useless plan, the Daleks are naturally defeated with consummate ease, and all of that earlier terror is wiped out in a flash as the pepperpots are reduced to malfunctioning dodgem cars. Look at them wheel around, back and forth like they're being filmed for You've Been Framed. Factor in a bit of maximising of the Dalekanium power feeds, and that's it – they are defeated at the flick of a switch. The resolution feels too easy, and despite Davros apparently croaking it in flames, I'm sure he's survived somehow to live another day. Where's that emergency escape pod when you need it?
Stolen End is full of these handy caveats that never deliver on the earlier promises. Take the Doctor's apparent regeneration. Admittedly, this did succeed in putting bums on seats for the second part of the story, as viewers wondered whether they had seen the last of Doctor Number Ten. Looking back at it, it's obvious that this was a cheat, given that the Doctor doesn't deliver some famous last words. Neither do Murray's Pompous Choir start hollering in the background. Because in the end, that handy hand absorbs all of the Doctor's regenerative energy to allow this incarnation to live another day. Blimey, Doctor Ten is like the turd that won't flush – pit this Doctor against the sun, ageing laser guns and even a Dalek ray, and he'll still get away with just the odd tremble before bouncing back. Those who aren't sold on the Tenth Doctor won't exactly be pleased with the fact that another one appears in the second part, a half human/half Time Lord combo who's even shoutier than usual. Well isn't that wizard?
In the end, the only reason for this Doctor to exist is to give Rose a consolation prize and a lifetime supply of tongue sandwiches. More on this later, but overall, while The Doctor Regenerates ploy worked in the short-term, long-term it feels like a bit of a cop out.
Then there's all this prophecy nonsense about how a companion's going to die. Which by now basically means that a companion won't die. Blimey, Davies is starting to come across as one of those shifty pyramid sellers, who promises the world but never delivers. In fact, the companion doesn't die at all – Rassilon knows that there's enough to choose from – but while Captain Jack takes a hit from a Dalek to come back to life two seconds later, in the end, all that happens is that Donna is forced to have her memory wiped after her brain isn't big enough to hold all that absorbed Time Lord knowledge. While getting Caan to croak that “The companion will go back to how she was” is less dramatic, it would at least have told the truth.
In fact, Donna's fate is one of the cruellest exits for the NuWho companions. All of that promise, knowledge and kindness is wiped clean to put Donna back to square one. That's particularly bleak, and it's sad to see Donna disregard the Doctor with a half-hearted “Nice to meet you” as he leaves. Mind you, in the end, even this bafflegab about Donna's head exploding if she remembers her life with the Doctor is shot to pieces in The End Of Time – but at least for now, it's a suitably downbeat end to Donna's regular stint aboard the TARDIS.
She'll be missed by this reviewer, especially since she's gelled so well with the Doctor. Catherine Tate gives her all in this story, running the whole gamut of feelings from bolshy to scared to over-confident amalgamation to old Donna. Her final frantic pleas to the Doctor to save her from the mindwipe are particularly well conveyed by Tate, and even if the actress does go a bit OTT in the initial bickering with the Metacrisis Doctor, overall, it's still another great performance.
What of the other companions? It's a pleasure to have Elisabeth Sladen back in the fold – there's that wonderful moment when she and Davros revisit memory lane. Having said that, it's a mistake to turn her into such a girly wimp, especially when she starts shrieking in her car at the end of the first part. Normally, Sarah Jane would handle the problem with just a bit more dignity, but there's a multiple choice cliffhanger to be had. It's also nice to see Luke on board, along with Mr Smith (magnificently voiced by Alexander Armstrong) and good old K9.
Rose at least has a better time of it here than in Turn Left, as does Billie Piper. She's got her usual rota of good lines (“Do you like my gun?”) which aren't so smug as they were two seasons ago. The only downer though is the lurve storyline which doesn't exactly appeal to everyone's tastes. Throughout the first part, she's crowing about how she can't be seen on the intergalactic Facebook page (“I was here first” she pouts at one point), and when she does get her reward, those pesky Daleks cut the reunion short by zapping her beau. The ending's also questionable as she gets her very own Doctor to fool around with. Not only does it cheapen the end of Doomsday (and make it pointless in the process), it comes across as a bit seedy of the Doctor to hand over his other self like some sort of pervy consolation prize. Poor old Mickey – he's out of the equation too, and generally, he gets absolutely zilch to do throughout the story apart from squabble with Jackie, who herself maybe gets about six words to say. Good to have the brilliant Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri back though.
John Barrowman gets a bit more to do though, chipping in with the usual mix of gung-ho heroics and relentless innuendo. Whereas he served little function in the previous season finale, at least here, he's at the heart of the action, buzzing around and taking Dalek rays or guiding the Doctor's companions through the aborted regeneration.
Then there's poor Freema Agyeman. Martha, Martha, Martha. What did you do to deserve such lousy treatment? Having put Martha through the rubbish unrequited love storyline, the production team have struggled to give her anything substantial to do in her sporadic appearances throughout this season. Tough doctor? Nope, didn't work out. Crybaby? Nope, didn't pan out either. Now, apparently Martha's in the upper echelons of UNIT, taking orders from the bloke who used to be in Dempsey And Makepeace. Despite apparently vanishing into tiny particles, it turns out that she's alive and well, although it's a moot point whether being stuck with miserable harridan Francine is any better.
However, she's not done yet, and proceeds to go on a fool's errand in the second half of the story with that pointless Osterhagen Key subplot – sub being the operative word. The problem is that the original Martha – likeable, fun, feisty Martha – has vanished from the face of the earth. Instead she's been replaced by a pompous, over serious, cliché-dispensing fembot: “The Osterhagen Key is to be used if the suffering of the human race is so great, so without hope... that this becomes the final option,” she solemnly intones on the Daleks' holographic TV. Blimey, how did Freema keep a straight face when working through this gibberish? It's as if the production team couldn't decide where to take Martha's story and so pigeonholed her into any box that took their fancy. As a result, the original character's been abandoned in favour of a one-dimensional vacuum which isn't fair on the acting talents of Freema Agyeman.
Still, at least Sylvia and Wilf are reliably good value. Sylvia's back to her usual Mother From Hell routine, even incurring the wrath of the Doctor at the end: “She's my daughter!” she grumbles when secretly discussing Donna, to which the Doctor snaps: “Then maybe you should tell her that once in a while!” Jacqueline King again delivers the goods, but yet again – and apologies in advance for repeating myself – Bernard Cribbins steals the thunder with that perfectly executed portrayal of Wilf. Whether he's bringing a Dalek down with a paint-gun, jumping for joy at the end of the crisis, or saluting the Doctor in the rain with a tear in his eye, he's never less than brilliant. Take his last speech: “Every night Doctor – when it gets dark and the stars come out. I'll look up. On her (Donna's) behalf. I'll look up at the sky and think of you.” On paper that sounds like the mawkish stuff of kiddie film dreams, but on screen it's a real lump-in-the-throat moment thanks to Cribbins' lovely performance. But you haven't seen the last of him just yet.
Some other fans have said that the big ensemble scene in the TARDIS is another moving moment. Well, it is moving – literally, since the TARDIS tows the planet Earth to its rightful place in the Solar System. Yes, you heard that right – the Earth is towed home. Like a truck towing a crapped out old car home. Even putting the dodgy science aside, the whole scene is ridiculous. For one thing, it's unbearably smug – having all the companions and two Doctors in the same room may raise a tear for some, but I was too busy being distracted by their gurning and whooping. Freema even breaks the fourth wall by flashing a cheeky grin at the camera. It doesn't help either that Murray's Pompous Choir are making strange gargling noises in the background over the sound of Mr Gold trying to keep order over a horde of drunken elephants on a bouncy castle. Plus, as soon as things are back to normal, all over Earth, fireworks are being lit and parties are being thrown. Er, how many were killed again during battle? Crass doesn't quite cover it.
Same goes for the odd sequence in which the Doctor is taken to task over his supposedly bloodthirsty ways. I can sort of see what Davies is trying to do here, given that we see various clips of casualties from past shows from Lynda to LInDA. The problem is, the argument doesn't quite ring true. This is Davros we're talking about: a man who would probably assassinate his milkman when his daily supply of milk has curdled slightly. “Behold your Children Of Time, transformed into murderers!” he crows... at a group of people who are only trying to defeat the actions of a lunatic who's planning to wipe out the whole of creation. Even at the end, Davros is bellowing “I name YOU forever, YOU are the destroyer of worlds!” at the Doctor, even though it was actually his doppelgänger who caused the orgy of destruction.
It's a worthy attempt at examining the morals and ethics of the Doctor. The problem is, the argument doesn't hold water. The Doctor's always tended to use violence as a last resort – even his poisoning of Solon or shooting at the Cyber Controller were last-ditch bids to rid the universe of psychopathic killers – but on the whole, he's always looked at using peaceful means of solving the problem.
For all of these issues, Stolen End still entertains. While it's full of ham-fisted moralising and lack of subtlety, it's a rollicking good adventure. It's brought with gusto to the screen by Graeme Harper, who really should be asked to direct feature films, given that he uses every trick in the book to create a sense of fear and terror. Given that he's the master of action, it's no surprise that Harper was selected to helm this story, and he powers through it like a juggernaut, adding a real sense of pace and verve.
He handles the cast well – fewer guest stars this time around, although Michael Brandon makes the most of his very limited role. It's also great to have Penelope Wilton back in the fold for one last round as Harriet Jones flashes her ID card for the last time. It's nice to see her gain some redemption after her fall from grace at the end of The Christmas Invasion. Me myself, I like to think that there was a trapdoor that opened on cue when the Daleks opened fire on Harriet, but it's more likely that this wasn't the case.
I guess that the best way to enjoy Stolen End is to switch off the brain and enjoy it for what it is. A giant buffet of a story with plenty of tasty morsels to keep the punters happy. Taken as a collection of memorable set pieces, the story delivers. Ask people to remember clips from this story and there's no end of choices: The spectacular Dalek invasion. The slow-mo reunion of Rose and the Doctor. The reveal of Davros. The birth of Doctor Ten Mk 2. The memory wipe of Donna. And of course, the tense cliffhanger at the end of Part One. In the end, the Doctor's alone again naturally, even without the customary “What? What?? What???” quip, and that last shot of the forlorn Doctor ends this monster of an adventure on a pleasingly downbeat tone.
When it comes down to it, as a critic, I can pick Stolen End apart until hell freezes over. But that's not what the story's for – to provide ammunition for smart-arse hack writers like me. Instead it's geared to a public who's lapping Doctor Who up like no tomorrow, and 10 and a half million viewers can't be wrong. A story that's easy to criticise then, but as a spectacular feature film crowd pleaser to wrap up the season, Stolen End does the job in considerable style.
* Reunite yourself with some classic monsters and companions in my ebook guides on Doctors Three to Seven!
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