SFX has opened one of its Christmas presents early. Last night Nick Setchfield and I were in the front row for the preview screening of "The End Of Time" Part One. We made the front row more thanks to luck than preferential treatment, but hey, let’s not look a Christmas gift horse in the mouth. So there we were, sitting just along from Bernard Cribbins (who at one point thumped a Judoon on the helmet, and broke a fingernail in the process), Catherine Tate, John Simm, Claire Bloom, Alaxandra Moen and Russell T Davies. New showrunner Steve Moffat was there too. A few rows back. Not that we’re boasting or anything...
The event took place in Studio 8 of BBC TV Centre (the doughnut, if you know what we mean) which housed the production of many a classic Doctor Who adventure back in the day. It was snowing outside (more than on screen, which is a bit of a turnaround for Who Christmas specials) and mulled wine and mince pies were on offer. Christmas truly had come a little early.
Best of all, the episode was amazing. Stunning. Brilliant. The best Christmas Day Doctor Who special yet. Not perfect, but hugely entertaining. But we’re not going to give too much away. We may have unwrapped this particular present early, but we're only going to let you shake it a bit. Trust us, this review is not going to spoil your fun; we had the pleasure of sitting there through so many, “Oooohhhhh!" moments it'd be a shame if you were robbed of them. In fact, try to avoid as many previews as possible in the papers and magazines, in case – by design or accident – they give away the last few minutes leading up the cliffhanger. It’s a doozy – one of Doctor Who's all time classic "out-there" concepts – and you really don't want to know it before Christmas Day. If you think that the masses of preview footage that has been released so far means that you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect from this episode, then you’re wrong. There are plenty of surprises in store.
Tonally, it feels very different to most other new Who. It’s certainly the least "rompish" of the Christmas specials, though packed with rompish ideas. Instead it’s a mix of the mythic and the kind of "urban thriller" feel of "The Sound Of Drums". It's a cliché to call a TV show "cinematic" these days, but this is the most cinematic Doctor Who has ever been. And that's not so much in terms of special effects and action (though it has some spectacular moments) as in the structure, the direction and the pace.
There is humour, plenty of it. But there’s also a sense of impending doom marinating the whole thing. Never before has Doctor Ten’s bonhomie felt so much like a mask of self-denial. There's one small moment where he's the most emotionally naked we've ever seen him, which is incredibly effective.
You'll also get to meet the Master unlike you’ve ever seen him before, physically and in terms of his character. You get to see a LOT of the Master and he’s magnificent throughout. If anything John Simm steals the show, but you get the feeling Tennant is going to steal it back big time in part two.
As usual in these "big" Who stories, there are a couple of niggling, slightly-too-handy short-hand plot devices that have a bit of a "found down the back of the sofa" feel ("Ooh, look what we just found!" "Doctor, we've just developed this really handy new power…"). And the Master‘s initial resurrection is a tad cheesy. There’s also a "cameo" (not by a famous actor, but rather a cameo like the Elizabeth I bit in "The Shakespeare Code") towards the end that might just be pushing credulity a bit far. But honestly, such criticisms fade into insignificance set against all that’s great here.
I also had a problem with a new race of aliens introduced in the episode, feeling that they jarred with the events taking place around them, but others may disagree and love them. They certainly set up Wilf for one of his best lines.
And talking of Wilf, Bernard Cribbins is just magnificent. He seems to hold a universe of sadness in his eyes and yet still cracks you up. Cribbins certainly deserves his name in the opening credits alongside Tennant and Simm.
And that's all you're getting from us for now.
Following the screening there was a fun Q&A session with Russell, John Simm and Bernard Cribbins, which, sadly, we can’t say much about, because mostly the audience was obsessed with asking question about the last 10 minutes of the show! But we loved the moment when one little boy asked Russell, “Did you meet the Doctor or did you make him up?" Another classic was the child who politely asked if they could ask, “John Slim" a question.
Russell also quashed rumours that a fourth series of Torchwood had been greenlit: “There is nothing definite yet despite what John Barrowman keeps telling everyone. Get down, boy! But we wouldn’t want him any other way. Maybe there'll be something to tell you in the New Year.”
A tactful Bernard Cribbins responded to a question about his favourite Doctor: "Peter Cushing. He was like a dotty old professor who was constantly chewing a mint.”
And finally Russell signed off by promising, “If you thought that [episode] was extravagant, wait until New Year’s Day. Your brain will blow up.”