Written by: Russell T Davies
Directed by: Euros Lyn
It seems oddly ironic that after four years of entertaining lightweight romps specifically designed to be easily digestible after the excesses of Christmas lunch, the latest slice of yuletide Doctor Who seems determined to make you regurgitate your turkey and stuffing. And the Master's eating habits weren't the only thing in "The End Of Time" that made it a lot darker than the usual Who Christmas fare.
Okay, there were cheesy moments. There were silly aliens. There were Christmas trimmings. There was a gay OAP looking at Doctor 10 in a way a man hasn't looked at another on TV since Are You Being Served. There was the Master in a dress. Several dresses
But there was also the Doctor breaking down; the most emotionally naked we've ever seen him. There was a funereal atmosphere from the teaser onwards. There was an edgy intensity unlike anything ever seen in Doctor Who before. There was a Master so crazed and depraved he was hypnotically uncomfortable to watch. The harder edge we saw in "Waters Of Mars" is still here; it may not have been so consistently overwrought, but a sense of impending doom was underpinning everything. Even Tennant's signature wisecracking seemed somehow forced and hollow, as if this were a Doctor in self-denial, overcompensating with pre-fab gags. Once his cries of "Shimmer" would have been merely amusing; here they seem slightly ill-judged, like someone cracking a joke at a wake.
The episode grabs from from the opening shots, with a teaser that feels nothing short of mythic. The voiceover from an (as yet) unidentified Time Lord instantly gives proceedings a gravitas, while the stained-glassed TARDIS and mysterious woman who appears to a nightmare-troubled Wilf grabbing your interest immediately. By the time Timothy Dalton in Time Lord regalia is revealed as the mysterious narrator in a brief shot that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, the story seems less like a standard Doctor Who adventure and more like an ancient legend come to life. By the end, you're pretty much exhausted by the enormity of it all.
"The End Of Time" is stylish, jawdroppingly ambitious and visually stunning, though not without its clunky moments. The resurrection of the Master seem too quick and too obvious. Okay, Lucy Saxon throws a spanner in the works, but the whole "Master's disciples" ploy just seems a little too convenient. But let's count our blessings. John Simm is so damned magnificent, it's great to him back in action so quick, but every minute he's on screen is pure gold. Some trad Who fans might shudder at his new Matrix-inspired superpowers, but I loved them, and this new psychotic Master lets Simm rip loose with some blistering acting. In some ways, he steals the episode from Tennant, especially in the closing moments, but you just know Tennant's going to steal the limelight back in part two.
In fact, even Bernard Cribbins threatens to steal the show from Tennant at some points. He is marvelous as Wilf, and gets all the best lines; not just the funny ones, but the poignant ones as well. Wilf's chat with Tennant about death in the café is one of the episode's quieter highlights, a scene with so much resonance and heart; Russell writing at his best. And, as the Doctor asks, who exactly is Wilf? When the mysterious woman says that he fought in the war, which war was she alluding to? Could he have a fob watch secreted away somewhere? In which case Donna could have been half Time Lord long before "Journey's End". But we're probably barking up completely the wrong tree there...
It's also great to see Donna back. One of the reasons why it's been hard for previous specials to feel like out-and-out classics is the lack of any other regular cast than the Doctor. To some extent, the specials have felt like divorced stand-alone pieces with few links to the main series. "The End Of Time" though, is linked to past stories in a bewildering number of ways (we even find out why Queen Bess was so upset in "The Shakespeare Code") and having a "regular" companion back in action (sort of) also helps make the story feel more like part of the "real" series.
The direction is magnificent, giving the episode a truly cinematic sweep. It's not just Euros Lyn's camerawork, it's his pacing that seems to give "The End Of Time" such a big screen gloss. The wasteland battles between the Master and the Doctor feel like edgy, '70s film sci-fi, with sudden contrast between wide shots and extreme close-ups. And Lyn's handling of the final few minutes leading up to the mother of all cliffhangers (yes, I'd say I prefer it to "The Stolen Earth") is nothing short of epic. It's takes some skill to take such ridiculous images - everyone in the world becoming the Master and then a quick trip across the universe to a mass of Time Lords - and make them feel so chilling.
The FX team at the Mill has excelled itself as well. The Ood citadel is massively impressive – an iconic piece of SF imagery. The Skeletor Master looks great, the multiple Master shots are stunningly well realised and the final shot is just sublime.
Among all this breathtaking brilliance there are moments that jar and irritating missteps. The Vinvocci are a pointless addition, their slightly tired "comedy alien" shtick simply not funny enough to warrant so much screen time. A couple of major plots points seem to have been fished out from the back of the sofa; both the Ood's sudden ability to see through time and the immortality gate conveniently falling into the hands of Josiah Naismith seem to be all-too-convenient scripting sleight of hands. In fact, Nathaniel never really comes alive as a character; he's little more than a plot device in human guise. The Obama gag also misfires slightly; its fun to see the Master as the President of the USA, sure, but the earlier shots of the Obama double all too obviously hiding his face from camera are distracting in a way that burst the bubble of disbelief.
One other slight worry is that the Wilf mystery hints at yet another one of those "somebody has been orchestrating everything" plots; it's a card Russell T Davies had already played with Rose in "The Parting Of The Ways" and Dalek Caan in "Journey's End". Let's hope this doesn't turn out to be a case of third time unlucky.
So part one's not without its hiccups, but to harp on about them is a real trees-wood-perception scenario. It's a barnstorming episode with moments of sheer beauty. And that final glimpse of the Time Lords and Gallifrey (and mucho spittle) – go on, admit it, there's no way you aren't tuning in for part two now.
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