The one thing Russell T Davies can write is sentimentality. And that’s no small compliment. The word is more often used detrimentally, a way to dismiss something: oh, it was too sentimental. But done well, and consistently when he wrote it was, it can carry an episode just above the mire. There’s a reason why just seeing Rose is a big deal – he wrote his heart out on the Rose storyline, and it still carries an impact now. And while Catherine Tate’s success in Doctor Who was to somehow not be hateful (which offered her a surprising amount of grace), it was only in Wilf that RTD managed to repeat the success of Rose as completely. So despite a story that went beyond all known limits of bullshit, Davies’ final episode managed not to be that bad.
And thank goodness there was the sentimentality, because good grief it didn’t have a plot to carry it. While it at least made coherent sense (in the same way a ball rolling down a hill makes coherent sense – it’s going to keep rolling then eventually stop) it didn’t make any narrative sense. So the Master turned the whole world into himself, but then that’s undone with the magic time gauntlet, never mind eh? In fact, the Master’s attack of all humanity wasn’t to make any clever changes to humans, but simply to illustrate that the Deus Ex Machina Gate works. Donna had her memories come back and was immune to the Master so she could, um, stumble about a bit and then forget? The Timelords are back, but oh, no they’re not. And so on.
Most of the events in the episode were clunky, awkward ways to move characters into position. (Compared with the previous episode’s lunatic bedlam where the events were to throw characters in the air and hope they landed somewhere.) The excursion into the cactus people’s ship existed solely to pass a gun from one man to another, and delay them for a bit so the Time Lords could arrive. (Also the Doctor is now apparently invulnerable to falling hundreds of feet.) Donna’s entire existence and story, astonishingly, seemed to be to provide a distraction by calling Wilf’s phone – something that could have been performed by a bucket falling off a shelf. (This is possibly the most awful aspect – this means the entire story about her being given Time Lord DNA was for nothing whatsoever.) The husband-wife-father-daughter couple thing’s story was… not a story at all. Obama’s announcement to end the recession… wasn’t a thing. Oh, and what on EARTH was the stuff with the woman appearing to Wilf about? Someone suggests she might be the same woman as the Time Lady who stares mumsily at the Doctor. But that makes even less sense. What utter nonsense.
Then take a wider view. Surely, just surely, this would be where the Bad Wolf theme would be resolved? But no, not mentioned, not a thing. The role the TARDIS played, Davies’ effort to give it character, all just ignored, leaving it a prop at the side of the screen. The Doctor’s destruction of the Daleks. Forgotten. All the wider themes he’d introduced, bar the wobbliness of this “knock four times” prophecy, just abandoned. The mistake was by the viewers, the silly assumption that he had a plan, that he’d started this project with larger ideas in mind. He hadn’t.
So viewed as a whole, it’s a disaster. But viewed as a moment in time, this incarnation of the Doctor’s last, it manages to offer a decent amount. And in huge parts thanks to Bernard Cribbins’ emotional outpouring. From somehow delivering the clumsy line, “You’re a wonderful man!” on the alien ship with absolute passion, to his heartbreaking crumpling face in the closing moments of the wedding scene, he was wonderful. But never more than just moments earlier, as he took his last look at the Doctor, and blew that half kiss. It was utterly extraordinary. So perfect, and so honest. Davies has played around with the idea that all assistants fall in love with the Doctor, occasionally well. But this time he managed to write a man who simply loved the Doctor.
The dealings with the Master were far more clumsy. The gun scene, which lasted at least four or five weeks, was excruciating. Had he switched between the Time Lord and the Master once or twice, fine, but it became farcical. And so when it became about shooting the machine instead, I was so bored that I failed to realise the impact of that decision. It was, as has been pointed out to me since, the Doctor making the decision to be killed, rather than to kill. But sadly the timing of the scene was so wildly off that I’d given up caring long ago. So it’s lovely that the Master saves the Doctor in return, but his personality was all over the place and any significance of that moment was lost on me.
Davies clearly had a lot of options when it came to killing Tennant off. The four knocks prophecy’s delivery was rather lovely, at least the first time. Having been led to believe it had something to do with a Time Lord’s heartbeat, and indeed the signal that had driven the Master insane, it was perhaps a bit much to ask us to believe that was just a coincidence. But having it be Wilf’s knocking on the glass of the ludicrous radiation booth thing was a much more simple and powerful choice. But oh crikey, just once you idiots. By the third repetition that made twelve knocks, and the point driven far too far home.
The Doctor’s raging at Wilf’s being trapped worked quite well. It served as a representation of how all his assistants end up getting themselves in trouble, and also to represent the relationship between the Doctor and the whole human race. It then all becomes a little confusing when he doesn’t die, but you realise Davies is going to have all his cakes and eat them all at once at this point, and fair enough, he was saying goodbye to the programme he’d worked on for so long. So we get the Doctor’s whistle-stop tour of his last few years, taking a couple of liberties to save lives that were important to him, saying goodbye to Wilf, and of course taking one last chance to see Rose. And it’s sweet. The scene with Wilf is utterly wonderful. And then it’s time to die.
The Doctor’s parting words are nicely sad, and then… And then! Then it comes alive! Suddenly this new boy, who looks about 100 years old, is speaking in quick, funny words. Moffat’s script may only be about 20 seconds long, but it’s packed with funny moments, and a new Doctor who delivers it all brilliantly. Which bodes very well.
However, incredibly, Davies didn’t do the very least that was expected of him. He did not reset his disastrous effects on Earth. I’m repeating myself for the 900th time, but I’m saying it again. When you have messed up so badly that a regular human who finds himself on another planet with two suns can look up and say, “Oh, this is a bit like that time the Earth travelled to the other side of the universe,” you’ve done something horrible. There’s no magic or majesty left. There’s no secrets from humanity. Victorian stomping robots, Dalek invasions, alien governments, space ships, multiple alien races, and now a giant fiery planet causing a worldwide earthquake, mean there’s no surprises for people. He’s ruined it. And it’s not just ruined for the people in the fiction.
The other reason why revealing absolutely everything over and over (and what an act of arrogance to not only NOT undo this idiocy, but to further add to it by the meaningless appearance of Gallifrey) is so disastrous for the programme is for us. When we watch a programme like Doctor Who the idea is for our reality to be subverted by these fictional events. A familiar Earth is in danger, our Earth, the one we see every day. So while the science fiction is nonsense, the world in which it takes place is our own. But not any more. We don’t live on an Earth that has nearly been destroyed every Christmas, with aliens in our governments, space monsters attacking us, and indeed one that’s been on an interstellar journey to the other end of the universe. The Earth on that programme has nothing to do with our own, and therefore we are as an audience are so much more greatly disconnected from the events. Davies inability to understand this – something understood by everyone else who wrote Doctor Who, and any other Earth-based sci-fi series, for the last fifty years – is phenomenal. And his failure to undo it, to at least give Moffat a blank slate to begin from, is utterly galling.
So despite his final episode being entertaining, and often touching, he still leaves things very badly. And of course Doctor Who doesn’t matter, and of course it’s not worth getting so wound up about. But the thing is this: It could be really good. It could be something special. And instead it’s something stupid and flawed. And it’s okay to make a fuss about stuff like that. I hope Moffat finds a way of making Earth somewhere with mystery and surprise once more.
But let’s end on the positive note that tonight’s Doctor Who was perfectly watchable, if utter nonsense. (The missile shooting sequence? What on EARTH?) And more importantly, it showed off the one thing RTD brought to the series (beyond the not inconsiderable act of bringing us the programme at all), emotional characters behaving emotionally. Cribbins was once again incredible, and now looks horrible absent from yesterday’s New Years Honours list. Let’s hope he sees 83 and receives the honour he deserves. He was the voice of the Wombles, for crying out loud.