UPDATE: My extremely positive review of pt. II here
As the clock winds down on David Tennant’s time as The Doctor, Russel T. Davies and crew offer up another hit or miss episode. On the positive side, Tennant shows off the immense acting chops that made most fans sit up and take notice of the reboot of the beloved Dr. Who. There is nothing more compelling in this episode than when Tennant as Doctor Who ponders what it would mean to die, either for real or as the man he is now to become the tween he is set to be. John Simm, as The Master, also gives his most powerful performance when opposite Tennant as the two discover that the beating in his head is in fact real.
Simm seemed quite the match for Tennant back in the days of Martha and it seems like such a shame to have wasted him here. But wasted he is, as The Master’s role in this episode is mostly to point to the gluttony of the human race and mimic comic book villains of days gone by. The obvious reference to Skeletor, b/c he keeps fazing from normal head to electric skeleton head, is made by Dr. Who himself when he asks aliens masquerading as humans where The Master is being held. The other villains should be equally recognizable to scifi fans: General Zod and crew from Superman II, right down to the bad special effects and Dr. Who’s flying cape-like coat, and the bad immortals in Highlander; the first of many showdowns between The Master and The Doctor takes place in an abandoned, ruined, part of London with electricity and explosions all around just like any number of final sword fights on the Highlander series. In some ways, The Master’s mania coupled with his cheap effects “flying” is like a bad live action import ala Power Rangers. Whatever they envisioned, his initial high speed vaulting while menacing quickly devolves into circa 1980s Superman movie shame with the addition of electricity shooting from the Master’s hands.
The storyline is also convoluted and, dare I say, a little stupid. First, Davies goes back on his word to take life and death seriously in Dr. Who and Torchwood by bringing back a character that he has definitively killed off. Even David Tennant sounds a little incredulous trying to explain how that happened in the special extras attached to these final episodes. The long and the short of it: The Master, anticipating losing against Dr. Who for reasons that are unclear & inconsistent w/his meglomania, stores a part of his essence in a ring; he then trains minions to bring him back in the event of his death. Despite having had the ring this entire time, it takes some time for them to get access to his wife who has the essential DNA needed to complete his resurrection. However, she is no passive woman and while The Master is gloating about his impending resurrection, she manages to gum up the works by blowing up the building. He survives but in an incomplete state that has turned him into a cannibal of sorts and only the Doctor can help him; but of course, he does not want the Doctor’s help. Enter some poorly fleshed out Black British villains, their aliens in disguise helpers, and a machine that can rewrite genetic code of entire planets & you have the plot for the final episode of both Davies and Tennant’s successful careers with Who.
In the midst of this story, “The End of Time” wraps up Donna Noble’s story. Donna is on the verge of marrying her working class boyfriend, living out a frustrating and lonely life, when The Master gets lucky and takes over the Earth once again, triggering her memories and her brain implosion.
While Davies gives us a wide array of Black British charactersin this episode, they are tangential at best. The two “master minds” of “Earth’s future” are in fact puppets of aliens masquerading as human and so self-absorbed that when they die I almost cheered. Donna’s fiance is also black and while he is not a servant to a spider queen this time around, her grandfather states that she is “settling” and that the marriage is another sign of how pathetic Donna’s life has become sans Doctor Who. There is also a black homeless teen, while he is cared for by an older white homeless man who genuinely wants him to survive, the teen is too stupid to keep his thoughts to himself when The Master starts on one of his looney binges attracting the Master’s attention and leading to his gruesome death. Yep, real winners in this bunch. Add to that ongoing references to President Obama, that seem oddly out of place, and the reference to “The Master Race”, an intentional joke that lacks any humor, and you have a hodge podge of unflattering images of blackness unbecoming the show. I expect more from Davies no matter how much criticism I dish out for lapses in the Martha-Doctor storyline or the death of Lisa on Torchwood.
(There is one exception, an elder black man who is friends with Donna’s grandfather is smart and helps find The Doctor when the older people in London figure out there is something wrong; his part is small but significant given these other portrayals.)
On the bright side, not only are Tennant and Simm giving their all, but one of those aliens I keep mentioning is played by the lovely Sinead Keenan from Being Human. Though her part is fairly small, she infuses it with the same wit and presence scifi fans have come to expect. It’s a pleasure to watch her work, especially in scenes that would otherwise be setting of my racial critique mode. Her energy is matched by an equally subtle performance by the actress who plays The Master’s wife. Her quiet resolve upon discovering The Master’s plan to return reminds me of the same quiet Toshiko had when Jack frees her from prison to join Torchwood. There is also a mysterious older white woman, who could be a Time Lord, popping in and out of the story. She acts as a guiding voice to Donna’s grandfather, who also turns in a poignant performance here. Finally, Donna is also her usual bossy self rounding out the roles of women that are mostly empowered and in charge. On the negative side, there is one black British woman in this episode who is a pretty, pretty, princess who thinks she can manipulate alien technology and The Master in order to harness the future and live forever. For a villainous Mastermind she is a woman of few, and mostly insipid, words who has little more presence than the fuzzy pink sweater she wears. In light of the other female characters in this episode, or in the Who universe, she is a joke unworthy of the last episodes.
Besides the compelling melancholy of Dr. Who, his pathos filled conversation with The Master, and the exciting changes in the evolution of the Ood, the music score also creates a lot of tension and drama in an episode that is mostly just Dr. Who and The Master running around in the wastelands of London’s poor areas playing jump over the rock pile.
Even more exciting: The whole episode is narrated by Timothy Dalton as a Time Lord. While my gf likened his voice to the narrator in the Grinch, I’m chalking that up to too much eggnog and not enough Flash Gordon nostalgia. Dalton is the perfect mix of all knowing and dark. More than that, the idea that this hodge podge of a plot might lead to the return of the Time Lords for good and the rebuilding of Gallifrey is enough to forgive its failings.
all images BBC 2009 Dr. Who “The End of Time Pt. 1”