Okay- it’s two weeks late, but I was never likely to let that stop me…
So, it’s all over bar the shouting (and the specials that will be dotted through 2009), and Journey’s End certainly managed to be a fitting climax to the RTD era – in that it was overblown, ridiculous, and full of enough “Oh, dear god they’re not going there are they? Oh, they are…” moments to last me a liftime. It wasn’t the bizarre fanboy adrenaline rush of the previous episode, and it wasn’t the garbled mess of Last of the Time Lords – but sadly, despite all the bombast and exploding realities, what I’m really left with is a sense of middling enjoyment and that we’ve been here a few too many times before. Then, though, it’s what I expected from last week – The Stolen Earth was fun, and yet I knew full well they’d never be able to sustain that kind of demented pace. Journey’s End certainly suffered from gigantic levels of overcrowding, and even more examples of the idea that as long as things happen quickly, the audience hopefully won’t have time to actually ask tricky questions like “Um… how did that happen?” (I’m still somewhat stumped as to exactly how the whole ‘Donna pulls magic lever and everything’s alright and then the Daleks are spinning around and then Doctor2 makes the Daleks explode!’ sequence actually worked…)
Possibly the least surprising element of the episode was the almighty cop-out that was used to solve the ‘Stolen Earth’ cliffhanger- and yes, while there was a certain degree of organic storytelling here, in that it was setting up the appearance of Doctor2 and Donna’s eventual transformation, it is also a massive disappointment, with RTD once again scribbling more addendums in the series’ now bewilderingly complicated rules and abilities of regeneration. A cliffhanger like that sets up massive expectations, and to find out it basically comes down to “Oh, I decided not to regenerate” is pretty downright annoying. While the rest of the plot rattled along at a fair pace, much of this was New Who blockbuster by numbers with a large selection of extravagantly odd moments (most especially when Gita from Eastenders was vapourised…), fast enough to never be boring, and yet running into the main problem I expected from last week- the pace and stakes are set so high, there really isn’t anywhere for the episode to go. With the plot so often going for the ‘anything can happen’ strategy, it’s difficult to build up any genuine suspense, although there is, at the least, some serious spectacle, with the Death Star-like Crucible ship being particularly impressive, and even an unprecedented ‘Return of the King’ homage with the TARDIS almost being vapourised.
Tennant was once again on impressive form, and Julian Bleach made a pretty effective Davros (even if the whole situation between him and the Daleks seemed to remain a little confusing), and the twist with Dalek Caan turning on his own kind was nicely played. We did, however, also get comedy that was seriously overdone – most especially with Doctor2’s psychological similarities to Donna which got seriously close to the bloody awful bodyswap nonsense of New Earth (and shouldn’t someone have warned Rose about her duplicate Doctor’s similarities to Donna?), and the aforementioned spinning Daleks.
And, yet again, we have the contradiction in terms that is Catherine Tate- a comedy actress star who’s cringe-worthy when doing comedy, but pretty damn good when doing straight drama, and while there was far too much comedy fast-talking-technobabble for me to cope with, the final sequence with Donna’s brain overheating was very well done and genuinely heartbreaking (even if I saw it coming a mile off). Tate never completely won me over, but she’s been much, much better than I’d feared, and hopefully they’ll be able to continue the tradition of a companion who simply likes being with the Doctor without falling head over heels for him. Trouble is, it’s RTD playing the Rose story again, except this time as a tragedy (Ordinary woman shakes off her ordinariness, sees the world, saves the universe, inherits powers that No Human Should Ever Possess). We even get the “Random foreshadowing” of future events element as in Bad Wolf from S1, a neat trick that delivers lots of story arc-style nuggets without ever actually making sense, and it all adds up to a reinforcement of the idea that the element of surprise has definitely gone AWOL, and it’s absolutely time for RTD to move on.
And yet, they have played with Donna’s ordinariness in a way they never managed with Rose (Donna is a genuinely ordinary person who rises to the challenge, while Rose was way too much of a superheroine-in-waiting). Journey’s End also once again proves that RTD is good when he takes the kid gloves off, and that we have to once again salute the unexpected greatness that is Bernard Cribbins, as well as the end scenes which really sold the ‘Who domestics’ in a way that very few of the previous plotlines have managed. The Army of Ghosts/Doomsday finale flirted with tragedy but was a little too melodramatic and overblown, while this did at least come across as actually tragic (and one of the few moments where RTD’s constant use of the ‘reset’ button has actual dramatic impact) – the Doctor essentially having to kill Donna is a pretty damn dark direction, as well as the idea of Donna returning to her pre-Doctor state without any knowledge of what happenned. However, it’s also true that the tragic ending is becoming one of New Who’s biggest cliches- the list of women who enter the Doctor’s trajectory and meet nasty ends is rapidly approaching epidemic levels, and here’s hoping that Moffat is at least sensible enough to give us a future companion who dares to leave the TARDIS in something resembling happy circumstances.
Missing off the traditional random comedy scene to trail into the Christmas Special was probably a wise idea, although the final shot of the episode didn’t quite have the punch it needed (and while I’m all for a period-set Cyberman Xmas special with David Morrisey and Dervla Kirwan, could we please get rid of those staggeringly horrible and tacky 3-D CGI titles?), and while the whole last twenty minutes certainly have a very end-of-an-era feel, it was also relentlessly overcrowded, with even the resolution of Rose’s storyline feeling more like a box being ticked on a list.
(As a side-thought, can anyone come up with an explanation for the arc-elements like Rose’s appearance in Partners in Crime that actually, like, makes sense? Or why the ‘parallel Earth’ in Turn Left didn’t get stolen for the Daleks’ Reality Bomb? (Yes, there’s the ‘reverberations from a different parallel’ explanation, but surely that’d only happen if the Reality Bomb went off? And doesn’t that mean that the Daleks would be wiping out all the other Daleks in all the other parallel universes?) As I’ve said before, RTD loves the idea of a story arc, but never seems to be able to pay them off in a satisfying way).
Like anniversary stories such as The Five Doctors, this was never likely to be more than a fun, engaging get-together, and in certain respects it did pretty well, while in others it missed the boat completely (after all the build up, Rose spent most of the episode standing around doing nothing, and was arguably far more interesting being tragically parted from the Doctor- the Doomsday finale has now been somewhat undercut) – and there were some enjoyably weird highlights, such as the German-speaking Daleks – but while some New Who lovers will proclaim this RTD’s finest hour, for me it’s time to say enough is enough. I’m not expecting Steven Moffatt to re-invent the wheel, but hopefully there will at least be the sense that on Who’s return, the show will actually be prepared to push the boat out and (shock, horror) do something different…