Back over Christmas, there was an infuriating Doctor Who finale. James Aylett wrote a dissection of Russell T Davies’ ‘The End of Time’, and since he’s also a writer, it’s a nice insight. Seeing as Russell is moving on, it seems like a fair moment to make a big indulgence in it all. I like Doctor Who, I really do. But, RTD has missed a great many great plotting and story opportunities with his awful writing over these five years. The finale was a bombastic clusterfuck; something that deep down, we all knew would happen the moment he announced his retirement. Items of canon and historical note were thrown in, mutilated and cast aside as quick as they arrived.
Anyway. I managed to contain my nerdish need to rant about it to just one long comment on James’ blog. (Well… also Twitter.) You should read it and follow up there, if you’re so inclined (there’s a good discussion between James and Tom Coates to read, too.)
My comment is also copied for posterity below:
Tom makes some fair counterpoints, but the good plot details picked out cover a tiny minority of actual episode screen time. Yes, conceptually, there’s a lot to like about The End Of Time, but the execution of the episode was ruining.
So, the Master comes back. John Simm is an outstanding actor, of course, and in his last outing he and David Tennant made great scenes together just by showing up and being awesome. He’s back… but at no point in this story is he a Time Lord. Now, he’s a super-hero. Jumping in the air? Shooting electricity from his hands? Using the electricity in his hands as a propulsion mechanism so that he can fly?! Fuck off. Fuck off. Absolute shit like that is what took up the time on the television. That and running around the docks. And that’s after we’d dealt with him being resurrected using magic potions. By a cult! That I just made up! But then it goes wrong using anti-magic potions! From a resistance movement! That I just made up! What on earth was going on there?
What was going on was an inordinate amount of screen time and distraction being inserted into the programme so that RTD could give one of his precious tertiary characters (Mrs Saxon) screen time in the final episode. Entirely unnecessary. Even though she was in the series too briefly for the viewer to ever become emotionally invested in her, apparently she was actually really important and she still gets to be a little redeemed hero. Of course.
All of this after accepting the rubbish way in which RTD ‘killed’ The Master in the first place in season 3. Why didn’t RTD just let him get away? He’s a recurring character, after all, and he’d only just reintroduced him. Heck, he could have done a fun pastiche of Darth Vader’s escape at the end of A New Hope; that could have been pretty good. (Aside: The ‘refusing to regenerate’ detail was a good one and played very well, but occurred far too soon in the series; the Master had been back in the show for two episodes and one story before being ‘permanently’ killed out of it again.)
A problem I’ve had with RTD’s writing all along is that he incessantly rejects building story around the canonical, pseudo-scientific base of Doctor Who in favour of just making shit up. RTD wasn’t writing The Master as a Time Lord, he was ‘Generic Nemesis’, and this time he had silly powers.
So much of the plot was unnecessary. Things were introduced, barely explained, changed and barely re-explained. The incredible-gene-splicing Gate of Doom? One minute it’s a device to make one girl immortal, now it’s a device to reprogram all human DNA. There was no story telling to being it into the plot, it was just there in its own unjustified story thread. Why? That plot segment could be so much simpler if the people who had found the gate had no idea what it did.
The Master would show up, take the lead and trick the naïve humans into activating it. Heck, the trick could be ‘it will make your daughter immortal!’. Then he double crosses them, obviously. But instead, the who-the-fuck-are-they owners of The Gate have to be put in control of the plot for too-long a while, hunting down and capturing The Master, all at great expense of screen time. No background justification for the things they know and possess is provided.
I think that Russell T Davies has all of these plot points filled out in his head. I think he imagines this universe of moving parts and characters that he’s invented and cares about. He made them up and made them live. They’re as important to him as the ‘real’ Doctor Who characters are to me. But then he forgets that he’s making an TV special. Rather than cutting those ideas that are shallow, don’t make sense, or distract from the Time Lords (all of them), he cramped it together. End Of Time Part 1 felt like I was watching a clip show at points. Disjointed, scrappy scenes showing snippets of the story. There was no story telling, it was a summary, a recap of a storyline that hadn’t actually been told. I don’t appreciate a writer assuming that I’ll fill in the narrative, characterisation and backstory with my own fan-fiction afterwards, especially a story already failing to explore the rich science-fiction universe it’s been set in.
Moving on. I’ve covered The Master’s new super-powers, and James’ point about his energy hunger/consumption/expulsion is so spot on in highlighting RTD’s weakness for stupid visual effects over even light-weight science. But the other plot devices are even more annoying. Timothy Dalton has a Magic Time Glove! It can undo The Master’s actions in 20 seconds; actions that required half an episode to set up. Also, it’s a gun to shoot The Doctor with! Of course! Does it make toast? I’d really like some Time Toast. I bet if you ate that all kinds of crazy things could happen (and then be immediately undone when you drink a glass of milk, or by touching a cow, or a pregnant woman.)
The return of Gallifrey at any point in the Doctor Who story should have been a big deal. Instead it was briefly tedious and then got written out faster than it emerged. The ‘they said something, not someone!’ line was utterly shit.
It was so close to the Earth it would have caused any number of natural disasters that children learn about in Primary School, and a great number that they don’t. Then it disappears again with no adverse affects than the flustering of middle-class housewives that populate 90% of Russell T Davies vision of England. Gallifrey doesn’t mean anything in RTD’s Doctor Who. It’s a historical footnote, to a history that you’re only told exists (but barely told about). It’s reduced to a cheap name-drop. Even now when the planet finally makes a physical appearance in a story, nothing comes of it. Nothing happens on it, it offers no resources, it doesn’t contain a macguffin. It was a tedious waste.
Oh, and the Time Lords ascending? Really? Been watching a little too much Stargate SG1, have we?
And then the end itself. How limp. Homages are fine, stealing from Stargate is dubious, but you’d expect The Doctor’s actual fatal-blow to be original. Instead, it was radiation poisoning lifted right out of Star Trek II. Even the source of the radiation had nothing to do with averting the preceding disaster scenario. Then the regeneration starts, apparently, but unlike Nine, or the last time Ten regenerated (but ‘didn’t feel like’ properly regenerating… for fucks sake…) the healing starts right away so he can be pretty again, but he still seems to have a period of about three weeks for a final curtain call. And that final period, that’s what nailed it. This wasn’t a finale for the Doctor Who character, it was for Russell T Davies’ show. His show that we have the privilege to glimpse inside of once a week. He wasn’t writing it to give The Doctor a decent ending, it was written to grant a cameo to every single character he’d ever dreamed up, no matter how absurd. It was trite and shit. And of course Rose is back to say goodbye. Again.
This overall plot could have worked, but the script was an ego-satisfying, first-draft, mastabatary, brain fart.
Regarding James’ alternative. I’m intrigued but slightly undecided. Tom’s counter-point that enslaving humanity for an entire series would be too drastic and would change the viewer connection to the universe could make sense… but for all the apocalyptic bullshit the human race has already been put through by RTD. They were enslaved by Daleks last year, The Sontarans choked everyone and then the sky was set on fire. The human effect of these is just completely ignored. (I don’t accept that as a commentary on the human race surviving disaster by emotional disengagement; it’s just bad writing.)
An extended period of human suffering and oppression would still get resolved in the series finale, and it would be a much bigger deal, far more affecting, than fixing 15 minutes of mild peril and special effects. I think that in such a scenario you can still tell stories about the human condition, fight and spirit. It doesn’t have to be the kind of slavery scenario where everyone is being herded around with whips; humans could still exercise some individual ‘freedom’ within the bounds of their Time Lord dictatorship. That leaves room for human stories that don’t have to end with Absolute Victory, they can show small success in rebellion, they can be much more personal and human than any Earth-set apocalypse story of the past four seasons.
However, the specifics of James’ story are actually less important than the required development of the writing style.
What James’ describes is an episodic plot, with actual consequences. A bigger story, an arc with a clear but not imminent end, the Big Bad defined and in action before the trailer for the finale episode. An end to retarded ‘press this button and everything’s back to normal’ cliffhangers.
I would like Doctor Who to mature and take on a bigger story. The problem with big arcs and consequences carrying over multiple episodes is that it can be harder to pick up if you miss an episode. Is that still a suitable structure for tea-time entertainment? Maybe? But, a more ambitious plot doesn’t stop you making Monster of The Week episodes (that was never a problem for Buffy), so I don’t see a problem, especially given an already dedicated fan-base. Plus, the benefits to the writing and character development seem a very worthwhile counter-benefit.
Was it the lack of consequence in RTD’s writing that made his run so frustrating for me? Is it just his failure to embrace interesting canon in place of making his own shit up? Is it the abysmal dialogue? The incessant melodrama? The ‘because I say so’ approach to character development? Is it just that every year the music in the Christmas special is too loud? It’s all of these things and more. I regard RTD with scorn; a burden. It’s infuriating to consider so many wasted opportunities to do greater things with Doctor Who.
So Russell T Davies revived Doctor Who and made it a commercial success. Great. I will still offer begrudging thanks for that. But I will not issue a free pass for churning out half baked dross like this finale over and over and over again. For me, David Tennant’s Ten will be remembered with affection in spite of RTD’s writing, not because of it. I hope that Stephan Moffet has the confidence and talent to do better.
Comments to James’ original entry, please.