Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Journey’s End

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It’s been good, though, hasn’t it? All of us. All of it. Everything we did. You were brilliant.

Again, I want to start with a fairly simple, straightforward declaration: I love this one. I love every part of it, even the silly parts, even the bits I don’t like that much. It’s the apex of a particular version of Doctor Who, and when I watched it the first time, it was everything to me. So, there’s a degree to which I’m not really going to budge on that, now or ever.

Admittedly, that perhaps sounds like a preamble to an “admittedly…”, but no, I really do like this one a lot. It’s an episode that is, I think, easier to talk about for its questionable moments, and I obviously will talk about them, but that’s only really because of the nature of its strengths. It’s an episode that’s so bombastic and sprawling, so confident and sure of itself, that for a lot of it you’re left with little to do but point and gesture in wordless appreciation.

The review that follows – a particularly lengthy review, actually, because I wanted to try and do something hefty for what is a pretty significant episode, but also because I happened to have a lot of thoughts on it all – comes across, I worry, as being more negative about the episode than I actually feel. Like I said, it’s the sort of episode where the good things about it felt, to me, a bit harder to write about.

That said, though, I do just want to take a moment now to talk about my favourite moment of the episode: towing the Earth back home. It’s such a brilliantly sentimental scene, with one of Murray Gold’s best pieces of music from the Davies era, and I love what it represents. I love the way Freema Agyeman makes eye contact with the camera, too – it’s a strange, Blue Peter moment, and in a way it kinda threatens the integrity of the whole thing, as though it’s about to make it a joke. But, actually, it’s different from that, because it’s letting us in on the joke, including us, as though we’re piloting the TARDIS with them. I love the strange, crazy confidence to the way the scene just stops for an obscure Gwen Cooper continuity reference.

It’s really such a brilliant, brilliant moment. It’s actually the bit that makes it all worth it, to my mind; you could probably make some reasonable arguments that bringing all the companions together like this isn’t a brilliant idea – or at least you could try, because this scene shows how absolutely wonderful that is. I really, really loved it.

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Ethically, there are bits of it that are a little sketchy. Well, that’s perhaps the wrong way of putting it (if nothing else, it creates the impression I’m talking about something else) – rather, I suspect the moral quandary supposedly at the heart of the story is somewhat ill thought out.

One of the things that Journey’s End purports to grapple with – it doesn’t really; the idea is abandoned reasonably quickly – is this idea of the Doctor as a very dark figure, the Destroyer of Worlds. Not someone who emboldens and elevates those around him, shaping their lives, inspiring and empowering them to be better people, but instead moulding them into soldiers, weapons first and foremost rather than travellers or people or Doctors themselves. In and of itself, that’s debateable; certainly, I wonder how much, outside of this episode itself, that interpretation is actually supported by the Davies era anyway. Undeniably, there’s elements of it, and it’s more obvious with characters like Martha, but… well, is it true? I’m inclined to compare it to the Capaldi era, as I so often am, where the companions were left to become Doctor figures in their own right; I wonder if perhaps that’s the same as what’s happening here, but it’s a fundamentally different vision of the Doctor here than in the Capaldi era. That’s an interesting idea to grapple with – immediately the counter argument that they’re becoming, in effect, failed versions of the Doctor, missing the point, not the full version of such, which has an interesting resonance of its own – but I think befitting its own essay rather than a few stray paragraphs here.

More to the point, though, I think it’s worth considering what the companions are turned into soldiers against: the Daleks, the ultimate robot fascists. It is… difficult to argue, to be honest, in any meaningful sense that killing Daleks is wrong particularly. Certainly, in prior contexts – the Time War, or The Parting of the Ways – the point was not about the morality of killing Daleks per se, but killing Daleks while leaving massive collateral damage. That’s definitely the case with Martha’s final solution, but that’s not really emphasised in the text, and it doesn’t seem to be a factor with the warp star or… whatever it is TenToo did with the Crucible at the end. Instead, it does seem to be a fairly basic “killing Daleks is wrong”, which strikes me as questionable. It feels mainly like a broader version of the whole punching Nazis thing – yes, that is ethically fine. Just as it is, you know, ethically fine to blow up a Dalek.

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And that… not complaint, exactly, but certainly that little curio feeds into some wider points about the episode’s spine. Well, no, I’m reluctant to call it a spine exactly, because I don’t think it is – as I’ve said above, it’s dispensed with fairly quickly. It’s more that it’s just the subject of Davros’ rant, because if the villain is going to have a rant at all, it needs to be something with a lofty ethical point to be made.

I think I’d have preferred it if, on some level, there was an effort to refute that. I think it might have held the episode together a little better thematically if… well, if at any point the Doctor had been able to turn around and say “actually, we are so different, you and I”. Or, not like that exactly, but I think taking the broader point, about the impact the Doctor has on people, and showing it actually hasbeen a positive, that he actually is different, so on. I think it’s interesting to look at Sarah Jane’s line about how the Doctor has the biggest family of anyone on Earth, because actually, it’s debateable how much the episode itself actually seems to believe that; after all, the note that’s emphasised at the end is him, alone, crying in the rain.

More on that later, though, because what I want to talk about instead is TenToo. A lot is made of the suggestion that he’s this very dark figure – born in battle, full of bloodlust, all that jazz – but I’m not wholly convinced that rings true across the episode. Certainly, he seems broadly more cheerful and adjusted throughout than the brown-suited version of the Doctor does; you can chalk bits of that up to knowing Donna isn’t dead and the TARDIS wasn’t destroyed, so TenToo certainly has reason to not be as angsty, but even then. I think a big part of this, though, is that I’m still not especially convinced that killing the Dalek empire like that is an especially difficult decision; TenToo did the right thing, and Sarah Jane’s suggestion wasn’t wrong either. Martha is a bit more questionable, but at least that’s got an element of the trolley problem to it. (My hot take: Journey’s End would’ve worked better with the Slitheen, in that regard at least.)

What I do think works, though, is TenToo leaving with Rose at the end. Certainly, it’s a difficult scene to get right, and you can understand why Russell T Davies deliberated over it so much in The Writer’s Tale; very easily, it could have been a weaker rehash of the version from Doomsday. What’s impressive, though, is the way it’s doing something much more complex; where the last version was about Rose, this is about the Doctor – he’s manipulating her and pushing her away, essentially, making a choice because he thinks he knows what’s best for her. Actually, thinking about it, there’s an interesting connection to what he does to Donna later.

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Of course, there’s also the question of Donna. I’ve been deliberating over exactly how to handle this for some time now. To be honest, I was tempted to not bring it up at all; certainly, that would have been truer to my experience of the episode the first go around, because it was years and years before I realised there was anything to discourse about at all. For the longest time my thoughts on the subject began and ended with “that’s a tragic ending, I wish there had been some way for Donna to remember” – which, to be honest, I suspect was also the beginning and end of Russell T Davies’ thoughts while writing it.

But, equally, it’d feel too much like an unspoken elephant in the room if I didn’tmention it, and that doesn’t feel like something I can go without talking about. Particularly, actually, given that my beloved Capaldi era addressed this ending directly – more than once, actually, but most obviously with Clara, my favourite companion. So, it’d be a bit dishonest not to.

For anyone who’s not aware, the discussion centres around the Doctor mindwiping Donna; the – critique feels too mild a word, and perhaps misrepresents the strength of feeling of some of those who object to it – objection (not much better) regards how he ignores her wishes, disregards her autonomy and takes something from her without her consent. Part of the contention, too, is that it’s not really problematised within the narrative enough; the focus is largely on the tragedy, and how sad it is for the Doctor, as opposed to depicting it as a horrific violation of consent. That’s… I was going to say “That’s not an unreasonable interpretation, even though it’s not what the episode intended”, which manages to be both true and missing the point; whether it’s what the episode intended or not, that is essentially what’s on screen. I’m inclined to disagree heavily with certain sections of the debate, largely those that compare it to rape; I understand where they’re coming from, in terms of it being a violation of consent, but… it doesn’t sit well with me, for myriad reasons too extensive to really delve into here.

I think it’s probably best understood as a medical procedure; even then, there’s questions to be asked, but I think that’s a better model from which to approach it. (I also think it’s worth noting, in terms of comparisons to the Capaldi era, in Hell Bent and The Pilot, where the selfish, patrician nature of the act is emphasised, it’s not to save a life, which is manifestly different to what’s going on with Donna. Just to complicate things further!) It’s not a companion exit that sits with me entirely well admittedly; it’s cruel in a lot of ways, bleakly cynical in a way that sets it apart from the tragedy of, say, Doomsday. But… it also doesn’t, in a significant way at least, diminish the episode. At least not for me. I don’t know.

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One thing that did strike me as interesting is how easily this episode could have functioned as a series finale to New Who as a whole, if the specials hadn’t been commissioned.

Granted, you’d want a few changes made throughout; the version of this episode that was an actual ending would, I think, leave Donna as the DoctorDonna – the Doctor would finally have a companion and friend who really could travel with him forever (at the same time he gave Rose a Doctor who really could live with her forever, which would’ve been neat). Also, you’d kinda want there to be more of an effort to address Davros’ accusations, as I mentioned above; Journey’s End is interesting because it feels like it comes quite close to, or could have come quite close to, addressing the whole survivor’s guilt thing, and ultimately saying “actually, no”, but then ultimately eliding that in favour of a sad ending.

(Actually, personally, I think much more telling than the actual consent violation/mindwipe aspect is the fact that Donna isn’t allowed to keep her memories once she becomes a Doctor figure – a successful Doctor figure, in marked contrast to the others, beating the Daleks by tricking them into their own trap and hoisting them by their own petard rather than an aggressively militaristic figure. But where the others are failed Doctor figures who live, Donna is… not punished, exactly, but regresses. That, I think, is the difference between Donna and Clara; where “being the Doctor” is something anyone can do in the Moffat era, “being the Doctor” is a much more singular burden to bear in the Davies era. Again, that’s another idea worth returning to, particularly because I think Moffat’s conception of what it means to be the Doctor is one of the most interesting ideas of his tenure, and it’s actually probably one of the best ways to get to the heart of the whole lonely god idea in the Davies era.)

Anyway! Gosh. When this is finished it’s going to be over 2000 words, possibly approaching 2500; certainly, the longest of any of the X Years of the X Doctor posts I’ve done over the years. Actually, no, it could well be the longest single piece I’ve written full stop. It’s probably too critical in a lot of places, and doesn’t flow the way I’d like it to; equally, though, to repeat the usual refrain, these are often just the thoughts off the top of my head after watching an episode. A lot of the thoughts above are ones I’d like to elaborate on in future, though.

So. Journey’s End. I enjoyed it massively; I think that impression might not come across from this review, much as I would’ve liked it to, because so much of it dwells on the problem areas of the episode. That’s what got me thinking, I suppose.

I did have a slightly more elegiac conclusion in mind, but I’ve just remembered that next week I’ll be doing a general Series 4 overview. So I’ll save that for then!

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Stolen Earth

I came here when I was just a kid.

I love this one.

I also love the next one (arguably more, though I don’t tend to think of these two in discrete parts), but we’ll get to that in time.

I used to have all these Doctor Who action figures – no, collectibles – nah, action figures. A couple of David Tennants, quite a few of them missing hands; Rose from New Earth and Rose from Rose, a strange thing that looked like it was about to start a fight most of the time; Daleks, invariably missing their manipulator arms (alright, plungers) or guns or eyestalks, each one totally broken by the siblings and never by me. (That’s not, like, an attempt to talk around it or laughingly suggest it was me and I pretended it was them; it was them and they know it.) Judoon, Slitheen, Captain Jack from The Empty Child and Sarah Jane from her Adventures, complete with a little Graske, Martha from Smith and Jones and Mickey from Army of Ghosts, complete with half a Cyberman.

But, anyway, I collected them over the years, and played with them, obviously.  Always ridiculous, over the top narratives, with exterminations and resurrections and epic, galaxy-spanning stakes, and, of course, every companion ever. (Well, no, not every companion ever, because I never had a Donna figure.)

You can, I imagine, see where this is going. The Stolen Earth is Doctor Who as it always existed in my imagination, writ large across the screen. It’s sprawling and excessive and fun, Doctor Who taking joy in simply being Doctor Who. There was no way I wasn’t going to love it. Watching it at nine years old (probably) it was, genuinely, event television in a way I’d never really experienced before. Watching it ten years later, there’s still such a rush of giddy joy to it all. Across these reviews I’ve written about how I sometimes worry my opinions are based too firmly on how I first watched it, but with this one, I’m not worried about that. I know it, and I don’t care – this was the most amazing episode of Doctor Whoever then, and in more ways than one it still is now.

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There’s still, I think, a kind of… conversations about Doctor Who are still basically lead by the same types of people, and arguably in some cases the same people full stop. It’s people who grew up in the 70s, talking about Weetabix and Target novels and Tom Baker pants, and then being terribly ashamed of it all in the 80s and 90s (and in some cases still, bizarrely, carry the imagined weight of that around with them).

Less common – and to me, more interesting – is accounts of people talking about growing up under the revived series. Probably the obvious reason for that, I suppose, is that they’re mostly just not old enough yet; we’re still kinda at the point where it’s people who were teenagers when Rose aired are talking about it, as opposed to the 7 and 8-year olds. Maybe in a few years’ time we’ll start to see the stories of Cyber-strawberry frubes and Totally Doctor Who and David Tennant pants, which I would just like the record to state that I always found kinda weird and never had. Anyway, though, we’re definitely getting there. It’s something I’d like to have a go at myself one day, I suppose.

If, and when, people start getting around to it, I suspect The Stolen Earth will loom large in those accounts. It feels difficult, now, to quantify quite how big it was at the time. I remember that it was one of the last episode titles to be revealed; at that point I was following production news and stuff, albeit mainly through the Doctor Who Adventures magazine, and listing the title of episode 12 as CONFIDENTIAL (or TOP SECRET or what have you) – alongside, I think, what became The Sontaran Stratagem – really set me off. The anticipation! (Mind you, I was always pretty confused by the theory that Harriet Jones was the Supreme Dalek, though I’m pretty sure I found out about that after the fact.)

And, I mean, I’ve already said how much I loved this episode at the time. That picture of all the companions assembled together, ‘The Children of Time’, that was my computer background for years. It was then, and in many ways still is, such a wonderfully intense episode of Doctor Who, and one that’s really quite deeply bound up with the ways I watched Doctor Who at the time, the way I experienced Doctor Who, and, sure, the way I lived it.

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It still stands up today, I reckon.

The oft-repeated refrain when I write about the first part of any two-parter is, you know, that that’s quite difficult for all these reasons, which I recount mainly to fill up my own arbitrarily set wordcount, and as a bit of a caveat for the fact that I’ve not really said anything. Admittedly, a lot of this review is me talking around the fact, discussing what The Stolen Earth is and represents as opposed to anything that actually happened in it. On the flip side, though, it is mostly set-up and OMG moments and the cliffhanger of modern-Who, still yet to be topped, so maybe that’s not so bad.

Still, though. There’s a lot of great moments. The obvious bits, like any moment where Bernard Cribbins is on screen, have been rightfully discussed, but what stood out to me about this episode most of all was Elisabeth Sladen. It feels odd to say it, but she’s a much, much better actress than I ever realised –  not that I ever thought she wasn’t, or anything, but it really struck me that every emotional beat of the Dalek invasion works because of her. It’s her fear of the Daleks, at Davros, and for Luke, that makes it work – it’s genuinely the most impactful performance of the episode.

It’s quite the episode, The Stolen Earth. Quite the episode.

These days those action figures are all neatly displayed on my shelves – lovingly displayed, in fact. (I’d have to concede they’re actually maybe not that neat, and they pick up dust like mad.) I feel like maybe I should try and construct some metaphor out of that, that the things you love as a child start to hold a different place in your life as you grow up or whatever, but nah, that’s nonsense. Or it’s nonsense here, anyway.

I just wanted to tell you about them. I really love those things

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: School Reunion

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Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world, or a relationship… Everything has its time. And everything ends.

Doctor Who is, obviously, a family show. We all know that (the debate as to how effective a family show it is can be saved for another time) but, at the same time, it’s always held something of a special regard for children.

After all, it’s the children who are going to be pretending to be Daleks in the school playground come Monday morning (I say that, probably I was the one being K9). It’s like the Krillitanes say in this episode; there’s something special about the imagination of it. And so, in turn, Doctor Who has a pretty special relationship with the child portion of its audience.

Which is why, in many ways, this conceit at the heart of this episode is so fantastic. It’s not just the fact that we’re setting a Doctor Who episode at a school – but, in and of itself, that’s a wonderful concept. Juxtaposing the mundane and the alien is something Doctor Who has always done very effectively, but there’s something so much more personal about setting it in a school, rather than the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Everyone has, at some point, wondered if the teachers slept at school at night… but what if they were aliens as well? It’s a fantastic image.

But the episode doesn’t stop there; it takes it further. It’d be easy for the cold open to end right after Mr Finch has ate the child; with any other episode, that’s where you’d expect the titles to start, and the music to come crashing in. Not here, though.

Because the hook of this episode isn’t the fact that aliens are teachers.

It’s the fact that the Doctor is a teacher.

And there’s something unique about that, and the way that this episode melds those two worlds. Certainly for me, there was something a little extra thrilling about seeing the Doctor – my Doctor – walking up and down corridors that I could have quite easily been in myself just a few hours ago. Teaching a lesson I could have been in (well, I say that, I don’t actually take physics lessons anymore) surrounded by students that I could have been.

This episode, moreso than any other, is one that’s able to merge the world of Doctor Who and the world we know. And I think that’s pretty impressive.

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Also notable is the fact that this is the first time we really delve into the Time War with the Tenth Doctor; though we are, obviously, aware of it as an audience, it was always framed in terms of the Ninth Doctor. Understandable really – it was through him that we came to know about it.

But thus far we’ve not really seen David Tennant’s Doctor being confronted by the Time War; in both New Earth and Tooth and Claw, it simply didn’t really come up very often. This is his first Time War episode – it sets a precedent for how things will follow on from here.

I find it fascinating, actually, and I consistently find this fascinating, how well telegraphed a lot of the Doctor’s later development was, even right from the beginning. When we see the Tenth Doctor being tempted by Mr Finch, that right there is sowing the seeds for the Time Lord Victorious, a good three years down the line. Hubris has always been this Doctor’s fatal flaw, and here it is on display, as early as his fourth episode. Tennant does a wonderful job here; it helps, of course, that’s he’s playing off of an actor as talented as Anthony Head (Giles!) but he gives a brilliantly subtle and understated performance when first confronted with the Skasis Paradigm. It’s moments like this that prove, over and over, why Tennant was cast as the Doctor.

Interesting further still, though, is the Doctor’s little diatribe about aging, and why he has new companions. “You can spend every day of your life with me, but I can’t spend every day of mine with you.” David Tennant, once again, performs this wonderfully; he does a great job of conveying how strained the Doctor is in that moment, trying to hold himself back from an emotional outburst. It’s clear that this is something he’s kept bottled up for a long time, and will continue to do.

It’s a new way of looking at the dynamic between the Doctor and his companions; that’s why he’s always running. Always moving forward, never looking back.

And that brings us quite neatly to Sarah-Jane Smith.

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Sarah Jane was, and remains, iconic in her own right. One of, if not the, most popular companions of Doctor Who’s original run, this was one of the most meaningful interactions that the new series had with its history in the first couple of years of its life. True, we’d had the Daleks, and shortly afterwards we’ll have the Cybermen – but there’s something rather different about having metal men in suits, when compared to the sheer joy that is seeing Elisabeth Sladen on screen as Sarah Jane once again.

I mentioned in a recent article for Yahoo that there’s a palpable sense of legacy throughout this episode; more than that, though, there’s a real pathos and poignancy to the episode. It’s not just about seeing Sarah Jane taking another lap around the corridors, there’s genuine emotional depth to her return. The Doctor is forced to confront what happens when he leaves people behind, and Sarah Jane is able to find closure. (It’s rather wonderful, though, that’s she’s become like the Doctor in her own right though; a fantastic little detail is that, when breaking into the school at night, both the Doctor and Sarah immediately head for Mr Finch’s office.)

With hindsight, of course, this episode is particularly poignant; even five years on, it’s difficult not to view this in light of Elisabeth Sladen’s passing. She embodied the role perfectly – twice, for two different generations of children. I wasn’t there the first go around, when Sarah Jane was travelling with the Third and Fourth Doctors, but I was there watching The Sarah Jane Adventures each week. And as wonderful as it is to see her… it’s sad, too. It’s a harsh reminder of one of the key themes of the episode; pain and loss define us, just as much as happiness or love.

(The first time she appeared on screen in this episode – Mr Finch introducing her to the Doctor – I was just beaming. Grinning at the screen like a fool. It was just genuinely wonderful and truly heartening to see Sarah Jane on screen again, because she’s a part of my childhood too.)

Ultimately, then, School Reunion is a strong effort from Toby Whithouse, and it’s another impressive instalment in the ongoing story of the Tenth Doctor. Once again, we’ve got another effective reminder of just why I love this era of the show so much.

8/10

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