The Case for… The End of Time

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Adam James Cuthbert makes the case for the tenth Doctor’s final story.

Although the Tenth Doctor wasn’t my first, through the combination of Russell T Davies’ writing and David Tennant’s generally excellent performance, his characterisation has come to more or less encapsulate my personal preference for the portrayal of the Doctor, especially in light of the influential Time War backstory that continues to be felt today: a man who has seen ‘the horror’.

His jovial, loquacious, and ebullient persona, typically describing peoples and things as “brilliant” or “beautiful”, with an impassioned affinity for humanity that reflected on his own demeanour, counteracted by a fierce intelligence and ruthlessness, underscored by a pronounced sense of loneliness, created a profound, multi-layered and complex characterisation. He was ‘young at heart’ yet we were constantly reminded that the youthful persona was a façade that concealed strong feelings of guilt and rage. This was a haunted man, a disturbed man, provoked by the spectres of enemies past, the spirit of violence that rested within him. He consistently refused to arm himself, a symbolic cue of his own hypocrisies.

The Tenth Doctor, in my experience, conveyed an unprecedented growth and maturity of the show’s protagonist that was concurrently fascinating and heart-breaking to watch. Over time, he’d lost the woman he’d come to love, his best friend, and the only other Time Lord survivor had chosen to defy his desperate pleads, in a dying act of revenge. The character’s subsequent descent into darkness, resolute in his solitude, was mesmerising, almost terrifying, as he fully embraced his status as a Time Lord. He became self-righteous, arrogant; intoxicated by power. The lassitude he felt, at the suffering of innocent lives by the hands of evils, by Time itself, registered a moral lapse, stressing the necessity of a companion to serve as his conscience, to brighten his outlook on life.

With this context understood, The End of Time therefore represents, in part, a culmination of, as well as bringing closure to, the Tenth Doctor’s voyage of self-discovery. The story addresses an existential viewpoint of regeneration: the process of change is manifold. Whilst objectively, from the viewer’s perspective, the character is essentially the same man, with memories intact from one incarnation to another, subjectively, the Doctor associates regeneration with death: each incarnation, or persona, is a distinct individual, with their unique perceptions and identification within their world. Regeneration, therefore, would be the ultimate sense of loss this Doctor, in particular, could experience. (“Even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away. And I’m dead.”)

As The End of Time begins, Russell T Davies creates a suitably apocalyptic mood through Timothy Dalton’s portentous narration: “It is said that in the final days of planet Earth, everyone had bad dreams.” Within a tracking shot, Wilfred Mott, portrayed by the lovable Bernard Cribbins, is isolated from a crowd of late-night Christmas shoppers. He experiences a vision of the Master, laughing manically, the after-effect of time bleeding, foreshadowing the fate that awaits humanity. The technique of omniscient narration frames the inevitability of the story’s events: these events are spoken of in the past tense. Dramatic tension is created by the unfolding of these events.

Wilf is drawn to a church by a choir. He is framed with his back to a memorial dedicated to fallen soldiers of war. The End of Time becomes an endearing story about war and life-changing experiences of war, as focalised through the Doctor and Wilf’s bond; but also the loss and remembrance of loved ones.

The story is therefore the culmination of Davies’ contributions to the show, tying together loose ends. It is a testament to his talent for forging credible, heartrending bonds between characters and audience, as always to be viewed through a sci-fi ‘lens’ or thematic backdrop. The story encapsulates the show’s core morals of rebirth and regeneration. While the story is tinged with a patina of nostalgia (and it goes without saying that the Doctor’s final words probably expressed Davies’ own feelings) it reinforces the show’s central conceit, and welcomes the new.

As Wilf sets out to find the Doctor, the Doctor himself, desperate to defy the prophecy of his death, returns to Earth, pursuing the Master. The Master has been resurrected by his acolytes, the Cult of Saxon: essentially ciphers introduced to further the narrative and bring the two Time Lords together as quickly as possible. It’s unsurprising to see the Master at the command of fanatics, befitting his God complex: puppets to his grander design, the Master expressing his callous disregard for humanity, “a mongrel little species”. The Potions of Life would presumably have been devised by the Master, masquerading as religious iconography. A plot hole does exist when Lucy Saxon, brought out of her prison cell to witness the Master’s resurrection, suddenly reveals she has a counter-potion, declaring her intention to stop him: other off-screen events do happen (e.g. the Doctor equipping Donna with a ‘defence mechanism’) but not to the detriment of the overall narrative.

Lucy sabotages the Master’s resurrection, leaving him in an undead state (“This body was born out of death. All it can do is die”) with an insatiable hunger, justified by his accelerated metabolism, able to manipulate his life-force into lighting-blasts. The twenty-foot leaps are excessive. His resurrection is a double-edged sword: the irony in attempting to kill him makes him more powerful and dangerous than before. The physicality of power complements his dark, twisted intellect, a power that is slowly corrupting him, visualised through the skeletonising ‘flashes’. The Master’s portrayal within the story can be interpreted to mirror the character’s origins, as one half of a split personality, the antithesis to the Doctor’s rationality and altruism. Beneath the sosphisicated, debonair veneer, there lurks a vainglorious creature of a very savage malice, who wants to hurt and humiliate and vilify the Doctor. His voracious hunger, feral mood-swings, and bloodlust serve as an extension of that inner malice: it becomes a blood-sport of the human race almost. The Master, in a debauched, macabre fashion, later asserts his mastery and authority over the human race.

Using the Immortality Gate, the Master replicates himself six billion times, transforming humanity into his clones, subservient to the original Master. The Master Race does create blatant issues (what happens to pregnant women and newborns?). It’s a disturbing image, certainly, and emphasises the Master’s vanity. While it can be argued the crisis is easily resolved by Rassilon’s gauntlet, it is Time Lord technology, beyond our knowledge, and demonstrates that for all of the Master’s endeavours at ultimate victory, he’s just the instrument of the true puppet-master, trying to avert his own prophesised death.

I admire Davies for adding a layer of depth and complexity to the Master’s character, so he appears less of a cliché and more of a well-rounded character we can sympathise with. John Simm’s performance is beguiling. At the end of the day, both he and the Doctor are two old men, scared of dying, and all they have is each other. It’s a poignant relationship, strengthened by Davies’ lyrical dialogue. The story takes its time to analyse their relationship, the characters contemplating on their long, tumultuous history, without being explicit, thus retaining an air of mystery as to what sparked their vendetta: how did their childhood friendship fall apart?

As a story about giving closure to character-arcs, Davies expands on the rhythm within the Master’s head. It’s revealed that the Time Lords implanted the drumbeat in the Master as a child. They planned to use it as a tow-line to escape from the time-lock. In one of the story’s celebratory moments, the Master vengefully assaults Rassilon, sacrificing himself for the Doctor, defending him against Rassilon after the Doctor spares the Master’s life. The scene itself is an effective homage to The Final Game, and shows Davies’ appreciation for the show’s history.

Wilf catches up with the Doctor, and after an embarrassing photo with the Silver Cloak the two share a talk in a café. Wilf deliberately leads the Doctor to the café, hoping the Doctor can restore Donna’s memories, as her car is parked across the street, to the Doctor’s protestations. It’s a beautiful scene as the Doctor opens up to the emotions he has withheld. Wilf is an admirable character. It’s a testament to Davies’ characterisation and Cribbins’ performance that Wilf is one of the story’s highlights. It’s simple actions like his patriotic spirit, his concern for his granddaughter, and his ability to retain faith in the Doctor, even when delicately crestfallen by the Doctor rejecting his help, that solidify the character’s appeal.

Trapped on the Hesperus, belonging to the irritating but harmless Vinvocci, Wilf gleefully remarks he’s now an astronaut, while the Doctor busies himself with repairing the ship. Wilf contemplates if the interred have also been transformed into the Master, saying the Doctor isn’t to blame. Davies draws on Cribbins’ own wartime experiences to shape Wilf’s backstory. The surrogate father-son relationship between these two old men, both war-veterans, both proud of refusing to put a bullet in someone, is emotively written. The Doctor confesses (or perhaps humours Wilf) by stating humanity are like giants to him, a statement more befitting his own ancient ilk. It’s scenes like this when I admire Davies’ craftsmanship, skilfully transplanting the alien outsider’s feelings on a down-to-earth scale, succinctly conveying the Doctor’s platonic love for humanity through a single, powerful bond with an old man, also approaching the end of his life. Wilf insists the Doctor take his old revolver and kill the Master. “And that’s how the Master started,” the Doctor says, recognising the parallels between them as he addresses his own hypocrisies: “I’ve taken lives. Worse, I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own.”

Juxtaposed to the crisis on Earth, the Time Lords, on the Final Day of the Time War, led by Rassilon, since restored to his former glory as Lord President, are faced with doom-laden prophecies from the Visionary. Timothy Dalton gives a suitably grandiloquent performance as the man behind the legends that envisioned him as a Godlike hero-saviour, mixing hubris with the faintest uncertainty when challenging the Doctor’s loyalties. The urgency of the dilemma their return poses persuades the Doctor to arm himself – against the supreme evil. The portrayal of the Time Lords as an intrinsically decadent species had been highlighted within the Classic series. The logical conclusion is their portrayal within The End of Time, advocating Rassilon’s Final Sanction, itself denoting striking parallels with Davros’ Reality Bomb. This presents an ironic light on their supposed advanced status: time has finally taken its toll on their ancient, stagnated culture. (In comparison, the Daleks, namely the Cult of Skaro, evolved, to think like their enemies; to survive.) Their actions here elaborate upon and justify the Doctor’s fateful decision in the War: his loneliness extends from being forced to activate the Moment. It’s not unreasonable to assume (and The Forgotten confirms) that the Moment itself was a firearm. Indeed, the Doctor’s crucial actions in the War are mirrored in his moral dilemma here. Fortunately, his conscience is eased by the serendipitous presence of the enigmatic Woman: the Doctor realises he can shoot the Whitepoint Star instead, hurling the Time Lords back into “Hell”.

The two-way system behind the Nuclear Bolt chamber is an ingenious plot device. Wilf is trapped. He knocks four times, fulfilling the prophecy in a world-shattering moment for the briefly elated Doctor. He can only be freed by the Doctor sacrificing himself for Wilf. It’s a harrowing, intense scene as the Doctor rages against the cruelties of fate, David Tennant seizing the scene with gusto. Of course he won’t let Wilf die. Like the Fifth and Ninth Doctor’s regenerations, the Doctor, compassionately, dies to save a single human life, one that won’t live much longer. As the archetypal outsider hero that he is, the Doctor’s “reward” is to observe but never to be truly intimate with the human lives that have travelled with him, that have helped him. The Tenth Doctor thanks his companions – all of them; from his past selves – one last time. It’s bittersweet nostalgia, for writer and audience.

The End of Time is not without its negatives. The Doctor’s fall from the Hesperus has been criticised for its discontinuity (surely he wouldn’t have risked it if he didn’t know he would survive?). However these are minor conflicts that don’t disrupt my personal enjoyment of an extraordinary and memorable story.