The End of Time: In Perspective
Guest contributor Mark McCullough looks back on the last Christmas regeneration.
As The Time of the Doctor approaches, we face our second seasonal regeneration. The Christmas cheer will turn to sorrow as we bid farewell to the current incarnation of the Doctor played by Matt Smith. The gift of a new Doctor will ease the loss slightly (there’s only so much Peter Capaldi can do), so come 7:30pm on Christmas Day, the hearts of the nation will be ready to break as the man who has endeared himself to them. Regeneration at Christmas time may seem out of place, but it has happened before, in The End of Time, by Russell T Davies.
I can still vividly remember watching this episode in 2009 and the agonising wait until the second part was shown, it was only six days, but it felt like a year. The return of the Time Lords (along with the Master) was as good a Christmas present as I could have hoped for, and it was a stroke of genius to leave their role ambiguous between the episodes. At the time, I found this story to be rather average, albeit with a solid rating. Since then I have re-watched it several times, and it has made its claim as my favourite episode of all time.
It was only natural then that I was slightly worried that the events of The Day of the Doctor would sway my perceptions of the episode. Thankfully it had very little effect, probably due to the fact I liked the episode so much already. But I suspect that if you have an issue with the episode, particularly with the Doctor’s final line, Steven Moffat may have done you a favour, by offering you yet another interpretation of events within the episode.
Fundamentally The End of Time is a Christmas special. This is evident with the inclusion of: carol singing, Christmas presents, churches and general Christmas cheer. These are all superficial elements, but when you look a little deeper, some more themes emerge. When we think of Christmas the things that immediately come to mind are: presents, family gatherings, happy times and fond memories. Many refer to it as the most wonderful time of the year. But it isn’t always the case, for some Christmas is a horrible time, one where they reach new depths of loneliness and despair. For those without hope or company, Christmas is a time they wish would pass them by. A good Christmas story should encompass both elements, something The End of Time: Part 1 does quite well with its juxtaposition of the experiences of Wilf and the Doctor. We see the joyful side with the Noble family on Christmas morning exchanging gift and the general high spirits. The Doctor shows us the other side of the coin. Have you ever visited someone who lives on their own, seeing that they are that glad to talk to someone they know, that they just let out everything that worries them? I see the café scene a little like that; it’s one I find impossible to watch without a tissue as I am overcome with a sense of pity as the Doctor talks about his impending doom.
“I can still die. If I’m killed before regeneration, then I’m dead. Even then. Even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away. And I’m dead.”
Another observation I picked up on while watching recently was Wilfred’s role in the narrative; did he do more for the Doctor than ever met the eye? Looking at the book Donna gifts him for Christmas; I find the title intriguing: Fight the Future. On its own it doesn’t mean a lot but along with the message given to him by the Woman (“Tell the Doctor nothing of this. His life could still be saved, so long as you tell him nothing.”), it is possible that the future which Wilf was fighting was the Doctor’s. It may be a bit of a stretch, but given that Donna subconsciously picked it out think of him, maybe it’s not too much of a leap to connect it with the Doctor-Donna. It becomes evident later in the episode that Wilf’s gun is used to stop the Time Lords, so perhaps the Doctor had a different destiny, one that Wilf saved him from.
This brings me nicely to the point of how I view the episode: I genuinely get the impression that the Doctor is convinced he is going to die for real, no regeneration and no future. It may not have been Davies’ intention when he penned the script, but he left it open enough that you can take several interpretations of the narrative. What I like about the proper death idea is the extra poignancy it gives to some of the scenes particularly the dialogues between the Doctor and Wilf. Going back to the café scene, the Doctor reflections on what regeneration means to him, but when the Doctor mentions a new man walking away, I get the impression it is a sort of false hope; a façade, the best possible outcome. I feel that deep down; he fears that isn’t even an option.
“I’d be honoured, if you were my Dad”
For an episode which has so much going for it – scale, direction, scores and a firm placement in the real world (use of Barack Obama and the Financial Crisis) – it’s a real testament to Davies’ writing and the acting of both Bernard Cribbins and David Tennant that the standout part of the two episodes was the relationship between the pair. The scene on the Vinvocci spaceship where the two soldiers shared their stories was a real heart-warming moment which gave us a rare insight into the Doctor, one where we see him reflect upon himself and how his past has caught up to him.
The big surprise of the episode came with the four knocks; I would suspect most of us were surprised at that. With the belief that the Doctor had somehow escaped his fate, the Time Lords defeated and the Master gone, we thought for a moment that we had been played. Alas, it was too good to be true, as Wilf broke our hearts. What happened next had even more of an impact, when we see the Doctor take out his temper on Wilf. On first viewing it’s shocking, but once you get your head around it, you can actually appreciate it as something else. The bond that has been established between the war veterans is shattered in a moment: one of them has to die. The Doctor is faced with the impossible decision, while Wilf is left helpless. The natural reaction to a difficult situation is anger, so the Doctor’s anger is not just excusable, but understandable, this especially shows in how quickly he accepts it, saying it would be his honour to die in Wilf’s place.
“To get my reward.”
The final scenes are perhaps some of the most divisive in the series since its revival. The companion tour appears as oddly self-serving, yet it can be interpreted as a lonely man not wanting to be alone when he dies. I don’t feel it was something that he had ever planned to do; rather the effect of the radiation was slower than he expected and he used the opportunity to revisit old friends. As a fan these scenes were particularly exciting, since they allowed me to see some of my favourite companions again. Probably the most touching of all was the scene with Verity Newman, a scene which links this story to the one which rivals it for my top spot.
Rose’s inclusion was a fantastic idea, bringing the Doctor’s story full circle without being clichéd. This left only the regeneration, something I’ve seen a lot of complaints about. “I don’t want to go”, who’d have thought five little words could be so divisive? I suppose it’s all in how you interpret what regeneration is, which in turn stems back to how you define a person. Having seen Matt’s wonderful take on the Doctor and comparing it to Tennant’s equally as good, but strikingly different take, I’m comfortable with the idea of them being the same man, but different people. This holds true to what was discussed in the café earlier. Put in a real world context, the words become even more poignant as they are the last worlds written by Davies and the last words performed by Tennant, in their respective roles on the show. A fitting tribute to two men who ensured we have a show to watch today, awaiting the next regeneration.
There is so much I love about this episode, a lot of which I haven’t covered in this article. By no means is the episode perfect. It suffers at times from being a little over the top, especially relating to the Master, giving him superpowers and having him impose his image onto everyone on the planet; while the Doctor’s fall from the Vinvocci ship stretches plausibility. But perfection is impossible to achieve, so it would be unfair to expect it. This episode does enough that it’s the closest for me. I’ll say now that if Matt’s swansong comes anywhere near this episode, I’ll be one seriously happy fan.