Ranking the Finales of the Revived Series (Part 1)
Connor Johnston begins his countdown of the revival finales so far.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the airing of the Series 9 finale, which has given each and every one of us the opportunity to now reflect and reconsider not only the quality of the story itself, but also how it compares to the finales we’ve had in the past. Over the next couple of days, I’ll be ranking and exploring the various series conclusions we’ve been blessed with so far; before you – the DWTV community – will be given the chance to reflect and make a definitive ranking of your own.
Firstly, I’d just like to point out that I hold each of these finales, regardless of their ranking, in extremely high regard. Each concluding story has offered quite a distinct feeling of victory and fulfilment, leading to an overall appreciation of the episodes that preceded it. As such this week’s rankings proved increasingly difficult to order given how it was essentially attempting to order some of the strongest and most epic episodes the show has ever seen.
9. The Wedding of River Song (Series 6)
Starting off our countdown is Series 6’s “The Wedding of River Song”. The episode was the first time something as epic and monumental as a finale was tackled with the single story format, and it definitely had mixed results.
At its heart the episode is a variation on a love story, and I think personally it’s due to this unconventional genre that many people may seem put off by the episode. Unlike most finales there isn’t the scale of an invasion to bank on for drama, and essentially there really isn’t anyone filling the role of the villain or ‘big bad’ in the episode at all. The ‘issue’ that needs to be overcome is in fact the destruction of time itself – its vulnerability a product of River and Amelia’s insistence on not letting the Doctor die alone. As noble and romantic as the gesture is, it leaves one a little unconvinced as whether or not it’s worth risking the health of the universe to achieve. More importantly, given that it doesn’t contribute much to the overall resolution of the story, it means that the main body of the episode seems quite superficial in terms of narrative development.
To its merit the finale isn’t totally without joy, and though probably one of the weakest scripts amongst Moffat’s genius line up (it does face a lot of challenging competition) it is salvaged by the showrunner’s charm. Depicting a world where all of time occurs at once, the episode is swimming with ingenious concepts and realities. It’s a setting where Moffat lets his mind loose and pours out his wackiest and most charismatic ideas – from Winston Churchill as the Roman Emperor, the pyramids as an underground base for Area 52 and Charles Dickens penning the BBC1 Christmas special – there really is no limit to the creativity of the episode. Had the story been given a multi part duration I truly believe that the environment in which it exists could have been embraced more completely, offering more substance to propel the episode’s overall quality.
Amy, Rory and the Doctor are all given solid and rewarding roles to play, though demobilized from their own universe (and in Rory’s case his own memories) there’s only so much their presence can achieve. Benefiting the most from the episode in terms of character development and purpose however is its titular character, and as such one’s enjoyment and value of the episode tends to depend on their affections for River Song. Scared, vulnerable and most terrifyingly of all: in love, it is River’s emotions and intentions that not only drive the episode forward – but make it possible in the first place. The episode serves to be quite a defining point for River’s relationship with the Doctor, given that the events of the episode occur quite early on in River’s personal timeline. By the conclusion of the episode it’s very clear to see how the dynamic between the two travelers has evolved and become strong enough to sustain the relationship the couple has in their later (technically earlier from our point of view) adventures. It’s shown that there now exists a mutual understanding between the pair which forms the strong emotional resolution to the story.
Ultimately while it may be an episode strong enough to hold its merit, it isn’t nearly as ambitious as in needs to be in terms of narrative progression. “The Wedding of River Song” is driven by a set of stunning performances, ingenious concepts and a sound balance of action, emotion, horror and adrenaline. Its role in concluding the mystery of the Doctor’s death is admittedly a little grating, but remains well thought out and rewarding to a certain extent. Similarly it offers an effective conclusion to the Kovarian Chapter’s contributions to the ‘Silence will fall’ arc while offering a broad range of material to be touched upon later in the “Time of the Doctor”. In this way “The Wedding of River Song” almost feels like a bridging piece between 2 dramatic periods in the Eleventh Doctor’s Era rather than a moment of ‘event television’ itself. I love the finale… I really, really do – and despite its flaws I do believe it is criminally underrated. Regardless of how painful it is to admit however, I love all these other finales even more, and must still rank it at the bottom.
8. Army of Ghosts / Doomsday (Series 2)
I honestly believe that the Series 2 finale remains one of the most underrated and under-appreciated stories of the show’s history. While not always being renowned as the most consistent series in terms of quality, David Tennant’s first finale cannot be as easily faulted. Merging together Rose’s departure with a Dalek/Cyberman invasion of Earth, “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday” packs a real punch in both the quality of its narrative as well the epic nature of its components.
For the entire series we’d been teased with the existence and significance of Torchwood, the name mentioned in various conversations throughout the Tenth Doctor and Rose’s adventures. The realization and reveal of the institute is one that is refreshingly sinister and corporate – providing not only a center of assault for the Doctor – but an invaluable insight into how a world impacted by alien intervention has responded to otherworldly threats. The institute is of course headed by Yvonne Hartman who provides a twisted, if not a little deluded voice of authority to counter the Tenth Doctor for most of the first half. Her patriotism and sense of duty works as a strong point of character, overwhelming the Cyber programming and allowing her to fight against her attackers.
While individually not being as rewarding as the story requires, it is instead the combination of both the Daleks and the Cybermen that work to provide considerable threat to the episode. On one hand it does allow for a frankly hysterical dynamic between the pair – which though risking to cheapen the episode does wonders for its entertainment value. On the other, the presence of both invading races establishes a real sense of scale and danger due to both their reputations and the depiction of how outnumbered and helpless the human race is. The resolution to the episode and the threat is extremely rewarding. Its fast pace and intensity provides for quite an epic and remarkably clever conclusion. Like all great finales, it sources its logic and explanation from the series it concludes – using the void between alternate universes first explored in the “Age of Steel” two parter to defeat both races and save the earth.
The brunt of the episode’s success comes from its emotional impact through the departure of well-loved companion, Rose Tyler. Rose acts with a sense of purpose and passion; and with a script catered to showcase her evolution through her journeys with the Doctor, it’s difficult for Piper to put a step in the wrong direction. Throughout the entire two-parter, there is an undoubted sense of forthcoming death throughout the plot, but the payoff, while in some ways rewarding due to Rose’s survival, is in other ways is even more distressing as we watch the Doctor-Rose duo face the most permanent of separations… Or so we thought. This leads to the extremely moving final scene where the Doctor finds a way to communicate with Rose by burning up a star and projecting himself onto Bad Wolf Bay. It’s extremely genuine and heartfelt and you really couldn’t ask for a better way to say goodbye.
While “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday” may not be the most remarkable and overwhelming finale in the show’s history, it is still a textbook definition of solid and confident storytelling. The narrative is not over complicated and the absence of any logical flaws remain quite appealing, as too is its ability to end the series on an epic bang. It achieves the perfect balance of emotion, comedy, adventure and action – and presents (at the time at least) one of the most definitive* and heartbreaking farewells to a companion who remains crucial in relaunching Doctor Who for a modern day audience.
(* – if only.)
7. The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End (Series 4)
Next on our list is the glutinous Series 4 finale: “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”. Among the fandom, there is some uncertainty as to whether or not “Turn Left” is considered part of the finale due to the fact that from the Doctor and Donna’s point of view they lead directly into each other. For the purposes of today’s retrospect I’ve decided to agree with the centre of authority; Russell T Davies, who has in the past described the episode as a prelude to the finale rather than part of it.
On one hand, “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End” remain one of the most amusing and nostalgic stories of all time, featuring the return of essentially every reoccurring character and companion of the David Tennant era, ranging from Harriet Jones to Wilfred Mott, and everyone in between. It’s invaluable in depicting the impact and influence of the Ten’s Era, and more so the lives the Doctor has touched. The plot is driven by the strength that travelling with the Doctor has instilled in his companions, the men and women who are prepared to risk everything to save the world – The heroes he leaves in his wake. This dynamic culminates in one of the most poignant and moving scenes of all time, watching all of the Doctor’s friends come together in victory to pilot the TARDIS. The epic nature of the two parter is perhaps its greatest strength, with the scale and impact of the Dalek attack being without equal when it comes to earth invasions over the years.
Unfortunately it’s the story’s ambition that is proves to be its worst enemy. Possibly the most controversial and frowned upon choices of the episode is the return of Rose Tyler following her ‘ultimate demise’ 2 years earlier. Personally, I love the character of Rose – flaws and all – so my reception of her involvement in the finale isn’t a product of my personal feelings towards the character… in fact it’s quite the opposite! Aside from ruining the tragic and profound nature of her original exit, Rose’s role in the finale is completely superficial in the way she really contributes next to nothing in the way of narrative progression. In “Turn Left” we see the strength of Rose’s character and the extent of her development in becoming such an independent Doctor-like personality herself – and it’s brilliant. Conversely in “The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End” Rose’s role is reduced to running around trying to find the Doctor and being kept as a prisoner, before being brushed off in one of the most bitter and unrewarding ways possible by the man she worked for years to find her way back to. Yes, it is subtly poetic that she offered the chance to heal the soul of the Meta-Crisis Doctor in how it shows the high esteem and respect the Doctor has for Rose – but it’s an end that in no way matches the emotional circumstances of her original exit and is nowhere near as powerful, nor what the character deserves.
The finale’s main problem is that is moves so flippantly between the epic and the ridiculous that it’s difficult to have a solid grasp on the episode and in turn a sound appreciation for it. This is seen most clearly in the rushed and weightless resolution to the Dalek threat that is branded and executed to be such an inescapable and epic force… but is then deflated by some fancy typing. The Doctor-Donna itself is an ingenious concept, which provides a heartbreaking and memorable end for such an iconic companion (Again challenged by future returns) – though I’d only wish that the concept had been given a script that would have extended and developed it further. The defeat of Davros and the Daleks leaves one with the hint of a sour taste in its mouth – which the episode almost recognises in its haste to distract us with farewells and fanfare. In the conclusion of a finale we really should expect more.
In saying all that, the episode quite rightly has its fans… and I’d like to consider myself one them. Tonally the finale may just be one of the most watchable episodes of all time – bridging on humour and action to capture the audience’s enthusiasm and enjoyment while still embodying enough character development and arc prominence to cement its place at the closure of the series. “Journey’s End” is like the vortex manipulator of Doctor Who episodes; it’s cheap, nasty and puts fan service before a strong plot – but in the cheekiest, most energetic and pleasurable way possible. It’s an unapologetic nostalgia fest which is what we all need every-so-often, which to its credit doesn’t omit moments of poignant beauty and heartbreak in the process.
6. The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (Series 3)
The Series 3 finale is one that I always find a little difficult to rank among its counterparts for a number of reasons – and as such my own affection for it seems to almost stir with the season.
Similarly to the previous finale, there is some uncertainty as to whether or not “Utopia” is considered part of the selected story given its strong narrative and direct cliffhanger connection. For today’s countdown, again I’ve decided to side with past showrunner Russell T Davies who has maintained that he regards “Utopia” as a separate story.
The main selling point of the episode is of course the return of the Master in his newly regenerated form. Establishing the Master as the Prime Minister of Great Britain proves to be an ingenious move in granting the villain both a right to power and authority to impose dominance over the story immediately. Simm’s portrayal of the Master is menacing, comedic and proves instrumental in introducing such a classic character to a modern day audience. Aside from the Master, the threat of the Toclafane are similarly intimidating, wreaking unending havoc of the earth and its population. Of course the real worth of the Toclafane come hand in hand with a chilling revelation of their origins in humanity, their terror sustained and made possible by a paradox machine.
Once again (for the third time this series) it’s the story’s major resolution that risks spoiling such a profound and adrenaline-filled pair of episodes. Yes, the archangel network establishing a physic link over the entire universe makes a tremendous amount of sense – and of course is possibly the most comprehensively established solution bar none with its explanation spanning across the entire series – but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. The main problem I have with the episode’s conclusion is the execution – in that it builds up to such an epic and gut-wrenching climax – before reverting to a floating-telepathic-space-messiah. Of course the sentiment of the entire world united in respect for the Doctor, and his ultimate victory being a product of humanity’s strength is quite touching – but it just doesn’t work as well as it should.
In saying all this however, the story’s saving grace comes in the form of the criminally underrated and impressive portrayal of Martha Jones by Freema Agyeman – who definitely makes the most of the last episode in her initial run as companion. I’ll unapologetically proclaim that Martha is without a doubt one of my favorite companions of the show’s history, and no doubt her role in the finale is one of the most impressive moments in her time aboard the TARDIS. Throughout the two parter Martha’s faith and strength is challenged repeatedly as she loses both her family and the Doctor to the Master’s fury and travels alone for a year across the globe – witnessing death and devastation wherever she goes – maintaining both her sense of self assurance and trust in the Doctor. Martha Jones is the hero that is too often ignored, finding a purpose in life separate to her time with the Doctor and understanding that to devote herself to the people she loves, she has to leave his side. It’s a triumphant and fitting end to a stunning journey for Martha, and one that will not soon be forgotten.
Despite the fact that it struggles in constructing a fully sound and impressive narrative – the finale to David Tennant’s third series remains one that ticks a lot of boxes in creating properly entertaining television. The finale is embedded with an undying sense of consequence and danger as well as some sensational character development, bringing an end a memorable series with a great thrust of adventure.
5. Dark Water / Death In Heaven (Series 8)
Rounding out our top 5 today is Peter Capaldi’s first finale: Series Eight’s “Dark Water / Death in Heaven”. The finale may be unconventionally intimate in both its motivation and execution compared to its counterparts, but it still embodies a strong sense of action and horror to cement itself as one of the stronger conclusions to a series that we’ve ever seen.
A common feature in most of Moffat’s finales is its focus on a character’s personal development and arc – and the Series 8 finale is no different. This is especially apparent for Clara and Danny, who both undergo quite a traumatic journey together throughout the episode – but applies to no one as strongly as it does to the Doctor. The episode serves to be a measure in understanding his own morality – facing the challenges of Clara’s betrayal, Danny’s death and Missy’s gift he still holds true to his core principals. Much of the episode’s focus was upon whether the Doctor was a good man. The ultimate answer to the question was that it doesn’t actually matter, he tries to be and he helps where he can – which is at the end of the day enough to judge his character on.
What drives the two parter is an array of stunning performances by arguably one of the strongest line-ups of talent a finale has ever seen. Providing the menace and threat to the episode was of course Michelle Gomez’s Missy – an incarnation of the Master that has since become easily one of the most iconic and loved characters of the revived series. She brought so much intensity, complexity and most of all insanity in a whole new way without decreasing the effect that John Simm, Roger Delgado or any of her predecessors had before her. There is a perfect balance of comedy, class and horror to her portrayal. She exudes villainous energy, and is clearly having a great deal of fun with the role. From adapting the lyrics of Toni Basil’s 1982 hit ‘Mickey’ to make a funny moment, to showing her hunger to kill everyone the Doctor considers a friend, Gomez was just an absolute blast in the two parter – setting herself a benchmark that she easily meets in her latter appearances.
The resolution to the finale; including the revelations regarding Missy’s true motivation, the Cybermen’s defeat and the conclusion to ongoing character arcs; is to me one of the most rewarding and perfectly paced resolution any Doctor Who finale has ever had: and that’s an achievement that isn’t rewarded lightly. Missy’s motivation is sweetly sinister and seamlessly connects the themes and developments of the “Am I a Good Man?” arc. The resolution and defeat of the Cybermen is inspired: It’s full of heart, logic, a killer atmosphere and just reeks of invested and unexpected storytelling.
Danny’s speech to the dead induces chills and goosebumps: the music, performance and themes of the scene build it to a stunningly epic crescendo. It’s here that the script presents a character defining piece for Mr Pink – a character we’ve learnt to admire and trust throughout the entire series. The brilliance of the ending is that it reminds us that ‘love’ isn’t just used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, but is recognized as a crucial element in the fabric of our lives. Love is what drives us, what separates and defines us away from Cybermen and something so crucial to our humanity and identity should not ever be underestimated. The message that “Love is more than an emotion, it’s a promise” is equally as powerful and rewarding as any timey-wimey or deus-ex-machina resolutions of finales past. It’s an ending that not only does justice to Danny’s character, but also does justice to an impressive run of episodes that preceded it.
Funnily enough, “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” viewed in hindsight seems to be a warm-up for Peter Capaldi’s second series in terms of the material it attempts to tackle. The two parter shares a common set of ingredients with most of the new series: A strong focus on its characters, ambitious narrative and most importantly a darker more grittier way of storytelling. While it may pale against some of the latter work of Capaldi’s Doctor – it still remains one of his first series’ standout moments that manages to pave the way for future successes and round up one of the most stylised arcs of the revived era, while still showing enough solo ambition in tacking some of the darkest and most disturbing subject matter the show ever has.
Join me tomorrow for the final four finales, as well as the chance to cast your own vote.