The End of Time Part One
Voice: It is said that in the final days of planet Earth, everyone had bad dreams.
Episode star rating:***** (out of a possible five)
It is said that in the first decade of the 21st Century, the BBC of Earth celebrated Christmas with a Special of their top (SF) drama – though what is Christmas and what is SF?
What is Christmas? The pre-credits scene gives us a definition for Christmas from Ominous Voiceover Man – “the celebration of a pagan rite to banish the cold and the dark”. Through the Christmas cold strolls Wilf (companion Donna’s grandad) and, despite being “not one for churches”, is drawn to a church – where a Mysterious Woman tells of the Legend of the Blue Box. “Perhaps he’s coming back?” she suggests. Wilf – “That would make my Christmas”. Cue Master-bad-dream-cackle and credits…
What is SF? What is Science Fiction really? A satisfactory definition that covers all SF novels, TV, and so on is difficult, however the question was answered by Margaret Atwood (in the context of denying her SF novels were SF) – SF is “talking squids in outer space.” By this definition, this episode is certainly Science Fiction. The light and breezy after-credits scene where Ten waffles to talking space squid Ood Sigma was a surprising shift in tone from the preceding grim urgency of the cliffhanger of The Waters of Mars (however the tone shifts again to the main tone of darkness and doom of this Special soon enough).
In a nutshell, while Ten has been counting himself a king of fun in infinite space, the Ood have been having bad dreams.
The tradition of the last three years of DW Christmas Specials has been (after the initial one) to have a “stand-alone” story not particularly tied to any continuity of a previous season – however this year’s centrepiece of the BBC Christmas Day schedule is a continuity-celebrating sequel to the 2007 season finale (which gets recapped by the Doctor for the Ood here – and the audience). The Ood chastise the Lonely God for thinking he had all the time in the world with his TARDIS.
Meanwhile the cast of Prisoner: Cell Block H are worshipping a darker deity…
What is SF? Well, SF can include things that look like magic, like the obelisks of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 – Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd law is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (it still has to make some sort of plausible sense in the story though).
So this occult resurrection functions on two levels – as a magic rite to bring forth (rather than banish, like the pagan Christmas) and as SF – with the ingredient of the Widow’s Kiss both a mystic symbol and something the CSI-literate audience would recognize as an “imprint” of DNA, a “biometrical signature”. A great scene.
“Never never nuh never never – never dying. Never! dying! Never dying never dying never dying!”
The Master is always coming back to life (never dying), though never quite in the “normal” Time Lord way.
Whether grappling with the Eye of Harmony, or howling at the moon with glinting fangs from the Cheetah planet, or as some sort of jelly-snake, his returns to the programme are always warped in some way. So the Master has returned. As the three actors featured in the opening credits suggest, this is a story of three men. A simple, sparse, almost skeletal plot.
The Master is resurrected, and is captured by a guy to fix his alien machine, which the Master uses for his own ends.
Wilf and the Doctor are caught up in all of this, warned of something ominous by the Mystery Woman and the Ood respectively.
This fairly minimal plot allows, after the intro of the omens and the resurrection, three magnificent scenes, dark and dialogue-heavy, before the wild images of the last 15 minutes of the story. After the “Silver Cloak” is introduced by Wilf, the core of the story: these three scenes. Just before the Master demonstrates the latest manifestation of a warped resurrection (the hoodie and crackling skeleton surely a callback to the hooded skeletal Master of The Deadly Assassin), there is poetry from him:
Want cheese and chips
and meat and gravy
and cream and beer
and pork and beef and fat
and great big chunks of hot wet red.
These words of feasting seem like a warped mirror to the festive feasting of Christmastime, appropriate though unsettling for a TV audience which quite probably has been feasting earlier that day. After a particularly kinetic scene of the hungry Master, there is the clang of the steel drum, the sound of a drum, the Master calling the Doctor, who can smell the presence of another Time Lord; a primal howl across a wasteland.
“Please let me help, you’re burning up your own lifeforce!”
After some brief comic relief from Wilf’s team the “Silver Cloak”, there is a quiet scene between two old men: the Doctor and Wilf in the cafe. A beautifully played scene from the two actors. There is the revelation that the Doctor really has been always dying each time a “new man walks away”, he really does regard it as dying, which recasts the previous regeneration DW stories in a different, more tragic, light.
After another contribution from Ominous Voiceover Man at the halfway point, there is the third of these trio of scenes. There is the contrast of the mercurial Master, the contrast of excited glee with the weariness of the Doctor – the man who is “never dying, never dying” contrasted with the man who is always dying.
Some more poetry from the Master as the parallel with Christmas feasting is made explicit:
All that roasting meat
cakes and red wine
hot, fat, blood, pots, plates
meat, flesh, grease, juice…
Now it’s the Master’s turn to recall Gallifrey, he reminds the Doctor of “pastures of red grass” – “We used to run across those fields all day, calling up at the sky, look at us now”. In an image similar to those “sharing thoughts” scenes of previous Tenth Doctor stories, the Master shares the sound of drums – and the Doctor realises the drums are real, with horror.
Those three scenes are some of the best written there have been these past 5 years of the programme – with Simm and Cribbins and Tennant playing them superbly. The final scenes of the episode are some of the most wildly bizarre (in a good way). Before those final wild 15 minutes, there is the transition between Ten doing this alone and gathering up Wilf as companion, with a poignant scene from Donna (and more of the Mysterious Woman), and some green cactus aliens (which, like the brief “Hello Ood Sigma” and Silver Cloak scenes, serve as some light relief in this dark and doom-laden Christmas Special).
As President Obama prepares to broadcast his plans to transform the world on TV, the Master has a different plan to transform the world as he seizes the opportunity of the alien machine.
The Master – “Now look at me now!”
The Doctor’s plaintive cry in the previous Master story was “The Master is Prime Minister of Great Britain!” Now the Master is the US President, everyone at the press conference… everyone in the world. Bizarre and grimly hilarious scenes as multitudes of the blond nero crop of hair and cackling visage fill the TV screen.
That’s not the real cliffhanger though – which is the reveal of who exactly Timothy Dalton’s character has been describing this tale to!
So as the Doctor contemplates one horde, the masses of Masters, the audience knows of another horde, one the Doctor is unaware of as yet.
The next episode then, two men, the Doctor and Wilf, against the two teeming hordes of two planets – a suitably epic end to 5 years of stories…
(The End of Time Part One iplayer)