‘The Time War ends.’ Had the revival series failed and this became the new Survival it would be a worthy enough end: the last day of the Time War, the conflict that’s hung over this season and particularly this episode. Without having to show it, the Doctor’s ultimate decision – press a button and destroy Dalek and human alike – is clearly meant to be a replay of the fall of Gallifrey (and it’s no surprise that when we eventually see this it’s the Eccleston understudy agonising over pressing a big red button). The Doctor even says, ‘That’s the decision I’ve got to make for every living thing.’ The difference is, this time he has a god in his time machine more powerful even than the God of All Daleks, the ultimate end point of a series where he’s inspired others to save the day. You could imagine the series closing with Rose resurrecting Jack, the Doctor saving Rose, and then, with one small amendment, the three of them zooming off to cold tea and rivers made of song.
Luckily, though, the revival was a massive success so the only thing this needs to wrap up is Christopher Eccleston’s contribution to the show. Wisely, I think, RTD opts to largely keep him as the still centre of the story, broodily rewiring while Jack dashes about organising humankind’s last stand and Rose desperately tries to get back to the future. He’s in no way marginalised, he gets one last moment of cheesy-grin bombast as he confronts the Dalek God onboard the imperial saucer, rejects his previous choice to destroy a world to end a war, instead sacrificing himself to save the woman he loves. It’s one of the stronger last episodes: the regeneration is a capstone, rather than the focus of the plot. You could have ended this without it, but it feels right: the Doctor ‘born in battle, full of blood and anger and revenge’ has chosen a different path and can be reborn.
This is great for Rose as well. After Jack’s ‘It’s been fun’, the Doctor fulfilling his promise to Jackie and sending her home when all is lost is the biggest indication that not everyone will survive. But even 199,000 years can’t keep Rose away. RTD makes Rose typically selfish and brutal as she dismisses Mickey’s suggestion that they could have a life together. I love the sequence in the café and then the Powell Estate, and Rose’s insistence that ‘It’s now, that fight is happening right now’, and that she can’t just ignore things that are happening a long way away. It’s another example of RTD’s ability to connect the domestic and the cosmic, and Rose’s ability to mobilise Mickey and her mother to unlock the heart of the TARDIS plays as the counterpoint to Jack’s struggle on Satellite Five and is given equal weight. Mickey and Jackie aren’t comic foils. Mickey finally realises where he stands, and that Rose and the Doctor have to be together. Jackie reconciles herself to it, acknowledging the Doctor has done the right thing in sending Rose home, but that Rose can make her own choices.
Rose’s transformation into the Bad Wolf, able to see all of time and space and rewrite it with a word, is glorious. I love the way the Doctor falls back as she emerges from the TARDIS. I like that this choice itself comes with a consequence, by becoming the Bad Wolf Rose saves the world but loses her Doctor, which stops the ending from becoming glib. RTD includes a similar cost in all his subsequent finales: the walls closing in Doomsday; the Master’s death and Martha’s departure, and Donna’s mind wipe. It works better than just changing history and giving everyone a happy ending.
RTD includes his usual light topicality with the religious fundamentalist Daleks that have harvested the prisoners, the refugees and the dispossessed, exactly the people most human extremists prey on. Obviously, this means the Daleks have been driven mad because they’re half-human (if the Emperor is God the Father, then presumably on their mothers’ sides: the TV Movie joke – ‘those words are blasphemy’ – is extremely funny). And the incidentals are great: Rose giving Lynda a jealous little look; Rodrick dies demanding money; Lynda’s silent extermination; Jack’s last-ditch attempt to buy the Doctor time. The direction includes iconic moments from the old show with a fresh look: the Dalek shadow on the wall before it appears, and RTD includes the old favourites: the Dalek with a cutting torch and one whose vision is impaired.
This isn’t quite the best episode of the series (I think The Doctor Dances trumps it). I’m not even convinced it’s the best RTD finale, but I think it’s the one that feels most like the natural conclusion to what’s gone before. Series One has a completeness to it that’s pretty rare – maybe only the Key to Time and Season 18 have quite the same sense of telling you a story from start to finish. And it does it without any overt “arc” (Bad Wolf doesn’t count), but by following the characters, their choices and the consequences. It’s a bit gauche to declare it the best 21st century series, but, for me, it’s the one that is the most special.
Next Time: Children in Need