‘This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.’ The cliffhanger resolution sets the tone for the episode. The Doctor regenerating into himself is a neat trick that cleverly avoids having to deliver on the implication of the previous episode. And all the way through, RTD pulls off similar feints: ‘Everlasting death for the most faithful companion’ becomes “Donna gets a mind wipe”; Rose is reunited with the Doctor forever – except it’s a meta-crisis duplicate. The Children of Time come together at the end, only to stand around and watch while the Doctor/Donna saves the day. There’s something vaguely unsatisfactory about this – not exactly the audience being cheated, but being given less than expected.
I think the big problem with this is that there are two equally important stories at play: the Doctor reunited with Rose, and Donna’s departure. If this had focused on the former, the natural endpoint to Rose’s story would have seen her trapped inside the TARDIS, creating the meta-crisis Doctor and paying off Jackie’s observation that she was becoming increasingly Doctor-like by becoming the Doctor/Rose. This might have made her remaining with the Rose/Doctor in the parallel universe a bit less creepy and weird – the two of them belong together, have grown together rather than being thrown together right at the end of the episode. Rose could even plausibly choose this version as her soulmate, rather than feeling cheated because she’s being palmed off with second-best.
Instead, Donna has to fulfil a plot that seemed more suited to Rose, and gets rewarded by a mind-wipe even more thorough than the Time Lords inflicted on Jamie and Zoe, while the Doctor fobs off Rose with a half-human Donna/Doctor (Jackie should really have asked, ‘What else has he only got one of?’) because it’s a handy way of killing two birds with one stone. Donna’s departure is tragic because it’s so wrong – pleading with the Doctor as he robs her of her experiences.
Meanwhile, after a bit of inconsequential business about Osterhagen Keys and Warp Stars everyone else stands around waiting for the end, just like in The Five Doctors when the Brigadier, Tegan and Sarah Jane mill about awkwardly as the three Doctors decipher the ancient runes of Rassilon. Davros, taking a leaf out of Emperor Palpatine’s book, malevolently gloats; the Doctor looks a bit stricken; the Donna/Doctor’s bafflegab gun gets zapped but the Doctor/Donna does some other bafflegab and it’s all sorted.
The real pleasure of this episode is in the incidentals; the character moments that work so beautifully because RTD has made us care about these people. Mickey and Jackie returning so all the new series companions are present. Davros recognising Sarah Jane from Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor and Rose recognising Gwen’s heritage. Rose praising Martha’s determination and giving her a hug. Freema’s smile to camera as the Earth is towed home. The Doctor, Wilf and Sylvia confronting some home truths. Davros calling Rose, ‘Miss Tyler’ is lovely – it makes him sound like an old school villain, like the Master always called Jo ‘Miss Grant’.
This is why, in the end, the episode is both a success and a failure. It’s a success because it’s an hour spent in the company of characters we love, so it doesn’t matter very much that a lot of what they do is stand about chatting. It’s a failure because we do care about them, and it rankles when the pay-off to their stories is the Doctor telling Martha off, dumping Rose with his half-Donna duplicate, and reverting Donna to factory settings. I hate it. It’s evil. It’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death.
Next Time: Music of the Spheres