‘I don’t wanna go.’ The theme of avoiding fate continues as Rassilon declares, ‘I will not die!’ and plots to bring about the end of the universe, to escape Time War and be ‘free of time, and cause and effect.’ Essentially, he wants to escape the consequences of his actions (which include causing the Master’s lifelong madness and, indirectly, countless deaths and the destruction of a fair chunk of the universe in Logopolis), the ultimate shirking of responsibility. This is all leading up to the key scene of Tennant’s finale: the Doctor, raging against the unfairness of the destiny he’s now trapped in, ultimately accepting he’s ‘lived too long’ and choosing to save Wilf before taking responsibility for checking in on all of those whose lives he’s affected – saving Mickey, Martha and Luke, giving Donna and Jack some joy, and seeing whether Joan Redfern’s life turned out well.
This through line works, I think. There’s a sense of just desserts as the Master turns on the instigator of his madness, Naismith gets locked up for his crimes (‘undisclosed’, because we didn’t really see any), and the Doctor gets to see Rose one last time, right at the end, once he’s made sure everyone else is safe. It also works to have held back Gallifrey and the Time Lords for this one, last episode. Making the Lord President Rassilon, not just a Time Lord but the first of the Time Lords, was a great idea, for long-time fans it’s a neat call-back to the idea that he never died. Casting Dalton was genius: he plays the role with Richard Burtonish gravitas and bottled fury, and a lot of spit (this is a very spitty story in general – even Matt Smith manages to get a massive gob in).
There is majesty not just in Dalton’s performance, but the effects – the ruins of Gallifrey; the spaceship racing back to Earth; the explosive regeneration. And the script has quiet moments that zing, particularly the Doctor’s early scenes with the Master, replaying the Pertwee/Delgado dynamic and the idea you don’t have to rule the universe, just see it. Tennant’s reflective moments with Wilf onboard a powered-down spaceship, a setting that suggests RTD’s original concept of a much more intimate regeneration episode with the Doctor and a shipwrecked family. Some of the tableaux look stunning; there’s a particular shot of Tennant holding a gun that feels like a reference to the fifth Doctor comic The Moderator.
So, this gets a lot right – particularly the end of an era tone, and the sense of this being a summary of the show since its return. Not just cast members, but ideas and themes: the fall of the Time Lords was established way back in The End of the World; the Master’s madness in The Sound of Drums; the Oods’ song from Planet of the Ood. The presence of Sarah Jane and Jack connect this across the whole ecosystem of Doctor Who related series. The only classic episode really like it is Planet of the Spiders, which only managed to include Jo as noises off.
And like Planet of the Spiders, this has things that don’t work. Most troublingly, this includes the bulk of the climax. RTD has always had a tendency for a Big Red Button that can resolve a lot of the plot. Here, it’s the white-point star diamond which exists only so the Doctor doesn’t have to choose to shoot either the Master or Rassilon. Worse, the climax largely consists of the Doctor going back and forth between pointing a gun at Rassilon or the Master while they both stand there like lemons even when they’ve got ample opportunity to run away (or attack) when the Doctor’s turned his back. Then, just when it looks like all this has worked out, Wilf gets locked in the most stupidly designed control booth ever, at the same time the nuclear bolt has overloaded, the controls have fused and the sonic screwdriver can’t be used. The level of contrivance is staggering, and it only works at all because Tennant and Cribbins’ performances distract from the dullness. And what was the mystery woman’s plan? Was it to get the Doctor to carry a gun when he ‘never would’?
My teeth grind thinking about this, even when overall I think the whole thing manages to tick the right boxes. There’s the right level of emotion around the tenth Doctor, the most beloved since Tom Baker, leaving. It’s always Lis Sladen’s cameo that hits me hardest: the way she plays it like Sarah Jane knows exactly why the Doctor is there, having seen this happen before. I’m not a huge fan of ‘I don’t wanna go’ as it seems to me to actively work against the message of the story, about accepting when your time is up. But this slight misstep is immediately erased by Matt Smith’s explosive arrival, instantly and rightly making us look forward to what’s to come. This song is ended, but the story never ends.
Next Time: The Eleventh Hour