“Ladies and Gentlemen, Christmas is cancelled. Prepare the Gate!” Christmas is indeed cancelled for this Christmas special, which is actually a two-parter so is only 50% Christmas special anyway. Apart from a few irrelevant references thrown in there is not much in the way of festive goings on. Naismith’s line draws attention to the issue in a “yes, we know, get over it” manner which works just fine. We have to have this approach to Christmas every few years, simply as an offshoot of the pattern of broadcasting that Doctor Who follows, with runs of three seasons (give or take) for each Doctor, followed by a regeneration at Christmas and then the new Doctor’s first series the following year. So broadly speaking that’s one-third of Christmas specials that can’t actually be Christmas specials in the strictest sense of the term, unless the writer wants a slightly awkward mash-up of Christmas and the death of our hero.
After endless speculation about who was the woman who picked up the Master’s ring in Last of the Time Lords, it turns out to be… a random woman we haven’t seen before. This was oddly set up as something we should have been guessing about, but the answer turns out to be unguessable, almost as if there wasn’t, you know, a Grand Plan. Which of course there rarely ever is.
So the Master is back from the dead. That’s what he does. He managed to come back because he already had a mad plan in place, just in case. That’s what he does too. But we have a replay of the Movie trick of the Master coming back wrong, only with the insanity turned up to eleven. There is a lot of fun to be had with this. As he is not quite himself, his Masterly schemes aren’t quite right. Normally he is a master of disguise, but this compromised version of him thinks a bit of hair dye will do the trick.
The best dramatic representations of returning from the dead show that there is a price to be paid – even regeneration does that in Doctor Who. There is actually a parallel here with the Doctor’s impending regeneration, and he discusses its consequences with Wilf in the cafe. The idea of coming back wrong is basically a horror movie theme (as are all the skeletons on display). Buffy made a whole season out of it, to great effect. Doctor Who has played on the fringes of it with Captain Jack and more recently Ashildr, who is basically Captain Jack Mark II, but this has to be the most obvious and disturbing interpretation of the idea.
And this story really goes for disturbing, especially with the Master’s hunger. Extreme eating is almost always played for comedy value in drama, and there is an element of that whether intentional or not, but most of all it is very frightening. It is all wrapped up in the Master coming back wrong, and he is not too discerning about what he eats.
Also disturbing is the idea of one person taking over the identity of everyone else. The Master and mind control have gone hand in hand right from his first appearance, but this is SuperMaster, and his mind control is taken to a superpower level. We have seen lots of examples of cloning and self-duplication in Doctor Who and in the wider world of sci-fi. We have even seen an army of Doctors in The Leisure Hive. But the Master duplicating himself by overwriting other people is a new take on an old idea, combining cloning with possession. It’s a good way to get something new out of an old idea: take two old ideas and fuse them.
The return of the Time Lords was inevitable I suppose, and the moment had to deliver because they have been raised to such mythical status. One way Russell T Davies deals with this is to move the society towards the magical, and indeed all those creepy sounding enemies that have been namedropped along the way (and also here) sound like they have been lifted straight out of the world of fantasy rather than sci-fi. The Visionary is clearly just a Gallifreyan version on an oracle. Seeing her amongst Time Lords is a break from the way they have been portrayed before, generally as a logical, stuffy old heirarchy.
The mythical status of the Time Lords is also helped by the raising of the stakes. The Doctor taking hold of a gun is not unprecedented but it is something we see very rarely, and we are aware that he is compromising his own beliefs in order to prevent the Time Lords from returning. This raises their threat level, and the only time we have seen a similar reaction provoked in the Doctor was the first time he encountered a Dalek, immediately post-Time War.
To bring the article full circle, I mentioned how the identity of the woman who picked up the Master’s ring always felt like something we should be guessing at, and then turned out to be unguessable. The same trick is played with the knocking, which again has been set up as a puzzle to solve. However, this is handled in a much more clever way, because of the presence of the Master in the story. We expected the knocking to be the Master, and our expectations are subverted, just when the genius of RTD’s writing has brought us to a place where we have almost forgotten that the Doctor has to die here. It seems like everything has been resolved, with all the big bad dangers defeated, and then the Doctor falls victim to something much more mundane. Just to be on the safe side, Wilf knocks four times, four times, in case we were in any doubt that this is the big moment.
But this is a bittersweet ending, and the Doctor doesn’t just collapse and regenerate. OK, what comes next stretches things a bit, but that’s fine. The Doctor has earned his “reward”, and it is a lovely moment for the fans who have followed David Tennant and his Doctor on such an amazing journey. We have to remember that this was not just the end of the Tenth Doctor’s era, but also a farewell to the wider era of Russell T Davies as showrunner.
And what a blast it has been. At some point I might get to write a series of articles looking at the overall bodies of work of various writers and producers, but for now suffice it to say that Davies took Doctor Who to levels of popularity it had never seen before, and he did that by an inclusive style of writing, one that welcomed every viewer and truly created a vision of Doctor Who that was the embodiment of family viewing. Quite simply, the man is a genius. RP
The view from across the pond:
Christmas of 2009 was the beginning of the end for David Tennant as the Doctor. This was a shame as he really embodied the Doctor better than almost anyone else, even managing to give the amazing Tom Baker a run for his money. The big problem with this story is that it is so vast, that it would be hard to talk about in anything less than 10 pages. Thus I’ll attempt some broad strokes…
The first part of the story focuses on the Master’s return and his subsequent taking over the Earth by making everyone turn into duplicates of him. This is done with a quick shake of the head. They weren’t the only ones shaking their heads, I can tell you. From the moment of his return with his laser beams, fading skull and flight, the episode is senseless. I was shaking my head at least as quickly as everyone else. In fact, conceptually within the realm of Doctor Who, it was so terrible that I was convinced they had to be within the Matrix. Alas, it was not to be. Furthermore, the Doctor is coming off the trauma of overdoing things in The Waters of Mars, so he spends time visiting the Ood and generally being very non-Doctorish, before realizing he has to get his act in gear. The return of Wilf is a small perk but the best thing to come out of this story was the Time Lord ruler himself, Rassilon! Timothy Dalton plays the ruler of Gallifrey as a terrifying, power mad maniac. He’s great! Sadly, part one doesn’t do a lot for him expect give the audience a side-view of just how much he spits while speaking. The thing was I was so impressed by him at the time, I actually wondered if there were any chance this could be Rassilon only to get confirmation a week later! And I was genuinely impressed!
The entirety of part one is effectively erased though when in part two, Rassilon hits the “that never happened” button. The end result of part one is that the best thing that came out of it were the scenes on Gallifrey.
Part two goes radically different and by taking a radically different approach, it does the story a world of good. It’s hard to believe this was written by one guy. It’s so dramatically different from the first part that it plays like two disconnected episodes. And this is where we get into the better part of the story anyway. The second half opens on Gallifrey during the Time War. Rassilon is awesome; far more deranged than we could ever have imagined. Dalton’s portrayal is superb. (Don’t get me started on “Rassilon the Redeemer”! Dalton needed to come back for more!) As for the Doctor, he and Wilf have a great conversation on the Vinvocci spaceship that is utterly moving. Then comes the moment that Star Trek: Wrath of Khan fans will appreciate. Tennant delivers a powerhouse speech about what he deserves, how much more he can do, and what rewards are his to claim before accepting a Spock-like end. He just proves to be a bit stronger than our Vulcan friend.
The Doctor goes to see off his friends which effectively allowed Russell T. Davies, the departing showrunner, to close the circle on all of the companions he introduced us to. (Of particular note is the clever placement of Martha. We met her in Smith and Jones and we find her ending married to Mickey Smith; Smith and Jones once more!) But if the bulk of the story is questionable, it’s down to these last few minutes that make up for everything else. The departure scene is so heartfelt, it would be hard to keep a dry eye. Then Murray Gold kicks us in the temple with the music with a piece called Vale Decum (farewell ten) and the tears can flow freely. A devastatingly beautiful piece to end Tennant’s time as the Doctor. This pattern will be repeated with Matt Smith a few Christmases later; I’ll get to that in due course!
The episode is light on the Christmas theme, short of the fact that it takes place at Christmas. It’s also light on logic when looking at the Master’s plan. Even Rassilon’s plan doesn’t make a lot of sense, but does give rise to how far the Gallifreyan elite was willing to go for self-preservation. But one thing that this episode gets right is that it has a lot of heart. It’s a very moving episode. I really want to keep discussing how amazing the ending was but I’ll wrap it up for now. Suffice to say: “I don’t want to go…” ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Eleventh Hour