This article covers the episodes The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, which together form a single Doctor Who story, and a story that arguably represents the peak of Doctor Who’s popularity. It captured 45% of the viewing audience, received an Appreciation Index of 91, and was the first episode ever to top the weekly charts. You have to look to the specials (e.g. the Christmas episodes) to find anything that could be said to rival its success. And it’s not hard to see why it did so well.
These two episodes are a masterclass in fitting umpteen different requirements into a story. All the plot threads that have been building throughout the series (and some for more than one series) come together: the Doctor’s severed hand from The Christmas Invasion (and also seen in Torchwood) finally fulfils its destiny; we get to see the Shadow Proclamation (a disappointing white room – what a shame the original concept of a collection of past monsters couldn’t be afforded); the reason for all those missing planets is revealed; the disappearing bees turn out to be ‘migrant bees’ (quite a suspension of disbelief required there); and of course the Medusa Cascade is central to the plot.
But it doesn’t end there. These two episodes are packed with continuity references. We learn that Project Indigo is an ‘experimental teleport salvaged from the Sontarans.’ The Shadow Proclamation is ‘outer space police’ employing Judoon, which ties in very nicely with Smith and Jones. The subwave network was created by the Mr Copper Foundation (Voyage of the Damned). The Doctor-Donna was foretold in Planet of the Ood. Apart from the missing planets named this series (Pyrovilia from The Fires of Pompeii, Adopose 3 from Partners in Crime, The Lost Moon of Poosh from Midnight) there is also Klom (Love and Monsters) and even Calufrax Minor (The Pirate Planet)! These are harmless little treats for the fans, and best of all are the references to past Dalek stories: ‘someone tried to move the Earth before’; Davros’s reaction to Sarah Jane is an amazing moment (‘impossible – that face, after all these years.’); and not forgetting Dalek Caan himself! Everything ties in nicely with just about every episode we have seen since Rose and, what with the flashback of those who have died for the Doctor, there are not many episodes that are not represented here in one form or another.
Russell T. Davies does an excellent job of juggling a huge assortment of guest characters, who are well served, with a couple of exceptions. Francine does not have much to do, although she gets one magnificent line: ‘at the end of the world you came back to me.’ Gwen and Ianto are also on the fringes of the story, sidelined for most of Journey’s End, as is Luke, although to be fair there was only so much Davies could do to include so many characters. Most importantly, the key characters are all essential to the plot (the Doctor, Rose, Jack, Martha, Donna and Sarah Jane).
The bravest aspect to this story is how it examines the Doctor’s own morality. It highlights two uncomfortable truths about his travels: one, lots of people die for him, and two, his friends do things that stop him getting his own hands dirty. Davros’s monologue is breathtaking: ‘…you take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your children of time, transformed into murderers.’ This perhaps shines a light on why the Doctor so rarely returns to revisit his friends (although that was tackled in a different way in School Reunion): ‘the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not out of shame.’ It paints a bleak picture, and there is no denying that there is some truth in what Davros says, a twisted version of the truth though it is. Because once again people die for him, and once again he gets the job done, while never quite getting his own hands dirty. However, the Doctor proves his compassion by attempting to save Davros. He is a complex character, and he is far from perfect. The Doctor is not a superhero: this is the theme of the fourth (30th) series. This is why the Doctor does not attempt to refute the accusations thrown at him, and it is, let’s face it, one of those moments where an enemy accuses him of something that he could answer quite easily. Somebody who devotes his life to helping people and saving lives and whose only failure is to not save everyone doesn’t need to cede the moral high ground to the creator of a race of pure evil.
So there is a danger here that the Doctor comes across as a weak character, in a story that asks the big questions of him. But Davies is repeating a trick from his previous season finales, showing his interest in the companions more than the Doctor himself. It’s not a bad idea. Right from day one (of Classic and New) Doctor Who has been about the companions just as much as the Doctor. So The Parting of the Ways was about Rose saving the universe, Last of the Time Lords was about Martha saving the world, and now it’s Donna’s turn. That creates two requirements in the narrative. Firstly, the Doctor has to fail, just like he fails on those two previous occasions. Secondly, the story tries every possible variation on a theme of the Doctor and his companions trying to defeat Davros, apart from Donna, who is kept away from the main action until the last minute.
Astute viewers (and long-term viewers) will therefore be unconcerned by the Doctor’s superficial weakness, because we know what kind of story we are watching here. This is why it doesn’t matter that the Doctor has no answer to Davros’s accusations, although an obvious one exists. Davros is attacking the Doctor with a straw man argument, so it is big and dramatic and fun, but ultimately hollow. The real comparison here is the parallel between Davros and the Doctor, and therefore their “creations”: Daleks / companions. These are set up as weapons, with the Doctor’s “weapons” found wanting… until Donna shows up.
And then all of a sudden we are in a different kind of show, with our comedy companion who has become magnificent. Sometimes the best approach to adversity is simply to laugh at it. Combined with the Doctor’s genius, Donna has the ability to save the day that nobody else does. She is the perfect combination.
Then we have the joy of that moment with the Doctor and his companions flying the TARDIS together, with the brilliant idea of the hexagonal TARDIS console designed for six pilots – in 45 years how has no other writer thought of this glorious yet simple explanation? It just fits perfectly, and explains why the Doctor is always so manic at the controls, rushing around trying to do, well, six different things at once. All is right with the world of Doctor Who…
…until it all goes wrong. Donna’s fate is a tragedy, and it’s OK for Doctor Who to do those. A companion has to be written out somehow, and a tragedy carries more dramatic weight and realism than anything else. There has to be a reason for a companion to leave the Doctor, and it will take another show-runner to hit upon how to do the not-quite-death of companions. But this is nasty because Donna protests about what the Doctor does right to the very end. She would rather die than go back to being the person she was before she met the Doctor. It would have taken just one line to fix this, something to indicate that he will be back one day when he has found a way to heal her, and that line could have been delivered either to Donna or Wilf. Without that, we simply have the Doctor lobotomising Donna without her consent. But nearing the end of his life, the Tenth Doctor is embarking on one final multi-episode arc. He has gone too far.
Phew! I know I have rambled on a bit with this one, but here are some bonus observations:
More names than ever before are squeezed into the title sequence: David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Freema Agyeman, John Barrowman (with) Elisabeth Sladen (and) Billie Piper. It is the first time in the title sequence for Elisabeth Sladen. Also credited on screen after the titles are Penelope Wilton (The Stolen Earth only), Adjoa Andoh, Eve Myles, Gareth David-Lloyd, Noel Clarke (Journey’s End only) and Camille Coduri (Journey’s End). Regulars who are conspicuous by their absence from this sequence, but of course credited at the end of each (relevant) episode are Bernard Cribbins, Jacqueline King, Thomas Knight, John Leeson and Alexander Armstrong.
‘Daleks are the masters of Earth’ brings back memories of The Dalek Invasion of Earth (‘we are the masters of Earth’) – there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from the best!
We’ve had the Emperor Dalek, we’ve had a Black Dalek, and now we have a red Supreme Dalek (and Davros!) Dalek mythology all present and correct!
‘My vision is not impaired.’ One by one Russell T Davies has removed the traditional Dalek weaknesses. This is probably the last one to be dispensed with, as the Dalek dissolves the paint on its eye stalk.
The Doctor says he ‘came here when I was just a kid – 90 years old.’ This confirms an old theory amongst Doctor Who fans that a Time Lord’s childhood lasts longer than a human’s.
At one point in The Stolen Earth, the Doctor just gives up. This is an incredibly dramatic moment, which prompts Donna to observe ‘you never give up.’ She’s almost correct, but there have been precedents, most notably during the Sixth Doctor’s era.
Harriet Jones makes a triumphant return (still holding up her ID card!) and goes some way towards justifying her decision in The Christmas Invasion. Whoever was right on that occasion, she more than makes up for her past actions by the heroism she shows.
The subwave network is ‘a sentient piece of software, programmed to seek out anyone and everyone who can help to contact the Doctor.’ It can’t contact Wilf because he does not have a webcam (although he can see the transmission). It is interesting to speculate who else might have been watching, unable to communicate. Possibilities (just to indulge that fan instinct!) include: Ian and Barbara, Dodo, Ben and Polly, Victoria, the Brigadier and other members of UNIT such as Benton, Mike etc, Liz, Jo, Harry and Tegan.
For the first time ever, we hear how Daleks sound in another country: ‘Exterminieren!’
The Doctor is disgusted by the thought of being part-human, which throws up the can of worms that is The Movie. From Series One (Season 27) onward the Doctor is clearly 100% Time Lord, so was the Doctor talking nonsense in The Movie (post-regenerative trauma) or could there be some other explanation?
‘Firing in ten rels.’ The Dalek measurement of time, which seems to equate roughly to a second, dates right back to the Sixties Dalek stories.
‘The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun.’ This is kind of true, although the First Doctor had a collection of guns. Also, sometimes the sonic screwdriver verges on being a gun.
The Doctor and Rose notice the similarity between Gwen and Gwyneth (The Unquiet Dead) who are of course played by the same actress!
‘You know I’m not sure about UNIT these days. Maybe there’s something else you could be doing.’ That ‘something else’ was to be Martha joining Torchwood for Series Three, but sadly other work commitments for Freema Agyeman got in the way of that. What might have been… RP
The view from across the pond:
The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, the two part finale to David Tennant last full season as the Doctor, is a tour de force. There is so much to be said for the writing of Russell T. Davies and this story drives home how skilled he was at “world building”. By contrast, Moffat is the master of the convoluted story, where time winds back on itself, but in creating so many of those, he periodically fractured the world building that RTD had created first. The trick with world building is that you get a world or universe where things are connected. It’s what gives so much meaning to seeing a classic era Cyberman head in a Dalek story; we’re hanging out in a playground we are familiar with. Moffat has a tendency of undoing that, revamping something to such an extent, we are not sure where we are! But Russell gave us hints throughout series 4. Hints about lost planets which even managed to tie into the larger world of classic Doctor Who. Here, RTD had the chance to show us what he could do with a degree of world-building: he brings together hints from this season and friends from all 5 seasons. He brought back classic Who villain Davros, who was responsible for stealing all those alluded-to planets. Even Tennant’s first episode, The Christmas Invasion, plays a part thanks to the Doctor’s hand, which at the time seemed like an … off-hand plot device. I’m sure many of us forgot about it or thought Russell just wrote it out of the story, but we discover that it still had a part to play. And that long term storytelling was extremely impressive. It might not be convoluted, but it created a place we knew and loved.
The thing is, it’s impossible to review this story in terms of what went right with it and what went wrong because there is so much happening that one has to take a Chronovore’s Eye view at the impact. The big-impact items are a little easier to tackle because of their effect on the character and the show as a whole. The Doctor’s pseudo-regeneration is a red herring that he is able to control thanks to the hand, thoughtfully returned by Captain Jack. This was one of the biggest dominos to fall because it directly influenced the Doctor’s new life cycle; it threw off the numbering scheme that fans had become familiar with. If it hadn’t been for the events of this story, even considering John Hurt’s War Doctor, he would only have been in his 12th incarnation, meaning he would have still been able to regenerate one more time before he would be in trouble. Russell was world-building even as he was writing an ending, and perhaps unintentionally gave Moffat a heck of a finale for Smith. Truly long term storytelling!
Another crater made by this story is to the Doctor himself planting the soul crushing realization that the Doctor turns his companions into weapons. This impacts the way we look at so many of his companions over the decades. It will also affect the future especially in light of Clara and Bill. It’s this very story that drives this realization home and it’s as uncomfortable for us as it is for the Doctor. The implications, especially since New-Who has a habit of making the companion into the savior over and over again, is staggering. And if there is any doubt about the reality of this accusation, just look at who saves the day in Journey’s End: Donna Noble. Donna is the latest in a long line of “weapons” fashioned by the Doctor, in her case, literally when she undergoes a “human/Time Lord metacrisis”. What’s that when it’s at home? A Doctor-made weapon. Her creation at the literal hand of the Doctor gives the Doctor and company the ability to overpower and destroy Davros and the Daleks.
And that brings us around to Donna. We’ve watched her go from painfully annoying but moderately comical, to slightly annoying but inquisitive, to deeply caring and a wonderful companion, to the Doctor’s equal. The contrast between her early days to the start of this story is not felt as significantly because we’ve seen the gradual transition over 12 episodes, but by the end of the 13th story, its contrast is noticeable. Extremely so! Catherine Tate nails it as she effectively is playing two different people, so stark is that contrast. And that’s incredibly painful to witness. We’ve seen this young woman go through a massive learning experience only to be regressed back to what she was before she learned it all. It’s heartbreaking. And yet another sign of the quality of Russell’s writing.
We can’t ignore the impact for Rose, either. She finally gets back to the man she loves, and ends up with a consolation prize; a human-Doctor. “Her” Doctor leaves to bring Donna home, stranding Rose in the alternate universe with a Doctor who will grow old as she does. He represents a what-if version of the Doctor. (Maybe he grows up to look like Peter Cushing… which means we have to review those movies from the point of view of that universe. Maybe at the wedding, they told the priest the last name was Who when they realized they didn’t have a plan… see where I’m going with this?) It also serves as a reminder of what makes him different from us and why our Doctor does better having the human as a moral compass, rather than being a human, controlled by human emotions.
It’s a heavy story with a lot happening but I can’t end on a downer. The happiest part of the episode is seeing the TARDIS manned by all of the Doctor’s friends. This is monumental. And it’s accompanied by the most incredible piece of music by the great Murray Gold. When music is done well, it can turn a scene into something iconic. Gold transforms an already impressive moment into a piece of television legend with his Song of Freedom, as the TARDIS takes Earth back to home. (And once again casts the Doctor as a messianic figure with the TARDIS standing in for another iconic piece of wood!)
Like Wilf and Sylvia, one can’t watch this one without cheering. The final moments may be sad, but that image of the triumphant return with that incredible music… that image will live in this reviewers mind forever! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Next Doctor