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If you think that “The End of Time” sounds like a grandiose title, then you should see the story itself, with the show trying to send the Tenth Doctor off in epic style with the return of all manner of familiar faces and the tying-up of all manner of loose ends. Shame that it really doesn’t come together that well, then.
Before rewatching “The End of Time” (Both parts, just because), I started to suspect that I was remembering these episodes far more harshly than they deserved. There was something about the way that the four final tenth Doctor specials seemed to just go on and on that prejudiced me against them, I thought, and watching them again, separate of all of that weight, would let me see them in a whole new, unbiased, light.
As you might expect, that didn’t really work out.
What kills “The End of Time” – I mean, really, really saps your will to keep watching – is the writing. You can tell that Russell T. Davies had high hopes and ambitions for his final Who story, but he gets lost in those ambitions and everything falls apart around him; the pacing is uneven and far, far too drawn out, the dialogue leaden and filled with too much exposition at the expense of character, and the threat underwhelming because it lacks both clarity and a human element for the casual viewer to grab onto. In his attempts to do everything before he says goodbye, he tries to do far too much and the entire story – all two and a quarter hours of it (although it genuinely feels even longer, never a good sign) – suffers as a result.
The problems are obvious from the opening of the first of the two episodes (The actual Christmas episode; for those who don’t remember, this story was shown on Christmas Day and New Years Day in the UK in 2009/2010), which threads two exposition-filled scenes about the resurrection of the Master together in order to bring viewers up to date with what they need to know to keep watching… Except, of course, they don’t really need to know any of that; all the really need to know is “He’s the Anti-Doctor and he was resurrected by his followers,” and they’d be fine – The amount of time devoted to these scenes shows both how much the show had fallen in love with itself by this point and started to forget about the need to appeal to a wider, more casual, audience, and also how dearly an editor was needed to trim the fat from what we’re watching. The same attitude is on display at the end of the story, when the Doctor is “dying”/nearing regeneration but manages to put it off for half an hour while he travels in his Tardis to revisit all of the recurring characters from the tenth Doctor’s time on the show – It’s sentimental in the bad way, derailing the story’s momentum and destroying whatever intensity the idea of a regenerating Doctor had. It’s clearly an emotional goodbye for those involved in making the shows, but for those watching, the sadness is easily replaced by a sense of “Oh, just get on with it.”
In between, there’s a plot that doesn’t really make any sense, but tries to close off stories that didn’t actually need any closing off – The Master returns and attempts to turn all of humanity into versions of him because…? Well, that’s not exactly clear, but he’s mad (John Simm, throwing subtlety to the wind and having a whale of a time doing so), so that’s okay, apparently. And then, when he does so, the Time Lords, who are all dead, turn out not to have been dead, and return from their timelocked bubble because… Well, again, that’s not really clear either, nor is the deus ex machina that gets rid of them at the end. I mean, if you don’t think about it too hard, then sure, the Master gets shot and they all go away because he was linked to them and yadda yadda, but… None of it actually holds up to any kind of exploration or deep thought. It all happens because it’s supposed to happen, and, ultimately, that’s just lazy, bad writing.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some bright spots; the direction, by Euros Lyn, is good and has some lovely moments (In the opening, when Wilf goes to the church, the framing of the scene with the inscription above his head… that’s a great shot), and for the most part, the actors give their all even though the material doesn’t deserve it. But when the best part of your 135 minute epic is the epilogue, written by someone else (Steven Moffat, uncredited) and introducing your new lead for the first time – a scene with infinitely more humor and charm and excitement about it than everything that had just gone before – then you’re really in trouble. “I don’t want to go,” says the tenth Doctor, right before he regenerates. But, as with everything else in Doctor Who, the greediness and laziness of “The End of Time” shows so clearly that it was about time.