23 November 2013
The finale of the the seventh (new) series of Doctor Who, introducing by far the most interesting Doctor yet: played by John Hurt.
A moving study of despair and its consequences almost gets lost amongst the regular high japes of the post-2005 Doctor Who.
The finest moment in this TV film (‘special episode’) came when former companion Rose told John Hurt’s Ninth Doctor that the familiar TARDIS sound meant hope to millions who had heard it, and that this included the Doctor himself. Given that the Ninth Doctor was about to activate a terrifying weapon of mass destruction in a moment of despair, the subsequent whirring, indicating the arrival of the TARDIS, achieved a tremendous sentimental impact.
If you don’t know anything about Doctor Who, I have no hope of explaining this film. But as usual with the series since its 2005 revival, the on-screen realisation belies the incredibly complicated backstory: those of us who know some of it are delighted, while those that don’t can enjoy the drama anyway, taking a lot of things as ‘given’.
This means adopting a frenetic pace, but when these episodes really succeed, they are able to convey something weightier too. Here, the emotional centre rested with the Ninth Doctor and Rose. Cleverly, writer Stephen Moffat connected this with the more viscerally exciting, but more juvenile strands devoted to the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors (both overwhelmingly popular) by implying that the trauma of the weapon’s use was so awful that it had effectively regressed the Doctor into a self-denying second childhood.
This idea transformed what might have been a purely backslapping experience (two of the actor who’ve played the Doctor onscreen together) into something more profound, about how we might view our future selves, or indeed how they might view us.
It’s a pity that the need to also be celebratory interfered with this angle. Nor did it help that the Ninth Doctor’s genocidal act was part of the already-complicated continuity that has been developed since 2005. The Time War, supposedly the ultimate war, between Daleks and Time Lords, needed to be depicted at last, and this was inevitably disappointing.
Not as you might think, due to lack of resources – after all, no resources are adequate to depict an apocalypse. But rather because this war requires an extreme design imagination. It ended up being people (and machines) with laser guns.
On the positive side, reintroducing Billie Piper’s Rose as the Ninth Doctor’s guardian angel was extremely effective, and was cleverly incorporated into the show’s continuity (she is the Bad Wolf, helping the Doctor when he needs it most… yes, the continuity is not beginner-friendly)
The later, yet younger, Doctors were as entertaining as expected, with much of the near-playground humour that has helped to make the series enormously successful. The usual god-in-the-machine ending felt as these things always do, that the pathos of the earlier scenes has been belittled rather than transcended.
Actually, the ending was more of a misfire than usual, because there seemed to be several endings, with one of them inserted to allow yet another past Doctor to appear. Well, these are the perils of a fiftieth anniversary episode.
But the hopeful sound of the TARDIS provided the genuine ending. And this is as it should be. For the 30+ continuous years of TV episodes, the sound and appearance of the TARDIS has been the only constant in every episode of the series. If you add in the audio stories from the ‘interregnum’ then the sound specifically is indeed is the only constant across 50 years.