After four very action-packed, frightfully fun years, David Tennant’s turn as the Tenth Doctor has finally come to an end. What’s unfortunate is that given all the amazing work that he’s done over the course of his tenure in the TARDIS, it’s a shame that his final adventure turns out to be so frightfully uneven, succumbing to the same melodramatic space opera clichés that have hindered show runner Russell T. Davies’ last few episodes.
Things start off promisingly enough: after the rather dark (and welcome) turn that the Doctor took at the end of his last special (The Waters of Mars, wherein the Doctor finally showed some hubris and selfishness by saving people he shouldn’t have saved, altering the course of history in a way he shouldn’t have), he emerges on the homeworld of the Ood with sunglasses and a goofy hat, seemingly taking some vacation time while avoiding his impending death — which he has known about but has been trying to avoid.
Unfortunately, the revelation that the Ood — along with several other races — have been having “bad dreams” is enough to warrant some concern. When the Doctor finds out they’ve been having the same bad dream, and that it’s been of the face of his long-standing nemesis The Master (John Simm), he realizes that something terrible is about to happen, and that yes, he is probably going to die.
Slowly but surely, the Master is reborn, this time with blond hair and the look of a deranged Simon Pegg. The Master tries to hunt him down, but winds up running into Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), the granddad of his former companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). As the Doctor wonders why he seems to “connected” to Wilf, the Master begins to wonder why he was kidnapped by an influential businessman named Joshua Naismith (David Harewood), who has a rather alien-looking device in his mansion that he knows the Master and only the Master will be able to repair, himself having fallen into the cult of personality surrounding the Master since his demise at the end of Season Three.
Of course, being the Master, there are more devious plans in mind, and it’s not long before (spoilers spoilers) he winds up turning the entire human race into identical copies of himself (including, yes, Barack Obama), the ending montage of the Master being everywhere feeling like a strange alternate version of the mask-laden clip for Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy“. Of course, there’s John Simm laughing manically for two straight non-stop minutes. The over-the-top sense of melodrama can be felt from space …
… and through time, apparently. Thanks to a prophecy and some clever scripting, the Time Lords themselves, stuck at the very end of the mysterious Time War, hear of the battle between the Doctor and the Master, and the Lord President (Timothy Dalton, clearly relishing his role) takes action to intervene. Although the guest stars all wind up colliding in one massive final sequence involving dogfights, moving planets, and prominent use of the word “shimmer”, the whole thing just feels… tired.
We’ve seen this before, and we’ve seen it done better. Yes, the universe is in danger, and yes, the Doctor must save us, but the stakes somehow never feel as high as they during the three-part Series Three finale with the Master that was oh-so-evil and oh-so-thrilling. The scenes with the multiple Masters sometimes feel even downright campy, which, admittedly, the show does manage to successfully lean back on sometimes (like on the clever Series Four opener “Partners in Crime”), but here — during Tennant’s final episode — it just feels ridiculous and unwarranted. Davies had a chance to make a real statement with his final plot, but instead keeps throwing hackneyed sideplots at his own script, hoping that something will stick.
What he does do, however, is keep one very good surprise in the bag: the revelation of “the four knocks”, which, of course, we’ve always thought was simply meant to indicate that the Master would be the Doctor’s downfall. What it actually is, however, is surprisingly simple, totally unexpected, and somewhat touching, even.
When the Doctor’s fate is finally sealed, he goes on a bit of a victory lap, visiting all of his old companions for one last time before regenerating, some cameos even turning out to be somewhat surprising and very, very welcome. Although it doesn’t accomplish much on a story-front, this little recap gives viewers a bit of catharsis before his departure. Although it was hard to top Christopher Eccleston’s winning turn as the Ninth Doctor, Tennant managed to truly grow into and own the role in the way that few other people have, resulting in not only some of the best adventures he’s ever gone on, but some of the best performances the character has ever been attributed to. It’s been a wild ride, and our only hope is that the Eleventh Doctor — the young, charming Matt Smith (seen briefly here) — can carry on that tradition of madcap merriment that has been the heart and soul of Doctor Who for decades.
While the main feature is somewhat of a hit-or-miss affair, the bonus features on this DVD set are truly worth keeping. Although we’re treated to the usual round of Doctor Who: Confidential behind-the-scenes specials and some pleasant commentary tracks, the big bonus this time out is actually David Tennant’s video diaries, detailing his last days from the read-through of Planet of the Dead onward. During this time, he makes multiple media appearances, signs a glut of photos for fans, and — in one of the funniest moments to ever be included on a Doctor Who DVD set — he co-hosts a radio show with Catherine Tate wherein he brings in the Proclaimers and shouts along with an acoustic rendering of “I Could Walk (500 Miles)” with a gigantically goofy grin across his face. You begin to see that Tennant isn’t really that different from his Tenth Doctor persona, and even as he leaves the show that defined his legacy, he’s doing so while still on top of his game.
It’s just a shame, really, that his last adventure wasn’t as powerful or moving as it could’ve been (Davies apparently used up all that good will on the incredible Torchwood: Children of Earth mini-series), and that his last journey is more of a rambling amalgamation of ideas than of a proper build up for the Doctor’s eleventh incarnation. Yet even with this shaky conclusion and enough guest stars to fill the night sky, this is — and always has been — Tennant’s showcase; and even when the show itself was on rocky footing, it was Tennant who made it work. Tennant has always said he’d rather leave now instead of waiting and overstaying his welcome, and as The End of Time proves, he does just that, leaving us wanting more even as we know he’s gone for good.