Part 1 feels very odd to me. Possibly it’s the contrast with past Christmas Specials but this is a notably un-Christmassy, grim, sordid affair with flashes of bizarre humour that fail to do much to leaven the tone. Very much a big heap of set-up without much pay off it makes little use of its longer running time, gabbling through an incoherent resurrection for the Master and then marking time on seemingly endless sequences of the Doctor and the Master wandering around. Add in some stock power-mad humans, a pair of comedy aliens in unconvincing make-up (from Dr Who Confidential it looks like their faces were originally pink but then digitally recoloured) and things just aren’t that engaging.
I did enjoy the breezy opening sequence with Tennant’s Doctor on flippant form, despite the horrendous use of ‘comedy’ music. The real high points of the episode are the quiet moments of human drama, mainly the Doctor and Wilf’s conversation in the cafe, and the Doctor and the Master’s conversation in the warehouse. Both work far more successfully than any amount of frantic dashing around, and while I’ve never been a fan of Simm’s interpretation of the Master it’s here that his performance is closest to what I want from the character. It also reminds me that the Master works best when he and the Doctor share some common ground, and are able to engage in real conversation rather than just posturing.
Most of all the ending doesn’t really work: the Master’s scheme to populate Earth with himself is silly, and it looks silly, in what appears to be a deliberate but awkward blend of horror and comedy. Also it’s hugely, hugely oversold, with what feels like the last ten minutes devoted to repetitious scenes of humanity transforming and the Master laughing maniacally. Not since the activation of the Atmos system has a cliffhanger felt so milked.
Of course the real cliffhanger is far more interesting, and that’s the dramatic return of the Time Lords led by Timothy Dalton. Call me a sucker but I’m squeeing. And generally speaking I find Time Lords boring.
Part 2 is an instant improvement. From the outset it’s more epic, more focused and better paced. The budget appears to have been largely saved for this episode, and from the earth-bound part 1 we’re suddenly treated to spaceships, planets and Star Wars-style battles (although to be even more nerdy what it really reminded me of is that Star Wars rip-off bit in the original V where they’re dogfighting in shuttles).
Once again, though, the really engaging bits are the human interactions between Wilf, the Doctor and the Master. The rest of it is ultimately fairly hollow spectacle, and worse, spectacle that we feel like we’ve seen before – the plummeting spaceship from ‘Voyage of the Damned’, the planet in the sky from ‘Journey’s End’, etc. Even the human drama feels lifted from part 1 but fortunately this gets deepened in every case. Wilf and the Doctor’s conversation about guns (and their mutual father-son bond) works beautifully, as does the Doctor’s heartfelt entreaty to the Master. Both are also paid off nicely in the denouement.
The same can’t be said of the Time Lords, who are ill-used as impotent green-screen onlookers, all posturing and no trousers. Nice throwaway continuity reference to Rassilon and his many magical artefacts, but it’s not enough to simply tell us that they’re threatening, and oh by the way they turned evil, didn’t I mention? I do like the fact that we’re left with genuine mystery around the Time Lady who speaks to Wilf. But ultimately their threat never seems real. What does work well is the Doctor stuck between Rassilon and the Master, and the way the scene plays out.
Tennant is fantastic throughout. (So much so that I find it difficult to remember how uneven I found his performance in his first season. A warning if one was needed to give Matt Smith a chance in the role.) He’s never better than in the scene in which he rails against Wilf for being the cause of his death, then regroups and walks nobly to his fate. It’s a lovely scene, full of light and dark and real human emotion. Just to show that RTD is capable of such things.
The ending is of course ludicrously drawn out in ways not seen since Return of the King. Like that film it’s trying to be a conclusion not just to the episode but to the whole overarching story RTD has been telling. Hence it ‘needs’ to draw in every single major supporting character. One at a time. Without any trace of pacing. It’s really quite jarring that the first two farewells are part of the same elegaic tone and then we suddenly lurch into a space bar with jangly music, meander around a few more scenes, resume the elegaic bit etc. It feels like they were shot and assembled in an arbitrary order. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the intent behind the scenes but this relentless box-ticking exercise is cumulatively too much. It doesn’t help that we already revisited most of these characters in last season’s finale, leaving this iteration feeling stale. Nice way of including Rose, though, and I’m feeling fairly forgiving towards the whole mess of self-indulgence because I’m an old softy at heart.
Ultimately this string of goodbyes undermines the regeneration by postponing it beyond the point where the drama can be sustained. Right to the end, Tennant seems alternately at death’s door, then fine again. Fortunately his actual final scene pulls things back. I don’t know what last words I was expecting, but definitely something wry and fatalistic and not this railing against death – which works perfectly.
I haven’t mentioned the music. Suffice it to say that it’s awful, as always. Browbeating when it should be exciting, mawkish when it should be uplifting. There are some quiet scenes in which it’s genuinely effective (I liked the sound of a dragged metal bar in part one) but Murray Gold is the single biggest thing I’d change about the show if I could.
Finally we get a glimpse of Matt Smith, who seems perfectly fine. We don’t see quite enough to be sure, and what we do see is part slapstick, but no more so than Tennant’s early scenes. I’m very optimistic.