Reviewing any episode of Doctor Who is a tricky task at the best of times. I find it increasingly difficult to detach my fan brain and approach each episode without the baggage of forty-odd years of history and emotional attachment to the series’s overall canon.
And then comes Journey’s End, the pulsing finale to this fourth, more popular than ever, series of Doctor Who.
The fan side of my brain cheered, cried, laughed and stared with open-mouthed amazement. The more detached, professional side of my brain, the side that pretends it doesn’t know Cyril Shaps played the Archimandrite in the 1978 story The Androids of Tara, was staring open mouthed for entirely different reasons. There may even have been some eye-rolling in there too.
Yes, Journey’s End is one big house of cards that crams everything in there (and so much more), and if you think about it all too much and gently blow on one of those cards, the whole lot will come crashing down, Davros and all.
It’s impossible to address every single plot point in a single review; it would require a small novella to cover everything. Journey’s End moves across its run time lickety-split, barely giving you pause for breath (which is probably a good thing).
But first up for discussion is the thorny issue of the regeneration cliffhanger and its resolution. Well of course he wasn’t going to change, you donuts! All this talk of being cheated and it being an abuse of the regeneration process that’s being chucked around cyberspace is just nonsense. Cliffhangers are about titillation and showing a bit of thigh at just right the moment - the resolution, more often than not, isn’t as important as the build-up. I had no problem with the resolution, having said that. Perfectly reasonable within the grand scheme of things, and it had the virtue of leading to the most pleasing aspect of Journey’s End…
Things do come thick and fast - Mickey and Jackie turn up (why?), another Doctor, ooh, German Daleks!, Davros going mad, lots and lots of Daleks, the Doctor-Donna, yay it’s K9, time to go home, bye bye Rose, and oh God, isn’t that the saddest end for a companion ever?
Even the most accomplished, feted, brilliant dramatist (and Russell T Davies certainly qualifies in some capacity across all those classifications) would struggle to keep all those plates spinning, but Davies just about manages it. Just. You see, I don’t mind plot solutions coming out of nowhere, Osterhagen keys and the special magic buttons on the Dalek ship that let the Doctors and the Time Lord Donna solve everything. I don’t mind the TARDIS towing Earth back home. I will forgive Russell every moment when the plot threatens to unravel, when it teeters on the edge of silliness just this once. He writes the emotions and big themes so well - and blow logic and rational plot moments if they get in the way!
I have no doubt this is infuriating for some viewers, but PT Barnum showmanship is a valid approach to writing drama, especially one with the biggest scope of any series on British television.
And who could resist some of the themes here? How the Doctor, the man who doesn’t use weapons, turns those around him into weapons? It’s a chilling reminder of the capacity of our hero to unlock the potential of ordinary people, but sometimes there are consequences. Just look at Martha, quite happy to destroy the earth for the greater good, or the motif of Rose running around with the biggest gun in Christendom. The flipside to this is the pleasing image of all those people standing around the TARDIS controls, the Children of Time all home for the holidays and helping dad out with the decorating. It’s family, and as a family, we’re always stronger - it’s no coincidence that every companion has a well-drawn family backdrop in Davies’s Who.
For all it’s a joie de vivre, Journey’s End has a black heart, and nothing is left entirely neatly, as pointed out rather eloquently here by the astute AnnaWaits (certainly far better than I can vocalise it). Uncomfortable moments pepper the narrative - just look at the Doctor’s face when he’s told Harriet Jones was responsible for bringing everyone together. Ouch!
But there’s nothing more uncomfortable than the fate of Donna Noble. Lovely, dippy, bolshy, infuriating, wonderful Donna Noble. Catherine Tate’s Doctor Who journey literally came to an end in this story, and hasn’t she been wonderful? Tate has given a constantly developing, multi-layered performance, more so than any other actress to take up residence in the TARDIS. Forget Rose (easily done as far as I’m concerned), forget Martha, even forget Sarah (I’ll go to hell for that). Donna’s full potential was finally realised then cruelly snatched away for her own good, and that’s more heartbreaking than any dimensional wall separating you from the man you love (yes, I’m looking at you Rose Tyler).
So rather than Davies doing some housekeeping and tying up loose ends, he’s leaving us with some things to think about, that life is never that simple, that things rarely get squared away quite how we’d want them.
Don’t think about it too much and Journey’s End will remain an audacious, big, silly, often poignant season finale, fashioned on the US model of what you do to at the end of a season, especially when you’re not going to get the chance to do this again. You let off some fireworks pop some champagne and ride the emotional rollercoaster. Just worry about the hangover in the morning.
And look on the bright side, the Cybermen are back for Christmas!