Possibly the most misinterpreted story of Russell T Davies’ tenure is The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End and depending on your feelings about the completely nuts idea of Davros stealing planets in order to destroy ALL OF REALITY you either love it or hate it. My initial feelings towards this was that it was an over ambitious mess and even by Doctor Who standards was completely over-the-top and unbelievable, which really is saying something and I actually hated it. Incidentally, I felt exactly the same way about Last of the Timelords and The End of Time. However, with the benefit of Netflix, it’s far more rewarding to view Stolen Earth/Journeys End as not as a two parter, but a three parter along with Turn Left, which it actually is. Turn Left is very much the first act of three. Actually, if you want a hugely insightful reading of the Tennant era – and to fully appreciate how good a writer RTD actually is – then it’s possible look at a block of five stories starting with The Christmas Invasion and Turn Left as the end of the first act to fully appreciate the astonishingly huge narrative arc he created.
Turn Left is fascinating, because we get ‘The It’s a Wonderful Life’ version of England through the eyes of Donna and what would have happened if she’d never met him and he’d died in ‘The Runaway Bride.’ Broadly speaking though, what’s perhaps more revealing is that this vision is little different to what Tennant era Doctor Who would look like if told through the eyes of any ordinary person who managed to survive the countless invasions and weren’t amongst the handful he saved throughout these episodes on more of a whim, than anything else. The most that can be said Tennant hadn’t stopped the Titanic wiping out London, modern England would basically be ‘Utopia.’ Just a few billion years early.
When viewed as a three parter, rather than two, it’s glaringly obvious Donna is going to be this season’s Martha. Just as Rose was the season before that and the season before that. Saving the world but at a price. I think it was Raymond Chandler who said, “If a weapon shows up in the first act, you know it’s getting used in the third.” To make it more obvious, Davies in the next two episodes precedes to through every combination of companion at the Daleks, whilst keeping Donna safely tucked away from the narrative, with only the minor feint that “she’s going to die.” Which frankly RTD knew everyone would ignore anyway, because that’s not how Doctor Who works. He could then get on with the business of closing out the Rose storyline which had been hanging over the show for long enough and needed putting to bed. Overall, he came up with probably the most satisfying solution available. The problem of having a Doctor in love or in a relationship is that love and relationships aren’t really compatible with the concept of adventure. It would entail instead not putting yourself or the one you love in grave danger. So it had to be done and closed out. Simple as that.
Where Donna however, fits with Tennant’s Doctor is interesting, because he’s the only Doctor who has been created purely to be loved. In the Christmas Invasion, we wait almost three quarters of the special for him to show up, at which point RTD gives him a long piece of dialogue which – being a consummate theatre actor – he completely nails. Tennant defeats the Sycorax leader and this is where it gets interesting, we’re given the reason his Doctor will ultimately regenerate in his very first outing. He conceitedly changes history. He brings about the end of “Britain’s Golden Age” (apparently Jackie has been twenty quid a week better off) because he believes he knows better. Which will in turn lead to The Master swooping into become PM, which in turn leads to his comeback in The End of Time. The Master is a byproduct of the conceit of Tennant’s Doctor. The Time Lord victorious. Still, in the Christmas Invasion, he is our Christmas present. It’s all there from the start, but we’re a long way from Doomsday, Journey’s End and the End of Time just yet.
“Sometimes I think a Time Lord lives too long,” the Doctor says at one point, and we’re meant to disagree. And yet why? When the Doctor puts the principle of not being willing to shoot someone over the fate of all of humanity, what are we meant to do with him? For the second time in the Davies era, the Doctor’s vain insistence on not being the one to pull the trigger is set to become the doom of humanity. We are all to be the Master, our worst impulses, the rot that sets in as the universe finally goes black, and the Doctor refuses to save us because of a moral point centering entirely on the question of propelling pieces of metal at high speeds via a controlled explosion at the base of a rifled barrel.
Even at the end, the question is arbitrary. Somehow shooting a diamond and consigning Rassilon to death in the hell of the Time War is acceptable, but shooting Rassilon himself is not. Letting the Master walk into the Time War is acceptable, putting a bullet in him is not. Apparently “how the Master started” has everything to do with projectiles and nothing to do with an actual system of ethics. Wilf’s military service renders him noble, but the use of a gun is wrong. There is no substance to this, just a mess of would-be principles masquerading as morality. That’s why Tennant’s Doctor is so, well, irksome.
However. On top of this, running parallel with The Christmas Invasion, there’s an angry underlying narrative about Barack Obama ending the recession with a great financial scheme – although as Ginger tells us, it won’t reach people like him. It actually doesn’t, because The Master (The former PM) kills him. So we’ve gone from ‘Britain’s Golden Age’ to a homicidal lunatic running the country, to a recession under the Doctor’s watch and them the former PM returning from the dead to go on another mad homicidal spree against Britain’s working class. When this is contrasted with the reason Tennant’s Doctor overthrew Harriet Jones in the first place, his arbitrary system of ethics seems even more dubious. Even by RTD’s standards which are frankly bleak and deeply cynical, there’s little doubt that Harriet Jones doesn’t at any point in the three stories which she appears act in anything other than good faith. She may perhaps be infact the most sympathetic portrayal of a politician ever to appear on television. Although it’s a clear allusion to Thatcher and the Belgrano, unlike Thatcher, she acts out of what could be described as a rational fear for the safety and well-being of humankind. What causes her to panic and call for the destruction of the Sycorax? Well actually, it’s because of The Doctor telling her there’s probably going to be a lot more invasions and next time they mightn’t be so lucky, and yep, it’s all down to sending out probes into space and getting noticed. So she acts. Then The Doctor arrogantly deposes her.
Still, not that she needed redeeming per se, she does sacrifice her life in order to get in touch with The Doctor in The Stolen Earth. She dies a true hero, whereas Tennant’s Doctor will go onto die an arrogant, feckless narcissist who believes he can pick and choose who he can save. Because he allows a kind old man to live, because after wiping Donna’s memory and erasing the amazing woman she’d become, he gives her material wealth, but only after robbing her of the gift of knowing that there’s a huge world outside of neo-liberal Britain. The gift of knowing that there is more to life than materialism. Because he hooks up two broken hearted men in a bar, because he saves the life of two people he’d fucked over. Mickey whose girlfriend he stole and Martha, who after being the most competent companion in the history of Doctor Who, a person who travels the entire world, valiantly spreading a message in order to defeat The Master and save humanity, is not unlike Harriet Jones (no relation) in being consigned to the Doctor’s personal dustbin of history, and all because she takes a job with a military organisation. One which he himself had hypocritically worked for in the seventies (!) Not to mention the conceit in this relationship too. I struggle to see how for a promising young junior Doctor, who was at one point the only person capable of averting total oblivion in marrying a hapless mechanic who has subsequently wound up as a ‘freelance’ read: jobless paramilitary, whilst being shot at by the rubbish Sontarans on an industrial estate is anything short of a regression.
In the Waters of Mars, it’s actually a relief when he is finally called out on his shit and this is ultimately the point where he has no choice but to go. It’s interesting by the way, that the production team consciously chose – and this is undoubtedly a conscious decision, as it was the same production team in the End of Time who in probably the most weird, ostentatious use of CGI in history and a moment of insane micro-attention to detail used The Mill to correctly colour in the Noble’s Turkey in order to reflect the correct time of day on Christmas Day – chose to show the 2050’s to be little different in what we’d expect to see design wise to an episode set in the present day, and I write this six years on from the original airing. From the outset, we see a modern interior, with prints of the Queen Elizabeth definitive postage stamp on the wall, the web pages are what we’d expect to see when we click onto the BBC website, the technology is distinctly, little more advanced than we’d currently be capable. Even the robot is until The Doctor upgrades it, completely underwhelming. This is Davies’ vision of the future throughout his time on the show. Fixed and bleak. Even at the end of the universe itself, there’s little progress beyond a slight change of skin colour. (In recent months post Brexit, there’s particular sequence in ‘Utopia’ which has taken an astonishingly prescient and bleak connotation to the present.) Davies’ idea of material social progress is bleak, bleak, bleak. Take even his vision of spaceships in the future, while the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation has shades of Virgin Atlantic, what Davies offers up for luxury outings in ‘Midnight’ is Ryan Air meets Mega Bus. On some level it’s difficult to see how with this in mind in the End of Time, or even Journey’s End, the Time Lords or Davros wouldn’t just be doing us a favour by putting a full-stop on reality. In Davies’ vision of the future, there’s absolutely no aspiration. Only the conceit of ‘pot luck’ that you may be that ordinary working class person (un)fortunate enough to be saved by the Doctor and cast back onto the gruelling wheel of slow if not nonexistent social and material progress. Whilst unlike the Daleks, the Time Lord’s at least aspired to at least becoming beings of consciousness as reality and time melted away. They are however, still Lords. As is the Doctor, and everything that entails.
It all ends with the destruction of the TARDIS caused by Tennant clinging to life and unleashing a pent up wave of destructive regenerative energy. The world he leaves is no further forward. I’ll probably, eventually at some point do a write up of where Moffat’s ‘Day of the Doctor’ which effectively rewrites the cynicism and conceit of Tennant’s Doctor and where that fits together with this narrative. Thankfully, when we get to Moffat, time can be rewritten, and rewritten again until you get it right.
Like Tony Soprano, his death is written from the start and foreshadowed in big bold letters across the screen. Of course, with Doctor Who, the story can never end.