Doctor Who - The Stolen Earth / Journey's End
Poor old Earth doesn’t even have the distinction of being unique. There are twenty-six other planets that have gone missing, and the Doctor finds out that they’ve been taken to construct some sort of engine. The first question is what this engine could possibly be for, and the second question is who’s constructing it.
The second question is the first to be answered. It’s the Daleks, which is such bad news that I think curling up into a foetal position and drinking oneself into a coma would be a pretty good idea at this point. What’s worse is that the Daleks have come back not only with a Supreme Dalek and hundreds of battleships, but with their creator! Davros is back, and he’s as ruthless and insane as ever.
Remember what I said in my Midnight review?
Faced with this problem Davies… well, he doesn’t cheat. But he does distract.
This time around, Davies distracts again. But to such an extent that he does cheat. He wants an epic; what he actually provides is a lot of tricks and effects without the substance of one.
The Stolen Earth is a great episode. It provides the set-up of the adventure, and Davies gets to go as extreme as he wants. There’s thousands of Daleks and the return of Davros. As old characters are introduced and franchise crossovers take place, there’s the pleasure of seeing old faces, one of which is truly surprising. Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister, makes a return.
I mention this in particular because her return shows Davies at his best and I like to be fair in my reviews. Davies can be very good at character development – not just making a character, but taking it through an arc of development. The most obvious example is Rose Tyler, but Martha Jones is another example, if more limited. Harriet Jones isn’t a regular character, but she’s very different now from her initial appearance.
At the start, in her first episode, she was a comic relief, though one with courage and who was able to rise to the occasion. From being a backbencher MP she became Prime Minister and could face almost certain death without turning away. Unfortunately for her, her decision to destroy the Sycorax caused her downfall, engineered by the furious Doctor. On that occasion she broadcast a national appeal for help from the Doctor when the Sycorax invaded, and she destroyed them to warn other aliens that Earth was no pushover. One day the Doctor would not be around to save humanity, and her actions were meant as a deterrent.
The Stolen Earth shows her at her best. Despite the Doctor’s treatment of her, she has been working on a way to contact him in the event of a catastrophe. She is prepared to swallow her pride, even though she still believes that her decision to destroy the Sycorax was right, and given the Dalek invasion, perhaps it was. Ultimately she gives her life to help the Doctor, though she never again met him after the Sycorax. I was sad to see her go, but if she had to die, her fate was fitting. We salute you, Harriet Jones…
But what about the others?
Sarah Jane Smith plays her part by using her advanced computer technology to help contact the Doctor and alert him to the Earth’s location. Later on she will get caught by the Daleks on purpose to get closer to the Doctor, and use K-9 to help transport the Earth back to its proper location. Not many people would willingly get caught by the Daleks, but then she was a great companion.
Jack Harkness is with the two surviving members of Torchwood – this group is developing a reputation for their members dying all over the place. Anyway, Torchwood is also instrumental in transmitting the signal. Jack searches personally for the Doctor and together with Sarah Jane attempts to build a bomb to destroy the lead Dalek ship.
Donna Noble? Well, I’ll get to her…
Mickey Smith and Jackie Tyler save Sarah Jane’s life and get to the Dalek ship with her. They are able to escape the Daleks before they are vaporised in a test firing of the reality bomb.
Martha Jones… er… oh, poor Martha. Three chances to prove herself this season, and what does she do? She threatens to blow up the Earth to stop the Daleks, but virtually nothing else. Oh dear, now I’m getting really upset by the show’s cavalier treatment of her.
Rose doesn’t fare that much better. She saves Donna’s family from a Dalek and finds the Doctor, but that’s about it. Oh, well. At least she was instrumental in saving the Doctor’s life in Turn Left. What’s more surprising is that she seems only to come back to hug him. No real conversations happen between the two; there’s so much going on around them that there’s no time to stop and really have Rose’s return make the emotional impact that it should. Indeed, even in the scene where they meet the Doctor is shot by a Dalek.
Still, it’s good to see all the old faces, and I cannot possibly review this adventure without mentioning a return I’ve waited for for years. It’s great to have Davros back again. I was pleased to see he’s the same as ever; vacillating between quiet confidence and monomaniacal hysteria. He isn’t allowed to overshadow his creations, either, meaning that the Daleks remain threatening in their own right. They aren’t just footsoldiers, which is made very clear when the Doctor works out that Davros is actually a prisoner of his creations, not their master. When Davros replies ‘We have… an arrangement’, his reading of the line speaks volumes about that arrangement and his view of it.
(This is a nice touch in another way – Davros’s relationship with his creations has always been ambivalent at best. The only time we get to see him as undisputed master of a group of Daleks is in Remembrance of the Daleks, and even then the Daleks are fighting a vicious civil war with each other. He just happens to be leading the technologically superior contingent.)
Julian Bleach becomes the fourth actor to play Davros, and his performance is brilliant; he’s just a shade away from being as good as Michael Wisher, who originated the role. Alas, Davros’s confrontation with the Doctor is not the greatest one. There’s the standard gumph of showing the Doctor his true self and then Davros says with a straight face that what he does is turn people into soliders willing to die for him. Ordinary people are ‘turned into weapons’, ‘your children of time transformed into murderers’.
It seems that whenever Davies attempts something like this it usually fails miserably – remember the half-cocked moral dilemma in Boomtown? First off, Davros has apparently never heard of self-defence. Second, it’s a bit dishonest to blame the Doctor for other people’s choices. Harriet Jones’s decision to sacrifice herself was hers and hers alone. Third, you might even argue that these people had no choice to begin with. Harriet Jones didn’t sacrifice herself for the Doctor alone, but in the hope that this was humanity’s only chance of stopping the Daleks’ destruction.
The Doctor would know this. He’s had over nine hundred years to think about it. He’s also aware that Davros would enjoy screwing around with him. In other words, he really should not be listening to a word Davros says because a) Davros is just doing it to wound, and b) to be honest, it’s a load of bull.
Oh, and c) as if Davros’s arguments are going to get the Doctor to stop fighting! In all seriousness, Agatha Christie’s complaint to the Doctor in The Unicorn and the Wasp that he took too much pleasure in other people’s tragedies was more just and had more effect.
The Doctor never replies to Davros because if he did, well, he’d tear Davros’s claims to shreds within half a minute… The best confrontation between the two by far remains that in Genesis of the Daleks, when the Doctor presses Davros into admitting that he’d destroy the universe simply for the pleasure of feeling like God.
Davros now has that power. In Journey’s End we find out what Davros’s plan is. His ‘reality bomb’ basically disintegrates matter – all matter of any type. If it’s made of atoms, it falls apart. Davros being Davros, and more to the point Davies being Davies, the bomb will be detonated and destroy not only the universe but every parallel universe as well. The Daleks will literally be the only lifeforms left in reality. I can only imagine how utterly dull such an existence would be, but I suppose the Daleks can amuse themselves somehow.
Faced with such a titanic threat, what does the Doctor do? Well, he sits in a Dalek dungeon and waits for other people to come and rescue him.
As I said, Davies gives us the trappings of an epic without actually giving us one. The Doctor really does spend most of his time in a jail, whilst everyone else tries to save the universe. This is massively disappointing. The last time something like this happened was in the Davies-written Slitheen adventure, when the Doctor was trapped in a room in 10 Downing Street. However, he was at least able then to sort out his own damned problems. That was impressive; even jailing the Doctor wasn’t enough to stop him. But now he simply sits there and lets Davros insult him. So who’s going to save the day? Time to talk about Donna.
Ah, Donna Noble. She was given that surname on purpose, of course; she was a loud-mouthed temp from Chiswick who couldn’t hold down a proper job to save her life, hardly the most noble of lives. She first appeared in The Runaway Bride. It was principally a comedy with Catherine Tate written by Russell T Davies, and viewers all over the nation almost committed mass suicide. When it was announced that Tate was coming back for a whole season people reacted like the Daleks were invading. And say what you want about the Daleks, but at least they grant you a swift and merciful death.
However, Doctor Who is able to triumph even over BBC producers. When Donna Noble returned, the best possible thing happened. Donna was kept firmly away from comedy. In most of the episodes things are simply too bleak to allow for much humour, even in the train wreck The Fires of Pompeii. At other times the comedy is kept in the background, and in The Unicorn and the Wasp Gareth Roberts was even able to neutralise the menace of Tate’s comic acting.
As for Tate herself, she proved to be better as a dramatic actor than a comedian – seriously, she really should switch her career path – and above all she takes the role seriously. As much as anyone Tate wants to make Donna more than a caricature, and we have to give her credit for this.
In fact, if anyone is at fault, it’s Davies. The humour in Partners in Crime came from Miss Foster, and when Donna tried to be funny, it fell completely flat. Davies also attempts to be funny in Journey’s End, and quite frankly it was a relief when the Daleks got back to being threatening. I suspect that the season could have been much worse, since Davies wrote five of the thirteen episodes. However, in Midnight Donna barely appeared, and in Turn Left there was very little room for humour (although quite a bit of room for more of Donna’s bellowing). If Gareth Roberts neutralised Donna in The Unicorn and the Wasp, Russell T Davies managed to neutralise himself for much of his stories.
Donna ultimately proved to be a useful companion. She investigated Adipose Industries on her own, she committed espionage on a Sontaran space craft, she had the presence of mind to stop an Ood attack and she was willing to commit suicide to save the world. Kept away from the comedy, she deserves applause, and I am relieved to be able to say that. She also is more aware of her failings than you’d expect, turning out to have very little self-esteem and hoping that nobody will notice if she distracts them. Shades of Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp!
In the end Donna saves us all from the Daleks, but it’s here that things start falling apart for both the adventure and the character. The adventure falls apart because of the things happening by ‘accident’. Donna triggers a chain of events she did not know would happen, and it is ultimately chance that enables the Doctor and his companions to win the day at the last moment.
The events did not happen just by accident, true, but this actually makes it worse. The events of Journey’s End have been prophesised by a Dalek who went insane on seeing the future and the whole of time itself. In other words, everything was predestined. This is a good way of explaining the number of coincidences surrounding Donna throughout the season; the Dalek was able to nudge events along, as it agreed that its race should be wiped out. But on any other view this is horrible. It’s horrible because free will has been removed; everything is going to happen exactly as it happens and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. The heroes are only the heroes because they were the particular people who were going through the motions. How uninspiring.
Poor Donna gets the worst of it. She has been selected from birth for this moment. We are told that she is special, but it turns out that she is special just because someone has been helping events along, just because events locked onto her. She didn’t change the circumstances, the circumstances changed her. If she couldn’t really affect anything, then she doesn’t make herself special; fate does. Fate takes over everything, denying Donna the chance to discover that she can make a difference even if she wasn’t ‘the chosen one’. (This is one reason I don’t like chosen ones. I like drama in which ordinary people can affect the world without magical help) On this reading Donna is perhaps the most hard done-by companion of the last four seasons!
Smoke and mirrors. The Doctor does not save the day, but waits for other people to do it. Things happen by accident or by predestined fate, taking away the autonomy of the characters when it really, really should have been about the fact that ordinary people can change the world. Journey’s End looks fantastic, but it’s the most disappointing season finale under Davies’s stewardship of the programme.
But I’m not one to end on a sour note. We had a season of Donna Noble and somehow the programme survived! This was an enjoyable season, and for all my complaints about individual episodes the general quality of the show was high. I was particularly fond of The Unicorn and the Wasp, Planet of the Ood, Midnight and Turn Left. As a standalone episode, The Stolen Earth would also qualify. The Sontaran two-parter wasn’t a classic but it was fun, as was Partners in Crime, and the Library two-parter ultimately was able to rise above its flaws. The only clunkers were The Fires of Pompeii and The Doctor’s Daughter, the latter being the worst of the season.
There was no new season in 2009. Instead we have a string of specials, culminating in David Tennant’s departure as the Doctor and Russell T Davies’s own departure from the programme. Things are going to get interesting.
PS – I can’t end without mentioning that Richard Dawkins gets a cameo in The Stolen Earth and even gets to use the words ‘empirical fact’. He can’t quite keep himself from looking like he’s having a whale of a time, and it’s delightful. It’s also one more hint that the universe of Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who is atheist…
Incidentally Dawkins is married to Lalla Ward, who not only played Romana, one of the Doctor’s previous companions, but used to be married to Tom Baker himself.
PPS – Viewers will be able to recognise some of the planets stolen, such as Woman Wept and Clom. However, very long term viewers will recognise the name of Callufrax Minor, which comes all the way from The Pirate Planet – a Tom Baker adventure! I love touches like that, especially since The Pirate Planet was written by none other than Douglas Adams. Davies is on record as saying that The Pirate Planet is hugely underrated – I agree – and it’s a nice little tribute.