There’s never been a ‘scorched earth’ approach to a departing star or producer before in the history of Doctor Who, and, you might rightly say, that’s because the show has never held such a vaulted position as when Russell T Davies and David Tennant were at the helm.
In the past, mainstays like the TARDIS or a companion stayed relatively the same – continuity, a sense of the show always carrying on, was paramount – even as the idea of regeneration and renewal had, by now, become part of the lexicon.
And that’s largely because, what they left behind, was greater than aesthetics; between the pair of them and executive producer Julie Gardner, Doctor Who had transformed into something entirely new.
There’s never been a hero quite like the Doctor and under the guidance of Russell T Davies, there was never a protagonist of what is essentially a procedural show, who was cast in such a grand, operatic light.
The telly landscape is filled with purported heroes who take grime pleasure in extracting the minute details from such mire as a crime scene as they chase death down shadowy back alleys but never are their internal woes painted in such a vivid, grandiose fashion as the Doctor’s own struggles with fighting the good fight.
Here was a hero who was broad enough in design to be recognisable in silhouette, who carried the weight of unquestionably doing the right thing, even if in doing so, that meant heartbreak, or in this case, certain death.
It’s this gentle re-imagining of the Doctor’s past that made Russell T Davies’ reign so popular – the show has always been about one Time Lord travelling through time and space looking for fun things to do and wrongs to put right. As the finale of each season sought to top the next – pushing the boundaries of just what a television show of this scale could achieve – even at its most ungainly (‘Bad Wolf’ the two words scattered to the four corners of the universe, works only in the sense that it had to – it’s pay-off succeeding in spite of itself) this sense of one-upmanship was always anchored to an emotionally resonant pay off for the Tenth Doctor.
There was always the sense that the Doctor would always step into the line of fire and that in doing so, he would illuminate the idea that he only brings sadness to the lives of those he travels with, and, indeed, himself.
The End of Time then, like the ‘Bad Wolf’ arc, succeeds almost in spite of itself – a lot of the first half of this extended swansong retains its strength by seeing the world through the eyes of the mercurial Wilf, play faultlessly by Bernard Cribbins. The man too late for an adventure sharing in the last adventure of the man fast running out of time.
It isn’t until the Doctor and Wilf sit down for a heart-breaking discussion in a café that the tonal disparities of the first part start to mesh into something more profound. Up until that point, the episode had been playing the abhorrent idea of the Master – now an all-powerful super being, rather than the calculated Moriarty figure –enacting a diabolical plan on the human race, as a bit of a joke – it’s as if everything is played at a step removed; the episode seems afraid to dwell too much on that horrid threat – leaving John Simm’s the Master to switch from being broadly humorous to flat out murderer, while trying to maintain some sort of level of character consistency.
From Wilf and the Doctor’s chat onwards, we get what is essentially a passion play – and there’s no better time of the year to indulge in one’s Christ allegories than at Christmas. Russell T Davies has never been shy about embracing the Doctor as a largely secular figure of worship, and he does so without resorting to cliché. Here, we get new symbolism – a sort of cult designed around iconic moments that, as fans, we may either embrace or feel slightly pandered to, but nonetheless, derive there power from that operatic tone and there eventual place within the wider canon – it’s a continuation of a story concerned with its place within a wider narrative.
Come the final, chilling moment when those four knocks resonant in the aftermath of the Doctor’s showdown with the Master and his own people, and again, we’re treated to the idea that, underneath the surface of this joyful, adventurous Doctor, there was and is, this rich vein of melancholy. While it’s true that the Doctor always does the right thing, it doesn’t mean that he never contemplates walking away from his own self-inflicted curse.
And that’s really the Tenth Doctor in a nutshell; a man who gallivanted around the universe looking for fun and adventure, who, on occasions, was tempted by the happiness he created in others to sometimes want to stay.
In the finale, where, with his life drawing ever closer to an end, he pays an extended visit to the ones he loved, it never feels overtly sentimental because it’s largely earned – he gets one last chance to make his friends happy. Even if, when directly asked by Verity Newman – a descendant of the character played by Jessica Hynes in Human Nature/The Family of Blood – whether he was happy, he leaves the question hanging.
It may not have been the most joyous note to leave the Davies/Tennant era on but it’s the right one to strike.
It’s unsurprising that, come The Eleventh Hour, we largely revert back to that sense of wonder that solely belonged to Doctor Who.
In those early scenes, there isn’t much to separate Smith from Tennant – perhaps a greater sense of levity, which, given that we’re perhaps still mourning the loss of one beloved Doctor, entirely makes sense – as well as an enduring oddness that is both totally disarming and utterly, utterly charming.
Matt Smith’s boisterousness is infectious from the first to the last minute – throwing his whole being into the role as though he had been born to be the Doctor. His harmless, eccentric personality doesn’t really relent until the final confrontation with the Atraxi, where, in a what is either a reassuring hand reminding you that everything and nothing has changed, or a little bit of fan service, we get to see Matt Smith literally step into the linage of Doctors.
What’s wonderful about Moffat’s first episode in charge is that it is economic with the enormity of the task placed before it – combining as it does a fairy tale-quality to Moffat’s exceptionally strong narratives, acutely observed characters and efficient plotting.
That change of tone also ushers in a more pronounced sexual tension between the Doctor and his companion – within the 12-year gap between his first visit and his return, there’s a two-year period where, the Doctor becomes an idealised figure for Amelia Pond – operating as he does as a sort of potential husband, an absent, idealised father and a fantasy figure of escapism; returning as he does, just before Amy had resigned herself to a quiet life with her soon to be husband, Rory.
In the past, Steven Moffat has talked about a genuine fear within the BBC that Doctor Who would end when Russell T Davies departed the show. It’s easy to see why such fears existed, even within its own history, the show had never had a more heralded departure, but, by leaving the character in a position where he could literally travel anywhere and be anyone, and not feel incumbent to those that came before it, Doctor Who was able to continue to spread a little joy all of its own.