Spoilers for the "Doctor Who" season four finale coming up just as soon as I give myself a hand...
First, I want to thank all of you for exercising so much restraint last week in not attempting to ruin the "Doctor regenerates" cliffhanger -- even though the promo monkeys at Sci Fi couldn't be bothered to do the same. I know it's tricky to cut a promo for the episode without giving away whether David Tennant is still playing The Doctor, but it can be done. Hell, take a page from the way CBS used to do "Survivor" finale promos and not actually show any footage from the finale itself. Show a bunch of quick clips from these four Davies seasons (or even this season, if Sci Fi doesn't have the rights to the earlier stuff anymore), push it as Russell Davies' farewell and raise the question of whether we might have a new Doctor. Geez!
As I understand it, the BBC understood what to do and simply didn't show a promo at all, which raised a weeklong furor in the UK -- this despite the fact that all the advance publicity about David Tennant doing "Hamlet" and this forcing "Doctor Who" to do nothing but TV-movies for 2009 should have made it clear the guy was staying in the role. It's a measure of how good Tennant is in the role, and how much he and Davies have revitalized the franchise, that people bought into the cliffhanger and began wondering if they had been faked out.
Now, I'm not in love with the technobabble solution for the non-transformation, but I also didn't watch the original series and don't know how The Doctor usually reacted to his impending change. The Eccleston version of The Doctor was such a tortured soul that you could understand his desire to become a new man, even though it was clearly so upsetting to Rose. (If only she knew then how strongly she'd feel about his replacement.) Did previous Doctors get anxious about changing? Was it something they looked forward to? Something they simply treated as a fact of immortal life? Did the old series deal with the emotional implications at all?
Regardless, if it felt like a cheat, at least it was a cheat with a noble purpose. Again, Tennant seems born to play this part (and I say this as a guy who was annoyed for a really long time that Eccleston bailed so quickly), is so good at the disparate styles and tones of the franchise, so geeky and yet so dashing, that it would be a shame to say goodbye to him before finding out how Steven Moffat would write him on a weekly basis.
And it's not like the severed hand was only introduced a few episodes ago. It dates all the way back to "The Christmas Invasion," Tenant's first real appearance, and one the show has used for technobabble-y methods in the past. Beyond that, the severed hand led to the duplicate Doctor, which allowed Davies to give Rose a happy ending of sorts: he's not really her Doctor, but he's the closest she'll ever get who would be willing/able to love her and grow old with her. (On the other hand, the explanation for why Rose and the spare Doctor had to stay forever in Steel-world didn't really wash. Sure, he's hurt and genocidal and not dissimilar to Nine, but he's also mortal and doesn't have a TARDIS. What trouble would he cause? Why couldn't Rose -- with or without her mom and alterna-dad -- hang with him in our universe? It seemed mainly like Davies ensuring that Rose's story would end with his tenure.)
Though I imagine the Rose/Doctor 'shippers thrilled to the sight of Rose being all swooney with a Doctor (if not The Doctor), for me the finale's emotional centerpiece was the fate-worse-than-death suffered by poor Donna Noble. We knew something bad was coming, both because Catherine Tate only signed a one-year contract and because of how River Song reacted to Donna back in "Silence in the Library," but it was still brutal to witness Donna realizing how much she was about to lose. It's been suggested in the past that previous companions needed a long time to accept the return to normal life (see Sarah Jane in "School Reunion"), and I suppose an argument could be made that Donna is better off than if she had been banished back to Earth while remembering the wonders of the universe she had seen. I don't buy it, though, because at least Donna would have those memories, would know all the amazing things she had seen -- and, more importantly, had done -- and would have found some way to live a better life. Instead, she'll just go back to temping and cackling through girl's nights out, oblivious to the possibilities for both the world and for Donna Noble, and that stinks.
It stinks for Donna, not dramatically, I should say. As written, well and cruelly played, Mr. Davies. And Donna's lousy end was balanced by the more upbeat resolutions for Rose, and for Martha and Mickey, who presumably will be replacing Owen and Tosh on "Torchwood" season three. (Is Mickey any good with computers? I know he's mechanically inclined, but would Torchwood need to add another hacker on top of him?)
As for the rest of "Journey's End," I suppose there's a reason I've devoted so much space to either the resolution of the cliffhanger or the extended epilogue. I just don't have much to say about the body of the episode. I've long since lost interest in the Daleks -- and was gratified to read a Comic-Con dispatch where Moffat said he was going to steer clear of the classic villains as much as possible, as I'd like the screeching pepperpots to stay dead this time -- and while I acknowledge there's a lot of wicked kewl stuff going on that would feel even kewler if I was either a longtime "Who" fan or a 10-year-old boy, it ain't deep. I enjoyed seeing all the sidekicks work together and many of the more epic story beats, but when I look back on this season, my thoughts are going to turn more towards earlier episodes like "Midnight" or "Planet of the Ood" or the Moffat two-parter.
I also feel like these two episodes work better as a series finale than yet another chapter in an ongoing saga. Sure, this is basically the end of the Davies version of "Who," but the show has to keep going, and now Davies has left Moffat with a world where mankind has, in a four year span been witness to several overt alien invasions and a planetary hijacking that can't easily be explained as a mass delusion. Part of the appeal of The Doctor's interactions with contemporary society is that here's this extraordinary man wandering around a world so much like our own. What happens when every 21st century citizen he meets is jaded about the existence of extra terrestrial life, interstellar travel, etc.?
Moffat can, of course, choose to ignore this (goodness knows comic book writers do all the time; I'm not sure how an inhabitant of the Marvel Universe version of Manhattan would ever have the nerve to leave the house in the morning) or turn it into a background gag, or open up with some kind of reset button that winds up blanking the memories of everybody but The Doctor and his inner circle. But it does feel like Davies left quite a mess to be cleaned up, no?
What did everybody else think?