There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
‘For some people, small, beautiful events is what life is all about’
‘For some people, small, beautiful events is what life is all about’
Like the Fifth Doctor, us Who fans have a limitless capacity to take comfort in the little things in life. A line, a scene, even a look has been enough to lift the most mundane of stories into the echelons of greatness; and even the worst into a state of near respectability. And let’s face it, there’s been plenty of occasions in our respective fan lives when we’ve all been hard pressed to sort the wheat from the chaff. Being a Doctor Who fan comes with a high price: the thought of ridicule from the non-believers; the suggestion that the devotion to a ‘children’s show’ may not be the most noble pursuit for someone entering their fourth decade; and of course the endless jibes about corridors, stairs and hiding behind the bloody sofa.
So, one may ask, why do we bother? If the price of such devotion is social exclusion, why do we cling on to this little show that first grabbed us by the imaginations all those years ago, and refused to let go?
Why? Because sometimes - not often, but sometimes - it transcends all those notions of childishness and embarrassment, to become something truly magical. And just as the love of a good woman inspired the Jack Nicholson character in As Good As It Gets, the titular character’s example ‘makes you want to be a better man‘. Because the Doctor doesn’t just inspire his companions and everyone else he comes into contact with to find ‘a better way of living your life’; he does it to the viewer as well. He’s been doing it to me ever since I first sat on my mother’s lap all those years ago. And three decades on, he’s still doing it now.
There’s a lot wrong with this finale episode, not least the fact that - given the hype both on-screen and off - there was an awful lot of expectation riding on its coat-tails. We were promised an epic Dalek space battle, the like of which we’ve never seen outside of our collective imaginations. There was the whole resolution to the season-long arc of the Time War, not to mention the revelation of ‘Bad Wolf’. And of course, thanks to the careless knee-jerk reaction of a BBC press officer last March, there was the knowledge that this was the Ninth Doctor’s last stand. And the prospect of a tiny glimpse at his replacement. So given there was all this to achieve - not to mention tell a cohesive, entertaining story to boot - in the scant time of forty-five minutes, the question to be asked first is: did it do it?
And the answer is yes, but only just. As I say, there’s a lot wrong with ‘The Parting of the Ways’: to begin with, there’s a disappointing reliance on technobabble (something which this series has gamely avoided on the whole) in order to push the plot along. Both the delta wave and Rose’s TARDIS-aided final resolution smack of the kind of ‘deus-ex-machina’ storytelling that Russell T Davies professes to detest. While the whole subplot of Rose’s enforced return to her domestic life of drudgery seems, at first glance, to be filler material of the lowest order. But if you’re still with me, here’s where that ‘small, beautiful events’ quote comes running to the rescue, because ‘The Parting of the Ways’ is absolutely chock-full of them. I warned fellow posters on Saturday that I had a gut feeling this was gonna be a triple-hanky event for the hardcore. I was wrong. Three hankies wouldn’t even have covered the first half-hour.
But let’s leave that for later, shall we. First off, how about that breath-taking TARD|S materialisation around Rose and the Dalek (as inspired rescues go, that’s about a 10). Or how, for once, Eccleston’s levity in the face of his deadliest enemy acts as a perfect counterpoint to the graveyard seriousness of this finale’s overall tone. The Doctor’s always whistled-in-the-dark as a means to unsettling his nemeses; the fact he’s now doing the equivalent of a one-man-band solo simply underlines how far the bar has been raised for this incarnation. Remember the ‘Trip of a Lifetime’ tag that ran with those exhilarating trailers from early March? It was only recently that I realised that they weren’t addressed to us, but to the Doctor himself. Because if, like me, you subscribe to the theory that Eccleston was indeed only ever meant for the one series, then ‘Trip of a Lifetime’ makes absolute perfect sense. This Doctor’s been running out of time since the day we first met him; a man forever chained to the weight of his past. And if Peter Davison’s vulnerable reinterpretation of the role twenty-five years ago rewrote the rule book following Baker T’s near super-heroics, then Eccleston has taken that and added to it a thousand-fold. Making the Ninth Doctor the most tortured, victimised and downright believable incarnation of the lot.
You know the saying, ‘Talent borrows, Genius steals’. Well, on the evidence of how much ‘The Parting of the Ways’ pays homage to a certain Joss Whedon’s own little show about a butt-kicking vampire slayer, then Russell T Davies must be a genius bordering on the autistic. We’ve know his love for Buffy ever since his first mooted plans for our beloved show, but it’s only now we know how much; as this particular finale is all but covered in the inspirational fingerprints of Whedon’s show. From the global-Armageddon nature of the plot, to how even in the midst of death secondary characters find time to talk about going for a drink, to that startling shot of a TARDIS-drunk Rose raised to the level of Godhood, ‘The Parting of the Ways’ is a Buffy-style season finale par-excellence.
Time now to stop for a moment and consider what just doesn’t work. We’ve already mentioned the technobabble and the convoluted filler material of Rose’s return home. Actually, perhaps I’m being disingenuous here. That whole café scene alone acts as a perfect counterpoint to the mayhem occurring 200,100 years in the future. As the Doctor and a bunch of uselessly brave individuals are giving their lives for what they believe in, Mickey and Jackie are munching chips, and filling Rose in on the latest pizza place that has opened on the precinct. I’ve not exactly been unforthcoming in saying what totally superfluous, irritating and time-wasting characters Rose’s sometime boyfriend and strumpet mother have been to me. But here, the fact they are so mundane and pointless makes absolute sense, for this is Rose finally, irrevocably cutting her ties with her previous life. And that fact that, useless as they are, Mickey and Jackie still make a crucial contribution to saving mankind says as much to me about the uniqueness of Doctor Who as anything else…
Okay, then there’s ‘Bad Wolf’. Sorry, it just doesn’t cut the mustard with me. Credit to Davies et al for not going down the expected route (the Master, Davros, bloody Adam, for God’s sake) but it’s just too rushed and convenient to hold up. And smacks of the production team choosing the least likely option simply as a means of keeping everyone off the trail. At the end of the day, such a predictably limp conclusion to this thread won’t spoil things for me, as given that only the hardcore seemed to take any notice of the references - at least up until ‘Boom Town’, anyway - then the sheer emotional power of these forty-five minutes are hardly going to be spoiled as a result.
Triple-hanky time? Not quite yet. Let’s have a few words about our regulars, shall we. First up, John Barrowman. God, I’ve loved Captain Jack (and no - though I’m sure it’s to his disappointment - not in that way). Cool, sexy and just yet another character who finds his life improved by meeting the Doctor. Barrowman is outstanding throughout the finale - right from his Che Guevara-style rabble-rousing of a makeshift army, to the brave, defiant look on his face (accompanied by one, final quip) as he’s exterminated. And as for the kiss, well besides how perfectly apt it was - being neither sexual nor gratuitous - I can’t help but smirk at the thought of all those Daily Mail readers choking over their cups of tea, before penning their ‘outraged of Tunbridge Wells’ letters to the BBC. As bigot-baiting moments go, it’s just about perfect. And my only message to those offended would be to suggest they take their heads out of the same place Captain Jack hides his laser gun, and start living in the 21st Century.
Eccleston? Well, we run the full gamut between buffoonery and brilliance here. And I genuinely believe we’ve witnessed the most bold, brave reinvention of the lead character yet. There’s something very Stephen Baxter to the Ninth Doctor, as the Doctor has a quiet air of resignation throughout that echoes The Second Coming’s reluctant Messiah (both his ‘Maybe it’s time’ reaction to the prospect of extermination and the closed eyes are very Baxterian moments). But arguably Eccleston’s finest moment here - perhaps even of the entire series - is the sad, wistful look he gives the TARDIS when he knows he’ll never see her again. It’s a real lump-in-the throat moment that barely even registers given the even more emotive moments to follow.
And last - and anything but least - is Billie Piper. Now, I’m going to say something that may outrage many. But Billie Piper is - without doubt - the best companion Doctor Who has ever had. And this is no offence to the Lis Sladens and Katy Mannings and Sophie Aldreds of the Whoniverse. Because they made silk purses out of the relative sow’s ears of poor scripts and character development. So should they remain untouchable? No, because Billie Piper’s performance throughout this year - coupled with the most character-led, emotive scripts the show’s ever had - has allowed her to show just how good Sarah-Jane, Jo Grant and Ace could have been. This does not besmirch their efforts, it just highlights how putting a real, flesh-and-blood character on screen is a two-way process. Something which the combination of Piper’s now undoubted talents and the writing team’s skill has, at last for this show, irrefutably done.
But what raises ‘The Parting of the Ways’ above its - occasionally disappointing - disparate parts is how, despite the epic story it professes to tell, this is at heart a very Doctor Who story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It’s not about the sight of sweeping Dalek fleets or Daleks flying through space (as impressive as these sights are) but about a handful of brave, resourceful people making a stand for what they believe in. And it’s a story in which good people die, simply because that’s how bad life can get at times. While the arresting visuals of Joe Ahearne’s direction continue to take your breath away - God-Rose deflecting the Daleks’ rays and disintegrating their number one-by-one, or Lynda’s death at the hands of vacuum-silenced Daleks - at heart it’s those small, beautiful events that stand out most. Which brings us to…
Okay, I admit it. I blubbed. I may even have wailed first time, had the company not been so nonchalant to proceedings. And we’re not just talking the regeneration here. I welled up when the Doctor’s pre-recorded message urged Rose to ‘have a fantastic life’; I positively cried when Rose revealed to her mum how she’d met her dead Dad (underlining, as if it be needed, just what a positive effect the Doctor is on all our lives - characters and viewers alike). And I simply lost it when Eccleston gasped his last, in what was remarkably the most uplifting death scene I think I’ve ever seen. And again, how very Stephen Baxter of the Ninth Doctor to just accept his fate, putting others before himself and finishing with his head thrown back. The fact that what followed was arguably the best introductory dialogue for a Doctor yet was merely the icing on the cake.
So, thank you Russell T Davies for proving that my child-like faith wasn’t unfounded. These past thirteen weeks have hardly been perfect, but the good far outweighs the bad; much as they did in this episode, and arguably much as they do at the heart of Doctor Who as a whole. And it’s reassuring to know - forty-two years gone and God knows how many years still to come - that the small, beautiful events of Doctor Who are as prevalent now as they ever were.