The build up to the 2009 Christmas Special was one of a bittersweet nature. By this point we all knew David Tennant was mere months away from ending his acclaimed era as The Doctor, as such going into Christmas, it was hard to shake away the anxiety about how this tranformative Doctor was to end his life. Crucially it was also the end of the line for showrunner Russell T Davies who was also set to hang up his hat after bringing back Doctor Who in 2005, making The End of Time that much more an event. Expectations were undoubtedly astronomical; could RTD end the run of one, if not the most popular Doctors in the history of the show on a high note?
Even before the episode aired, The End of Time seemed to be starting strongly with the announcement that John Simm would be returning as The Master, following his demise in Series 9’s finale The Sound of Drums. Hype had steadily been rising long before The End of Time aired during the infamous year long break between 2008 and 2009, during which hints were offered regarding the return of he who ”would knock four times”. Speculation of course went into overdrive as to the identity of the returning character and we ultimately got our answer when a picture leaked of the The End of Time script reading. Who was there but none other than John Simm, adorned with a startling new blond haircut. The speculation of The Master’s return was vindicated. The return of The Doctor’s arch enemy in Ten’s farewell episode was not just exciting; it was prophesied that this mystery character was to be the harbinger of the Tenth Doctor’s ‘death’. With this harbinger seemingly none of than The Master himself, the stage was set for a truly dramatic and emotional end to Ten. Expectations were high. But who could ignore the other elephant in the room… Timothy Dalton dressed as a Time Lord.
Russell T Davies was going all out for The End of Time, bringing back not only The Master as the possible killer of the Tenth Doctor, but the Time Lords were coming back. The magnitude of their return could not be understated at the time, for this was the first time the rulers of Gallifrey had appeared in the show since the classic era. Filling the Christmas Special with such an unprecedented scope and scale subsequently had the potential to be simply too much, the writer believing more is better. Thankfully, RTD does an excellent job of balancing the epic with the intimate. One of his greatest strengths as a writer on Doctor Who was his ability to effectively portray the urban realism of Earth as a setting. RTD was audacious in returning his final Christmas Special to where it all began in The Christmas Invasion, particularly when following the previous specials, all of which were alien in setting. Having the plot take place back in the gritty realism of London brings this Christmas special back down to a more emotional level, away from the fantastical environments of years past. The Doctor in The End of Time is stripped back, emotional and desperate; where better for Ten to face his demise than on the planet that means the most.
The core of The End of Time is deeply raw for a Christmas special; this is of course a story about the end of a Doctor and was always going to eschew the more traditional tropes, the silliness that often accompanies a lighter episode. Whilst yes, The End of Time is considerably more serious than previous specials, the fact that the episode is still a Christmas special is not forgotten. Much of the comic relief that lightens the darkness of the main plot comes from the ever lovable Wilfred Mott, whose sprightly youthfulness acts as a warm, sweet counter to the edginess that accompanies The Doctor as his final day edges closer. Wilfred and his gang of silver sleuths act as more than a pathway for The Doctor to finally catch up with The Master; the humour that stems from their playfulness with The Doctor, particularly the sassy Minnie, is much needed to balance the weight of the impending regeneration story with the Christmas spirit of the specials.
John Simm’s return as The Master taps more into the animalistic side of the tortured Time Lord. Crippled by his botched resurrection, this Master strays away from the playful mania we witnessed in Utopia and The Sound of Drums; here the Time Lord is ravenous in hunger for power and flesh. Initially, the human eating is rather silly and contrived, a sudden twist for the character for the sake of juxtaposition to his pre death form. Over the course of the episode however, his beastly characteristics serve to demonstrate how far The Master has fallen into insanity. One of the turning points for in the episode has major ramifications for Who canon and The Master’s character; the reveal that the Time Lords planted the drumbeat inside The Master’s head. No longer is he simply insane by virtue of psychopathy, his actions, his entire life, have been driven by the Time Lords for their own means. This massively transforms both The Master and the Time Lords in the entire canon and flips the audience viewpoints on their heads. A new sympathy for The Master is bred, controlled by the Time Lords since childhood, who themselves have become villains in their own right, driven by the great fear to lose power in the Universe. The reveal of the Time Lord’s decent into madness was transformative for The End of Time as an episode and the entire show as a whole.
Both parts of The End of Time are perfectly balanced between the density of Ten’s ending and the Christmas setting. The star of the episode is of course David Tennant in his final appearance as The Doctor (minus Day of the Doctor). Throughout the entirety of the episode, Tennant looks on the verge of crying himself, to the extent that in his biggest moments of anguish such as the cafe scene and his final moment on screen, when the tears do flow, it feels like an outpouring of pain straight from Tennant’s own soul. This elevates The End of Time from a regeneration story to the goodbye of an incarnation that has himself become an icon. Watching an incarnation that has had an impact of such magnitude bid goodbye to his companions is unlike nothing seen on TV, both then and since; indeed this sequence surely goes down as one of the greatest ever on the show. The Tenth Doctor’s final moment in the TARDIS, even to this day, is hard to watch for its sheer beauty in acting and tone. This is a goodbye from not simply a Doctor, this is an actor saying goodbye to a character that transformed Doctor Who in popular culture. As a single episode, it is superb. As a Christmas Special, The End of Time is elevated to a seasonal classic unlike anything before it.
Tomorrow, Louis tackles the first Christmas Special of the Matt Smith era, A Christmas Carol.