Even with a nearly immortal (okay, say his life span is 900 years) character, there are endings. Especially when he's the (almost) title character of the longest running science fiction television series in the world. When there's a new James Bond, we have to shrug off the development from a continuity standpoint. But the Doctor has a built-in explanation; he regenerates.
Doctor Who's present incarnation of the Doctor, the tenth to date, is reaching "the end of his song," as his psychic Ood friends say. There is "a darkness coming," vaster still than great darknesses which have come before on this quite operatic space (and time) opera of a show. The show's annual Christmas special has evolved into a two-part finale ending on New Year's Day in Britain, and on the 2nd on BBC America.
This darkness, called, rather portentously, "The End of Time," will take the tenth incarnation of the Doctor, played by arguably the most popular of them all, Scottish actor David Tennant. (Who in my view is fantastic in the role.) And his incarnation of the Doctor will be replaced by another, portrayed by English actor Matt Smith, in the season (the Brits call them series) next year.
Tennant's passing from the role is a big deal for this quintessentially British cultural institution with global reach. When writer/producer Russell T. Davies, previously best known for Queer As Folk, revived Doctor Who in 2005, he did so with Christopher Eccleston, who re-launched the franchise with high style in the role. Yet the announcement of his leaving Doctor Who after only one season came only days after the re-launched series' premiere.
After a season of adventures with his human companion, Rose Tyler -- a London shop girl conceived by Davies as "the most average girl on Earth," yet with hidden depths -- the Ninth Doctor regenerated into the tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company who'd also played Casanova and a villain in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Where Eccleston's doctor, while adventurous enough, tended to brood and at times be a dour sort of figure, Tennant's doctor is more "a zig-zag streak of lightning in the brain," to borrow William Manchester's line about Churchill's brilliance. Tennant's background playing fast-paced, tricky comedic roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company shows in his approach to the role, which blends incisive intellect and heart with a true zest and sense of comic timing.
Asked by one character for his name, rank, and purpose, Tennant's doctor answers: "The Doctor. Doctor. Fun."
Davies, who seems inspired in part by the arch and frequently antic behavior of the Beatles (and the filmmaking of director Richard Lester) in A Hard Day's Night, has quite a lot of running and shouting in his Doctor Who. The tenth Doctor, with his pinstriped suit, athletic shoes, and rockabilly hair is absolutely right for that. Naturally, Rose (well played by pop star Billie Piper), who continued as the Doctor's companion in the second season, falls in love with him. But it was not to be, exactly. Rose is forced by circumstance to part from the Doctor. Though she manages to return on occasion, including this weekend's finale.
You may or may not know that much about Doctor Who, a great hit in Britain since it emerged there in 1963, aside from the 16-year hiatus it took -- not counting the 1996 TV movie/backdoor pilot co-produced by Fox and the BBC, which was a hit in Britain but not in America -- between 1989 and 2005. Well, the truth is that it was overshadowed in its first airing, which happened to be November 23, 1963, the day after the assassination of President Kennedy, but picked up quickly after that. In the rest of the world, including America where it played for years on PBS stations before finding a home on SciFi and now BBC America, it's a cult show.
The Doctor -- he's not "Doctor Who," that's the title of the show playing up the character's enigmatic nature -- is a traveler in space and time. The nearly last, or so we've been told, of the Time Lords, that race of grand scale manipulators lost in an epic war with the Daleks, a race of homicidal little creatures encased in battle armor resembling large-scale pepper pots. With this as his backstory, the Doctor travels here, there, and everywhere(when) -- yet always, strangely, he is ever drawn back to Earth, and often as not London at that -- in his semi-organic spacecraft/time machine. Called the Tardis, for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, it malfunctions more than a bit, which is why it is permanently stuck in chameleon form as a blue 1950s-style London police call box. In other words, it looks like one of those very old phone booths for use by police officers. Naturally, the Tardis, like a great many people, is bigger on the inside than on the outside.
But not nearly so big as the character. The Doctor is one of the great characters of science fiction. Because of his intellect and ability to range throughout space and time, he is practically a doctor of everything. Most of all, he is a doctor of curiosity, with the means to learn to his restless mind's content. Except he never is truly content, of course, because knowledge is by definition infinite. A peaceful figure who greatly dislikes guns, he prefers to reason things through, aided by his vast storehouse of knowledge, extraordinary technology, and the luck he makes and finds, often in people.
But it does not do to anger him.
An excellent two-parter ("Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood") in the third season places the tenth Doctor's character in perspective, as well as playing up the pathos of the character. With Rose lost to him, the Doctor has a new companion, Martha Jones, a young medical doctor in training played by Freema Agyeman, a part-Persian English version of Halle Berry. Pursued by a rapacious yet short-lived "family of blood" seeking his energy and that of the Tardis, the Doctor decides to avoid conflict and simply hide out on Earth for a few months until they die of natural causes. He and Martha decamp to England 1913 where he takes human form as school teacher John Smith, entrusting his Time Lord consciousness to Martha (who has to act as his servant in those times), encased inside a fob watch.
The human form Doctor, teaching schoolboys who will soon enough meet their fates on the senseless killing fields of World War I, proceeds to fall in love with the school nurse, who is enchanted with his fanciful diary writings of the Time Lord adventures that keep echoing in his mind. Yet his efforts to avoid conflict are not enough, and the murderous family tracks his scent, if not him, to what has become his bookish Eden and begins wreaking havoc on the peaceful surroundings. Finally, with Martha's insistent help, he has no choice but to become the Doctor again, though he doesn't want to. And metes out a ruthless sort of punishment, consigning the various family members to various dreadful forms of immortality, such as serving as scare crow for all the fields of England, being trapped at the edge of every mirror, and being stuck in the event horizon of a collapsing star.
At the end of that season, this companion, too, departs, though Martha, whose regard for the Doctor is unrequited, does so of her own volition to finish her medical studies and move on with her life. But not before helping a now imprisoned Doctor save the world from his arch-enemy, the Master. The Master is a sort of Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes, a renegade Time Lord who's come up with a truly demonic plan to conquer the Earth and much besides. First, as politician Harold Saxon, the charmingly antic master manipulator gets himself elected prime minister of Britain. And on it goes.
John Simm, who starred in the original mindbender detective story Life on Mars (far better than the American network television re-make) and bested this year's Russell Crowe feature film portrayal of an investigative reporter in the original State of Play miniseries, shines as the operatically irrational Master. Naturally, though his nefarious plan was foiled two years ago, the Master's back for the tenth doctor's finale this weekend.
Simm says he plays the Master as a cross between Tony Blair and Caligula. He seems more than a bit like Neo in part one of "The End of Time," which aired over Christmas weekend. I won't give away many spoilers in case you haven't seen it.
It will be shown again right before part two this weekend.
Also back for the finale are Rose, somehow, and the Doctor's companion in the most recent season, a London temp named Donna Noble. Played by comedian and actress Catherine Tate, she seemed at first like an odd bit of casting, as Tate is well-known for her amusingly irritating characters. "Am I bovvered? Am I bovvered, though? Look at my face. Is it bovvered? Arks me If I'm bovvered! Look, face, bovvered? I ain't bovvered!"
In fact, watching her famous skit with Blair for charity, I thought she might be a grating disaster.
But Tate's Donna proved to be terrific, with her seeming fate after, naturally, saving the world, very affecting.
Also back is her grandfather, Wilf, who ends as the now even more rootless and lonely tenth Doctor's final companion. 81-year old Bernard Cribbins played the first to set foot on the Moon in 1963's The Mouse on the Moon, the film Richard Lester did right before A Hard Day's Night.
Having met the Doctor in the course of one of the earlier Christmas specials -- the one in which the Doctor stops a spacefaring Titanic from wiping out Buckingham Palace -- his character is thrilled to meet him again and even more thrilled that his long unhappy grand-daughter has had the chance to travel the stars and the eras, though she's had to forget in order to save her mind. Now, with the end approaching for the isolated Doctor, he's the one who's on the right wavelength.
And there's Timothy Dalton, who had an under-appreciated two-film run as James Bond in the late 1980s and appears here as the Narrator. Not to mention something much more than that.
The first half of the tenth doctor's finale was, to be frank, something of a muddle, with intriguing bits mixed amidst other things, including a Barack Obama character about to announce to a waiting world the solution to the global recession. It will be interesting to see how Davies pulls it all together to wrap up the tenth doctor's incarnation, and his successful reinvention of Doctor Who.
Which will continue next season under the direction of writer/producer Steven Moffatt, who's written some of the best episodes of new Who. But not with the great tenth Doctor ...