"He will knock four times."
And so, the finale for the great tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, came round at last. It was the end of a long goodbye, which itself was part of a long goodbye.
For those who have not seen it, there are spoilers ahead.
After something of an uncertain start in "The End of Time, Part 1," the finale in "The End of Time, Part 2," over New Year's weekend, was much more assured.
Before dealing with the Doctor's death -- yes, he regenerates, but he regards it as the death of a self, namely his, referring to his regenerated self as "a new man" -- let's deal first with the storyline.
The Narrator, played by former James Bond Timothy Dalton, it swiftly turned out, was far more, the head of the Time Lords. Time-locked by their fellow Time Lord, the Doctor, for their atrocities at the end of their epic war with the Daleks, they sought a way out, finding it by causing the sound of drums to be permanently implanted in the mind of the young child who would become the Master. That enabled them to track him through time and space, finding him on Earth, manipulating him to use his powers and the technology he'd seized from the foolish billionaire who'd had him resuscitated in a harebrained scheme for immortality.
In the meantime, the Master has captured the Doctor and Wilf (81-year old Bernard Cribbins plays the sky-gazing grandfather of former companion Donna Noble; his character shares a bond with the Doctor), only to have them escape in comic fashion to the Vinvocci ship there in orbit above Earth to salvage the tech stolen by the billionaire. The Master, who has turned everyone else on Earth (besides Donna, who is immune since she's part-Time Lord from the relaunched Season 4 finale, and Wilf, who was inside a special chamber) into a replica of himself -- even Barack Obama! -- turns all the resources of Earth to searching for the Doctor but cannot find him, as he's shut down all systems on the ship.
The Doctor and Wilf -- who has again been visited by the vision of the Woman in White, urging him to take up arms -- have another heartfelt conversation. Wilf, like the Doctor, certain that the Master will be the cause of the Doctor's prophesied death, urges him to take the old revolver he kept from his 1940s service with the British paratroopers. But the Doctor, who hates guns, will have none of it. Even if it means his death. Besides, he has nearly gotten through to the Master at the beginning of the episode, when he said it would be his honor to travel the universe at his side. Isn't it enough to see the universe rather than try to own it, he'd argued. And the Master had seemed very intrigued, till the drumming in his head took over again.
Then the Master broadcasts that the Time Lords are returning, which prompts the Doctor to return to Earth in a fun action sequence. The Doctor, who now takes Wilf's old revolver from the paras, pilots the alien ship while Wilf and one of the Vinvocci -- in a big nod to Star Wars -- man the guns to shoot down the torrent of missiles that the Master unleashes against them. As the ship roars over the English mansion in which the Master is about to greet the return of the Time Lords, the Doctor leaps out, revolver in hand, and crashes through the skylight. Yet he's too physically stunned to fire, and the Time Lords are arriving. Wilf, meanwhile, prevails upon the Vinvocci to land the ship so he can help the Doctor, only to flee at the Doctor's suggestion, though into an isolation chamber to the Doctor's dismay.
Along with the arrival of the Time Lords through an event horizon reaching into the mansion there is, overhead, the arrival of the massive Time Lord planet Gallifrey itself, which will clearly rip the Earth apart. Not that the Time Lords care, as their plan is to ascend beyond the physical plane of existence, and to hell with the billions of people on Earth, not to mention the trillions elsewhere who will perish as the space-time continuum is destroyed.
At first, the Doctor is bound to shoot Dalton's Time Lord President, who chides him as a murderer at last. Then he thinks to shoot the Master, for the link is in his head. As the Master sadly realizes. Then he spies the Woman in White, immediately recognizing her (for I think she's his mother) and she looks toward the contraption that facilitated the Time Lords' arrival. Which he then destroys with a shot.
Dalton's President makes ready to kill the Doctor as he and his cohort begin to recede back into the Time Lock, but the Master, angry at having been manipulated through his life, and more than a little sympathetic to the Doctor, attacks him with energy bolts. The President falls, the Time Lords and Gallifrey fall back into the Time Lock, and the Master disappears.
The epic crisis has been weathered and overcome, and the show is only two-thirds through. Roll credits? Sadly, no.
Relieved to see that he has survived, contrary to his understanding of the prophecy seemingly linked to the four-fold drumbeat in the Master's head, feeling increasingly confident, the Doctor looks around as the musical score swells and then plunges as he hears a quiet knocking sound. Four knocks. And again, four knocks.
It's Wilf, knocking on the glass of the isolation chamber. He'd like the Doctor to let him out. But to do that, the Doctor must enter the chamber himself and let Wilf out, and in so doing take a massive dose of radiation.
Fond as he is of Wilf, the Doctor rages at first against this monstrous irony, and at Wilf, at first seeming to agree with Wilf that he should leave him to his fate inside that chamber he never should have entered in the first place. But he can't, in the end, leave Wilf to die, so he enters it, freeing Wilf, taking what both believe will be a a highly lethal dose of radiation.
When he emerges, the Doctor seems fine. But then his wounds of battle fade and, despite Wilf's enthusiasm, it's clear to the Doctor that the regeneration is beginning. He takes Wilf home in the Tardis and, telling him he will see him one more time, sets off on what he calls his "reward."
And what is his reward? His reward is a reward for Doctor Who fans as well as the Doctor, for he is off on a sentimental journey, seeing important people in his life one last time before his regeneration into the eleventh incarnation.
He sees former companion Martha Jones and Mickey, who began as Rose Tyler's feckless boyfriend and became much more. And Captain Jack Harkness, the intergalactic con man-turned-immortal, chief of the new Torchwood. (Torchwood, of course, being the arguably more adult spin-off of Doctor Who, name of the Torchwood Institute established by Queen Victoria to combat extraterrestrial menaces, and, originally in the real world, an anagram used to hide production of Doctor Who.) And Sarah Jane Smith, companion to the third and forth Doctors (and central character in another Doctor Who spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures) and her adopted son. And Wilfred and his daughter, with Donna in the near distance. And the great granddaughter of Joan Redfern. And, finally, inevitably, Rose.
Martha, looking smashing if hard-edged in black leather, and Mickey are on the run, hunting and being hunted by a rogue Sontaran. They are also, surprise, married. And, unknown to them, about to be shot by that self-same Sontaran. Till the Doctor knocks him cold. Martha and Mickey see the Doctor, staring at them, perhaps disapproving. Then he goes.
In another nod to Star Wars, the Doctor finds longtime associate Captain Jack in a Whovian version of the Star Wars bar scene. Jack is drowning his sorrows, still recovering from the shattering events of Torchwood's excellent "Children of Earth" miniseries. He gets a note from the Doctor, standing at the other end of the bar. The note contains the name of the man next to Jack, the young ensign from Who's "Voyage of the Damned" Christmas special two years ago. Jack, ostensibly omnisexual but really a gay character, salutes the Doctor and chats the young fellow up. Then the Doctor saves a boy carelessly crossing a street talking on his obile phone; it's Sarah Jane's son, and you can see the caring still in her eyes as she watches the Doctor leave.
The Doctor next arrives outside a large church. It's Donna's wedding day. He still can't see her, as it might bring her memories flooding back and burn up her mind, but he can and does see Wilf and and his daughter, Donna's mother. Wilf is, naturally, delighted. Even more so when the Doctor presents a lottery ticket for Donna's wedding present, purchased with a loan from Donna's late father.
Next the Doctor is in a book store where an author is signing copies of her book. Someone we haven't met but who looks familiar named Verity Newman is signing copies of her book, A Journal of Impossible Things, based on a journal owned by her great grandmother, Joan Redfern. Joan was the nurse in 1913 England that the Doctor, living as a human to try to avoid a confrontation which can't be avoided, fell in love with. (Verity Newman is named after Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman, the first producers of Doctor Who, back in 1963.) The journal of his dreams belonged to the man Joan knew as John Smith, and Verity has written a book based on it. The Doctor wants to know if Joan was happy in the end. She was.
Finally, the Doctor goes to London in January 2005. It's right after the New Year and he's watching, only watching, someone he's not yet met at that point. It's Rose, his former companion and lost love. He's failing now, and standing in the shadows as she passes by, coughs and staggers a bit, drawing her attention. He tells her she's going to have a great year ahead, for it's the year she meets him, albeit in his earlier ninth Doctor incarnation, none of which he says. She's fresh, bright, and charming, and clearly ready for the adventures she's about to encounter. She disappears into her building with a final smile.
Is it all quite sentimental? Yes, highly so. And wonderful nonetheless.
And now it's time. An Ood appears in the street before the Doctor, telling him that his people will sing him to his sleep. The Doctor enters the Tardis, which sails into space above the Earth. He cries out that he doesn't want to go. He's not going quietly, there's no peaceful acceptance of the inevitable, or British stoicism. He's angry, frightened even. There's much more he wants to do. And the regeneration comes on.
It's violent this time, perhaps because of the radiation he's carried within. Actually, it's like the quickening in Highlander, a light show with crackling energy pouring out of him, causing explosions. David Tennant's face disappears in the flow of energy and becomes that of Matt Smith.
The eleventh Doctor has arrived. He's younger, confused and excited all at once as he grasps what has happened to him and is happening now. The violence of his regeneration has shattered the Tardis's systems. The little blue police box, that old-style phone booth that is so much bigger on the inside is hurtling downward toward the Earth, crashing.
The new Doctor is thrilled. He shouts out: "Geronimo!" Clearly the Doctor has a new catchphrase to replace the tenth Doctor's "Allons-y."
And the episode is done.
"Allons-y," incidentally, is French for "Let's go." "Geronimo!" is something frequently shouted as one takes a great leap. It comes from the American paratrooper tradition, inspired seven decades ago by a Western film about the great Indian chief.
What to make of the farewell of the tenth Doctor, played with such verve and grace by David Tennant, probably the most popular of all the Doctors?
Well, it wasn't brief. But for all its drawn out nature, it was in many ways so much the better. Tennant is so good in the part that it's sad to see him go.
In a real sense, the tenth Doctor's finale has been going on for more than a year, even longer than the ending(s) of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
After taking over from the very fine Christopher Eccleston, who relaunched the series as the Doctor with writer/producer Russell T. Davies at the helm, Tennant had three full seasons (the Brits call them series), and another year of specials. The latter because he took to playing Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a filmed version of which also aired on the BBC during the holidays.
He could have had his finale with the end of his third season, in a three-episode arc with a conclusion aptly titled "Journey's End." All his companions joined together, in a frankly overly complex plot, to help him fight a threat to "reality itself." And the Doctor was shot and nearly died/regenerated. Yet he continued on, this time alone -- with latest companion Donna returned home with memory wiped to avoid her own demise -- through five more special episodes.
In 2008's Christmas special, "The Next Doctor," he went to Victorian London at Christmas time, only to be caught up in a wild adventure involving another fellow who believes himself to be the Doctor. (And who was naturally teased as Tennant's replacement.) An air of melancholy sets in amidst the picture perfect Christmas setting as we learn why this man has come to believe he is the Doctor. And again as the Doctor refuses, at first, to share a Christmas dinner, preferring his growing loneliness.
For Easter 2009, the Doctor, again traveling alone in the Tardis, had a rather madcap adventure involving a red London double-decker bus, a desert planet, and an aristocratic young cat burglar. A perfect companion for the Doctor, actually, in the form of Michelle Ryan (who clicked in a way she did not as American TV's Bionic Woman). Yet, despite their chemistry and good teamwork, the Doctor turns down her request to "Show me the stars." He's lost too much with previous companions, and doesn't want to risk having his heart broken again. And as this rather picaresque adventure ends, with Lady Christina driving off into the sky, an air of foreboding as a woman tells the Doctor, like the Ood two years earlier, that his "song is ending." And then: "It is returning. It is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor ... Oh, but then ... He will knock four times."
November's special, "The Waters of Mars," found the increasingly melancholy Doctor on Mars on a very special day in history, that of the mysterious destruction of humanity's first Mars base. He sees the onrushing doom, keeps saying he has to leave what is "a fixed point in time," which he dare not change. But in the end, he snaps and goes back and saves people who were supposed to have died, a pair of "little people," as now arrogantly he calls them, and one decidedly not, one of the most famous women in history, the Mars base commander, whose death inspires her granddaughter to pilot the first interstellar mission.
There is a cost, a terrible one, and a terrible lesson, and by the end the Ood are there on a snowy London street, with the Doctor saying he's gone too far, wondering if it's his time to die.
Then of course we're to "The End of Time," and the great misdirection move that is the return of John Simm as the Master. As a political writer, I loved Simm as the manic politician who tricks the voters into making him prime minister of Britain. His performance then was operatic, as it is here. If he hadn't been made insane as a gambit by the leader of the Time Lords, he could have been a great ally of the Doctor's, rather than his nemesis. Which is only part of the pathos of this ending.
"The End of Time, Part Two," which got predictably high yet non-record ratings in Britain, set a record for BBC America getting a total of 1.47 million viewers over the three weekend airings on the channel. This is the largest audience ever for a show on BBC America, beating "The Waters of Mars," which was shown just before Christmas.
So we know there is a large and, at least in America and probably elsewhere, growing audience for Doctor Who with David Tennant. But for the eleventh Doctor, played by relative unknown Matt Smith? We don't know.
His beginning seemed fine, if necessarily brief. He's in his late twenties, to Tennant's late thirties, and we know that his first companion is played by a 21-year old redhead who looks like a teen.
Of course, the Doctor can be any age, so long as he has the spirit and intellect of the thing.
New showrunner Steven Moffat has written some of new Who's best episodes, winning three Hugo Awards in a row for such classics as "The Girl In the Fireplace" and "Blink." His temperament is rather darker than that of Russell T. Davies, who re-launched Doctor Who with a certain splashy ebullience that sought to overcome lapses in logic with dash and energy. And usually worked well at that.
Davies will run the new season of Torchwood, after his own highly successful walk in the dark with the last year's brilliant "Children of Earth" miniseries.
And Moffat is likely to embrace the verve as well as the vicious in his version of the show. The eleventh Doctor's energetic new catchphrase "Geronimo!," along with glimpses of him in preview footage as something of an action hero indicate that the show won't be all intellect. And composer Murray Gold is staying on. He's contributed much of new Who's sense of splash-and-dash, as well the hearts-on-sleeves quality of much of show with the tenth Doctor.
The science part of the science fiction was never the strength of the Davies-helmed new Who. Tennant's tenth Doctor sometimes waved off an expected wave of Star Trek-style technospeak either with a bit of inspired babbling or with a humorously dismissive "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey" non-explanation.
Davies' Doctor Who excelled not so much as accurate scifi as emotional storytelling within a science fiction frame.
With Tennant as his Doctor, he had someone with crackling energy, a lover of life who pursued his immense curiosity with the enthusiasm of a child. And an actor who also explored what it might be like to be a 900-year old being who travels constantly across time and space, exploring, winning and losing, his two hearts bursting and breaking along the way.
Someone who, himself homeless with the loss of Gallifrey, adopted Earth as his home away from home, revering humanity with all its pinnacles and pitfalls.
This is why this Doctor clings to this life, though he knows he will regenerate. This is why, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, he does not go gentle into that good night, and, instead, burns and raves at close of day as he rages against the dying of the light.
This Doctor's journey has ended, and those of us who have watched it unfold, imperfect as it has been at times, are the better for it.