Bad Wolf & The Parting of the Ways (Joint review)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 22 June 2005 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I have, on the whole, enjoyed the new series of Doctor Who, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the weaker episodes are those written by Russell t. Davies. I hoped however that for the two-episode season finale, Davies would pull out all of the stops and write a rousing, epic climax to the series. In one respect he achieved this, as the Doctor’s most familiar foes make a return appearance en masse, but in other respects the story is deeply flawed.

I’ll begin at the beginning. ‘Bad Wolf’ starts with the Doctor, Jack, and Rose trapped in futuristic versions of Big Brother, What Not to Wear, and The Weakest Link, respectively. If you can swallow the ludicrous (and frankly disturbing) notion that these programmes have survived largely unchanged until the year 200,100AD, the premise of the exercise is that the Daleks have secretly been massing in orbit around Earth for centuries, harvesting humans to convert into new Daleks via the various game shows broadcast from the “Game Station”, in which participation is now compulsory. Losing contestants are apparently obliterated via a disintegrator beam, but are in fact transmatted to the Dalek fleet to serve as raw materials for conversion.

Now I really, really hate reality television. It’s unimaginative, cheap television with little creative input beyond the gaudy sets, which works on the basis that the audience largely consists of voyeurs who enjoy, in every sense, seeing tits exposed on television. I had hoped when I saw the trailer for ‘Bad Wolf’ that Davies might make an effort at satire and have fun with the format, but the most we get is the vague and platitudinous line, “Half the world’s too fat, half the world’s too thin, and you just watch television.” Davies not only doesn’t attempt to criticize reality television, he doesn’t do anything with it; having refused to attack it, he refuses to defend it, and the entire Big Brother sequence feels like a self-indulgent homage with no real point to it. It’s simply an excuse for half-hearted and facile wit (including the cringe worthy line, “You are live on Channel 44,000, please do not swear”), although it does have the unexpected benefit of making me realize that Big Brother might actually be worth watching if the cretins that participate were disintegrated when they get nominated for eviction. Anyway, after the revelation that evictees are disintegrated, the Doctor, smugly aware that he has brought to the Game Station for a purpose, vandalizes the house, getting him evicted. He then saunters confidently through the exit door, confident that the unseen power behind the program won’t let him be destroyed because it has brought him to the station for a purpose and needs him alive. He is of course proved right, which raises two minor points. The first is, given that we later find out that the disintegrator beam is actually a transmat beam, why does it hold fire? Why don’t the Daleks transmat him to their ship and then exterminate him whilst they have the advantage of surprise? The second question concerns the Doctor’s line, “If they wanted me dead, they could have transmatted me into a volcano. They want me alive.” Actually they don’t, since they keep trying to kill him whenever they get the opportunity later on. The explanation for this whacking great plot hole is that Davies wants to create the impression later on that Rose has been disintegrated and decides to throw logic out the window to create a cheap thrill. The sequence also introduces the irritatingly wet “Lynda with a y”, whose sole function is to wander around after the Doctor, looking up at him with wet pouring out her so that Rose can briefly look jealous later on.

Speaking of which, we have Jack’s predicament. Jack wakes up in version of What Not to Wear, and finds himself confronted by android versions of Trinny and Susannah. The function of this in the context of the episode is to provide an excuse for John Barrowman to get his kit off on screen. Jack smugly says to the two androids, “Am I naked in front of millions of viewers? Ladies, your viewing figures just went up.” This is of course what stripping Jack off is meant to achieve in real life, and the scene also provides the unexpected but genuinely amusing sight of a butt-naked man whipping a pistol out of his ass in a Doctor Who episode. However, aside from that the sequence makes no sense in terms of plot logic, since if the games are designed to transmat humans to the Daleks for conversion, then Trinny and Susannah dismembering them seems self-defeating. There is also more really feeble humour on display here, including the description of Top Shop as a design classic and the reference to President Schwarzenegger.

However, where Davies’ largely gratuitous plundering of the worst aspects of common-denominator contemporary television works is in the case of The Weakest Link. This sequence, unlike the other two, feels genuinely dangerous, and is, thanks partly to the coup of getting Anne Robinson to provide the voice of the Anne Droid, absolutely bloody terrifying. This is largely due to the acting, particularly from Billie Piper and Paterson Joseph, a man I’ve wanted to see appear in Doctor Who ever since his exemplary performance as the Marquis de Carabas in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Both of them, as well as the actors playing the other contestants, look increasingly terrified as the game progresses, and the sudden death round is gripping. So dramatic is the scene in fact that when Rose is seemingly disintegrated, even though I knew Piper was already contracted to appear in series two, my heart skipped a beat.

With the novelty television references out of the way, the Doctor and Jack start to gradually discover what is really going on, the second half of ‘Bad Wolf’ starts to build excitingly to the revelation of the Daleks. Even though it was spoilt by the trailer at the end of ‘Boom Town’, various trailers, and newspaper gossip dating back a year, I got an undeniable thrill as the hints and clues suddenly started to appear. The scene in which the Controller tries to reveal the truth and tells the Doctor, “They’ve been hiding… watching and shaping the Earth… My masters, they fear the Doctor” is very ominous and is swiftly followed by Rose waking up to hear a familiar throbbing heartbeat sound. Then we get the point of view shot of her captor, plus the familiar extermination of the Controller and the distorted reflection of a Dalek in a wall panel. The moment when the fleet stands revealed and Jack exclaims, “I know those ships. They were destroyed” only for the Doctor to coldly reply, “Obviously they survived” sends a shiver down the spine. The Daleks are easily the best aspect of ‘Bad Wolf’/‘The Parting of the Ways’, and they are once more depicted as an unstoppable, remorseless force, with only the Dalek in the TARDIS actually being destroyed prior to the actually ending. The Emperor Dalek looks and sounds great, and the twist that after centuries of isolation spent rebuilding its entire species it has gone mad and thinks that it is god is both something new and quite effective, although when it declares, “This is perfection” it sounds like the three blokes that try and smuggle a pint out of the pub in a recent Worthington’s ad. The sight of the Daleks gliding silently around the station slaughtering everyone in their path is magnificent, and the mass murder on Level Zero is especially horrific, due to the terrified screams and sheer panic conveyed by the cast.

However, yet again Davies lets logic fly out of the window. The Daleks are invading the station purely to stop the Doctor; since the invasion of Earth is now underway, they have no further need of the station itself, and so if they have the ability to destroy entire continents so thoroughly that they actually appear to melt, why can’t they just destroy the station? Yet again the answer is that Davies is busy thinking about other things, and as in ‘Boom Town’ he sets the Doctor a moral dilemma. The Emperor Dalek reveals the truth about the Doctor’s plan, telling Jack, “There is every possibility the delta wave could be complete, but no possibility of refining it.” The choice is simple; if the Doctor uses the delta wave, he will wipe out not only the Daleks, but also every living thing on Earth. The trouble is, with the Emperor goading the Doctor, “I want to see you become like me. Hail the Doctor, the Great Exterminator!” the Doctor chooses to be a coward rather than a killer and is left standing ineffectually by the weapon that he’s been building for most of the episode but hasn’t got the balls to use. Which is all well and good, until we consider the fact that at this very point the Daleks are actually melting entire continents, so the Doctor’s choice is to destroy the Daleks and all life on Earth, or to let the Daleks survive so that they can destroy all life on Earth. It makes him yet again look utterly ineffectual and he’s left standing with a stupid look on his face until somebody else comes along to save the day. Which leads me neatly onto…

Bad Wolf. A series of warnings scattered throughout time by the Emperor Dalek to lure the Doctor into a trap, or sign that some hitherto unsuspected malevolent force is watching the Doctor wherever he goes? Actually no; it’s a cryptic message from Rose to herself so that she knows to look into the heart of TARDIS without turning into a foetus in order to become a superbeing and save the day so that the Doctor doesn’t have to. It really is utter bollocks, and although Davies has established in several of his scripts that Rose is none too bright, surely some kind of clear note would have been easier? ‘Bad Wolf’/‘The Parting of the Ways’ sees Davies taking the piss out of ‘Doctor Who’ with Rose asking the Emperor, “But that makes them… half human?” only to be indignantly told, “Those words are blasphemy!” and the latter episode seeing the Doctor kiss his companion in a way that is crucial to the plot. But I personally wasn’t all that bothered by either the half-human revelation or the kiss in ‘Doctor Who’, I was more annoyed by the Here, you will notice, Davies repeats that same mistake with a horrendous deus ex machina ending in which the TARDIS uses Rose to save the day with magic fairy dust, resurrecting the Doctor’s dead friend in the process. As in ‘Boom Town’, it’s a last minute magical intervention so that the Doctor doesn’t have to weasel out of a moral dilemma for which Davies can provide no satisfactory resolution. It is also immensely unsatisfying, with Rose seen to resurrect Jack, but not, so far as we know, bothering to save anyone else, or restore the ravaged Earth, or put history back on track.

Where Davies does score points however is in his use of the regulars. I’ve already mentioned that Piper is great at conveying Rose’s panic and fear when she’s forced to play The Weakest Link, and she’s also convincingly emotional when Mickey and Jacky vainly try and comfort her in the café. Speaking of which, Noel Clarke puts in another decent performance as Mickey, who respects Rose’s dedication to the Doctor to help her open the TARDIS console, and astonishingly, Camille Coduri puts in a performance at the eleventh hour that doesn’t make me want to kick the television screen in. The scene in which Rose tells Jackie that she met her Dad and that he would tell her to try is quite moving, and well acted by both performers.

As for Jack, although at times he’s still in Captain Innuendo mode with incessant flirting and the dubious line, “The pleasure was all mine. Which is the only thing that matters in the end” his testosterone-crazed antics give way to an urgent drive for action when the true threat stands revealed. He bravely makes a futile gesture to buy time for the Doctor to decide not to bother using the Delta Wave, and faces death with his chin up. He knows he’s got no chance too; he tells the Doctor and Rose, “I guess this is goodbye… Rose, you are worth fighting for. Wish I’d never met you Doctor, I was much better off as a coward.” He then kisses them both in a scene that Barrowman’s performance makes genuinely emotional, and when he finally gets exterminated it is a heart-wrenching moment. So too for that matter is the crumpled, hurt look on Barrowman’s face when Jack is resurrected only to see the TARDIS dematerialize without him.

And finally, there is Christopher Eccleston. Although he’s spent too much time gurning and grinning maniacally during some of Davies’ scripts, there are times during ‘Bad Wolf’/‘The Parting of the Ways’ when his performance is sublime. Notable examples include the sheer hurt he conveys by facial acting alone when the Doctor thinks Rose his dead, the equally grim look when he sees the Bad Wolf Corporation logo, and the impression he gives of badly controlled fury whenever he has to talk to the Daleks. The “you hate your own existence” speech is especially memorable, as he looks at them with a combination of pity, contempt, and horror. His threat to the Daleks when he promises, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to rescue her. I’m going to save Rose Tyler from the middle of the Dalek fleet, and then I’m going to save the Earth, and then, just to finish off, I’m going to wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky” manages to be intimidating thanks to Eccleston’s delivery, although in retrospect it is slightly spoiled by the realization that what he does is rescue Rose but then end up standing impotently holding his plunger. Unfortunately, during ‘The Parting of Ways’, his performance is hamstrung by some vacuous lines, which he always seems to have trouble delivering, such as when the Doctor glibly notes, “Daleks have got the answers, let’s go and meet the neighbours.” Nevertheless, for much of the story he puts in one of his finest performances as the role for one last time before the end.

And what an end it is. I’d been expecting a regeneration at the end of ‘The Parting of the Ways’ from shortly after suspicious rumours started circulating in the gutter press about Eccleston’s supposedly unexpected resignation. It gives the new audience members the opportunity to witness a key part of the series’ lore, and it’s usually an exciting event. Unfortunately, here it isn’t, because the entire scene is bereft of dramatic tension. Rather than having the mortally wounded Doctor visibly dying on the floor of the TARDIS, we get the sight of Eccleston gurning one last time and delivering crass lines including, “Fantastic place, they’ve got dogs with no noses. Imagine how many times a day you make that joke, and it’s still funny!” The whole scene is horribly contrived, with the Doctor jigging about and quickly providing a casual infodump, as he tells Rose, “Time Lords have this little trick, sort of a way of cheating death… It means I’m going to change.” But when it’s over and David Tennant is left standing there, a grin springs to my face. Whilst Eccleston has been great at times throughout the series, he doesn’t easily convey the natural eccentricity that I associate with the role; Tennant does, and when he mutters, “New teeth, that’s weird” I can’t help feeling excited about the future. I only hope I’m not disappointed…