The Master’s back and madder than ever, but can he bring the Tenth Doctor’s song to an end this Christmas?
“We’re going to be showing you some very special, very secret things tonight,” says the BBC man who is introducing this special advance screening of the Doctor Who Christmas special. “So can you please switch off any electronic devices and any recording equipment before we begin.”
“What about my pacemaker?” a lone voice calls out. It is unmistakeably Bernard Cribbins, sat in the audience with his co-stars John Simm and Catherine Tate, and the arch-regenerator himself, Russell T Davies. “Can it take pictures?” asks the BBC man. “Yes, it’s very modern,” replies Cribbins. The audience is delighted.
And that’s entirely appropriate, because while this might be the first part of David Tennant’s swansong as the Tenth Doctor, it’s Cribbins who is centre stage for much of this episode, bringing festive laughs and tugging at the heartstrings in equal measure. As Donna’s granddad, Wilfred Mott, he starts the episode seeking solace from the bad dreams that are haunting the whole world, before he finds himself at the centre of events that threaten the very fabric of Time.
For the Doctor, the continued significance of Wilf is too much of a coincidence, and the Time Lord hints that there may be more to the old man than meets the eye. Yet the pair team up regardless, and share some heartfelt moments on the nature of mortality before embarking on the adventure proper. Partnering Tennant with the 80-year-old actor adds pathos to the dying days of this 900-year-old Doctor, and gives both men the opportunity to prove that, regardless of age, they are simply very good actors indeed.
But then, The End Of Time is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to casting, with brief but memorable contributions from both June Whitfield and Timothy Dalton, and, of course, the return of John Simm as the increasingly deranged but utterly brilliant Master. This rival Time Lord may have been killed back in series three, but the door was left open for his return when a mysterious female hand was seen to take his discarded ring at the end of that series. Here we finally get to see whose hand that was – and it’s no one you were expecting!
Along with Cribbins, Simm is the driving force of this episode, utterly different from his Harold Saxon persona from two years back, yet totally the same character in his wild-eyed, evil genius. Several Master moments in the episode are genuinely scary, and yet wonderfully funny at the same time. It’s a perfect combination for a man who reviles yet revels in his own lunacy, and makes for unforgettable telly. The fact that the Master seems to have no distinct plan until late in the episode makes it all the more breathtaking when it finally kicks in – and reminds us how terrifying a Time Lord can be, if you don’t have him on your side.
With the return of Wilf and the Master – not to mention Ood Sigma, and Donna and her mum – this episode could easily have become bogged down in continuity, and off-putting for a Christmas Day audience, but once again Russell T Davies has pulled off the trick of pleasing long-term fans within the confines of an easy-to-understand, rollicking fantasy adventure. The perfect example of this is the resurrection of the Master, which manages to be both a brief and functional device to get the story moving, yet also pivotal to the development of the character. True, the story relies on a few flashbacks and some linking narration to fill in gaps that might have been more artfully explained, but Davies has never been one to miss an opportunity, and there’s a definite sense that ‘The Narrator’ will turn out to be much more than just a narrator …
So whether fan or gran, viewers should find this the perfect Christmas present when they settle down after the biggest dinner of the year, and one entirely deserving of the fanfare BBC1 has afforded it. Just make sure you do eat before you watch it – because the Master’s hungry, and his table manners might just put you off your food…