Doctor Who - The Stolen Earth
I am absolutely in two minds over this episode. It's exuberant, thrilling and emotional - more so than any penultimate episode so far - and it's everything-including-the-kitchen-sink attitude feels like a great reward for loyal viewers. Yet, The Stolen Earth, quite like the episode preceding it, melts away when you think about it too hard, revealing a number of cack-handed plot decisions, and including EVERYTHING set up in the series so far necessitates the revival of some things which are less welcome than others.
As usual, the Doctor's last adventure of the series begins with him landing in London, and wondering quite what the matter is. The formulaic nature of this scene is forgiveable in that it's followed literally moments later by an event of monumentous scale. It's a sly promise that events are going to zip along a bit faster this time, which the episode mostly delivers on.
One of the flaws of this revival has been it's annual insistence on an "arc" which has extended no further than the repeated, grating insertions of a particular phrase into every episode. This year has handled its arc a little more smoothly, and it's great fun to see the pattern of events reveal itself, rather than to simply find out what "Torchwood" means or who "Mr. Saxon" is - a pair of flat, unengaging non-mysteries. Alien species losing their home planet has been a frequently re-used plot device since New Who's inception, and it's gotten annoying of late. Folding lazy writing into a plot thread at this late stage feels a bit like cheating, but as a viewer, my attitude at this point seems to be sort of in line with Russell T Davies - fuck it, basically. With his tenure coming to a close, he's decided to bow out in spectacular style, and that rampant glee is what makes the episode work, and makes the weak points easier to forgive.
The excuses for including various characters from Who's past range from the credible to crap. It's unclear whether the Doctor's tense exchange with Harriet Jones at the end of The Christmas Invasion was meant to have such lasting significance, but it's cleverly deployed as an excuse for her role in the "Doctor's Secret Army". It's surprisingly nice to see Torchwood, and does add to the sense of scale, but Sarah-Jane's attic fits less well with the tone of its parent series. Meanwhile, Martha Jones has been sleeping her way up the UNIT ranks, as her character has once again received a promotion despite showing no outward signs of competence in any field. She's desperately unconvincing throughout the episode. Billie gets one great scene, and spends the rest of the episode walking around with a dull expression on her unsettlingly different face. Two episodes into a three episode stint and she's barely been given anything to actually do, yet - something which will severely damage how well these episodes play in the future, no matter how good next week's conclusion is. But having her stand around waving her phone in the air, trying to get a signal? Do Nokia sponsor Doctor Who, now?
Martha Jones aside, it's a well acted episode, too - the presence of Bernard Cribbins, Penelope Wilton, Adjoa Andoh and other old people proving an asset, but no-one embarrasses themselves here. Oh, except Ianto, clearly turned to comfort eating since the death of his Torchwood colleagues, with his bad pretend laugh at Paul O'Grady. I don't even really mind that Paul O'Grady appeared in the episode, despite it stretching credibility an awful lot and being just the kind of thing I usually despise. Having chubby Ianto mock-guffawing at it on a monitor when he should have been doing something much more important is a bit of another sly hint to the audience - Rusty is saying he likes those bits, and fuck you too. I can put up with his banal sense of humour when the episodes are this exciting, it seems, or maybe when a brave new era of Moffatt-led greatness is just around the corner.
Then there's the Daleks, of course. And they're as good as they've ever been, washing the foul after-taste of Daleks In Manhattan clean away. It's really only that story which has led to the general consensus that they're over-exposed as a villain - all their other appearances have been great, and a one season break from them would have been plenty. It certainly didn't help matters that their last appearance was total hogwash. As such, Stolen Earth has to work quite hard to make them seem as threatening as they once did, and the fact that most of the returning characters have had life-altering encounters with them in the past certainly helps the feeling of dread. That Martha only had a totally crap encounter with them weakens her character further still, sadly.
It's great that there's several discernible characters amongst the Daleks now, like in the old Dalek comics, but not so much in the old Doctor Who. Davros is beautifully realised - more menacing and insane than ever. Dalek Caan, driven insane by his journey into the "time-locked" Time War to rescue Davros, is also a hoot. RTD has always written flawless dialogue for the Daleks, and the back and forth between them is a real highlight.
The effects are wonderful, with The Mill turning in some of their best work yet. Their beautiful visualisation of The Shadow Proclamation, glowing turquoise in space, gives the scenes actually set there a sense of importance which scenes filmed in leisure centres don't usually have.
The cliffhanger was delightful, too - obviously a red-herring, but the episode was whizzing by with such tremendous gravitas that I was sort of fooled at the time. My first thoughts were that Tennant wouldn't leave after an episode which featured comparatively little of him; but it was an effective way of having the audience desperately wanting to not have seen the last of him. So, next week's inevitable cop-out won't feel like such a cop-out. I very much hope it's resolved in an interesting way, though - if there's a big "reset" button anywhere in the story, I'm going to be very angry. And for the record, the theory I am going with is that he will regenerate into John Simm for a little bit.
The episode is fundamentally dodgy, but by stuffing it full of so many great things and explosions and spaceships, Russell has managed to make its flaws difficult to give a shit about, if not difficult to spot.