Show-runner Russell T Davies had plenty of time to figure out how to put a bow on his version of the series and, as might be expected, he did some things well, some things poorly – and some things were simply inexplicable. Perhaps his best move was to recognize that all anyone really cares about in a Doctor’s final story is – wait for it – the Doctor’s final moments. The rest of the episode is all so much running around until the Big Moment. (So perhaps Davies was winking at us older fans by making the Doctor and the Master literally run around in a quarry?) The Master’s…er, master plan (which he actually slapped together on impulse when confronted by the Immortality Gate) ultimately did not matter, and was casually usurped by the arrival of Rassilon. Meaning the intriguing visual of the Master’s face intermittently changing into a skull did not really matter beyond providing an excuse for sight gags of the Master eating ravenously. But I do give Davies props for wrapping up his plotlines (I will probably devote an entire post to dissecting the story itself.) with plenty of time to concentrate solely on the Doctor’s end.
And never before has the regeneration portion of a regeneration story been given so much room to breathe. In the past, the actual changeover usually felt almost like an afterthought, thanks to the convention of only glimpsing the new persona for a few seconds at the end of the episode. But here, Davies expanded on the phenomenon, by giving 10 a prophecy of doom, and the Doctor gave us a peek into the mindset of someone who knows he is about to die.
It was fitting that the Doctor traded his life for an “ordinary” man like Wilf (played by the sublime Bernard Cribbins). Sure, the Time Lord blustered at the unfairness of it all – “I could do so much more!” he railed. It is absolutely undeniable that the Doctor is a greater force for good in the universe than “old soldier” Wilf, but the Doctor has always – always – been the champion of the common man. He never liberated a planet from a tyrant so that the aristocracy could lounge around their pools with impunity; he did it for the teeming masses. In his Ninth persona, he put his life on the life to save shopgirl Rose from the Nestene Consciousness and went on to sacrifice that body to spare her the ravages of the Vortex itself. The Doctor has always taken “ordinary” people as companions. Sure, he said, “I only take the best!” but he meant that as a compliment to the clerk… and office temp Donna who turned out to be the most important person in the whole of creation. The Doctor was not insulting Wilf personally; we “stupid apes” of Earth have always been his favorite species.
After he rescued Wilf, the Doctor did not simply fall over dead. Getting to watch the Doctor claim his reward was Davies’ gift to longtime fans. No other Doctor ever got to say a proper goodbye. The most comfort any previous incarnation got was to have companions present at this death. We lucky fans got see this Doctor take a victory lap, visiting most of his companions and giving them lovely parting gifts. I think it was damn straight of the Doctor to not talk to them directly (except Wilf); what was he going to say? “Oh, ‘allo, just popped by to say goodbye because I’m in the process of dying right now!” Better to save Martha’s life, get Jack laid, and give Donna a winning lottery ticket. And merely seeing Rose (Billie Piper), knowing what she would come to mean to him, was enough to make a viewer tear up.
So, since the Doctor’s death was the most important aspect of the story, how did Davies do there? He gets full marks from me. The 10th Doctor’s end was pure fan-service in the sense that his demise was an amalgam of several of his previous deaths: He fell from a great height, just like the Fourth Doctor; he sacrificed himself to save his companion from certain death, a la the Fifth Doctor; and his body was ravaged by radiation, just like the Third Doctor. The 10th Doctor’s last words, “I don’t want to go,” really tore me up. (The confused and frightened look on Tennant’s face as he delivered the line was priceless.) Not only were these the most touching last words of any of the Time Lord’s incarnations, they also were the perfect epitaph for this persona. The 10th Doctor was more full of life and energy and joie de vivre than any of his other selves. No one else reveled in exploring the universe and simply living life the way he did. The whole of time and space was his playground; he visited strange places with interesting people. Of course he was sad to go — who would want that ride to end?