I'm just going to post some short, mostly random thoughts, if that's all right. There's no way I'd be able to review this until after part 2 anyway.
- Interestingly, John Simm got second billing in the opening credits sequence, the spot usually reserved for the Companion. Bernard Cribbins came third.
- New aliens the Vinvocci were pretty cool-looking, and I liked the (unexpected) explicit callback to Bannakaffalatta and implicit callback to the Abzorbaloff/Slitheen relationship. I can't say I'm entirely sure what purpose they're going to serve.
- As I said, Wilf was brilliant. So was Donna, for that matter, and it's good to see her starting to remember--even if it means bad things for the Doctor-Donna. It's also interesting to see the Doctor's admiration for her, something that got lost a bit in the end of the fourth season.
- Wilf has a nice subtle callback to his last time in the Tardis. This is especially interesting given that production shots for Season 5 appear to be bringing back that era's TARDIS exterior.
- The Doctor wonders why he and Wilf keep running into each other. Wilf keeps seeing a woman, who tells him strange things and disappears. Wilf's also the only person on Earth who remembers his dreams of the Master. I think it's pretty safe to say that Wilf is a Time Lord in hiding, but we'll know next week.
- As long as I'm on about Wilf, the best scene in the episode is where Wilf and the Doctor share a heartfelt conversation over coffee. It's touching, and it's the only place you can go to see the Time Lord Lacrimose!
- Lucy Saxon shows up in the beginning, an unwilling part of the process to resurrect the Master. She gets her last revenge, though, when she screws up his revival and leaves him in the desperate state he's in throughout the episode.
- This take on the Master requires some getting used to. He has some nice moments of lucidity (the best being when he laments that the one-time master of disguise is now trapped with the easily-recognizable face of the former Prime Minister), but spends large portions of the episode stark raving mad. He rambles so incoherently that Dalek Caan looks like Hemingway by comparison, and his deteriorating condition has him frequently eating like a cross between a pig and a savage, ravenous barbarian pig. He jumps around like Spider-Man and shoots energy from his hands, and by now you've all seen his skin go all transparenty. Initially, this seems like it diminishes the threat posed by the Master, but ultimately it's fairly similar to the situation he was in in "The Deadly Assassin," where he was effectively decomposing and engaging in a last-ditch effort to gain immortality and stop the Doctor. Except now the relentless greed and desire for power is translated into actual, physical hunger. He ends up being a disgusting figure, raw and inhuman in a way that the typically dignified Master hasn't really been before, which rather underscores the desperation of his character.
- The Master also presents a kind of counterpoint to the Doctor (as usual), who is also fearing his imminent demise and looking to postpone it. The Doctor is more somber than usual in this outing, dreading his coming regeneration and sobered by his frightening abuse of power in the previous special. The Master fears death, and so he tries to accumulate power; the Doctor fears death, but fears power more.
- All that aside, however, the Master's world-conquering plan ends up being more than a little silly. It's not just the sight gags either, it's the whole bizarre concept. I'm curious how this will play out in the next episode.
- The Naismiths, who appeared in the previews to be relatively significant, really don't play much of a role here. They serve to push the plot along, and they make decent patsies, but they don't have any personality to speak of.
- Russel T. Davies has this weird fanboyish habit of tying up loose plot threads that almost no one would otherwise notice. The mention of Bannakaffalatta is one, and connecting Torchwood's Gwen to "The Unquiet Dead"'s Gwyneth in "Journey's End" is probably the most obvious example. Here, though, it's a callback to "The Shakespeare Code," explaining why Queen Elizabeth was so angry at the Doctor--turns out he married (then left) her. He mentions that she won't have her nickname anymore, though it's left unclear if that means she's not "good" Queen Bess (the name he uses), or that she's not "the Virgin Queen" (the more commonly-used nickname in my experience).
- There's an interesting pace to this episode, which has a kind of mini-climax in the middle (where the omniscient narration starts up again). It felt a lot like watching two episodes of a classic serial, and I'm curious if that will carry through to the 75-minute finale.
- So, the Time Lords (and apparently Gallifrey) are back, in what looks a lot like the Senate chamber from the Star Wars prequels, and led by James Bond. Clips from Part 2 suggest that we'll finally get to see some of the Time War, which gives me (almost certainly unrequited) hope that we'll get a glimpse of Paul McGann as the Doctor again. If nothing else, it's going to be interesting to see what happens in Part 2 and in Season 5 if the Time Lords manage to reassert themselves as the arbiters of time. What this means for "the end of time" is still unclear.
So, overall, a good episode (though prior experience has me wondering if Davies will be able to maintain the quality through to the end, without resorting to deus ex machina) that has me salivating for the next one. This is significantly less bloated and meandering than "The Stolen Earth," so that's a plus, and I'd say so far that it's at least the equal of "The Waters of Mars." It's going to be a very long week.