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Doctor Who: The End of the World (Review)

You’ve seen how dangerous it is. Do you want to go home?

I don’t know. I want… Oh, can you smell chips?

Yeah… Yeah.

I want chips.

Me too.

Right then, before you get me back in that box, chips it is, and you can pay.

No money.

What sort of date are you? Come on then, tightwad, chips are on me. We’ve only got five billion years till the shops close.

-the Doctor and Rose contemplate the mysteries of the universe

If Rose proved that Doctor Who was back for a new generation, The End of the World demonstrates that it’s still the same show that it was all those years ago. The show has always struggled to do “future” on the budget afforded by the BBC, but this second episode of the show offers a glimpse of what the series was capable of. It’s not quite perfect, but has all the ambition that a revived Doctor Who needs in its first season, laying a great deal of thematic groundwork and character development on top of a visual feast. If Rose promised an update to everyone’s favourite Time Lord for the twenty-first century, The End of the World existed to assure viewers that some things never quite change.

... and I feel fine...

… and I feel fine…

It starts with death, appropriately enough. I will concede that Davies isn’t the strongest plotter in the world, but his thematic work on Doctor Who, particularly in this first season, is nothing short of astounding. Much like Rose picks up the Doctor’s story after the end of everything that came before, The End of the World sees Rose’s first trip in the TARDIS taking her to the end of the world as she knows it. I’ve heard suggestions that Eccleston originally planned to stay on the show for a few years, but the death of the Ninth Doctor is heavily foreshadowed throughout the year – this iteration of the character is surrounded by deaths, endings and closure. Any other ending to the first year would have seemed a bit of a cop-out.

Death is inevitable, The End of the World seems to suggest, a rather strange subtext for the second episode of a new television show. And yet, despite that, the Doctor is surrounded by death. Maybe it follows him, maybe he follows it. The next adventure would feature ghosts, as evidence of a thematic through-line. Although Rose is very much the audience surrogate here, the first year is as much about the Doctor’s journey, as he learns to accept the inevitability of death.

Talkin' to the man from Gallifrey...

Talkin’ to the man from Gallifrey…

Discovering that they’ve arrived to witness the last day of planet Earth, Rose asks, “Is that why we’re here? I mean, is that what you do? Jump in at the last minute and save the Earth?” It would be tempting to believe that, and a lesser story might play up that angle. Instead, the Doctor instead uses the trip to impart a lesson. “I’m not saving it,” he explains. “Time’s up.” Whether the lesson is for his benefit or for Rose is up to debate.

I remarked before that Eccleston’s Doctor is probably the most human interpretation, and it seems like he’s trying to deal with his grief at the loss of his people. He finally confesses the destruction of the Timelords at the end of the episode – omitting several pivotal details – but thanks to Davies deft characterisation and thematic touchstones, we probably already expected as much. He’s dealing with the loss of his people and the destruction of his world by taking Rose to witness the end of hers. Unlike so many random jumps through time, this one is clearly calculated. “Right then,” he tells her in the teaser, “you asked for it. I know exactly where to go.”

The guest cast are a bit wooden...

The guest cast are a bit wooden…

Eccleston continues to do fantastic work here. His take on the character was probably too esoteric to make the same impression on popular culture that David Tennant did, but he feels a lot easier to relate to, a bit easier to understand. He’s damaged goods, to the point where you’d imagine that he might even fit on Battlestar Galactica. Okay, he’s not that damaged, but it is clear that he is not a healthy individual.

He seems fairly blind to the needs of his companion, and a little selfish. Rose’s presence invigorates him. The opening scene allows us to see a high-energy version of the character who seems worlds apart from the melancholy iteration we see frequently. “You think you’re so impressive,” Rose mocks. The Doctor responds, “I am so impressive.” The season may as well be subtitled “how the Doctor got his groove back.”

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

And yet, despite the fact that she gives him a new lease on life, there’s a sense that he isn’t as emotionally intelligent as he should be. David Tennant’s Doctor seemed aloof due to his alien nature, the handsome and charming exterior belying a very different way of perceiving the cosmos. If the Tenth Doctor was blinded to some of Rose’s needs by the fact he was an alien, the Ninth Doctor was too human to notice. He was too caught up in his own anger, resentment, self-hate and need to escape that he seldom thinks about what this means to her.

When Rose discovers that the TARDIS has been messing around with her brain, she flips out. It makes sense. “Your machine gets inside my head,” she repeats. “It gets inside and it changes my mind, and you didn’t even ask?” The Doctor’s response seems entirely honest. “I didn’t think about it like that.” Rose points out that he didn’t fail to realise it due to a cultural difference, or because of some alien custom. “No,” she tells him, “you were too busy thinking up cheap shots about the Deep South.” The Doctor was too busy trying to sound smart and sophisticated to put his own feelings aside.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Rose deserves some explanation about the man she is travelling with, but his own emotional issues mean that he can’t give her the answers she needs. “This is who I am, right here, right now, all right?” he responds when pushed for details. Defensively, he argues, “All that counts is here and now, and this is me.” There is a very clear sense that the Doctor is a man who isn’t at peace with his past and has no plan for his future – an ironic situation for a time traveller. As Jabe suggests, “Perhaps a man only enjoys trouble when there’s nothing else left.”

There’s a very human side – a very dark human side – to the Doctor’s somewhat understandable rage against Cassandra. For the first time, we get a sense of how truly terrifying the Doctor can be as a concept. Even committing genocide and blowing up shops in Rose, he seemed curiously aloof. Here, however, Eccleston is seething with righteous fury and there’s a sense that the character has been to some very dark places and hasn’t come back quite as intact as one might hope. Again, it’s far too recognisable, and a little uncomfortable to see the Doctor presented this way. It reminds me of Peter Davison’s all-too-human desperation in stories like Warriors of the Deep.

Seeking a friend at the end of the world...

Seeking a friend at the end of the world…

Davies continues the strong character work from Rose here, as he explores what travelling with the Doctor actually means. Although she inspired quite a few similar companions, Rose was quite novel when she was introduced – a companion with roots and with a home. What does it mean to leave all that to travel the cosmos. It’s almost too large to think about – like the TARDIS, it’s a simple concept so much larger on the inside. The enormity seems to dawn on her when Raffalo asks where she came from. “A long way away. I just sort of hitched a lift with this man. I didn’t even think about it. I don’t even know who he is. He’s a complete stranger.” Imagine how terrifying that must be.

Although Rose did not end with a “To Be Continued…” and The End of the World is not listed as a “Part 2”, there’s a very clear sense that we are really watching the second part of a series premiere. Indeed, it opens with a “previously” section to bring the audience up to speed and Davies apparently lobbied to have the two episodes broadcast back-to-back. It feels like both episodes together lay down a pretty solid blueprint for the relaunched Doctor Who.

Reception's actually pretty good up here...

Reception’s actually pretty good up here…

It’s worth noting that The End of the World looks pretty spectacular. Apparently Davies blew a rather substantial portion of the year’s budget on the show, but I’d argue that it paid off. Doctor Who was often ridiculed for its admittedly cheesy-looking sets and production design, and the revival needed to demonstrate that it could do science-fiction on a level that competed with the American television shows. The End of the World does that remarkably well, and proves that Eccleston won’t be facing monsters composed entirely of bubble wrap, Stephen Fry’s well-observed jab on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” not withstanding.

More than that, though, The End of the World demonstrates that the spirit of Doctor Who is still alive. Unlike, for example, Star Trek, Doctor Who never really took its “future” stories too seriously. Willing to engage with decidedly camp storytelling, the show was willing to favour satirical jabs over sentimental earnestness. Consider The Sun Makers or The Happiness Patrol, two decidedly camp stories that worked because they revelled in their own absurdity.

Talk about a hole in the ozone...

Talk about a hole in the ozone…

Here, Russell T. Davies is sure to hammer home the satirical subtext, using Doctor Who as the vehicle for good-natured social commentary. Indeed, I’d argue that Davies manages this much more skilfully than Moffat’s The Beast Below, which aims for the same sort of satirical and camp sweet spot, but lacks the finesse to pull it off. The End of the World offers a vision of a decidedly camp and absurd future, but Davies uses that to make some interesting observations, mostly tucked away.

For one thing, he firmly establishes the Ninth Doctor as a bit of a socialist. Explaining that “the great and the good” will witness the destruction of Earth, he clarifies, “Mind you, when I said the great and the good, what I mean is, the rich.” He seems particularly disgusted by the revelation that Cassandra is in on this scheme for the money it will generate. “Five billion years and it still comes down to money.”

No skin off my nose...

No skin off my nose…

Indeed, there’s even a little bit about the state and private enterprise. Reflecting on the fate of the planet beneath him, the Doctor explains, “The planet’s now property of the National Trust. They’ve been keeping it preserved.” It’s ridiculous to imagine a British non-profit organisation enduring for millions of years, but it’s interesting to imagine that the entire planet has been preserved as a culturally significant venue – perhaps similar to a UNESCO world heritage site.

Once again, money comes into it. “That’s a classic Earth,” he remarks to Rose. “But now the money’s run out, nature takes over.” The “Corporation” will now turn the destruction of the planet – the birthplace of mankind – into a spectator show where the ringside seats are sold to only the wealthiest individuals, their wealth measured in “zillions.” It’s a fairly strong indictment of a capitalist culture that has gone absolutely mad. In fact, when things get a bit bumpy, the Stewart, talking to Control, complains, “I warn you, if this lot decide to sue…” Cassandre plans to get rich off a compensation claim.

Facing reality...

Facing reality…

Indeed, The End of the World doesn’t delve in to it in too much depth, but we learn that the class system is still in effect. It might not be acknowledged as such, but it’s suggested that the social divides are as firm as they have ever been. The nicest person that Rose meets on the station is a servant named Raffalo, and Raffalo isn’t even allowed to address her betters without being instructed to do so. “You have to give us permission to talk.”

And yet things have not changed too much. part of the appeal of Doctor Who is the suggestion that there are some constants that won’t change from one year to the next, and over the entire span of history. Despite the Doctor’s incredible journey, some things remain in place. Sadly greed is one such element, but there are other hints of normality. The Doctor issued a parking ticket telling him to “have a nice day.” Rose meets Raffalo, asking, “They still have plumbers?”

We all chip in...

We all chip in…

The assorted guests on the platform are a nice bunch, calling to mind many classic Doctor Who creatures. For example, the Moxx of Balhoon recalls Sil from Vengeance on Varos and Mindwarp. There’s also a little bit of self-awareness peppered throughout the supporting cast. The Adherents of the Repeated Meme seem to acknowledge the arc words – “bad wolf” – scattered throughout the season. The Doctor even points this out, “A Repeated Meme is just an idea.” It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing.

Cassandra herself, as played by Zoë Wanamaker is an interesting character. She almost seems like a jab at the characters in some of the more awkward episodes of Star Trek, espousing a racist philosophy that can only be described as “human superiority.” She’s prone to lectures about how great humans are, and prone to dismiss other cultures because they are different. The visual is impressive, if a little disturbing. I can’t help but notice that Cassandra’s mouth opens directly out her backside, meaning Rose’s remarks in New Earth are just as applicable here.

Is he okay? Nine!

Is he okay? Nine!

There are other interesting touches here, that help lay down the rules of this fictional universe. The sonic screwdriver is a key part of the Doctor’s arsenal. It was written out of the original show in The Visitation (but it returned in The Movie), as it was considered too much of a cop-out. Here, Davies uses it as a bit of a storytelling tool. It would be a bit crap if the Doctor spent half an episode opening locked doors. It’s a handy plot contrivance that helps ensure that the story can be as direct as possible. The “slightly psychic” paper does something similar.

At the same time, The End of the World makes it clear that the sonic screwdriver won’t be a deus ex machina and it won’t provide the Doctor with an easy way out. The show would invent a techno-babble explanation for it (“a deadlock seal”), but the main thing is that Doctor Who wants the screwdriver to work at precisely the right level – the point where it aides storytelling rather than hindering it. It’s a very tough line to walk, but the show generally does a pretty great job.

Not everybody lives...

Not everybody lives…

Like in Rose, there’s a sense that Russell T. Davies is pacing himself when it comes to revealing the finer details of the world he is resurrecting. It’s a smart move, rather than burdening new audiences with clunky exposition. It would be years before Davies acknowledged that the Doctor came from a planet called Gallifrey, and that’s actually perfectly fine – it wasn’t necessary to over-complicate the narrative.

We find out a lot about the character here, and it’s really all that we need to know. The name “Timelord” is used here, and the Doctor identifies as “the last of the Timelords.” Once again, Davies is economical. There’s no context or no meaningless cluttered references. It’s very effective storytelling, as it both makes the story accessible and it encourages audience curiosity. Wondering whether the Daleks were involved is much more fascinating than being told outright. All we need is the essential information. More would be given in time, but Davies structures it in such a way that he teases it out, rather cleverly.

Some men just want to watch the world burn...

Some men just want to watch the world burn…

And, at the end of it all, The End of the World has a suitably endearing ending that speaks to the themes of the show. Rose notes that everybody was so caught up in the drama that they actually missed the “big” event. “It’s gone. We were too busy saving ourselves. No one saw it go. All those years, all that history, and no one was even looking.” We somehow miss the biggest and most important moment of all because of our own problems – problems that seem so large to us, but are so small in the scheme of things.

Yet, despite that, sometimes it is okay. Sometimes the sight of your home planet exploding doesn’t mean that much. Sometimes getting chips with a mate is the most important thing in the universe.

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