Doctor Who: The End of the World
By Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 325
As we noted in the last review, the first episode of the new Doctor Who series, "Rose", was a decent story which suggested that the series had the potential to be truly excellent. "The End of the World" delivers on this promise, developing the themes of the first episode into deeper, more nuanced areas; however, the ending also strikes an ominous note which could prove detrimental to the series if not handled correctly.
The key theme of the story picks up on the Doctor's rant, in "Rose", about boring Earth people who spend their lives working, sleeping, watching television and eating chips, wilfully oblivious to the more exciting things on their very doorstep, and develops it into a running discourse on the contrast between the significant events taking place and the superficial concerns of the participants. The spectators at the final end of the planet Earth are merely concerned about their social prestige and business deals rather than the implications of what they are seeing; even Rose frets simply about the fact that her mother is dead, without stopping to consider all the other deaths which must have occurred in the intervening five billion years or so. Cassandra's motivation for committing some very serious crimes is plain and simple greed and vanity; the Doctor takes his revenge on her apparently out of personal anger rather than a wider consideration of his actions. This contrast is also reflected in the mobile conversation between Rose and her Mum; where Rose is witnessing strange events in the far future, her Mum is only concerned about the lottery and whether her daughter is in trouble. Significantly, the characters which come out of the story best are the ones who, if only in simple ways, try to embrace the bigger picture; Jabe the Tree is present not only for the political kudos, but because her ancestors originated on Earth, and Rose herself, over the course of the story, begins to grasp the enormity of the implications of time travel.
This wider discourse spawns two related subthemes. The first is that everything has a natural lifespan, beyond which it should not be prolonged: the Sun has been artificially held back from expanding for a very long time, and the implication is that nature should have taken its course to begin with rather than allowing the Earth to fade out ignominiously as a diversion for celebrity guests. Cassandra, too, is not permitted a dignified old age through her extended lifespan, but winds up as a "bitchy trampoline." As with the previous episode, there's a message there for the disgruntled element in fandom: the world can't stay the way it was in the past, and everything has to change, even die if it comes to that. This also highlights the other subtheme of the story: enjoy what you have, because everything is finite, and once it's gone, you won't have it back.
Social and political satire also comes to the fore. The idea of the Earth being restored and preserved by a trust will strike a chord with any British person who has had to deal with the vagaries of the heritage industry; the idea of emotionally significant events being turned into social occasions for the rich and famous recalls the ways in which such events as Holocaust Memorial Day are regularly co-opted by politicians and media figures. There are also, again, stabs at corporate greed, lawyers, and youth-obsessed celebrity culture, making "The End of the World" an enjoyably biting comment on modern life.
Once again, the story shows connections to other films and television series, and also to the past of Doctor Who itself. The scenario and action are at least partly drawn from Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; the Face of Boe, a disembodied head in a tank guarded by quasi-human dwarf servitors, resembles Saymon of the Blake's 7 episode "The Web", and Cassandra's misunderstandings about animals and artefacts from Earth's past, together with her fondness for ancient Earth recordings, resembles Sarkoff from the episode "Bounty." The visually attractive, multialien and diverse society seen here resembles, those seen in Babylon 5 and Star Wars, which last also, along with Galaxy Quest and Minority Report, is referenced in the Doctor-running-through-the-fans sequence. Cassandra seems to be in part a wry nod at the two plastic-surgery-obsessed old ladies of Brazil, and her death resembles that of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. One of the aliens is, apparently, called the Wicker Man. On the Doctor Who side, one can see references to the temperature announcements and light-based death sequence of "Dragonfire"; there also, however, appear to be distinct connections to the BBC books, and in particular the work of Lawrence Miles. References to a war and a "shadow proclamation" in "Rose" aside, this story superficially resembles Alien Bodies, with the Doctor and feisty blonde companion going to an event in which one of them learns some distressing revelations about their future; the Doctor faking his invitation (using "psychic" paper), and the Adherents of the Repeated Meme (beings which are simply an idea given corporeal form). More significantly, we also have a storyline involving Gallifrey becoming engaged in a war with a mysterious enemy, which apparently, as in Cole and Anghelides' The Ancestor Cell, results in the destruction of Gallifrey. It will be interesting to see whether this is an intentional linking of the series in with BBC Books continuity, or a new development picking up on the themes of the novels.
This episode also highlights one clear contrast between the new series and the old one: namely, that the current series explicitly avoids showing violent death. One of the most visible differences between the Auton-attack sequences of "Spearhead from Space" and "Rose" is that the former showed the passers-by actually being killed, where in the latter all deaths took place offscreen. In "The End of the World" Jabe, the Steward, and the Moxx of Balhoon all die fairly horrible deaths, but these are more suggested than explicitly shown (Cassandra's death is an exception, but even then there is a minimum of gore). Not only does this imply interesting things about how ideas of what constitutes acceptable "family viewing" have changed in the intervening 15-30 years, but it leaves one feeling that the new Doctor Who could do with a late-night version, much like Hollyoaks, for the over-twelves.
The characterisation and performances are once again to a very high standard. The principals are both great, with Eccleston's emotional range--peppering his delivery with infectious grins, and being visibly affected by Jabe's expression of sympathy about Gallifrey--making one regret all the more his decision to leave at the end of the season. Billie Piper manages to both play a believable teenager and carry the emotional weight of the story for the most part; Rose takes on an almost parental role with the Doctor, serving as moral conscience as well as jocularly reminding him to be home by midnight when he heads off to "pollinate" with Jabe the Tree. Among the supporting cast, Yasmin Bannerman as Jabe stands out particularly, being at once very sympathetic and very sexy: the scenes where she flirts with Christopher Eccleston (who is also notable for the deeply Freudian scene in which he pumps away at the TARDIS console while grinning broadly at Rose) are brilliant, giving the lie to the JNT-inspired idea that sex and innuendo should not appear in Doctor Who. Since the Mekon-like Moxx of Balhoon was trailed extensively in the newspapers with the implication that he is a villain, and looks distinctly villainous even on his first introduction, it is rather wonderful that he turns out to be a big softy, and one of the story's disappointments is that he gets very little development, making one wish for a longer and more slowly-paced story to flesh out the minor characters. The brief interaction between Rose and Raffalo, the plumber, is also good, though once Rose says goodbye to her it becomes deeply obvious that she is about to become a victim of the spiders. Cassandra, however, although representing a wonderfully creepy concept and being delightfully reminiscent of Sil from "Vengeance on Varos", comes across as perhaps a bit too one-dimensional, in all senses of the word: at a time when the film Downfall is impressing critics with its portrait of a Hitler with a human side, it's a bit of a shame that Cassandra should be characterised only as an unremittingly nasty, self-absorbed, vain bigot; the throwaway remark that she didn't start life as female also deserves more development. Rose's "Michael Jackson" quip is something of a cheap shot, with its suggestions of the freak-show-gazing tabloid nastiness which has dogged the singer of recent years.
Cassandra is also the subject of what we feel might be the one problematic aspect of the story. At the episode's climax, the Doctor is seen to, effectively, enact vigilante justice upon Cassandra, calling her back to the station knowing full well that she will dry up and perish. While some have suggested that she might have survived, given that the brain in the tank below the skin does not appear to explode, the story is ambiguous on this point, and the Doctor himself clearly believes that he is killing her. While Cassandra is indeed a nasty piece of work, it raises the question of whether it is right to kill any sentient being in cold blood, and brings uncomfortable recollections of the Seventh Doctor's morally suspect actions in "Remembrance of the Daleks".
That having been said, "The End of the World", unlike "Remembrance", does have mitigating elements to the action. Firstly, the idea that the present Doctor might commit a brutal act of murder out of revenge isn't entirely out of character, since Cassandra has been responsible for the death of Jabe and has also tried to kill Rose (through the Adherents of the Repeated Meme), and since the Doctor has recently been through a war in which his home planet was destroyed. None of this justifies the action, but it does at least make it understandable, whereas the Doctor in "Remembrance" is not accorded the same emotional backstory. Secondly, Rose, the main audience identification character, is horrified by the Doctor's action and begs him to help Cassandra; the problem with "Remembrance" is less that the Doctor acts amorally, than that no one in the story calls him on it. Finally, "The End of the World", unlike "Remembrance", is part of a story arc; there have been hints in interviews that the Doctor becomes more humanised through his relationship with Rose, and this could be the start of the development of the character over the season, whereas the implications of "Remembrance" were not developed in subsequent televised stories. This sort of development is also hinted at in the final scene, when Rose suggests going for chips and the Doctor, rather than sneering about incurious humans eating chips as he did in "Rose", admits that he would like some too, suggesting that he is becoming more sympathetic and less quick to condemn, as well as the recognition that chips, too, have their place. If the cliché can be forgiven, only time will tell whether this is an ominous sign that we now have an amoral, vigilante Doctor, or an indicator that we will later see positive character development.
On a shamelessly fan-focused note, although the story doesn't contradict "The Ark" (as we don't know when the ship left the Earth, or when the planet was redesignated as a historical monument), "The End of the World" brings us what might be the first continuity error of the new series, in that, if the TARDIS is what allows Rose to hear the aliens in English, the question arises of how she was unable to understand the Nestene Consciousness, when she was in the presence of the TARDIS, and indeed had ridden in it. However, as Mickey can evidently understand its grunts as "talking," it's possible that it's just the audience who is unable to understand it. One way or another, this will no doubt cause discussion and retconning for decades to come among those who enjoy that sort of thing. Finally, on a macabre note, it is worth noting that the series has racked up two celebrity deaths within as many weeks, having been transmitted on the same nights as the deaths of Jim Callahan and Pope John Paul II--we suggest that all political figures take extreme care on Saturday nights for the next eleven weeks.
In conclusion, "The End of the World" builds on and expands the themes begun in "Rose", while improving on its visual effects and characterisation, and contains intriguing suggestions of further development to come.