the tardis top ten: the end of the world
It’s been a bad year for Doctor Who, no question. It’s hard to view the seventh season as anything other than disappointing, with its boring, do-nothing episodes, nonsensical melodramas, and huge buildups that went nowhere. But any show that’s been on for half a century is going to wax and wane, and hope springs eternal for the stalwart Doctor Who fan, especially with a new Doctor on the way.
With the news that the eighth season of Doctor Who will premiere in August, I thought it might be fun to write a rundown of my personal picks for the ten best episodes of the reboot. Any such list is subjective, of course, and you’re free to disagree with me. Bearing that in mind, off we go to #10 on my list: “The End of the World”.
Number 10: The End of the World
Doctor Who didn’t exactly leave television on the best terms in 1989. Its final few years on air were marked by infighting at the BBC and borderline incompetent creative decisions. The final story, “Survival”, is a boring piece of nothing about a race of cheetah-people who reside in a parallel universe, and also the Master is there. It was a hasty and ignominious swan song for a program that had once been seen as innovative, experimental, and captivating.
Russell T. Davies certainly had his work cut out for him when he set out to reboot the show in 2005, a task made even harder by the decision to treat it as continuous with the previous twenty-six seasons of material. Davies made a great start with the opening story, “Rose”. In fact, “Rose” very nearly made my top ten list, but it feels more like an episode of Davies’ eventual spin-off, Torchwood, with its big explosions in the middle of heavily populated areas, a street level view of fantastical events, and a climactic set piece that doesn’t quite deliver on what it’s promising.
Instead, it’s the reboot’s second episode, “The End of the World”, that perfectly bridges the old and the new. In many ways, it feels like an episode straight out of the old series. There are a dozen monsters in rubber suits, some hokey musical cues, an obvious villain (spoiler alert: it’s the character with the most lines, after the Doctor and Rose), and a cinch ending that amounts to the Doctor deciding it’s time for him to win.
At the same time, these old-school sci-fi tropes coexist with some decidedly new elements. The Doctor comes to the year five billion on a lark, literally just to prove that he can. Rose, however, is overwhelmed, at first by the strangeness of the future, and then by the sudden realization that some lunatic in a leather jacket just invited her into his van, and she hopped in without giving it a lot of thought.
Rose’s anxiety comes to a head in my favorite scene, which is worth reading in full:
ROSE: Where are you from?
DOCTOR: All over the place.
ROSE: They [the aliens she’s met] all speak English.
DOCTOR: No, you just hear English. It’s a gift of the TARDIS. The telepathic field, gets inside your brain and translates.
ROSE: It’s inside my brain?
DOCTOR: Well, in a good way.
ROSE: Your machine gets inside my head. It gets inside and it changes my mind, and you didn’t even ask?
DOCTOR: I didn’t think about it like that!
ROSE: No, you were too busy thinking up cheap shots about the Deep South! Who are you, then, Doctor? What are you called? What sort of alien are you?
DOCTOR: I’m just the Doctor.
ROSE: From what planet?
DOCTOR: Well, it’s not as if you’ll know where it is!
ROSE: Where are you from?
DOCTOR: What does it matter!
ROSE: Tell me who you are!
DOCTOR: This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me.
It’s especially interesting to watch this scene in light of Eccleston’s successors in the role. Faced with a distraught companion, David Tennant’s Doctor would have winked and charmed, and Matt Smith would have fumbled and distracted, but Eccleston’s Doctor gets angry. The manic show-off who took Rose on a field trip to the year five billion is really just a cover for the damaged, bitter refugee lurking underneath. In fact, the Doctor didn’t take Rose to the year five billion. He took her to see the final destruction of her world, which happens to be in the year five billion. This says more about the Doctor’s character and the Time War, only barely hinted at here, than any grandiose monologue ever could.1 The scene also exposes what a tremendous force Eccleston brought to the role, and really makes me miss him.
The moment hangs in the air unresolved. Rose drops the issue without ever getting an apology or an explanation of the Doctor’s motives. The Doctor does, however, upgrade her cellphone (how quaint!) thus allowing her to do what everyone wants to do when they’re scared: call Mom. It’s a touching interlude that anchors Rose and cools the tension from moments before. It’s also another signature of the reboot, which, unlike the old show, often moves the story along via emotional beats instead of a series of narrative events.
The villain of the piece, the Lady Cassandra O’Brien.Δ17, a.k.a. the Last Human, also provides a deftly balanced mix of old and new. Her villainy is broad, obvious, and laughable. But more than just an old-school vamping egomaniac, the Last Human is an elitist and a racist, proudly clarifying that she is “the last pure human”.
The message, which Cassandra makes thuddingly obvious (in true Old Who fashion), is that racism and classism are bad. This theme is also conveyed much more subtlely by Raffalo, the pleasant blue plumber who must ask Rose for permission to speak before actually doing so. The Doctor also expresses this theme in a bit of off-handed dialogue, where he explains that “the great and the good are gathering to watch the planet burn,” and that by the great and good, he means “the rich.”
“End of the World” represents not just a re-imagining of Doctor Who, (as “Rose” does), but a maturation. The show retains its silly rubber suits,2 its fantastical settings,3 and its Doctor’s sense of smug superiority. But this new Doctor also carries an anger, even a fatalism, not seen in his predecesssors. Eccleston grins and giggles in the face of the Last Human’s grotesque appearance, showing concern only as Rose becomes more uncomfortable. When Cassandra finally faces the music, the Doctor simply says, “Everything has its time and everything dies,” a statement that also applies to the Earth, and certainly, his own people. The new show operates on an emotional frequency that the old show almost never tapped. The Doctor opens the episode by musing on the human race’s improbable, incredible survival, and closes it by reflecting on the destruction of his own world, and the inevitably of the Earth doing the same, regardless of whether humanity survives. This is big territory for the show to handle in its second episode, and, as would become the hallmark of the Davies era, it does so in a way that satisfies the heart and leaves the mind thirsting for the next adventure.
I’m looking at you, “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Rings of Akhaten”. ↩
“End of the World” features a lot of rubber suits. The five episodes following this one–“The Unquiet Dead”, “Aliens of London”, “World War Three”, “Dalek”, and “The Long Game”–see the Doctor face Dickensian ghosts, fart-prone alien invaders, his old garbage can-shaped nemesis, and a creature called the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe. ↩
“End of the World” was designed, in part, to show off The Mill’s CGI capabilities. ↩
- the tardis top ten: human nature / the family of blood
- the tardis top ten: vincent and the doctor
- the tardis top ten: the end of the world