Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE END OF THE WORLD - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE END OF THE WORLD

Tony remembers the Worst. First. Date. Everrrrr.
Having immediately captured the interest of the general public in his new version of Doctor Who with Rose, Russell T Davies went all out on his second episode. Determined to set out a stall of both “the future” and “all the aliens you can fit on screen,” The End of the World was a thing of intense joy on many levels. Firstly, the aliens looked like a combination of traditional Who-aliens – people in costumes with immoveable masks – and a lot more sophisticated new creations, like The Face of Boe and Cassandra, the “last human,” who, because she’s a brain in a jar linked to a thin slice of skin, Rose contemptuously thinks of as a “bitchy trampoline.”

To Classic fans, the immediate evocation was of Jon Pertwee’s Peladon stories – plots and schemes at a convention of various alien species, complete with a creature made to look like a villain (Jimmy Vee’s Moxx of Balhoon), who turns out to be a squeaky, reasonably lovely, and entirely innocent observer of the Earth explosion that’s at the heart of the story.

But right from the off, there’s a sense in the episode of revelation about the mystery man at the centre of the show. Who is this new Doctor?

He initially gives Rose the choice of where and when she wants to go, and they stop off in the 22nd century, and five thousand years in the future, as the Doctor does his macho machine pumping thing, very much in “new boyfriend impressing the girl” mode. But then he has an idea – where better for a first trip (for which, the subtext of “date” is pretty clearly coded) than… the day the girl’s planet dies.

Yyyyyeah. It’s been a while since he’s travelled with someone, clearly. That’s his idea of a good time – let’s go watch your planet explode!

There’s a sense of this Doctor being in touch with his inner sadist about the setting – but only as much as, for instance, the Second Doctor or the Seventh. The Ninth Doctor has found a spark of something in the Earth girl, but he throws her into the deep end of the very alien universe and sees whether she’ll sink or swim. He almost judges her when she needs a break from all the aliens, and when she demands that he tell her who he is and what planet he’s from, he explodes into a rant about everything that matters being right there in the moment.

While the “turn of the Earth” speech in Rose was a dramatically encapsulating idea of “who the Doctor is,” and his desperate yell to the Nestene consciousness about how he fought in the war and couldn’t save their planets gave a clue as to what this Doctor has been through while he’s been off our screens, it’s really in this first true argument with Rose that we begin to sense that all is not well with this incarnation – that he carries some emotional baggage from the events we haven’t seen.

But after the flashpoint, when Rose comes to him and says she’s not arguing with the designated driver because she can’t phone home, that’s all it takes for this Doctor to remember the core of his kindness, and give her access to the places and the people she needs potentially even more than him, allowing her to hear her mother’s voice going about a mundane day, to anchor her among all the aliens.

The history of the Doctor is highlighted by Jabe, a walking tree from the Forests of Cheem (did we mention the aliens?) for anyone coming to the show and the character new – but also for anyone who thinks they know who he is from the old days, because it turns out that this is not the Doctor as old-style fans think they know him. It’s “a miracle you even exist,” Jabe tells him in a moment of tension. And, having both survived the adventure on Platform One, the Doctor eventually comes clean to Rose – and to us – about the major structural development of New Who. Gallifrey is gone, burned to oblivion in a war. The Time Lords, likewise, are all dead. This Doctor’s reasons for being the way he is are that he’s the sole survivor of incredible trauma, the only Time Lord left in the entire universe.

That radically changes the dynamic of the show we think we’re watching, and gives the Doctor what he’s rarely had before – consequences. For new viewers, that was a great additional hook to the show, both in itself and as it’s played by Christopher Eccleston, like a grown-up drama of real people.

The End of the World is a definitive statement of what 21st century Doctor Who can do. It’s a million miles and five billion years away from the “wobbly sets” of the 20th century version – from CGI scenes throughout the episode that add in the visual of the “exploding sun” threat, to external shots of Platform One, hanging in space with shuttles arriving, to the way in which Cassandra exists and speaks, and through to the CGI on the metal spiders. If that hadn’t worked well, The End of the World could have proved why 21st century Doctor Who WOULDN’T work, because it would have looked too much like the stereotype of under-budget 20th century Who.

But watched almost 20 years on, The End of the World stands up visually extremely well. It may look “of its time,” but it never looks laughable – and on broadcast, that was the big, important thing it had to deliver. It had to show the world that Doctor Who, that old, creaky, wobbly show in everyone’s memory, could do space-based science-fiction as well as its American contemporaries. And it did.

As a “base under siege” story, it’s slightly weaker than we might like, because while the metal spiders work well, the threat they genuinely pose hits a peak early on with the death of Rafallo the “space plumber” (Becky Armory), and after that is seen more or less remotely – clicking one keyboard button to bring down the sun shields, the sound of alarms as their effect on the station’s systems kick in, etc. It’s not quite the same as, for instance, having a bunch of Cybermen or Ice Warriors stomping down corridors, though the danger of the outside sun and the exploding Earth is used effectively throughout the story.

The motivation for the plot is also weaker than it might have been, though it riffs off the Peladon stories too, with greed being at least half the reason why the villain sets the plot in motion. Cassandra’s bigotry against what she calls the “mongrels” in the cosmos – the humans who interbred with other species – is sharp and shocking when it’s revealed, though it’s interesting that, with her dander up, Rose is technically at least AS bigoted about Cassandra, equating humanity with a different kind of purity, an un-nipped, un-tucked, unmodified version that is as rooted in physical approximation to the self as Cassandra’s genetic “purity” is.

Other Doctors, at other points in their life, might have been chronically disappointed in Rose for that. But this is a more ruthless Doctor than some we’ve known. The death of Jabe while helping him, in particular, turns him hard and harsh, and when he brings Cassandra back to the station to face his furious music, he stands and watches her die, in spite of even Rose’s admonitions to help her. His reply in flinty – “Everything has its time, and everything dies.”

The message is clear. The Ninth Doctor is fundamentally good, but he’s no boy scout, and you cross him at your peril.

By the end of the story, the Doctor has answered at least some of the questions that have dogged Rose since she left her boyfriend in a quivering heap and ran into the big blue box, and they’re centred and brought both literally and physically down to Earth by a craving for the wonderful human mundanity that is chips.

The underlying theme is shown to be exactly what the Doctor roared that it was – today, right now, is all that matters. One day, we’re all going to be dead, but while we’re here, we can make a difference. And, come to that, we can have chips.

But while showing the audience exactly what 21st century Doctor Who could do by way of CGI, interesting aliens and proper outer space intrigue, it also showed us the reality of our new Doctor – a conflicted, tortured character, trying to find the raindrops of positivity in the brief shower of the now, to lighten the load of an oppressively dying universe.

The Doctor as we’d always known him – but with consequences. With baggage. And with, perhaps more than ever before, a real and terrible need to be taken out of himself, so the universe could shine again.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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