Monday, December 7, 2015

Review: Doctor Who "The End of the World"

I think if we can take one thing away from this episode, it's that the Doctor gives terrible gifts.

But he does a great impression of the MGM logo.
Plot
"The End of the World" forms the second part of a rather loose three-part story. Part one, "Rose," told an invasion story on modern-day Earth while setting up the basic status quo for a new audience: The Doctor comes along, he fights bad guys, hooray.

This episode takes the next step and shows the audience (and Rose) exactly what kind of amazing settings the TARDIS is capable of taking our protagonists to. And there's really no better way of getting the idea of "everything you care about is gone" across quite like watching the world burn in the most literal possible way.

But this episode also answers an important question that "Rose" subtly left dangling. What happened since the Classic Series? The answer: A lot. Most notably, the destruction of Gallifrey, the Doctor's homeworld, in the Last Great Time War.

In the Classic Series, Gallifrey was that little bit of baggage that the writers were never quite able to deal with satisfactorily. It wasn't until The Second Doctor's regeneration into the Third that other Time Lords appeared in force, trapping the Doctor on Earth as punishment for stealing a TARDIS and meddling throughout time. And when the Fourth Doctor told Sarah Jane that he would have to leave her on Earth because he needed to return to Gallifrey, audiences were psyched.

But alas, since then, appearances of Gallifrey and other Time Lords quickly became more and more frequent, but less and less special. Which is why Russell T. Davies decided to simply destroy it off screen. Not only did it truly turn the Doctor into a lonely traveler, but it kept the mythos simpler for new viewers.

Themes
Quite a few of them, all crammed in a blender and set to frappe. Nearly every character represents some theme of the story in some way, and I'll get to specifics when I go over the individual characters.

One of the things that I'm surprised doesn't pop up much when talking about this episode is how neatly it deconstructs your typical Classic Series episode.

For example, in the Classic Series, the Doctor and his companion usually find themselves across the galaxy, where the locals just happen to look like humans, where some kind of alien monster is causing havoc. Here, the locals are as alien as they come, and the only "human" to be found is the villain of the story.

In the Classic Series, companions meet aliens and robots and usually get over the culture shock fairly quickly. Here, Rose is not only pretty racist when she defines "people," but she occasionally suddenly realizes exactly where and when she is. And that terrifies her.

And in the Classic Series, you can find characters marveling at beautiful cities, and space stations, and all sorts of things that look like unimpressive model work. Here, nobody saw the legitimately impressive effects for the end of the Earth because they were all a bit busy with trying to not die.

But out of all this episode's themes, there's one that stands out. One that the Doctor would reiterate two lifetimes later.

I don't know, I wouldn't mind it if Doctor Who never ended.
The destruction of the Earth is not a sad moment, it's just a moment. The real horror is when things last far longer than they should, like Lady Cassandra. The universe is always changing. New, wonderful things replace the old things that were equally wonderful. Just because something has to end doesn't mean that there was no point to it ever being there in the first place.

The Earth had a great run. But with humanity out in the stars, it only has sentimental value. And so, nature takes its course. In the end, nature will always take its course. So we shouldn't try to make moments last forever, because that's inevitably a losing battle. We should embrace the moments while we still can.

And you might argue that the birthplace of humanity is inherently worth saving, but let me put it this way. You only think that because you live here. in the year 5 billion, the birthplace of humanity is like the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. It's all well and good to keep it looking nice, but if you find yourself having to continually pour water on it to keep it from burning... well, eventually you're going to run out of money, water, and patience.

Characters
The Doctor

Even though I heavily criticized the Doctor about his choice of first date, I'm not criticizing Russell T. Davies.

Confused? Don't be. I'll explain.

While it's a terrible idea, it makes complete sense for the Doctor to take Rose there. After all, the Doctor is a man without a home. Without a planet. So even though the Doctor is trying to stay aloof by not revealing details about his past, the reason he considers this a prime destination is because it would give them a shared experience. And perhaps, coming from the destruction of his own world, he doesn't realize the effect this would have on Rose. Or maybe he thinks he does. During the Fourth Doctor story "The Ark in Space," the Doctor made a speech about the indomitable adaptability of humans. So I don't think it's too much of a stretch to assume that he believes that Rose will adapt to the shock of seeing her home destroyed.

But alas, she can't. So in the end, the Doctor has to impart his wisdom to her to help her deal with what she saw.

Rose Tyler
She reacts how a normal person would; wonder and amazement sprinkled with "Oh my God, everybody I ever loved is dead." And that goes a long way towards setting the stage for how the Revived Series gives the companions actual subplots and story arcs from episode to episode.

Her xenophobia, while it makes her look bad, is actually a nice touch. Let's face it, humans haven't yet met aliens. So of course we'd be a little put off by them. But leave it to the Doctor to not realize this and make cheap shots about the deep South.

Jabe (Yasmin Bannerman)
Though her interesting backstory and cool appearance helps a bit, she's largely undeveloped. Mainly, she's there to figure out the Doctor's secret and for the Doctor to angst over when she sacrifices herself for him.

And for him to make callbacks to down the road.
The Face of Boe
The Face of Boe was originally just a joke character, referencing an obscure Rudyard Kipling poem, The Ballad of Boh Da Thone, which is basically about a bandit who kept eluding the British army until he was crushed by an ox and decapitated.

But we haven't seen the last of him. Not by a long shot.

Monsters of the Week
Lady Cassandra (Zoƫ Wanamaker)

The biggest impact Lady Cassandra usually has is making people wonder why her voice is so familiar. And that's because she played Madam Hooch in the first Harry Potter film.

So... look. Lady Cassandra acts as a wonderful mirror to examine Rose's xenophobia and culture shock. As well as helping push the parallel between the Doctor and Rose as the last of their respective kinds. Thematically speaking, Cassandra works very well.

I still don't like her as a villain, though.

There's one joke to her character: She's a parody of plastic surgery and the pressure put on women to stay "beautiful" while also examining the changing and ever-increasingly-artificial standards of "beauty."

Russell T. Davies says he got the idea from seeing skinny, plastic surgery-altered women at the Oscars, particularly Nicole Kidman.

I trust you see the resemblance.
And... you know, in one way, the character's kind of brilliant. Like the Cybermen and Daleks of classic Doctor Who, she represents the pinnacle of self-mutilation in the pursuit of "perfection." And yet, for me, the character lacks that little bit of "oomph" that ties it all in together.
In the end, at the character's core, she's a parody of plastic surgery who acts like a stereotypical upper-class twit. And for me, that's not enough to create a compelling villain.

Adherents of the Repeated Meme
Black cloaks who turn out to be robots. Boring.

Ostensibly, they're there to fool the audience into thinking that they're the masterminds behind everything, but come on. Black cloaks? Evil claws? Of course they're not the villains. That would be too obvious.

Visuals
This episode kept Doctor Who on the air. After this episode aired, the higher-ups at the BBC ordered a Christmas special and another season. Because these visuals were so amazing.

You know, for a TV budget in 2005.
Here's the problem. Those jokes I made about blowing the budget on the special effects? Not really a joke. Because he didn't have much experience with such things, Davies budgeted most of the money for this episode, meaning that later episodes suffered a bit.

Thankfully, the decision worked out of the better and gave us an episode so beautiful that it guaranteed the show's continuation.

Final Thoughts
This was the episode that kept Doctor Who from getting the axe again. And that's because this episode really shows what Doctor Who is capable of, and was basically conceived of as a way to show off the special effects they were capable of. Not only is the show able to tell pretty much any kind of story in any location you can imagine, but it does so with a modern sense of self-awareness, examining the implications of traveling through time and space in a way that the Classic Series would pretty much ignore.

The episode suffers a bit from lackluster villains and a whodunit murder mystery that doesn't quite hit you the way it probably should, but the then-impressive effects and character interactions between the Doctor and Rose buoy it up, in my opinion.

So it might not be great, but I'd say it's pretty good. At the very least, it's worth a watch.

Next time, the Doctor runs into Charles Dickens. And ghosts. During Christmas. See you then!

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