21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The End Of The World

First dates – we've all been there. The sweaty palms. The uncertainty. The paranoia. Get the first date right, and you feel like you're on top of the world. Get it wrong, and it makes you feel like the entire population of couples are laughing in your face.

So spare a thought for the poor old Doctor, as he prepares to take Rose on their first date – well, Rose says as much in New Earth, but oddly, it's not really a date that he should remember with fondness, given that he makes screw-up after screw-up in The End Of The World. Consider the following rules:

* Don't brag about your mode of transport

The only sort of girl who would fall for this bravado would be the type that gatecrashes every Top Gear filming session or has a glittering shrine to Harpo Marx-headed goon Clarkson. The Doctor, however, is keen to show off his amazing time/space machine, furiously working the pump (yes, the new console apparently works with a quaint old pump) to take her to any destination she desires. Although technically he decides the time and place for her.

* Don't do embarrassing Dad Dancing

Save the embarrassing dancing for much later down the line. Blokes like me who have no dancing ability whatsoever should just stand on the edge of the dance floor and try to look cool. The Doctor, however, starts jigging about to hoary old '80s New Romantic ditty Tainted Love by Soft Cell. In his mind, he's a dancer of Strictly proportions, but in reality, he looks like a constipated gnu.

* Don't yell at your date

Whatever the reason, yelling at your girl will make you look like a psychopath – even if she asks you why you hate Take That, bite your tongue. The Doctor, on the other hand, chooses to launch into a furious, red-faced tirade after Rose has dared to ask him a simple question about his background – not exactly the most unreasonable subject of conversation. “THIS IS WHO I AM, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, ALRIGHT??!!” bellows the Doctor. “ALL THAT COUNTS IS HERE AND NOW, AND THIS IS ME!!” This isn't the action of a sane man, more a closet axe-wielding, homicidal lunatic. In an ordinary world, after a rant like that, the date would pop to the loo and escape through the window.

* Don't go off with another woman

Or in this case, a talking tree. Still, even if you have some weird tree fetish, this is not fair game. Worse still, if your date's new rival has just called her a concubine or a prostitute, this is the ultimate insult. So good on you, Doctor, for going off with a shameless hussy of a tree.

* Don't take her on such a high-risk date

Normally, people go on first dates to a restaurant. Or the pictures. A worst-case scenario may be a spot of paintballing for the more devil-may-care. But taking your date to see the world explode into tiny, flaming fragments, and worse still, letting her be captured and put in a room that's about to be burnt to ash, isn't a good idea.

Rose amazingly has the patience of Mother Theresa, Sister Wendy and Gandhi combined to put up with such a useless first date as the Doctor. She even agrees to buy him chips at the end after he's done his big sob story about his planet getting destroyed. Ah well, it's all a learning curve for the poor sod, who's starting to find his place in the world again after the huge catastrophe.

Fortunately, The End Of The World itself isn't as catastrophic. In fact, it builds on and adds to the success of Rose. To the uninitiated, this must have been a hell of a shock. Those who had never heard of Doctor Who may have heard the odd whisper about alien races, but in The End Of The World, there's not just one alien race, but a whole menagerie of them. Apart from the tree people, we have creatures such as the Moxx Of Balhoon – a diminutive, fussy, blue grump (solicitor-wise, this makes sense); the Adherents Of The Repeated Meme; the Face Of Boe – resembling a giant, pickled head of Maxi Priest in an overgrown jam jar; and Cassandra, a vain, bitchy piece of skin who's been remade more times than Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

It may be a shock to the system after the Earthbound setting of Rose, but The End Of The World's audacity pays off. Doctor Who has always been about imagination and creativity, and The End Of The World lets the brain run riot. All of the alien races work well in their own ways, and furthermore, they are superbly realised – a good example of the higher budgets allocated to the show.

Rather than grunting, clichéd aliens, a good number of the aliens have their own personalities. Jabe is kind, compassionate, slightly flirty, and makes for a good sub-companion. Cassandra is mean, bitchy and superficial. Even the lesser characters have a lot of character packed into their limited lifespans. Take the Steward, the outwardly calm guide to the party – inwardly, he's a neurotic wreck, flustering about any given problem like a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He also shares the same character trait with perky maintenance worker, Raffalo, in that he's rather humble. He's delighted and flattered to be given the present of a futuristic egg, even if it turns out to be an object that leads to his untimely demise.

Raffalo is another interesting character in that she only gets one scene, but within those three minutes, we learn quite a bit about her personality. She's also humble – flattered to be talked to by Rose. She's low down in the pecking order, given that she needs permission to talk. There's also a lot of down-to-earth gravitas – Rose is surprised that she's a maintenance worker (“I hope so, else I'm out of a job!”). Already, we have signs that Russell T Davies isn't interested in portraying aliens as stereotypical blobby, grunting monsters, but as ordinary people like us. That's a sharp tack to take, and in this story, the plan works to great effect.

Cassandra, of course, is the polar opposite to the Steward and Raffalo. She stands – or stretches – for everything that's wrong in society, in other words an obsession with superficial prizes, wealth and looks. There are certain celebrities (I'm not mentioning any names, but I'm sure you can guess) who stand by these aspects, and it's not hard to equate them with Cassandra, the bitchy trampoline. It's somewhat inevitable that Cassandra is responsible for the murders and sabotage aboard the Space Station, since she's acting on purely financial gains: she plans to profit from the guests' competitors once they're dead. Just like stories in the original run like The Sun Makers or Horror Of Fang Rock, greedy financial gain is equated with the evil that men or women do.

Cassandra's obsession with cosmetic surgery also highlights another recurring theme in this season. Cue doomy DUH-DAH-DUH music: Death.

Death is everywhere you look in this season. The death of the Doctor's planet. The death of Rose's dad. The wholesale slaughter in the season finale. There are even brief nods in stories like Boom Town (the prospect of Margaret's execution) and even in uplifting classic The Empty Child (during which Dr Constantine grimly muses on his dead family). The key to all this is that, as the Doctor himself says: “Everything has its time and everything dies”. Cassandra doesn't fit this ideal, since she's nipped and tucked everything to the point where she's no longer recognisable as a human. “You're just skin Cassandra,” says Rose during a heated discussion. “Lipstick and skin”.

Some commentators have said that the Doctor's callous in allowing Cassandra to die, but I think this underlines his “Damaged goods” mentality. In a sense, it's the point at which he finally acknowledges the death of his own planet – up until this point, he's been keeping his feelings in check to the point where he's a seething cauldron of rage. The Doctor deliberately doesn't help, since he leaves the fate of Cassandra purely to chance – a bit like the scene in Planet Of Fire when he left the Master to die in flames. After Cassandra's death, he finally opens up to Rose, explaining that his planet was destroyed in a mysterious war. At this point, the story of the Time War is kept ambiguous – we don't hear who the battle was against, how it was started or what caused the final truce.

It's another good example of telling a slow-burning story in stages, but it does shed some light on the Ninth Doctor's moody persona. This is a good one for Eccleston actually. There's plenty of great material for him here, which allows him to use a wide range of emotions. He's better at the light-hearted stuff, interestingly, such as his evident delight at meeting the alien delegates. But he's just as good in his more serious moments – the silent scene in which Jabe comforts him over the death of Gallifrey is particularly well acted by Eccleston, all the more impressive in that he doesn't get any dialogue. The grief-stricken expression and the lone tear do the job well enough.

Billie Piper too, continues to impress. The End Of The World is seen again, at times, through Rose's eyes. It's interesting in that in the past, most companions have just taken new environments at face value. But Rose is over-awed and confused by this great big jolt in her life. She's stunned by the alien races, and shocked at the fact that her new so-called friend has been messing about with her brain. That initial dizzy spell, as Rose feels overpowered, is very well shot – the fast, drunken cuts between the alien races and the louder volume of the Soft Cell track convey what Rose is feeling perfectly.

Piper herself gets better and better – she proves to be adept at both the light-hearted scenes (“Where am I gonna go – Ipswich?”) and the dramatic ones (her furious confrontation with Cassandra), making Rose into a fleshed out, three dimensional person rather than a screaming cipher.

There's an awful lot to pack into this story – it's a story that might have gained more from being a two-parter, since it does feel a bit rushed. The murder mystery aspect of the story doesn't come through as well as it could, partly because the identity of the baddie is so obvious, but partly because the 45-minute format doesn't really allow for so many red herrings or detours, so we get a rather limp attempt. The actual end of the world also feels incidental, but I think this was a deliberate move to have this in the background. The destruction of the planet has become a show rather than a tragic event, and if you were so inclined, you could argue that there's an environmental message to be had here – especially when the planet's slowly and quietly being destroyed by chemicals and pollution without anyone realising it. Equate that with the ignorance of the exploding Earth.

Blimey, I've been listening to too many Sting albums.

Apart from one or two other nitpicks, this is a strong follow-up script from Davies. One grumble is that the layout and design of the ship seem to have no regard for logic. For some odd reason, the rooms have sun filters in them, which means that the inhabitants are living in a potential death-trap. Even if the metal spider hadn't activated the sun filter, the Steward could still have had a dumb moment and accidentally spilled coffee on the button, causing it to malfunction, and frying the hapless scamp to a crisp. It's a bit like designing a chair with an optional dagger in the rear of the seat. Ditto the safety switch, which is conveniently located behind whopping great fans, which would hack any average Joe into fish sticks. Who actually built the station, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel?

Otherwise, the story barrels along at a fair old pace, mixing the drama, comedy and poignancy (Rose's phone call to her long-dead mother) to great effect. It's a visual tour-de-force too, with some excellent visuals from director Euros Lyn, who would go on to become one of the show's most assured directors. There are many great images to choose from, so take your pick from the impressive space shots, the cool interiors or the skewed camera angles, such as the dizzying establishing shot of the trapped Rose. On the subject of which, the pop songs are surprisingly effective – both 'Tainted Love' and 'Toxic' by Britney Spears become unusually discomforting. I'm not normally a fan of the OTT inclusion of pop songs in telly shows, but in the right context (like here), they work.

Good guest performances on display too. Zoe Wanamaker is well chosen as the bitchy Cassandra, although to be honest, I think the character's a one-time deal, since the joke isn't nearly as effective the second time around in New Earth (which also reduces the effect of her surprisingly graphic demise at the end of this story). Yasmin Bannerman provides good support as Jabe, and the smaller roles are just as well performed, including Simon Day's twitchy turn as the Steward and Beccy Armory's memorable cameo as poor old Raffalo.

This is a reboot that's already showing a great deal of promise, and that's just at story two. Although the visuals may be more lavish and the format's slightly different, it's the same old show with the usual core values at its heart. Russell T Davies evidently knows what makes Doctor Who work inside and out, and this is evident in his masterful script for The End Of The World. The Doctor may not know about the etiquette of dating, but he's evidently starting to find his way around the world again, thanks to his new friend Rose and a new lease of life for adventure.

* More amazing aliens to be found in my four ebook guides to the Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison eras of Doctor Who!


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US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077K8MN2P


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US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DBBSSW9