Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"The End of the World"

Doctor Who (2005) - Series One
Airdate: April 2, 2005
Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper
Written by Russell T Davies
Produced by Phil Collinson
Directed by Euros Lyn

I don't mean this as a criticism, but there's a certain defensiveness that comes across in this series. One gets the impression that Russell T Davies was very aware of the rather low regard in which the classic series was held in 2005. It's no accident, then, that the second episode of his re-launch is a massive special effects spectacular. Granted, there were plenty of special effects in "Rose", and most of them worked very well (it's only the few that didn't that anyone ever talks about). But "The End of the World" is something very, very different. There are special effects all over this episode, and it was designed to be a showcase for what a modern series of "Doctor Who", with a proper budget, could achieve.

Naturally, Davies would have wanted the audience to notice how good the special effects are, but the purpose of special effects is ultimately to serve the story. This episode isn't simply a showcase for the special effects, it's also got a very good story. It's no longer specifically about Rose, but she's still very much our point-of-view character. Much of the episode is given over to showing how Rose copes with this situation. This is all still very new for her, very strange, and very frightening. I think it's fair to say that the Doctor probably shouldn't have taken her, on her first ever voyage in the TARDIS, to witness the destruction of the Earth.

We're introduced to loads of aliens in this episode. There's practically a parade of them. When you think that the most human-like beings in this episode are actually intelligent trees, it's not hard to see why Rose gets so freaked out by everything. She recovers quickly, though, and that's exactly right. Rose should struggle to adjust to the Doctor's world, especially as she's really being thrown in at the deep end, but she shouldn't struggle too much. Not only is this right for the character, but it's right for the show. Rose's job is to bring the audience along.

But as I said, the story isn't actually about Rose. In fact, she really doesn't have anything to do except get herself into trouble so that the Doctor can rescue her. But because the script and Piper's performance do such a great job of making Rose seem like a real person, it's okay that she doesn't actually have much to do. She's not being used simply as a plot device to motivate a bit of action. The episode also does a great job of keeping the mystery going through the first half, when most of the focus is on Rose.

There's one scene in particular that's remarkable because it was added much later. The episode under-ran, which necessitated the addition of a brief recap of "Rose" which leads into the teaser, and a scene that has to be described as "padding". Except, it's the most hard-working padding I've ever seen. Rose encounters a plumber. This plumber is blue, but she's a plumber, which is something ordinary that Rose can latch onto. This new world she's in is frightening and strange, but it's not entirely unfamiliar. This scene is a crucial segue in Rose's arc through the episode. This scene also shows that Rose is capable of looking beyond the alien/human divide and interacting with an alien on very human terms. Rose is friendly, compassionate, and considerate, all of which reflect well on her. And the scene also underscores the gradually building threat by immediately killing off this lovely supporting character. The scene fits so perfectly into the episode that if the commentary hadn't told me, I never would have known it was only added for time.

The Doctor also gets some really good character development. We learn in this episode that his planet was destroyed in the Time War, and that the Doctor is haunted by this. This is important because it shows that this series is taking the Doctor much more seriously as a character. He's not just an eccentric sci-fi hero. He has far more emotional depth than he ever had in the classic series, because that's what modern genre television has become in the post-"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" world.

When the new series was announced, many fans of the classic series were concerned about the decision to have self-contained, forty-five minute episodes. In running time, this was roughly equivalent to a two-part classic story, and there were a few of those, and they were pretty weak. More than any other, this episode proves just how much you can get into a single episode. There's so much happening in this episode, I could write about ti forever. I haven't even mentioned Cassandra, the villain of the piece, and she's fantastic! Or Jabe, the companion substitute who develops a very touching relationship with the Doctor before bravely sacrificing herself to help him save the day. There's more happening in this episode than in most four-parters of the classic series. A lot of that is simply due to the fact that modern television operates at a much faster pace, but it's also a result of some very deft scripting that never wastes a moment of screen time.


Gavin said...

This episode had something that I wish the series had kept more of: a sense that travelling with the Doctor might be disturbing and uncomfortable. One of the things that bothers me about the show, much as I still enjoy it, is how self-congratulatory it has become.

Drew Vogel said...

I'm with you, Gavin. I'd like to see a companion have their life really torn apart as a result of traveling with the Doctor, so that they end up much worse off then where they started. I'm not entirely convinced that this could be done within the light-hearted, kid-friendly tone of the series, but it's something I'd like to see.

jimheartney said...

"School Reunion" hints at this, with Sarah Jane tearfully asking the Doctor why he never came back for her. "Love & Monsters" creates real havoc in the lives of the members of LINDA, though of course they aren't companions in anything other than spirit.

In the old series, companions used to be discarded with hardly a second thought (one notable exception: Susan Foreman, who got a crackerjack sendoff speech). And in the Davies Who, companions never really seem to go away, as they keep coming back for cameos all the time.

Drew Vogel said...

Yeah, Jim, those are in the ballpark. What I'm looking for is something like a reverse-Rose: someone who is happy and successful in their mundane life, gets whisked away by the Doctor, and ends up damaged somehow. Because, let's face it, it's really dangerous out there.

The classic series gives us a few candidates, actually, but it was never really interested in exploring that sort of thing. But I'd be willing to bet that poor Victoria was seriously disturbed by her time on the TARDIS. She probably had a lot of difficulty coping for a long time afterwards.

sarah said...

The plumber bit (which is my fav part of the episode) is exactly what was great about Rose & what sucks about Amy Pond. Amy isn't developed like this at all. And, as much as I like Martha and Donna, neither were they. The Rose/9th Dr are the best developed of characters in the new who series. Damn, I love the first series!

Royce said...

Emotional depth. That's what I like most about the new series, and now that you've named it, it's also been missed in the classics, mostly.

As far as the pacing goes. When I was in film school, the idea of being concise and not wasting time on screen was drilled into me as right and proper, and I agree and like this modern method. As Johnny 5 would say, "Need more input."

Drew Vogel said...

Sarah, I don't want to get into it about Amy, because I've been having that conversation non-stop for months on GallifreyBase, and I don't want to say anything about Martha until I've had a chance to revisit Series Three, but I do want to defend Donna. I think Donna is a very strong character and very well-developed. I prefer Rose, but I don't agree that Rose is a clearly superior to Donna in term of characterization.

Although it's kinda of weird arguing this point with you, because you're much more of a Catherine Tate fan than I am, and I'm much more of a Billie Piper fan than you are.