Doctor Who has all of time and space available, but it also only just got new viewers – and Rose – onboard the Tardis. So whilst there’s also a real need to make sure that everybody understands the rules of the galaxy and how The Doctor’s time-travelling ability works out. So, for the second episode of the new series, we keep in the Earth’s orbit as we skip with Rose thousands of years into the future to witness ‘The End of the World’.
It’s immediately made clear in Doctor Who’s second episode that the future can be just as mundane as anywhere else. Rather than throw something unexpected and alien at us, instead we’re given a frontseat to the final days of Earth, as assorted luminaries assemble to form a somewhat morbid viewing party out in space. Stumbling into the mix, The Doctor is immediately comfortable – in a way – with being around groups of alien creatures and citizens. Rose, on the other hand, is fairly freaked out, perhaps understandably.
It’s intentionally a watered-down experience for her, though, courtesy of a Doctor who is still trying to work out how to reconnect with compassion after years of being in the Time War. Rose finds herself greeted by about six or seven different species here, but all of them are connected to humanity and the Earth – they’re all there, after all, to say farewell to a planet which has had a remarkably important role to the security of space and time as a whole. Secondly, they’re there to remember humanity, the little species that could, so Rose has something which connects her past life with the life she’s now somewhat compulsively gambled on trying out.
This also provides the Doctor with a chance to reassess himself. Presumably this is his first time speaking to other species in a non-combatant context in centuries, and he’s excited to try and reconnect with his past empathy. He’s gleeful through the episode whenever he’s away from action – in contrast to some of his past and future regenerations, this is a Doctor who is actually happy to avoid conflict whenever possible. His excitement for seeing people and learning their customs is another way Rose is able to shrug off some of the fears she has about her choice to travel with the Doctor.
Having Rose around gives the Doctor someone to bounce off from, but there’s clearly a level of rust still. He’s freshly wounded by the loss of Gallifrey (not yet mentioned by name) and his people, so when Rose questions him on it the conversation drives him to anger and distraction surprisingly quickly. Rose is trying to gauge if the Doctor is safe for her, and someone she can look up to – and the Doctor is the last person in the universe capable of knowing if that’s true or not. He’s still fresh. He’s still experiencing his new life.
The fact of the future as presented here is that it’s mundane, in its own way. Despite having the continual backdrop of Earth’s firey immolation to gawp at, the episode is far more interested in establishing a mundane continuity through the history of the universe. We still have plumbers, for example, and officials still like to get hold of a tannoy system and broadcast public safety announcements. Despite a world with living trees and robotic spiders, Doctor Who is careful to ensure that the humanity of space is still present at every turn.
Rose herself makes half of them, constantly banging on about Newsround Extra or calling her mum to establish a further connection to her home. Those touchpoints are incredibly interesting for how they contrast Rose to Cassandra, “the last human”, as well. We get a fairly quick understanding that Cassandra, who has used surgery and chemicals to artificially extend her lifespan beyond any human term, doesn’t actually have any understanding of what humanity actually was, or what their beliefs and morals were. She’s obsessed with a kind of purity in her species, throwing the heavy word “mongrel” to describe any human who bred outside their species.
To her mind, hers is the only real humanity because she kept herself pure. And, as she glowingly mis-remembers Earth culture in front of Rose, who is actually from Earth, it becomes pretty clear that she’s going to be the true villain of this story. In an episode filled with other species, it’s the one claiming humanity who is the murderous and evil character, and the one that the Doctor has to stop at the end. It’s a statement of intent from Russell T. Davies, and a welcome one.
Several of his strongest themes wander into this story at various points – a key one being his weaving of queer culture into the fabric of space and time. It’s hugely important that the episode picks Soft Cell as the musical ‘relic’ of Earth culture here: it’s showing that queer culture survives and endures through millennia, and will be around long after the planet itself is destroyed. Equally as important are anti-racist ideas strewn through the story – with her mad grasp for purity, Cassandra shows that her understanding of Earth is fantastical and used only to serve her own agenda. She’s like a white supremacist, clutching onto a Bible and claiming that it tells her that prejudice is rightful. She doesn’t understand the things that she claims are foundational to her core, and that shows how bankrupt she is.
It should be pointed out, however, that Davies has a tendency to bodyshame in his writing, here writing in fat jokes and thumbing a nose at Cassandra in part because of her choice to undergo plastic surgery – which is in no uncertain terms explained to be a character flaw by Rose. The Doctor’s decision to allow her to die, as well, is a bit of a shocking end to the episode, despite her evil acts and murderous nature. It’s a glimpse that, again, the initial human appeal he has is actually just the front for something alien and uncertain. Not good or bad – but unknown. New viewers now know that The Doctor kills people, or at least arranges for them to die, and that reshapes everything about him.
That he can jump from gleeful to mercy-free in such a short amount of time is scary, but there’s an intentional feeling of righteousness in the Doctor’s rage. That’s also a little worrying, and it’s something we’ll see more of as the series continues.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 2: The End of the World
Written by Russell T. Davies
Directed by Euros Lyn