The Doctor has the perfect thing to unite him with Rose on her first trip as companion: the obliteration of her entire species
Starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper
Airing almost 17 years ago, it seems almost unfathomable to consider what the television landscape was like when Doctor Who was the underdog. Yet, in 2005, when Christopher Eccleston burst onto screens as the Ninth Doctor, Russell T Davies had an awful lot to prove. Not only did he have to prove the legitimacy of Doctor Who within television schedules, but he also had to adjust it for a contemporary audience, making vital tweaks to the formula that it had provided before its cancellation in 1989. No series of Doctor Who since has had more to prove (except potentially Chibnall’s first), and no other series is so coherently and purposefully structured to highlight and showcase all that Doctor Who can offer for a twenty-first century audience.
“The End of the World” provides the perfect follow-up to “Rose” (so much so, in fact, that Russell T Davies requested that the BBC air the two on the same night). While “Rose” was laser-focused upon introducing new companion Rose Tyler – played by the wonderfully endearing Billie Piper – and the strange world of the Doctor through her eyes, “The End of the World” lends more focus to the Time Lord himself, actually giving him scenes away from Rose’s point of view, which, strangely, did not occur for the entire of the series premiere.
It cannot be overstated here just how much Davies completely reshaped the focus of Doctor Who from its Classic iteration. While Doctor Who from 1963 – 1989 was primarily about the adventures that the Doctor and their companions embarked upon. Now, however, Davies reframes the narrative. Now, instead, it is about emotional depth. What this episode lacks in narrative incident, it more than thrives on the character-based development.
“The End of the World” picks up squarely where “Rose” left off, with Rose having jumped on board the TARDIS with the Doctor, ready for adventure. Desperate to impress with the first trip, the Doctor continues to up the stakes, until the pair arrive aboard Platform One, ready to witness the destruction of Planet Earth at the hands of the Sun. An assortment of other important – or, rather, rich – beings have descended to bid it farewell, allowing Davies to expose the audience to all matter of silly, science-fiction nonsense, just to test their tolerance for such frivolity. Chief amongst them is Lady Cassandra (Zoë Wanamaker), the self-professed “last Human”, who is so desperate to cling to her concept of purity that she simply resembles a sheet of skin attached to a metal frame.
The actual plot of “The End of the World” is relatively secondary. While there is a mystery to be solved with small, robotic spiders infiltrating the base and various other contrivances lowering the shields of Platform One right as the Earth is about to be destroyed, putting the lives of all of the passengers in mortal peril, this isn’t given terribly much thought.
Far more focus is given to Rose, who really feels like a fish out of water in this adventure, coming to the earth-shattering and devastating realisation that she has no idea who the Doctor is at all. Here Piper really excels, showing a wonderful performance as Rose alights upon this vulnerability. The audience are also given glimpses into Rose’s compassion in the way that she treats a worker aboard the Platform, as well as her continued gumption through how she defies Cassandra. Though Rose ultimately ends up trapped inside a room, recoiling from deadly sun rays for the rest of the episode, these moments show a commitment by Davies not to let the companion merely become a plot device, but rather a living, breathing human being in itself.
With 17 years of canon-breaking revelations since, it is sometimes easy to forget how much of a reset Davies’ “Last of the Time Lords” plot point truly is. An opportunity to inject more mystery and mystique into the Doctor’s character without delving even further back into the history of the Time Lords, this allows established and newcomer viewers alike to be on a level playing field. Here, we are presented with a Doctor scarred from the extinction of his entire race. The audience are unaware of the events that led to this (elements of this plot would still be being unpicked right up until the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2013) but it allows the audience to discover the Doctor as Rose does, creating a further intimacy between the two, and additionally with the viewers.
Doctor Who is almost synonymous with space stations. For years, the janky, futuristic sets have been the subject of ridicule. It is almost easy to mock these stories, with the hammed-up acting and the sub par special effects. Yet Davies uses this type of story in the most effective way that it can be used. He seems aware of the campiness and the silliness that is inherent with an assortment of bizarre alien races, but he is also unapologetic for it. What he does do is enhance these types of stories with a real connection to the characters at its centre, and allows the Doctor to be a mystery and trusts in the audience enough to stay the course. By positioning the companion as central to the narrative, Davies makes Doctor Who feel like a far more grounded, accessible show amidst the many sci-fi elements that could potentially (if you’ll pardon the pun) alienate viewers.
This almost serves as a mission statement for what Davies aspires his Doctor Who to be: bold, whimsical, funny, deeply human and incredibly person. And it’s much better for it.