Doctor Who Recaps, Season One, Episode Two: The End of the World
So, hello, and welcome to the second week of our cross-blog Doctor Who extravaganza as we take a look at the second episode of the season, The End of the World. Read a whole different take on the episode-by a strident Tennant fan- over at Red Whine. As before, if you want to join us on this ill-advised adventure through recapping (and also time and space), drop me an email an the Contact Me tab above.
Let me dive right in and start by saying that part of what I dig so much about this episode- aside from the fact it stars the once and future King of Doctors- is that we jump from saving the world in last week’s episode to watching it burn in the background all the way through this week. As a child (and, to an extent, an adult) who was petrified by the thought of the earth being destroyed in some catastrophic event (all those scaremongering Discovery Channel “documentaries” about asteroids and ice ages? Aimed directly at the kind of child I was), this episode scared the fucking bejeesus out of me, and still makes me feel kind of weird to this day. Something about seeing Earth burning out of existence- and having that basically forming the scenery of the episode- is really unsettling, and I can get on board with Rose’s assertion that this might not be the best way to make your second date go with a bang (A big one. PUNS).
The plot of this episode revolves around some space dignitaries-in the form of some living trees, the Face of Boe, and Lady Cassandra, the last human alive, who also happens to be, well, a giant piece of skin stretched out between two poles:
Yeah, if you thought “Terry Gilliam’s Brazil” when you saw this, you get twenty points too, because the Doctor Who props department like searing horrifying images into the memories of innocent children. After it’s revealed that a nefarious plot to bump off the guests is afoot, it’s up to Rose and the Doctor (and some living trees, but we’ll get there) to figure out what to do next. I like the simplicity of the plot, mainly because it allows for this episode to become mostly scene-setting, filling out the universe that we’ll be travelling through with this Doctor and providing a good bit of genuinely science-fictiony relief from the Earth-bound episodes on either side of it. One of the best things about this series of Who from a writer’s perspective must have been introducing this universe to whole bunch of new viewers (like me) who had no idea what to expect, and it shows, with real effort put in to making this as casually out-there as possible. Just some sentient trees wandering about, confusing me with how attractive they are. No biggie.
I tell you what, too- I love this episode for the fact that it sets the vaguely sinister tone for the whole of season one. Now, it might be because I watched them when I was a terminally impressionable child, but I still think the most frightening episodes ever all belong to the first two seasons of New Who, and The End of the World is no exception. As the radiation given off by the dying earth threatens to burn our heroes alive, the whole spaceship set-up moves from dazzlingly inventive and quirky to claustrophobic and deadly, with a handful of guest-stars meeting grisly ends-whether burning alive, exploding in the heat, or being irradiated to death, it’s not just the bad guys who wind up dead.
And the Doctor’s callous reaction to the villain of the piece-allowing them to burn in their own trap- marks out Eccleston’s ability to bring something a bit unsettling to his Doctor. From this episode onwards, you don’t want to end up on his bad side, and that’s an important part of the characterisation for the Doctor which is still being explored in Capaldi’s episodes today (by the way, is anyone else feeling less than enthused about the return of the series in just over a month? Until something changes- preferably finding a new showrunner, at fucking last- I’m just expecting a re-run of the off-puttingly patchy season eight, and, terrifyingly, a two-parter written by the creator of the painful Kill the Moon). If the first episode is about filling out Rose’s character, this is about giving us a look into the Doctor. The episode might end with them waltzing off to get chips, but we’ve had a glimpse into the effects of the Time War on our hero (Gallifrey and it’s fate are referenced for the first time in this episode, as is the excellent Bad Wolf season plot, for those keeping score at home).
The End of the World isn’t the best episode this season had to offer, not by a long shot. But it’s a gratifyingly simple story, filled with plenty of genuinely memorable characters (so good, in fact, that the villain who be brought back for the season two opener) and a pretty dark tone that keeps it from landing in “forgettable” territory. But honestly, who cares, because next week we’ve got the first bonafide New Who classic, in the form of the only episode of TV I was ever outrightly banned from watching, The Unquiet Dead. Stay tuned!