Saturday, 27 October 2012

...And I Feel Fine

Doctor Who
The End Of The World

Series One, Episode Two

*Such as Reign Of Terror, the "monster" of which
is a raging alcoholic named Drinky Jim, see above.
Doctor Who falls into two major categories: monsters come to us, or we go to them.  (There used to be brilliant and entirely monster-free episodes as well*, but that was back when the Beatles were touring.)  After a busy first episode with monsters-come-to-us as its starting point, Episode Two goes completely the other way.  The Doctor takes Rose to Platform One, a spaceship at the end of the world, there to meet aliens, robots and other stuff that completely freaks her out, all while the planet roasts.  It’s audacious, and does a lot more for the premise of the show and the characters than last week’s.

We learn loads about the Doctor.  He’s the last of his kind, the weight of which Christopher Eccleston sells without saying a word; he’s keen to avoid his past, which makes us (and Rose) keen to hear more; and he’s much more at home among aliens and interplanetary weirdness than he is in the Powell Estate, London.  Eccleston’s brash take on the Doctor finds more footing here, as his compassion and otherworldiness are given room to expand.  Overall, he’s a refreshingly weird guy who is most definitely not from round here.

For example, now he's successfully got her into the TARDIS, showing Rose the death of her home-planet seems a funny way to say Welcome Aboard.  (It certainly tops blowing up her day-job for unbelievably blunt you-must-be-my-friend tactics.)  Perhaps he's trying to help her understand his own sense of loss, and grow closer to her in the process.  Or perhaps he thinks she'll appreciate being there for the Earth when no one else can be.  Or maybe he's just super callous.  Maybe all of that.  Who knows?  The Doctor’s one of the longest-running characters in fiction, and it’s great that he can still surprise us, so kudos to Russell T Davies and Eccleston for that.

"Yeah, I know it's your home planet.
Did I mention, I'm also a mental bastard?"
We also learn a lot about Rose.  The consequences of running off with the Doctor start to settle in – an area Old Doctor Who didn’t make much time for – as she realises she knows nothing about him.  She’s thrown in the deep end here, and her culture shock (coupled with a brilliant use of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love) mirrors the audience’s own.  She begins to see space and time as the Doctor does, as enormous horizons rather than just your home and your own lifespan; she also gains a fierce new appreciation for Earth and the human race, especially when their only representative is a venomous “bitchy trampoline” called Cassandra.

Rose’s experience (and ours) is like stepping into Douglas Adams’s Total Perspective Vortex, which shows you your (tiny) position in the (vast) universe.  After all, the death of the Earth, the ultimate, point-of-no-return roasting of all that we know, is the subplot.  The meat and potatoes story here is a whodunit with dinky robots holding Platform One to ransom.  It’s admittedly not much plot – turns out Cassandra’s behind it and is boringly in it for the money, meanwhile the Doctor must keep Platform One from being destroyed – but it’s a character-based episode, so the important stuff is the reaction to it.

It’s the smaller moments that resonate most.  Rose’s phonecall home – perhaps a bit premature, well okay very premature, but then she is watching her now long-dead mum’s home-world set ablaze – is a neat way to bond her to the Doctor, who’s clearly not all alien aloofness and can be sweet sometimes.  (You also get that from his little Tainted Love dance.)  Then there’s Jabe’s curiosity and sympathy for the Doctor’s tragic past; that poor alien plumber giving us a quick insight into her life before it ends; and the Doctor taking Rose home for chips, only then (after what she's been through) telling her a little of who he is.  The juxtaposition of big stuff happening and little moments is one of the show’s strengths.

The general presentation's great too.  The CGI and the aliens look amazing – oh, for prosthetics like that in the old days! – and the supporting cast give the smaller scenes a real weight.  Beccy Armory lights up the screen as the alien plumber Rose meets; Yasmin Bannerman’s Jabe flirts effortlessly and convincingly with the Doctor, and shows us how quickly he can enamour himself to someone of any species; and Zoe Wanamaker has tons of fun as Cassandra, no small feat for a character that’s essentially a bit of blue-screen on wheels.  She’s memorable, a bit of a diva, but is enough to stir a grave reaction from the Doctor.  Her death, which he orchestrates, is one of his most chilling moments, and another bit of Doctorly development to chew on.  Do not mess with this guy.

"I'm so sorry.  I think the Face Of
Boe put his fag out next to her."
There are still a few dollops of dumbness, because although this is a much better episode than Rose, it’s still the same writer.  Why do the rooms on Platform One have individual sun-filters come to think of it, why have sun-filters at all?  Isn't that asking for trouble?  All that stuff with the giant fans, and the Doctor’s ability to magically step through them, feels like overly orchestrated jeopardy just for the sake of it.  He’s capable of amazing stuff, but this is sci-fi, not fantasy; magic powers belong in the latter.  (Unless Russell’s going to argue that being a Time Lord means having a fabulous sense of timing.  In which case the Doctor's probably a great cook.)  Also, if he’s able to just hop through them if he concentrates, then poor old Jabe, who catches fire trying to slow them down, dies for nothing.  Do you think the Doctor mentions that bit to her colleagues at the end?

Then there's the awkward problem: despite a supporting cast that's superlative in places, it's still a bit hard to care about what's going on here.  With the Earth's death as a backdrop, a murder mystery of the future "great and the good" (or "the rich", as the Doctor reminds us) seems like decidedly small potatoes.  Despite learning acres of good stuff about Rose and the Doctor, some of it ain't that good, like Rose's bizarrely vicious outburst at Cassandra before she shows any signs of actual villainy.  ("You're just skin, Cassandra!"  And you're pretty much just a mouth in a hoodie, love.)  Not one of her more flattering aspects.

It's not one my all-time favourites or anything, but it advances the characters in meaningful ways.  For that, and for doing it in a certain amount of style, I'll forgive a lot of things.  And fortunately the things holding The End Of The World back are skin-deep.  It surpasses expectations in some ways; in others, good or bad, it meets them.

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