...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Day 2974: DOCTOR WHO: The End of the World


Well, so much for doing THAT on a weekly basis! Anyway, this week we were all much cheered when our subscription to the Doctor Woo DVD files finally arrived! Hooray! So I have settled my Daddies on the couch again and put on episode two… "The Cave of Skulls"

Hang on, that's not right…

I suppose the first and most obvious thing to say is that this doesn't mess with the established continuity. Well, okay, it does but not really.

Let me explain: the "traditional" view says that the Earth is destroyed in the year ten million or so (as seen on-screen in Billy Hartnell false-ending-fest "The Ark"). "Frontios" with Peter Davison's Doctor is dated to the same era, largely because it too has a huge "Ark" spaceship, and from the description of the colonists as "fleeing from the doomed planet Earth" (as Turlough tells us with much relish).

Some people – naming no names, but they wrote "About Time" – seem to have invested rather too much in this, in fact, since some of their more outré theories hinge on the similarity between this span and the Doctor's rant about "ten million years of absolute power" in "Trial of a Time Lord". This is reinforced by the "Time Parameter Exceeded" warning from the TARDIS console in "Frontios", as though the post-End-of-the-Earth period is particularly perilous for Time Lords.

Time Lord history and Human history, they both last exactly ten million years, eh. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. Although to give them credit they also admit it could all nothing more than humanoids having a love of large base ten numbers.

Even so, this does leave them tying themselves in knots to explain that the Earth only seems to be (in Han Solo's words) totally blown away in the course of "The Ark". Actually, they claim, it's just a bit singed, and the National Trust put it right.

It is all nonsense, of course.

This whole theory is based on a few lines of dialogue in "The Steel Sky", aka part one of "The Ark", which I reproduce here, half-inched from the Doctor Who transcripts project:

We rejoin the Doctor in conversation with the leader of the Ark's crew of Guardians, discussing the Doctor's recent travels.

DOCTOR: ...including the Daleks.

COMMANDER: Nero, the Trojan wars, the Daleks! But all that happened in the first segment of time.

DOCTOR: Segment? Er, to use your phrase sir, what “segment” are we in now?

COMMANDER: The fifty-seventh.

DOCTOR: Good gracious! We must have jumped at least...ten million years, hmm!

The first thing you notice is that he says "at least ten million", an "at least" which surely throws any sense of "exactitude" right out the window.

Anyway, that the "first segment" spans at a bare minimum The Trojan War ("The Myth Makers") in c.1200 BC (ish – if it happened), Nero ("The Romans") 64 AD (as dated by the Great Fire of Rome which happens in part four), and the Daleks, possibly the Dalek Invasion of Earth (guess the story) in 2150 (A!D! if in Technicolor) although it's as likely to mean the Daleks' Master Plan (guess the story again) in 4000 AD.

That might seem to imply "segments" of five to ten thousand years at least, though that would only place the 57th segment as far forward as 570,000 AD, a long way short of 10,001,965 AD (i.e. ten million years from their last stop: Wimbledon Common to collect Dodo at the end of "The Massacre"). But really, what is there to say that the first segment ends anytime soon after the Daleks' Master Plan? Or, for that matter, what is there to suggest that segments have a fixed span anyway? You could as easily suggest, based on the Doctor's wittering about us spending a million years as downloads and a million years evolving into clouds (in "Utopia"), that the "First Segment" lasts from the evolution of Homo Sapiens some 3 million years ago until the evolution of our first successor species in the year 0.1/Semiquaver/8…

Oh yes, quite how we get from "Fifty-Seventh Segment" to "5.5/Apple/26" is harder to explain… if 0.0 to 0.1 is the First Segment, maybe… but that only puts us in the Fifty-Sixth… well, it's close.

…anyway, the point is we have no idea how long a "Segment" is supposed to be, or how they relate to how we recognise time. And – more importantly – neither does the Doctor.

The first Doctor was the most notorious for not having any clue as to where or when his erratic time-machine had taken him. Take this exchange from "The Dalek Invasion of Earth":

IAN: Doctor, I don’t understand this at all, we saw the Daleks destroyed on Skaro, we were there!

DOCTOR: My dear boy, what happened in Skaro was a million years ahead of us in the future. What we’re seeing now is about the middle history of the Daleks.

A million years? "Planet of the Daleks", set in the twenty-sixth century, reports the events of "The Daleks" as history, indeed almost legend, to the Thals. So "The Daleks" cannot be more than a few hundred years, if that, in the future of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", certainly not a million.

Clearly, when pressed on a question, if he doesn't know the answer, he's most likely to just make something up.

So frankly, even if he hadn't given himself 4.99 billion years of wiggle room in the form of that "at least", then we cannot place any reliance on his dating "The Ark" to the year ten million, while contrariwise Mr Eccleston's know-it-all New-Roman-Empire incarnation is not only capable of steering the TARDIS (usually) but has an actual destination in mind.

In short, five billion years in the future and while the intergalactic set are mingling aboard Platform One, the Guardians (slightly out of shot) are shipping out all the rest of the people and animals aboard their fleet of interstellar Pickfords. This, in fact, almost makes sense: if the Ark (or Arks if you include "Frontios") are lifeboats from a flood then it makes sense that this was a relatively sudden but predictable calamity that they were warned about (like the National Trust's money running out) rather than the long, long expansion of the sun we would normally expect. And when Rose asks "What happened to all the people" the Doctor replies "all gone."

I suppose he could have added: "they're just down there" points "you can wave if you want."

All of which discussion takes us up to the end of the pre-title sequence.

The main thing to notice in the rest of the episode is the way the Doctor's attitude does a 180 flip: at the start, he's full on channelling Russell "positivism" Davies, complaining that humans do nothing but worry about the planet being destroyed, when they never even consider that they might survive. But by the end, he mournfully saying how we never consider that one day it'll all be gone, even the sky.

But there's a reason for this, because what we're actually doing is uncovering the character of the Doctor. In the process we learn that what he never considered, that Gallifrey might one day be gone, has in fact come to pass. "There was a war, and we lost."

Say "Last of the Time Lords" to any Doctor Who fan during the, er, sixteen-year temporary pause between seasons twenty-six and twenty-seven and you'd have been met with something between derision and outright hostility, as this was the title attached to the increasingly-ludicrous "Doctor Who movie" project from Coast to Coast aka Green Light (not to be confused with the actually-ludicrous "Doctor Who TV movie" starring Paul McGann). With a plot that allegedly involved all the worst possible continuity clichés (no, it's really not to be confused with the "Doctor Who TV movie" starring Paul McGann), and of course the biggest cheesiest sci-fi cliché of them all, the "last survivor of a doomed race", or "Superman" cliché.

To be fair, Doctor Who has flirted with this one before. The Third Doctor encountered the Last of the Dæmons (and, arguably, the Last of the Uxarians); the fourth took down the Last of the Osirans and the Last of the Jagaroth (though the Fendahl was – pretty much by definition – its own "Last of…"); while the fifth Doctor even travelled with the Last Daughter of Traken. Kwundaar help us.

What they all had in common (well, probably excluding Nyssa) was that they were all bonkers.

In the hands of Russell Davies, though, this madness itself becomes an exploration of the loneliness brought on by being the last of your kind. The ninth Doctor is clearly suffering from survivor guilt, to the extent that at times he appears to have a death wish. You have to ask yourself if his confrontation with the Nestene Consciousness last time wasn't supposed to end with him thrown into the Nestene's pool of boiling liquid which, thanks to his anti-plastic, would end up killing both of them. Rose swinging to the rescue thus saved him both physically and spiritually.

Interesting also to note that when they get into an argument it is again Rose who pulls them out of it. In "Rose" the argument was about his failure of concern over Mickey, where he gets into a right defensive strop because he forgot – twice – that Mickey might be dead. Rose deflects that row by asking him about his beloved police box. "It's a disguise" he says, and he's so chuffed. This week, Rose can't cope with the culture shock / future shock of all the alien guests (not to mention Cassandra) and then learns that the Doctor's machine has been "messing with her head" – another example of the Doctor failing to get human psychology. So Rose makes her "don't mess with the designated driver" comment (which actually reemphasises, but deflates, her realisation of the physical dependence she has on him, the realisation that started her panic in the first place as she talked with Ruffalo the plumber) and then gets him onside by talking technology again. Showing that she gets him even if he doesn't get her, yet. Which is quite a contrast to the way she was treating Mickey, if you think about it.

But it's a very human relationship, the key quality to all of Russell's writing, of course. And a very much more credible one than most of the "what's happening, Doctor" relationships that companions have had down the years.

What we begin to see is the idea that the Doctor might be a very damaged individual, that the wild-eyed boggling might, this time, be covering up something deeper and darker. This is where Chris Eccleston's ability to turn on a sixpence from goofing to deadly serious really comes to the fore, and becomes the bedrock that this reinvented series rests upon.

What is really odd is that this character story was billed as a visual spectacular. With hindsight, Russell's "we did it once to prove we could; never again" looks laughably naïve. They did it once and proved only that they would have to do it again and again and get bigger and better every time. And in fairness they have. "The End of the World" doesn't look spectacular now. No, that's not quite fair: the Earth exploding is still spectacular and Cassandra is a work of genius. On the flip sip, those giant fans never impressed anyone. But what "The End of the World" did was to set the baseline for the sort of visual riot that we now expect Doctor Who to achieve. And equally, we've never had quite that big a mix of aliens since, either – the planned crowd scenes at the Shadow Proclamation for "Journey's End" tragically being lost for budget reasons. But while the Trees, Jabe Lute and Copper, are truly well realised – and our first sight of the go-to guy for New Who monster suits, Paul Casey – and the Face of Boe is a mightily imposing prop worthy of being reused, the other aliens are a bit… stand at the back and hope no one looks too closely. The future, it seems, is either blue or wicker. At the time we were amazed, but once you've seen an asteroid full of Sycorax or a platoon of Judoon on the Moon, they all begin to look a little bit "school play".

What that actually means is that we can see the underlying story much better now, without all the "oohs" and "ahhs". (Though with a few "gosh, CG has come on a lot since then"s.)

And what we see is, another Russell Davies trope, it's all about the women.

There's Jabe, of course, the forest princess, beautifully played by Yasmin Bannerman as smart but naïf, flirtatious but slightly coy, and a little bit in love with the Doctor. Basically, she's Rose. And their gentle flirting makes her eventual sacrifice for him all the more tragic.

Mind you, the Doctor's remark of "Jabe you're made of wood", really deserves a putdown reply of "Doctor, you're made of flesh", not least since the ignition point of wood is about 600 C, while a mere 250 C is enough to incinerate a human body. Though of course since Jabe is flexible enough to walk and talk we should probably assume she's a bit more complicated than your basic tree. We still have to put the Doctor's spontaneous non-combustion down to Time Lord powers™ though.

And on the flip side, there's Cassandra, an admixture Zoë Wanamaker’s delicious performance and the CG alchemy of the Mill. Cassandra gets all the best lines because in spite of being a monster (she's horribly racist even before she tries to murder everybody) she's also very witty.

She also verges on the sympathetic for brief moments, particularly when she looks down at Earth and sees where she used to live. But then she's into the xenophobic rant and Rose has a huge go at her for "nipping and tucking" away all of her humanity, that clearly hits home. (And that's obviously the moment when Cassandra decides to kill her – leading to the fabulous "sun-filter descending" peril. And the Doctor told Rose not to go starting any fights.) And so you forget that she – like the Doctor – is actually very, very lonely.

Cassandra, the Last Human, she is a "Last of…" as well and she has the madness too, expressed in her egregious desire for thinness.

She – quite literally – breaks all the rules. Platform One bans weapons, religion and teleportation. Clearly her spiders are weapons, and she brings her teleport device aboard too. But also, her catspaws are the Adherents of the Repeated Meme, and if adherence to a repeated meme isn't a definition of religion, I don't know what is.

(More prosaically, the Adherence of the Repeated Meme are, acronymically, Cassandra's A.R.M.s. Although, Alex points out that a repeated meme is me, me, me, me, me, me… and we’re back to Cassandra.)

Perhaps it's vanity or perhaps it's a stubborn unwillingness to accept that it's time to leave the stage, a refusal to lie down and die. It's obvious that she, in her frame, is a mirror for the Doctor himself. And maybe that's the source of his unforgiveness: everything has its time, he says, and everything dies – so why aren't I dead, is the subtext.

It's hard to think of another Doctor being quite so… brutal as the way the ninth allows Cassandra to die.

(OK, hindsight can be unkind too – just ask Nicola Bryant on seeing how part fourteen of "Trial…" retconned Peri's fate to worse than death – so we now know, of course that Cassandra didn't die but we don’t know that, and importantly neither, at the time, did the Doctor.)

So the episode that began with the Doctor showing off, being upbeat about the future or deceiving himself to his new chum, ends with him being honest (if suicidally depressed) with someone who is now his friend. And, again very Russell, chips.

Next time: What Phantasmagoria is this? No, Mr Gatiss, that was your Big Finish CD. This is the one with gas and ghosts and a gross misunderstanding from Lawrence Miles. What the Shakespeare? It's "The Unquiet Dead"



Costigan Quist said...

I'm thrilled to have such excellent Who-ey exposition from a young elephant (with some small help from his daddies, no doubt).

But I can never quite get my head round this continuity business.

Since the show was written by a huge number of different people over five decades, since many of them had a rather relaxed approach to continuity and since, even when they wanted to get it right, many others would have introduced mistakes when up against tight deadlines or through last-minute re-writes, isn't the whole business of trying to find an internally consistent contunuity through detailed textual analysis really just creating your own continuity, just as religious folks are want to create their own more-or-less consistent narrative from their wholly inconsistent, written by lots of different people over long periods of time, holy books?

Wow, what a long sentence (especially for this time on a Sunday morning).

Andy said...

Millennium and Daddies: Lovely.

Costigan: It's an intellectual game, nothing more. If you don't care, don't, but some of us are anal enough to find it interesting to try to find a way to make it all fit together. It would all be very boring if it had been written consistently from the beginning. What's nice is that it's just consistent enough so as to make it not completely impossible (with a few exceptions - UNIT dating springs to mind) to do so.

As for the religion point: yes, it probably is the same. Difference is, Who fans aren't going round trying to preach a moral code that hinges on it (much).

Steve H said...

You switched back to "End of the World" from discussion of the 57th segment just in time. Just as I'd inserted the barrel of the gun into my mouth.